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October 20, 2007

GameSetNetwork: The G For Grammar Expo

- Time to round up some of the original reporting we did on the CMP Game Group's big sister site Gamasutra this week, for the edification of GSW readers.

Actually, some interesting stuff has come up, from Raph Koster getting agreeably abstract about 'game grammar' to WBIE's super-powered future, all the way to our impressions of E For All. Please to enjoy:

- Defining Games: Raph Koster's Game Grammar
"Areae president Raph Koster is perhaps best known as a designer of Ultima Online and the previous CCO of Sony Online Entertainment, and in this in-depth Gamasutra interview, he discusses his views on 'game grammar', the uniting of MMOs and online worlds, and the software patent problem."

- Q&A: Warner Bros' Ryan Talks Expansion, Acquisition, Superheroes
"Following its $500 million game fund deal, Gamasutra has been talking with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment senior vice president Samantha Ryan about the firm's new Seattle publishing office, developer acquisition plans, and the "pretty safe" assumption that the DC Comics owner will be making more superhero games."

- Impressions: Inside The 2007 E For All Expo
"Dubbed for some time as the legitimate successor to the spectacle that was pre-2007 E3, IDG's E for All has begun, and Gamasutra's Brandon Sheffield is on hand to present his day-one impressions of the Los Angeles-based consumer event, from publisher to consumer attendance."

- - Postmortem: Black Rock Studios' MotoGP'07
"In this Gamasutra-exclusive postmortem, David Jefferies of UK-based Black Rock Studios (formerly known as Climax Racing) follows up last year's postmortem of MotoGP'06 with an honest look at this year's Xbox 360 racing title, covering optimization, frontend, crowd systems and more."

- Survey: Code Outsourcing Rising Despite High Vendor Turnover
"According to a new Amritt Ventures report, while coding and QA outsourcing is on the rise, 27 percent of developers have fired three or more outsourcing vendors over the past year. Gamasutra talked to Amritt's Gunjan Bagla to learn what more can be done to better foster overseas relationships."

- Q&A: Iain Simons On Building A Better GameCity
"How do you create a gaming event without a focus on playing games? The same way you hold a book festival without sitting around reading books, says GameCity director Iain Simons, who explains how this year's Oct. 24-28th Nottingham event will again see a broader focus on experiencing games as culture."

Game Development: The Copper Bullet List

- Over at the descriptively named GameDevBlog, Torpex Games' Jamie Fristrom (he who is doing Schizoid for Xbox Live Arcade) has posted something called 'The Copper Bullet List' in his 'Manager In A Strange Land' series, and it's basically, uhh, a cheat sheet for making high quality video games if you're a developer, somewhat based on The Joel Test.

And top of the list, unsurprisingly, is: "The key to a succesful team: people, people, people. Try to work with people who are better than you. There's a large body of literature on how to do this - too much to go into here. But what's usually worked for us has often bordered on nepotism, working with friends and friends of friends - friends whom we know are very smart and talented." Even working in game media, as I appear to do, I agree wholeheartedly with this comment.

There are plenty of other good ones, but staying with the floaty-smart ones that will fit in one paragraph: "Keep communication open; try to involve everyone in decisions. Sometimes you'll get a lead who'll say "You went around me!" or "You went over my head!" when two others on the team talk without consulting them first - they'll want to implement a chain-of-command and make sure they're always passing messages, the hub of a game of post office. This is an attitude that must stop. People on the team need to talk, and leads should only get upset when one of their guys actually go off task for someone else without permission."

GameSetLinks: Brutal Star... Lemmyverse?

- Yeek, Friday evening deserves some extremely, more averagely than normal random links, and indeed, this is what ye shall receive, GameSetWatch readers. I bring you... hellfire:

- Those cunning chaps at XBLArcade.com have spotted that Reflexive's next XBLA title will be Axiom: Overdrive, thanks to some 'internet Matlocking': "Yet another discovery I made while browsing the IGF entries was the identity of Reflexive Entertainment's next XBLA game. Reflexive was responsible for the game Ricochet Lost Worlds on the original Xbox version of XBLA and also for Wik: Fable of Souls (a personal favorite)." There's a screenshot up, too (pictured above), and it looks agreeably bonkers.

- Am presuming that you have all checked out the Brutal Legend trailer by now. If you have not, do so now. A word of wisdom from creator Tim Schafer on the Double Fine announce page: "Growing up in a small town, looking at the same old things every day--the kids you know in school, the teachers, the streets, your room—you start to wonder, “Is this really all there is?” And Heavy Metal, just like fantasy, science fiction, and video games, says, “No. There are worlds out there that you can’t even imagine.”"

- A little more synchronicity here - Kyle Orland's 'Media Coverage' column discusses the ethics of freebies in game journalism: "Also, I know game T-shirts are a staple here, but please, please, PLEASE don't wear them to official reporting events." And Matt at Curmudgeon Gamer weighs in too: "Research in human behavior has shown that even small gifts and ones without restrictions can influence actions without being tied to explicit demands." So journalists, please move to your airtight containers, starting... now!

- Over at Canada.com, they have an intelligent news story about the rise of indie games, referencing the IGF and IndieGames.com (ok, that's why I noticed), but also contributing bare truth such as: "Without nail-biting over marketability and bottom lines, [the indie scene is] an environment where real art can be made. Of course, it's also an environment where real crap can be - and usually is - made; such is the nature of all human creative activity." Yay crap!

- Lovably eccentric game site editor awards continue to flow in James Mielke's direction (for weblog posts like this, if nothing else), and now I see that he's been working with Sega to set up a special 1UP.com Platinum Cup on Phantasy Star Universe, which has a special page on the official PSU website and everything. Though I have a soft spot for the Rappy (especially poached with a side salad), this is perhaps going too far. Oh wait, here's the best bit: "'Talk to hal in the club on the third floor of the GUARDIANS Colony to go to the Items Trading Post, and see Shane Bettenhausen from 1Up.com! There you can exchange Rappy feathers for various items." Does this mean Shane has to go on sabbatical to do all that manual item exchange labor?

