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October 27, 2007

The Duke Nukem Forever Of Machinima Released!

- OK, that title is totally harsh, but it got your attention, right? Hugh Hancock was kind enough to send us a note on the final, long-awaited release of his machinima movie: "We've just released the feature-length cut of BloodSpell - re-shot, re-edited and with 10 minutes of new footage (after we decided the old footage sucked) online under Creative Commons."

Wait, there's more, according to Hugh: "BloodSpell has been four years (and one month) in the making. It's a "punk fantasy" adventure story, about a world where some people are infected with magic in their blood. When that blood is spilled, the magic comes out, to harm or heal... We've got epic battles across clifftops, gladiatorial fights with enormous monsters, cockney guardian demons, love, family and all that good stuff."

BloodSpell itself runs 84 minutes long, and was made in Neverwinter Nights, interestingly - I'm guessing it's the most ambitious machinima ever made in that engine. There are also a bunch of (ever so slightly spoiler-y) screenshots over at the BloodSpell LJ blog, which also includes all kinds of press for the movie. Neeto.

GameSetNetwork: Awesome Posts, Good Job!

-Aha, time for a 'trying not to be too annoying' GameSetNetwork update with some of our top originally reported stories from this week's line-up at our big sister website, Gamasutra.com.

There's a few interesting, allegedly awesome things nestled in here, such as a fun retrospective of the Commodore 64's gaming goodness, as well as Daniel 'Lost Garden' Cook's latest design article, the Cell chip co-creator explaining the method behind his madness, and quite a few more, as follows:

- A History of Gaming Platforms: The Commodore 64
"Gamasutra's first in a new monthly series sees game historians Loguidice and Barton debut an extremely in-depth history of gaming and creativity on the Commodore 64, from Archon to Maniac Mansion and beyond."

- Constructing Artificial Emotions: A Design Experiment
"Veteran game designer Daniel Cook follows up his much-discussed 'Chemistry Of Game Design' essay with a new, fascinating in-depth game design article discussing how to create emotions through games, from stimulus to biofeedback."

- Shaping Your Community: What Films Did, Games Must Do
"With The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, Peter Jackson did so to great effect, and Gamasutra looks at how Bungie's Halo 3 and Sony's PlayStation Blog are harnessing the same power - to give people 'relationships... with their entertainment idols.'"

- Road To The IGF: Fret Nice Takes Guitar Hero Controller Platforming
"Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2008 entrants, we talk to Bits & Pieces Interactive's Mårten Brüggemann, developer of Fret Nice, about his musical platformer designed for a guitar controller."

- Q&A: IBM's Kahle Talks Cell, PlayStation 3 Dev Complexity
"Following a recent panel on gaming hardware, Gamasutra spoke exclusively with James A. Kahle, IBM Fellow and the lead architect for the PlayStation 3's Cell chip, discussing the chip's genesis and recent questions over its ease of use for game programming."

- - GameCity: Frontier's Braben On Next-Gen Storytelling
"How can games become a truly mainstream medium? It's all in the story, says Frontier founder and Elite creator David Braben, who used examples from his forthcoming political thriller The Outsider to show the company's new devices for pulling players in with greater empathy and emotion."

- Q&A: The State Of Nintendo In 2007
"As Nintendo re-organizes, setting up new offices and riding the success of the Wii and DS, where do they go from here? Gamasutra quizzed Nintendo PR manager Eric Walter about new hires (including Konami's Mark Franklin), the Wii Zapper, the state of M-rated games on Nintendo platforms, and how WiiWare is progressing..."

- Language Is A Virus: A Talk With Pandemic's Tom Abernathy
"In this in-depth interview, Pandemic Studios’ senior writer/designer Tom Abernathy talks about writing for games such as the Destroy All Humans! series, the genesis of the studio's upcoming Saboteur, and... the surprising connection between Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire?"

- Road To The IGF: Global Conflicts: Palestine's Egenfeldt-Nielsen
"Beginning Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2008 entrants, we talk to Serious Games Interactive's Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, developer of Global Conflicts: Palestine about his serious game with a serious topic."

- Clearing the Haze: Rob Yescombe On Writing For An FPS
"Narrative is increasingly important in games, but in-house writers are still something of a scarcity - which is why Gamasutra sat down with Free Radical's Rob Yescombe, one of those, and writer for PS3-exclusive shooter Haze -- to discuss writing, politics, and motivation."

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Dracula's Girls

-[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.]

There are some twenty games in the Castlevania family released in the U.S., and the series is relatively simple thematically in comparison to some of its other long-standing contemporaries. The premise from one game to the next is generally simple, and yet the series is beloved for a certain flair. Even in its more primitive days, it added atmosphere and a certain sense of dread thanks to several key elements that repeat in most, if not all, of the titles in the quintessential gothic horror franchise.

For example, the resurrection of a dark lord along with his avatar, a castle so grim and dread it almost seems a living thing, is the usual fashion. It’s usually a safe bet these days that a Castlevania game will likely feature Legion as a boss, that fleshy orb swathed in an army of shambling corpses. One can expect to find oneself in a chapel in the Catholic style, and probably in a clock tower, too. A veritable menu of gourmet comfort foods, from pasta to sushi, is inexplicably dropped by ghostly creatures of myth. Most of all, the majority of the games share monsters in common, and a brush with Death is usually king among these.

But it’s Castlevania’s cruder beasts who are most responsible for its style – even in the earliest eras of the most basic sidescrollers, the elaborate, haunted bestiary set the game apart. Many a button-mashing eighties baby who stayed up late exploring the infested annals of Dracula’s castle found himself unable to sleep, wondering at the creepy, cursed history of those gruesome monsters that was explained in more detail – often one or two unsettling sentences – in the bestiaries of later titles, a cast of characters that, in large part, survives numerous revamps to return, reviled and welcomed, in Castlevaniatitles to date.

Some of those monsters just happen to be really, really cute chicks.

Symphony of the Night, widely regarded as the crown jewel in the Castlevania franchise, added more of the lush and rather gruesome detail to the franchise's creatures of horror – which might have seemed slightly more ridiculous if exaggerated in favor of the beautiful. A gothic zombie-hacking vampire sidescroller could have easily been silly, a running gag, but this depth gives the series gravity. Each monster has always been, and continues to be in the modern installments, complex in its own way, with an unusual amount of both visual and contextual detail.

It’s a strange sort of honesty – with a monster compendium comprised of creatures rooted deeply in myth, history or human superstition, the fact the game didn’t shy away from bare-breasted harpies or seductive succubi imbued it with a certain maturity. Though far more graphically complex, the God of War games also come to mind, with their hideously exposed Greco-Roman Medusae – but unlike those, whose necks Kratos so viciously breaks, the girls of Castlevania are, impossibly, outright adorable.

In a homage to a series whose bestiary has become a beloved part of the gamer’s visual lexicon, Aberrant Gamer presents to you the five cutest, creepiest, most aberrant female monsters from Castlevania. Aren’t you just loath to kill ‘em?

-Persephone
“A demonic maid in the employ of an earthly baron.” It’s so easy to fetishize maids that this column mentions it regularly, but Persephone in particular stands out. After spending time cleaving through hordes of rotting zombies and swooping devils, the sight of this traditionally-uniformed, frilly-capped little lady executing a charming bow is pleasantly incongruous, momentarily disarming. The unarmed Persephone will attack with a little bit of karate when you get close enough, and another incarnation will assault you with a vacuum cleaner made from bones. What's really frightening - and titillating - is the idea of a monster that resembles nothing more than a human girl, in immortal, automatic servitude to a grim, invisible master, conjuring a despair that rings in the broken cry of Persephone when she falls to her knees in defeat.

-Frozen Shade
“Ice-wielding female spirit.” It would be quite clear that the blue-skinned, glistening wraith is indeed female even if the bestiary did not clarify this point, because the shimmering slice of her figure is unclothed. It’s a graceful, classic silhouette, though the ice crystals that surround her – and the huge pillars of ice she summons – don’t make her a promising romantic partner. Frigid and forbidding, she nonetheless retains a touchstone of female concept in the way her hair swirls about the arch of her nape.

-Marionette
“Demonic Puppet From Hell.” In Dawn of Sorrow, she’s called Demon Doll, and described as “a murderous doll that wanders about in search of living bodies.” These nude and ball-jointed blond mannequins lurch ominously toward you by way of attack. It’s not a stretch to see how these pale, womanly mannequins are frightening – and even without their vaguely erotic howling, it’s not too hard to see them as sexual, either. Especially if you’ve played Silent Hill 2.

-Venus Weed
Though her bestiary descriptions and even her name vary (she’s called Alura Une in the portable games), it’s made clear that this flowering plant is raised on blood. She’s not a venus fly trap -- her sudden, seductive emergence, shrouded only in her hair, from the center of a rose is more evocative of the goddess Venus than of the deadly plant. She’s often shown with pink hair, and a cute, child-like face, and arches her body and flips her hair as she attacks, not doing much to attempt to cover herself, unlike the caricature image here.

