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November 3, 2007

GameSetMicroLinks: Weekend Gigabit Round Up

- Bit of a build-up of random game link goodness again, so let's try to blast these out a line at a time, with headings - so that we're not drowning you in information. Ah, who am I kidding? I still am, but will try to sugarcoat it as follows:

- Art & Games: The Venn Diagram: Zack Hiwiller explains the intersections of film, novels, and games to art all in one handy diagram comparing sophisticated art, 'base art', and 'games as toys'. Simple?

- Killing Lord British: The Sequel: Legendarily delayed MMO Tabula Rasa just launched, but n0wak points out an awesomely self-referential Beta competition, now finished, the 'Kill General British' contest, riffing off the legendary Lord British death in Ultima Online.

- Something Awful Portal: The Photoshop Phriday thread at SomethingAwful.com deals with Valve's Portal this week, and it's full of fun, fanciful concepts of those pesky portals applied to real life. (Ta Jon!)

- IGC's Gondolier Paddles On: Though it's a bit of a GarageGames/InstantAction.com advert, IndieGamesCon still had some neat games at it, both Torque Engine and non-Torque, and Shacknews has a guide to some of them, including more info on 'The Gondolier Of Love', which we referenced the other week.

- Family Gaming Vs. Kid Gaming: Russell Carroll, who just started his Gamasutra casual games column, has been discussing the Xbox 360 Arcade's launch PR at his personal blog, and what exactly this attempted broadening is doing - noting: "Adding kid content to a console does not make it a family console. For it to be a family console, you need to have both kids and parents playing together." Some good thinking here.

- Language Tuition In MMOs: The Educational Games Research blog has a post entitled 'Slay a Dragon, Learn a Language', bringing us up to date with the state of "...professors conducting research on the benefits of using MMORPGs for second language acquisition" - if I was going to learn languages anywhere, sounds like it would be fun to do it there.

- Massively Blimey: The folks at AOL/Joystiq have spin off new MMO-focused weblog Massively, and it's notable both for having more sidebars and menu choices than the WoW user interface, but also for having a fairly fully-featured, comprehensive/mature blog approach to the world of MMOG titles. And hey, former GSW columnist and Slashdot Games editor Michael Zenke is blogging there, too - go check it.

- The Hidden Holiday Season Gems: Sure, some of them will be obvious to you smarties, Joe Rybicki's 1UP feature, called 'Don't Miss These Games!', and it's worth checking out, if only to mention items like Touch Detective 2 1/2, which "promises to bring back the charm and refine the gameplay" after the original, a "...charming, if occasionally frustrating, point-and-click adventure."

- Accuracy In Journalism, Vol. 43534: Our puzzle game columnist Tablesaw was kind enough to point out a Reuters-originated inaccuracy in the Japanese game charts - or at least in the interpretation of them: "Using the word "lead" suggests more strongly to me the actual overall sales of the consoles. When talking about total sales in Japan, the Wii's lead is growing, it's merely growing more slowly." Indeed - it's subtle but abslutely true - we had this wrong on Gamasutra, too, but edited it after the Saw alerted us.

- Final Random Link Round-Up: Cactus has released new dojin shooter Protoganda... my favorite arcade game-related Halloween display... GameDaily's Media Coverage rounds up the month in game media satisfyingly... Matteo Bittanti comments on the New York Times' discovery that "webgames are basically exercises in capitalism"... Hanako Games releases Western adventure/visual novel Fatal Hearts, an intriguing combination... the Innovate 2007 casual game winners have been announced, topped by an ice skating game from the Fatal Hearts creators, coincidentally.

Why Grand Theft Auto Should Be Taught In Schools

- Over at Henry Jenkins' blog, the 'great bearded one' has been interviewing David Hutchison, author of 'Playing to Learn: Video Games in the Classroom', in a two-part interview - that was the first, here's the second - and it's an interesting read on the pedagogical nature of gaming.

As Jenkins notes in his intro: "In explaining the value of games for schools, I often say that "nobody is advocating bringing Grand Theft Auto into the classroom" and go on to point to a broader range of other titles which do seem more appropriate for school use. But Hutchinson makes a fairly compelling argument for why schools should be addressing Grand Theft Auto in the comments which follow."

And indeed, as Hutchison himself explains of his book: "The GTA activity I chose tasks students with creating their own kid-friendly open-world game that doesn't include all the adult content we normally associate with games in this franchise... I also wanted to encourage teachers to deal with controversial ideas related to video games. There are contributed discussion articles in the book that address debates related to video games and violence, video game addiction, gender bias in video games, and health and video games." More 'M for mature' thinking like this, please - if you'll excuse the pun.

amBX Gets Visual With... Pranxters?

- Philips has been promoting its amBX line of gaming vibration, sound, light, and even wind peripheral add-ons (!) for a while now (here's an early 2006 Gamasutra article on them from GameCity organizer Iain Simons), and have just got seriously weird with their ad campaign for the PC-focused add-ons. We'll let them explain:

"Philips amBX Pranxters today entered the game, allowing you to see, hear and feel the game experience like never before and enjoy the full force of your gaming. The amBX Pranxters – Mr. Shake, Noize Ninja, The Glow and Missy Whoosh - are larger than life characters that are the embodiment of vibration, sound, light and wind, representing the amBX gaming experience effects."

Wow - especially make sure you check out the video in the bottom right of the Pranxters page, since it involves sumo wrestlers crashing through walls and frightening Japanese people. Honestly. Interestingly, Codemasters, THQ, Gearbox Software, Zombie, Riot Games, Brain in a Jar, Invictus Games, Instinct Technology and others have signed to do PC games with amBX. But let's face it, what they really need is Rez HD/Rez 2 on console with amBX support, for total synesthesia! Calling Mr. Miz!

November 2, 2007

IGF Mobile Reveals Inaugural Entries

- Some of you may recall that we are doing IGF Mobile for the first time this year, and the folks organizing it here have now revealed the diversity of entries - good to see the mobile/portable space getting some innovation focus.

These span notable titles from Masaya Matsuura's iPod game to GPS-using cellphone titles and even GP2X and DS/PSP games - here's an announcement:

"The organizers of the inaugural Independent Games Festival Mobile have revealed over 50 entries for the first-ever IGF Mobile Competition event, with the submitted titles spanning mobile phones, DS, PSP, Windows Mobile, and even iPod and GP2X, with innovative use of GPS and other tech.

The event (organized by the CMP Game Group, as is Gamasutra) has seen a host of notable independent Java, Nintendo DS and Windows Mobile games entering the contest - for which almost $20,000 prizes will be given out at GDC 2008 next February. Nvidia is Platinum and Founding Sponsor for the event.

A full list of IGF Mobile 2008 entries is now available on the official Independent Games Festival Mobile website, including screenshots and details on each of the entries. As always, many of the top IGF Mobile games will only come to the fore during the judging process - and there are many high-quality titles not listed below.

However, a diverse set of entries have come from many different mobile formats and multiple continents, with the diversity of mobile platforms being reflected in some of the following entries:

- Anna's Secret [Pocket PC] (Jan Ulrich Schmidt)
("Anna's Secret is a GPS driven, location-based learning adventure game for cultural content in the city of Weimar (Germany).")

- Critter Crunch [Java, BREW] (Capybara Games)
("In Critter Crunch, take control of Biggs, a hungry little guy with a special talent that keeps him on top of the food chain; Biggs uses his long, sticky tongue to grab critters that hang from the tree above and then feeds them to each other till they burst, dropping tasty jewels which Biggs loves to eat!")

- Drawn to Life [Nintendo DS] (5TH Cell Media LLC)
("Draw and customize heroes, weapons, tools, animals, plants, and almost anything in the game! Swap and share your drawings with friends. Play as your creations and watch them come to life!")

