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December 15, 2007

GameSetNetwork: Devil May Planet, Eh?

- While GSW has been messing around launching T-shirt lines and posting about chiptune festivals, our big sister game business site Gamasutra has been posting all kinds of allegedly interesting content.

So, rounding up the original Gamasutra features posted this week first, from the genesis of Media Molecule to chatting to Capcom's Devil May Cry 4 producer, and following up with some of the highlights from the other major original stories we posted, there's this:

- Book Excerpt: Inside Game Design: Media Molecule
"In this exclusive book excerpt, LittleBigPlanet developers Media Molecule discuss the formation of the company, the development advantages of a small team, and the fascinating evolution of game concepts from Rag Doll Kung Fu to LittleBigPlanet."

- Rare's Viva Pinata: Giving The World Buzzlegums And Fudgehogs
"In this fascinating illustration-filled article, developer Rare explains the visual and design genesis of the Viva Pinata game franchise, from the original design document through concept sketches, mobile, PDA, and Xbox iterations to the finished Xbox 360 game."

- The Devil Laughs: A Chat With Capcom Producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi
"One of Capcom's key 2008 franchise releases will be the much-awaited Devil May Cry 4, now confirmed for both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 - and Gamasutra talked in-depth to its producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi about multi-platform game engines, creating game worlds, and player feedback."

- Analyze This: Divining The Next Guitar Hero-Style Phenomenon
"Following the success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the music game genre has become a genuine phenomenon. But what previously niche genre is next? Gamasutra asks analysts from The simExchange, Creative Strategies, and Strategy Analytics..."

- Piggybacking: Gaming Across the Generation Gap
"Veteran developer Scott Nixon (SpongeBob SquarePants: Employee Of The Month), who has created kid-friendly games for over 10 years, presents a detailed, intriguing piece on the concept of 'piggybacking' - making games that 'simultaneously entertain both a child player and an adult spectator... on wholly different levels'."

Finally, here's the full rundown of the other original Gamasutra news from the week, spanning Q&As, analysis, event reports, and more: MIGS: Realtime Worlds' Wilson Talks Tense Times For Crackdown... Q&A: Tecmo's Kikuchi On Taking Rygar To Wii... GamerMetrics: Halo 'Cannibalized' Stranglehold, Xbox 360 Software Sales... Q&A: Bungie's Cotton On Forging Balance In Halo 3 DLC... Microsoft's Satchell Talks XNA 2.0, Opening Community Development... Q&A: Aspyr's Adams On Mac's Gaming Challenges... IGC: Epic's Lawyer Counsels On IP Protection... GDC 2008 Reveals EA, Spielberg's Boom Blox, Fable 2 Features... MIGS Panel Asks 'Is The Wii Really Broadening The Market?'... Q&A: Marvelous' Hashimoto Talks The 2D Renaissance... and finally, MIGS: Media Sunshine's Chandler Talks Localization From The Inside Out.

COLUMN: @Play: A Quick Look at the Nethack Sources

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

There are the roguelike games that have closed source, which for the longest time included Rogue, and still includes ADOM and just about every commercial game out there. And then there are the roguelikes that are open source.

And of them all, there is one game that is particularly identified with open source. Of course, it's Nethack, which was effectively open long before it became fashionable. The game is old enough that its license, the "Nethack Public License," takes GNU Bison's as its model, not the GPL. In point of fact, Eric S. Raymond himself has contributed documentation to the game, and he mentioned it in his famous essay . It and the other open source roguelikes (Angband and Dungeon Crawl among them) offer the best hope that open source game development can work.

Development is one thing. Design is something else entirely. The model of many random people contributing patches often turns into a classic case of too many cooks. It takes a strong vision to avoid the game turning into an unplayable muddle, because it's so easy to wreck it by adding misfeatures. Computer games not only require strong software design but something else besides, and roguelikes rely on ideas that most other games abandoned long ago, that some surprising people will swear have no place in gaming. Last month David Sirlin, who possesses an excellent understanding of fighting game mechanics, made a series of blanket statements about game saving, using Dead Rising as his example, that would absolutely destroy roguelikes if applied to them. For some reason few commercial developers outside of Japan seem to get how roguelikes are supposed to work; even Blizzard's popular quasi-roguelike Diablo games didn't add permadeath until the second game, and went out of their way to say it was intended for "hardcore" players. Anyway, it succeed largely for reasons unrelated to being like rogue(6).

Because of the special vision required to avoid ruining 'em, roguelike projects tend to languish without a strong person, or group in agreement, maintaining them. For Nethack, we have the mighty Devteam, who are just about as mysterious a group as is possible in legal open source software development. What they'll add to the next version is known to few outside their group, or even what its release date is. At the moment it's been longer since a new version of Nethack than any previous release of the game, but we still know they're working, and we know a new version will come... some day. Of course it's still open source, and that means anyone can make their own version of Nethack. The Devteam is even known to sometimes add a selection of outside patches in the official game. But neither do they add tremendous numbers of outside ideas, and what they do add at times seems odd to us mortals.

But yes, the source is still open, so anyone can make their own version of the game with just a computer, a compiler, the code, and a whole lot of cursing. Unlike Angband's source, which prior maintainer Ben Harrison cleaned up and made so inviting for people to mod the game that there may be more players of variants than of Angband, Nethack's source looks exactly like you'd expect something with "hack" in the name to be.

gcc hits! Your brain is eaten!

Trying to modify the Nethack source code with only basic programming knowledge is a good way to get frustrated. Changing Nethack is definitely not a task for the faint-hearted... or for the C-ignorant, for that matter. It is not recommended that one try to learn C by hacking away at the Nethack sources, due to its many weirdnesses. Some of its code is automatically generated by an included utility called makedefs, and changes made in the wrong place (like trying to add monsters in pm.h instead of monst.c) could cause unexpected problems, or at best be destroyed by the act of compilation. Macros are used in many places. Even C experts may be confused by the identifiers sprinkled around, things like STATIC_DCL and STATIC_OVL. These are dusty vestiges of the 286 days, when the game had to work under real-mode DOS. They had cooked up this impressive overlay scheme to allow everything to work, swapping code in off disk when needed, but while no one has successfully made real-mode Nethack since 3.3.0, the artifacts of the system are still sprinkled around the source code.

nhbenign.pngFirst off, to compile Nethack for your system, you'll need a supported compiler. This is actually one of the less troublesome aspects of building the game, for Nethack's source is promiscuous to say the least. Nethack is mostly a straight, pre-ANSI C program, with none of that C++ stuff mixed in. It gets some help from make, which gets a fair workout, and yacc/bison and lex/flex for building levels. On Microsoft platforms, there's support for multiple versions of Microsoft's Virtual C tools (including the free 2005 Express version combined with Microsoft's Platform SDK, which I've personally used to build the game), Borland C++ and GCC (using either cygwin, mingw, or DJGPP for protected-mode DOS, still one of the most playable versions of the game). Mac OS/X and Classic are supported, as are many different Unixes, some rather elderly. In addition, the game has official support in the tree for BeOS, Windows CE, OS/2, Amiga and Atari ST. (And of course porting the game to other systems, like the Nintendo DS, is a standard hack for hobbyists.)

Instructions for building the game are straightforward but lengthy, with the docs beginning in README in the source directory followed by system- and compiler-specific instructions in each platform's Install.* file. Further help on this step can be found on the Nethack Wiki. In a last-ditch situation, the Devteam is known to sometimes reply to questions concerning compilation trouble, and if a problem seems intractable it may be worth shooting them an email. (I won't repeat their address here to try to save them from a bit of extra spam, but there's a contact from on their site that's not too hard to find.)

"Nethack contains everything including the kitchen sink," eh? Not anymore, fool!

Once the game is compiled, though, then what? The Devteam provides official binaries for many target systems, so there's not usually a reason to build from scratch unless one is going to modify the source in some way. And there are several different levels of involvement that one can take with this.

The simplest level, which doesn't take much skill with C to mess with, is to add or remove certain well-compartmentalized features from the game. Config.h in include/ is the place to do this, which is where different graphic styles are added to the game as well as wizard mode, a notable debugging aid that can also be used to cheat. Most of the interesting features come in that file's Section 4, suitably named "THE FUN STUFF!!!"

minocube.pngWhen the Devteam adds major features to the game, there's often a period when the code is put in conditionally, so players able to compile the game can remove them because they don't like them, or they need to make the game smaller. After a while, as these features become increasingly identified with Nethack, the conditionals are usually removed from the code. But some features take up residence here permanently. Usually these are the crazier features: kitchen sinks, the Rogue level, Keystone Kops, seduction by succubi and incubi, and Discworld-inspired Tourist players can all be neatly excised by commenting out a single line.

In practice this is done but rarely, because the weirdness has become identified with Nethack's style (people who are attracted to Nethack are often so because of the clever jokes, and are loathe to see them go), and because a number of nice sub-features are tied in with these. Commenting out #define TOURIST also removes Touristy items like credit cards, expensive cameras and shirts. Elbereth, a popular feature that some (okay, I) think make the game too easy, can also be compiled out from config.h, but this also removes crowning, a cool game event that happens to players who achieve high standing with their god.

At Last We Can Add Gamera as a Monster

Many people who change the game don't want to add huge new features, but just want to customize some of the monsters and items, or add to the dungeon. This is not so easy, but it could be much worse. The Beginners Guide to the Nethack Sources is the bible for making these kinds of modifications, and for detailed instructions one should check there first. Although it was last modified in 1995 most of its information is still good, especially concerning the overall structure of the source, and most of the information in the rest of this column ultimately comes from there.

Making a new monster involves editing the file monst.c, and with a bit of intuition it's not hard to add a new entry there, if one doesn't care about it having any abilities not shared by other monsters. Other than that the process is largely automated, for Nethack determines stuff like monster difficulty, experience awards and generation odds automatically. Adding new levels is trickier, but there is support in the game for changing levels without changing the binary. Nethack gets its information on the dungeon and its levels from data files, not the game binary itself, so it's theoretically possible to change the dungeon on a pre-compiled version of the game.

nhpotions.pngIt's possible, but that doesn't mean that anyone does it in practice. The dungeon and level files usually get made as part of make install, and there are some hard-coded references to various levels in the source, so making any really interesting changes usually means recompiling the game. Changing the level definition files is a notoriously finicky process, prone to break if language terms are specified out of order, or with the wrong spacing character. (Tabs != spaces!)

A few other things can be added relatively easily. Adding a new item isn't so hard, although it'll have only basic object behavior until code is added to cover the neat stuff it should do. Still, that can get you further than you might think. Basic equipment stats like damage, AC and weight can be manipulated just by changing the appropriate numbers, and some things are automatically applied by the code, like silver damage to demons and lycanthropes if the object's material is set to SILVER.

One thing it's easy to overlook are the special characteristics for different item classes. All rings produce special messages when dropped down sinks and many wands produce distinctive messages when the player engraves on the floor with one. Often potions mix with others when dipped, or have special effects on items, and scrolls and spellbooks should have code added to handle when magic markers are used to write them. This is all in addition to the code needed to make the object perform its function, and don't forget that potions, wands and tools have different effects if cursed or blessed, and scrolls have additional effects when read while confused.

New room types are a mixed bag. It's easy to take the code for a monster lair room type in mkroom.c, like the leprechaun hall, copy it, modify it to make a new type of lair, then adjust the room generation probability elsewhere in the source file to make it show up. But this will only produce lair-type rooms. The most interesting Nethack rooms are the ones with special rules, shops and temples, and those are very difficult to write. Nethack shops and shopkeepers do things the hard way because it makes theft into a puzzle to be overcome, and are designed with care. Duplicating that is a task even experienced hack-hackers balk at.

That's how... but why?

The best advice I can offer towards learning how to get around the code, besides playing the game a lot to know how things operate, and using a code cross-referencing tool like doxygen, is to think hard about using the source code itself as a guide for how to do things. Many things you might want to add to the game are already there, under a different context. I had an idea a week ago about adjusting a unicorn horn's cursed/blessed status one level down when successfully applied for healing, in order to prevent a single horn from making a player practically immune to negative status effects. I happened to remember that scrolls of scare monster, when picked up, lower in blessing status in exactly the same way. A search for SCARE_MONSTER turned up hits in five files, one of them named pickup.c. The addition ended up being only slightly more involved than a copy-and-paste job. When trying to find code to adapt, it's useful to search for the code-name for the item (like "SCARE_MONSTER"), or for a message printed by the game when using it.

Knowing what not to change

The greatest danger, when it comes to modifying the source... well, the greatest danger is causing a hard-to-find bug. But assuming it all works, then the greatest danger is messing up the game's design while doing so. Nethack's various game systems interact with each other in unexpected ways, and one must have encyclopedic knowledge of nearly the whole game to avoid unforeseen balance effects. Some people wonder why drinking a potion doesn't leave an empty bottles that could be later filled with water. The only real answer is because it would make the game too easy: water is one of the most useful potions available to a player who knows how to use it. It doesn't make sense, but it's pretty much mandated by the play.

Maybe there's a way to make empty potion bottles work in the context of the game. It's not impossible. But it's the kind of thing that, if there was an easy way to do it, the Devteam probably would have implemented it years ago. Most of the weird things about Nethack are like that. Perhaps that budding patch author may have the solution to the problem. It's just likely that he doesn't.

COLUMN: 'The Amateur' On Games And The Power Of You

- [Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand who spent the last 5 and a half years working in the United Kingdom. He's just emigrated to Sydney, Australia, and spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He recently covered the Edinburgh Interactive Festival for Gamasutra magazine and has just started an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]

I get frustrated by seeing amateur software developers like myself making despondent posts about whether or not it is worth spending the time trying to develop code, or whether they should continue working on an idea that they had. I'm no stranger to this feeling, and I'm fortunate enough to have been rolled a really good hand in life and have a loving wife who actually understands my need to sit down and write code for six hours at a time.

I'll put this in black and white. If you enjoy playing rogue-likes, or any other games that are put together by people who are not employed full time by the game industry, you, as a fan, have the power to transform their lives.

Here's the first few steps you can take:

  1. Give the author feedback on their blog or on web forums or email or whatever means of communicating with them that you have.
  2. Contribute what you can back in the form of being an active community member. Help out others, write reviews of the game, set up your own blog and link to the game.
  3. Become an advocate for the game. Pester game reviewers that you know or like, link to the game on related forums, submit articles about the game to Slashdot, Digg it, Reddit.
  4. Be a hedgehog about it. Don't just promote the game once, but keep doing it.

