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September 22, 2007

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 9/22/07

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The local B&N decided to get in a few copies of PlayStation Official Magazine UK this week, so I decided to pick up one and see what's up.

PS:OMUK (not to be confused with PlayStation 2 Official Magazine UK, which is also still in operation and comes with a PS2 demo disc) is the only mag in the world, not counting the assorted continental European versions, to include a PlayStation 3 Blu-ray demo disc with each issue. I'm sure Future must've paid Sony quite a lot of money to convince them to put together a disc just for the European marketplace, and it's not a terrible disc either -- this one includes demos of many of the really important PS3 games released so far, including Ridge Racer 7, Resistance, Genji, and so forth. Nothing hugely new (and nothing you can't find on the PSN, really), but then again "official" UK mags love to pack their discs with ancient demos, filling them up as much as possible.

What's the mag look like inside? Well, a lot like how it looks outside, in fact -- extremely light 'n airy, with nothing but white backgrounds, easy-to-read text, and the occasional bit of original clean-line art demonstrating this or that feature of a game. The content is nothing terribly special, although there's a heck of a lot of it: ten pages on Resident Evil 5 (which seems to have all been written based off the old trailer and a lot of clip art), a couple of neat features on assorted topics (Folding@home, of all things, as well as a roundtable discussion of guitar/music party games), and then the usual previews and reviews.

Will I buy it again? Not for $15, no, but compared to -- uh -- the only PlayStation-specific magazine left in the US, this is an extremely high-quality product.

Anyway, let's check out all the mags released in the past fortnight! And God, all these specials! They're driving me to the poorhouse!

Game Informer October 2007

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Cover: Dead Space

All right, what is it with GI's coverlines all being in PR-speak lately? Are you meant to imagine Don LaFontaine speaking the three sentences on the bottom in your mind? 'Cos that's the only guy who can say these lines out loud without sounding silly. The designer also chose a pretty bland cover subject when the art in the feature inside is way better. Arrrgh!

There's nothing all that "renegade" about the team at EA making Dead Space, but the feature on it remains interesting and engaging, even though 80 percent of it is producer GLen Schofield talking about all the things they're going to put into the game by the time it hits stores in a year. It's also nicely supported by a Classic GI piece on the history of survival horror, complete with an interview with RE4's Hiroyuki Kobayashi. The bit on Project Origin is more in-depth if not quite as long, but the highlight as usual is int he front section, which includes an interview with Warren Spector (can't get enough of him) and a timeline behind the creation of Rainbow Six Vegas which is very nicely designed and well worth reading.

PC Gamer November 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: Half-Life 2: The Orange Box (The cover is actually a pleasing fluorescent orange in color; cheap scanners choke on colors like these.)

After nine years, Greg Vederman is leaving PCG "to a new job in the tech industry," set to be replaced by executive editor Kristen Salvatore. A lady editing a magazine that, according to their own media kit, has a 97% male readership? Sacrilege! Pish and tish! (Though I will admit, she's a great deal more talented than Stevie Case proved to be.)

The cover being devoted to a review (one that runs five pages and ends with a 94% score, same as BioShock one page later), the main feature is instead devoted to hardware -- to be more exact, why you should upgrade to Vista and DirectX 10. Problem is, it doesn't do a great job of convincing -- in every game they profile, the DX9 and DX10 shots look exactly the bloody same to me, even though the captions are pointing out "flat, spray-painted textures" and "deep and sharply defined shadows" and things. Maybe this is part of the problem? I dunno.

This issue includes a Cellplay mobile-gaming supplement, as well as a weird ad for something called CrossBOARDlogic that's written in broken English and looks like something out of an early-1980s computer mag. I wonder how creator "P Onyszkanycz" came up with the cash to advertise in a magazine like this.

PSM November 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

No Cellplay in PSM (though the subscriber editions of both this and PC Gamer have annoying non-removable advertising covers), but there is a rad Assassin's Creed iron-on transfer!

I'm seeing an effort on PSM's part to do some more original features this month, which I applaud greatly. There's an interview with Everyday Shooter creator Jonathan Mak which is pretty nice, although Game Informer did pretty much the exact same interview with him this month too. There's a "11 PS2 Games You Need to Play (But Haven't)" feature which is pretty obvious, but still fun to read.

Otherwise, not too exciting an issue -- 100 pages, 16 of which are taken up by the Cellplay supplement. Soz.

Ultimate Guild Wars Guide

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Future is going specials-crazy this month, and besides PCXL this is probably the most interesting one. As the cover insinuates but doesn't explicitly mention, this mag is mostly a Guild Wars artbook -- around 50 pages of full-page spread art, with commentary from the concept artists and storyboard guys dotted throughout. Very nice. If the page size were a little bigger, I could almost imagine Edge putting out something like this... except there wouldn't be the 30 pages of extremely text-heavy walkthrough in the back of the book. Ah well, nothing's perfect.

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The other two new Future specials this month aren't of much interest to hardcore folk. PS3 Holiday Buyer's Guide is mostly recycled PSM stuff with some extra gear and movie reviews, and 2008 PlayStation Cheaster's Handbook is straight-on cheats, without so much as a table of contents. Doop de doo.

Game Developer September 2007

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I liked Puzzle Quest a lot, although I never met anyone else who cared to admit it, and reading this postmortem warmed my heart, especially when writer/designer Steve Fawkner claims that the biggest problem the game had was that they ran out of copies to sell within two weeks. Two features up front -- one covering the theory behind save systems in games and another covering Saboteur's unique color-changing systems -- are also easy for laymen to follow and would be perfectly at home in Edge if they were around in the US.

[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.]

When You Gotta Fret, You Gotta Fret Nice

- At JayIsGames, the lovely Lars Doucet has done an excellent interview with 'Fret Nice' creator Martin Bruggemann, that title that "...looks like a straightforward platforming game, but there's a big twist: instead of using the keyboard or a gamepad, you play Fret Nice with the Guitar Hero controller!"

The game (which has been out for a while, and mentioned on a few major websites) was done as part of a Scandinavian university thesis, and it really is impressive how such formality can bring rigor to the game design process, leading to smart moves like this:

"The control scheme was better fitted for a fast game play with lots of forward motion. It's sometime hard to build momentum in Fret Nice because of the clunkiness of the control scheme and therefore I tried to make it so that the player never has to stand still. This should be apparent in the level design."

Bruggemann also reveals: "I'm currently in the process of starting a game development studio with a couple of school mates. Fret Nice will be one of the games we will be working on. Visit our website for more information." All I have to say is - enough people have guitar controllers now, XBLA/PSN release for this, somebody?

Hancock: It's Machinima For Dummies, Dummy!