- - Heli Strike Advanced Combat [Java] (Zeetoo, Inc. / FISHLABS Entertainment GmbH
("Fight as a reckless pilot in your combat helicopter behind the lines against a vast count of enemies at the sea, on land and in the air. With the innovative integration of the Zeemote Controller, a true analog joystick controller, the user has superior control of the battle experience.")

- Hexaxis XXI [Sony PSP] (Darksoft.net)
("Hexaxis XXI is an addictive dice based puzzle game. Line up the dice by the number of the sides, 2 two's, 3 three's, all the way to 6 sixes. Combos 'wipe out' when the wipe line crosses over them.")

- musika [iPod] (NanaOn-Sha Co., Ltd.)
("From Masaya Matsuura, the creator of PaRappa the Rapper and vib-ribbon, comes musika, a groundbreaking music visualizer game for your iPod! musika [pictured above] uses the songs on your iPod to create original game play. A character will appear on screen through a broad variety of visual effects. If you see a character that is in the song title, hit the center button! Faster reactions will earn you more points! Special icons can be hit for bonus effects. Hitting correctly without error increases your score, multiplier and level bar. Reaching new levels will reveal new effects!")

- Nom 3 [WIPI] (Gamevil)
("The revolutionary rotating game is back with its sequel, Nom 3 [pictured below]! This time Nom travels through the realms of the mind as he runs, leaps, and fights his way through a wide range of obstacles and enemies. Rotate your phone as Nom reaches vertical boundaries at the edge of your screen!")

- PhoneTag Elite [Java] (KnowledgeWhere Inc.)
("PhoneTag Elite turns hide and seek into a radical group sport across North America by using the mobile phone as a console for chatting and location-tracking. Available exclusively to Sprint customers across America, taggers can shop in-game at their favourite brand stores for tools to help evade capture and pursue targets.")

- - PlayDetective: Heartbreakers [Windows Mobile] (Kayo Games)
("PlayDetective: Heartbreakers puts you in the gumshoes of a private investigator as he investigates a series of infidelity cases. Conduct surveillance using a range of tools and gadgets, collect and analyze evidence, and solve mind-bending puzzles. Anything to make sure you get your man... or woman.")

- wifight [Palm OS] (Brennan Underwood)
("wifight is an online game designed for PalmOS cellphones. A single downloadable client plays a variety of multiplayer turn-based games, including Chess. Play unlimited simultaneous games against multiple opponents.")

- Wind and Water: Puzzle Battles [GP2X] (Yuan Works)
("W&W is an arcade-action puzzle battle game featuring three skill levels, more than 30 hours of Story Mode with hundreds of dialogs, anime-style intro sequence, cutscenes, extensive tutorials, studio-recorded soundtrack, minigames, and hundreds of extras including art galleries and making of.")

The complete list of entries, including many other notable games, is now available for viewing on the official website. Finalists in the inaugural IGF Mobile competition will be announced on December 10th."

COLUMN: 'Playfield': Pinball -- The Big Lie?


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

“Those illustrations on the playfield and scoreboard always made the game seem so exotic and interesting, when, by and large, one pinball game was pretty much like another in my eyes. Paddles, tubes, plungers…all that James Bond stuff in the background was a big lie.”
-- T.G.

This thoughtful quote comes from a reader’s response to my first column. You might think at this point I would go off about how every pinball machine is a unique and magical snowflake, even Dr. Dude!

But you know what, T.G.?

I used to think the same thing.


Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be

When pins moved from electromechanical to solid-state (in the late 70s), they started to become more interesting, as they now had software-based rules and logic. Just like with computer games, as pinball machines got more RAM, digital sound, fancier graphical displays, and more processing power, gameplay got more sophisticated.

I must admit that those older electromechanical machines aren’t much fun to me. I can certainly appreciate their aesthetics -- from those crazy Spanish backglasses to gleaming woodrails -- but I prefer the gameplay depth that you just can’t get without a CPU. I mean, I can appreciate Paul Newman’s good looks, but he wasn’t the dreamboat of my generation -- we had John Cusack.

I do, however, enjoy his spaghetti sauce.

Paul Newman’s, that is. I don’t know if John Cusack makes spaghetti sauce. but if he does, he’s welcome to bring some over to my house any time and I’ll try it.

We can even play pinball.

No Quarter

Times changed and pinball went digital, but all the complexity this added went unnoticed to most people. You still only had one quarter at a time, and figuring out what you were supposed to do from the little rules card, playfield text, or audio cues you could barely hear over the Fleetwood Mac blasting in the arcade –- well, it was tough. To be honest, back then I had no idea there were any rules for pinball other than DON’T LOSE THE BALL. Of course, the machines were set up to take those balls and quarters as quickly as possible.

Since many people’s first exposure to pinball was like this, who can blame them for thinking one pinball was pretty much like the other, just with different art and toys?

Lost In The Zone

It wasn’t until I got a pinball machine of my own that I discovered how complex a well-designed game can be…a game with depth and replay value, something you never get bored with.

And that game, dear reader, was Midway’s 1993 Twilight Zone.

Twilight Zone is probably the most mechanically complex pinball machine of its time, and that time was a very good time for pinball. The late 80’s to mid-90s gave us pins like The Addams Family, Indiana Jones, Creature From The Black Lagoon, Tales Of The Arabian Nights, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Medieval Madness -- all offering very different experiences. Just like a Molyneux game differs from a Sid Meier or Will Wright game, so Pat Lawlor’s Twilight Zone has a completely different gameplay style from Steve Ritchie’s Black Knight 2000 or John Popadiuk’s Theatre of Magic.


TZ has a lot of toys – a clock that really tells time, a gumball machine that dispenses pinballs, a magnetized mini-playfield, and the mysterious white Powerball. These gadgets aren’t just for show – they’re all part of TZ’s complex rules and modes (see Bowen Kerin’s rules sheet for TZ).

A pin like TZ can be intimidating when encountered in the arcade, and like other pins of its era, it can take a long time to master. That’s why I only really understood it when I brought it home. Set on free play, you can take the time you need to experiment, plan strategies, even find hidden Easter eggs (yup – many solid-state pins have them, just like video games).

Unfortunately, owning a pinball machine just isn’t practical for most people...and I'll talk more about that in one of my next columns.


In a way, T.G.’s problem with pinball was one that industry never solved. For the average person, it just wasn’t worth the time and quarters to try to get an enjoyable experience out of a pinball machine. It happened to arcade games, too -- why stand there for hours trying not to DON’T DIE DON’T FREAKING DIE OH CRAP I DIED in Dragon’s Lair or get to the end of Pac-Man when you could just play a video game at home on your computer or console, free play, forever?

Pinball as public entertainment went away, and became a mostly private hobby. This was inevitable, like the obsolescence of vacuum tubes or death of a Spinal Tap drummer.

If only they had figured out how to shrink a pinball machine down to the size of an Atari 5200...


Still, pinball is not a lie, T.G.. Most of the time, the James Bond stuff really is James Bond stuff (sometimes an Aston Martin DB5 is just an Aston Martin DB5). Pinball really is interesting, and certainly more exotic today than it ever was. It’s a truth wrapped in a riddle, cloaked in an enigma, hidden at the bottom of a huge sack of quarters. You’ll just have to take my word for it. And next time you’re in town, come over and play Twilight Zone.

We’ll even have spaghetti, if that darn John Cusack ever shows up.

[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.]

GameSetNetwork: Cursing The Results Scheduling Gods

- Wow, quite a time for Brandon B., our News Editor at Gamasutra to be out on holiday, since there's ridiculous amounts of analyst call good/badness going down right now, since EA, Midway, and THQ all released their financial results at the same time.

Still, myself, Leigh Alexander, and Christian Nutt just about got it all sorted out, albeit with a modicum of bleeding from the ears.

