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December 29, 2007

GameSetLinks: Mole Mania - The Mania Of The Moles

- Still trawling through links here, and here's another set - featuring some best-ofs from excellent web game site Kongregate alongside an ode to the relatively obscure but excellent looking Game Boy title Mole Mania.

And blimey, looking at the Wikipedia page for Mole Mania, one of the bosses for the game is 'Kangaroon - A giant Kangaroo who throws apples at Muddy from his pouch.' Sounds suspiciously like a cheese dream to me. But no, it's real - and so are these links:

Come One Come All Kongregate: COCAK Loves Top Ten Lists
Lots of best web game lists from Kongregate fans - handy.

Frictional Games - Interview - Adventure Classic Gaming
'Penumbra: Overture started out as a tech demo which was originally developed for a game development competition in Sweden.'

Mad Doc cooks up fantasy games, government projects - Andover Townsman, Andover, MA
'Davis said he believes Mad Doc is "on the cusp" of becoming a household name in the gaming industry, and should make the breakthrough within the next two or three years.'

Does the end justify the means? at Lepus Lepidus
Dan Amrich discussing an OXM post that got mega Digg-age: 'But here’s what bothers me: I sunk to a lower level here, going for the sensationalism angle, something I’ve always wanted to do to see what would happen.' Ah, not SO much.

Grey Goo Games » When Good Developers Go Indie
Featuring the very disturbing I Am Jesus, plus Last Of The Patriots.

British Gaming Blog » Gashapon Theatre - Phantom Hourglass
'Link, Tetra, Linebeck, The Gorons and those god-damn Phantom Guard Things all have their own stands and little items to hold, and they’re painted to perfection.'

LeChimp vs. Dr. Chaos | Power of Two Games
'At Power of Two Games it's just two of us. So no QA or even interns to play the game endlessly. But, even in preproduction, we can't afford to ignore those types of bugs. Instead, we enlisted the help of our hero: LeChimp... our functional test server'

selectbutton :: View topic - My lovenote to Mole Mania
Super obscure (pictured) GB game: 'It was produced by Shigeru Miyamoto (that should get your attention). I feel that his influence is very evident when you play it. It is basically Legend of Zelda with all the bullsh*t boiled out and harder puzzles.'

Zen of Design»Blog Archive » MMO Publishers and the Portfolio Mentality
'You know what myth needs to die? The idea that big companies don’t want to take chances in the MMO space, that they don’t want to do anything other than sword-and-sorcery fare.'

Games For Windows Magazine Hearts The IGF, Guv'nor

So, we at GSW Towers just got hold of the January 2008 issue of Ziff Davis' Games For Windows: The Official Magazine, only to find that the Independent Games Festival - which we help run - has made it into the 'Random Access' list of '10 things we're into this month' - which is really cool. So we scanned in just that panel, to show you:

'The Freeloader', who is mentioned above, actually used both of his 2 pages in Games For Windows this month to discuss Independent Games Festival-entered games, including odd goryness such as the Adult Swim-distributed Candy Mountain Massacre, as well as eventual finalist Battleships Forever, plus Chameleo, Heaven2Ocean, and the rather neat Scoop, which integrates news headlines into crosswords.

Thought it was cool that the GFW selection included so many non-finalists that were still worth remarking on - showing the depth and breadth of the indie gaming world. Oh, and we're sorry to see 'The Freeloader''s close personal friend and IGF judge Darren Gladstone depart GFW Magazine "...to strap on a pocket protector at PC World. Because I hear the ladies dig that sh*t." Au revoir, Darren, they do... they do.

GameSetNetwork: Heaven's Open For 300

- Even though it's the week of Xmas, we happen to believe that people still read websites, so - though on a bit of a reduced schedule - Gamasutra and our sister sites have still been publishing news and original features when they pop up.

In particular, we spooled out some interesting interviews on Gamasutra this week, including an Akira Yamaoka piece that was already trailed on the web, as well as Sony Pictures' Yair Landau and a how-to on programmers and artists making nice and getting on, like the complementary duo they clearly are. Fun! Here's the highlights:

- Heaven's Night: An Interview With Akira Yamaoka
"Konami's Akira Yamaoka is renowned for his Silent Hill music and sound design, and in this extended Game Developer magazine interview, he weighs in on the franchise, the Western-developed Silent Hill 5, and why Japanese game development '...is in trouble.'"