- Over at a new discovery of mine, Stranger109's machinima-centric blog, they've tracked down Hugh Hancock to quiz him on his new book 'Machinima For Dummies', apparently a fine attempt at a comprehensive machinima tome good for a range of expertise levels.

Hugh actually contributed a chapter to my 'Gaming Hacks' book for O'Reilly, and in this interview promoting his new co-authored book for Wiley, he has some good insights on the different machinima flavors, I think:

"There’s a continuum on which machinimators tend to live. At one end is “Inside Out” machinima where creators tend to make movies from with in the game.... From the other end you have people coming from the direction that I come from, which is “Outside-In”, where you have a creative person or persons looking for a way to tell stories and they see machinima as a potential tool."

Stranger109's Robert Jones has also reviewed 'Machinima For Dummies' now, noting: "Hancock and Ingram have done machinima a great service in providing the most comprehensive resource available to date. And while the inevitable Monday morning quarterbacking will take place in the forums about the Second Life snubbing and the lack of Garry’s Mod coverage, the book as a whole remains an impressive effort and will serve as a resource for machinimators for years to come."

September 21, 2007

GarageGames' Legacy? Carroll Serves, Tunnell Returns

- GameTunnel and Reflexive's Russell Carroll has been writing about IAC's majority acquisition of Torque Engine creator GarageGames, which we covered on Gamasutra recently from a purely factual perspective. However, Carroll expands on by looking to what it means for indie games, in his view, and it's a very interesting read..

Basically, as Gama explains: "Officials from “interactive conglomerate” IAC have announced that the company has acquired a majority of independent games developer GarageGames equity. As a result the two companies now plan to launch a new Web-based video game network named InstantAction.com, intended to offer original action titles through a standard Web browser."

Now, Carroll has some reasonably strong views on the legacy of GarageGames, a company which has certainly provided some good indie flavor and a strong, low-cost engine to many developers, but, it's true, haven't really stepped up to break-out hit status in terms of critical mass, excepting perhaps their own XBLA title Marble Blast Ultra. The crux of his argument is as follows:

"What GarageGames didn't do was fully appreciate the importance of selling games to their future. They wanted to create the technology and let the developers create the market. That didn't work. 5 Years later there is no Indie marketplace, in fact there is less of a downloadable Indie market than there was when they started.

I think in retrospect the approach would have been something like:
1 - create great technology
2 - create games on that technology
3 - create a great community driven website store to sell the games
4 - release the games on casual portals, and then later steam and gametap to maximize awareness and drive customers back to the game store
5 - publish other people's games on the game store and create great add-ons for the great games that you'd already made
6 - improve the technology
7 - make new games on that technology
8 - repeat 4-7 multiple times

(my assessment is that GG got off to a great start doing 1 and 2, skipped 3, started to do 4 and then changed directions , dabbled with 5, worked on 6, didn't deliver on 7 and was ready to try a different approach by 8)."

This is, needless to say, quite strong stuff, and it draws a very interesting response from GarageGames co-founder Jeff Tunnell in the comments to the post: "Actually, this post is way off base in many respects. I take huge exception to your casual statement that the GG Game Store was an after thought. It was a part of the plan from Day One, and, in fact, a prototype was shown at the first IGC. I met you at the first IGC. For you to claim that you are somehow the reason that we tried to sell games is a huge overstatement.

We did sell a lot of games in the game store. Marble Blast has sold over 10,000 copies from our store, and many others are in the 1,000's of sales. However, it was not enough. We could not get enough good games to keep the stream alive. In retrospect, our standards may have been too high." So... who's right?

GameSetMicroLinks: Anacondas Vs. Guitar Keith

- Since it's almost the weekend and these are, uh, almost last weekend's GameSetWatch links, I figure it might be sensible to whip them all out in microlink form, an actionpacked line or two at a time. Hold on for a wild ride:

- Dubious Quality points out an awesome Capcom promotional campaign: "Capcom join forces with The Centre for Fortean Zoology [CFZ] on a real life Monster Hunt to South America." Yes, "giant Anaconda specimens" are involved.

- Aeropause has posted the alleged full Guitar Hero III songlist, including "...all the songs by stage, including encore and extra songs you can buy from the store." Could be fake, could be legit - I reckon the latter.

- Matthew 'Fort90' Hawkins points out a YouTube episode of 'The Brews Brothers': "The focus of this episode is squarely on Italian programmer Simone Serra and his Atari 2600 title Lead. Lead attempts to bring the spirit of Sega's 21st century sleeper hit Rez to a thirty year old game system, and the results are astonishing!"

- Grand Text Auto has spotted that "...starting next week the GameWorld exhibition , ongoing at Laboral in Gijon, Spain, is expanding the show with Playware, adding more experimental commercial games, individual-produced games and installations. The art game list? "Armadillo Run (Peter Stock), Electroplankton (Toshio Iwai), flOw (thatgamecompany), Golf? (Chronic Logic, Detective Brand), Line Rider (Boštjan Cadež), LocoRoco (Tsutomu Kuono), mono (Binary Zoo), Neon (Jeff Minter), Okami (Clover Studios), Rez (United Game Artists), Shift (Max McGuire), Toribash (Hampa Söderström), vib-ribbon (NanaOn-Sha)"

- Gamezebo has interviewed Carla Humphrey of Last Day of Work, talking gaming roles with the co-founder of the Virtual Villagers/Fish Tycoon developer: "I mainly consider myself a co-designer on the games (the YIN to Arthur's Yang), and what I bring to this process is the 'softer touch'. I try to contribute look/feel elements that will be accessible and engaging to non-gamers."

- It's still controversial, but I liked Eurogamer's dual reviews of Space Giraffe: "Some people think it's an unfathomable load of tosh, others seem to think it's really rather splendid. So rather than provide you with one viewpoint, we looked at two contrasting opinions of Jeff Minter's Xbox Live Arcade shooter."

- The New Gamer has been checking out the local artgame world, "...as part of Chicago's summer-long series of Art of Play exhibits, the 'Come In & Play' interactive center would focus squarely on video games and system." They were faintly bemused, but oh well!

- Rock Paper Shotgun points out that Super Columbine Massacre RPG's "...creator, Danny Ledonne, trying to make sense of the whole thing has been working on a documentary called Playing Columbine for a while now, and has lobbed a rough cut of a 13 minute section online."

- Zepy over at Canned Dogs has been discussing a 'forward-thinking' Japanese book: "The newly released book “Why did the PS3 fail?” by Tane Kiyoshi directly labels the PS3 as a failure and attempts to analyze the factors which led to this current situation. The author Tane Kiyoshi is an editor for the subculture + gaming magazine Continue and originally stated that the PS3 would succeed." Huh, fait accompli already?