- Finally, I know that the Big Daddies from BioShock are the signature gaming 'villain' of the moment, at least from an art direction standpoint, but we at GSW think we've found an even scarier post-apocalyptic antagonist - and one that's ripe for a game of its own. Look at the evil stare! He's clearly steeling himself to cause havoc on a global scale! (On second thoughts, he's probably already penciled in for the next Disaster Report sequel anyhow.)

October 19, 2007

GameSetComment: Inside The GDC 2008 Advisory Board

- So, many of you may be aware that Game Developers Conference (which my colleagues in the CMP Game Group run every year) has an advisory board - and a pretty impressive set of industry folks are on it, too, from Maxis' Chris Hecker through Blizzard's Rob Pardo to Microsoft's Laura Fryer and Cerny Games' Mark Cerny.

But what isn't discussed too much - other than Dave Perry taking some pictures of last year's meeting, and it being mentioned in interviews - is that the GDC Advisory Board is an incredibly active, conscientious and smart set of people, who take a hands-on role in working out what lectures appear at GDC every year. In fact, multiple board members individually rate each of the (hundreds of) submitted lectures ahead of helping to pick them, and there are lengthy in-person meetings each year to decide what appears at the Conference.

On Thursday, I had the chance to go and hang out with the Advisory Board as part of their annual meeting in the Bay Area, as they looked in detail at the Design Track and other parts of next year's GDC, after having previously met and then rated the submissions. Though the lecture statuses are obviously confidential and in-progress right now (I believe the first set of accepted lectures will be appearing on the GDC site in the next couple of weeks), I was struck by how thoughtful, careful, and empirical the process of picking lectures is.

- In particular, the Board takes a really deliberate, holistic view of the submissions. Attendee ratings for multiple previous Game Developers Conference speeches by the same speaker are taken into account when thinking about this year's submissions, and Advisory Board members are assigned individual outreach to any speakers who have an awesome concept that might need some more presentation or focus tweaking. And I think the result is a diverse and practical set of lectures.

Now, this isn't just meant to be a 'rah rah' post saying how wonderful the GDC is. But when you get senior folks from Microsoft, Sony, Blizzard, EA, Ubisoft, Square Enix and more sitting down together and working out what lectures the community should hear in an egalitarian way - I don't think this is really done anywhere else.

And where these members - for which there are several new folks this year - are not even being remotely precious about whether those lectures are from their own company or not - only worrying about whether the GDC attendee would appreciate them - then that's good news, abstractly. (Also, they kindly let me interject occasionally - which is nice. Also, they had Haagen-Dazs ice-cream.)

Anyhow, look out for the first GDC 2008 lecture approvals in the near-ish future - and there's some pretty droolworthy stuff in there. (Pics from GDC 2007 advisory board, thanks Dave!)

The Rise Of The Free Game - What Does It Mean?

- Serendipitously enough, I was intending to post Jamie Cheng's latest Klei Entertainment blog piece, called 'Disruptive Technology: Free Online Games', and then we happened to run Kyle Orland's 'The Flash Game Business: Making A Living Online?' over at Gamasutra - and now I can make a post with both of them in, huzzah!

In Jamie's piece, the game-biz centric gem is the first paragraph: "Most of you are probably familiar with the notion of low-end Disruptive Technology. In a nutshell, it happens when products focus on the least demanding, least profitable customers in a market... Eventually, the entrants create more value than is needed for the low-end customers, and the product moves up-market, stealing market share from the incumbent. Because they were forced to innovate and create better value-add with lower costs, the entrants give better value to the encumbent’s mid-value customers, and the encumbents are forced to serve an ever-shrinking high-end market." Hear that, AAA $20 million games?

So, Cheng claims, this is exactly what's happening with free online Flash games, and Orland's article is talking about that precise move upmarket, though the biz model is still extremely nascent: "Kongregate's [Jim] Greer thinks that Flash games won't really get out of the gaming ghetto until developers are able to charge for them. As it stands now, the advertising and sponsorship money involved is just too small. 'Let's say Armor Games gives you a sponsorship for $2,000. You get another $1,000 from ad revenue, another $1,500 from prize money, maybe Miniclip licenses your game for $5,000... you might make $10,000 to $15,000 on your Flash game -- and that's a really successful Flash game.'" So we still have a ways to go here.

Wright's Cannonball Run Past Unearthed

- Over at Wired, they have a really neat article discussing how SimCity/The Sims designer Will Wright competed and won the 'U.S. Express' race across America in 1980, making it from Brooklyn to Santa Monica in first place after "...33 hours and 9 minutes of nonstop driving."

The race, which is the subject of a new documentary called 32 Hours 7 Minutes (the time of the all-time record holder in a subsequent year!), was held for the first time in that year, and the article explains that Wright and co-driver Rick Doherty "...made sure they were well prepared for the journey, outfitting the Mazda [RX-7] with a roll cage and a larger fuel tank, as well as bringing along night vision goggles, radar detectors and a fridge."

Although "...Wright tried the night vision once, but quickly abandoned the idea", the duo still won, and apparently: "Wright competed only once in the race. He's very low-key about it, talking about it with a kind of "hey, that was neat" attitude. "Cars are my life," he says by way of explanation." The Wired article page has a couple of videos of Wright discussing his victory today, and showing off his car gadgets then, and it's entirely entertaining.

October 18, 2007

The Flow Of Intentional Gameplay - Or Why Wii Wins

- Game developer Kyle Wilson, whose blog, GameArchitect.net, has some really interesting essays on it, has just posted another, 'The Flow of Intentional Gameplay (or why the Wii is winning, yet people still don't play Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock)' - long title, crazy subject!