-Succubus
“Female demon. Invades men’s dreams.” Long-standing mythology is explicit about what it is succubi do in men’s dreams, and the Castlevania succubus doesn’t make any pretenses, either. Scantily clad (a variation on the succubus sprite, Lilith, has no top on), she attacks by blowing kisses, always shimmying just out of reach. Her low purrs and giggles – and the moan rent from her throat upon being defeated – are enough to make anyone blush. In Symphony of the Night, Succubus was a boss, famously confusing Alucard, (who could be said to have some Oedipal issues), by posing as his mother. In Dawn of Sorrow, the succubus appears disguised as Yoko Belnades– the blonde bombshell who is not Soma Cruz’s sweet little girlfriend – wiggling her hips, and only ditching the misleading disguise when you get close enough. In Portrait of Ruin, upon defeating a Succubus, the player is left with the echo of her last words as she fades away -- a low, sensual refrain of, "I'm so lonely."

Honorable mention goes to the beautiful, coquettish little Witches, the smaller and more charmingly incompetent Student Witches, the adorable Valkyrie and Erinys who appear as a radiant woman's face when summoned as a soul, and, of course, Portrait of Ruin's demon nurse.

Sexuality and horror have often gone hand in hand. When taken out of context, all appetites are frightening, placing blood lust on equal footing with lust of other kinds. Charm and poison are cousins -- both figuratively and as fellow status effects in common RPGs, to make a literal analogy. In the high-ceilinged steeples and lushly-appointed towers that form the backdrop of the Castlevania worlds, the bare flesh becomes a sinister portent, as if mocking the character's vulnerability, and the echoes of those eerie, feminine little cries and hollow, bubbling laughs become as darkly haunting as the sound of zombie flesh tearing. The tired stereotype about gamers is that they're all boys who are afraid of women -- but as charming and cute as they appear in a sprite retrospective, the girls of Castlevania are, in their own right, quite scary indeed.

[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 26, 2007

What To Do If You Don't Have A Game Designer

- Over at game developer blog Intelligent Artifice, Jurie Horneman has been discussing the possibly tricky question for larger console/PC game teams: 'What to do if you don’t have a game designer on your team?', if you're making a game. Other than getting one, of course.

Horneman then breaks things down handily: "If you can’t have a full-time game designer on your team, you can still make sure game design happens. What counts is that the job gets done. Having a full-time game designer is typically the best solution for this, but producing a game is all about knowing what your risks are, where to allocate resources (whether that be the team’s, or your own) and how to make the best of situations that are not ideal, because situations are never ideal, and the best is the enemy of the good."

He also cautions, near the end: "If there is no clear responsibility for game design, there’s a good chance it won’t happen. Values won’t get tested and tweaked, decisions won’t be documented and communicated. The lack of a game designer is probably not the only problem in your project, so there will be stress and urgency. Under these conditions, people will focus on their own areas of responsibility, because that is so much safer. The worst case occurs when player entertainment is no longer the focus of development. Every feature or asset is ticked off, but nobody cares anymore whether the game is fun." And indeed, that can happen. Thoughts?

GameSetInvestigation: The Guitar Hero Patent Mystery

- Actually, this started out as a GameSetWatch-specific story, but as I dug further, it ended up being interesting and mainstream industry relevant-enough enough that we ran it on Gamasutra this morning. Nonetheless, we'll reprint it here and then I'll give you some bonus commentary, how's that?

"On the eve of Guitar Hero III's launch, Gamasutra has discovered patents listed on the game's loading screen that reveal an agreement between Activision and Konami over Guitar Freaks gameplay patents, as well as prior patents apparently purchased by Activision to bolster its legal position.

Issues around game mechanic and design-related patents have become significant in recent years, with Gamasutra recently investigating a Midway-owned patent over 'ghost racers' in driving games that has been licensed by several major games.

In this case, the multiple patents listed by Activision in Guitar Hero III's software (on the Official Xbox Magazine demo version) are also viewable on its official 'privacy policy page', with the note: "Covered by one or more of the following patents."

The 9 patents listed are split into two specific areas - one set are patented by John R. Devecka, with the first, 'Method and apparatus for simulating a jam session and instructing a user in how to play the drums', issued on April 14th, 1998. This patent actually relates to the 'MTV Drumscape' electronic arcade machine, which predated the other patents listed.

The second set of patents are those owned by Konami, and include such patents as 'Game system and computer-readable recording medium', issued in 2002, which specifically relates to the Guitar Freaks arcade and home games. In this patent, it's explained: "The game system has memory device which stores performance data stipulating manipulations of a controller provided in correspondence with a predetermined musical piece." The full patent includes illustrations of the guitar controller and much detail.

Gamasutra asked S. Gregory Boyd, a lawyer who specializes in the game industry at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP in New York, on his opinions on the listing of these patents on Guitar Hero III's loading screen, and he noted:

"It is clear that Activision and Konami must have some sort of licensing arrangement for the Guitar Hero series. The United States Patent and Trademark Office public assignment databases show that some of the patent numbers listed in the Activision notice for the Guitar Hero series are not owned by Activision. We can also see that some of the patents in that list are now owned by Activision, but were recently acquired from third-parties. The other patents in the notice are owned by Konami."

As for Boyd's mention of patents being purchased by Activision, a further investigation of the patents originally owned by John R. Devecka, revealed that they have been assigned to Activision in the fairly recent past.

Gamasutra contacted Activision directly for clarification on this, and a company spokesperson confirmed to us: "Activision acquired the Devecka patents in or around August of 2006." Activision did not discuss why the firm purchased these patents, a fact confirmed by a Gorillamask.net messageboard thread that includes posts from Devecka's acquaintances.

As Boyd noted to us, it's clear that there has been an agreement related to patents between Konami and Activision. He explained: "A company only marks its products with patents it owns or has a license/permission to use. Marking a product with someone else's patents without a license is essentially admitting infringement, and that is never done."

Boyd concluded his comments by explaining: "So, there is some sort of license in effect, but we cannot know the terms of that license or the nature of the negotiation. One cannot tell if money changed hands, if there were threats of litigation, or if there was a cross-licensing agreement. All of these are common, but impossible to tell from the publicly available information."

Finally, Gamasutra reached out to both Activision and Konami for comment during the making of this story. Konami representatives had not replied as of press time, but in addition to confirming the Devecka patent purchase, Activision commented only: "We cannot comment on any agreement with Konami."

Needless to say, patent disputes and licenses such as this have major ramifications for the future of music games - and one area of particular interest might be how Harmonix/MTV's Rock Band deals with the same patents. Harmonix itself has several patents related to its music game history, but they do not seem to be listed on Guitar Hero III's loading screen. Activision would only comment: 'The terms of our agreement with Harmonix are confidential.'"

[BONUS GAMESETWATCH COMMENTARY: A couple of other informal updates - firstly, the Gorillamask.net thread from Devecka's acquaintances includes the claim that Devecka "...was hired as a contractor for them throughout the making of the game... they did sue Konami for whatever game it was way the f*ck back when." This implies that Activision sued Konami, but is rather hearsay-ish, to say the least.

Secondly, this Wired article by Chris Kohler mentions: "Red Octane (and later Activision) owned the name Guitar Hero, but Harmonix retained underlying patents on the style of gameplay it had pioneered." But none of these are the patents cited alongside GHIII, apparently. In fact, here are the Harmonix-owned music patents. I have an enquiry in to Harmonix about this and we'll see if they can say anything on the record.]

GameSpot Overseer's New Vision Via... Maxim?

- So, this is absolutely not GSW being snarky (well, OK, just a bit), but we were simultaneously fascinated and Spock-like eyebrow-ed to note, as part of CNET's financial results debuting today, that the parent company of GameSpot put out the following announcement:

"CNET Networks announced today that Stephen Colvin, former president and chief executive officer of Dennis Publishing, publisher of Maxim, Stuff and Blender magazines, is joining the company as executive vice president. Colvin will be dedicated to overseeing the company’s entertainment and lifestyle properties, which include leading brands such as GameSpot, TV.com, MP3.com, CHOW, and UrbanBaby... During his time at Dennis Publishing, Colvin was responsible for the creation and launch of numerous publications, including Maxim magazine, which has grown to be the best selling men’s lifestyle magazine in the U.S. and the world."

Here's the internal memo announcing the change, among others. I guess overall this is a good organizational move, and you know, Maxim.com's video game section really isn't that bad, but it's sometimes bizarre to me how the bite-sized, not particularly challenging journalism and babe galleries that Maxim and Stuff espouse could be waved as a flag to usher in a brave new age for CNet.

Having said that, Blender's a pretty good magazine, and Dennis Publishing started up Your Sinclair in the '80s, so that's pretty much a 'Get Out Of Jail Free' card there. So maybe I should ease up a little. But I'd be interested to see if there are any attempts to 'sex up' GameSpot in its future, in terms of getting it to appeal to a more mainstream male audience. That's certainly how Dennis Publishing evolved from a computer magazine publisher in the '90s, at least - and other folks seem to have a similar idea, eh?