My blog was recently Slashdotted, on the basis of a story that I submitted to the Slashdot firehose that as far as I can tell was made red hot by 11 people and paid off with 16,000 unique visitors when the story reached the front page and a three-fold increase in long-term traffic. It's possible to get onto the gaming page of Digg with as little as 40 diggs. If you thought the size of the Angband community is small (at 100 - 500 people depending on how you count it), these numbers are tiny.

So why do this? It's simple really. The more feedback an amateur software developer gets, the better they feel about the game, and the more they'll code. Positive feedback helps, but even constructive criticism is good.

I challenge you to pick a game, any game that you like that you feel is unappreciated, go out and become an advocate for it for a week. Write a review and submit it to a gaming website or host it on your own site. If you can't do that, at least post five times to the forums of five separate games within a week. Be more than a passive reader. Get a Digg account, search for articles about the game and digg every article you find. File some bug reports, using whatever bug reporting tool the game has. I love to get bug reports, even though I reserve the right to ignore fixing them (I'll write more on this another time).

If you do that, I guarantee that you'll get more game written in return for a fraction of your total time invested. Not only that, but you create a small chance that something magical will happen. If enough people start to love the game that you love, there is the distinct possibility that the software developer will be able to make the biggest transition of all, to working on their game full-time. Few will achieve it, but I think most dream of being able to do so. And as Kieron Gillen points out in 'How to Use and Abuse the Gaming Press', an active fan base is a key component in bridging the gap between independent development and commercial success.

Think about it. Through spending a little of your time, you could end up with a professionally written version of the game that you love. But you've got to make it worth the investment. And becoming part of the community, or better yet, an advocate for the community, is the best way to start making this happen.

December 14, 2007

Feature: Blip Festival 2007... One For The Memory Banks - Part 2

- [For the second year running, the effusive Matthew 'Fort90' Hawkins has helped us out with an insanely detailed, awesome write-up of the Blip Festival, New York's premiere chiptune mashup insanity music fest. This year, it's so long that we're splitting it in twain - here's the first part, covering Nights 1 and 2. This second part deals with Nights 3 and 4 - avanti!]

NIGHT 03

I had planned on attending the workshops schedules for the early afternoon, to check out the history of and the how-to behind chiptunes, but the party simply knocked my ass out. I also missed an impromptu performance of Chibi-Tech jamming with Hally (the set I’m assuming that would have happened the night prior, time permitting). Damn…

Considering how epic night two was, one had to wonder if night three could keep up the pace, but before the music even started, you could feel the energy in the room; right off the bat, the place was packed (I’m not sure about the other nights, but Saturday night was confirmed to have sold out, with people being turned away at the door). It was a real circus; you had obvious chiptunes regulars brushing shoulders with curiosity seekers, with a healthy does of the art-farty crowd that frequents the area.

One woman was dressed like the Virgin Mary, another like some 80s glam starlet (with the huge hair, massive shoulder pads, and a gigantic silver belt buckle that had a big fish on it), and some group had tree branches with them (fans of Tree Wave perhaps?). The media was in full force, with G4 TV asking odd questions to whomever they could bother, and the Destructoid robot could be found as well. Oh, and that guy who dressed up as a Tetris piece from last time was back, but instead of being an L shape, he was just the long piece.

Performer 03.01: Markus Schrodt, from Austria, was to the eyes and ears. Armed with a C64, he was total Eurodance all the way. Carefree and fun are the best ways to describe both the man and his music, with quickly paced, and quick-witted compositions that got everyone in the dancing spirit almost immediately. A bold, yet very smart choice to kick off night three.

Markus Schrodt

Performer 03.02: Brooklyn’s own Mark DeNardo is another guy whom I have seen multiple times, and not a single time has ever been the same. Mark is a man everyone needs to see... Why? Because he’s the future of rock, that’s why.

Mark’s music is challenging, so lazy people or dummies need not apply. It’s eclectic mix of rock, folks, soul,and kung fu fighting, with Mark doing guitar and PSP (which emulates the sounds of a Famicon), plus there’s always some other person doing something else. Last I saw him, he had a woman playing the violin, but tonight was a dude on drums. Oh, and there was also a teenager who both provided support and did interpretive dancing, that was either dressed as a member of Team Zissou or a wearing a Mexican wrestling mask.

Mark DeNardo

Performer 03.03: Just as much as Mark is the future, the next act up, The Depreciation Guild, was clearly the next big thing. They’re as close to a “real-deal” mainstream act (i.e. marketable) as the fest, as well as the entire chiptunes scene has, as a whole; a two man-thing, you have two heart-throbs belting out chip-laden industrial rock songs and ballads as if they were in the industrial, post-punk/dream-pop scene, circa the 80s (I’ve heard them described as the chiptunes version of My Bloody Valentine, and its pretty app). Just close your eyes and you can imagine their video being in heavy rotation on 120 Minutes back when MTV actually played decent music vids.

The Depreciation Guild

Unfortunately, as was the case for many other acts thus far, technical issues reared its annoying head, and at times, the Guild sounded less than perfect. But when they were 100%, it was as if they were performing for a stadium, and on a card that could easily include My Chemical Romance or Postal Service, both of them opening, of course.

Performer 03.04: Treewave could be best described as the total package, as well as a complete treat to experience. The Texas-based outfit (which is normally a two person, man/woman combo, but the female half was absent… due to school commitments I hear... so it was just the dude that night) doesn’t just play songs, but paint grandiose, yet extremely sincere, almost intimate visual and soundscapes.

Tree Wave

Somewhat known as “that chiptunes act that makes music with a (dot matrix) printer, Treewave takes everyone on a ride and tells a story, filled with peaks and valleys… the audio is supplied by a vast array of old hardware, including said printer, who is rightfully a star, and the visuals are told via a 2600. The combo gives Treewave the distinction of being the very definition of what electronic music is all about, yet at the same time, is damn emotional.

Performer 03.05: Its as if The Deprecation Guild and Treewave was some big set up, to make everyone feel all happy go lucky, and soft, and vulnerable, as if it was some big massive set-up by performer number four, Bit Shifter, to go in for the kill.

Bit Shifter

A complete 180 from the two previous acts in terms of tone and attitude, Bit Shifter was hard, heavy, with intentions that was deadly clear: he was there to make noise and make move asses across the dance floor. Of all the times I’ve seen him perform, that night’s performance ranks easily as one of the most intense. Also, it was perhaps his longest set with the shortest amount of songs. I think he played, maybe four songs? Basically, he hit just the right notes and had no release to release the buttons. It was as if the king was letting his subjects know who was in town (and the king description is more than appropriate, given that Bit Shifter, aka Josh Davis was one of the masterminds behind the event, along with Nullsleep).

Performer 03.06: And then came yet another wild man from the East (with an emphasis on the word “wild”); his name was Bokusatsu Shoujo Koubou, aka BSK. Imagine the scary, long haired girl from the Ring movies, but her older, ass-kicking bigger brother instead. Its as if his Game Boys were the gateway to some crazy, insane breakcore chiptune dimension that we couldn’t see, but only hear, and apparently, its hella LOUD; BSK would push buttons and get the melodies and beats started, then we would have his hands around, as if he was doing some wicked incantation, plus swing his head and hair round, and round, and round.

BSK

I think the amount of sweat given off by the people in the audience had to have measured in the tens of gallons. His beats were so rapid fire to the point that it was comical. And of course, when some technical flub came up, the crazy, shut up and take your medicine man became all eager to please and “Sorry! Sorry!” as he did his best to fix things ASAP. But yeah, one of the most intense sets of the entire four days, and that’s saying volumes.

Performer 03.07: And at long last, it was finally time for perhaps the most anticipated act of the entire event, the grand return to America of the German innovators of the scene, Bodenständig 2000. You get two, goofy and lovable guys, a handful of old hardware, some wacky stories, as well as a few jokes, plus an intoxicating blend of techno rave, Eurodance, and good old fashioned chiptunes.

Bodenständig 2000

It’s hard to pick a favorite moment... maybe it was their opener, in which the song, sung without any accompanying chip-beat, starts off about a young boy that wants to be an astronaut, but after a space shuttle tragedy, his mother goes “Maybe we should reconsider this plan” and at which point, we hear a coarse, electronic voice state “THE UNIT WAS DESTROYED”, which carried over to the other cautionary tales, even if it was about an aardvark (or some other animal, I think) whose mother also asks to reconsider its chosen path in life.

Though also just as enchanting was their song about sex, which was accompanied by various phone sex ads supplied by teletype machines, which features ultra blocky, pixelated women, that was quite hot back in the day. But yeah, those two lovable dudes from Germany simply charmed the pants off of everyone, and got everyone in an awesome mood, enough to even placate the rowdy moshers.

Bodenständig 2000's pixel porn

Performer 03.08: For the third night, another: “How the in f*ck is the next guy next gonna to top that?!” And a valid concern, given how amazingly satisfying Bodenständig were. Unfortunately, so much so that a lot of people shuffled out immediately afterwards, though that might have something to do with the fact that it was crazy late; staying on schedule had been an issue the entire festival, but it was ridiculously so on night three. Well, the final performer for the evening was Huoratron, and those who left early, well... were clearly fools. And even I had doubts at first, but man, was I wrong.

Huoratron

Thank God Huoratron was just as evil as advertised. His site claims he’s from Finland, but I somehow don’t buy it; not from anywhere from this realm, at least. Hearing his music was like being in the middle of a battlefield. Helping to set the mood was his choice of background video, which was footage of bombs being dropped and stuff being blown up to smithereens. Which of course paled in comparison to the hypnotic looping vid of his scary visage, as he smiled with blood coming flowing form his mouth, or him getting punched in the face and sweat flying in all directions, in slow motion.

Huoratron’s set was loud and angry, to the point that it was almost abusive, but only because he loved us. And when he addressed the people, like the superior being that he was, as if he was a guiding light from either Heaven or Hell, it was with a gruff and angry voice, just like his music; when he called out Bit Shifter to come up on stage, one had to wonder if it was to hug him or rip his head off. You just didn’t know, and his devilish grin made it impossible to know what was going on.

Folks headbanged through his entire set, people who had never head banged before, those who neither had any previous interest, nor knew they were capable, such was the power of Huoratron, with the set culminating in a huge circle of people, holding hands and running around, for some reason. More than any other moment, one simply had to be there, for it was another high watermark for Blip Fest 2007.

the circle

NIGHT 04

After three solid nights of six hours of unrelenting chiptunes, there was still one more to go. Night four was for the diehards; those who still had the strength. It was particularly cold that evening as well, which was why the attendance was rather low compared to the previous nights, but still quite respectable.

I’ll admit it; I was dead tired by Sunday evening. Plus I had been more than satisfied, as was most of the people, plus everything as a whole had a definite “anything goes” attitude. It was time for Blip Fest to come to a raging climax...

Performer 04.01: Yet another from out of nowhere (well actually, another Italian on the card) performer, Postal_m@rket started off running and never stopped. Fast and furious, his songs, with its rather intricate, and all over the place compositions were also reminiscent of actual game music (its crazy to think that it wouldn’t be the case for all the performers, and perhaps it is the case, for those not versed with the field), and around the later parts of whatever game, or even the boss fights themselves. But for those of you who don’t compare each piece of music, whatever it may be, to Mega Man ditties, basically, everything had a very nice, retro flair.

Postal_m@rket

Performer 04.02: Right off the back, 6955 provided the laughs, by correcting the announcer, who mistakenly called him 9655 or something. The fact that a tall white dude was also representing Japan was worth a few chuckles (he’s originally from Canada, but migrated to Tokyo to pursue… life).

6955

Anyhow, 6955 was another pleasant surprise, with his mixture of ambience and noise, all neatly presented with a very experimental feel. Though the real star was his tool, which looked like nothing had ever seen; basically, he took a Famicom keyboard and it’s software and shoved it in the guts of an old Casio keyboard, which had a port made to accommodate a Famicom Basic cartridge.

6955's modified Casio

Performer 04.03: Once again, another local guy hit the stage, and easily the most criminally underrated one at that. This time it was Glomag, who always manages to impresses with an unpredictable array of haunting original melodies, tightly interwoven with brilliant covers. Its somewhat common in the chiptunes world… you’re just standing (or perhaps sitting) there, listening to an assortment of beeps and boops, then all of a sudden you find yourself going “Hey, wait a minute… isn’t that… HOLY SH*T IT IS!” And that was certainly the case when he brought Hotel California into the spotlight, with an awesome reinterpretation, which the long-played out classic has desperately needed. Though his take on the Kraftwerk standard, Pocket Calculator was just as sublime. In fact, as was the case with a few other local guys, but in Glomag’s case, perhaps a little bit more so; it was best, or at least my favorite performance from him thus far.

Glomag with his virtual self in the background

Performer 04.04: Two guys from Spain calling themselves Yes, Robot took the stage next. Basically, a double-trouble DJ combo that digitally scratched beats from Game Boys and were, more or less, the lives of the party. I could be wrong, but both seemed to be totally improvising and going about his own business, independent of the other, which probably meant they weren’t and were simply that good. It was a sight to see, and something to hear. Best surprise had to be when they busted out, in the middle of their frantic, party mix, a rendition of Close To You, which stopped everyone in their tracks to hold hands.

Yes, Robot

Performer 04.05: Straight outta Scotland came Firebrand Boy. Squarely in the “Jesus Christ, that guy is LOUD” category, and yet another super pleasant surprise, Firebrand Boy is folk/dance/chip explosion if there ever was one, and another instant crowd favorite. Again, words can’t express how insanely catchy his tunes were.

Firebrand Boy

Performers 04.06: gwEm & Counter Reset are, to put it blunty, two bloody wankers from the UK. gwEm in particular appeared to be a mixture of Johnny Rotten, Elvis Costello, and that scrawny kid you knew in high school that didn’t give a rat’s ass about gym and cared only about sneaking in a quick game of Super Mario Land whenever he found the time. About as anti-heavy metal, to the point that they go full circle and does indeed become heavy metal, as you can get, both rocked out via guitar and I believe old Atari computers, with the highlight being a rousing, and somewhat off-key, rendition of Breaking the Law.

gwEm & Counter Reset

Performer 04.07: Of all the performers who got the worst of it when it came to technical difficulties, it had to be Sabrepulse. Basically, an angry short guy, as well as a hardcore, chiptune powerhouse, the dude simply could not sit still, as he jumped, and jumped, and jumped some more, through one intense composition after another. Unfortunately, his amazing display of Game Boy sound-stretching and stomping abilities were cut short when one of his LSDJ carts died on him, effectively wiping out half of his intended set list. Once word was given out, a crack team of other artist came to the stage, to investigate, and possibly salvage the situation, but alas, nothing was possible. One can only hope that he’ll be back next year, with all problems worked out...