However, while a complex piece, it defines some of the vital and core problems in the game industry today, particularly in this section: "The more interesting reason for the Wii's success is the Wii Remote, the Wii's unique motion-sensitive controller. The Xbox 360 and the PS3 both come with slight variations on the standard modern console controller. The design of the modern controller--D-pad, two thumbsticks, front triggers--is effectively unchanged since Sony released the Dual Analog Controller ten years ago. And the design of the modern console controller is terrible."

He continues (and this isn't incredibly new, but it is expressed with clarity): "The player makes the most precise movements that any game requires by guiding sensitive analog joysticks--with his thumbs. No wonder the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 aren't selling as well as their predecessors. They're essentially selling to a subset of their previous audience: young men who are so interested in games that they're willing to struggle through the clumsy all-thumbs interface necessary to play them. Meanwhile, Nintendo has broadened their audience with games that offer the player a more natural instrument with which to express his intention. The player can control the game."

There's lots more sophisticated elements to the essay, which varies wildly across talk of game difficulty, violence in games, and 'the hierarchy of loops' in gameplay - but overall, the point is made that: "A great game provides a player with clear goals. From the goals he's given, the player forms a hierarchy of intentions." And guess what? The Wii does the best job of letting an average citizen reach those goals through executing on his intentions right now, because waving is easier than thumbing.

TIGSource's B Game Hunt Topped By Cottage Of Doom

- We've previously reported on TIGSource's very fun 'B Game Competition', in which "...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'. And - yay, looks like they've worked out who won.

As Derek Yu writes on the Halloween-enhanced site: "And the winner is… (dun dun dun) Cottage of Doom, by haowan! This zombie survival game interpreted the theme well on a number of levels, from the theme, to the presentation, to the game mechanics. To top it off, it’s an incredibly fun game. Congratulations, man!"

Also notable from the TIGSource post and the mouth of Yu: " For our first competition, it was a rollicking success. All 29 games had something unique about it that was worth playing to see. If you haven’t tried them out, please do! And be sure to check out the Random Gnome’s 3-part write-up on the competition, as well as TIGSource and Indygamer editor Terry’s picks from awhile ago! Thanks, guys!"

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Pet Projects

-[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.]

We’ve discussed before the ways that hentai games tend to rely on archetypes to make the impossible possible. Because the common h-game protagonist tends to be a regular, shy young boy – studious, socially awkward, perhaps a bit insecure – only a coup of fate would put him in such intimate contact with a selection of beautiful women. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but Let’s Meow Meow! is not one of these.

In fact, Let’s Meow Meow!, which revolves around a subservient cat girl and a host of other strange creatures from her homeworld, takes both archetypes and fantasy to an unusual extreme. It only makes sense, though – girls with cat ears, or rabbit ears, or puppy ears don’t actually exist, of course, so it takes more than a little stretch of the imagination to create an entire plausibility background for a rather long game employing all of these and more.

Highly fetishistic, anti-realistic, silly bubblegum – Let’s Meow Meow! is all of these and more. But is it really so strange?

The game casts you as Ibuki, a humbly appointed student who keeps to himself, generally – save for his unusual compassion for stray cats, which he feeds dutifully with the leftovers from the restaurant where he’s employed (by a blonde, massively-endowed and sweet female manager, of course).

-All of this kindness to felines won’t go unrewarded, of course; the game begins with a visit from the “Cat God,” a bizarre comedic figure resembling a traditional lucky cat statue. The Cat God tells Ibuki he will grant him any single wish, from riches to world domination. Ibuki, whose walls are festooned with posters of cat-eared anime characters, asks the Cat God to bring him a cat girl. Shortly thereafter, Mikan -- a girl with furry ears, a tail, and a bell around her neck – appears naked in a cardboard box outside of Ibuki’s house.

Inheriting a mansion, bathhouse, harem or restaurant staffed by gorgeous waitresses, or tumbling outright through the aether between this world and the next into a mysterious dimension of gorgeous ladies, are regular occurrences, in terms of implausible exposition intended to launch your mild-mannered everyman into a sexual fracas. But the exposition of Let’s Meow Meow is even more ridiculous.

Funny thing is – well, it’s kind of funny, and humor and sexuality aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Despite a very highly awkward scene very early in the game revolving around a misinterpretation of the word “milk” (use your imagination), a possibly intentional tongue-in-cheek send-up of another not-unusual hentai archetype about the nourishment of alien women, the rest of the game is somewhat charming, if conventional. There’s even the archetype of the childhood friend in the form of Nanami Aoba, who’s also the daughter of your landlord, and is willing to punch you often for your totally irrational lechery toward naked fantasy women. High moment: Ibuki goes online to research the Cat Kingdom, from whence Mikan says she comes, and discovers an egocentric personal web page belonging the lucky cat statue Cat God, and featuring pictures of him in a variety of emotional or self-aggrandizing poses.

-As Ibuki adjusts to life with Mikan early in the story, it soon becomes apparent that the wiggling cat ears and flicking tail are more than a visual thrill for a specific niche. Even though Mikan is cross-bred with another archetypal fetish – she is a “cat maid,” and as such wears a maid’s costume and refers to the player as “master” -- she has the mannerisms of a cat, too, becoming distracted in crowds, falling asleep in the sun, compulsively playing with things that move, such as a duster or a cat toy. She mews, snuggles, nuzzles, and the motions of her ears and nose indicate her mood.

And as the game progresses, more animal girls appear, too, accidentally pulled into the transportation “ceremony” Mikan performed to arrive in Ibuki’s world. Hanabi is a rabbit girl, and observing her personality makes it evident that certain sexual personas associated with animals are not excluded from Western culture. It’s easy to pass off “kemonomimi” – the phenomenon of girls with animal ears – as some kind of moderation of the easily-maligned furry fetish, but the two aren’t related. After all, aren’t the fantasy girls of the Playboy mansion called “bunnies” even here in the States, sometimes even wearing mascot ears? The bunny girl Hanabi appears in a tight red leotard with fluffy white ears, a tail, and tumbling blond hair, and exudes sexuality in a different way than Mikan’s clinging, mewling attentiveness – she looks quite like something right out of the Playboy Club, only her ears are real.