- Producers Of The Roundtable: Getting Coders and Artists to Communicate
"In this new roundtable interview, conducted in association with GameProducer.net, producers from developers including EALA, Bizarre Creations, and Gas Powered Games discuss the best practical ways to get programmers and artists working smoothly together."

- Hollywood & Games: Sony Pictures' Landau Talks Convergence
"Sony Pictures Digital's Yair Landau oversees both Sony Pictures Animation (Surf's Up) and Sony Online Entertainment (EverQuest), and talks to Gamasutra about how convergence is significantly affecting the bond between Hollywood and the game industry, from 300 to The Agency."

- Q&A: EA's Bernstein On Building SimCity Societies
"The latest title in the Sims dynasty, SimCity Societies, recently saw worldwide PC release, and Gamasutra spoke to the game's producer, Electronic Arts' Rachel Bernstein, about the genesis of the Tilted Mill-developed title, the state of the PC market, and leaving real-world brands out of the game."

- 10 Indie, Student Game Competitions: A Shortlist for Your Submissions
"If you’re a budding game developer, these 10 student and independent game competitions should be on your calendar. The rundown (unranked) points to ten events throughout the world in which indie game developers and students can show their works to compete for cash prizes, as well as that first big break in the industry."

- Q&A: Namco Bandai Talks Wii Fitness With Athletic World
"With the Wii's focus on kinetic energy in games, Namco Bandai have seen fit to re-introduce some of the concepts it pioneered with the original NES and its foot-powered Power Pad with Family Trainer: Athletic World. Gamasutra recently spoke with the game's producers to learn more about the game, and the potential for future mat-based titles."

December 28, 2007

Road To The IGF: World Of Goo's 'Suggested Emotional Journey'

- Continuing our cross-posting of Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ features, today's is Patrick Murphy talking with 2D Boy's Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler about their IGF 2008 Seumas McNally Grand Prize finalist World of Goo.

The title, which was one of the most-nominated in this year's IGF, is a physics-based puzzler to be released for PC, Mac, Linux, and Nintendo's Wii - and featuring balls of goo that don't realize they are delicious.

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

KG: Previous projects you might not have heard of include QBasic Spinning Magenta Square and the Totally Broken Networked Ascii Turn-Based Pong for TI-82 Graphing Calculator(tm). Those were the glory days. Later, some buddies and I started the Experimental Gameplay Project at CMU, and I worked with EA for a while (it's not so bad!), eventually met uber genius Ron, and we concocted evil plans to start our very own 2D Boy Mega Corporation.

RC: I started making games in basic on a Commodore 64. They weren't much to look at, but for a 10 year old me, it was THE medium of expression. Professionally, I've worked on various graphics related products and in 2004 I finally got a proper game job developing casual games for pogo.com.

What motivated you to create World of Goo?

KG: Tower of Goo was a small gameplay prototype I had made a while ago which was fun, but not very deep. But as one dashing gentleman put it, "That was a TOWER of goo, this is a whole f***ing WORLD of goo!" That's pretty much our motivation.

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

RC: The artistic vision is all Kyle. I'm in awe of his creative talents.

KG: There was a control freak girl in undergrad who was a party planner and she held her hands out front like a Tyrannosaurus Rex, never touching anything, just commanding others to move things, pour things, drape things, all with tiny flicks of fingers and wrists, and in that way, entire interior makeovers would happen like a puppet show. It was fascinating.

Giant disembodied hands are a prominent theme in World of Goo, indicating that events larger than you are happening. Or that you are very small. Something like that.

What sort of development tools are used to make World of Goo?

RC: We started out making this game for PC and at some point decided to make versions for Wii, Mac, and Linux, so I ended up rolling our own platform-agnostic framework which now uses SDL, D3D, and Bass under the hood. I'm so grateful for open source initiatives!

We use ODE for physics, TinyXML for all our animations and config stuff, SVN for version control, Mantis for bug tracking, and custom level and animation editors. Developing this game would have been very painful/expensive had it not been for a solid open source foundation.

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

RC: When I first showed the game to my mom she played it for two hours straight and only stopped when her back started hurting. Kyle's cousins actually fought over it. People who have never played a game before laughed as they played it. To me, this kind of draw is magic and I can't explain it. Maybe Kyle has a theory.