COLUMN: HDR Knowledge - 'Review Ratings Philosophy and Perfect Games'

['HDR Knowledge' is a regular column written by Japan-based Nayan Ramachandran that chronicles his thoughts and wishes for the future of the gaming industry. This week is a probing look at game reviews, and what truly makes a perfect 10.]

By now readers should not be confused that HDRL does not offer letter or number grades with its game reviews. Not only does it inherently carry with it the ability compare disparate titles, but it also forces some to skip the review entirely and check the score.

02.jpg This problem is two fold: not only do many then miss out on our exquisite writing, but often times, readers will never really know why a game received an 8, 9 or 10. One of NeoGAF's long running gags in review threads usually amounts to "So Game α is better than Game β?" or "It's still not as good as Jade Empire!"

IGN's review of Jade Empire is specifically very touchy, because the site, in recent years, has changed the scale by which they review games. The number system itself has not changed, but the level of scrutiny they apply to any game review has heightened, often to the point of rating a game too low to assuage accusations that the site's staff threw 8's and 9's at any game that was generally well built and fun. Now, their scoring makes little sense as staff and guard has changed. Game scores of the past mean very little after significant changes in rating protocol occur, which trivializes one of the most popular purposes of review scores.

What does a number scale even represent? Does it represent the entire outlet's opinion on the game? The reviewer's? Is a score set in stone, or can a reviewer amend it at a later date? There's also the issue of playing an old game years later as a rerelease or as a remake. If the game is exactly the same, should it receive the same score it received years ago? Number and letter scores in reviews will always be a raging debate; now more than ever, the concept has become more heated.

Perceived Value

On the Tokyo Game Show 2007 edition of 1up Yours, Ryan Payton of Kojima Productions expressed his worries concerning releasing Metal Gear Online and Metal Gear Solid 4 as separate products. Originally, the two titles were to ship a long time apart, with Metal Gear Online releasing first, and then Metal Gear Solid 4 releasing some months later. Because of numerous delays, the games are now looking to ship around the same time, with MGS4 releasing first, and MGO right behind it.

The problem lies in the perception of the products because of their timing. If MGO shipped first, no one would have a problem that MGS4 did not contain an online component with it. If MGS4 shipped first and not with MGO, players would consider it a case of bad value, especially when compared to a release like that of Halo 3. This has a bearing on the possible scores of the game. When value is taken into account, games can receive unnecessarily low scores because of its timing of release, such as in the case of Metal Gear Solid 4, and Metal Gear Online.

Same is in the case of game length. While movie studios look to cut out content to meet a certain time length requirement before the film hits theaters, game developers often times try to stuff as much content into a game as possible to hit an arbitrary time mark for maximum perceived value. Bringing value into consideration when reviewing a game is a slippery slope, though. Length and price are both highly subjective, especially with the introduction of digital distribution into the mix. A game available for digital distribution sold for $30, but containing only an online competitive mode might be considered good value. The game is only $30 because there is no physical media, and the online nature of the game makes length limitless.

On the other hand, if the same game was available on a physical medium (such as a BluRay disc, for example), the perceived value of the game would be lower. Most games available on a physical medium offer either only a single player mode, or both single and multiplayer modes. Without a single player mode, the game is perceived as incomplete, and even at the price of $30, would likely be a harder product to sell than the digitally distributed version.

The perception of value based on length and amount of content is complicated further by the differing standards between genres. The Metal Gear Solid games are usually between 8 and 12 hours on their initial playthrough, and normally shipped without an online component until the release of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. Shipping the game at the cost of $50 was an accepted practice in the past, and fans were more than satisfied with the final product.

Role playing games, on the other hand, are notorious for lengthy play time, often ranging between 40 and 70 hours worth of gameplay for the same price as a copy of a 8 to 12 hour action game. Should the game's value be judged on how many hours it lasts, or on how much it costs relative to the total play time? Should a game without multiplayer be judged poorly because of its lack of the function, or should every game be judged purely on its own merits?

With so many questions and subjective reasoning attributed to the concept of perceived value, it seems only right to stay out of that venue entirely, when the audience might find the author's value system deeply skewed. Who is the audience, though?

Intended Audience

The two biggest hurdles any major media outlet must overcome when first establishing themselves is the following: intended image, and intended audience. The image is largely important because it helps to show its intentions, its slant, and its target audience in a subtle but relatively overt manner. Image and audience go hand in hand.

What then is the target audience for the average gaming enthusiast media outlet? Past the obvious and spineless answer of "everyone," who is the intended audience? Is it the hardcore or elite gamer, who lives, sleeps, breathes and eats games 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Is it the casual couch gamer, who checks the news only for his favorite series and genres, and gets on with his life? Or, is it for the accidental viewer, who was subversively coerced into entering the site through a network of links and referrals?

When writing a review, intended audience is obviously important. After all, the purpose of a review is simply to recommend the game to the audience, letting them know that the game is either good, or not. Both online and print outlets do a number of features and interviews as a large portion of their content, but it's no secret that the majority of traffic to most gaming enthusiast press sites is for exclusive or early reviews.

Most reviewers, I assume, would hope that their audience and they are like minded. Many hope that their experience and discerning taste in games will possibly help to shape their reader's taste, allowing them to make better independent decisions in game purchases. It is common to listen to gaming podcasts, and hear staff members of major publications either complaining or laughing at the concept of bad games selling.

Pitfalls start to open when reviewing niche or largely unpopular games. A perfect example would be games developed by perennial shooter kings Cave. Cave shooters are largely very niche. Their titles are usually incredibly hard, require boatloads of practice, and often times only yield real payoff after a number of retries.

Cave games notoriously receive middling reviews from major publications, citing that the game is not for everyone, largely designed for fans of the genre, or the given series. Review detractors often cite the reviewer's inability to play the game properly because of a lack of talent or practice, or even cite a bias against the genre in question.

While that may be nothing more than conspiracy, there is incongruency in the text of the review itself. Is a game that is not for everyone a bad game? Not every person enjoys action games like Halo, yet the series (deservedly in some regards) receives superb reviews. Why then does a game like Dodonpachi or Ibara receive disappointing reviews for the same reason? Does a small audience for a game mean the game itself is bad? This cannot be the case, as some "diamonds in the rough" such as Treasure's Sin and Punishment, and Sega's Panzer Dragoon Saga received fantastic reviews in their time, largely attributing their lack of success to either lack of exposure, or poor marketing.

So who is the review for then? If the review is for the average gamer, then who is the enthusiast fan to turn to for a review that reflects their demographic? Many review sites remedy this issue by handing the review to a freelance writer with a particular interest in the series of genre, but this does not always happen, resulting in a less than fair shake of the game.

What is a Perfect 10?

In every score based review, there is an ideal to meet. Each game is measured against that ideal, and given a score accordingly. The most common scale is the 10 point scale, which is easiest for people to understand, as it resembles that of a business performance review, or a school report card.

The biggest contention in the past has been what exactly the scale means. As is the concern in any rating, what is the cut off for mediocre material? Is anything under a 7 a mediocre game, or is 5? Most review sites now agree that anything above a 5 is a good game, but many gamers (including myself) have a difficult time considering a 6 or a 7 an acceptable score for a good game.

With that argument out of the way, a new problem arises: What then is a 10? The credo that many reviewers repeat again and again is that there is no such thing as a perfect game. If there is no such thing as a perfect game, what is the essence of a 10? Perhaps 10 is the ideal to adhere to. Because there is no limit higher than 10, though, giving the game a 10 would mean that it cannot be further improved upon. Giving a sequel that improves upon the formula the same score as its predecessor seems inane. Creating a score higher than the previous upper limit seems equally inane, as it now changes the bounds by which previous games were reviewed. No matter the scale given, whether it be 10 points or 1000 points, reviewers will always place an exceptional game at its upper limits, as a reviewer would subconsciously review based on its contemporaries and past games, rather than inferring on games in the future.

04.jpg It's a small point, but one that should be addressed. Computer Gaming [EDIT: World!] attempted to do away with scores completely in their reviews, but it was surprisingly met with a large amount of resistance, forcing the magazine to return to its score system shortly after.

A World Without Scores

Scores are not terrible, but they are inherently flawed. Something is seriously wrong with attributing a numerical score to a subjective activity as reviewing, especially when, past graphical and aural prowess, the gaming rating criteria are in many ways, unexplainable. Not many can explain why Halo, a game series with uninteresting and often terrible single player level design is still so incredibly fun, nor can anyone explain why Super Robot Wars, a series that has largely remained unchanged for 15 years, is still so addicting in each installment.

Gaming is a hobby about emotion, feeling, and connection with the medium. Attempting to quantify that connection through arbitrary numerical value feels silly. Words speak louder than numbers in the end, and offer a much deeper look into what makes a game truly great. A world without scores would be a beautiful thing, if gamers were not so damned lazy.

[Nayan Ramachandran loves change. He also loves his weekly blog, HDRL.]