And there are more “kemonomimi” creatures that arrive as the game progresses. The dog girl is, rather sensibly, a dutiful police officer on a rabbit hunt – Hanabi turns out to be a thief on the run. And of course, since those who buy Let’s Meow Meow! are probably most interested in cats, there are two more of those – while Mikan, cute and playful, demonstrates the best traits associated with cats, Kohaku is an embodiment of the worst – lazy, aloof and distractible. There is also a robotic cat girl, on loan to the police officer, to assist in tracking Hanabi down. The robot, Koboshi, is a bit of an interesting one, an archetype of the features that might be considered “cute” about androids – uncomprehending of humanity and mechanically unreliable to the point of endearment. Think C3PO, only female and sexy. And with cat ears.

Of course, the choices you make in the game will determine which of the creatures stays with you. Though all of the other girls have stumbled into Ibuki’s world by accident, Mikan alone came intentionally and willingly – abandoning the lonesome cat girl in favor of a more attractive creature feels like a little bit of a crime, and the game will exploit your “aww! Cute kitty!” reflex at every turn. The aggressive Nanami had to be convinced beyond obvious envy to allow Mikan to stay in your apartment; when she arrives to find bunny girl Hanabi there as well, her anger frightens the girls, who hide like tiny animals would – though Hanabi’s mature and womanly look is contrasted to rather nice effect with the fact that she tries to hide under the table, especially when she can’t fit her voluptuous bottom, fluffy tail and all, underneath.

That’s a trend throughout the game – the potential mates behave somewhat like a caricature of animals – and the rest of the way, a mockery of women. Though Ibuki takes great pains to remind himself that the subservient cat-maid Mikan is a girl, not a pet, the implication is clear. Girls with animal features aren’t just sexualized by archetypal traits of the animals they represent, but by the fact that all of these furry animals -- puppies, kittens, bunnies -- are pets, and the evolutionary superiority of mankind is translated into the superiority of the only male in this scenario, who’s got women licking his face and cuddling at his feet like cats and dogs. It’s a vapid fantasy, but self-consciously humorous, and errs on the side of being more charming than not.

[Special thanks to JList for providing us the game for review in this column—you can purchase the game or check out more NSFW screenshots at their site.]

[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.]

October 17, 2007

GameHotel Sets Up In Zurich, Tells Us Just In Time

- This is a little bit close to the event, and we missed the first announcement 3 or 4 months back, but Bruno and Tina of the TNC Network, producers of GameHotel are putting on a new hybrid event in Zurich on October 19th and 20th.

As noted in the press release they sent over, GameHotel is a 'cross-media production' company that held a pretty interesting 'show'-type event at Game Developers Conference 2004 here in California, and has done various other carefully picked, game culture-aware events since at multiple European venues.

In Zurich this time, there's both a show and 'grand game battle' "...featuring Jade Raymond (Assassin's Creed), Cevat Yerli (Crysis), Gareth Wilson (Project Gotham Racing 4), Doug Church (LMNO / The Steven Spielberg project), and Alex Rigopulos (RockBand)", as well as a two-day game conference featuring a number of the same people, as well as ARG expert Adrian Hon and various local notables.

The GameHotel events tend to be bright, diverse, and very European, so it should be a fun time! Anyhow, if there are any GSW readers in the area who might be attending, tell us - we wouldn't mind some coverage for GameSetWatch/Gamasutra. Also coming soon on the ol' GameHotel radar, we apparently have: "GAMEHOTEL 'SEASON FIVE'. December 7-8, Paris. The new edition of the legendary Paris Extravaganza. GAMEHOTEL 'THINK TANK'. January 2008." The latter of these sounds... thinkytanky!

GameSetMicroLinks: Cake Or Death?

- Aha, the GameSetMicroLinks are upon us again, and they include an inevitable ode to Portal, as well as some 'state of the fighting game scene' talk and various other fripperies, as follows:

- Of course, everyone loves Portal (including the Rock Paper Shotgun folks, who are already turning their freezers into Weighted Companion Cubes), but the Schlaghund's Playground blog has a detailed, intelligent critique of Valve's grav-'em-up, for example: "Portal is a clear tribute to player ingenuity and an allegory for the gamer’s struggle to be treated as more than an automaton - in both the mainstream media and the mainstream design philosophy." Vaaguely spoiler-y, but v.readable.

- Over at Grey Goo Games, they've pointed out that the latest issue of Playboy has a 'video game blowout', and as they say: "For those of you without the latest issue on hand there are additional extended interviews on Playboy’s website" - including ones with Phil Harrison, Dave Jaffe, Tim Schafer, and more - and all of which are extremely readable. Uhh... go Playboy?

- A couple of folks have referenced Valleywag's rather amusing 'Field Guide: The Six Types Of Journalists (And How To Deal With Them)', which - yes - is dealing with the tech journalist rather than the game journalist. But I'm pretty sure that a lot of the stereotypes fit into the game biz - particularly phrases like: "Being a cub reporter isn't just a career phase; it's a lifestyle." Can anyone list the six different types of game journalist, then?

- Regular GSW readers will know that we like printing items on the fighting game scene, and James Chen's super-detailed retrospective of the Evolution 2007 fighting game championships is well worth reading for coverage on the micro-scenes, even if you're not a player yourself: "I firmly believe a strong community generates a strong game. And what, exactly, do I mean by a "strong" game? I am referring to how a game is received by the Fighting Game community as a whole, not how well the game is designed and such."