- Vintage Computing & Gaming has dug out the 'Keith Courage in Alpha Zones' mini comic, explaining: "In 1989, the TurboGrafx-16 made its American debut with a lackluster pack-in title, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones. Included within the Keith Courage game was an approximately 4.5″ x 4.5″, eight page mini comic book setting the story for the game."

TIGSource Brings Their B Game To The Vote

- We've previously trailed the competition, and now the TIGSource folks have pinged us to point out that voting is open for the 'B Game Competition' - a princely total of 29 games (one of which is a 100-game-in-1 'masterpiece'!) have been entered in the quest to find 'games that are bad in the right way'.

As TIGSource's Derek Yu explains of the 'bad games with some great personalities' competition: "Voting is subjective, of course, but you should aim to vote for the game(s) that dips the most deeply into the theme ("B-Games") and the medium (video games), with an emphasis on craft, passion, humor, originality, and entertainment value. Simple, right?"

If you want a vague starting point (written before the full set of games debuted), Indygamer points out that the Distractionware blog has posted a few of its favorites, explaining: "The overall standard is phenomenal. Practically everyone got a good grasp on the idea behind the contest and as a result, everything submitted is worth playing - be it for a cool gameplay mechanic or just a brilliant concept."

Some of those? 'Mondo Medicals', a 'cure for cancer' game including "counter-intuitive first person maze puzzles", 'The 100-in-1 Klik & Play Pirate Kart' by Team Glorious Trainwrecks Dot Com - yikes - and even 'Weißer Punkt in der Schwarzlücke', which is: "A parody of arthouse gaming! Complete with director’s commentary, trailers for upcoming releases, a gallery and a lengthy credit sequence." This, my friends, is what entertaining indie gaming is all about.

September 20, 2007

GameSetNetwork: From Empires Of Sports To Fall Of Liberties

- Well, we've been posting a host of interesting content on CMP Game Group sister sites such as Gamasutra, WorldsInMotion.biz, GamesOnDeck, and GameCareerGuide.com this week, and I will attempt to wade through them in a random order (yes, we're covering Tokyo Game Show too, but every other website on the planet is, so let's go for the quirkier stuff):

- Continuing Gamasutra's histories of the games voted into the Digital Game Canon, following pieces on Spacewar, on Zork, and on Civilization, the site explores Doug Neubauer's Atari title Star Raiders, a somewhat obscure but vital precursor of the Wing Commander-esque digital space opera. The introduction explains: "Doug Neubauer’s Star Raiders was a game that made a vivid first impression. Released in 1979 for the Atari 400 and 800 computers, the game was a surprisingly complex space combat simulation. However, what left players entranced was its smooth, three-dimensional graphics. Star Raiders achieved a level of realism that few people had seen in a video game before."

- Over at online worlds site WorldsInMotion.biz, Leigh Alexander has been talking to Empire of Sports’ managing director, Christian Müller, and it's fun to hear how guilds might work if you're planning competitive sports teams: "The Coach, similar to a guild leader, has some special powers within the game. They indicate the gameplay, can nominate, dismiss or invite members on the team, and are required to play a social role." And for those wondering, the currently listed sports on the official game website reveal that "...tennis, basketball, skiing and a series of training/fitness games will be available at launch."

- Another notable Gamasutra story from earlier this week - 'The View From GameStop's Window: Retail Giant Talks Gaming In 2007', described thus: "Through multiple acquisitions and mergers, GameStop is now the predominant specialty U.S. game retailer - and Gamasutra talks to GameStop VPs Bob McKenzie and Tom DeNapoli about the state of retail for the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii, stocking AO-rated games, the firm's digital download strategy, and more." High-level retail execs don't often talk so informally as this, and it's a nice change.

- Over at GamesOnDeck, Mathew Kumar has been chatting to Alex Goatcher of Mikoishi, a team which "...has developed mobile titles such as Phoenix Wright and Star Wars Battlefront Mobile, but have recently begun to concentrate on original IP and new platforms such as Nintendo DS and PC." Their new franchise sounds a bit crazed, too: "SteamIron: The Fallen... is an epic cross-platform sci-fi fantasy that plays out over multiple installments on both handheld and PC platforms.The story begins on 3G mobile with SteamIron: The Fallen with future installments planned for mobile, Nintendo DS culminating in a PC MMOG scheduled for release in 2009." Blimey.

- Finally, and this article really deserves a bit more notice than it go, we ran a detailed analysis of Codemasters and Activision's legal fight over Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty on Gamasutra. It's notable because it's overflow from an already-acrimonious Spark vs. Activision lawsuit. Highlights would include Spark's lawyers insisting the company was not working on a WWII title, and then signing an alternate reality post-WWII title (featuring Nazis!) with Codemasters, and Activision's internal emails about paying Spark royalties on the Call Of Duty title they worked on: "[Spark] will not be seeing a royalty check from me. I think this means that we’ve essentially replicated the ‘scorched earth’ scenario… royalty reductions [are] locked in, as [is Activision’s] ability to make them recoup against every expense known to man.” Ouch!

Game Developer's Top 20 Publishers - The Sassy Version!

- So, you may remember that we recently asked for comments to help with reputational and specific direct-interaction comments from more than 300 game professionals, to help make up our Game Developer's Top 20 Publishers.

We're just finishing up the article itself, which is going to debut in the October 2007 issue of the magazine, alongside a a Game Developer Research report that will list all our the responses, comments, and detailed data. Look for the rundown to be released online in early October.

Anyhow, a lot of the anonymous 'reputational' responses ended up being somewhat polarizing and rhetoric-flecked. But when combing the comments, we kept spotting one particularly witty anonymous responder - and we thought his comments on some of the major publishers were worth printing in full here on GSW, for acerbic laughs, if nothing else:

"Activision - Solid - if unimaginative
Atari - First the good news. Bruno's gone. Now the bad news. Bruno's gone.
Codemasters - Plucky, intelligent senior management willing to take a risk.
Disney Interactive - Does what it says on the tin - and no more.
Eidos/SCi - Could yet grab defeat from the jaws of victory.
Electronic Arts - Currently in therapy.
Konami - Trying to be less Japanese. Currently failing.
LucasArts - Looking increasingly rudderless - the industry's biggest vanity publisher
Majesco - Two words - New. Jersey. 'Nuff said.
Microsoft - Succeeding in spite of itself. Will miss Peter Moore more than they know.
Midway - Sumner Redstone's folly. Spectacularly, almost entertainingly bad.
NCSoft - Playing the long game - and has the cash to do it.
Nintendo - It's their ball - and we can all play with it - on their terms.
Sega - One to watch - clever, nimble leadership who know how to succeed.
Sony Computer Entertainment - Sadly lacking leadership skills at the highest level - expect changes in 2008.
Take-Two - GTA 4 better be good.........
THQ - Looking a bit lost - despite some good work, does anyone know what is THQ for?
Ubisoft - The amazing Guillemots and their dedicated senior team run rings around slower, bigger competitors.
Vivendi Games - World class - in parts."