Sabrepulse

Performer 04.08: Finally, the closing performer for Blip Fest 2007. It all came to an end here. And someone damn good was saved for last… the legendary Blasterhead, another huge name in the field. So much so that he doesn’t even have a description in the official Blip Fest site. Perhaps because everyone should already know his name? And they should.

Blasterhead

Yet another non-assuming, quiet Japanese guy who let his music do all the speaking. Any last bit of energy the crowd had saved up was completely absorbed by his pulse-pounding, melodic, retro-rave Game Boy tracks. A fitting, an awesome note to end things on, one with plenty of base, distortion, and mixing…

And that was it! Blip Fest 2007, another one for the memory banks. History struck twice, as hard as it was to believe, and left everyone involved completely drained, and completely tone deaf. But more importantly, it proved a point... just as how no two people will make the same guitar sound alike, the same adage was proven for the Game Boy as well. Each and everyone one of those performers took sounds we all know and love, mostly from our childhoods, and made it their own, to produce something throughly unique, perhaps to create the music of the future.

Here’s to an outstanding musical event, one that won’t be topped till... Blip Fest 2008, naturally.

For information on the show, be sure to check out the official website, where each performer has links to their homepage, which is your best bet to get your hands on their music.

For the Blip Festival 2006 DVD, as well obtaining a legit copy of Little Sound DJ, plus additional information on the chiptune scene, be sure to head to 8bitpeoples for information.

And special thanks to Brian Liloia, Dave Mauro, and Josh Davis for providing pictures for this report!

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]

GameSetLinks: Friday I'm In (Link) Love

- Aha, some harvesting of links later, a fresh set of random web URLs appear - headed, of course, by Umbrella Corp's appearance on Forbes' fictional company index, which is in itself a bit of an inspired idea.

Whatever next? Fictional wealth indexes for made-up characters? Is Scrooge McDuck a more efficient industrialist than Lex Luthor? This is certainly the kind of material that Forbes should be covering on a monthly basis. [UPDATE: Oh, wait, commenter 'thesimplicity' points out that Forbes has done The Fictional 15 already, *sigh*.] Anyhow, here goes:

Vintage Computing and Gaming | Archive » VC&G Interview: Nolan Bushnell, Founder of Atari
An excellent Benj Edwards interview.

Capcom US - The Blog » Blog Archive » Umbrella Corp. made the Forbes list for 2007
Forbes list of _fictional_ companies? Awesome.

Serious Games Become Tangible Using Mobile Technology - Business & Games: The Blog
'What happens when the space you're exploring to unlock a narrative is the real world?'

Roger Jackson - The Voice of Grimm at American McGee’s Blog
Grimm _is_ Mojojojo - nice!

Akihabara Channel » Trading Cards 2.0
Lots of intriguing Japanese video game-related ephemera, again.

8bitrocket.com: 'The 1981 Atari VCS Christmas Surprise'
'In the fall of 1981, just after starting junior high school, my brother Jeff and I tried to convince our parents that we “needed” an Atari VCS for Christmas.'

Secondhand PC game section @ music store in San Luis Obispo, December 2007 on Flickr
Down there the other weekend, I snapped a pic of this craziness - you never see secondhand PC game sections nowadays, and definitely not lovingly maintained ones with 11th Hour strategy guides.

Games 2.0: Bringing games to non gamers « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog
A VC post that uses some interesting quotes (Daniel Cook, Rich Carlson) to make a point.

Second Skin - a Pure West Documentary
MMOs and online worlds - a documentary.

Strange Journeys » The Player Pie
Tyler Sigman's blog adds a neat illustration for an earlier Gamasutra article he did.

Best of 2007: Top 5 Overlooked Games

- [Continuing with the year-end picks also posted over at Gamasutra, this one's from our venerable News Editor, Brandon Boyer, who casts a critical eye over the games released this year that didn't get the attention they rightfully deserved.]

This time around, we take a look at the top 5 most overlooked games released this year, from Nintendo's green-minded Chibi-Robo Park Patrol to Harmonix's iPod debut Phase. The games chosen -- all from titles released in North America during 2007's calendar year -- enjoyed considerable cult enthusiasm, but, for various reasons, failed to garner mass attention.

5. Chibi-Robo Park Patrol (Nintendo, DS)

Chibi-Robo's sophomore outing was given a limited release that saw it -- in a somewhat tenuously argued case -- sold near exclusively at Wal-Mart because of the company's "strong environmental program and social giving campaign."

While exclusivity tactics are usually reserved for obscuring sub-par games, Park Patrol was an exception to the rule, and managed to pack big charm into its diminutive body, with a mostly non-combative and environmentally-minded ethos typical of the lineage of the staff at developer Skip.

4. Dungeon Maker: Hunting Ground (XSEED, PSP)

XSEED generated a tiny amount of radio static with its localization of Dungeon Maker, but the game's bottom-up approach to dungeon delving -- where players themselves architect ever more elaborate surroundings to attract ever more powerful enemies -- made less of a dent than it deserved.

With a DS version already on Japanese shelves, a localized port might bring that handheld's wider and more adventurous audience to discover why the game was one of the most one-more-round addictive games of the year.

3. Earth Defense Force 2017 (D3, Xbox 360)

Cult and import enthusiasts won't have missed this one, but the first Stateside release of the Earth Defense Force series shows how even a low-budget concept -- carbon-copy insect models that have hardly progressed since the series' 2003 debut and appear to be ripped straight from stock art catalogs -- can have thrills and tension nearly as high-impact as the AAAs, if you play the numbers right.

The very definition of economic design -- choose two weapons from an arsenal of hundreds and face off against wave after tidal wave of enemies in any style you prefer -- the game pulls off a surprising amount of strategic flair for using so few tools out of the industry's box.

Its attempt at squad mechanics and the honestly disappointing lack of Live integration made it a bit of a step backward from the last in the series, but with any luck Sandlot's toiling away at a proper sequel as we speak, or D3 might find it in their hearts to support the still vital PlayStation 2 with a surprise release of the superior second.

2. Raw Danger! (Irem/Agetec, PS2)

Probably truly the most woefully overlooked game on the list, Irem's follow-up to its original disastrous adventure (also released by Agetec in the States as Disaster Report) keys up not just the catastrophe, but the story-telling ambition as well. Hidden beneath its b-movie cover and budget price is -- stay with me here -- one of gaming's first great interwoven storyline equivalent to films like Short Cuts, Magnolia, or Three Colors.

Played out over a tragic Christmas holiday, the game is broken into a series of episodes following the progression of a cast of characters including a wrongly-accused prisoner, a tormented teenage schoolgirl, and an amnesiac that has to literally piece together fragments of his former self (through a cleverly designed minigame), all of whom cross paths at key moments, each under the player's control from every angle.

With pitch perfect comic relief and a (albeit more lo-fi) suffering slow-crawl scene that pre-dates Call of Duty 4's emotional climax by over a year, the game deserves far more careful industry attention than it was ever given.

1. Phase (MTV/Harmonix, iPod)

At the top of the list, though, sits Harmonix's little-sister to Rock Band's big-daddy that, perhaps simply by nature of its platform and the timing of its release (just a few weeks before Rock Band took the stage), seems to have gone generally yet-unnoticed by the industry at large.

Even driven as it is without the human touch given to the rest of Harmonix's output, its note-chart algorithms show a near Turing-test-passing understanding of what drives music and connects it to a listener.

Anecdotal evidence, like the game somehow knowing to place an iPod wheel sweep in Feist's "My Moon My Man" at precisely the same point as her dramatic music video twirl, is just some of the reason that Harmonix has made it a thrill to plumb the depths of music collections.

Other recent music-based releases have shown just how confidently and skillfully the studio can execute on obvious ideas, with a result that's less about beat matching as it is rhythm-feeling.

December 13, 2007

Special Announcement: Introducing GameSetApparel T-Shirts

-[This has been a good few months in the making, and we're delighted to launch GameSetApparel, which is GameSetWatch doing something fun with custom, game-themed T-shirts. If you like GSW itself and the T-shirt designs, I hope you'll help support it by picking up a stylish shirt or pre-ordering the full set. Yay.]

GameSetApparel is the new, limited edition T-shirt store created by the editors of GameSetWatch, the alt.video game weblog run by the staff of the Webby award-winning Gamasutra.com and the Maggie award-winning Game Developer magazine.

The first series of four T-shirts are named 'Games That Never Were', with shirt numbers GSA101 through GSA104, and are limited to just 111 copies each. The high quality custom printed T-shirts feature noted artists interpreting the idea of imaginary, legendary, or fictional games in neat ways.

The first shirt, from long-time Gamasutra collaborator Erin Mehlos (Hell's Corners) is available now, and fans can pre-order all four shirts now, with the remaining three thus far unrevealed designs - from Dan Paladin (Alien Hominid), James Kochalka (American Elf), and Schadenfreude Interactive (Accordion Hero) will be available for general purchase in the near future.

GSA101 - 'Polybius' - Available Now!

- The first shirt in GameSetApparel's limited-edition 'Games That Never Were' series, which is strictly limited to 111 copies of each tee, is 'Polybius' by Erin Mehlos (Hell's Corners).

For her design (GSA101) for this series, Mehlos has interpreted the infamous 'urban legend' arcade game, which was allegedly "...released to the public in 1981, and caused its players to go insane, causing them to suffer from intense stress and horrific nightmares."

Based on an illustration originally made for Gamasutra.com, the shirt pictures sinister 'men in black' with glowing red eyes lurking in wait behind the legendary, thus far 'lost' arcade machine, alongside a terrified kid hiding in bed.

-The black, high-quality Fruit Of The Loom T-shirt also includes the legend: 'Warning: Polybius may cause night sweats, excessive dizziness, nightmares, amnesia, uncontrollable screaming or abduction.'

Each shirt (available in XL, L, or M, with only 111 in total over all three sizes) also comes with a copy of a 4-page 'Polybius' mini-comic by Mehlos, each one of which is signed and numbered.

Interested parties can now order the GSA101 'Polybius' T-shirt design in multiple sizes from the GameSetApparel store. As mentioned before, supplies are extremely limited, since we'd like to keep things exciting and scarce to start things off.

Pre-Order All Four (GSA101-GSA104) Series 1 Shirts Now!

- In addition, we're now allowing a limited amount of pre-orders for all four GameSetApparel Series 1 shirts. The mysterious questionmarked designs above are pixelated versions of the other three shirts, which are designed by Dan Paladin (famed Alien Hominid/Castle Crashers artist), James Kochalka (American Elf creator and rock musician), and Schadenfreude Interactive (the German development geniuses behind Accordion Hero), and will be available for individual purchase in early January 2008 - obviously the final versions are neither questionmarked nor pixelated, heh.

- However, if you want to guarantee that you get these shirts as well (again, we're only selling 111 each of the Series 1 shirts), you can pre-order all four shirts right now.

- If you do this, we'll ship you the Polybius shirt straight away, and the other ones when they become available on the site. We have no idea how popular this is going to be, but to guarantee satisfaction, this would be the way to go.

Game Developer December Issue Showcases Drawn To Life, Microtransactions

- [Aha, the new issue of Game Developer is out now, so here's the release announcement for you good GSW readers. Bonus fact for you all - this month's cover was created by Paul Robertson of Pirate Babys Cabana Battle Street Fight 2006 fame, who I believe contributed to Drawn To Life as well. Neat!]

"The December 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine, the sister print publication to Gamasutra.com, and the leading U.S. trade publication for the video game industry, has shipped to subscribers and is available from the Game Developer Digital service in both subscription and single-issue formats.

The cover feature for the September issue is 'Postmortem: 5th Cell’s Drawn to Life' by Joseph M. Tringali, and it's explained of the exclusive postmortem:

"Beginning with the simple concept “Draw your character and play with them,” the THQ-published Drawn to Life brought 5th Cell to profitability as a developer, and cured the company’s licensed mobile game blues. But as is so often the case, the company wasn’t quite prepared for the logistics of a console game. Yes, to some developers 15 people working together on a game is still a lot."

Another major feature for the new issue is 'Purchasing Power' by Taiyoung Ryu and Kyuhwan Oh, of which it's explained:

"The microtransaction is at the forefront of a new wave of payment options in online games, but the concept comes with serious design concerns. Herein, two veterans of the Korean microtransaction-based game business share history and advice on this very subject."

Finally, the December issue also looks at 'Textual Healing' by Stephanie Shaver, described as follows:

"It would be too simple to say that graphical MMORPGs are simply text-based online MUDs with graphics slapped on, but the roots are certainly visible. Simutronics is the only large company still maintaining text-based MMOs, and is currently porting their ideas into a fully graphical game. Lead designer Stephanie Shaver shares with us some lessons that translate genetically from text games to graphical ones."

The issue is rounded out by an interview with Konami composer Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill series), as well as the customary in-depth news, code, art, audio, and design columns from Game Developer's veteran correspondents, plus product reviews and editorial columns.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of December 2007's magazine as a single issue."

COLUMN: HDR Knowledge - Informing and Empowering Parents

[HDR Knowledge is a bi-weekly column written by Nayan Ramachandran and chronicles his hopes and wishes for the future of the industry. This week, we take a look how the gaming industry can better inform parents that buy games for their kids, and what is being done.]

While statistics continue to tell us that the average gamer is getting older, still lying within the umbrella of the 18-40 year old male, there are plenty of those who lie outside of that, including children. Any good parent that takes an interest in their child wants to know what their child enjoys. Instead of completely prohibiting its use, they want to help their kid by providing access to that media while still filtering out what they deem inappropriate.

hdrkdec0901.jpgThe problem, in the past, has largely been a lack of reliable sources for that kind of information. Specifically in the forum of American parenting, most parents only know what television and newspaper media tell them. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most people with common sense look to newspapers and daily news shows for trustworthy news on a variety of subjects. Those same people would assume that the information those programs provide on other subjects would be equally trustworthy.

That, as many gamers can attest to, is categorically false. Time and time again, the focus that mainstream media has had on gaming as an industry has been lopsided, only covering sensationalist angles, focusing the spotlight squarely on the most terrible offenders of public decency. Its latest victim, Manhunt 2, has become a circus freak for many mainstream outlets, as news anchors parade it around as a repulsive reminder of the dangers of mature content in today’s entertainment.

CBS’ Katie Couric offered her thoughts on the abomination, warning parents outright that it is a game not suited for any kid. She, of course, neglected to the mention that the game is not very good in the first place. She also neglected to mention that the game is in fact rated an M by the American ESRB, which means that minors are not recommended to play the game in the first place.