- In my native UK, the inaugural Games Media Awards have just been given out, and Kieron Gillen has a slightly sodden account of the whole evening, which had a regrettably PR/profit-driven background, but actually gave out some awards I agreed with. Kieron sez: "Here’s the secret: the awards don’t really matter. Actively boycotting them makes them matter, because it implies the results of any award ceremony are worth getting pissed off over rather than just rolling your eyes. It also makes you a big dirty prima donna who has an incredibly over-developed sense of your own importance."

- Former colleague Jane Pinckard continues to post thoughtful, un-Au-like editorials on games for GigaOm, and her latest is called 'What Can Games Learn from Music’s Mistakes?'. Notably, it includes a genuinely interesting, odd concept entwined in there somewhere: "Kim Pallister, who works on strategy for Microsoft Casual Games, noted this when I asked him what he thought games could learn from the music industry. 'A really interesting thing is to think about the ‘If it’s all free, the money’s in concerts/live performance’ angle for music. Is there an equivalent for games?'" Whoa, brainfreeze.

- Finally, you might know Alexander Brandon's music from games like Tyrian, Unreal Tournament, and Deus Ex - here's his MobyGames profile. Well, nowadays the former Game Developer magazine audio columnist (and old Kosmic-related .MOD scene colleague of mine) is working over at Obsidian - most recently on the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion, which he recently blogged about. He's also launched a new non-soundtrack website, sensibly called Alexanderbrandon.net, where you can cower beneath his visage and listen to/buy his latest non-soundtrack catchy synth album, which is less Celtic than the artwork might lead you to expect. (He's now working on the Aliens RPG soundtrack, the lucky blighter.)

Independent Games Summit: Daniel James On Making An Indie MMO

-Here on GSW, we're proud to present the latest video from this year's Independent Games Summit, which took place at Game Developers Conference 2007 last March as part of the Independent Games Festival - look for an initial announcement next week on some IGS 2008 speakers

The eighth lecture is from Three Rings' captain Daniel James, most famous for his shepherding of Puzzle Pirates, of course - though his company has also released IGF prizewinner Bang! Howdy and are working on the distinctly intriguing-looking user-created online game experience Whirled.

What I particularly appreciate about this lecture - apart from James' caustic, battle-tested opinions on a variety of topics around online games and being an independent operator in the biz - is that he's unfailingly honest about Three Rings' monthly revenues and splits between products, as can be seen in the freeze-frame below (you might want to download the MPEG4 version to see it better, though James explains it verbally!) This really helps potential online indies understand how you can grow in a measured, smart way.

In any case, here's a direct Google Video link for the lecture, plus a higher-res downloadable .MP4 version and an embedded version:

Here's the original session description: "The business and creative mind behind games such as Puzzle Pirates and Bang! Howdy discusses the practical logistics of handling heavily invested online game players as an independent developer, discussing elements such as when and how to update content, community management and keeping players interested, how to approach Beta tests, technical support, and much more - a key hands-on lecture for all those considering making an indie online game."

(Other IGS 2007 videos posted so far are the indie innovation panel w/Mak, Blow, Chen, Gabler, Swink, and Matt Wegner on physics, alongside the Gastronaut founders on 'Small Arms' for XBLA, the Telltale folks on Sam & Max/episodic gaming, Gamelab's Eric Zimmerman on 'The Casual Cash Cow', and Braid's Jon Blow on indie prototyping, as well as Russell Carroll on 'indie marketing'.)

October 16, 2007

GameSetNetwork: This Post Is Not Yet Rated

- Aha, it's early in the week, but there's actually been a number of notable features on Gamasutra and associated CMP Game Group sites, so thought I'd throw them in your general direction all at once.

The ESRB and Kojima Productions articles are particularly edifying, I think - but who knows?

- This Game Is Not Yet Rated: Inside The ESRB Ratings System (Gamasutra)
"The Entertainment Software Ratings Board is a key part of the game industry, but do you know exactly how ESRB employees rate video games? Gamasutra spoke to Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB, to analyze the process and a day in the life of a game rater."

- Q&A: EEDAR's Zatkin On The Theory Of Achievements (Gamasutra)
"Do better achievements in games lead to better sales? Research group EEDAR claims games that with online-related achievements have 50% more sales, and Gamasutra talked to analyst Geoff Zatkin, who explained the findings, how achievements were born in MMOs, and the one 'masochistic' game with the overall hardest goals."

- - Blackwell Revisited (Game Career Guide)
"Independent game outfit Wadjet Eye Games recently released a 2D adventure title for PC, a seemingly manageable creation for an indie. Company founder Dave Gilbert shares the unexpected issues that cropped up during the development of Blackwell Unbound that resulted in it becoming a game he never intended to make."

- IBM, AMD, Nvidia, Intel Talk The Future Of Gaming Processors (Gamasutra)
"AMD, Intel, IBM, and NVIDIA were brought together to discuss the current state and future of processor designs as regards to gaming, touching on the PS3's Cell, the way in which consoles drive innovation in processor design, and more."

- Infiltrating Kojima Productions: Ryan Payton Talks Metal Gear Solid 4 (Gamasutra)
"Metal Gear Solid 4 is one of the most significant video games of 2008 -- but what design decisions and artistic sensibilities are going into the game? Gamasutra talks to Kojima Productions' Ryan Payton about the political and design-based underpinnings of MGS4."

- Opinion: 'Serious Games - Are We Really A Community?' (Serious Games Source)
"In this impassioned opinion piece, PIXELearning CEO Kevin Corti discusses the nature of the 'serious games' movement, suggesting that the fragmented nature of the sector, which includes games for education, business, health, and military uses, is adversely affecting business."

- Innovation in Casual Games: A Rallying Cry (Gamasutra)
"Casual games are sometimes criticized for 'lack of innovation' , but in this exclusive Gamasutra opinion piece, game designer Juan Gril compares classic arcade games to today's casual market, arguing for a blend of incremental and radical innovation to move the sector forward."