October 25, 2007

GameSetMicroLinks: The Seaman Of A Roguelike, Part Deux

- Ah yes, it's approaching the end of the week rapidly, so time to whack out a whole bunch of radiating GameSetMicroLinks of goodness, spanning Goo, Dead Rising, Seaman 2, and plenty more strangeness besides - here goes:

- As is customary, 'And Maw! This' has his regular IGF entry round-up, with lots of good tips and recommendations, and some sass: "Is it just me or is there an over abundance of “blob” games this year? Gish 2, World of Goo, Goo, Gumboy Tournament, etc."

- Over at Kotaku, Brian Crecente has been hanging with the founder of Soldier Of Fortune magazine, thanks to the upcoming video game, and it's neat when features like this are about the interesting bits (people): "Brown walks the crowded rooms of his office with an Army swagger stick in his hand. He uses it to tap pictures of himself with Colombian rebels, Castro's army, Charlton Heston."

- PlayStation Museum has actually got hold of a playable version of Resident Evil 1.5, the legendary PlayStation 1 title "...also known as Resident Evil 2 Prototype [which] was shelved when development was approximately 80% complete in favor of a re-design to what ultimately became the hugely popular release of Resident Evil 2." Detailed videos are included to gawk at.

- After Game Developer magazine put out the Top 20 Publishers countdown, MSNBC.com did an article on this year's chart, including quotes from me (ugh!) and a hilariously non-plussed reaction from George Harrison of Nintendo. who "...says the company is “pleased to be recognized” but in the same breath said “consumer recognition is the thing that’s most important to us, and drives our business strategies.” (You'll only see the full article if you load the site in IE, by the way - weird bug!)

- The Toronto Star mentions that Douglas Coupland's jPod is being filmed for TV the author "...will executive produce a 13-part series based on his novel of the same name that examines Vancouver's video-game industry and is partly inspired by true events." Starts on CBC in January 2008, apparently.

- Late last week, GigaOm cued off the Gamasutra article to discuss the growing market for casual game ad space, which is potentially interesting in terms of monetization, though Au may be on the money here: "If that history is any guide, expect a lot of furious activity and money spent over this war for casual game eyeballs, followed by the industry’s morning-after question, 'OK, explain again how we make money from all this?'"

- Yoot Saito and friends are back with Seaman 2, which is predictably lunatic and actually topped the Japanese charts this week, oddly. Anyhow, NCSX has the awesome back cover and more info on the microphone-controlled 'Beijing Man' virtual pet game. [Oh, wait, and there's a 'dressing up dogs' DS game over at NCSX, too!]

- The New Gamer has an interesting editorial called 'Dead Rising & Interfering Gameplay', which asks, in relation to Capcom's zombie-em-up: "What other games have I ditched, not because they weren't engrossing, but because the gameplay got in the way?" An interesting concept, innit?

- TIGSource recently highlighted a video of abstract indie title Goo, which is both entered in the IGF and heading to XBLA, I believe, and explaining: "In Goo! you control an amorphous blob of goo trying to overwhelm and absorb opposing blobs of goo as they try and do the same to you.+ Actually, that’s just one of the many play modes planned for the finished game, but whatever." See above!

- At his 'Ascii Dreams' blog, all about a Roguelike developer, Andrew Doull has been recounting Unangband monster AI, in three parts - here's Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 - and boy, this is as hardcore as it comes, but pretty neat nonetheless.

Games For Preschoolers: A Parental View

- The ever-excellent Gamers With Jobs has a new article called 'A Preschooler Primer for Parents', and it deals with one of these important things that doesn't get discussed enough - how to correctly interface games and small children.

As writer Sean "Elysium" Sands notes, kids have different ways of having fun in games: "You’re not going to teach your four year-old to appreciate the finer points of Civilization IV, and nor should you bang your head against that particular wall, so don’t overburden yourself with the idea that gaming with a young person has to involve plot points, solvable puzzles or even rules."

In addition, and this is even more of an important point: "While I am offering suggestions for how to keep a toddler or preschooler entertained, it really isn’t a substitution for your participation. For my son, he has a limitless desire to share every little thing with me no matter how insignificant it is nor the Herculean efforts I need go through to seem like I’m interested. The whole point here probably shouldn’t be to _always_ drop your kid in front of Beautiful Katamari so you can balance the checkbook, play World of Warcraft or get stinking drunk." Or all three!

COLUMN: 'Roboto-Chan!': Zone of the Enders: Fist of Mars

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by TOLLMASTER, an individual affected by Mecha Obsessive Disorder since a young age. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars, an inexplicable Super Robot Wars clone for the Gameboy Advance that somehow managed to find its way into English.]

Zone_of_the_Enders_The_Fist_of_Mars_Coverart.jpgWhen you talk about mecha games, the conversation eventually turns to the Super Robot Wars series. I don't think there is anything quite like it anywhere else in fandom; you can make a comparison to superhero crossover fiction, but while that gets bogged down by conflicting themes and confusing plots, the Super Robot Wars series just barely avoids these problems by realizing exactly what it is: fan wish-fulfillment.

But as epic as Super Robot Wars is, I'd prefer to ease my way into talking about it, so I thought I'd today pay attention instead to a red-haired stepchild of Super Robot Wars, based on Hideo Kojima's red-haired stepchild of a mecha series, Zone of the Enders. Most people know of the first game as 'the free PS2 game that came with the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo' and many never realized a sequel later appeared, and even fewer know that there was a Gameboy Advance turn-based strategy game based upon it. So today the spotlight's on Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars, a game whose existence no one can rationally explain as anything other than 'Hideo Kojima is a rabid mecha fanboy in disguise.'

HIDEO KOJIMA: CLOSET MECHA FETISHIST?

Hideo Kojima is mainly known for his excellent Metal Gear Solid series, one that made 'stealth action' into a full genre. But a review of his other games shows us that the titular giant robot Metal Gear is no fluke. Snatcher featured robots wearing human skin with dark plans and a minature Metal Gear buddy (remade into Otacon's little robot helper for MGS4); Policenauts featured an anime-styled futuristic setting (and from Metal Gear Solid 1 we know that Otacon is apparently a fan); even Lunar Knights, the latest entry in Kojima's 'Boktai' series, features 'mobile fighters' duelling it out in asteroid belts. So the original Zone of the Enders shouldn't have shocked as many people as it did--Kojima and his team seem to have a mecha fetish, and they'll put mecha in any game if Konami gives them half a chance.

fomanimal.pngKonami tried to make Zone of the Enders something other than 'the free game that came with the MGS2 demo,' though. The proper sequel got a more MGS-fan friendly facelift with a badass warrior rather than a small child as the game's hero, and a Zone of the Enders animated movie and anime series were produced, using the rich universe of detail and terminology that only Hideo Kojima can create. The black sheep here was the GBA game, Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars. It was a tactical game, an obvious clone of the Super Robot Wars games, and while its existence is strange, if you were a mecha fetishist, your grand dream would be to ripoff Super Robot Wars, the king of mecha games. And it was even designed by a company called Winkysoft, who designed the earlier games in the Super Robot Wars series, so it was as close to Super Robot Wars as Konami could legally get.

So, how did Kojima's personal mecha fan wish-fulfillment fare?

NEWTYPES NEED NOT APPLY

The flow of the game is delightfully easy to grasp. You typically get a drama scene that gives us some background on the game's universe and characters, then a setup for the next mission that states the mission objectives, and then you can start moving your robots. As a turn-based tactical game, everything works as you'd expect. You move your robots within a certain range on a grid, then use either a melee or ranged attack to damage enemy units. After you move all of your units, the enemy gets a turn to move theirs, and the cycle continues until the end of the mission. It's something anyone familiar with Super Robot Wars, or even any other tactical turn-based game would be able to grasp in a few seconds and feel right at home.

fomtarget.pngWhat makes Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars unique among tactical games is that it has an actual action component. While you get a percent chance to hit when you target an enemy, the game doesn't by default 'roll the dice' to determine the hit; instead, it brings you to a first person aiming system, where the percent chance to hit determines the difficulty in actually firing at a moving target yourself. It works similiarly for your chance to evade; you have to move your crosshairs away from the enemy robot in the first person view, and make sure their crosshairs never meet up with yours. If their accuracy is better, then they become faster and their attacks harder to dodge.

This is an obvious system to put into place for a mecha game, being that mecha anime usually talk of pilots with superior spatial orientation and reaction skills. Instead of merely talking about such skills in a tactical game, Fist of Mars actually allows you to test yourself on these principles in order to determine whether you score or dodge an attack. But what makes Fist of Mars stand out from Super Robot Wars also turns out to be its downfall. These segments are just too darn easy to win, and it's entirely possible to evade every single attack in a mission, even if your chance to evade is given by the game as 50% or so. You can turn these action segments off and play the game 'pure' but you would also be missing out the very thing that makes the game unique.

fomss.pngFor the mecha obsessed, it's worth noting that Winkysoft played around with the Super/Real Robot dichotomy (a distinction I'll explain more fully in a later installment) that they helped popularize . True to the original games' universe, there are two types of robots: Orbital Frames (OFs), and LEVs. LEVs are the more familiar, metal and ceramic type robots we're all (?) familiar with, while OFs are lithe, flying humanoid weapons formed from the near-miraculous Metatron ore. Orbital Frames have intelligent computers that can change their composition to a more efficient form from experience, so these robots level up along with their human pilots. LEVs, on the other hand, can be manually upgraded using money, and can hold items that Orbital Frames are not compatible with.