Getting all of that out of the way in one paragraph, since it's not very GSW-y, but actually quite interesting, we have: 'EA: Rock Band Inventory Won't Meet Overwhelming Demand', there's 'Midway: 'Big Strain' On Wii Game Manufacture Leading To Delays', there's 'Zucker: PS3 Tech Issues Over, 'Ambitious Open-World Game' Coming Soon', and there's 'Riccitiello: NCAA PS2 Pricing Too High, Wii & PS3 Trends Probed'. So there.

And on to more fun stuff from Gamasutra and associated sites, in case you missed any of it - there's a bit of casual, a bit of indie, a sprig of Nintendo, and some smatterings of Woo in here somewhere:

- Nintendo's Numbers: The State Of The Industry (Gamasutra)
"A recent Nintendo investor briefing included more than 30 slides with fascinating details on the company's success with DS and Wii in the U.S. and Europe -- as well as many detailed on the company's competition -- compiled by Gamasutra and presented here with detailed analysis."

- GameCity: Panel Talks Game Industry Responsibility (Gamasutra)
"How much responsibility should and does the game biz take over its own content? Following a screening of Danny Ledonne's 'Playing Columbine' documentary at GameCity last week, Slamdance/Indiecade's Sam Roberts and former Edge editor Margaret Robertson discussed cross-cultural reactions in a post Super Columbine RPG world."

- Editorial: Microtransactions in Social Networking: The Future of Mobile Gaming (Games On Deck)
"In this editorial for Games On Deck, Gamevil USA President Kyu C. Lee espouses his believe that microtransactions, the driving force behind the popularity of Korean online social games such as Kartrider and Maple Story, can be used to broaden and expand the market for mobile games within the framework of free, casual multiplayer titles."

- - Road To The IGF: OokiBloks' Musical Ape Antics (Gamasutra)
"Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2008 entrants, we talk to Matt Verran and Brian Flanagan of Hermit Games and StudioWork3, developers of music-focused action-puzzle title OokiBloks, which pits a monkey against a hermit crab in a colorful homage to the Japanese doujin scene."

- Getting Hard Boiled: Midway Chicago's Mike Bilder on Stranglehold (Gamasutra)
"How do you launch a major next-gen game property on multiple SKUs? Gamasutra spoke to Midway Chicago studio head Mike Bilder about the development of Stranglehold, from overcoming PlayStation 3 technical issues to working with John Woo and Midway's attempted next-gen turnaround."

AMD On Graphics: 360 and Wii GPU Guru Speaks (Gamasutra)
"Both the Xbox 360 and the Wii have GPUs designed by AMD, and Gamasutra talked to Bob Feldstein, VP at the company, for a rare interview to discuss the philosophy behind console GPU development - and the present and future of the game industry from a chip supplier's perspective."

- Casually Speaking: 'Casual Game Portals: The Inside Story' (Gamasutra)
"Starting a new casual game-specific monthly column, Reflexive's Russell Carroll explains the distribution mechanism for casual games in unprecedented detail, comparing catalog and features for the major online game portals and explaining just how they make money."

- Road To The IGF: Schizoid's New Wave For Co-Op (Gamasutra)
"Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2008 entrants, we talk to Torpex Games' Bill Dugan, co-creator of Schizoid, about his XBLA shooter whose gameplay hinges on collaborative co-op."

November 1, 2007

Changemakers Advocates For Health Care Through Games

- Here's an interesting competition - over at Ashoka's Changemakers.net, they have posted the finalists for the 'Why Games Matter' health games challenge, with voting open until November 7th.

According to the page: "The three entries that receive the most votes will each receive US $5,000. All finalists will attend the Changemakers Change Summit at the RWJF-sponsored Games for Health Conference in May 2008." The finalists include some games we've encountered before, such as Ayiti: The Cost Of Life, which "...ses the location of Haiti to educate players about the obstacles to education faced by children in developing countries."

Ian Bogost's Fatworld game, which "...explores the relationships between obesity, nutrition, and socioeconomics in the contemporary U.S.", is also a finalist, but possibly the most interesting entry is Dance Mela, a Bollywood dancing game using dancepads that has already "signed over 2,000 internet cafes and installed over 20,000 seats" in India. Your good health through games!

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Haunted Doll

-[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.]

In honor of Halloween (though, by the time this column runs that holiday will likely have passed), Aberrant Gamer will this week revisit another horror title, after the fashion of our previous examinations of Silent Hill 2 and 4. An earlier also dealt specifically with the role of little girl-children in the genre. As with the others, this column contains spoilers of an older title.

Horror as we know it in the West is often married to a few common conventions that have existed since before the dawn of the gaming era. The classic black-and-white horror clip often depicts a young lady screaming a shrill soprano just outside the reach of monstrous clawed fingers, highlighting the archetypal vulnerability of the female. In recent years, we’ve seen some survival horror titles that wedge their way into a crevice of a man’s psychological armor, making him the vulnerable one; Silent Hill and Siren have been praised in particular for their generally more believable male protagonists, anti-Supermen with common flaws and foibles. Similarly, some of the Resident Evil titles, the third installment of Silent Hill and some others have empowered the female, casting her as a competent, plausible combatant instead of a vulnerable feed sack for zombies. These games have been reflective of a general trend in broader media that has begun to view women neither as defenseless victims nor as sex objects.

Haunting Ground is not one such game.

Easily one of the most aberrant titles in video game survival horror (heroine Fiona made our Top 5 extra costumes list with her porn-star-cowgirl look), Capcom's Haunting Ground places a freshly-orphaned little blonde on her own against impending evil in a gruesome castle estate. She’s at the mercy of a man with her father’s face who wants to impregnate her for some alchemical resurrection, along with his mutilation-fixated, sexually frustrated inhuman maid and an ancient alchemist who wants Fiona all to himself. Her only ally is a trainable white German shepherd, a partnership that has produced no small measure of the sort of fan art you could easily guess at.

Being Watched

The tone of the game is set early on in the expository cutscenes, before play even begins. After a mysterious car crash that killed both of her parents, little Fiona wakes up in a cage in what looks like an ill-kept meat locker. This scenario – the woman in grim bondage, captive and victim at once – is familiar, but with such brutal overtones it’s more reminiscent of nascent horror properties, like the so-called “torture porn” films of recent years. Upon freeing herself and exploring the strange grounds of the dark castle in which she finds herself, a maid, Daniella, awaits Fiona in a warmly-lit little room prepared for her (again with the maid fetish. This is the third week in a row!). In a shamelessly exploitive sequence, the hollow-eyed, toneless and pale maid provides Fiona with a new dress, as one would with a doll – her demeanor excessively scrutinizing, with an undertone of hostility, clear envy, and a disconcertingly intent fascination.

The dress is rather too short on Fiona – gratuitous flashing is a horror tradition, but the teeny ensemble is not remotely in the realm of plausibility. Moreover, she comments it’s “too tight around the chest.” We’re still in early cutscenes and she’s already talking about her breasts, which are rather sizeable considering her young age.

As she changes clothes, Fiona’s being watched by someone through the eyes of a painting. Then, she leaves the room to stumble right into the arms of a monstrous mental defective keen on playing with her as if she were a ragdoll.

Beauty And The Beast

-Is all of this tasteless? It certainly nudges the boundary, but in actuality it does far more to set the tone of a rather dark story with less overt themes alongside the literal. We know now that Fiona is a prisoner by design and not accident; that this is a kidnapping and not a case of wrong-place-wrong-time. But the subtle facts – caged like meat, then dressed like a doll – tell far more about Fiona’s as-yet-unseen aggressors. That they’ve snatched her and prized her, not as a dear child nor something they wish to destroy, but specifically as an object of desire. The grim overtones, however, preclude this being a simple case of sexual lust – the complexity of the gothic surroundings, the ritualistic servitude of the odd maid Daniella, suggest a larger plan at work here, and that Fiona is both a sex object and a victim – and this becomes clearer as the larger plot threads begin to surface. In particular, the overtly uncomfortable glimpses we see of her young flesh, and the queasy feeling we get when we see her through the eyes of her ominous voyeur, are distinctly invasive – far from being typical survival-horror window-dressing, these elements are actually portentious of the game’s larger story, which sees Fiona running nearly the entire time from otherworldly creeps who want to use her.