The Rise Of The Niche Game Import Bidding War

- Though just a tad on the imprecise side, I really enjoyed reading Jess Ragan's recent 1UP feature, 'Filling A Niche: Swimming Against The Current Of The Mainstream', an in-depth article that tried to explain how targeting specific submarkets and pockets of gaming is a good idea in today's increasingly fragmented society.

Skipping over some of the overly broad characterizations (I'm not really sure why THQ could be described as 'niche' just because it started with licensed games, for example), there is one particularly good section which deals with prices for licensing import titles:

"Gail Salamanca from Aksys Games tells us that a relatively low-budget title from Japan, like Sky Gunner or Guilty Gear XX Accent Core for PS2 can cost anywhere from $300,000 to $500,000 to license, but that's if the game first passes concept approval at Sony, for example. Prices for games like R-Type Final or Bumpy Trot can escalate if a bidding war erupts between smaller publishers scrambling to scoop up whatever scraps a larger publisher like Ubi Soft (Enchanted Arms) or Midway (Shadow Hearts) leaves behind."

And further goodness: "Salamanca says "Midway when they picked up Shadow Hearts, it was a decent RPG, but they probably paid a ton of money for it and only sold 70-100k. A localized game probably wouldn't cover their overhead, let alone make them a profit. Whereas if we sold 70-100k, for a smaller publisher like ourselves we would be like "Woo-hoo!" assuming we didn't pay overly much for the game." Salamanca told us that for an average $50 game that requires localization and voice talent, of which 50,000 pieces are manufactured, the typical investment is a million dollars or more, depending on the quality of the packaging, manual and marketing efforts. A lot of money for a smaller publisher, for sure, and picking up a game, even in market saturated with 40 million PS2s, it's a gamble every time." It's very rare to get specific figures like this - so thanks to 1UP for digging these up.

COLUMN: Playfield: 'The Required Introduction'

[Playfield is a slightly irregular column about all things pinball-related, lovingly constructed by Octopus Motor's Sparky.]

An Introduction To Pinball

A playfield is –- watch out, I’m gonna get technical here -- the flat wooden thing the pinball rolls around on. I know, not terribly exciting. Pinball columns are required to be called “For Amusement Only” or something that incorporates a cheap joke about balls…and I’m not the type to go for the low-hanging fruit.

Or maybe I am.

Pinball columns are also required to start with the author waxing nostalgic about the good olde days. Back then you could walk into any local pub and there in a dark corner, slugging back his ale, would be a lanky Viggo-Mortenish type who went by some nickname like “Strider” or “Blast Hardcheese” or “P. Diddy”, but who was in fact Aragorn son of Arathorn, king of Gondor, sixteenth Chieftain of the Dúnedain, last descendant of Anárion.

And in the _other_ corner, there would be a pinball machine.

History, I Think I Love You

Well, sorry - I didn’t really play pinball in the good olde days (and by “good olde days”, I mean “the 80s”). There weren’t any around to play, besides a few down at the beach boardwalk arcade: Haunted House, High Speed, maybe an F-14 Tomcat. But the beach was an hour away, the pins were often broken, and I never had enough quarters. I did enjoy looking at them, though. Compared to, say, a Qbert cabinet, a pinball machine is 500-pound, high-voltage Fabergé egg.

So let’s just skip ahead to the early 90’s, when a friend and I used to go to this little hole-in-the-wall pizza place that had a Williams Black Knight 2000. The machine wasn’t in the best shape (frankly, neither was the pizza), but we had a few more quarters in those days, and the Black Knight’s challenges were worth every one:

"NO WAY!" [mp3]

The Black Knight was rude and obnoxious, the game was fast, the music just plain rocked. And the backglass kinda reminded me of my favorite Frazetta painting, The Death Dealer. I couldn't help but love this pinball machine.

Aw, c’mon…I also love that painting of dogs playing poker.

Further Down The Return Lane Spiral

Ten years and 2000+ miles later, I noticed a classified ad for a “Black Knight pinball” in the paper. Was that the machine I remembered? I wasn’t sure, but I convinced my boyfriend that we had to go check it out. The seller had a huge garage full of arcade stuff in various states of repair – and there next to a Simpsons pinball, a gorgeous old Seeburg “trashcan” jukebox, and possibly a large crate labeled “9906753” sat a Black Knight 2000 in all its red and yellow glory. The seller switched it on, hit the start button, and drew back the plunger:

"I AM THE BLACK KNIGHT" [mp3]

Yeah, that was the voice I remembered, all right.

The BK2K was in decent shape - just a blown transistor - and at a great price (ah, those halcyon pre-Ebay days). We brought it home, enlisting a friend to help drag it up the steep brick staircase to the house and into the living room. With the head folded back and its legs slowly bolted on one by one, the machine stood up like a wobbly newborn colt.

That night I sat in the dark room just watching the machine's attract loop play. It seemed bigger, brighter, louder than I remembered, like an alien spacecraft that had just landed in front of me on a desert highway.

Not that I’ve ever been visited an alien spacecraft.

Although it would explain a few things.

Too Late For An Intervention

Soon we were going to pinball events and collecting more pins: Space Mission, Creature From The Black Lagoon, Twilight Zone. Our workroom is now filled with old cabinets, parts and playfields. We even started building our own custom pin (that’s a whole ‘nother column). I've played dozens of pinball machines since those days back at the pizza parlor - everything from Air Aces to Zip-A-Doo, but the Black Knight 2000 will always be my favorite.

In future columns, I’ll talk about how to bring home a pinball machine of your own, and how to fix it when something inevitably breaks. I’ll even take you deep inside the tangled, throbbing guts of a pinball machine, like those CGI flythroughs on “House” but with more wire and solenoids and, sadly, much less Hugh Laurie.

Technical, but hey…I told you this wasn’t for amusement only. See below for more pictures on the beloved Black Knight 2000:



(Click for bigger pics.)

[Yes, Sparky is still working on They Came From Hollywood. She has written for Gamasutra and Computer Games Magazine (RIP). She and her husband collect 500-pound, high voltage Fabergé eggs.]