The issue is more than misinformation on the part of the media. Even when informed, media outlets are telling parents how they should raise their kids. News programs give advice straight from the anchorperson’s moral handbook. Sure, it may seem that they are only around to help, but that is not their job. Their job is merely to inform and to empower, and to let parents make the decision on their own.

hdrkdec0904.jpg The level of empowerment is really the issue in all of this. The more we allow third parties to tell us what is right and wrong, the less power we really have over our own lives, and our ability to make truly informed decisions. Instead of taking information and making our own choices, we are merely taking the advice our favorite news program gives us, following it like an automaton.

What are we to do? How can we turn this all around? The majority of enthusiast gaming press sources are geared towards us, the gamers, rather than the parents that make decisions for their kids. Gaming sites and magazines are not only provided information in a way that would overwhelm most non-gamers, but the analysis provided in reviews often says nothing about the game’s objectionable content or who it should be suited for. Additionally, the jargon that game reviews (and similarly, HDRL itself) throw around can be not only daunting for newcomers, but downright confusing.

This is where sites like GamerDad and WhatTheyPlay come in. Gamerdad has been around for about four years now, offering helpful game reviews from a parental point of view, informing parents on both the quality of the game as well as the content. Gamerdad is somewhat akin to Christian Movie Review sites. Both offer readers a review with an obvious but helpful slant for their target demographics. Gamerdad is an invaluable resource for parents picking games for their kids at Christmas time or for birthdays, and should always be used when looking for game recommendations.

hdrkdec0903.jpg WhatTheyPlay, on the other hand, is a lot different. Instead of offering a wealth of articles and reviews for parents to read, the site offers one page write-ups on the content within a specific game, but does not judge the actual quality of the game. The site fully addresses the the warnings provided on the ESRB ratings, explaining its context and application within the game. The site also provides a great gaming glossary, which provides parents who aren’t gamers with all the game industry specific terms, so they can not only understand what their kids talk about with their friends, but so they can understand reviews provided by the enthusiast press.

The site also provides parents with a chance to advise other parents. Under each mini-review, parents who have purchased or played the game in question can vote on the age they feel is appropriate for the game. Through multiple reviews, an aggregate is reached, and a recommended age is displayed. Readers will notice that the age listed at the bottom is usually not in line with the ESRB rating. As movie loving parents will all agree, ratings systems are often just a suggested guideline to consider.

hdrkdec0902.jpg Combined with the journalistic integrity of those running the site (including Ziff Davis alum John Davison, a gamer and father himself), it is easy to see that the site aims to show games in an unbiased light, explaining what is really going on in each game, and empowering parents to make the decision they feel is right for their child. After all, every family has its own set of values, and allowing parents to make the decision after being informed of the cold hard facts is the only fair solution.

It is encouraging to see sites springing up that aim to bridge the gap between industry know-it-alls and parents out of the loop. It is especially encouraging to see that bridge being created by parents who have been in the industry long enough to understand and explain the information clearly, rather than make gamers and games out to be a bubbling stew of miscreants and misanthropes.

[Nayan Ramachandran is a teacher and writer living in Japan, and is totally not for kids. He also writes a weekly blog, that is fun for all ages, called HDRL.]

December 12, 2007

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': The Year's Best Characters

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

The end of the year tends to be a time of reflection, and it’s been said that this is one of gaming’s most prolific – if not its best – years yet. 2007 has seen all kinds of evolutions on the experience of gaming, and while we perhaps haven’t hit yet on that elusive formula for true emotional engagement, this year’s offering feels a lot like nudging up against the boundary of everything we’ve previously believed games are capable of being, in terms of the ways they can affect, immerse and even permanently change us.

As the industry struggled to find that magic balance between story and gameplay, compelling characters took front and center. The reasons we play span from getting the opportunity to be a hero – or a villain – to experiencing a new perspective, a different ability, a new angle on the world, a new sense of a self that is not us. It can be argued that the key to a game experience is a lucky cocktail of features that make us love – or loathe – our characters, that our final impression will hinge on what that character was, or was not able to do. With that in mind, we take a look this week at five of the year’s most aberrant, interesting, compelling and effective characters in games. Minor spoilers within...

-Frédéric Chopin (Tri-Crescendo's Eternal Sonata, Xbox 360)

Aside from some pretty colors and lovely music, as an RPG, Eternal Sonata was ordinary in most ways – and that’s the remarkable thing. That one of the most derivative genres in console gaming could so seamlessly integrate the life, history and musical work of a real-life composer in such a facile, cavalier way stands out as one of those examples of the kind of engagement that games can make possible. After all, Frédéric Chopin is not a fictional character, and the interpretation of his life as a dream in a fantasy game encouraged more than a few RPG fans to learn about him, maybe play a piano tune or two. And a character becomes much more thought-provoking given the concept that everything you are playing and seeing might just be a dream in the head of a man as he dies.

-Kratos (Sony Santa Monica's God of War II, PS2)

The first God of War made a compelling anti-hero of the haunted soldier, and God of War II brings us Kratos as a God. With character conventions that could serve as a primer on Greek tragedy, the piquant conflict between Kratos’ condition of power and his inner torment and powerlessness and the almost artful, ravenous violence that characterizes the gameplay gains greater relevance, with each brutal stroke conveying the desperation of bitterness and a quest for redemption and absolution that remains ever out of Kratos’ reach.

-Andrew Ryan (2K Boston's BioShock, PC/Xbox 360)

The architect of BioShock’s Rapture serves as a cautionary example of the danger of pure philosophy. Though he’s introduced as an antagonist, Ryan quickly becomes as sympathetic as he is so bitterly wrong – despite his hard-line objectivist-influenced ideals that delineate artists from parasites, men from slaves, his greatest crime save for fatal arrogance was perhaps believing in humankind too much. When the ensuing conflict forced him to compromise, over time, his ideals, that uncompromising faith in his beliefs were worth sacrificing his life to attempt to convey to his son. BioShock’s one weakness was that, as that son, the player couldn’t elect to adopt that philosophy to thwart his own abuse.

-GLaDOS (Valve's Portal, PC/console)

The sleeper hit of the year, Portal, couldn’t have brought phrases like “I’m doing science” into common parlance without GLaDOS, the decaying mainframe computer with a personality disorder. The relationship between GLaDOS and the protagonist has been called everything from passive-aggressive to maternal to an out-and-out feminist manifesto. An antagonist who joyfully lies and then admits it, and then contradicts it again, who praises and then excoriates, threatens and begs, who sings you a song when you defeat her -- Portal is undoubtedly an excellent game, but GLaDOS is what really makes it happen.

-You (You, Everywhere)

This year’s trends showed us clearly that networked gaming is here to stay. Social virtual worlds inspired by game concepts did a tentative introductory dance around gaming itself, and social networking, communication and personalization quickly distinguished themselves as lynchpin features that suddenly no game can do without. Blizzard’s unshakable Warcraft nation seems invincible, Mass Effect allowed players to customize the protagonist to an unprecedented degree -- from every response he or she has right down to the width of the eyes. Much was also made this year of choice in games as an absolute necessity – the player wants to personalize the experience, see themselves reflected in it. After chafing for years under conventions that forced film-like linear stories on players perhaps too hard, gamers have quickly declared that they’re quite happy to make their own stories, to place their preferences and their own character concepts front-and-center in an open world. The audience has set a new bar for the year to come, as gamers begin demanding game experiences where their own will is the star.

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

Road To The IGF: Making (Sound) Waves With Audiosurf

- Crossposting Patrick Murphy's recently Gamasutra-run ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, we talk to Invisible Handlebar's Dylan Fitterer about the developer's IGF 2008 Seumas McNally Grand Prize finalist Audiosurf.

The PC indie title was born from a fascination with merging music visualizers and gameplay to create an emotional response. Audiosurf is also a finalist in the Technical Excellence and Excellence in Audio categories for IGF, which takes place in February 2008.

What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?

I've been building hobby games for about 10 years now. Early on my goal was to make the Best Game Ever! I then found out that goal was a bit lofty, and I wasn't ending up with a finished product. So I went another route, producing lots of my own small games at a rapid pace just to get good ideas playable quickly. Audiosurf is a mix of these approaches - it grew out of one of my rapidly-prototyped games, but has been polished by years of work.

In addition to working on Audiosurf, I do contract work on serious games and web games.

What motivated you to create a game like Audiosurf?

I'm hooked on the combination of technical and creative work involved in game development and basically can't stop. I can't pinpoint an exact moment I was inspired to create Audiosurf, but it came from my fascination with music visualizers. I wanted to merge a visualizer with gameplay to get more invested in it and sharpen my emotional response. Such a game could offer players limitless variety too.

Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?

My biggest inspiration was the game Rez - the way it blended music and gameplay into a unified whole completely blew me away. I loved Rez, and thought it would be great to play something in that vein with my own songs. There was also a music visualizer from WildTangent with a ship flying above morphing terrain that sucked me in. That got me thinking about the potential of a 3D, perspective-view music visualizer.

Music is a constant inspiration to me too - I can hardly work without it. During development I kept coming back to songs that slowly build to explosion while thinking about how to heighten the resulting rush.

What sort of development tools are used by the team?

I use VC++ for performance-critical stuff and library integrations. Rapid gameplay iterations are crucial to me, so I use Quest3D for everything else.

It's easy for me to talk about Audiosurf at a high level now that it's nearly done, but that's not how I work. I follow my intuition and rapidly build almost every idea into a prototype. Tons of code gets tossed in the wastebin while the remaining bits are winners.

What do you think the most interesting element of your game is?

The music processing engine is the single most interesting part of Audiosurf. It analyzes the entire song before play begins so the gameplay pacing and procedural geometry can be synchronized ahead of time. This way, Audiosurf can arrange geometry for a feeling similar to the Chemical Brothers' Star Guitar video. Most importantly, this allows players to be able to select any piece of music to play within the game, not just pre-set choices: Audiosurf calculates how to accurately visualize any song you choose.

Audiosurf enhances the player's emotional reaction to music, and also enhances the player's anticipation. You can literally see the music coming at you.

What makes me really happy is how well the player's color-matching goal enhances the visualizer. Making players an active part of the visualization (with a goal) focuses their awareness on the song's upcoming changes and increases their immersion in the music. Because it's a game, it's a better visualizer, and because it's a visualizer it's a better game.

Roughly how many people have been working on Audiosurf, and what has the development process been like?

Audiosurf came to life several years ago as a mp3-reactive FPS set on a morphing disco floor called Orchestrated Assault. That code eventually collapsed on itself. I hadn't ever finished a game and I was inspired by the Indie Game Jam to try and do one quickly. That led to launching BestGameEver.com, where I released a new game every Friday for about 6 months. My favorite of these 7-day games was Tune Racer, and I ended up working with it until it became the Audiosurf of today.

Tune Racer went through many variations (and names) during this time. Different ideas included shooting enemies and racing through a forest at the speed of your music. I eventually came to the idea of pre-processing the player's song and renamed it Audiosurf.

Once Audiosurf's puzzle gameplay and the different character modes finally stabilized, I sought help with graphics, built-in music choices, and usability. It took a lot of searching, but talented people came on board and helped bring Audiosurf to the next level.

I couldn't be happier with my wife Elizabeth's user experience work, Paladin Studio's 3D models, Goran Delic's illustrations, Pedro Camacho's musical score, and Albert Park and Flynn Joffray's graphic design. I've integrated many great game ideas from the team including ideas from our core testers (Erik Fitterer and Kevin Egan) and our beta testers.

If the team had to rewind to the very start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?

Knowing now what the finished Audiosurf is like, it could be built in much less time. Without hindsight though, I'm not sure it could have been created any other way.

What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development, and are any other independent games out now that you admire?

It seems that every year lately is the best year ever for indie gaming. There's tons of great tools, tons of bright people, tons of compelling games, and most recently, tons of distribution options. Some games that have really impressed me are: Kingdom Elemental: Tactics, Pax Galaxia, Counterclockwise, Echoes, Mount & Blade, and Gunroar.

You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the game business something very important. What is it?

Go for it - try to make the best game ever! But remember to set some shorter goals along the way.

GameSetLinks: Mid-Week Madness

- Well, it's the midpoint of the week already, and GameSetLinks have been a bit slow in coming, thanks to rampant busyness/business at work, as well as lots of people complaining about my non-inclusion of Super Stardust HD in the downloadable games chart.

Still, I'd like to mutter in penitence to the guys at Housemarque that I not only bought the PSN title, I even bought the original Stardust for the Amiga. So they're getting my money even if I don't tip my hat to their game (Finnish demoscene coders for the win, incidentally!) And here goes some links:

The Hollywood Reporter: WBIE on developer shopping spree
Good Paul Hyman profile piece - Lego Batman, Lego Indiana Jones FTW, also.

GameTap: School of Thought: DigiPen
Some thought-provoking game school profiles, not an area that's covered too often outside of GameCareerGuide, etc.

damned vulpine » Mike Wilson apologizes for (Game)cock-up at stupid awards show
Interesting points on Gamecock getting just a little bit out of hand, random.

Strange Journeys » The Player Pie
Tyler Sigman's blog adds a neat illustration for an earlier Gamasutra article he did.

Orpheus Internet: Sony Playstation 3 Support - Network Help, Broadband Help, Firewall Rules and Configuration, NAT, Online Game Setup
The PS3 has majorly messed-up network config issues - check out some of the game-specific port issues!

AStrange: GPL violations in ICO
Updated with more proof - naughty Fumito!

YouTube - Time Crisis 4 Scarface Parody
Someone 'suspiciously' sent these to me with the word 'viral' in the email. I'm obliging because they're vaguely cute.

YouTube - Time Crisis 4 Terminator Parody
And here's the other one. Not bad.

Review: Why Xbox Originals Needs A Major Overhaul | Game | Life from Wired.com
I _somewhat_ see the point - but see my comment about secondhand game $$ only going into GameStop's pocket.

December 11, 2007

Feature: Blip Festival 2007... One For The Memory Banks - Part 1

[For the second year running, the effusive Matthew 'Fort90' Hawkins has helped us out with an insanely detailed, awesome write-up of the Blip Festival, New York's premiere chiptune mashup insanity music fest. This year, it's so long that we're splitting it in twain - part two, for the third and fourth nights, to run v. soon. Here we go...]

One year ago, almost to the date, history was made. Chiptunes artists from across the globe gathered in New York City to play together, to celebrate the medium, as well as educate the greater public, in an event that was the first of its kind. The inaugural Blip Festival was called many things, with the word “ambitious” being high on that list. And it was a blazing success.