This is brought into sharp contrast with the girl’s fragility – rarely in the game can she directly confront her predators, though she later receives the odd alchemical item or background object she can throw or push. The game’s mechanic revolves primarily around running and hiding, though the dog, if well-trained, can be instructed to attack Fiona's pursuers. If Fiona comes into close proximity to something that frightens her, be it one of the castle’s inhabitants or something off-putting in her environment, she panics – the game’s visuals distort, become fuzzy, the flat thud of the girl’s irregular heartbeat picks up the pace steadily and her movements become jerky, nonsensical, hard to control. “Help,” she shrieks feebly, calling for her dog as the player attempts to master Fiona’s nerves. When her panic reaches a crescendo, Fiona will raise that ultimate of chestnuts, the classic horror girl’s scream.

A Function of Fear

Because of elements like these, it’s quite easy to attack Haunting Ground as distasteful fanservice for lusty-eyed young males; poor Fiona also makes an easy target for video game feminists, for whom even the razor-sharp and indefatigable competence of Lara Croft is not a satisfactory model, simply because the gal likes to wear a crop top and shorts. But Haunting Ground’s peripheral elements are the real star of the game. Fiona may not be a particularly powerful or capable young lady, but she’s effective as an ordinary one, from the cutscene camera’s appreciation of her healthy shape to the sharp sense of her figurative and literal penetrability in the eyes of her pursuers, owing to her somewhat fragile constitution and general powerlessness in the game.

Gore, blood and filth are common horror conventions, as they evince distaste, disgust and fear. The potential of sexuality as a component of fear is often dismissed, though, and branded with the label of cheap softcore, visual stimulation to break up the gruesome. Haunting Ground, however, is a perfect illustration of how sexuality can be used to great effect. Fiona may be a fragile little woman, but both male and female players can distinctly feel the threat to her person, the disconcerting wickedness of her enemies, thanks to her overt sexualization throughout the game. One gets a crawling, uncomfortable feeling at the sight of her aggressors’ eyes, grasping fingers, that might have been hollow or two-dimensional if the girl had been less exposed, more capable of self-defense. The more spare, tasteful use of blood and grime is used here to enhance that sense of constantly impending violation, and less as a pivotal element of the game’s fear factor. And should Fiona be caught by the reproductive-minded Riccardo, the blood-painted Game Over screen is accompanied by some gruesome squelching, the sounds of Fiona's death -- and the man's explicitly ambiguous pleasure sounds.

Dinner Is Served, Miss
-Conversely, sexuality is also used to endow one of the game’s villains with more than a touch of extra monstrosity. The maid Daniella is possibly one of the most interesting monsters in survival horror -- come to find out the pale mannequin of a woman is not human at all, rather an imitation of one created by the castle’s dark alchemist. She’s prone at times to having poor control of her body, and the occasional stilted movements of her arms and legs, the doll-on-the-fritz spasms of her neck are deliciously creepy, just as much so as the purposeful way with which she strides, robotic, after Fiona, always with an eager and servile smile on her unwholesomely pretty face. Thoroughly scary.

However, Daniella’s hostile pursuit of Fiona is more complex than simple mannequins-are-freaky (another topic we touched on last week). Though early in the game she is subservient to Fiona, dressing her and feeding her a rather revolting, dubiously gory soup, her menace is distinct beneath the surface. She, too, presses uncomfortably into Fiona’s personal space, as if seeking a kiss – the way she strokes the girl when she sleeps is in particular suggests strong lesbian overtones, almost nauseating in its predatory sexual aggression, her eerie staring eyes close to Fiona’s flawless, vulnerable skin. It becomes clear that the inhuman Daniella is jealous of Fiona’s living flesh – in particular, her ability to “experience pleasure,” and the low and rutting voice in which the maid speaks, the glazed look in her eye, makes her seem constantly in heat, desperate for the physical resolution of lust she can’t achieve. When Daniella chases Fiona, intent on eviscerating her with a large shard of glass, she can be temporarily halted by leading her past a mirror – in front of which she screams and wails, tormented by the sight of her own lifeless face and unnaturally perfect body, and she will remain there, self-flagellating, until the mirror finally cracks from the banging of her head against it.

Disparaging Haunting Ground for its copious objectification of women is a facile task, and so is discrediting its storytelling for the gratuitous exposure. Easy, easy, to fetishize a horny maid, a half-naked young blonde in dire straits and at the mercy of grasping, perverted men. But it’s precisely that off-putting sexuality that makes Daniela terrifying, that makes Fiona’s circumstances so explicitly repugnant, that sharpens Haunting Ground’s fear factor to a knife in the gut. Toward the end of the game, Fiona is forced to flee her final aggressor after being imprisoned again, wearing nothing but a bloodstained slip, her bare feet softly patting the cobbles of the evil castle as she runs, at the height of her exposure and vulnerability. And when she panics, the player can feel it, too, just as they can feel the cold chill of encroaching violation on her disconcertingly exposed legs.

[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.]

GameSetLinks: Flying Spaghetti Game Alert!

- Well, after getting distracted by pesky earthquakes, which suspiciously knocked _just my PSP games_ off the shelf, on the week that Nintendo has a reception welcoming them to Silicon Valley (just saying!), it's time to resume non-normal service providing the world random links:

- Sharkey On The Rampage - 1UP's Scott Sharkey, who exists purely to review bad games and cause trouble in a rapscallion-like way, as far as I can work out, has been teasing GamesRadar, IGN, and himself about similarly-themed crass features on his 1UP blog, in a post named: "People Who Live in Glass Houses Shouldn't S*** Where They Sleep." It also features an angry commenter recommending GSW in a violent manner. Nice.

- Wolpaw's Humor Portal - Everyone loves the Rock Paper Shotgun-ners (I picture them like The Beatles, only with cider and Warhammer 40k miniatures), and their interview with Valve's Erik Wolpaw is pretty much priceless - including this gem about what game writers do: "At strip clubs, there’s a guy whose job is to talk between the strippers. He tries to do a good job and be entertaining and enthusiastic, but everybody’s just there for the nakedness."

- Tale Of IGF's Tales - Some of the latest folks to poke at the 2008 Independent Games Festival entries are Michael (and Aureia) at Tale-Of-Tales, and their rundown of prominent IGF entries this year is definitely worth reading. There's also an interesting and provocative split of entry comments: "As it turns out, the games I selected can be divided in three categories. I call them pinball games, simulators and games with content. The first are the most likely to be noticed by the IGF jury, in my opinion, and the last make the least chance."

- GameTap + Userfriendlier? - A useful note for anyone interested in GameTap, still - the Angled Whiteboards folks point out that you can change/cancel your GameTap service online now, something painfully missing from the 'all you can play' subscription PC/Mac download service before. So now you can play Typing Of The Dead and then exit gracefully, eh?

- Venture Capital, Gaming, Blog - A couple of smart Microsoft-ies, Kim Pallister and (my former nemesis, and now non-nemesis!) Vlad Cole have set up the Video Game Venture Capital weblog as a hobby project, giving a pretty helpful biz-centric look at who is being funded in the game business and why. There's even some stuff in here I hadn't spotted, particularly in the Worlds In Motion area, including Hidden City Games getting $15 million.

- Spaghetti Monster Game? - I first noticed him because he's entered the IGF this year with a remake of his classic title ChipWits, but check out Doug Sharp's awesomely wacky resume: "I wrote the hit game King of Chicago (Cinemaware, 1987)... my next game is GODinabox: Desktop Digital Deities in collaboration with Bobby Henderson, creator of the Flying Spaghetti Monster." Sharp hangs out in a cabin in the woods, coding, too - is this outsider art in full effect?