October 15, 2007

What Gaming Needs Is... Some Virtual Humanoids?

- So, video games are already pretty darn realistic. But what's the next step in bridging the Uncanny Valley and making interaction even more believable, eh? Well, Japanese tech blog Pink Tentacle is showcasing the 'U-Tsu-Shi-O-Mi virtual humanoid', not specifically designed for games, but something to make game designers think.

Specifically, it's revealed: "U-Tsu-Shi-O-Mi is an interactive “mixed reality” humanoid robot that appears as a computer-animated character when viewed through a special head-mounted display. A virtual 3D avatar that moves in sync with the robot’s actions is mapped onto the machine’s green cloth skin (the skin functions as a green screen), and the sensor-equipped head-mounted display tracks the angle and position of the viewer’s head and constantly adjusts the angle at which the avatar is displayed."

And so what? "The result is an interactive virtual 3D character with a physical body that the viewer can literally reach out and touch." Further on, it's noted: "The system, which currently requires a lot of bulky and expensive equipment to run, will likely see its first real-world applications in arcade-style video games." There's some obvious applications, too - like a version of Nintendogs where you can actually pet the puppy. Or a meatspace version of Rose & Camelia? Oh my.

GameSetHelp: Two Ways You Can Help Us Out

- So, got a couple of items that I'm hoping you smart, influential, and otherwise not-horrid GameSetWatch readers can help with - both with advice and, my word, actual paid work relating to us here in the CMP Game Group. And these are as follows:

1. GameSetWatch/Gamasutra advertising advice?

One of the things we'd quite like to do on GameSetWatch (and even on big sister site, Gamasutra, should the opportunity present!) is to have some appropriate, niche consumer game advertising on the site. Now, although people like Sony's PR agency do actually occasionally ask us to submit for a campaign, I think it's more under the assumption that we're a Joystiq or Kotaku-sized site - which we are definitely not.

So what I'm looking for is either suggestions about to how to acquire the kind of sensibly niche/indie consumer game ads that would fit our properties the best (think Atlus, EVE Online rather than Sony or Electronic Arts - is there a niche ad network for that?)

Or alternatively, we wouldn't mind expressions of interest from game or game-related companies who understand what GameSetWatch (or Gamasutra from a consumer standpoint) stands for, and think they could be handy tools in raising their profile and making them money through advertising. Either way, please contact us if you can help.

2. Gamasutra Hourly Handyman Help Needed

Secondly, we've been looking for someone to help us out on sister site Gamasutra on an irregular basis, specifically related to those kind of 'handyman' tasks that just don't seem to get done around here - but we can outsource to a helpful, willing individual.

Some examples of the work include - cleaning up and/or concatenating the information on a number of the older info pages on the site (using Dreamweaver and writing-style skills), laying out old features in our new format, handling some basic customer support with lost passwords and so on, and also helping convert items from the old Gamasutra store into the old one (no coding skills necessary).

Most importantly, this person should be available during the week to communicate via IM, at regular office hours (between 9am and 5pm PST) - doesn't have to be every day, but at least some days. Would suit a smart student, or maybe a freelance journo who has a bit of spare time, but whoever it is needs to be a decent writer and also not mind doing some 'grunt work'. Will start out at just a few (5-10) hours per week, but might well increase. Again, please contact us - including background and links to a couple of written pieces - if you're interested.

GameSetMicroLinks: Join The Gondolier Of Love?

- A little Sunday night GameSetWatch link compilation is in order, and this one is a particularly abstracted load of old iron - including some links that fall vaguely but gloriously into the 'game-related' area. Here goes:

- Angled Whiteboards kindly points out that Sega's 'Typing Of The Dead' has been added to GameTap, good news because it's hard to find, and, as they celebrate, the words you have to type in the game are super ridiculous: "Lagoon. Bassoon. Cocoon. Monsoon. Harpoon. And my personal favorite: pantaloon! Not only do I like to wear pantaloons, I like to type pantaloon to re-murder zombies."

- University prof Stephen Jacobs helped us cover the GarageGames Convention (also called the IndieGamesCon :P) this week, and mentioned: "There was a vote of the attendees for best game in the demo area. A pretty unique one called "Gondolier of Love" won - a kind of Venice-based matchmaking game. Fun and funny." Very little info online so far, but the pics look v. fun.

- Worried about sexual harassment at Sony Computer Entertainment's Tokyo headquarters? Very laudably, the company had specially designed cards printed up and distributed to SCEJ employees, complete with a phone number and special email address to contact if you're being bothered in an untoward fashion - as shown on JohnTV's Flickr stream from a TGS party.

- We don't really need to tell you that Tim Schafer's post-Psychonauts project, Brutal Legend, has been confirmed, but hey - the Wikipedia page for the game has a bunch of new confirmed info, including the fact that the Jack Black-starring roadie action adventure has voice actors that "...include Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, Rob Halford of Judas Priest, and Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath." Also, Kotaku's Crecente has been playing the special red vinyl with the first song on it. Rawk.

- Though it's about the music industry, Ian C. Rogers' lecture notes about the problems in music delivery systems is a must-read, because it has obvious echoes on DRM, aggregators, and all kinds of similar things in the game space: "So we have media consumption experiences with no context (desktop media players) and an incredible, endless, emergent contextual experience where media consumption is a pain in the ass, illegal, or non-existent (the Web). FIX IT." [Via everyone.]

- Finally, just spotted the 'Game Conversations' coursework info blog, a University Of Washington unofficial course which is delving into some neat angles on games, offering in-person meetings to discuss games like Knytt, and it notes: "Inspired by criticism in other fields formerly devoted solely to entertainment, we hope that games will mature from their state as the rough and mindless fun derided by parents and politicians and become vehicles for artistic expression and enjoyable education accepted by the mainstream as legitimate and laudable." Sounds sensible to us!