KG: People seem to like "the friendly Sign Painter" - a mysterious tipster leaving you signposts in each level. The Sign Painter becomes increasingly involved and uh... friendly. Anyway, there is a deliberate "story" that happens throughout the game, but it is entirely optional and never explicitly told. I mean, it's just a dumb physics game, and I hate forced story in games! It ends up being more a "suggested emotional journey" through "themes" (giant corporation stuff, booth babes, quest for self discovery, enlightenment, blah blah blah) - see, it sounds stupid when you say it, so we just don't. Forget I said that. It's all about feelings!

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

RC: Until very recently it was just Kyle and I. Last month we started working with a very smart and talented developer by the name of Allan Blomquist on the Wii version of the game. Regarding the process, it's totally ad hoc. The glue that binds it together is a daily Skype video call where we talk design, brainstorm, coordinate work, and just remind ourselves that we're working with another human being.

When I don't see Kyle's face regularly, in my mind he somehow becomes this 2D caricature of his real self. Face time plays an important role in fostering connection, cooperation, and good will.

KG: This is my kitty Madonna who sleeps in our SVN server and holds it all together with fur.

If 2D Boy had to rewind to the very start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?

RC: There were a few large architectural changes in the code along the way. They were fairly time consuming and had I known then what I know now we could have circumnavigated them and saved a couple of months of work. But it's all part of the learning process. The game has undergone a lot of changes, particularly in its early life.

When I get some time I'm going to post a "Life of Goo" series on our blog, outlining the development of World of Goo, mostly through screen shots and movies from all stages of development. You'll laugh when you see what this game looked like two weeks in. It's weirder than the first Simpsons episode, though not as funny.

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

KG: Indie games are the new form of self expression for the motivated misfit. I'm blown away by little Flash games oozing with style made by kids who aren't even old enough to drink, wtf? The community of lovable and terrifyingly capable indie developers is steadily making big budgets irrelevant.

Actually, that would be a fun game. You get a Nuclear Irrelevant Gun 5000 and blast giant studios and they bleed money. Maybe there's a time limit.

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

RC: Thanks, it's been fun!

KG: You're beautiful, damn it.

Satire: 'Five Short Video Game Industry Keynotes'

- [Originally posted by Matthew at slightly satirical game developer blog Magical Wasteland, we thought we'd reprint this on GameSetWatch because not enough people saw it, and it made us laugh a lot. We're trying to get a little more 'insight' from him on GSW in the future, so stay tuned. In the meantime, this piece deals with talks that all of us who attend industry conferences will recognize.]

1. Let’s think about the future for a second. You probably don’t understand the kids that make up the bulk of our audience, but I do. I call them the network MySpace remix 3.0 social generation. Unlike any other people before them, young people today like to interact with each other. They also like music. YouTube is the perfect example of whatever point it is I’m making. Everything should be online and customizable.

2. Iteration is the key. Everything is about iteration. How many times can I use iteration in this talk? Iteration, iteration, iteration. This is how you make good games: by iterating.

The more you iterate, it doesn’t matter what direction you’re going in or what you actually do, as long as you get the number of iterations up. This process (iteration) is what turns all the bad stuff into the good stuff. Here’s a graph showing game quality and number of iterations approaching infinity together. This graph proves my point.

3. For our last project we used Scrum, and boy, are we glad we did. There is no way anything we did would have been possible without it. What is Scrum, you ask? It’s a set of new terminology for things that already happen when groups of people work together. For example, instead of a “meeting,” you have a “Scrum,” and so on.

You should use Scrum too, since it will solve all your problems. If I’ve piqued your interest, sign-up sheets for my specially discounted seminars on Scrum can be found clipped to the bottom of your conference program.

4. The game we made was great – because we’re great. We are just a group of awesome people. We never crunch, and we go to the beach every other Friday to play volleyball. Even those times when we did crunch, we had delicious catered meals. And there was one time we got a masseuse in the office. Awesome. Yes, our studio’s amazing array of perks and benefits keep us happy and doing our best work all the time.

We have a ton of open positions we need to fill very quickly so please send us your resume as soon as you can.

5. The game industry is in trouble. We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing before. We need to do this other thing, which is the thing that I’m doing. I said this last year but none of you came with me. Well, this time I really mean it.

GameSetLinks: Post-Xmas Non-Malaise

- It's pretty much amazing how many video game-related blogs there are out there. And also how many of them I read via RSS, 'til my brow furrows.