[Disclaimer: GameSetWatch doesn't necessarily think this arch wit is right. And fortunately, most responders to the survey were a little less flippant. We do think he's pretty amusing, though, whoever he is.]

Treasure Fan? (In Comparison) You Ain't No Treasure Fan!

- Thanks to RoushiMSX for pointing out Stefan's Treasure site, in which a Swedish fan shows off what must be the most beautifully presented physical collection we've ever seen in homage to game developer Treasure.

There's essentially one shelf per game, and the rather obsessive collection is also split out by game, and yes, that even includes Wario World, perhaps the Treasure game that's least identified as being made by Treasure - and I claim is actually a bit of a forgotten gem.

But yes, there are a few things Nimrodil doesn't have - and here are the totally obscure ones that made me grin: "Double Pack: Davis Cup World Tour and Gunstar Heroes (Australian)... Bangai-O (N64) Phone card... Radiant Silvergun: plush dolls... Light Crusader; Korean version." So if there are any slightly obsessive OCD-type folks with, uhh, doubles of these, you know where to go!

September 19, 2007

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': In Defense of Breast Physics

-[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.]

Last week, this column discussed the dignity of our long-standing heroine, Samus Aran, the respect we as gamers maintain for a woman who doesn’t show skin, and the relative low popularity of searches for Samus hentai (which, ironically, have abruptly spiked in the recent week as if to spite me). Scantily-clad game heroines and burgeoning breast physics are a topic quick to raise ire in particular among female gamers – it’s exploitive and degrading, some say; it’s unnecessary and misleading, others claim.

Let's rethink that a little, shall we?

On this subject, the women of the fighting genre are perhaps the worst offenders. First of all, as Erin Hoffman points out in her recent Escapist feature, “Holding Out For a Heroine,” it’s not realistic – it’s obvious, for example, how lacking female fighters generally are in underwire support, which while titillating in a game would be prohibitively uncomfortable, to say the least, in real combat. As Aspyr Media senior producer Jennifer Bullard says in the article, fighting in heels is hazardous to the ligaments of the legs, and tight-fitting metal bodysuits would be outright painful to femme flesh.

It’s also common to take offense at what many perceive as the inequity in these sort of displays, too – female costumes are outlandish showpieces, while men are often credited with more sensible dress. Though, it’s not hard to find examples that beg to differ; it’s impossible for a red-blooded heterosexual female not to sexualize the decidedly pretty brutality of Street Fighter’s Vega or Tekken’s fire-eyed Jin Kazama, both shirtless and raw – and let’s not even get started on Voldo, Soul Calibur’s tightly-clad, eerily flexible submissive whose trappings bear more than a passing resemblance to bondage gear.

-However, if we dismissed all gaming concepts that didn’t hold up to practical reality, we’d be out of a pastime, I fear. Moreover, it can be argued that the fighting genre needs every bare inch and crevice of exposed, exploited, inappropriate and excessive skin.

Why? Fighting games are inherently sexual, and the costuming of the characters is merely an extension of this. Any setting that brings together young, beautiful, powerful men and women in a no-holds barred, high-stakes grapple over lifelong goals is bound to make tensions and pheromones run high. At a glance and out of context, it can be tough to distinguish fighting from sex, and they share several key features in common – adrenaline, physicality, the goal of individual satisfaction.

The question as to why it necessitates such a strong degree of physical exploitation is a legit one, though. Taki’s nipples have been meticulously articulated since the graphics technology existed to make it possible, and as the next generation of fighting games lines up to march on the audience, concept art and preliminary scans reveals that the bustlines are bigger, the waistlines are slimmer and the clothes are smaller than ever. Is it all really necessary?

-Games allow us to live in a deliciously debauched world. Take BioShock, for example, where in addition to the usual gun, the player is equipped with genetic enhancements. Using fire and ice as offensive weapons is as old as gaming, so the ante gets upped with a hive of raging bees that emerge from under the skin in squirm-inducing visceral detail. It’s not something we could do in real life, to say the least -- and lighting a Splicer on fire and then electrocuting her to death when she runs for the salve of water is brutality above and beyond that we probably wouldn’t want to do, even if we were put in that dreadful situation wherein we needed to end another life to preserve our own. It’s excess that makes the fantasy of freedom to commit violence without consequences and outside of society’s collective moral conscience feel like a mental vacation.

Survival horror, too, gains immersion from every repugnant detail. The sense of revulsion we feel when the stagnant whatever inside the toilet of a rotting, blood-spattered bathroom, the faint nausea induced by piecemeal, loathsome creatures and the crunch of their skull is necessary. Is it realistic? Of course not, for when do you ever actually anticipate having to fend off an undead two-headed dog or hiding out from zombies in a decaying village? The lavish excess creates the fantasy.

-And that’s the key. A world where purposeful, passionate females with irrational proportions and a distinct absence of physical flaws fight without yield alongside hungry, animalistic men is much more fantastic than offensive. People often say they want games to be detailed in order to create realism whereby they can become more immersed in the action – but it’s often realism that interrupts the suspension of disbelief. Every facet of fantasy must be shamelessly rendered, no matter how ludicrous it would be through the lens of normal physics and real-world behavioral standards. There are limits, surely, else the array of gratuitous weapons that sometimes appear in fighting games would summarily dispatch their fist-fighting opponents in a singly easy stroke. And nobody’s clothing falls off – at least, not outside of the hentai fighting genre a la Battle Raper.

But given that the tension, frustration and raw physical action of fighting games will never be divested from its sexual undertone, the gratuitous endowments and high-cut battle skirts, every little plate of waist-cinching, virtually useless armor and every graphic jiggle is as necessary to the genre as the subtle moan of the shambling undead and the high-powered arsenal of the world’s best shooters. And to shamelessly enjoy and appreciate every bare-skinned brawler does not indicate unfairness or misogyny any more than an appreciation for wrench kills or car thievery indicates real-world sociopathy.

Gals like Samus that keep it covered are much-appreciated bastions of dignity, but our fighting furies have an important role to play, too. It looks like Ivy’s back is set to snap – but she’s a game character; she’ll be fine. Why not just enjoy it?

[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.]

Charting World Of Warcraft's Balance Changes

- Over at game metrics blog We Can Fix That With Data, Sara Jensen has been doing some fascinating World Of Warcraft balance analysis, examining which player classes have been fixed, buffed, nerfed, and various other odd MMO-specific titles.