- A Decade Of UO - Flippin' ages ago, Benj Edwards wrote a feature about 'Ten Years Of Ultima Online' for 1UP, and I completely failed to notice until now. Apparently, "...we find the love-it-or-hate-it MMO still breathing, clinging to a healthy (if lean) player base" - and moving out of Anachronism City, I think Benj might still be working on some kind of cultural history of the game for Gamasutra debut soon. Excellent, if so!

- Zottel The Goat Says? - Ian Bogost's Water Cooler Games has been exploring some very disturbing 'Right-Wing Swiss Political Games', going into the history of the political party which hosted and commissioned them - they include: "Help Zottel the goat keep Swiss passports out of the brown and yellow hands of immigrants, or help him kick "black sheep" foreigners over the border." Yikes.

- Finally, some MicroMiniLinks: American McGee's company trip to the Chinese mountains, Adventure Classic Gaming has a 'short personal history of Dynamix’s adventure games' from an early employee, and Korean indie game site Pig-Min is doing really weird indie game-centric comics in English - here's the full set, don't say I didn't warn you.

October 31, 2007

Keita Takahashi's Playground? It's Real, Folks!

- OK, so this has been reported a bit already, but over at Gamasutra, the jetsetting Brandon Boyer wrote up Keita Takahashi's GameCity keynote speech today, in which he mainly discussed his upcoming PS3 game Nobi Nobi Boy. But it's worth pointing out this part:

"[Takahashi] used Google Earth to show the audience his childhood home, his current apartment building, and the Namco Bandai headquarters, then double-clicked a Nottingham bookmark and let the application slowly zoom out and pan to the UK. Here, he showed photos of a local park site, where he revealed that he had been commissioned to design a new playground – oft cited as what he might like to do following his game design career."

So yeah - after famously commenting in the past that he might want to make a play area, looks like Iain Simons and the folks at GameCity have hooked it up for the Namco Bandai game designer. Here's what Takahashi wanted to make at the time, playground-wise: "One that's soft, and with lots of big blocky shapes, and a place [kids] can't really get hurt - very colorful - where kids can roll around and be free. But it's probably okay if they occasionally get hurt too."

Anyhow, GSW has an exclusive picture (maybe!) of the unmodified playground he's 'pimping out', direct from his GameCity lecture:

Also worth noting on the Nobi Nobi Boy front, as we said at the end of the Gamasutra piece: "Part of Takahashi's presentation demonstrating Nobi Nobi Boy was filmed by an audience member, and is available for viewing via Gamersyde.com, providing more insight into his relatively abstract concepts." Thanks to the NeoGAF massif for digging this video up - the evolution of Takahashi's new 'game' is v.interesting. And insane, of course.

Improving The Console Downloadable Game Biz

- Over at his Klei Entertainment blog, Eets creator Jamie Cheng has an excellent post called 'Improving the Console Downloadable Games Business', which gets into an area that's particularly important for independent developers in today's market.

This is a particularly interesting listed factor - 'More focus on instant play value': "Even though I understand Microsoft and Sony’s strategy of promoting their download offerings as a source of creative and “new” types of games, I somehow feel they’re doing at the expense of certain potential. New styles of play on an old interface (the controller) often necessitates a learning curve, and this learning curve creates a barrier for customers. Instead, I think they should be focusing on games that are instantly fun — exactly as Microsoft’s name calls for — consumers want arcade games!"

A possibly controversial one, too, is 'Less focus on retro games and advergaming': "Let’s be honest — when you download a game that’s twenty years old, you had great memories of it and are expecting to be thrust back into the nostalgia. Instead, the game is incredibly difficult, and man do the graphics suck. When your new downloads page is filled with these offerings, or poor quality advergames, you’re going to be skeptical about coming back to try new games; you may even miss that great original indie title you’ve been waiting for. In a nutshell — the poor quality games are drowning out and hurting the very games that the platforms are trying to push." Read the full post for more context (and some Virtual Console praise), but I'm not sure I agree - anyone?

COLUMN: 'Play Evolution': Single-Player Games - Wait, What? Single-Player Games?

I remember this one.[“Play Evolution” is a bi-weekly column by James Lantz that discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: single-player games can evolve as well!]

When we talk about the evolution of a game, we usually think about a competitive multiplayer game, like Counter-Strike or Starcraft. However, a game does not have to be multiplayer or competitive to evolve. Single-player games evolve too, although it’s harder to see it.

The most obvious example of evolution in single-player games is the speed-running community. In order for a game to evolve, it needs a goal for players to work towards; something that players can get better at. Since most games are fairly trivial to complete, this goal cannot simply be to win, as it is in most multiplayer games. The speed-running community establishes a clear goal: to win as quickly as possible.

Even this goal, which seems relatively simple, inspires incredible evolution in single-player games, although some games take to it better than others. Super Mario 64, for example, has one of the largest speed-running communities around, because speed-running Super Mario 64 is incredibly deep. To complete the game you need to collect [EDIT: 70 out of 120 possible stars] in the game, (although there is a small speed-running niche that does all 120 star completions) so the first step for any speed-runner is to map out their path.

In some games, this is relatively trivial and is just a matter of choosing the fastest route on a map. However, a Super Mario 64 speed-runner has to decide exactly which 70 stars they can get in the fastest amount of time. Not only that, but each level has seven stars in it, making it worth it to stay in the level for a few extra stars to avoid travel time, even if those stars are harder to get.

Solid Snake, resident badass, protects his nerdy friend’s sister” hspace= But there’s more than just planning and a little level memorization; Super Mario 64 requires precise timing, technical skill and intelligently exploiting map design. Often a player will discover a trick to skip half a level with a well timed jump and that level, which had seemed lengthy and daunting before, will suddenly find its way into everyone’s speed-runs. Also, most runs are single-segment (no saving or loading), so many players choose safety over slightly faster stars that could completely ruin their run.

On the other end, Metal Gear Solid 3 did not take well to speed-running. The best speed-runs are amazing on paper. But for several MGS3 speedruns I've seen, the speed-runner didn’t take any damage, ever, didn’t kill anyone, nor did he ever alert the guards or use any items. However, the speed-run is boring. It’s not the speed-runner’s fault, but the game just didn’t evolve with speed-running as the goal. It’s all about level memorization, and that’s just not that interesting.

Although speed-running is the most common goal people set in single-player games, there are many others that are just as deep. In Monster Rancher 2, there’s a huge community dedicated solely to raising the best monsters. This is not uncommon, but Monster Rancher 2’s mechanics are so well-hidden and so deep that the community is like a group of scientists, field-testing, posting experiment results and guessing at game code based on exhaustive tests. Like physicists and nature, they don’t know exactly what’s in the game code, but in order to make the best monsters they keep testing until they get as close as they can.

Complex Monster Rancher equations! Always a good time. So far, we’ve only recognized huge communities with a common goal as the catalyst for single-player game evolution. However, there is evolution in almost every single player game, even if you are playing it completely by yourself. It’s more subtle than these competitive online communities, but it’s there.

Think about Half-Life 2; the first time you face the combine, you don’t really know what to do. Should you take cover? Should you run in, guns blazing? However, if you went back and played that first battle after beating the game, you would know exactly what to do. You would know that, if you took cover, they would throw a grenade to lure you out of hiding. You would know not to hide behind breakable objects, and you would know which objects were breakable. Now, that’s an obvious example of evolution – the second time you play the game, you’re going to be better at it.

However, there’s even evolution within in a single instance of a game. Every time you fight a big daddy in Bioshock, you get a little bit better at it. No two encounters are the same, but you learn to recognize danger and safety, and you learn the animations that enemies go through before they fire, and the sound their weapons make, and the limitations of the AI. When you are playing a game, whether you know it or not, it is always evolving.

[James Lantz is a starving writer who spends a large amount of his free time charting the population growth of deer mice in sub-Saharan Africa. He also writes a blog, of course.]