Anyhow, this time there's a tremendous range of randomness, from the latest Xmas-themed text adventure competition (yay!) to more Surfer Girl, Mark Mothersbaugh (pictured!) & the new Spielberg game soundtrack, and some Perplex-ing news on educational ARGs. Take it away, Sirs:

The Independent Gaming Source: Text the Halls: Voting
Those seasonal text adventure games are available to play/vote on, yay.

Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars: December twenty-fifth things.
'A2M is working on Indiana Jones for people who cannot stand to play consoles with the number three in the name' - sounds right, more Montreal scene rumors.

Japanmanship: 2007, a look backwards at a retrospective of the past in hindsight
Some good, not entirely cynical thoughts, blimey.

synaesthesiaJP » Blog Archive » PlatinumGames Official Blog
JP Kellams is the 'Ryan Payton' of PlatinumGames, the ex-Clover folks' new developer. Iiinteresting.

LA Weekly - Music - Are You Not Devo? You Are Mutato
Awesome article on Mark Mothersbaugh's music company, also noting they're soundtracking Spielberg and EALA's Boom Blox (aka PQRS!)

Six to Start » Stealth mode, unstealthed
Alice Taylor of Wonderland fame has commissioned Dan Hon (Perplex City)'s new startup for a UK Channel 4 educational gaming project, 'The Ministry, which explores privacy and identity online'. Iinteresting.

stevewetherill.com » Blog Archive » Uztek Athletics for Nokia S40 - free download!
A free mobile game from the IGF Mobile judge and veteran.

British Gaming Blog » BGB Awards 2007: 20 Greatest Moments
Thank you for picking Elite Beat Agents' 'You're The Inspiration' - I was going to write a column about how moving this was at one point.

Phases Crossed
Chaim Gingold's post-Spore personal blog, with crazy diagrams about his thought processes on departing - fun.

Radio Taiwan International: 'Taiwanese dancer takes Pump It Up crown in Mexico'
Another great microscene example, for Andamiro's DDR clone: 'In the end 20-year-old Shen Shiou-hwa saw off champions from fifteen other countries to take top prize in the female speed event.'

December 27, 2007

From World of Y!Craft To BravoNation

- Over at Gordon Luk's GetLuky.com, the Yahoo! developer has been discussing the new BravoNation.com website, a Y! project currently in closed beta.

Interestingly, the site is aimed at bringing Xbox Live-style achievements to, uhh, life on the web itself, for any real, imagined, satirical, or factual achievement of your choice.

Andy at Waxy.org has a good overview with lots of screenshots, but the original name of the project is instructive, as Gordon explains: "Earlier this year, I presented a team prototype hack at one of Yahoo!’s internal Hack Days called “World of Y!Craft”, which was an attempt at creating a platform for incentive systems for various Yahoo! properties."

Ex-Yahoo-er Andy explains the crossover concepts a bit further: "Inspired by the gaming panels from SXSW Interactive earlier this year, Gordon wrote a series of blog entries drawing parallels between multiplayer gaming and Web 2.0 communities. In particular, his three-part series on avatars discussed different achievement-like systems in gaming, on the web, and the crossover between them." Game-birthed concepts that go far beyond games, then?

Opinion: 2007's Top 5 MMO Trends

- [Continuing the year-end retrospective over at Gamasutra, Slashdot and MMOG Nation's Michael Zenke takes a look back on the biggest moments of the year in massively multiplayer online games - and is eminently worth reprinting here, so we're going to, nuh.]

This has been an unbelievable year for Massive games. Unfortunately, I don't mean that in a positive sense. When I made a few back-of-the-napkin prognostications about the coming year in December of 2006, I thought I was being a huge sourpuss.

It turns out I wasn't nearly sour enough. Closures, projects failing in their development phase, the departure of notable individuals from high-profile titles, weak launches, minor scandals, a number of games that were just plain delayed ... it's been a hell of year.

It wasn't all bad, of course. Specifically the mainstream acceptance of World of Warcraft and the successful launch of Lord of the Rings Online speak to future successes for the genre. There have also been several 'dark horse' contenders showing their heads, plenty of new companies throwing their hats in the ring, and (finally) some measure of success for foreign games imported to the states.