But how can you begin to ennumerate the changes? As Jensen, who works at Spacetime Studios for her dayjob, explains, a particularly data-hungry World Of Warcraft forum-goers has "...listed every class change made since the beginning of recorded history (i.e. early beta), and he’s categorized it by buffs, nerfs, bug fixes, changes, new features, and overhauls." Jensen has crunched that all into a very interesting set of graphs, showing that, for example, the Warlock has the most changes, but the Druid has been buffed the most in Blizzard's gameplay tweaking.

In comments, 'Scott' provides some useful color: "So, the biggest problem is that there’s no relative weight to the buffs/nerfs, so the nerf to Dire Bear armor in 2.0 is assigned the same weight as no longer being able to teleport to Moonglade while in tree form. Of course then you start having to assign subjective weight", adding: "The real interesting data points you’re missing are of course class population overlaid on these figures." Good points all!

Koster Reveals Metaplace - Online Worlds For Everyone?

- Aha - delighted to see that former Origin and Sony Online exec Raph Koster has revealed the major product from his new venture capital-funded firm Areae at the TechCrunch 40 conference in San Francisco - a new online worlds platform called Metaplace.

According to information posted on the official Metaplace website: "Metaplace is a next-generation virtual worlds platform designed to work the way the Web does. Instead of giant custom clients and huge downloads, Metaplace lets you play the same game on any platform that reads our open client standard. We supply a suite of tools so you can make worlds, and we host servers for you so that anyone can connect and play. And the client could be anywhere on the Web."

The official FAQ continues: "You should be able to stage up a massively multiplayer world with basic chat and a map you can build on in less than five minutes. It's that easy. Inherit a stylesheet -- puzzle game, or shooter, or chat world -- and off you go... Metaplace will support everything from 2d overhead grids through first-person 3d. However, right now we only have clients that do 2d of various sorts, including grid view, 2d isometric, 2.5d heightfields, and so on. We expect to keep working on the 3d client support."

In addition, Koster himself has commented on the announcement on his official weblog, explaining of the technology: "We fully expect most users to be players, not makers. That’s just how it is. So for us, fun is absolutely key. I’m putting my money where my mouth is on that point, too. Yes, we have a new MMO we’re working on. And yes, we’re doing it in Metaplace."

This really does seem like intriguing tech - and a further continuation of concepts being worked out in Three Rings' Whirled, another diverse web-based engine for constructing games and social worlds. And thus, the ubiquitous web browser continues to conquer all, eh?

September 18, 2007

Independent Games Festival Debuts 2008 IGF Judge List

- Aha - crossposted from Gamasutra but of interest to GSW folks too, here's the full information on the Independent Games Festival judge list for this year - and the Main Competition entry deadline is less than 2 weeks away at this point, so potential entrants had better get coding about, uh, now:

"Following last week's announcement of new Independent Games Festival judges, the full line-up of fresh and returning IGF judges has been announced, with late additions to the roster including Fl0w co-creator Kellee Santiago alongside Big Huge Games' Brian Reynolds and many more.

ThatGameCompany's Santiago, who was previously a Student Showcase winner with student project Cloud, and Neversoft co-founder Mick West, an industry veteran who writes the 'Inner Product' column for Game Developer magazine, are added alongside Games For Windows magazine's Darren Gladstone to round out the new judges for the 10th annual competition.

Other previously announced new judges for this year's IGF including Newsweek's N'Gai Croal, Bit-Blot's Alec Holowka, and Gastronaut's Don Wurster, and the full line-up of over 40 judges includes many returning for the fourth or fifth time to help judge the competition.

The journalistic and content-centric contingent for this year's judging panel include Wired's game editor Chris Baker, Joystiq's Chris Grant, Wonderlandblog and Channel 4's Alice Taylor, Kotaku's Brian Crecente, and Joystick Nation author JC Herz.

The independent game stalwarts hopping onto the judging panel this time include Raigan Burns, previous IGF prize-winner with N, Indygamer editor Tim W., and TIGSource editor Derek Yu, as well as new additions Santiago and Wurster. Other notable 'mainstream' game industry judges returning this year include Sony and Ubisoft veteran Mark Deloura, Foundation9's Chris Charla, Nihilistic's Mark Cooke, Midway's Richard Rouse III, and Big Huge Games founder Brian Reynolds.

As for the competition itself, the IGF ceremony will take place February 2008 at Game Developers Conference, with all finalists playable on the GDC show floor, and an Independent Games Summit again running alongside the main festival.

In addition, the 2008 IGF Main Competition will again be open to all independent developers to submit their games - whether it be on PC, console digital download, Web browser, or other more exotic formats. The prizes again total nearly $50,000, with a $20,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize, and the deadline to enter the Main Competition is Monday, October 1st 2007.

The 2008 IGF Student Competition will once again award the best student games, and this year will also include student 'mods' to existing games. As a result, the number of Student Showcase winners has been increased to 12. The deadline to enter the Student Competition is Monday, October 15th, 2007."

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Mobile Suit Metroid

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers yet another Gundam tie-in but one that excels with its controls in a similar manner to that of the latest Metroid.]

sensen_cover1.jpgAfter the hellish release of Gundam Target in Sight, gamers (outside of Japan) still perceive Gundam tie-in games to be something wholly evil; a mechanical plague of functional mediocrity if you will. This ill-conceived point of view was covered in a previous column by my forbearer Ollie Barder, showing that there are a number of excellent Gundam games available.

Gundam MS Sensen 0079 was released for the Nintendo Wii and it has very quickly earned its place amongst the more accomplished Gundam games. Developed by Team White Dingo (who were also responsible for the Blue Destiny trilogy on the Saturn, Rise from the Ashes on the Dreamcast and Lost War Chronicles on the PlayStation 2) Sensen 0079 uses their signature first person approach to mobile suit control and like Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, the use of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk is superlative.

More after the jump...

A claustrophobic cockpit...

gundam_dc1.jpgTeam White Dingo’s previous Gundam games were covered in passing in a previous column but the interesting thing about their approach to emulating the experience of controlling a mobile suit is that they focus solely on what it must be like for a pilot sat in a claustrophobic cockpit. Both the Blue Destiny trilogy and Rise from the Ashes were very faithful to the design work featured in the host anime.

You had large girders surrounding your screens and that made you feel as though you were encased inside a large machine, rather than just looking at a TV. They dropped this in Lost War Chronicles and just offered a straight-laced full screen first person view and this is the same approach Sensen 0079 takes. Most probably because the original implementation was too effective in making you feel helplessly trapped when combat kicked off.

Gaiden Gundam

rgm-79-cockpit.jpgLike their previous games, the main campaign mode has you work as a grunt on the frontlines in underpowered hardware. This is always a more interesting approach because it allows more leeway for the developers and consequently the player when they actually get to choose how they approach a mission.

One of the trickier aspects of recreating the events of the original shows is that you’re tied into the events that occur. Thankfully, the game separates this out into an Ace Pilot mode which allows you to play as famous characters from the One Year War era, encompassing shows like the first TV series, 0080, 08th MS Team as well as cameos from the Blue Destiny characters.