They both have similar roles in actual combat, unlike the rather extreme differences between Supers and Reals, but how they get stronger over time requires the player to think a bit before each action. Should they let the OFs get most of the kills, as their experience essentially counts double (for the pilot as well as the robot)? Should you focus on upgrading one LEV or divide your money among them all equally? Should you use the OFs' ability to fly to charge ahead, or let the LEVs go first, who can use their items to get them out of a tough spot? The Super Robot Wars series has been depending on the Super/Real mechanic for a while and it's nice to see something else cooked up.

It's also worth mentioning that the game is true to the Kojima influence. There's going to be a lot of story segments, a lot of surprises and unexpected plots, and a few arguments over political differences. In a Super Robot Wars game, you already know most of what will happen and who will backstab who. Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars shows that it is possible to tell an entirely new story in the SRW format; a lesson Bandai apparently learned, as evidenced by their later Original Generation series.


THE ROBOTIC RUNDOWN

The final word is that Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars is a bizarre, brave, but ultimately flawed experiment. The action scenes simply make the game too easy, and playing with them off removes much of the novelty of this game. And combining a Kojima-worthy plot to a turn-based tactical game sounds better on paper than in action, if only because I generally feel that handhelds should have a more 'pick up and play' friendliness, while The Fist of Mars requires more of a time investment to play properly.

I do, however, strongly recommend the game to people interested in tactical games in general, or Super Robot Wars games specifically, who are afraid to make a plunge into unfamiliar territory. You don't need to know anything about robots or tactical games to enjoy this one, and the relative failure of the game being too easy here becomes a bonus, thus making it the perfect entry-level title.

It's also one of the few games similar to Super Robot Wars that is available in English, so if you want to enjoy a turn-based mecha game without learning an entirely new language, then Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars might be just what you're looking for...though in future columns I'll be talking about other tactical mecha games within the average Anglophone's reach. Until then, The Fist of Mars is an undiscovered treasure that might not be a forgotten classic, but earnestly deserves more attention than it ultimately got.

October 24, 2007

Why The Bionic Commando Remake Is Clueless?

- Not that GSW is turning into 'all Raigan [EDIT: And Mare, of course!], all the time', but the Metanet Software blog has a fun, incendiary post about Capcom's Bionic Commando remake, referencing the newly announced next-gen title, and suggesting: "Wow.. this is exactly what’s wrong with commercial games."

Leaving aside the phrase 'commercial games' for a second (hee!), the N+ creators continue: "When we first heard of this project, we were worried that yet another grappling/physics-based game would be coming to take on [Metanet's next project] Robotology. After watching the video, all we could think was “this is the sound of a great game being F’d in the A”."

There continues some plot-related sighing: "“Radd Spencer” has become “Nathan Spencer”. Why not just call him “Blandy McBland” or “Egg”? Is there a more generic tough-guy name in all of history... And “Ascension City”, nice touch — apparently “Climbsville, West Tallington” was too obvious".

Finally, the coup de grace is delivered: "Why, WHY does every action video game have to pretend it’s the most bad-ass, super-tough thing ever?" The 2D to 3D transition is also queried, but... you know, it's an interesting question. Is Bionic Commando's rebirth a great example of re-imagining by a smart veteran publisher, or is it yet another trip on the road to creative bankruptcy? Or is it, most likely, somewhere between those ridiculous extremes?

2008 IGF Gets Record Student Entry Numbers

- Just wanted to cross-post this from Gamasutra, cos the list made it onto a bunch of indie sites already, heh, so we wanted to officially announce it too - lots of _very_ interesting games on this list:

"IGF organizers have announced that a record 125 entries have been received for the Student Showcase for the 10th Annual Independent Games Festival, for which winners will be announced at GDC 2008 next February.

The full list of impressively diverse student game entries, including details, screenshots, and links to official websites (many of which include downloads for the games) is available on the official IGF website.

The 2008 IGF Student Competition (run by the CMP Game Group, as is Gamasutra) 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, and each winner will receive a $500 travel stipend to help aid their trip to GDC 2008.

In addition, during Game Developers Conference 2008 itself, there will be a prize for best overall IGF Student Game awarded as part of the IGF Awards, with the finalists comprising all of the Student Showcase winners, and a $2,500 cash prize for the ultimate winner.

The Main Competition of this year's IGF has already revealed a record 173 entries, with a host of notable independent PC, web-based and even downloadable console games entering the contest - for which almost $50,000 in prizes will be given out in total.

GameSetMicroLinks: Weekend Hangover Edition

- It's happening again - the GameSetMicroLinks that are sourced at the weekend but don't appear 'til midweek, thanks to other CMP Game Group work. So it's time to roll them out now, and they encompass some fun eclecticism, from Splume to Cecropia and beyond:

- Zen Of Design has been discussing the fantasy sports lawsuits of late, and citing someone else noting: "Today’s holding seems to stand for the proposition that baseball cannot “own” the historical facts of its games." Some interesting implications here for video games, somewhere...

- Neverwinter Nights 2 is getting standalone expansion modules, with the first one being from former IGF Mod Competition winner Ossian Studios - congrats, guys.

- Adventure Classic Gaming has interviewed Secret Files: Tunguska's Jörg Beilschmidt, discussing the "...re-imagination of the mysterious, real life Tunguska phenomenon of 1908" - in crazed graphical adventure form. Genre. So. Not. Dead.

- Brainy Gamer has done a gigantic 'girls play games' round-up, featuring "...a few of the more thoughtful essays devoted to the subject of girl and women gamers from various sources." Some good stuff linked in here.

- Arcade Heroes is crazy, and has bought an arcade board of 'The Act' on eBay, the cancelled knob-based arcade machine from Cecropia - here's the finished auction version. And _damn_, these will be rare.

- James Wallis at COPE has a dense article on "...the nature of courage, bravery and heroism, and their role in games and game-narrative." It's intense but interesting stuff.

- CorpNews has some grumpy, bad fanboy buzz about Hellgate: London, noting "...as a jaded MMO veteran, aged FPS player, and Diablo fan, I think that it fails miserably trying to mesh all of these things together." It's grumpy fanboy review, sure, but it's not what I expected as a reception from even a minority.

- Emily Short reveals the launch of the Interactive Fiction Database, which "...pulls together [text adventure] reviews from a variety of sources and allows users to add their own new reviews and recommendation lists, a la Amazon." It's neat, from what I can see.

- At The Escapist, Erin Hoffman has been talking to parents about kids and gaming, as part of a "...journey to find out first-hand what parents today really thought about videogames, and how, as a community, developers and gamers could reach out to them to provide information and support." This is important, folks.

- IGF co-organizers and crazy casual/indie developers Matthew Wegner and Steve Swink have launched Unity-powered web game Splume, which is somewhat of a physics-based Puzzle Bobble vs. Breakquest in a clown car, or something. Go poke at it.

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Journey to Silius

Just slap a big logo over that Terminator shot, Taro.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Sunsoft's Journey to Silius, released for the NES in 1990.]

Journey to Silius is the rare game that’s interesting not for what it is, but for what it almost was. Created in 1989, it was first planned as an NES adaptation of James Cameron’s The Terminator, but at some point before the decade’s end, Sunsoft lost the license, possibly to LJN. In remarkably short order, Sunsoft’s programmers yanked all but trace elements of the Terminator license and turned what remained into yet another game driven by jumping and shooting.

And so Journey to Silius arrived in 1990, in what was perhaps the busiest year ever in the NES market. Everyone wanted Super Mario Bros. 3, and, once they had it, Super C, Final Fantasy, Maniac Mansion, Mega Man 3, Crystalis, Startropics, Rescue Rangers, Ninja Gaiden II, and even B-listers like Dinowarz, Code Name: Viper and Burai Fighter all waited. Silius was probably lucky to land its one-page Nintendo Power debut.

Sunsoft's Requiem for a DreamJourney to Harlan Ellison Lawsuits

And it was partly Sunsoft’s fault. After stripping away the Terminator tie-in, the company added only a simple story. Jay’s father is a key scientist in a race to establish a new space colony. Jay’s father is murdered by terrorists, who, judging by the intro, drop an atomic bomb on him. Jay discovers this and, with an expression suggesting either murderous determination or heroin addiction, sets out to avenge his father.

A tow-headed kid in a white space suit, Jay isn’t terribly charismatic, and neither are the apparently all-robot “terrorists” he faces. Colored in various shades of gray, the enemies could easily be reused sprites from the game’s Terminator days, which would’ve needed mechanical grunts bland enough to avoid breaking the movie’s tone. In fact, half the fun of Silius comes from spotting the leftovers: spindly-legged mechs from Sunsoft’s original Terminator preview became a single sub-boss in Silius, and the final battle features a bulkier version of The Terminator’s unmistakable T-800 endoskeleton. Even the game’s first boss, a helicopter that disgorges robot ostriches, could be a revamped model of The Terminator’s flying Hunter Killer.