Despite all these negative signs, I see 2007 as generally positive. The Massive game industry is still in its infancy, in many ways, and these failures are hard growing-up type lessons. I've tried to keep that in mind when constructing a list of the Top Five MMO Trends of 2007.

In the spirit of previous Top Five articles from other observant commentators, these points will try to sum up the most impactful events of the year for Massive gamers and the hobby they love so much... with an eye to what lessons we should draw for the future.

Let's hope looking back on 2008 will be more about sugarplums and less about coal.

1. 'Little' Games Get Huge

All year long there's been a growing swell from the 'underbelly' of the Massive gaming scene. While people focus a lot of attention on World of Warcraft and other AAA titles, games like Runescape and MapleStory have quietly been accruing huge numbers of players. While those numbers have been building for some time, it feels like this is the first year that commentator in and out of the industry have realized the full import of these games. WoW may be an 800-pound gorilla, but Runescape's million-plus player base isn't a housepet either.

What's especially interesting is how the success of these 'small' titles mirrors a warming attitude toward imports in the states. MapleStory is easily the highest profile of these, claiming over 3 million subscribers in North America since its launch here early this year.

As the concept of free-to-play games gained popularity among the web-savvy teen and 'tween markets, 2007 saw an explosion in 'garage-coded' games going big-time. Maid Marian's Sherwood Dungeon might the most noteworthy of these games, all done done on the cheap, in Flash, and hitting huge numbers of players.

This was also the year that saw virtual worlds hit the big time. Whether we're talking about the over-hyped Second Life, the announcement of Metaplace, or the under-rated Club Penguin, social online experiences have definitely become front-page news. Killer apps like Webkinz and BarbieGirls pushed the folks who wouldn't necessarily identify with swords and sorcery into an avatar, and primed them for future (subscription-based?) online exploits.

Lessons to learn: Graphics aren't everything. Free is the best price. Chat is one of the most important part of MMO game design.

2. Messy MMO Failures

It's easy to point at where this trend began in 2007: Vanguard. Every rumor you heard about Sigil and its founders was probably true, and only the largesse of SOE kept the title alive past May. Then you have the explosion of Perpetual Entertainment, a cataclysm that killed Gods and Heroes, may have "nerfed" Star Trek Online into a casual game, and has prompted an already controversial lawsuit.

Gods and Heroes wasn't the only high-profile failure this year; Auto Assault launched in such a lackluster fashion last year, it begged the question: "What happens if they launch an online world and nobody comes?" The answer: they shut it down.

It came down to the simple reality that neither NetDevil nor NCsoft had enough interest to keep it running, and so the players who liked that game lost out. An unsuccessful product shutting down may not seem surprising, but the last AAA online world to shut down was Asheron's Call 2 in 2005. Before that, I can only think of a handful of other titles that were in active operation which were closed down.

And there are a few games that are now the online equivalent of Schrödinger's cat. Is Marvel Universe Online still in production, or has no one yet formally informed the public of that the project didn't make it? The shakeout is not, I think, unexpected by industry onlookers. Just the same, they're sobering signs of the stakes in 2008.

Lessons to learn: High profile doesn't mean low risk. You need more than Vision(tm) to make a game. Silence is not golden.

3. Warcraft's Mainstream Success

That World of Warcraft is still doing well, some three years after the game's launch, would be a gross understatement. The almost flawless launch of The Burning Crusade expansion in January kicked off a year of amazing in-roads to mainstream culture. The South Park episode, the Toyota commercial, the Mr. T/Shatner spots... any Massive gamer that still wants to sit in a corner and feel misunderstood is missing the point. Once the Shat has done a Shaman impression for your game on national television, you're a permanent part of popular culture. It's that simple.

The question becomes, was this year's in-roads into mainstream consciousness WoW-specific, or something that the genre as a whole has accomplished? Do parents see the connection between their kids playing Webkinz and this sword-and-sorcery thing that Mini-Me is pimping? 2008 is primed to be an even better year for World of Warcraft with a noticeably faster 1-60 experience, a finely tuned set of 60-70 zones, and the promise of a brand-new expansion to draw even more players into the world of Azeroth. If Activision Blizzard doesn't announce 10 million players sometime next year I'll be awfully surprised.

Lessons to learn: Polish is king. Mr. T is funny. I am the law-giver.