Comparisons to Corruption are only really valid in terms of how you control your mobile suit. You point at the screen with the Wii Remote and lock-on to targets which you can then orbit. Similar to the Free Aim option in Corruption, Sensen 0079 offers identical functionality that allows you to lead your fire depending on how your target moves.

That is where the comparison ends, however - Corruption is a game based around a persistent environment which you have to explore and solve puzzles within. Sensen 0079, on the other hand, is much more action orientated and is based around distinct missions in fixed environments that you have to wipe clean with an array of weapons, both ranged and melee.

Again, unlike Corruption, you also have a large selection of mobile suits to choose from all with disparate functionality, rather than a singular protagonist with a very standardised ability set. Not that I mean to criticise Metroid, but where Corruption is resolutely an adventure game, Sensen 0079 earns its S Rank in regards to the "shooter" in FPS.

FPS = First Person...Swords?!?

sensen0079_1.jpgConsidering the dearth of FPS titles in the Wii's library and those scant few that do hold a candle to that genre are more often than not similar to stapling your head to your shoulder and encasing your elbow in concrete. On the whole, as a gaming experience, they fall a fair bit short.

Sensen 0079, despite its basic mission framework, is incredibly competent when it comes to speeding through the jungle and sniping highly nimble enemies with very potent beam weaponry. The difference here though is that once you're within range, melee combat becomes available. Melee combat that's gesture controlled via the Wii Remote.

sensen0079_2.jpgWeapons can be swiped horizontally and vertically, they can be used as a means of blocking enemy melee attacks if your unsheathe your weapon in time. Naturally, during a block you can also turn the tide by pushing back your opponent to the point you unleash several powerful swipes, which are normally able to kill most other mobile suits outright.

In regards to sniping, true to the original series mobile suits come equipped with a sniper scope. Unlike speeding through the air and relying on a keen eye and a steady hand in order to down enemies, the scope allows you to zoom in on targets from a great distance away but at the expense of remaining stationary. Accuracy is key though, because you are more than able to pick off limbs leaving your enemy aware of your location and able to close the distance (sans a limb or two). Ideally you want incapacitate an enemy by removing its primary ranged weapon, which it normally carries though there are some mobile suits that pack shoulder mounted artillery as standard. This is where squad tactics comes in.

Mobile Suit Minions

sensen0079_4.jpgFirst person cockpit views maybe Team White Dingo's signature approach to Gundam games but their true calling is their ability to give you wingmen that obey your commands. So, whilst sniping would leaving you naked in other FPS, here you have two plucky comrades that can be deployed in various positions around you. This means even if an limbless and decidedly irritable enemy bears down on you, they'll have to deal with your buddies first.

Compared to Rise from the Ashes, this ability to command your troops is pretty limited. Instead of specifying routes and the distance at which they engage the enemy or even guard you, they literally only offer basic preset positional options.

In all fairness though, the pacing in Sensen 0079 is far quicker and setting up complex routes through enemy territory for your fearless wingmen would detract from the visceral excitement of multiple high speed enemies striking poses as they tear you a new one.

Encounters in Retail Space

This is a worthwhile point to make, Sensen 0079 is not an easy game. It's not an unfair game mind you but there are many instances where you will have a tough time just surviving (this is especially true on the Ace Pilot mode as well, though that's probably more to be expected). That being said their older games weren't exactly a walk over either and certain spin-off gaming progeny, such as Zeonic Front, were actually fascistically difficult.

The controls do make a huge difference though and actually help you to realise that when you die it was actually your fault for being a gung-ho moron than anything the game did wrong (something Target in Sight suffered from due to its framerate woes, in that you couldn't see certain shots fired until they hit and killed you).

At present there aren't any plans to release this game outside of Japan, which is a shame considering that Bandai go out of their way to publish the rubbish Gundam games in the West (why they do this is beyond me). With any luck a modicum of sense will prevail and we'll get to see this game a bit more locally and that would only be a good thing.

[Kurokishi is a humble servant of the Drake forces and his interests include crushing inferior opponents, combing his mane of long silvery hair and dicking around with cheap voice synthesisers. When he's not raining down tyrannical firepower upon unsuspecting peasants in his Galava aura fighter he likes to take long moonlight walks and read books about cheese.]

GameSetExpose: The Peculiar Success Of 'Two Worlds'

- Well, not so much as an expose as some brief doodlings from someone who doesn't particularly play the genre, perhaps, but I wanted to pick up on a particularly interesting entry in the recent NPD game charts for August in North America - specifically, Xbox 360 RPG Two Worlds, published by Southpeak, making it all the way to #13 in the all-formats countdown.

To say Two Worlds, which is a first-person/third-person title developed by Polish studio Reality Pump, is a surprise on the charts would be an understatement - with a minor publisher and relatively little overt buzz from at least my point of view, I'm not sure anyone would have guessed it'd show up in the Top 20.

But here's a great hint as to why, from the first line of the gameplay description on Wikipedia: "Two Worlds is a three-dimensional role-playing game which has often been compared to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion." And indeed, if you Google for 'Oblivion' and 'Two Worlds', you'll see a whole heap of previews, articles, and opinions comparing the two games. It appears that Oblivion has created a whole mess of latent demand for firstish-person, open-world RPGs that even the game's expansion packs couldn't satisfy - hence fans latching onto Two Worlds.

Indeed, here in the CMP Game Group, our sales admin Gregg Silberman mentioned to me that he pre-ordered the Collector's Edition of Two Worlds (again, remind you of anything?), before cancelling when he heard that the gameplay was a tad more hack and slash than Oblivion. And indeed, critics aren't spectacularly happy with Two Worlds on the Xbox 360, with an average of 52% on Metacritic.

But that doesn't necessarily matter if there are semi-insatiable Oblivion fans out there, quite happy to start long threads comparing their favorite Bethesda-authored game series to Two Worlds. Difficult to say the exact sales for Two Worlds as a result, but it's certainly broken 100,000 on Xbox 360 by now in the States (probably edging 150,000?), and it's already topped the charts in Germany, where the PC version is also well-received.

Mind you, one of the oddest things about the surprise U.S. success of the game is that I suspect Oblivion wasn't necessarily the primary influencer in the game's development - the open-ended Gothic series seems to be one of the most influential European PC RPG series in recent years, and other people have picked up on the Gothic 3 comparison. On that front, imagine how well Gothic 3 might have done in the U.S. if they'd sorted out an Xbox 360 version?

Sounds like Gothic 4 might be coming to the Xbox 360, depending on your definition of 'current-gen' - but maybe the Oblivion geeks will have had their fill of debatably buggy Continental European open-world games by then, hm. However, Two Worlds is slightly poisoning the drinking water for everyone right now, one fears. And not saying Gothic is the premiere open-world daddy here - that title itself might well have been influenced by Daggerfall and heck, you get the general idea.