So when it came time for round two, anticipation was even higher than before. Expectations simply had to be met, yet something new, something fresh also had to be offered. And Blip Fest 2007 did indeed deliver on pretty much every single count, at least the ones that really mattered. Most importantly, it offered ear bleeding, mind melting beep and blops for four nights straight. There was something for everyone… provided said person enjoys manic beats provided by old Game Boys and other “archaic” forms of video game hardware, or open minded enough to give them a listen. I myself had an awesome time… I’m pretty sure I lost about five pounds when all was said and done, from all the sweating and dancing. As for the rest of the audience… there was more of them this time around.

The whole chiptunes is constantly on the edge of making it “big”, and Blip Fest 2007 was further evidence of things “getting there.” Not only was there more in attendance, the gathering itself was a noticeably more diverse. Perhaps due to the fact that there was a lot of hype going into the event; coverage, at least on a local level, was quite high, with coverage from the New York Times, among other outlets.

In fact, thing somewhat kicked off one week early, via a 8bit-oriented art show called B I T M A P at a gallery in Williamsburg, the trendy, arty-farty quadrant of Brooklyn. Aside from featuring both non and completely interactive pieces, such as GR_DIUS, by Jeremiah Johnson, aka Nullsleep, noted NYC-based chiptunes artist, and one of the men behind the Blip Festival (the piece is basically Gradius for the NES, with the player’s ship and bullets completely invisible).

"Icarus Returns to Spook His Father" by David Mauro

The opening also had some 8bit music, courtesy of x|k, who was part of the previous year’s festivities, but was not on the card this time around. And that’s the thing… once the list of performers was made available, there was a certain degree of head scratching. Why was such and such not coming back? There were several reasons; first off, not everyone they wanted was available. Damn. But also, there was a concerted effort to bring in as many new acts as possible. Those who returned was apparently chosen at random by drawing straws, though I believe the initial cap was to be set at five, but over time that number grew, I would imagine due to schedule changes and the such. Anyhow, that meant no Jeroen Tel or Saitone. Oh well…

But I was looking forward to checking out Blasterheard, whom I had heard about for years, as well as see the glorious return of Bodenstandig. Plus, last year I had to miss out on two of the four nights due to a personal engagement, which I meant I had missed out on the star of that show, that person being Hally, but he was coming back at least, and I’d get to finally see what all the fuss was about.

Again, the fest had a lot to live up to, and it did, for the most part. Was the whole thing perfect? No, but nothing ever is. And whereas the first year’s event went relatively nice and smooth, there were quite a few rough spots here and there. Yet, in the end...

NIGHT 01

First off, the new space was an improvement over the last one; everything went down at Eyebeam, a gallery situated in midtown, over in Chelsea. There was plenty of room, with no huge columns to obstruct the view. The bright and brilliant pixel wall was back in effect, though rotated 90 degrees, with dual video projections on each side. An excellent idea.

I forget how it compared with the previous year’s opening evening, but there was just a smattering of people when thing kicked off a bit past 8. Hey, it was a Thursday, and it was early.

Performer 01.01: First up was Alex Mauer, who was obviously nervous about being the first up on the first night. But that didn’t stop him from providing a fine aural history of video games. Marer was completely no nonsense, as he played one smooth and jazzy tune after another; virtually each song featured a different sound chip, with his tune based upon the Commodore’s sound set being my personal favorite.

Alex Mauer

Unfortunately the crowd was not too into the tunes, for whatever reason. I guess cuz it was early and not everyone had loosened up. There was quite the valley between the stage and the audience, though that would be filled as the night progressed. At one point, after Mauer moved onto his fourth or so chip of his set, someone yelled out, jokingly “Make up your mind!” in which Mauer replied, quite dryly, “Well the whole point is for me to play as many different kinds of chips as possible.” The first guy, rather sheepishly responded with “I was just kidding! It’s all good!”

Performer 01.02: Neil Voss was the second man to take the stage, and the first returning act from the previous year. And just like before, he not only filled the house with soothing, crescendo laden tunes, but also played the part of the soft spoken lady killer yet again.

Neil Voss

Performer 01.03: The very first international act of the festival was 8GB, hailing from Argentina, was also the first guy to turn things up and make it a party. His beats were hard and fast, very dance hall like. And also very effective; people got a bit looser, heads started to bob, and we finally got some dancing.

8GB

Performer 01.04: Here’s where things finally got very interesting. Gijs Gieskes had with him a table full of... stuff. Even now it’s hard to describe the scene he had laid out; folks were crowded around the stage, not to dance but simply to see what the hell was going on. I asked about three different people who were far more familiar with the tools of the trade, and each person offered a different explanation or theory.

Gijs Gieskes

Basically, Gijs (is that a common name in the Netherlands?) produced music via a Game Boy, which was hooked to some sort of midi-relay-controller-type-thing. Which produced a series of lights, that was captured by a small camera, which is then projected on the wall. Possibly connected to all this is a totally different set of mechanics, which mostly consists of a pair of moving cylinders, and on them he would place little metallic discs, what used to look like food tins, which have been hollowed out.

Gijs Gieskes's instruments

There’s a second tiny, b&w camera that shows the contents of the discs as they move around, to reveal kaleidoscopes inside. There’s flashing lights as well, and the discs might have possible had some affect on the music (I noticed tiny groves around the cans that might possibly have some influence).

Gijs Gieskes's kaleidoscope

It was also during Gijs’ set in which we had our first major technical problem of the festival. For whatever reason, he simply lost all power, and it took some time and work to get it back. Days later, and no one still knows what really happened…

Performer 01.05: NrGiGa, hailing from Italy, hit the stage next. His set was pure, high energy. And helping to power the beats was his unbridled enthusiasm. Unfortunately, NrGiGa was yet another victim to technical difficulties, this time stemming from his own equipment. One of his two Game Boys kept going out… which at first stemmed from what appeared to be a defective transfer wire. Another one was produced in a timely fashion, but problems persisted, this time with his copies of LSDJ (Little Sound DJ). He had to struggle through his set, but the audience hung in there, though it took up more time then expected.

NrGiGa

Performer 01.06: As much as happy and on top of the world NrGiGa appeared to be during his set, compared to the next guy, Paza, he seemed absolutely morbidly depressing. I knew of the Swede’s work with Beck, which is how is he mostly known, and also told that his liver performance was going to deliver, and he didn’t disappoint; armed with assorted bits and pieces, including a children’s toy that made animal noises, as well as some kind of voice modulator, Paza took the stage and ran with it, with another ultra high energy, clothes ripping (literally) performance. And building off of what NrGiGa started, the energy level in the room was at least starting to rise...

Paza

Performer 01.07: But it wasn’t till man number six got up front, that the party was officially in effect. His name was Saskrotch, a complete unknown to myself and my companions, and it took next to nothing for him to turn us, as well as the every other body in that room into lifelong devotees. This mystery man was all over the place, starting out nice and jazzy, and quickly going into intense, dance mixes, laden with rap and dancehall beats and samples. I consider him the Meatloaf of the chiptunes, and NOT because of his physique (he was not just another skinny white guy up there making jams from Game Boys, which to be honest, a tiny bit refreshing), but his complete charisma and ownership of the stage, as well as his sweeping, almost hypnotic openings, like a bear trap, which is quickly followed by a barrage of beats, going in for the kill. Far and away, one of the highlights of the entire festival, and one of its greatest discoveries for us New York boys.

Saskrotch

And of course, off stage, the kind is rather quiet and somewhat shy, and very friendly. Dude is from Chicago and needs to get his ass back over here as quickly as possible.

Performer 01:08: Going on past 1 in the morning, and well past the 12:40 scheduled timeslot was Lo-bat, the man from Belgium, who could be considered a vet of the chiptunes scene, one that decided to hang up his Game Boy and Amiga to pursue a more stable career… making comics (well, it’s a far more stable job in Europe). But he came out of retirement to show his stuff, and...

Truth be told, I must be getting old, because it was past one in the morning, and I had a job in the morning and other responsibilities, hence why not feeling up for yet another act, especially after the intensity that was Saskrotch. And I have to wonder if I was the only person to think the same. But Lo-bat was the first of the “Gee, how the hell is that guy gonna follow XYZ?” And less than half a song later, everyone was instantly transfixed.

Lo-bat

Again, another man who knows his chops, and able to bend circuits to produce dance, trance, techno, break-beat, and everything in between. Night one raged well into the dark, including one encore, close to 2 am (actually, it might have been a little past it). When it was over, we had received only our first six solid hour dosage of chiptunes. With many more to come...

NIGHT 02

Friday night kicked off with two things: first a stroll to the merchandise table. Among the many highlights was the official Blip Festival 2006 DVD, which features performances from every single act the previous year, in a very handsome looking and slickly produced package. And of course you had plenty of CDs, mini CDs, shirts, and even some zines and other crafty stuff. I myself got the new “Holy 8bit Night” chiptunes Xmas album, since I both love chiptunes and Christmas songs, plus it had two tracks from Saitone. There was also a curious looking 3CD collection for just ten bucks (what a steal!) that was simply titled “Real Japanese Underground 2007” that no one, even those manning the table, knew about. I was told it was brought over by Bokusatsu Shoujo Koubou (aka BSK), who tried explaining via his limited English that it was a combination breakcore chiptunes and hardcore noise punk complication. Sold!

But the true highlight was actual Little Sound DJs for sale, for just $75. The real deal, tools of the trade, which has been long out of print for years, and the only real way to get them has been via eBay; last I checked they were going as high as $400-500. I’m not clear on the details, but the folks behind them have decided to go back into production, and they had 100 units available, and a good number were pushed by the end of the weekend (something tells me that a good portion of the buying audience was more than likely the artists at the show, since some had to deal with issues relating to their war wary carts starting to fail). I myself was sorely tempted, but ultimately, $75 is a bit too steep of a price for the inner sanctum of coolness, at least when I heard that LSDJ is not for the faint at heart, though Jeremiah insisted that it’s “not that hard to learn.”

The second order of business was trying to figure out what the deal was regarding the after-party, which I first caught wind about the previous Saturday night, at the B I T M A P opening. The initial impression I got that it was going to be a low-key, strictly on the down-low affair, so I didn’t really say anything about it, except to friends. Later in the week came word that it had “leaked” via Facebook, and then that night I heard that Jeremiah was going to make an announcement at the end of the show, so I guessed it was going to be open to everyone. Though the main point of contention was where it was supposed to be exactly; the supposedly locale moved from Lower East Side of Manhattan to somewhere in Brooklyn to back to Manhattan, somewhere in the West Side (which made sense since that’s where the venue was). Then came the final word: in Williamsburg at some dude’s place. What? I was told that it was big... but how big is big?

Also, the party was set to kick off around two later that night/morning. One of the biggest selling points of heading to Brooklyn well past midnight, and after six plus solid hours of chiptunes was for more chiptunes, featuring artists from last year’s show (including ones I had missed) who were in town for some fun, but also brought their gear. One was scheduled to go on at 4 I think, then next at 5 or 6. Things were supposed to wrap up around 9 in the morning. Okay...

It should also be noted that there was a pretty sizable crowd from the on-set, which was expected, it being Friday night and all. There was more buzz and excitement in the air this time, as compared to the other night. The butterflies were out of certain stomachs, and it was time to get to business. And expectations were high, at least among myself; the card looked good, damn good for that night.

Performer 02.01: The lone female artist for the entire event, New York City’s own Bubblyfish took the stage, though not as nimbly as she normally would; she was sporting a cast, due to an injury sustained while jogging or something just over a week prior. But that did stop her from her doing her thing.

Bubblyfish

Bubblyfish’s sets are always a delight, with a set that’s very mellow, yet quite playful, and she was an excellent choice for an opener. Her songs are like taking a journey. One that’s no so much bumpy as they are thumpy.

In the middle of her set, she explained her injury to the crowd, which didn’t prevent her from standing her ground like she normally does, though it did ground her. “I can’t dance, I can’t jump!” she explained, hence why she called for dancers. The first name was of Chibi-Tech, who wowed everyone last year, not just with his highly intricate and ultra dance-y tunes, but his own body shaking, and since he was an expected surprise, me and my friends were immediately pleased. But... he was nowhere to be found, so some other guy took the stage, dressed somewhat like Michael Jackson, and almost moved like him as well.

Bubblyfish & the dancer

And not too long afterwards came some girl dressed in mostly blue, looking like some character from a King of Fighters title. And her moves were a bit more... interpretive. But soon came some more trouble: the sound kept going out, which resulted in the two dancers completely freeze framing. At first the pauses were brief, but they kept coming, and grew longer. But the frozen dancers kept everyone entertained, plus on the video screens behind them was a game of Contra going on (throughout the show, various artists created shapes and color via NESs) and that was a big hit. The interruptions would be bad for anyone regardless, but considering how for Bubblyfish, everything melds and transitions into each other, it was particularly frustrating, who I believe had to cut things short.

Performer 02.02: Time for something very different: Loud Objects, an ensemble consisting of three chip artists created both sights and sounds, from total scratch, in the very middle of the room. Everything took place on an old overhead projector, with various chips strewn about, with hands going in and out to connect all the elements together. At first there was no sound, but over time, as they connect, audio is produced, as well as the occasional word written on the projector; for whatever reason, the very first word written was “Metroid”.

Loud Objects

It was... interesting. Though not as effective as it would have been in a smaller, more intimate setting, since those who could see first hand what was going on were totally confused as to what was going on. Many could not tell if something was actually being assembled, or if they were having technical difficulties.

Performer 02.03: Third up was one of the few local talents that didn’t manage to make it on the show last year, minusbaby. On stage with him was a DJ, manning a turntable that didn’t appear to have any vinyl, but instead was attached to minusbaby’s laptop, which fed the DJ bit-laden beats to be scratched. The result was truly eclectic, something I had not personally witnessed before. The songs themselves were almost Reggie-ish, and got everyone moving with no fuss.

minusbaby & his mixmaster

Performer 02.04: Up next from Sweden was Rugar, who was top on my personal list of must see’s. His music isn’t meant to necessarily make people dance, but to tell a story. And not just any story, but a powerful epic, and his melodies run the gamut of emotions, from hopeful to somber, and even somewhat scary. Of all the music produced by all the artists that entire weekend, his seemed most appropriate for an actual video game, though more specifically, a Japanese RPG for the NES or SNES.

Rugar

Unfortunately, most folks in attendance was not sure what to make of it. It’s like being at a club, and after the DJ throws down one rocking beat after another, then all of a sudden, a slow song gets played. Even if it’s good, the people will not exactly be there receptive to it. Well, I personally didn’t mind, and I’m glad he was placed where he was, to add variety to the evening, but again, I don’t think it quite worked.