4. Big Companies Fight MMO-Style

Activison Blizzard is, of course, a company that didn't exist as of two months ago. The merger of the publisher and Vivendi's best-known subsidiary was not only surprising, it offers up another insight into what it takes to compete in this marketplace. Facing off against the new titan is the old one: EA. Electronic Arts has its own MMO designs as well, with BioWare's title waiting in the wings and Warhammer Online garnering more fan enthusiasm with every month that passes.

Warhammer's delay, rather than being a negative sign, is in my view a very good thing. It shows that EA understands the commitment it's made. Giving Marc Jacobs and his team the chance to get things right before the game sees retail launch is a sure sign of maturity in the EA managers handling the game.

From the content we're now being shown, it's fairly clear that only two thirds of the game was "ready" at the time the game was due to launch... and even that is giving them the benefit of the doubt. Even just the couple of months since the launch date went past has seen leaps and bounds in new content. By mid-year, they should have quite a product on their hands.

Which makes Mythic and Blizzard even more directly in competition. Warhammer's release will be the first real attempt to imitate World of Warcraft's success in western markets. The producers may talk about WAR being Led Zeppelin to WoW's Beatles, but I'm sure the hope at EA is that this game will be another multi-million player juggernaut. Blizzard's unnamed in-development MMO may well be a direct competitor for BioWare's game, as well, giving the two giants even more to skirmish over.

In one short year we've seen the creation of epic competition for EA in the single-player realm, and the beginnings of a worthy adversary for Blizzard. It's going to be a heck of a fight.

Lessons to learn: Getting it right is worth any price. These things print money. The unstoppable force, meet the immovable object.

5. The Question of How To Pay

At Austin GDC there was a panel on the last day of the event ostensibly intended to discuss the 'biggest opportunities' in online games. The reality of it was that the table was stacked with Marc Jacobs (a staunch opponent of Real Money Transfer) and two big proponents of microtransactions: Raph Koster and Eric Bethke. What resulted is described on Gamasutra as "a tussle for the future of online games". That one moment nicely summed up possibly the most important trend of this year, and speaks volumes about what we're going to be talking about in 2008.

The fight that day was about the value of paying a flat subscription fee versus microtransactions, as seen in games published by Nexon. Blizzard's well known acceptance of both models is an exception, as most companies choose one or the other as their business model. Ultimately, this may be a question that's out of the hands of the designers: American players are already indicating their love of micropayments and RMT by heavily playing newly arrived games of this type. Despite lawsuits and crackdowns, people are still paying real money for gold and other online currencies.

While I think it's unlikely we'll see many companies openly accepting gold sellers in their games, there are a few who have already begun to walk that path. The nebulous acceptance of the newly announced Live Gamer service by Sony Online Entertainment and Funcom speaks to the kinds of arrangements we might see in the future.

Lessons to learn: The only thing better than free is micro-payments. Players secretly like paying for gold. Celebrity game designer deathmatch would make an awesome show.

Despite the mixed news, 2007 was a big year for the Massive gaming genre. Even if it remains to be seen whether mainstream acceptance of MMO games is all that we could hope for, gamers are definitely starting to get on board.

The ranks of online gamers grows every year. From all accounts World of Warcraft's success is not coming at the price of market viability for other games the way it was once feared. The only explanation for this is that ever more gamers are turning to online entertainment as a way to connect with their fellows. Barring any huge or unexpected events, 2008 is going to be another amazing year for Massively Multiplayer Online Games.

[Just in case you might have missed it, Gamasutra wrapped up its initial list of Top 5s, as well as its top 10 games of the year, in a feature which debuted last week. In it you'll find their Top 5 Downloadable Games, Top 5 Most Affecting Characters, Top 5 Overlooked Games, Top 5 Trends, Top 5 Developers, and Top 5 Freeware Games.]

Special: Q-Games On PS3's 'Gaia' Music Visualizer

One of the more hidden features of the PlayStation 3's 2.10 firmware update is the spectacular Earth-based music visualizer, seen in motion on multiple user-posted YouTube videos and in stills in the pictures below.

The feature's creator, Kyoto-based Q-Games (PixelJunk Racers), which was commissioned by Sony to create the visualizer, has been talking to GameSetWatch sister site Gamasutra about the feature's genesis, its use of NASA data, and possible expansion concepts.