October 14, 2007

The Art Of Japanmanship's Character

- Over at the Japanmanship weblog, pseudonymous developer JC Barnett has been discussing the differences between Japanese and Western character design, with particular reference to the recent release of the Western-developed, Japanese-styled MySims.

Skipping over some of the fun, but nitpicky nitpicking of MySims' stylings, here are a couple of notable points on Japanese graphical paradigms: "As a general rule, which isn’t at all foolproof, and I’m sure keen-eyed readers will be happy to point out the exceptions of which I’m sure there are many, there are three basic types of character: the realistic, the manga and the abstract. It’s interesting to note that the more abstract you go, the less detailing there is, until the characters are almost 2D, graphically designed Dick Bruna-esque icons."

JC also adds - and it's hard not to agree: "Characterizations too differ vastly in Japan. Whereas the West seems to want to play hard-bitten underdog single-army war machines with ludicrously hard names, like Trent Bullet or Cutter Hardarse, in Japan you see more effete teenagers with deep running hinterlands, a band of friends and ludicrously faux Western names." And both of them are tres amusant.

GameSetVideo Treasures: Consolevania's Lost 'Black Episode'

So we started up the GameSetVideo Treasures column, highlighting important historical game-related videos on the Internet Archive's Game Videos collection, and following a look at the subsequently cancelled Ultima X, we're back with a particularly neat upload - a new, but intentionally obscure Consolevania episode.

Now, I'm sure you guys remember Consolevania - those highly sarcastic, crazed Scottish game skit-ateers - but the interesting thing about this episode from their 3rd season is that it doesn't appear for direct download on their website. As the Wikipedia episode page explains: "25677-3 was released virally over BitTorrent, the reason given was that the fictional Sponsors of the show (introduced in Season 3 Episode 1) and Ziggy Springsteen felt that the episode was unfit to be released and that Rab and Ryan were to be suspended from further involvement with the show."

Now, I know Consolevania doesn't directly host this sekrit episode, but Andrew Armstrong tracked it down for archival purposes, and you can click on the picture below to get to download and streaming links on the Archive.org site:

The Wikipedia page further explains of the episode: "In itself, it is not a conventional episode of Consolevania using dadaist and obscure sequences and parodies in both the reviews and sketches. Game footage is recorded in the 'classic' style of filming the TV with a video camera. The alternate name The Black Episode is in reference to The Black Album, an album by Prince, which was pulled before release, and featured a similar catalogue number."

And here's the rundown of exactly what's in the episode: "Reviews: Bioshock (360), Space Giraffe (360), Pipi & Bibi's (360), Zombie vs. Ambulance (PS2), Robin Hood Quest/Snow Queen Quest (PS2), GrimGrimoire (PS2), Railfan (PS3); Regular Sketches: Safe Gaming by Sammy Miller: Portables; One-off Sketches/Features: "In Defense of Beastiality" by Peter Molyneux, The head of Phil Collins, RATSAMAN LeGeORGE: halo cury (sic), Rab and Ryan play Wii Fit."

[Also, I see the Consolevania 'Shows' page is continuing with its elaborate storyline oddness this season, with a post-Episode 3 download of 'C', which is apparently: "Brought to you in association with Nascar 08. Includes a review of Nascar 08." Sellouts!]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Playing With Yourself

play.jpg

I haven't been trying all that hard lately for the simple fact that I'm running out of sensible shelf space, but my mag collection continues to grow -- numbering 6671 individual volumes, if my Excel files are to be believed. A lot of this is explained by the fact that I get everything released in the US regardless of how silly it is, but I am also rapidly approaching completion on a lot of titles...the most recent of which being Play. The US one.

You wouldn't think it'd be so hard to get all the Play issues, but I had trouble with it for some reason. I'm sure it has to do with the fact that Dave Halverson's mags never have astronomical circulation figures, but at the same time, it's not like Play is ancient history -- it only started in 2001, after all. Yet, to get the very last issue I needed (February 2002), I wound up having to beg Play staff 'cos I just couldn't track down a copy anywhere else.

(It doesn't help that Play's numbering is a little confusing at the start. The first issue in 2001 is the "Premiere Issue"; Feb '02 is then "Issue 1", and so forth. The staff must've realized this was a little odd, because the May '02 edition is "Issue 5", skipping the number 4 entirely and more accurately representing the actual number of issues released.)

Play is the sort of magazine that quite literally no other publisher could release right now. That's because big-time publishers, like Ziff or Future, have higher standards for what they consider a "successful" magazine -- to a large company that publishes multiple mags, a title merely being profitable isn't enough. Let's say that Magazine X makes around $500,000 in profit per year after everything's accounted for.

To a large magazine publisher, one whose revenue goes into the tens of millions, that may not be enough to make it worth their time to continue the title. (Ziff, at its height, was infamous for cancelling magazines that still had positive cash flow, including the still-missed Creative Computing in 1985.)

But to a more small-time, private operation -- such as Halverson's Fusion Publishing -- any mag that pays the salaries, covers costs, and earns a bit of extra on the top is worth keeping in circulation. I'm not going to start spouting nonsense like "Play has passion, the big publishers don't" because that's oversimplifying things to the extreme, but it's a fact that small publishers have different priorities from the big fish in the mag biz.

And certainly, I'm glad that Play is still going strong after 70 issues. The first year or so frankly wasn't all that good, but once Halverson and crew got into the groove, the mag really began to succeed covering the "hardcore" angle of GameFan and Gamer's Republic while actually looking like something you'd want to read.

I've talked in the past about how I consistently love their cover design, and their internals are always nice and subdued, too, letting the pictures do the talking. They'll undoubtedly face continuing challenges in the future -- the rapidly-contracting anime marketplace, for example, which provides a fair chunk of their ad pages -- but I hope they'll be around for a long time to come.

(PS. Did anyone keep their copy of GameGO! or Stuff Gamer? I'm looking for both, so email me if you have 'em.)

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]



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