October 30, 2007

GDC 2008 Lectures Announced - The Sims 3, Halo 3, 'Mystery' Harmonix Project?

- This is a quick cross-post from Gamasutra, since my colleagues at GDC have blasted out the first set of lectures for next year's event, and there's some pretty interesting stuff in there.

Quite apart from The Sims 3 and lots of Halo 3 technical lectures, I wonder what that 'mysterious' Harmonix project is? Here goes:

"The Game Developers Conference 2008 organizers have announced an initial session list for the February 2008 event, with highlights including the Harmonix team (Guitar Hero, Rock Band) discussing its second project, Ken Levine on BioShock's story, and in-depth lectures on Halo 3, Crysis, Drake's Fortune, The Sims 3 and more.

GDC 2008, which is run by the CMP Game Group (as is Gamasutra.com) will take place at San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center February 18 – 22, 2008. The conference is divided into multiple tracks, and an initial set of over 100 lectures for these tracks have been announced, with many more additions to come. Some of the highlights thus far include:

Your Music Is the Game: Designing the OTHER Project at Harmonix (Chris Foster,Senior Designer, Harmonix Music Systems)
"This lecture presents a case study of adapting a proven design -- Harmonix's successful "beatmatch" formula -- to a new set of constraints, as Chris Foster discusses the development of a new, algorithm-based and peripheral-free beat match title not yet disclosed."

Storytelling In BioShock: Empowering Players To Care About Your Stupid Story ( Kenneth Levine, President/Creative Director, 2KBoston/Irrational)
"Game stories can matter, even in first person shooters. But first, we're going to have to give up a lot of our preconceptions about what people care about when playing a game. For too long, games (especially first person shooters) have been stuck in a "game sequence followed by story sequence" mentality. Ken Levine will tell the tale of how the BioShock took a pointy-headed idea about a pseudo-objectivist utopia and turned it into one of the most compelling and succesful game worlds in recent history."

E Pluribus Unum: Matchmaking In Halo 3 (Chris Butcher, Engineering Lead, Microsoft / Bungie)
"This presentation describes the algorithms behind Halo 3's peer-to-peer multiplayer matchmaking model, and its implementation over Xbox Live, examining the impact of matchmaking on the Halo online community, and providing techniques for shaping the player experience and discouraging cheaters."

At The Cutting Edge – Audio Production For Heavenly Sword (Garry Taylor, Audio/Video Manager, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe)
"When audio assets for a project are coming from 3 continents, separated over 20 time zones, managing the production effectively is a constant challenge. Outsourcing to production companies such as WETA (Lord of the Rings/King Kong) and audio teams responsible for films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Departed, Garry Taylor takes you on a whistle-stop tour of the globe, looking at the lessons learnt, and examining the hurdles that were overcome to achieve the state of the art, ‘next-gen’ audio quality of Ninja Theory and Sony’s Heavenly Sword for PS3."

Creating A Character In Drake’s Fortune (Christian Gyrling, AI and Animation Programmer, Naughty Dog Inc.)
"This talk will show how Gyrling's team developed the characters in Drake’s Fortune, praised for its animation, and how they reduced the complexity of organizing hundreds of animations by working with abstract animation states. The talk will also describe how the team solved the AI/animation integration, and how they decoupled character orientation and movement from joint animation. It will also explain the extensive use of additive animations used to enrich the game experience."

Crysis ' Next-Gen Effects (Tiago Sousa, Effects/Graphics Programmer, Crytek)
"Graphics hardware has evolved considerably this last decade, and has finally reached a point where cinematic-quality effects and shading can be computed in real-time. In this lecture, Sousa will describe some of the techniques used to push the visual quality bar in Crytek’s latest game, Crysis. The lecture will touch upon several technologies researched and developed specifically for Crysis, including a brief description of the CryEngine2 shading pipeline. Two case studies from Crysis will also be presented."

Make The Community Part Of Halo (Tom Gioconda, Web Development Engineer)
"One of the more unique features of Halo 3 is present as part of the web, not the game itself. Bungie.net, as it is now, is the culmination of nearly seven years of effort to make the community of Halo a feature of the game. This presentation will describe both how Bungie.net went from a Myth-series era scoreboard to a vibrant community showcasing user created content and Web 2.0 style features. More importantly, this presentation will describe why this effort was undertaken, the resources needed, and how it drives fans of Halo to become long-term fans of Bungie."

New AI Techniques For Sims 3 (Richard Evans, Electronic Arts)
"In this session, Evans will show some of the more unusual AI techniques being used in Sims 3, including very long-term planning, autonomous traits, and a new socializing model based on overlapping normative processes. He will show how these technology components serve two high-level design goals: to make each Sim be a unique snowflake (recognizably distinct from the others), and to move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (so that the player focuses less on peeing and sleeping, and more on social relationships and situations). Additionally, Evans will demonstrate these ideas working in action in a 2D experimental testbed."

The BioWare Live Team: Building Community Through Technology (Derek French, Associate Technical Producer, BioWare Corp.)
"Live Teams are common in MMOGs, but what about for non-MMOGs? The BioWare Live Team has evolved over the years from supporting Neverwinter Nights to assisting development in future game titles. This session will cover the history of the BioWare Live Team and the technologies developed to help build Communities around games. Details will be given on lessons learned along the way and how the team interacts with the game development teams and other departments such as Web and Marketing. Most developers should have their own Live Team, and details will be provided covering the reasoning, planning and creation."

In addition to these lectures, other notable talks include 'Do, Don't Show' – Narrative Design In Far Cry 2', 'Creating Scalable And Dynamic Graphics For World In Conflict', 'Lighting And Material Of Halo 3', 'Pollinating The Universe: User-generated Content In Spore', and the return of talks including the Game Design Challenge, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, and many other tutorials and in-depth workshops.

Separately to this, the conference has expanded its lineup of single-track summits dedicated to specific communities. The 2008 lineup includes the return of the Serious Games Summit, the Independent Games Summit and the Casual Games Summit.

New to the schedule this year are the Game Outsourcing Summit, pioneered in 2006 at the GDC's successful standalone summit in Los Angeles, and the Worlds In Motion Summit, focusing on the intersection between games and online worlds. The standalone GDC Mobile event continues as well, as a dedicated conference with breakout sessions.

Details, prices and registration for all Game Developers Conference 2008 passes are now available at the official GDC website."

GameSetWatch And Kotaku: It's Freaky Friday!

- The real question, of course, is whether GameSetWatch is Jodie Foster or Lindsay Lohan, but it would be remiss of me not to mention that over at Kotaku, Brian Crecente has revealed that I'll be guest editing the site for a week next month, while he's swanning around in Australia pretending to be Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

The other two guest Kotaku editors, who will be taking the first two weeks in November, will be Game Head's (and GameSlice's, if you go back that far!) Geoff Keighley, and Water Cooler Games' Ian Bogost, who famously survived trial by Colbert while rocking the squarest tie knot I've seen in some time. I believe I'll be posting my trifles on Kotaku from November 19th-23rd, and I promise to keep GSW ticking over during that time nonetheless.

Why would this insanity happen, you might ask? Well, firstly, the Kotaku firehose is rather mighty nowadays, and I think I'll enjoy training it on some worthy, possibly neglected sites in the indie, alternative, and developer game blog worlds. And secondly, I get to write bedtime stories to Kotaku's Japanese editor Brian Ashcraft? Who could possibly pass up the chance to whisper sweet nothings to the composer of Bittersweet Symphony? So there you go!

Independent Games Summit: Valve's Kim Swift - 'From Narbacular Drop To Portal'

-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.

The ninth lecture is from Valve's Kim Swift, a key member of the team that was one of the Independent Game Festival's 2006 Student Showcase honorees with Narbacular Drop, and went on to be hired by the Half-Life creator as a team and complete the critically acclaimed Portal, which recently shipped as part of Valve's The Orange Box.