Q-Games' chief of technology James McLaren spoke to Gamasutra's Brandon Sheffield about how that project got started, explaining: "Originally, we were working on the Gaia project (our name for the earth viewer) as a possible boot sequence for the PS3. The waving cloth background, also created by Q-Games, got the nod when the PS3 launched."

McLaren continues: "We persevered with Gaia, and this visualizer came out of that ongoing work. We've had this under our hats for a while, so it's nice to finally see it released into the wild."

He added: "What you are seeing is a slimmed-down version, due to Flash ROM restrictions, so we are happy to witness a largely positive reaction on various internet forums."

But how were the effects in the visualization created? McLaren explains: "This representation of the earth is a 3D model with some shaders and SPU trickery going on. We tried to accurately model the earth's atmosphere and have all the correct highlights on the oceans, etc. The texture data is sourced from the NASA Blue Marble project."

"They have some data that they've patched together from hundreds of satellite passes over the earth, which is really top-notch quality, as you can see. We really owe NASA a debt of gratitude for the data, as without it we wouldn't be able to produce something that looks this good."

Is Q-Games helping out Sony with any other updates in the near future? McLaren explains: "Unfortunately, we can't really say much about that. We'd certainly like to expand the current Earth visualizer and allow people a little bit more user control, something we've seen a few requests for on various online forums."

However, he notes in closing: "Perhaps a future update might include the full Blue Marble dataset, but that would need to be a hard disc-resident version..."

December 26, 2007

Announce: IndieGames.com: The Weblog

-[This blog entry was originally posted by editor Tim W. over at IndieGames.com, which has a new GameSetWatch sister blog focused on the indie scene, and is basically a converted version of the formerly named Independent Gaming ('IndyGamer') blog. We had a chance to help Tim and indie games out and decided to do so.]

Here's some news - the Independent Gaming weblog is moving to a new domain and becoming IndieGames.com: The Weblog, as part of the CMP Game Group (Independent Games Festival creator)'s outreach into the independent gaming scene.

Please change your bookmarks to point to IndieGames.com: The Weblog at http://www.indiegames.com/blog - indygamer.blogspot.com will no longer be updated. The Feedburner RSS feed for Independent Gaming has been automatically switched to point to the new site. Comments are being migrated as we speak.

Thanks to the CMP Game Group and Simon Carless for the invaluable support and hosting of the new site; we promise to continue to serve all your indie games news and review needs as we have done before. Here's a word from Simon about this change:

Simon: "Hey folks - you may know me already from running GameSetWatch and also helping to manage various other Game Group properties like Gamasutra, Game Developer magazine, and - of course - the Independent Games Festival, which is definitely the most relevant for this announcement!

This whole concept started a couple of months ago when Tim announced that he might have to shut the Independent Gaming blog unless he got some help in hosting and partly paying for his time working on the site. We wanted to help out, and we'd already launched IndieGames.com to help educate people about independent games, so having him move his blog over here made a lot of sense.

So nothing is really changing here - Tim [EDIT: And other IndyGamer editors who would like to contribute, of course] has still got an open editorial remit to blog and interview who he likes, and we may occasionally pop in to mention IGF and other Game Group-related news - which is likely of interest anyhow. We'll also be working with him to look at whether we can help to better develop the indie scene through setting up better distribution mechanisms for independent games - though we've only just started thinking about this."

GameSetLinks: Boxing Day Alert, Innit?

- The day after Xmas is a joyous one for lying around contentedly, and this day is no exception. However, there are some links to round up - and I'm particularly interested by this new Konami arcade music machine in the Bemani series, 'Jubeat'.

However, there's some other fun stuff here - including news of Marvelous USA setting up shop and a good review of the Square Enix-infused Jump Festa out there in Tokyo, among others. Here goes:

New Bemani series, "Jubeat," announced! - bemanistyle.com
Pronounced 'YouBeat', with touch screens to music, v.interesting.

Alex Ward to Burnout Paradise Haters: Cry More and Merry F***ing Christmas - NeoGAF
Ward's tremendously defensive post-demo message sparks havoc from possibly over-emo NeoGAF massif.

Akihabara Channel » Jump Festa 2008
Good review of the Japanese mag/game fest, w/Square Enix stuff galore.

RPGFan - Exclusive Interview Feature: Interview #5: Yasuhiro Wada @ Marvelous Interactive
From the Harvest Moon creators: 'We have already set up MMV USA in North America. At present stage it is not functioning as a publisher, but it will begin its activities in the near future.'