Performer 02.05: Everyone loves Nullsleep. That’s pretty much the bottom line. Aside from the fact that he’s the local boy gone good, as well of the key people behind the entire event, Jeremiah also happens to be one of the finest chiptunes artists in the world today. Also, on a personal aside… I have many friends that I have tried to introduce to chiptunes. Some love it, and some think its nonsense. But… almost every single one of those folks who could care less about the music has gone “Though I will say that I do like that Nullsleep guy’s music” Again, everyone loves the dude.

Nullsleep

You kinda know what to expect from a Nullsleep set: intensively, brilliantly composed tracks, a reason to dance till you sweet, among other things. And everyone got all three this time around, because Jeremiah always delivery. Period, end of story.

Performer 02.06: The second “Gee, how the hell is such-and-such gonna follow that?” artist for the weekend was Virt, which was a dumb sentiment, since it was completely unnecessary. Another well-known and well respected vet from the scene, no two performances from the man are at all alike.

Virt could be best described as the chiptune musician’s musician. I’m fairly certain if you threw any instrument at the man, he would know how to play it in a heart beat, and make the song sound vaguely Miami Vice-ish, and somehow transition it to sound vaguely Mega Man or Castlevania-ish. The crowd was already at 11 thanks to Nullsleep, and Virt cranked things up even further. And then IT happened… Chibi-Tech finally made took the stage to dance, and dressed in a maid costume from Akihabara no less. It was simply insane.

Virt with Chibi-Tech

It was also at this point in which the festival was finally “on”. Everyone had loosened up and you had a small army of nerds doing their awkward white person dance up front (with plenty of people kicking it in the back, just soaking up the scene). Which was where I was for the most part, and that had its plusses and minuses; it was quite awesome to witness the crowd being overtaken by the music and be in the thick of it all, yet a few annoying types did dampen the spirit, but that’s to be expected at any show.

Actually, last year this one guy that really got on my nerves with his overly spastic dancing (who managed to not just run into, but punch in the nuts of anyone within a ten feet radius) was back. Everyone who noticed him simply figured he was just “having a good time”… that was until they too got sick and tired of having their feet carelessly stomped on, or dealing with his constant crowd surfing, which wouldn’t have been so bad if not for the fact that, instead of relaxing and letting the crowd do their thing, he would kick and flail his arms constantly, resulting in almost everyone getting kicked in head by him at least once. Though when he also got greedy by attempting to surf about eight or nine times during each song, people began to get sick of playing babysitter, which resulted in him getting dropped a sack of potatoes onto the floor, which was pretty funny.

Though he wasn’t the only one; for whatever reason, a few others were also pretty aggressive. For the first time ever, I witnessed a pit at a chiptunes show, which was pretty strange. Mind you, a pit made up of scrawny white nerds, so use your imagination with that one. Another amazing spectacle was, half-way through Virt’s set, I saw a huge jug of what appeared to be vodka being swigged hard way by a small group of friends. Later on, my friend and I would witness one guy and girl from that group making out totally hardcore in front of us. It was... pretty hot to be honest! I swear to God, I though they were going to screw, right then and there.

There was also this one guy who came up on stage while Virt was playing and start dancing on stage. Initially I thought he was a fellow chiptunes guy, joining in on the fun, but no one could recognize the guy, and it was soon evident that he was just random guy that was drunk out of his mind. At one point, he took one of Virt’s Game Boys and started to pretend that he was making music; it’s one thing to go up there when you have no real business doing so, but to handle someone’s tools… that took balls. Later on, he would also appear during another performer’s set and just stand there, as if he was going to either pass out or just vomit on himself. Oh, and it was during Virt’s set that I got kicked in the back of the head, by yet another crowd surfer who didn’t do the best of jobs handling herself, and my glasses flew from my head, onto the floor and among many moving feet. This had happened once before, at a GWAR show, and thankfully I found it in just a few seconds (albeit covered in fake blood and other bodily fluids), but this time around, after much searching, I couldn’t find them, and every passing second felt like an eternity. And considering that I’m blind as a bat without them, it was hell, but thankfully, as people around me caught on, they helped in the search, and thankfully, it was found and without a scratch! So the point is, most folks in the crowd at the fest were totally awesome people. Though unfortunately, Paza was not as lucky; he too was crowd surfing, and his glasses flew off, which got stepped on, and then he himself got dropped, then landed on broken glass. Once again, a totally wild scene.

Also afterwards, Virt mentioned how he had pushed himself so hard performance wise that he thought was going to have a heart attack. I thought we was simply joking, but he made the same comment to others, and it began to dawn on us that he maybe wasn’t kidding… The guy puts on a hell of a show, that much is clear. Hopefully, it won’t kill him!

Performer 02.07: It was finally time to see what all the fuss was about; Hally, the first act from Japan, in a card that was sadly a bit lacking of Eastern acts, at least compared to last year’s, and who was arguably the talk of that show, as well as the one guy I was most pissed about missing. I had seen the guy all throughout both evenings, soaking up the tunes, and seemed like a very non-assuming sort, mostly due to his somewhat small size. But the second he went up on stage, and put on his gigantic Yoko Ono sunglasses, he became a chiptunes God, and an exuberant one that at, with his extremely happy to be alive “HELLO MY NAME IS HALLY!” address to the people. And armed with his pair of twin 2nd gen Famicoms and a GBA synched to them both I believe, he completely tore the house down, then rebuilt it in his own image, and again demolished it.

Hally

Words cannot capture the frenzy that was the end result, but Hally’s set was simply flawless, it was magic, it was madness, and everything in between. The man more lived up to the hype, and then some. My personal favorite moment had to be hearing his wicked Xmas Song Megamix, which was the cut from the 8bits of Christmas compilation that I listen to over and over again, but in live at last. There was also a very exemplarily live rendition of Blue Monday as well. But also fun was when Hally had some technical difficulties, forcing him to profusely apologize, which was hilarious and somewhat cute. It was also funny how near the end, most folks around me were getting sick and tired of dealing with the constant crowd surfers, since it was getting in the way of enjoying the music. Then all of sudden another body approached, with everyone adopting a “Oh great, not again” attitude… until they realized it was their new God himself, and they went “Oh sh-t, it’s Hally!” and they all rushed to lend him support.

Performer 02.08: The last act of the mind-melting second night was the bunch of New York kids that were more than just alright: Anamanaguchi. You’d think that by this point, the crowd would be running out of gas, but that was far from the case, and after three solid techno dance acts in a row, some rock and roll was more than welcome. They lit up the stage with their mix of rocking guitar riffs, accompanied by the beats of an NES, plus brought out all the girls up front (everyone in the band are handsome young men, so its hardly a surprise).

Anamanaguchi

Unfortunately, technical issues reared its ugly head once again, in a somewhat big fashion. Though it’s kinda humorous when a band has to literally hit restart; the console was acting up, and instead of having to restring a guitar, the NES cart with their backbeats had to be constantly blown into. But problems aside, it was clearly the best I had ever heard the guys; usually the guitars overpower the console, but the levels were just right.

But once they were done, the night was far from over! Though the announcement from Jeremiah of the party was never made. It went back to being a word of mouth affair, and once I got my instructions, I took a cab to Williamsburg, to again, some dude’s apartment. But it turned out to be a very big apartment!

It was there that all the performers got a chance to kick back, relax, and drink some (more) beer. In the bedroom, I got to see a bunch of performers all pull out and compare their Game Boys; it was a fun sight, one which was captured via camera, but I didn’t want to intrude… it almost felt intimate. Around 3:30-4:00 was when Touchboy played his set, which turned the place into a rockin’, chiptunes disco (literally, with smoke in the air, and strobe lights beaming). And after him was x|k, who did a similar set to the one he played at B I T MA P. Afterwards, a bit past 5, both Hally and Chibi-Tech were supposed to do a set together, but some DJ that was hired for the party absolutely had to go on at 5, so the aforementioned duo had to get bumped, which was a bummer.

Which was why I decided to take my cue and head home, and ended up taking a car back into the city with a German chiptunes guy (Bernhard from Bodenständig), an Italian chiptunes guy (NrGiGa) and a Swedish chiptunes guy (Paza). All three were staying at Nullsleep’s apartment, who lives half a block from myself, and guess what the main topic of conversation was? The Governator, who all did Arnold impressions all the way home…

Special thanks to Brian Liloia, Dave Mauro, and Josh Davis for providing pictures for this report!

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]

Opinion: 2007's Top 5 Downloadable Games

-[This was written by me for big sister site Gamasutra, but I know a lot of GSW fans love console downloadable games, so it seems eminently worth a cross-post, if only for argument-related reasons.]

"Throughout this week and next, Gamasutra is presenting a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2007.

First up, we take a look at the top 5 downloadable console games released this year, from Everyday Shooter through Pac-Man CE. The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2007's calendar year to date.

5. PixelJunk Racers (Q-Games, PlayStation 3)

The folks at the Kyoto-based Q-Games (Star Fox Command), led by former Argonaut coder Dylan Cuthbert, have been trying to take things back to the '80s with simple, iterative self-funded downloadable titles for the PlayStation 3.

Racers is the first of these, and it's intentionally incredibly simple - just acceleration and lane changing needed, slot car style. Perhaps because of this, it's relaxing and addictive all at once, and bodes well for further titles in the PixelJunk series for PSN coming soon.

4. Jetpac Refueled (Rare, Xbox 360)

For those who grew up in Europe in the 1980s and remember the original Jetpac, this enhanced remake is even more enticing - but even for those who don't, the gameplay is beguiling.

It's particularly notable that the gravitational physics behind the Joust-style thrusting, transplanted wholesale from the Stampers' 1983 Ultimate Play The Game original - the first ever title from the now-departed Rare founders - work just as well almost 25 years later.

3. Everyday Shooter (Queasy Games, PlayStation 3)

A gloriously abstract shooter that originally won multiple prizes at the Independent Games Festival this year (Disclaimer: I am IGF Chairman), Jon Mak's title is particularly enjoyable because of its careful blend of strategy, stylish visuals, and action-generated music.

In addition, the concept of radically changing gameplay and look on a level by level basis - something that Mak has compared to a music album - is particularly progressive as a concept. It's also nice to see high scores as a success arbiter returning in such a prominent manner.

2. fl0w (ThatGameCompany, PlayStation 3)

One of the games released this year that is least like a... game, the depth-based eating/growing experience that is fl0w had already been well-tested in Flash by creator Jenova Chen and his associates.

The reason that fl0w works so well is because of its serene experience, carefully basic motion controls, and simply understandable game mechanics. Even the state of navigating the game is relaxing. The fact that such an organic-feeling experience had an explicit end is sad, though - algorithmically generated levels next time?

1. Pac-Man Championship Edition (Namco Bandai, Xbox 360)

The original Pac-Man is simply one of the best games ever created. And, in this world of enhanced remakes, the Japanese developers at Namco Bandai worked with Pac-Man's father Toru Iwatani and created something incredibly special - a remake that improves on the original.

With all the flavor and excitement of the original, the multiple new modes - many of them with explicit time limits and related high scores - layered even smarter strategic gameplay upon the peerless original. And with smart art direction, the title looks amazing in HD. Tremendous."

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': American Civil War II (Only in Japan)

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, sometimes by Christopher "TOLLMASTER" Bruso, a known procrastinator and giant robot fanatic. And sometimes not. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers Metal Wolf Chaos, a mecha run-and-gun starring the President of the United States. No, seriously.]


metalwolfchaoscover.JPG Informed (or jaded) gamers consistently bemoan Japanese titles which fail to make it overseas. Japan has been, and still is, the center of the console gaming market, and many titles developed for this market are not considered for an international release for a plethora of reasons. Some titles may be too entrenched in Japanese culture to translate faithfully for other markets; other games may cater to niches in Japan which do not exist on the same scale in other countries; and sometimes works are turned down for release simply because it is thought that the overseas market cannot currently support another title in a particular genre.

Thus the English-speaking gamer often misses out on landmark titles such as those in the Sakura Taisen series, which has at least five "main storyline" games, along with numerous side games and constant re-re-re-releases. Despite pressure from hordes of wailing fanboys and even occasional exposure from mainstream games journalists, the games just never make it over.

In Sakura Taisen's case, it's easy to see the reason why: succinctly, it's a steam mecha tactical RPG that is also a dating sim featuring women who are actors in a Japanese theater when not fighting demons. While there may be a niche market for such an experience in Europe and North America, the game could end up being too far out of left field for many gamers, and thus the company doing the localization would be taking a major financial risk. Sakura Taisen can be said to be "too Japanese" to make it to the United States.

The same cannot be said about Metal Wolf Chaos, which features the US President in heavy mecha armor on a rampage across the United States.

The only thing more perplexing about the lack of release for Metal Wolf Chaos in the United States is that it was released only in Japan. Mirroring the inexplicable creation of 1942, an early vertical shmup developed by the Japanese that had a US fighter taking down Japanese carriers and battleships, From Software, mostly known for their excellent Armored Core series (and the mostly unknown by Westerners Another Century's Episode series, covered previously on this column), had created a game perfect for the American market, by making it take place exclusively from an American point of view, and made it for the Xbox, a US-centric console.

But while 1942 made it to the United States, and was merely a strange game for a Japanese developer to make, Metal Wolf Chaos--a game taking place in America, starring the US President, parodying United States politics--was enjoyed exclusively by the paltry number of Xbox owners in Japan.

I mean: did the Japanese get the joke about Florida recounts, or what?

As American as Apple Pie, Except Japanese

metalwolfchaosscreen3.JPGMetal Wolf Chaos' plot is as insane as it is brilliant. You play as US President Michael Wilson, 75% Super Robot anime hero, 25% pastiche of current President George W. Bush, piloting a late model tactical mobile armor somewhat similar to VOTOMS' Armored Troopers. The nation has experienced a coup d'etat lead by your former Vice President, who has taken control of the military and news organizations of the United States.

Instead of fleeing the country or collecting loyalist troops around you, you instead opt to defeat the entire US military in a personal war, city by city. The first stage's opening scene sets the tone perfectly: Michael Wilson explodes out of the Oval Office onto the White House lawn in his mecha whilst screaming "LET'S PARTY! Welcome to the White House!" in B-movie grade English. Control is then given to the player, to literally stomp on US infantry and knock helicopters out of Washington D.C.'s skies.

And yes, the game's voices indeed use English. Not only the President, but every voice in the entire game is voiced entirely in English, and not that weird pidgin English that Japanese actors sometimes speak; it seems people who spoke English natively did all of the voice acting (albeit, kind of badly).

And since most of the important menus are in English, this makes the game one of the very few Japanese imports that are completely playable without any knowledge of Japanese. You'll understand the entire story and can navigate through the menus to do everything necessary to complete the game, missing only some unnecessary flavor text and the mission results screen. Everything else, including mission objectives, is voiced in very comprehensible (but oftimes laughter inducing) English.