Swift's lecture is aimed somewhat to the student independent developer, explaining how the Portal team successfully transitioned from working as a student team at DigiPen to a professional one at Valve, but also discusses some of the influences behind the FPS puzzle title in both its incarnations, explaining the evolution of gameplay as it was re-imagined on the Source engine.

Therefore, 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: "In this lecture, the team which made IGF Student Showcase winner Narbacular Drop talk about the making of the innovative title, tips for student developers, how the entire team got picked up by Valve to make Portal using the Source Engine, and exactly how they've transitioned from student indie creators to continued innovation at the home of Half-Life."

(Other IGS 2007 videos posted so far are Daniel James discussing indie MMOs, and an indie innovation panel w/Mak, Blow, Chen, Gabler, Swink, plus 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'.)

Federal Reserve Of Boston Exhibition Focuses On Games

- I believe these guys called us at Game Developer when they were preparing this exhibition, and it's great to see that they've sorted it out: "The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Economic Adventure Gallery is hosting an engaging, interactive exhibit on the history of video games this fall. “Video Games Evolve: A Brief History from Spacewar! to MMORPGs” examines the video-game industry’s roots, which are firmly planted in New England. The exhibit, which is free, runs though January."

New England? Games? The press release explains: "The gaming revolution began across the Charles River at MIT, where the first non-commercial interactive video game, “Spacewar!”, was born in 1962. About a decade later, Magnavox released the first commercial video-game console, “Odyssey,” which was created by New Hampshire resident Ralph Baer. In addition to enjoying a “Spacewar!” simulation, visitors can examine an enlarged reproduction of Baer’s prototype notes, as well as an early Odyssey console."

What's more: "If guests are interested in a more hands-on experience, they can play classic 1980 arcade games like “Donkey Kong,” “Ms. Pac Man,” “Frogger” or “Space Invaders.” In addition to being able to play these games for free, visitors can admire the sleek fiberglass console of “Computer Space,” an early 1970s arcade game. The exhibit also offers a look at the evolution of the home-gaming console, a timeline of video-game history, and an in-depth look at the motion-capture process (a key animation tool in modern video-game production). The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University, a leading education center for digital-game development, loaned several three-dimensional sculptures of creatures that were used to develop animations."

Finally: "In addition to examining the past, the exhibit also offers an enticing look at modern-day games, including “Star Wars Galaxies,” the “Immune Attack” educational game, the virtual reality of “Second Life,” and massive, multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like “World of Warcraft.” The exhibit is part of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Economic Adventure, an interactive educational designed to teach middle- and high-school students how New England’s improved living standards are reliant upon innovation, which leads to advances in productivity. The exhibit is open from Monday through Friday, from 1:00-4:00pm." The more video games are treated seriously by exhibits like this, the more they are legitimized as a cultural form.

October 29, 2007

Excuse Me, Your Cut-Scene Is... In My Game?

- Game designer Sam Beirne has posted an interesting design-related missive on his 'It Burns' site - called 'Excuse me, your cutscene is in my game', and discussing how story could be, should be, and is integrated into video games.

ArenaNet's Beirne explains: "My problem with story generally stems from the inclusion of non-interactive cutscenes throughout the course of character driven games. Bullet points on the back of a box like, “over 120 minutes of mind-blowing cinematic sequences,” scare me off before I can even crack the wrapper. When I sit down to play a game, I’d actually like to play something. Cutscenes feel like watching someone else play. So, when a cutscene starts rolling I generally can’t help but sigh wondering when it will be my turn again."

He then shows videos from Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell, contrasting ways of handling narrative's inclusion in games, and concluding by noting: "While some developers cling desperately to static narratives and cutscenes, I am pleased to see that many games, like the soon to be released Assassin’s Creed, are making progress towards more robust simulations. Cutscenes won’t be eradicated from games anytime soon, but their ultimate removal is certainly a goal worth pursuing."

The Tall Stump Wins Out At CGDC 4

- Catching up on this week's RSS feeds (and also semi-prompted via Waxy), it has been revealed that the Casual Game Development Competition 4 results are out - we previously mentioned this when it was in progress.

The overall winner is 'The Tall Stump', which is profiled on JayIsGames, and it's "...an action platformer that feels like an adventure game laced with short puzzles. As you travel through the game you find strange items and learn to use them in even stranger circumstances, all in the name of working your way deeper into the stump."

Also notable - the game is "...created by three talented individuals who form Team MAW — Adam Wilkinson (Australia), Alex May (US) and Handre DeJager (South Africa)." A name rings a bell there - you may recall that we interviewed DeJager about his awesomely bizarre faux game covers last year. Neat!

GameSetMicroLinks: Extreme Eclectica Edition

- Aha, so this late-weekend version of our 'microlinks' rundown actually compiles things found before even looking at the video game site RSS feeds. So there's some tangential, but interesting stuff later on in here - interesting non-game material that I find is still posted on my own personal 'ffwd' linklog from time to time, btw. Here goes:

- UK Green Wing scriptwriter James Henry had nice things to say about games as a medium on his 'Blue Cat' blog, and points out that the top 3 titles at his local game store are "...an art deco-themed playable critique of Ayn Rand-style Objectivism... an incredibly odd puzzle game that requires you to bend 3D space with a special gun... [and] a Japanese roleplaying adventure set entirely within a dreamworld generated by Frédéric Chopin." He then grins: "Coming up with ideas for computer games is starting to look like the most fun it's possible to have." Renaissance, folks!

- American McGee has a fun blog post on his game development company trip to the Yellow Mountain, with his largely Chinese workers at the Shanghai-based Spicy Horse, working on American McGee's Grimm. Teambuilding ahoy!

- The 'Weebl's Stuff' Flash comic has a special episode featuring Weebl hanging out with Weighted Companion Cube. Looks like they're having fun! Here's more info on Weebl & Bob, which has been a Flash strip for a few years now, and aired on MTV in the UK.

- Over at the 'Vinyl Abuse' action figure blog, they've spotted some nice game-related art: "The super talented Mr Jay Smith has created some wonderously cool Legend of Zelda themed wallpapers to celebrate his love for the new Nintendo DS game ‘The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass’, a mighty fine game indeed!"

- At Bit-Tech, they have a round-up of Independent Games Festival 2008 entries, explaining: "...we’ll be looking at the line-up for this year's festival and giving our opinions on some of the 170+ games which stand out to our trained eyes. Which are the ones to watch and why? Which developers have brains of coding gold and which ones have just ripped off Pong again?"

- Jenn Frank's 1UP blog has been discussing surreal '80s video game movie 'Arcade Attack', and the weirdest bit is hosted (fair use kinda? hm!) on GameVideos: "It's like The Ring crossed with Ghostbusters or something. And then, all the animated pinball characters from earlier in the documentary are suddenly busting up through the glass of the pinball machines, rallying and ready to fight off the 'Video Invaders.'" Neat, though.

- Techno music writer/artist Philip Sherburne has been picking albums for digital re-release on Anthology Recordings, but it's interesting because of the music label itself, "...the world’s first ever all digital reissue label, its goal to provide an online outlet for rare and out-of-print music of all eras, genres and cultures." Services like the Virtual Console and GameTap are starting to tap into this for games, but the game space still has a massive way to go, and here's an interesting comparison point. Can't wait.

- Clive Thompson's recent(-ish) Wired News column on games had a fun jaunt through Portal's physics possibilities - we know the obvious raves, but here's a thought: "Think how weird a Mario racing game would be if you could shoot portals that wreak havoc on the racetrack?" Actually, I think I would hate that.

- Publishers Weekly's 'The Beat' comics blog has been ruminating on the Radiohead album and comics ramifications, and Heidi MacDonald comments: "When you note that the nets are starting to offer TV on the web it’s been obvious for some time that sooner or later everyone in the video entertainment biz is going to go to digital downloading." She then suggests comics and digital downloading might be a bigger steal in 2008. Random thought - how about digital comics for sale on XBLA/PSN? That might be neat.