[Incidentally, I was going to go check out sales numbers on VGChartz.com, but then discovered it's the first site I've ever seen to be tagged as having malware by Google - awesome! I went and checked anyhow, and they're estimating 256,606 sales in North America so far - which I think is a bit high, but gives you the general idea.]

September 17, 2007

Textfyre - Bringing Back The Commercial Text Adventure?

- Over at Gamasutra today, one of our quirkier interview pieces - chatting to David Cornelson of Textfyre, a new startup that "intends to target a young audience with regular episodic [text adventure] titles featuring reoccurring characters, with the first game expected near the end of the year." That's right, someone is trying out commercial interactive fiction once more - an eyebrow-raising prospect.

Cornelson talks about a bunch of cool hypotheticals related to if he ever got hold of the Zork or Harry Potter licenses, but here's his main pitch for his company's distribution plan: "We’re going to use simple DVD cases with a full color cover, a 10 page full color comic book, instructions, and a full color labeled installation CD. We will also offer downloadable versions and possibly versions to play online. We’re also going to seriously look at adapting our games to the mobile PDA market, but that’s a long term strategy. There are other packages I like better, but they’re more expensive. We plan to do “feelies” when it’s obvious."

Interestingly, Cornelson sees his pitch as competing with Young Adults fiction on bookshelves: "Yes. If you look at the Young Readers section, you’ll see numerous series-based fiction. These books are enormously popular and some of them have dozens of books. I think the market that is attracted to these books is my target market."

Specific authors aren't mentioned in the piece, but Grand Text Auto spills the beans in a recent news story: "Michael Gentry (Anchorhead, Little Blue Men) was the first IF author to join up with Textfyre, as a writer... Ian Finley (Babel, Kaged) has joined to do world and game design... Jon Ingold (All Roads, Muldoon) will write a game for Textfyre." These are 'names' in the IF world, and it's going to be highly interesting to see how the outside world will react to their fiction.

Opinion: Signature Devices/Graffiti - Fax Spam + Press Release Frenzy = ?

Now, here's an interesting one. We do still get 'archaic' faxes from time to time at GameSetWatch and the CMP Game Group - sometimes the odd press release, sometimes indignant ones from Jack Thompson (more on this soon!), and recently, and most intriguingly, a 'junk fax' strenuously inciting us to buy Signature Devices' stock.

Now, why would you guys care about this? Well, Signature Devices, despite the generic tech company name, is almost entirely a game developer and publisher, sometimes under the Graffiti Entertainment name. Gamasutra has covered Graffiti in the past - the company "...is perhaps most recognized as the publisher of Neko Entertainment's multiplatform budget release Crazy Frog Racer and Sabarasa Entertainment's Mazes of Fate for the Game Boy Advance."

Here's the fax, which includes one of those delightfully fake handwritten notes on it - let's go from there:

A lot of similar text to the junk fax appears in this 'Wall Street News Alert's "stocks to watch"' listing from February, tipping the company alongside Microsoft and Netflix, and which claims: "The company has a long list of noteworthy PC and Xbox game credits including "SAMURAI SHODOWN V" for Xbox, "King of Fighters '94 Rebout" for Xbox, "Far Cry" and "Medal of Honor - Pacific Assault," and many others."

Those last two are, needless to say, not games wholly developed by Signature Devices - the junk fax itself says that the firm 'did the 3D engineering' for those two last titles, and the 'the' is stretching things too - as the company's Far Cry page reveals that it did DX7 fallback and optimizations and shader work. But the company is indeed listed on the credits - though it's only under 'Performance Consulting & Support', which is pretty far from 'did the 3D engineering for'. They are credited separately and non-specifically (under their own company title) for Medal Of Honor, mind you.

You will also note in the disclosure below the stock website's tips: "WSCF has been compensated Fourteen Thousand Dollars for coverage of Signature Devices, Inc. (PINKSHEETS: SDVI), by a third party (Alex Consulting Inc.), who is non-affiliated and may hold a significant position in the stock, for services provided including dissemination of company information in this release." Nice that they disclose it, but you can see what's going on here.

In any case, many of the company's press releases seem to be stoking the fire, with such non-events as the announcement of 'negotiations' with undisclosed parties and even better, under the headline 'Royalty Streams Fuel Growth for Potential Explosive Returns for Signature Devices, Inc' - yes, there may be royalties in the firm's much-starred future!

Interestingly, the firm also boasts that it won a lawsuit against SNK recently, with General Counsel Philip Kramer commenting gleefully: "In the end we received tens of thousands of dollars from SNK to settle the lawsuit. We could have taken this further, but were willing to settle early and have a clean slate with no more pending litigation." Nothing like a sore winner, huh? Presumably this is regarding the SNK-licensed Xbox titles.

Now, a couple of clarifications here - we're not saying that Signature Devices is necessarily a bad game publisher and developer or intrinsically terrible people. But it does rather seem like at least a few shadowy figures are trying to get people to buy Signature Devices stock based on slightly hyped-up claims - and the company is putting out enough press releases to drown a few kittens in order to support that. So let's see what happens next, huh?

Arcade's AM2 Show - The Renaissance Coverage

- The other day, I was bemoaning the relative lack of Western coverage for the Japanese AM2 arcade show (although my co-worker Brandon Sheffield did post some video links on Insert Credit). But now, catching up on RSS feeds, I find that Arcade Renaissance has a gigantic mess of reports from the 45th Amusement Show, well worth scrolling around and checking out.

One handy uber-guide is the Amusement Journal's most popular games from the show, which reveals: "Expectedly, Tekken 6 took the top spot on Day 1 and Day 2 of the event, but was surprisingly beat out on Day 3 by Deathsmiles. A lot of this can probably be attributed to the Day 3 lines that Tekken 6 was experiencing, which at one point was said to have reached about a 3-4 hour wait just to get some hands on time with the title."

A separate post points out shakycam vids of Tekken 6 in action, including bloated new character Bob, and there's also hands-on impressions of Sega Race TV, as well as a Deathsmile dance number at the Cave booth promoting the new arcade shooter, and a crazy amount of Japanese links on the show. Bravo, Sir.

September 16, 2007

COLUMN: GameSetVideo Treasures - 'Making Of Ultima X'

Last week, we started the GameSetVideo Treasures column, highlighting important historical game-related videos on the Internet Archive's Game Videos collection, which I set up and help out with, and this week we're going to highlight a new addition that's a good 'might have been' for Ultima fans.

Archive contributor Andrew Armstrong dug this one out (with permission from the good folks at FileShack), and it's the 'Ultima X: Odyssey Making Of Video' from 2003.