Given the plot, action/arcade game friendliness of the title, and that the game was almost already in English, the mind boggles that this never made it across the Pacific. [1] While the game doesn't quite qualify as a political parody, it seems specially designed for the American consumer, given it was created for the Xbox and occasionally pokes fun at semi-recent American political events. Perhaps they're not obscure enough that the Japanese wouldn't know about them as well, but it still seems to make it a no-brainer for an American release.

The "DNN" segments, which mock the news networks' seeming willingness to believe the official party line, is particularly American in nature. And the mix of President George W. Bush's rogue obstinacy with the Super Robot hero paradigm would seem to require the knowledge of both an American political junkee and a fan of anime to really appreciate. With lines like "Nothing is pointless--and the reason is: I'M THE PRESIDENT OF THESE GREAT UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!!!" and "I'll keep on fighting, as long as the America inside my heart is still alive!" it's hard for even the most left-leaning Democrat to not crack a smile.

Perhaps what George W. Bush needs to regain popularity isn't a flight suit, but a mobile suit.

Building Guns and Digging Graves

metalwolfchaosscreen1.JPG While the game's limited fanbase in America consider Metal Wolf Chaos an absolute must-play for the story, there isn't nearly as much talk about the gameplay. And many of the complaints that were listed are unfortunately valid: beyond the innovative story there is a less than innovative game running underneath. While it doesn't play badly by any means, it just doesn't compare favorably with From Software's other mecha games.

Combat is slow and unresponsive as opposed to the fluidity of, say, Armored Core; the game's challenge is unbalanced and varies wildly; many mission objectives are somewhat repetitive; and while it's not necessary to obtain them, the amount of pickups and hidden objects in the stages reminded me somewhat more of a late Nintendo 64 platformer than a mecha game about a rampage across the United States.

The mission objectives are perhaps the most upsetting of these flaws. Most missions have reinforced towers set up across the map that you usually have to destroy to complete the level, and bringing these down is simply boring and unchallenging. For whatever reason, the rebel US Army only placed guns on one side of these fortifications, and it's never any trouble to simply move to the other side, stand still, and fire your weapons for what seems like an eternity.

Destroying those towers is so monotonous and breaks the "flow" of the game so much I can't understand why they were ever included. Luckily, these flaws are never serious enough to make the entire game feel like a chore, but for many gamers, especially those used to other games from, uh, From Software, it's a bit disappointing.

And along with the common criticisms, I also believe the game is misunderstood by many, much like, and in the same ways as, the Gungrave series for the PlayStation 2 was misunderstood. Gungrave and its sequel, Gungrave: Overdose, share quite a bit in common with Metal Wolf Chaos. Both feature incredibly powerful player avatars with self-regenerating armor when not currently being being attacked, but lack many of the movement options and escapes that both modern mecha games and modern action games often include.

A particularly skilled Armored Core player can see many attacks coming and, if skilled enough, avoid them completely; however, in Gungrave and Metal Wolf Chaos, dodging many attacks after they have been made is either hard or impossible. Instead, gameplay is based less on reaction timing than it is about pacing; knowing how much more of the enemy you can take on with your current lifebar, knowing from what direction to press your attack from, knowing when to retreat to regenerate your energy bar, and when to use your limited use super move are more critical.

In short, it is not so much about having good reaction skills, but being able to tell when to generally be more aggressive and when to retreat. Metal Wolf Chaos doesn't compare favorably to other titles because they shouldn't be compared at all; the style of Metal Wolf Chaos' gameplay aims to do something very different, and has to be looked at as its own experience.

metalwolfchaosscreen2.JPGAnd again like the Gungrave games, Metal Wolf Chaos' appeal also lies in the fact that it is simply a lot of fun to go on a rampage. In an action game, you want the player to feel that they are a badass bringing destruction wherever they go, but there is a fine line that has to be walked here. If you make the player character too weak, you of course lose that badass feeling; but when the player character is too strong, the game becomes a mindless bore.

Gungrave's solution was to include an over-the-top protagonist, a vast number of enemies onscreen, and a "chaining" system that rewards the player for living dangerously and not stopping to regenerate their armor between enemy groups. Metal Wolf Chaos includes all of these, and also makes the player a walking arsenal: your mecha's backpack somehow has room for up to eight oversized weapons you can change between in real-time [2], and you usually carry two at once, one for each hand. Nothing says "badass" quite like two tank cannons strapped together in one hand and a helicopter chaingun in the other.

Between missions you can research and buy new weapons in several general fields, with each field having its own particular strengths, weaknesses, and use, so that backpack of yours will never feel too empty. With the massive selection of overpowered weapons, it's simply fun to run around turning battalions of Abrams tanks into scrap metal. And special mention has to go to the secret weapons, which include improbable armaments like a shotgun that fires confetti and money amid cheers from an offscreen crowd, and a grenade launcher that fires rounds that are shaped (and bounce) like American footballs.

Touchdown

With an insane plot and copious amounts of testosterone-fueled carnage, there's no reason for a mecha or action game fan to not pick this one up. It's the first game with a story this author was able to play to completion in Japanese with no translation, so with the extreme import friendliness of this title I would also suggest it to gamers interested in making the plunge into import titles but for whom a full language barrier seems to be a chilling factor.

And while there are more polished games, Metal Wolf Chaos' gameplay is still unique, refreshing, and simply fun enough to justify a place in any gamer's library. In a way, it's the simple arcade run-and-gun updated for a new era, and even without the depth of an Armored Core or Devil May Cry it remains an engaging experience. And, really: any game that includes Air Force One taking off from under the Washington Reflecting Pool and grazing the Lincoln Momument is worth at least one playthrough. While not perfect by any means, Metal Wolf is enough of a different beast that it's worth looking into for a little variety alone (if, somehow, George W. Bush in a mecha didn't sell you on the game already).

[1] A few news sources did orignally claim that it was planned, and one Frenchman told me that it was going to be retitled as "War President" for the US release, and Frenchmen--especially ones who have translated the "Death Note" manga as a story about FAQs of obscure Konami games--rarely lie.

[2] In an example of a game being before its time, in addition to real time weapon changing there was a battle against a giant enemy crab in the New York mission. Its weak point, which you can hit for massive damage, is located in Times Square.

December 10, 2007

Innovation In Small Packages? IGF Mobile Finalists Announced

- As you guys may recall, there's something new we're doing this year - the Independent Games Festival Mobile, which is trying to show that cellphone, DS, and other portable games can innovate just as well as their big brothers.

Well, the finalists have just been announced - so go check them out, there's a number of interesting games, including (shock!) some cellphone games I actually care about playing, with awarded titles spanning mobile phone through Windows Mobile, Nintendo DS, and even GP2X:

"The IGF Mobile organizers have announced the finalists for the inaugural Independent Games Festival Mobile from a field of over 50 entries, with nominations led by titles including Punch Entertainment's social networking game Ego and Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab's waste disposal strategy puzzle game Backflow.

The Independent Games Festival Mobile website now includes a full list of finalists, including screenshots and links to videos and demonstration versions where available.

As well as Ego and Backflow, both nominated for the Innovation in Mobile Game Design category and the $10,000 IGF Mobile Best Game award, other multiple nominees included Capybara Games' food-chain based puzzler Critter Crunch, the technologically remarkable mobile RTS Steam Iron: The Fallen, and Nintendo DS drawing-RPG Drawn to Life.

Other notable nominees for 2008 prizes include nominees for the Innovation in Augmented Design Award, presented by Nvidia, IGF Mobile Platinum/Founding Sponsor. They include 3D Lawn Darts, which uses the device camera to simulate throwing a dart, Anna's Secret, a GPS driven, location-based learning adventure game based in the city of Weimar, Germany, and PhoneTag Elite, a location-tracking mobile game of "hide-and-seek."

The full list of finalists for the IGF Mobile Competition, all of whom will be showing their games at the IGF Pavilion during Game Developers Conference in February 2008, are available on the official IGF Mobile website's Finalists Page The IGF Mobile ceremony itself will take place during 2008’s GDC Mobile, with the winners also highlighted at the main Independent Games Festival Awards during GDC 2008."

Should We Enter The Era Of The Game Noir?

- Steve Gaynor's Fullbright blog has some of the most interesting essays on gaming I've seen recently, and the F.E.A.R. expansion level designer's latest post is simply called 'Noir', and compares a stage in the history of movies to a stage he feels games should be reaching... around now.

He particularly notes - and this is the central point of his thesis - that film noir worked because it ended up "...focusing on flawed, unpredictable characters living out street-level conflicts between individuals in the mundane, modern-day urban world." His suggestion, then: "The noir approach promises games wherein the player isn't saving the kingdom, world or galaxy; wherein the ubermensch doesn't mow down a thousand men; wherein we can experience familiar settings in a new way, and infuse the everyday with the extraordinary."

Continuing: "Games that take film noir as a cue shouldn't emulate the surface-- trench coats, cigarettes, femme fatales and old LA. Games should emulate the structural and emotional underpinnings that made noir work as an experience. We can do this with readily-available, inexpensive tech; we can leverage older 3D engines and simpler lighting & shader models in the same way noir filmmakers used location shooting and expressionistic cinematography."

He concludes, triumphantly: "We already have our Gone with the Winds and Wizards of Oz, and a dozen Busby Berkley spectaculars to fill in the gaps; we need our Asphalt Jungles, our Kiss Me Deadlies, our Gun Crazies and Double Indemnities and Out of the Pasts. We've proven we can do big. Noir shows us how to take the small road, explore its every twist and turn, and connect with our audience in new ways." Yum.

[Oh, and then Gaynor caps it all in the next blog post by analyzing Kane & Lynch, suggesting the controversial, nasty, arguably morally bankrupt title might be just that noir game he's yearning for. That's set the cat among the pigeons, huh?]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 12/8/07

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Astute mag readers will probably note very shortly that PC Gamer and PlayStation: The Official Magazine (and presumably OXM, too, but I haven't confirmed that yet) have yet another Cellplay "bonus insert" inside the January 2008 issues. This one's only 12 pages long (as opposed to the mammoth 30-page section that appeared in the Holiday '07 ishes of Future's mags), and it's also gotten a bit of a redesign, having a very busy look reminiscent of late-90s PC Gamer.

Seeing Cellplay two months in a row is frankly a little off-putting. Is this going to be a monthly thing now, or what? I don't mean to pick on the people behind the Cellplay section -- in fact, the editorial director of the insert is none other than Julian Rignall, a name dearly beloved by any game-mag aficionado. I also don't deny that cell-phone gaming is a big, exciting marketplace and the games on it are becoming more and more fascinating by the moment. But as a subscriber to all of Future's game mags, all I feel is that this is a bunch of unasked-for filler that could've been better occupied with more PC, PlayStation, or Xbox coverage.

I remember back when the late Computer Games debuted the "Now Playing" arts and entertainment section in 2004. Readers were up in arms about the presence of light movie/DVD/comic book coverage in an otherwise fiendishly hardcore PC game mag, but the editors countered that there was no game coverage that could've gone into those pages -- a pretty plain lie, considering how CGM had no problem refilling that real estate once Now Playing finally spun off into its own (ultimately unsuccessful) publication.

In a way, I wonder if the existence of Cellplay is just another testament to the disappointing advertising situation US game mags face these days. Unlike Now Playing, Cellplay does attract a fair number of ad pages that the publisher probably wouldn't get otherwise. But is this extra revenue so important to the continued survival of Future's mags that the higher-ups are willing to sacrifice such a hefty percentage of their flagship titles' pages to this completely off-topic content? Is the corresponding loss in reader satisfaction (and perceived loss of purchase value for newsstand buyers) worth the extra ad bucks?

I'm sure it's a touchy topic for editorialships industry-wide, so I'll leave it for now and get to breaking down all the US mags (plus Edge) released in the past fortnight. It's the last pre-Xmas rush! How are magazines coping?

Edge Christmas 2007

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Cover: Super Mario Galaxy

This cover probably doesn't seem anything special in the thumbnail, so click to view the full size, if you could. You'll find that Edge has made the cover into a sort of pseudo-Advent calendar, with some of the days already "opened" and revealing the mag's contents. The photos in the calendar boxes are printed separately from the rest of the cover, something you can feel when you actually run your hand across them -- it's a really cute and Edge-like effect, really.

Two features grab my attention this issue, one on Steve Jackson and his career in and out of games (traditional and non) and another on the science and architectural skill behind making good multiplayer game maps. Otherwise, the big news is once again in the reviews -- a 10 for SM Galaxy, and a 5 for PC RPG The Witcher that caused many hardcore computer dorks to raise up their arms in despair. (PC Gamer US gave it 90%, for sake of comparison.)

Nintendo Power Holiday 2007

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Cover: No More Heroes

This is the second Future-produced NP, and things seem to have settled down quickly over in Chris Slate's empire. Old NP folks like Steve Tomason and Chris Hoffman have joined Future names like Chris Imlay, Justin Cheng and Katrin Auch in the masthead, and preview (de-facto) EIC Scott Pelland remains on as editor-at-large.

The mag itself hasn't changed much at all, and Future's Cellplay supplement is notable in its absence. No More Heroes gets a huge push this month, complete with a Power Profile of Goichi Suda where his affable weirdness is front and center.

PlayStation: The Official Magazine January 2008

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Cover: Metal Gear Solid 4

It may be my imagination, but I think Future's using higher-qualty paper stock for PTOM than they did with PSM. I have the impression that the mag's thicker than PSM was despite having the same 100 pages, but perhaps the thinner mags of the past year or two are starting to cloud my sense of judgement.

The main feature this month is the same "Top Games of '08" one you'll see in PC Gamer down below, but a couple of the previews are at least original -- Killzone 2 is written in the form of a soldier in the war writing home to his parents, for example. More interesting is the review section this month, which reveals a fair bit about how PTOM rates games compared to PSM. It seems like the editors are taking a GamePro-type approach here -- really great games often get five stars even if they aren't anything truly groundbreaking, and one-star ratings are rare by comparison. (Assassin's Creed and Rock Band both get perfect scores this month; the Aqua Teen game gets the, er, opposite score.)

PC Gamer January 2008 (Podcast)

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Cover: Spore

The "Spore cover" gets cuter-looking every time a US magazine tackles it. The preview inside (along with the rest of the Top 8) is simply large screenshots, exhaustively annotated and captioned, which is a neat change of pace and a fair bit more readable than the typical wall of text. (That, or my attention span is simply faltering.)