- Tokyo art magazine type Jean Snow points out Brian Ashcraft's work for the latest Wired magazine, as he "...writes up comedian Shinya Arino and his popular videogame-related TV show GAME CENTER CX... Wired.com also includes a look at the set."

- Save The Robot's Chris Dahlen has pointed out "...Virginia Heffernan, who I believe was the NYT TV critic, has started a transmedia column blog called The Medium... She doesn’t start by wheeling out Henry Jenkins. She doesn’t talk about web comics or MMORPG. And she never mentions The Matrix. In other words, it’s a transmedia column for non-geeks - and I think it’ll work really well."

October 28, 2007

GameSetPlaying: What Games Are Grabbing Your Attention?

- Haven't done one of these in a while, so with the peak gaming season in full swing (and lots more releases still coming down the pipe!), I'll point out some games I've been playing, and then hand it over to you good GSW readers:

- Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools Of Destruction (Insomniac/Sony, PS3)
Insomniac's Ratchet & Clank Future (currently 2nd on the PS3 Metacritic charts) may be the gem of the PlayStation 3's holiday season in terms of exclusives. Playing it with a friend yesterday, a few things were notable - the smooth, super-tuned gameplay, the surprisingly deep weapon upgrade paths, the beautifully done cut-scene narratives, and graphics which I personally think are the best on the PlayStation 3 so far. The gameplay is, of course, not dissimilar to the other Ratchet games, but don't overlook it because of that, for pity's sake.

- Portal (Valve, Xbox 360)
You know, we're all a bit bored of people raving about Portal at this point. But nonetheless, I've been playing it, and I wanted to comment on why I personally enjoy it. First: it's bite-sized in a smart, artificially constructed way, which makes it incredibly easy to pick up and put down. Second: it trains my brain and I feel genuinely pleased with myself when I work out puzzle solutions. Third: although dexterity is required, it's less constant, stress-filled violence than carefully orchestrated event chains. So, what - Portal is a 'casual', 'brain training', 'non-violent' kind of game? Mm, smells of zeitgeist.

- Various Xbox Live Arcade Games (Various, Xbox 360)
My latest OCD-related XBLA task is to get 3 Achievements on all the Xbox Live Arcade games I own. This is surprisingly fun, given that there are actually very few complete duds on XBLA (the only game I've paid for and then deleted in pique is Wing Commander Arena.) Anyhow, going alphabetically to fill in the gaps has caused me to re-evaluate 3D Ultra Minigolf Adventures, which is a lot more fun multiple times round, and also grab the Super Soviet Missile Mastar achievement in Alien Hominid HD. Oh, and I still can't stop playing Track & Field, oddly.

So there you go. But I'm also horribly behind on the seasonal rush, with stuff like Beautiful Katamari, Eye Of Judgment, and Exit for XBLA stacked up to play - and with a pre-ordered Guitar Hero III for Xbox 360 awaiting me at the store later today. How about you, GSW reader? What titles, new or old, have you been playing over the last couple of weeks, and... why?

Gaming & Libraries: The Juggernaut Continues

- GSW has referenced Jenny Levine's 'The Shifted Librarian' weblog before, since she's one of the foremost proponents of the librarian and public library as a forward-thinking media space where, yes, games can be played collectively or checked out (as opposed to just somewhere that books are kept and facts looked up). She's just posted a couple of very relevant posts, too - firstly one discussing Mark Engelbrecht and Martin House from the Public Library of Charlotte Mecklenburg County.

Why so? They "...received a $69,000 LSTA grant to study gaming for adults last year. There’s a reason we talk so much about the kids and the teenagers when it comes to gaming in libraries, but we can’t forget that there are valid gaming services for 20somethings, 30somethings, families, parents, boomers, seniors, and pretty much everyone else who enjoys games." In relation to that, Martin House's blog has started posting results, underlining some of the new library thinking - that "...providing programs and events for simple entertainment makes the library a place to be."

Secondly, Jenny links to and comments on a new 'gaming in libraries' article from the Dallas Morning News, noting that the piece was mainly positive, but sadly, it was also: "Yet another newspaper story that lets someone (this time a professor at the University of Maryland) get away with sweeping generalizations about gaming. Melanie Killen claims, “a vast majority of the games have negative content and the consequences can be destructive, including increased impulsivity, aggressive behavior and shorter attention spans,” without providing any proof at all." Hey, even 'mild-mannered' (yes, stereotypes!) librarians get pretty upset about this kind of thing.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Screw Circulation!

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There was an interesting article written the other day by Rebecca McPheters, who used to be the publisher for Child, Fitness, and assorted other mainstream magazines. What she had to write about is something that game magazine publishers have had to wrestle with for much of the 21st century -- circulation (the number of copies you distribute every mont) is actually a pretty crap way to measure how many readers you have.

"Because the strength of a print brand is in its ability to generate audience -- and stronger brands tend to produce more readers-per-copy than brands that are less strong -- circulation-based pricing has done more than any other single factor to reduce the range and quality of print options available to advertisers... Our current circulation-based system has both reduced advertising revenues and increased circulation costs. It has put print into a dangerous downward spiral as consumers increasingly expect to receive media content for free and yet magazines' advertising pricing is predicated on a paid circulation model." (my emphasis)

In other words, Rebecca's saying that maintaining a large circulation (and charging advertisers based on that circulation, independent of whether there are real pairs of eyes to back that up) shouldn't be first priority for magazines anymore. To back that up, she brings up the MRI -- Mediamark Research and Intelligence, a surveying firm that releases readership data for magazines. This data includes something called the "readers-per-copy" for a magazine, showing how much a mag gets passed around or how many people take a look at any given issue, whether passing it around friends, picking it up at the dentist's waiting room, or just browsing through it on the newsstand. Comparing the MRIs with the circulation figures, Rebecca notes in the article that "overall audience has increased by 2%, while circulation has declined by 7%" in the past decade.

What do MRI's stats look like? You can download a sample off the net, which includes a couple of game mags on it. For the spring of 2007, MRI said that Electronic Gaming Monthly had a total adult audience of 3,441,000 people, about 3 million men and the rest women. GamePro had 3,836,000 people in its audience, while Game Informer cleaned up with 5,039,000 audience members. Note that Game Informer's MRI audience is "only" about 68% larger than EGM's, despite having over four times the paid circulation. If you put enough credence to the MRI's numbers, it means that GameStop is spending a lot of money printing, mailing, and distributing those two million-odd copies of GI each month, yet not being as efficient in attracting an audience with those printed copies as EGM and GamePro is.

Which begs the next question: How realistic are the MRI's figures, and how much do advertisers care about them? Judging by GI's current position as the game mag with the most ad pages in the US (and also the one with the most non-game-related advertising), it doesn't seem like ad buyers consider them a heck of a lot when making their decisions. GamePro boasted about its MRI figures on the cover between 2002 and 2006 (you can see two examples of that above), but dropped it since many folks ina nd out of the industry assumed the "three million readers" claim was a fabrication or massaged number, somehow.

Still, if Rebecca has it right in her article, GamePro -- and, really, a lot of game mags -- might have the right idea. It's little secret that many mags (not just in games) have lost a ton of circulation over the past handful of years. However, an increasing number of publishers are arguing that the treadmill of keeping circulation up only serves as a needless expense that doesn't do anything for the audience or the bottom line. So perhaps we'll see a trend unfold over the next little while of game mags dropping circs and telling advertisers not to worry -- the eyes are still there, they just read the product differently than before.

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

If you enjoy reading GameSetWatch.com, you might also want to check out these UBM TechWeb Game Network sites:

Gamasutra (the 'art and business of games'.)

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

Finger Gaming (news, reviews, and analysis on iPhone and iPod Touch games.)

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

Worlds In Motion (discussing the business of online worlds.)

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