Of course, Wikipedia has plenty more on the game's genesis, which "...was the first Ultima game developed after series creator Richard Garriott left Origin, and is the second Ultima-based MMORPG to be cancelled (Ultima Worlds Online: Origin — Ultima Online 2 — was cancelled in 2001)".

For those intrigued, you can click on the picture below to get to download and streaming links on the Archive.org site:

The video's description explains that this is "...a "making of" video for Ultima X: Odyssey (by Origin Systems). The video was released September 26th 2003, and is notably important due to the game being cancelled - Origin was disbanded by EA in Feburary 2004, and this was the last game the company ever worked on... The video contains interviews with Daniel Campbell (QA Lead), Rick Hall (Senior Producer), Jonathan Hanna (Lead Designer), Jonathan Lecraft (Designer), Andy Dombroski (Lead World Builder), and Kevin Saffel (Client Programmer)... interspersed with footage and concept art."

Also worth mentioning, from the Wikipedia page: "Drawing from the single-player Ultima games, Ultima X: Odyssey was to use the established Virtues of Ultima in addition to skills, experience points and levels. Players would be able to practice in the eight Virtues (Compassion, Honesty, Honor, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Valor) and eventually reach the maximum level with it."

[Of course, there are copies of this trailer in a good few places - not claiming that we are 'saving the only copy' or something. But it's good that we can get a version of this and many other rare videos onto Archive.org in a reasonably high-quality version - preserved with multiple file mirrors and redundancy by a non-profit.]

EVE Online: The Bears and the Rat

- Under the faithful editorial leadership of Chris Remo, veteran game site Shacknews has been positively resurgent of late, and I particularly liked the new feature 'EVE Online: The Bears and the Rat', written by Nick Breckon, and the second in a series of features analyzing the exquisite skullduggery at work in CCP's PC MMO.

It's allusive, positively Clancy-esque stuff: "In September of 2006, a historic meeting between officials of EVE Online's player-run corporations took place. Red Alliance, the notorious Russian organization, reached out to offer a partnership with the equally-infamous GoonSwarm. For the first time, the traditionally straightforward Russians were using the olive branch, actively seeking a major ally through diplomatic means--and Westerners at that."

Breckon continues: "Of course, it's not surprising that the American leadership of GoonSwarm rejected the initial offer. Separated by both practical and cultural divisions, the two organizations had never before spoken--and in a throwback to the Cold War, it would take some convincing before the Americans could trust an alliance known for being even more ruthless than they."

I do believe that EVE Online is the online world that has most accurately modeled real-life geopolitical machinations at this point - though feel free to disagree?

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': The Junior Computer

jr-8405.jpg   pcjr-8402.jpg

If anyone remembers the IBM PCjr today, it's as a major market failure and as one of the computer industry's greatest examples of hubris coming to bite a company in the arse. Originally announced in 1983 and launching in March 1984, the PCjr ("PC Junior") was IBM's first attempt to market a computer for the home -- a system that was kinda-sorta compatible with the more business-targeted IBM PC, with enhanced three-voice sound and 16-color 320x200-pixel graphics.

Heavily rumored for months before its official announcement, the PCjr was presumed by many industry wags to do the same for IBM in the home market what the original PC did for the business sector -- i.e., allow the companay to completely dominate it. It's easy to forget, but this really was the general opinion of much of the industry in early 1984 -- you could say that Apple's January '84 Macintosh Super Bowl ad was appreciated more by the general public than by people who drew their salary in computers at the time. The magazine biz was no different, as two different magazines debuted on US newsstands before the PCjr was even available for purchase: PCjr. from Ziff Davis, and jr from Wayne Green Publications, later CW Communications. (Only one Mac mag -- IDG's Macworld -- debuted with Apple's computer.)

For Ziff, launching PCjr. was an easy decision. Even by that point, PC was their most successful magazine ever -- purchased in 1982, ballooning up to 500 then 600 pages within half a year's time, and becoming the de facto outlet for advertising and commentary on IBM computers. IBM was now launching a home computer, and undoubtedly it'd be a huge success, so Ziff went in on the ground floor, debuting its mag in February 1984 with a surprisingly large 176-page book. Everything about PCjr.'s look exudes professionalism, from the in-depth writing (with largely the same adult and business-oriented outlook as the original PC) to the art-laden and remarkably colorful graphic design. It's a fun mag to read, in other words, and it's obvious from the start that Ziff put a ton of money into producing it.

jr, on the other hand, is kind of an odd duck. Launched in May 1984 just before Wayne Green sold his New Hampshire computer-mag empire off to IDG, jr is written from a serious beginner's perspective, more so than any other non-kiddy computer magazine I've seen from this era (yes, including Family Computing). Every term is exhaustively defined (from "RAM" to "word processor"), and the editorial team's target seems to be people who have never touched a computer in their life before, much less the PCjr machine itself. This leads to a lot of neat original art and photography showing off the PCjr's innards and how computers work in general, but it's not the most interesting thing to read through.

jr-8409.jpg   pc-8411.jpg

Both PCjr. and jr are decent enough mags in their own right, but at the risk of being blunt, they were charged with the task of taking a turd and polishing it all over again, month after month. There were a number of hardware issues on the machine, including a lack of easy expandability and a frustrating wireless keyboard that was impossible to touch-type on. Even the entry-level PCjr model (which lacked a disk drive and was largely useless for anything except running game/productivity cartridges) cost $669 sans monitor, less than an Apple II but far more than the Commodore 64 or an Atari computer, both companies in the midst of a debilitating price war that drove other 8-bit PCs out of the market.

IBM redesigned the PCjr in late 1984 with a new keyboard and better expansion abilities, but it was too late in the public's eye. There was never a mass audience for the PCjr, which means few companies were interested in making products exclusively for it, which means ad dollars plummeted for both PCjr. and jr over 1984. I can't confirm exactly when both mags ended, but the last jr I have is September '84 and the final PCjr. is dated November, and both are later than any date I can find on the Internet, so I'll say they're both final issues and leave it at that. Even as book sizes shriveled toward the end, though, both mags maintained a surprisingly high level of writing and illustration. It's a surprise, in fact, as most computer mags show a pretty marked quality decline once it's plain the subject platform has no marketplace.

The really interesting thing about all this is that funneling cash toward PCjr. instead of a Macintosh magazine in early '84 arguably cost Ziff dearly for the rest of the decade. IDG's Macworld had that computer all to itself for almost 14 months before Ziff finally launched MacUser in 1985 -- and even that was a UK license deal, not an original project. MacUser was successful enough, but always played second fiddle to Macworld's lead in the marketplace before getting closed down and merged with its rival in 1997. If Ziff launched a Mac mag first, the tables may've been turned...

[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.]



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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