This issue's also interesting because it represents the final hurrah for ex-EIC Gary Whitta, who writes his last back-page column for the mag. Whitta was a charter member of PC Gamer's UK staff and was easily its longest-tenured writer. Not all is lost, however, for the new back-page writer is announced as Ben Croshaw, better known as Yahtzee, or "the Zero Punctuation guy," or "the man who writes the bit of The Escapist I actually read". (Not a slam on The Escapist -- I pretty much treat all online game sites as databases more than something to sit down and physically read. I hardly even read my own writing online...which is why most of it is unreadable, of course.)

Play December 2007

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Cover: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

A pretty uninspiring cover by Play standards -- a review cover is rare for them, and the fact that the lead preview feature is for Turok doesn't reassure, either -- but the contents are up to the usual Play standard. The mag's Japan coverage remains the most readable in print, with sane reviews of Crisis Core and ASH and a long interview with Konami music composer Norihiki Hibino, second in a promised regular series.

(Uncharted, SM Galaxy, and Ratchet & Clank all receive a 10, and yet I can't remember the last time Play awarded that score. Anyone know offhand?)

GamePro January 2008

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Cover: 2008 preview guide

The preview feature this month runs through 48 games and culminates with four pages on MGS4. GamePro has an odd history of giving long previews to MGS games when there isn't a heck of a lot new to talk about, but this one's still fun to read through.

I noticed this month that I received the "regular" edition of GamePro in the mail this month instead of the usual Best Buy Level-2 edition. Is the deal with best Buy over? I'm not sure since I haven't seen any official announcement, but given that any contract IDG had with Best Buy would likely end with a December issue, it's not out of the realm of impossibility. I'll ask around.

Beckett Massive Online Gamer December/January 2008

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Cover: Everquest II: Rise of Kunark

Dragons in Armor Sells Magazines. That's the first thing they tell you in journalism school, and Beckett knows the rule all too well.

This issue (as well as this month's Newtype USA, for sake of disclosure) contains a card for the MapleStory trading card game...er, sorry, "iTrading Card Game", that allows you to unlock a virtual quest in the real MapleStory MMO.

Beckett MOG seems to get a pretty healthy amount of advertising these days, enough to make me wonder what woulda happened if only MASSIVE could've lasted a couple more issues... but enough whining about the past, I suppose. This mag seems to concentrate mainly on two types of articles -- strategy and longform interview -- and the Richard Garriott piece is the highlight, I'd say.

Tips & Tricks Codebook January/February 2008

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Cover: Halo 3

Hey, if you haven't finished the fight yet...

PS3 Ultimate Strategy Guide / Halo 3: The Ultimate Guide

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Future's winter specials are trickling into newsstands right now, both featuring quite a lot of original content. The PS3 strategy guide is what you'd expect, but the Halo 3 book is a kind of "commemorative collector's edition" packed with all kinds of content -- Bungie studio tour, reprints of OXM's reviews of all three games, excerpts from all the novels, art assets, strategies, and so forth. Worth it for fans, I'd reckon.

[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.]

December 9, 2007

Goo! Rocky-s Up Their Road To The IGF

Via a TIGSource tip, this video is just too much fun not to highlight - the folks at Pillowfort Games, just got announced as a 2008 Independent Games Festival finalist for Technical Excellence with their crazed fluid/AI-blending action title Goo!.

So they made a special Rocky-inspired montage video, called: 'Goo! The Road To IGF' to celebrate their nomination:

It's got pretty much everything in it, as you can see, including the necessary music, wood chopping and hill climbing, constant programming, and cats boxing. And it's also charming that Tommy from Pillowfort is excited enough about the IGF that he would go to all that trouble. Fun!

In any case, if you check out the Pillowfort Games blog, you can find out more about the game - including a slightly crazy 'orange skin' video showcasing some of the new effects in the game - also check YouTube for the original game pitch video, with a good explanation of how it works, and even better (this is the best explanation of the game itself!), the official Goo! website has a longer, newer narrated trailer of the game that starts with a Bruce Lee video quote and goes crazier from there. Two thumbs up!

COLUMN: Guitar Hero Research - 'Freddie Wong's Frisky Fingers'

- [Having recently stumbled across Guitar Hero Research, the weblog of Brown University ethnomusicologist Kiri Miller, she's very kindly given GameSetWatch permission to reprint some of the highlights from her research weblog about the music series, explored from an analytical, academic angle. The first chats to a palpable Guitar star.]

Recently I've been corresponding with Guitar Hero virtuoso / YouTube star Freddie Wong about his gameplay experience. (Special thanks to Devin for getting me in touch with him.) He was gracious enough to answer a bunch of official interview questions via email, and he gave me permission to publish his responses here. Some selections:

What do you remember about your earliest experiences with Guitar Hero?

I was on winter break back at home, and I had heard about Guitar Hero from an online forum. When I bought it, my brother and I played through it, he starting on Hard, and I starting on Expert. Having played real guitar for a few years by that point made it easy to start out on the hardest difficulty, and I only had problems getting through it on a couple of songs later in the game. I remember thinking that this was a really fun game - the primary game mechanic of timing strums with held notes was fundamentally satisfying, even though I'm not a fan of rhythm games in general. When I brought it back to LA after the break was over, my roommates both played through it as well.

What about the game inspired you to invest so much time into becoming an expert player?

To be honest, in terms of time invested, I don't play the game nearly as much as two of my roommates - most of the time it's a casual pick-up-for-a-few-minutes-when-I'm-bored type of deal. There's a very satisfying feedback between the physical action of playing the game and the auditory response, so I'd say that is what has me at the very least coming back to the game.

How long had you been playing before you made your "YYZ on Expert" video

Since the first one came out, but I hadn't been playing the first one non-stop.

As of now, this video has generated 21,803 comments on YouTube. How many of these comments do you think you have read? What themes have you seen emerge in people's reactions to your YouTube videos?

Nearly all of them - they're more entertaining than the video itself at this point. Since about the beginning of this year, YouTube updated their comment displaying GUI to only display a small amount of the most recent comments. The comments tend to be cyclical in content. As I'm assuming any given comment maker isn't taking the time to read back many many pages of comments, it makes sense that there's a lot of repetition. Generally comments fall into the following categories:

- Calling me names/making fun of me
- Defending me, making fun of people who make fun of me
- Bragging about their own skills/their friend's skills/their best friend's dad's skills/etc.
- Telling me to play real guitar (or saying they'd be impressed if this was a real guitar)
- Pointing out parts of the video, quotes, effects, etc.

When we made the video originally, we actually planned for "talking points" or things that we actually hoped people would point out, in an effort to generate conversation - things like putting the strap on wrong, putting the alcohol on the television, flashing "crybaby" at the end as an easter egg, breaking the guitar. One thing that worked very well was that I actually missed notes on purpose - had I played the song perfectly, people would immediately start to think it was faked somehow (the debate in online videos of veracity being something that comes with the territory of apparently amateur user generated content and soured by the numerous failed attempts of advertising agencies to "put one over" on the internet audience - see the gloriously disastrous All I Want for Christmas is a PSP viral ad campaign that Sony tried last holiday season). At the time the video came out, it was fairly well known there was a hack to have the game play the song for you 100%, so we wished to avoid that dismissal, which would cause viewers to not pass along the video (which is instrumental in popularity).

As a result, every time someone calls the video fake, another user replies that the fact that I missed notes means it wasn't fake, so our strategy worked out perfectly. This also had the side effect of having people, the longer the game had been out, come into it and proudly declare that they could 100% the song, so they must be better than I was (and the response: well can you get 100% while jumping around and doing all that crazy stuff he does?)

From studying the comments, it becomes clear that there's a pattern to people who comment on videos - almost universally, they do so as an afterthought without seeing if the same thing they've said has been said before. The fact that their comment, given the rate of comments, will likely not be seen by anything more than a handful of people before it gets pushed to a back page does not deter the act of commenting, despite the fact that many of the comments seem to be posted with the hope that others will read them (bragging about their own skills, for example). Assuming the user has an account, the act of commenting is made trivially easy and without investment. This too also favors people who comment with the goal of insulting - it's always easier to flame others than to compliment

How do you respond to the people who say "Why don't you just invest that much time in actually playing the guitar?"

I make a point to actually not respond to any comments, because frankly, if I did, it might kill discussion. The single factor I attribute to the success of the video is that it generates conversation and controversy. That is to say, if so many people
didn't hate me, it wouldn't have as many hits as it does.

When someone recognizes me from the video and asks me, I do let them know that I probably invest a lot more time playing real guitar than the game, though.

What do you think Guitar Hero teaches people about rock? What (if anything) have you personally learned about rock from Guitar Hero?

Guitar Hero is very good at exposing people to artists and genres that they may not originally be familiar with, and perhaps more importantly, involves them in the music that goes beyond simply passive listening. It's nothing really deep, but it's more than you get from listening to a song in a car - attention to rhythm, orchestration, song structure, tonality, etc. On a fairly superficial level, the game illustrates a path of a band, from playing small gigs to large venues in the same way the Tony Hawk games usually illustrate the ascent of an amateur skateboarder to a pro.

Do you feel you have a personal style as a Guitar Hero player/performer?

My approach towards the game is that first and foremost it's a game, so I should at the very least look like I'm having fun with it. Too many people take it super seriously, sitting there and trying to nail all the solos perfectly and everything and spending a lot of time practicing and honing a skill that really isn't too useful outside the context of the game. While there is a sense of accomplishment from being able to do that, I think the point of a game is to have fun with it, and if I played the game like that I'd go nuts from boredom.

What are your aims as a performer when you play in public?

The game is ridiculous. The fact that people are watching me as if this was a real guitar is ridiculous. So my goal is to just go with that, and just have fun with it. Since I'm working with an analogous instrument, I figure analogous and unrealistic rock moves should go with it too.

Why do you think audiences respond to what you do?

I like to think they're in on the joke. There's a level of spectacle that lies in hitting difficult looking sections while doing stupid crazy stuff, but I think they feed into the good natured stupid fun of pretending to be a rock star. I'd imagine it's not unlike air guitar competitions, although here there's a point system.

Why do you think people get so hung up about debating the value of technique vs. showmanship?

People I think like the idea of competition and a tiered structure, to be able to conclusively say "this person is better than this person." From various conversations I've had with players, their argument is that it's a game with a point system - there's no need to muddy up the competitive waters with subjective evaluations of showmanship or performance, but to me, that level of rock posing is intrinsically built into the game to begin with. I'm going to copy and paste a response to an interview question that was similar here:

I've heard the controversy about having showmanship be a judged aspect, which I don't understand - the game is called Guitar Hero. Harmonix spent all that time designing different venues, creating all the crowd noise assets, and animating all the characters, and doing everything they can to create the simulation of being a rock star on stage from your living room and you're telling me that they expect you to sit down and just play it? If they wanted a game to focus on technicality, why not do what every other rhythm game does - have a tiered point system for accuracy of hitting the notes (like the good, great, perfect system in DDR), rather than a binary hit-or-miss? Even the star power activating mechanic requires you to tilt the guitar up. On the other hand, if it was all about performance why bother with multipliers and scores? This is not to detract from people who play it technically at all, but I'm bringing up the point that if you think the game is "meant" to be played or judged only by technicality or showmanship, you're wrong - it's both.

What do you make of the media debates about Guitar Hero's impact on the vitality of rock as a genre? Do you think an argument could be made that the game promotes/discourages actual guitar-playing? (And does this strike you as an important issue?)

I think realistically in terms of societal impact, the most you can hope from this game is that it's exposing people to a wide range of music they may not have heard on their own, and expose them to some aspects of song writing. There will be those who will be inspired to pick up an instrument but I don't think teens are going to go out in droves to pick up guitars. Learning an instrument is a pretty time consuming endeavor after all.

One thing Guitar Hero seems to be doing though, and the one thing that I think the record companies are really anxious about, is that here is an avenue that could potentially give the ol' music industry a kick start. All efforts so far to get people to stop illegally downloading music have failed. What worked was making it convenient and reasonably priced, something Apple understood with their iTunes store. But another way to go about this would be to change the rules entirely - to create a new form of music consumption that cannot be simply copied. Music consumption of the late twentieth century has been a passive effort. The most recent time period as far as I can tell that music probably has been actively consumed, that is, experienced beyond simply listening, was the ragtime era, where people would purchase sheet music of the hit songs of the era so they could play them at home on their upright pianos.

Now, with increasing stimulus, the act of sitting around at home and just listening to a record all the way through is no longer as commonplace as it once might have been. Music is consumed simultaneously with other activities - jogging, driving, doing homework, taking a shower. By and large people don't engage with it beyond a passive level. But now at least here's something that takes a very simple idea - interact with the music by making the act of listening into a game - and running with it. And more importantly - the game itself is a shell. You can plug in all kinds of music, and the core game can work with it. The potential for digital distribution for both Guitar Hero and Rock Band is exciting as well as frightening because while many are excited by the idea of playing entire classic albums from one artist in the game, you essentially have a monopoly (the game's publishing company) as far as new content is concerned.

There are no third parties that can produce content for these games, and the game company can essentially charge whatever they wish, and people will pay for it (See the recent article about Activision saying they saw no reason to lower prices on digital downloads because over 300,000 people have been paying for it). If the music companies and the game companies, two of the three entertainment giants right now, wish to use these games as a vehicle for delivering music content on any sort of long term scale, they need to recognize that people will buy their content if it's reasonably priced and convenient.

However given the history of greed, I feel the more likely course of action is for these companies to sacrifice long term relevance for short term earnings.

Pazhitnov, Rogers On The Genesis Of Tetris

- The sometimes odd but always entertaining UK game site Kikizo has an excellent dual interview with Alexei Pazhitnov and Henk Rogers that's worth deconstructing in some detail.

One cute thing was Pazhitnov discussing his GDC 2007 Designers Challenge-winning title, Stitch & Cross, which "pits two players against one another in a sewing racing game."

Obviously, the game itself has not been made, but it sounds like the Tetris creator is very open to have someone making it, after being asked if he was working on himself: "[Laughs] I have no intention to do that myself but if somebody called me and said, "Alexey I will program that game for you, I will make it for you," sure. [Laughs] But I don't think anyone will do that, sadly."

Also notable is Henk Rogers' commentary on the Tetris Online project "...which we hope to launch soon. That one I actually started with Minoru Arakawa, the ex-president of Nintendo of America, who we talked about earlier. We are good friends and he lives here in Hawaii as well. Currently the plan is to launch it in the US and Japan first."

The full Tetris Online project is a community-based PC online title, I think, but according to Wikipedia, the XBLA version of Tetris Splash is the first Tetris Online Inc. project, which is funny cos, as Rogers notes, the first game Pazhitnov worked on after moving to the States was El-Fish, "...sort of an interactive fish tank that played onscreen when the computer was idle." What goes around...



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