The scenery itself is generally disappointing, though there’s an impressive atmosphere in the first level’s vistas of charred cities and dark skies. Yes, it’s clearly the future envisioned by The Terminator, with a few embellishments (Cameron’s world of coldly genocidal machines never included cutesy wanted posters), but it quickly gives way to duller futuristic corridors and conveyor belts in the later levels.

seriously what the hell is that even supposed to be it looks like a big gray drumstick or a buttplugSunsoft had issues

Yet Sunsoft was rarely sloppy about gameplay (Fester’s Quest excepted), and Silius holds together fairly well. Jay, starting out with a pistol and a spreading “shotgun,” finds new weapons just before every boss, getting a machine gun, homing missiles, a laser, and a grenade launcher. And if the enemies of Silius look boring, they’re at least varied and unpredictably placed. Too bad there are only five levels of them.

Unfortunately, Sunsoft was also prone to overcompensation. If a game was short, the Sunsoft School of Game Design called for making it so hard that most players would quit halfway through the whole grueling ordeal. From its second stage on, Silius demands rigid attention, laying out crafty enemy patterns and penalizing the player for the smallest slip. And the game can’t really take the challenge, as Jay doesn’t have the reflexes of the Contra heroes, the agility of Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu or even the useful weapons of Mega Man. Instead, Jay’s weapon meter drains quickly, and he slips out of control when dropping from any height.

And then I travel back in time to murder your family! But I'm NOT a Terminator! Not even a "Congraturations"

Indeed, Sunsoft’s designers weren’t even trying by the end. The last level is a frustrating, repetitive obstacle course, the final boss has only one attack, and the game’s ending simply shows a space colony floating in orbit. If you want to see the accompanying dialogue (which consists of “Father, look! Our colony’s completed now!”), you’ll have to check the game’s hard data. The programmers forgot to show the words on the screen.

But there’s one thing about Silius that stands out: the music. Sunsoft arguably had the best composers of the NES era, and Silius got a soundtrack better that it perhaps deserved. There’s a driving beat under the typical 8-bit melodies, and an opening stage theme so catchy that the developers used it again in the last level. Not that I complain.

Perhaps Sunsoft didn’t care too much about Silius. The game’s U.S. release didn’t even get proper cover art; the box just shows a retouched screenshot of Jay firing at a big robotic bowling pin. The Japanese release, on the other had, got the title Raf World (pronounced “Rough World”), along with blatantly Star Wars-inspired cover art and a new Jay sprite: a helmeted warrior that’s even less memorable.

Like Super C, but not as funLost in translation

Then again, things could’ve been worse for Silius. In the early ‘90s, Sunsoft also made Sunman, a superhero-themed action title that, like Silius, was built on the remains of a licensed game: in this case, a Superman title. Sunman was never even announced, and its existence wasn’t even brought to light until a prototype cartridge turned up in Spain several years ago. Silius might have met the same fate.

Journey to Silius would’ve impressed more as The Terminator NES game, if only because of the lowered standards among licensed titles (a similar thing happened to Sunsoft’s original, unjustly revered Batman). Still, Silius has its fans today. They point to its straightforward challenges, its impressive soundtrack, and the fact that, for a game notable only for its brush with Hollywood, it’s not bad at all. And they have a point. Silius is about half of a great action/shooter, but at least it's one of the best movie-related games never made.

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

October 23, 2007

Fez - Taking 2D To 3D With Aplomb

- Over at the 'Arthouse Games' site, Jason Rohrer has an in-depth preview of Kokoromi's 'Fez', a '2D to 3D' title that's been entered in the Independent Games Festival this year, and of which it's claimed: "This little gem is neck-and-neck with Braid as one of the most interesting and innovative games I have ever played."

It's definitely a cute, good-looking title - for which the system specs imply it might be aimed eventually for XBLA, according to Rohrer - and as he notes: "As the world swivels [from its 2D default], all sorts of formerly-mysterious details are brought into focus. Why could you both walk in front of a crate and also jump on top of it? Because the platform supporting the crate actually had depth, with room to stand in front of the crate." If you're not expecting it - or if you haven't played games with this style of gameplay - this kind of logic is magically awesome.

However, in the comments, N+ creator Raigan Burns has some interesting points: "I really think that this article should at least _mention_ "Super Paper Mario" or "Crush"... I really didn't feel like Fez blew my mind spatially, because I had played Super Paper Mario and experienced that sort of world/perception-manipulation happening. I was already aware of the possibilities; this doesn't mean that Fez is crap or anything, because it certainly is taking a much different approach to everything." But he still likes the game - for which there is a teaser trailer available - a lot, mind you.

Q&A: Douglas Gayeton On Johnny Mnemonic's CD-ROM Wetware

- There are many games out there that deserve more than a footnote in history, despite having disappeared from the radar somewhat, and the 1995 PC/Mac CD-ROM title Johnny Mnemonic, published by Sony Imagesoft, is just one of those.

I've been fascinated with the FMV-centric title for some time for a variety of reasons - in fact, the ones I'm about to list. Firstly, it's one of the relatively few filmed adaptations of William Gibson's work. (Here's an interview with Gibson revealing the filmed part of the game cost $3 million, plus the tech development.)

Secondly, despite being released at the same time as the Keanu Reeves-starring movie of the same name, it's actually got a significantly different script, actors, and plot - with Isaac Hayes instead of Ice-T, and Julie Strain coming along for the ride - as well as Christopher Russel Gartin as Johnny.

As well as all that, the title deliberately minimized the interface, making it one of the oddest of things - a no-HUD cyberpunk FMV game that was a clear symbol of the Siliwood convergence era, but was swallowed up all the same. And the game's director, Douglas Gayeton, is back in the news recently because HBO has picked up his Second Life documentary, and intends to submit it for Oscar consideration.

So I'm pleased that Gayeton was understanding of someone wanting to ask him about a CD-ROM he made more than 10 years ago, despite the fact that he's CCO of online world building firm Millions Of Us right now, and presumably has better things to be doing. For those who haven't seen the game, someone has uploaded the intro FMV to YouTube, which is a good starting-point. [Thanks to MobyGames for the media displayed here, too.]

Firstly, how did the idea of filming a separately cast and plotted version of the short story originally take hold? This was essentially the 'tie-in game' concept, only both the game and the film used heavy filming, right?

The original concept was to create an interactive movie shot on the same sets as the film, but a number of realities quickly emerged. First, contractual issues between the actors and the Canadian film production company made it impractical to work with the film because nobody's deal required them to also shoot an entirely different script for a different film, albeit an interactive one. Second, because the film's director, Robert Longo was very inexperienced and had gone way over budget and fallen behind in his shooting of the film. To tie ourselves to his schedule would have been suicide. Third, in an action film of this type, when you are finished with a set it is unusable, so it would have been impossible to reconstruct everything after they had wrapped out of one set and moved onto the next.

Finally, as a director myself, I had a different vision for Gibson's story. I tracked down the production designer of a French Film called Delicatessen and brought him to America to design our project. I also used Devo to do the music. And in terms of casting choices, they went with Ice-T while I chose Isaac Hayes. Draw your own conclusions.

The irony is that when Gibson saw the finished work, he told me it was much closer to his vision of the story than the bloated version that resulted with Longo.

- At this point, I presume that Sega CD titles and games such as Myst and 7th Guest were some of the antecedents that this kind of project was cuing off. What kind of influences were you trying to bring to the project in terms of gameplay?

To be honest, while i was aware of all the games out there, I wasn't that interested in making a game myself. I have since been involved in a number of video games for publishers as diverse as EA and Ubisoft, but my original attraction to the project was to create an interactive science fiction film. In fact, I don't think it says "game" anywhere on the Mnemonic packaging. Sony was very nervous about this, so we brought in a videogame producer named John Platen to alleviate some of their concerns.

Was Gibson involved much in this version of his narrative, or was it pretty much 'get story and go'?

I was really interested in being as faithful to his work as possible, so I involved him from the very outset. That isn't always the case in films. At times directors want to have their vision undisturbed by outside influences, but at the time of this project no one understand the concept of dystopian retro-futures better than Gibson. And he was really a joy to work with.

Did technical problems end up making some of the things you wanted to do difficult, given the relatively early stage of CD-ROM technology and the slow processors of PCs and Macs at that time? The tech in the game seems fairly advanced for the title, nonetheless.

Mnemonic remains the only interactive movie ever made. It was a full screen experience, with no on screen interface, and the movie NEVER stopped moving from the moment it began. As for the technical side of things, I was fortunate enough to know Peter Marx, who had been involved with the original Quicktime team. He later went on to become the CTO of Universal, but even back then he was a visionary guy. The fact that he took Quicktime 1.0 and used it to create a full screen interactive experience on Macs and PCs back in 1994 strikes me as amazing even now.

Seems like the game was intended to aggressively remove HUD items, something that has been tried with varying degrees of success through the history of games. How do you think it worked this time?

Well, since I never considered it a game, the absence of a HUD didn't strike me as that radical of an idea. I was really interested in the idea of an intuitive experience, so anything that got between the viewer and the story was jettisoned from the first day of concepting the project.

- Can you talk a little bit about Propaganda Code, which was the division of Propaganda Films that worked on this? Did they do much else that you were involved in (or not) before or after this?

At its time, Propaganda was the most forward thinking production company in the States. Twin Peaks was made there, and a it was home to some of the most visionary directors today, from David Fincher to Antoine Fuqua to Michael Bay to Spike Jonze. The company was partially owned by Philips, which at the time had released a platform called CD-I. Propaganda Code was initially created to produce content for that platform, but whatever perceived synergies people assumed would take place didn't. After I made Mnemonic I left Propaganda to work on a blur of projects both in the US and in Europe. Sadly, Code never made another project and folded soon afterward.

How do you think the performances and actors ended up working out? There's a really interesting mix of talent in there, from Julie Strain to Isaac Hayes!

We had a lot of fun. Everyone involved knew the project was going to be difficult, so it was important to have the right chemistry on set and we were very fortunate. I was perhaps most impressed by the performance of Kurt Rambis, formerly of the LA Lakers. He had always been my hero as a basketball player and he did a fantastic job on the film.

What were your overall impression of the project - what were the good takeaway and bad takeaways?

I am surprised that so many people still remember the title. I am often asked about the project. In its time it captured Hollywood's attention mainly because is showed something interactive which was made in a format the studios could understand. However, so many of the principles introduced by the film--intuitive interface, seamless narrative experience, user-augmented storylines, etc.--were dependent on technology that didn't really exist. It is only now that I am finally getting the chance to take many of these ideas and put them to use.

Surfer Girl's 18 Games You Never Knew

- Yes, we've been covering the 'Surfer Girl' mystery, and yes, the self-proclaimed industry insider is tending a little towards the self-involved, with a Kotaku Australia interview allowing her to keep her mysterious airs.

But she's still coming up with the goods - witness the '18 canceled games you never knew existed unless you worked on them' post on the 'Such Things That Never Were' blog, which is a genuinely interesting list.

Among the notable ones: 'A.I. [arena fighting game based off the film] (XBOX, ACES Studio/Microsoft)', which was presumably the cancelled game that the 'The Beast' ARG was originally going to be accompanying, as well as 'Fight For Your Right [party game] (platforms unknown, Z-Axis/Activision)', and an interesting claim: 'The Getaway Online [eventually became Home] (PS2, Studio London/SCEE)'.

In fact, you can dig around in here for a while - there's the claim that William Latham's now-defunct Computer Artworks (responsible for The Thing) were working on 'Alone in the Dark: The Abductions' for Atari, and also a mention of 'GhostWorld', a pretty obscure and neat-looking title that Luxoflux were working on from 2000 to 2002 - Joby Otero has a page up about it now, sure.

And actually, it's just about possible for someone to have Googled all of these games from portfolios - here's one backing up Alone In The Dark, here's another mentioning 'Lemmings Forever' - but you'd have to be reasonably tragic to go to that trouble.

And on the other hand, there's a follow-up with pictures of a canned 3D version of Joust, with the following commentary: "In the early 2000s, Midway was working on reviving every single classic arcade game the company made in the 80s (NARC, Gauntlet, Spy Hunter, Defender, Dr. Muto and possibly one or two more) into a slightly-to-vastly inferior three-dimensional versions. Thankfully, Joust was not amongst them, the planned update slated for released in 2002 for PS2, Xbox, and GameCube played much more like a not-very-good version of Mortal Kombat on flying ostriches than like the original Joust." Dr. Muto wasn't '80s arcade IP (was it?), but otherwise, this is on the money - I visited the developers at Midway San Jose while they were making the game.

[Also, our Girl posted and then retracted screenshots of Freelancer 2 - here's one of the images still up on the Blogger site. Wonder why? (UPDATE: Ah, it's back up.) Overall, a bit of an attitude, but continued good information flow, which makes up for it, eh?]

October 22, 2007

Library Of Congress Snuggles Games Some More

- Over at Kotaku, they have a neat multi-interview feature called 'The Library of Congress Loves Video Games', discussing some of the preservation efforts that the Library recent announced funding for - something we've recently covered here on GameSetWatch - but not with nice, meatspace interviews!

It's noted of the LoC, which has surprisingly large amount of ephemera already - including 100,000 comic books, thanks to copyright filings (!): "While their collection [of video games] is currently small, only encompassing around 2,000 titles that are 100% the result of copyright deposits (as opposed to formal acquisitions or donations), they aren't yet ready to collect more." The Cabrinety Collection at Stanford still outguns this, but it's the Library Of Congress funding that matters right now.

Also noted later in the article: "Research libraries will absolutely need the support of commercial video game publishers to archive their work. Whether it's to help create metadata (companies provide information on everything from the engine they used to their plotline) or just supplying access to those precious IPs, the commercial aid is not an option, it's a necessity."

I think this is _broadly_ true, but companies often have very little time or financial motivation to help out - and with the DMCA exemption, I believe you can archive anyhow, despite what the piece says.

But, as I found when working on some of this for the Internet Archive, it's the data around the game (videos, experiences, development info) which is possibly as/more important than the end result itself, which is often well-preserved in digital form (in gigantic, less than legal BitTorrents!) anyhow. This is what the LoC grant (and new folks like the University of Texas) are often preserving - development materials, experiential data, and so on - a great step in the right direction.

Reminder: IGF Mobile Entries Due October 26th

- Wanted to pass this one along since the deadline is near, and it's a great opportunity to stand out if you have a handheld game and are an indie - we're especially hoping for some innovative DS homebrew and original IP cellphone titles, so send them along if you got 'em:

"The organizers of the new IGF Mobile event, which is open to innovative indie cellphone, DS, PSP and other handheld titles, is reminding of an October 26th deadline to be considered for the $20,000 in prizes to be awarded at Game Developers Conference 2008 next February.

Submissions for the event are open at the official IGF Mobile website through the end of Friday, October 26, and winners of the event will be recognized with multiple prizes at the IGF Mobile ceremony, taking place during the GDC Mobile event at Game Developers Conference on February 19, 2008. The event will run parallel to the main IGF competition, which retains its $50,000 prize pool and current categories.

IGF Mobile has launched with NVIDIA, creator of the GoForce family of GPUs for handheld devices, as the Founding and Platinum Sponsor. In keeping with the company’s philosophy of encouraging and fostering new technology innovation, NVIDIA is particularly supporting the ‘Innovation in Augmented Design’ category as part of its sponsorship. The prize specifically honors mobile games that were developed using GPS, camera, motion sensing, and WiFi elements, along with other unique and differentiating features.

This $2,000 prize will be awarded in addition to other $2,000 prizes for Innovation in Mobile Game Design, Audio Achievement, Technical Achievement, and Achievement in Art. Finally, the title named Best Game of IGF Mobile will receive a $10,000 Grand Prize. IGF Mobile will also feature all finalist games in playable form within a special pavilion on the Game Developers Conference 2008 show floor, alongside the main IGF Pavilion, on February 20-22, 2008.

A statement from the organizers of the event on the official website explains: "We believe that there are great, innovative indie games out there which use the unique advantages of handheld hardware, from Gamevil's Nom and Skipping Stone for cellphones through DS games such as 5th Cell's Drawn To Life or even group games such as Pac-Manhattan, and we're delighted to set up a new awards to help honor titles such as these."

The Independent Games Festival itself was established in 1998 by the CMP Game Group to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers, much the way that the Sundance Film Festival honors the independent film community.

The creation of IGF Mobile, for which additional sponsorship placements are still available, is the Game Group’s direct response to the maturing of the mobile and handheld game industry, and the desire to similarly recognize and reward those driving the advancement of the space."

Alex Handy Sez: 'Welcome To The Hardcore MMO Holocaust'

- [The sixth in a ragged series of 'Alex Handy Sez' missives, in which the former Game Developer editor and current Gamasutra contributor riffs on something or other, focuses on his dismal predictions for the current subscription-based MMO crop.]

Last week was a brutal time for fantasy MMOs. It all began with Yahtzee's preview of Tabula Rasa, Richard Garriott's MMO magnum opus. Naturally, Mr. Zero Punctuation presented the game as being somewhat lame. But in hindsight, that's the nicest possible outcome for the title, as its in-development cohorts have been dropping like flies, lately.

Take Perpetual's Gods and Heroes. It was basically WoW, but everyone could have up to 8 pets at a time. Based on Roman and Greek mythology, it was just another fantasy game where you start out fighting skeletons, rats, and wolves with toggle-based attacks. Woop-di-do! Is it any wonder this title has been all but canceled? Just when Perpetual was about to open up its Beta to outsiders, they shelved the whole world, in favor of concentrating on the Star Trek MMO which they've gotten the license for.

Meanwhile, Electronic Arts' troubles in the MMO world continue with the halting of the Warhammer Online beta. I actually pestered the EA folks for admission into this beta so that I could write it up for a new British PC gaming magazine. But I was abruptly told that they'd get back to me each time.

I saw this game at an EA Editors' Day a year or so ago, and the thing that struck me the most about it was how much it appeared influenced by WoW. OK, it's a game about humans and orcs and elves all trying to kill each other, and the real goal is to rebuild Dark Age of Camelot in the WoW model: PvP uber alles. But if you're saddled with a license that looks so much like all the other fantasy games out there, you really can't go using symbols and gameplay ideas without modifying them just a little.

When I got my hands on this one, the first thing I saw was the orc I was controlling. The second thing I saw was a shaman-like character off in the distance, near a tent, with a yellow exclamation point over his head. When I talked to him, I got a quest, and it turned into a hollow question mark. Then I had to go talk to another guy with an exclamation point in order to complete my quest. Then, I headed outside and found.... wolves, rats, spiders, and skeletons. Sigh...

Is it really so hard to come up with good new ideas in MMOs? This is the 1983 of MMOs, it would seem: the hardcore, subscription-based MMO market is flooded with 'me-too' titles, and even the forthcoming games in the pipeline are seemingly utter crap of the same variety.

The real draw of these games is the social aspect - people play WoW with their friends. Playing alone is boring. So why can't someone take the social aspect and make it more important? Rather than just slathering EverQuest with a new coat of paint and polygons, why can't we have MMOs that are focused entirely on the social interaction and cooperation? Right now, the most we get in this reguard is the party system, and the ability to cast buffs or healing spells on one another. Sure, it's fun and it works now, but it really doesn't feel fresh in any way.

At least Blizzard realized when it began that if it kept the initial design and features somewhat sparse, it could add complexity later. That's why they have a low level cap and so few races and classes. Unlike Vanguard, a game with so many combinations of character classes and races that it's tough to figure out what the point of any of them are - and is another doomed fantasy MMO... where does the future lie for this genre?

October 21, 2007

Good Game Designer - Have A Jammie Dodger!

- You have likely heard of Ernest Adams' No Twinkie Database, based off his regular Gamasutra columns - but JC Barnett over at the Japanmanship blog has decided to switch things up with 'Good game designer! Have a Jammie Dodger!' - based on the awesome UK biccie.

Mr. Barnett explains: "Inspired by the “Good Ideas” series of posts on the Mainly About Games blog, I decided I too will actively try and look at some of the good design decisions that I wish more companies would pick up on (read: steal)." Some of the notables include 'Commentary', 'Full-power Replays', and, of course, 'Portal'.

One of the smartest ideas in there is 'Achievement Tracking': "Whereas most games simply say things like “win 1000 consecutive games on-line” or “play 100 hours straight without accessing the pause menu” so far I’ve only seen Test Drive [Unlimited] offer you a detailed overview of how far you’ve actually gone towards achieving these goals." I agree - would love to see this on a few more games - being a bit of an admitted Achievement junkie.

Every Extend Extra Extreme... Exposed?

- The sheer diversity and attraction of titles available on Xbox Live Arcade has meant I now own 60 XBLA titles, at this point, yikes. This week saw a really interesting downloadable title from Q? Entertainment, Every Extend Extra Extreme, and The-Inbetween has a detailed, thoughtful overview of the game, which is a remixed remix (!) of Omega's dojin shooter Every Extend.

Most interestingly, the title's gameplay differs majorly from the PSP remix of the title: "Every Extend Extra Extreme takes that original game down another direction altogether. The main “unlimited” game has no tiered levels or bosses, but single stages distinguished by visual theme and music. It has that old two minute time limit but this time it throws enough “time extend” items your way to perpetually increase the game’s duration into the hours-long range."

It's concluded: "Unlike Lumines, the music here isn’t just for ambiance and atmosphere. It is integrated into the gameplay which reacts (loosely) based on the track’s BPM and rewards the player for playing along to the beat... Above all, Every Extend Extra Extreme feels to be the closest realization of that Kandinsky-inspired experience that Mizuguchi has been trying to create since Project-K(andinsky), aka. Rez." (N0wak has also done some fun long-exposure photos as part of his impressions.)

Of course, as with a number of Q? Entertainment games - for example Meteos - Miz is more 'curator' of the concept than author. But like any good label, it feels in keeping with the brand, and most of all, E4 feels complex, fully featured, and well thought-out. Also, it has insanely, ridiculously big high scores as a key part of gameplay- thumbs up!

[UPDATE: Interesting comment by Nelson, disagreeing (perhaps correctly!) with my initially happy take: "I wanted to like this game, I really did. It's kinda cool and flashy, but the gameplay is terribly unbalanced. The unlimited game is entirely repetitive; it doesn't really get any harder. There's no challenge to playing it, either, you just hit the "explode" button before your shield runs out. No dodging, no aiming. The original Every Extend was much more subtle. The shooting game R4 is a little better, but also hugely repetitive."]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 10/20/07

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Man, is there anyone out there in the US who has bothered to collect more Japanese magazines than me?

I'm running out of shelf space in the "study," so I finally decided to move the brunt of the Famitsus into the closet, since I refer to them the least these days. So now they lie in storage, waiting patiently for the day when I get a hankering to find out what review score they gave to F-Zero or Terranigma. Someday.

Anyway, we're rapidly approaching the holiday season in magazine-land, and already we're seeing some mags up their page counts rather dramatically. This particular update is a little light after the monster one last week, but it's only going to get more interesting from here on out...

PSM December 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: Turning Point: Fall of Liberty

This is the last time I'm going to be talking about PSM on Game Mag Weaseling, because after 130 issues, this is the last one. Ever. Four weeks from now, once Future has completed its "official" trifecta in America much as it has in the UK, I'll get the Holiday '07 issue of PlayStation: The Official Magazine in my mailbox instead.

Although Future didn't mention it in their online press release, EIC Rob Smith confirms in his editorial this month that Issue 1 will come with a Blu-ray demo disc, and the same team behind PSM will be handling the new mag. It's not specified whether the Blu-ray disc will be on every issue, though -- it's a regular feature of the UK's official PS mag, but there's a lot of recycled material on the Euro-disc each month, making it not quite the greatest thing ever if you're a subscriber.

Anyhoo, this final issue of PSM has two neat features -- a hot exclusive on Turning Point (which has an alternative-WWII plot that actually sounds pretty neat and promising), and a lighter piece covering the two PSM interns' efforts to get as much money as possible off a given set of PS2 games and try to have enough cash for a PS3 at the end of it. Teresa went with the "no credit card" approach, selling most of 'em off on Craigslist, while Tom used a mixture of eBay, Amazon, and random buyers at his dorm. Both don't get anywhere near the price of a PS3, but it's still neat to read their experiences with the shadier-looking game resale sites on the net. Add in some reviews, TGS coverage, and an interview with Sid Meier on the new PS3 Civilization, and those are the highlights.

One thing I hope to see in P:TOM is a larger page count. You can say this about OXM as well, I suppose, but having an "official" console magazine run only 100 pages each month is a little...oh, I dunno...

Game Informer November 2007

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Cover: Brütal Legend

The holidays are good to GI this year, it seems. Only November, and the mag's already at 176 pages and packed with all kinds of game and non-game ads (including the now-ubiquitous full-page Bowflex spot -- still the only exercise-machine outfit ambitious enough to advertise in game media, as far as I can tell).

If you have any kind of decency in your soul, you've likely already read the Brütal Legend article or watched the trailer. It's a brilliant feature, which is mainly thanks to the fact that Tim Schafer is incredibly quotable and can talk your ear off for several weeks at a time about whatever's running through his mind at the moment.

It says a lot about the difference between GI and EGM when GI puts a game like Brütal on the cover instead of Metal Gear Solid 4 or Assassin's Creed, which are the other main features this time around. When it's a good brand-new game, I love all the coverage they give. When it's a not so good one...well, I suppose that's what you get as an editor for trying to gauge games a year or so before they're due out.

Brütal is such a lovely feature, in fact, that I would have put GI at the top of the list this month...if it weren't for their putting Bubsy as top of their "top 10 worst-non-licensed-most-annoying-anthropomorphic-animal-mascots-with-'tude" list in Connect. Come on, he's cute! And Blinx starred in two awesome games, guys! He doesn't deserve to be number two on the list! Man, forget GI! I'm gonna go work for Play where they appreciate my unique tastes in platformers!

Official Xbox Magazine December 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: Call of Duty 4

For the most part this is a holiday-review-blowout issue, with three exclusive scores (including one which OXM scores a 10, I'll give you one guess which) and just review after review after review inside. An HDTV buyer's guide is the only real feature, and I think the Guitar Hero III demo on the disc will be the chief sell more than anything else this time around. (You'd be missing out if you ignored the back page, though, where Denis Dyack discusses the inevitability of a single gaming platform in the future, much as EA was whining about earlier this week.)

Game Developer October 2007

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Cover: Top 20 Publishers

The Top 20's already been discussed extensively here and on Gamasutra, so I don't have much to add apart from the fact that I've never met a dissatisfied Nintendo employee (or an EA staffer who didn't have crow's feet) in my entire career.

[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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