The Independent Gaming Source: Interview with Gesundheit creator Matt Hammill
IGF Student Showcase winner talks his neat booger-busting game.

Water Cooler Games - Parking Wars on Facebook
'Parking Wars interests me because it successfully gives the sense of both trying to get away with parking illegally and that of trying to stay vigilant to find those who are.'

Adventures Of PT Winterbottom Blog: Winterbottom Video Trailer
The USC Student Showcase winner in the IGF this year is a Victorian time travel Flash adventure - top hatlicious!

Game|Life's Ten Biggest Disappointments Of 2007 | Game | Life from Wired.com
Look, game blogs, this smartness is what happens when all three of your writers are actually cogent!

2008 Independent Games Summit Announces Line-Up

- [Well, bit of a 'Happy Xmas' while also revealing the line-up here, I guess - this looks like it's going to be a blast, and with the IGF Finalists in both Main Competition and Student Showcase also invited to attend in the audience, it should be a good mix of indie and pro developers for the first two days of GDC.]

The organizers of the 2008 Independent Games Summit have announced the majority of the line-up for the February 2008 event, with postmortems of N+ and Schizoid alongside talks from notable creators at Introversion, Queasy Games, Kongregate, WayForward, ThatGameCompany, and more.

The 2008 Independent Games Summit (operated by CMP, as is Gamasutra) seeks to highlight the brightest and the best of indie development, with discussions ranging from indie game distribution methods through game design topics, detailed postmortems of independent titles, digital distribution-centric business concepts, and much more.

Once again, the IGS is a sister event to the 2008 Independent Games Festival. Taking place on the Monday and Tuesday of Game Developers Conference 2008, February 18th and 19th, the event follows the successful Independent Games Summit in 2007, for which multiple videos have been posted on Gamasutra in the last few months.

While speakers representing IGF Grand Prize winner Aquaria, World Of Goo, PixelJunk Racers, fl0w/The Night Journey and more already confirmed, the new set of confirmed 2008 Independent Games Summit lectures include:

Spreading Your Message As An Indie Developer
Speaker(s): Thomas Arundel, Mark Morris, Chris Delay (Introversion)
Session Description: UK-based Introversion, the creators of Defcon and the multiple IGF award-winning Darwinia, are notable in their use of effective branding and positioning to become one of the few indie developers making inroads towards entering mainstream gamer consciousness. But how? Explanations will ensue!

Innovating In The Casual Market
Speaker(s): Arthur Humphrey (Last Day Of Work)
Session Description: To some independent developers, "casual" can be a bad word - connoting gameplay roteness, perhaps. But why does financial success, being on a certain portal, or the arbitrarily assigned label "casual" make you a sellout? Humphrey (Virtual Villagers) has created sophisticated independently-developed titles that are hits in the casual market, and explains his views on the surprisingly large indie/casual intersection.

Contracting Vs. Indie: The Showdown
Speaker(s): Brent Fox, Steve Taylor (Ninjabee/Wahoo)
Brent 'Indie Core' Fox and Steve 'We Need Money to Eat' Taylor square off in a battle of wits and whimsy over a question facing many indies: to contract or not to contract? If your company can’t survive, you can’t the games you want. If you can’t make the games you want, why make games at all? Find out how Wahoo/Ninja Bee strike a balance between Outpost Kaloki, Band Of Bugs, and Disney's Trivia Time in this battle of ‘Contracting vs. Indie.’

Ninja Ways: An N+ Postmortem
Speaker(s): Mare Sheppard, Raigan Burns (Metanet Software)
Following the success of addictive ninja-themed platform action title IGF Audience Award-winner N, which is debuting both on Xbox Live Arcade and on the Nintendo DS/Sony PSP as N+, the creators of the original title explain how they moved their property onto consoles, with details on financials, technical issues and solutions, and a plethora of other specifics for indies aspiring to console/handheld.

Making Better Games: An Independent Game Manifesto
Speaker(s): Kellee Santiago (ThatGameCompany), Jon Mak (Queasy Games), TBD
If a game is fun, it’s considered a good game leading players and reviewers to laud its “gorgeous graphics”, “awesome music”, or “intuitive controls”. Unfortunately, none of this is useful in understanding how to create better games. Come see the creators of indie hits Everyday Shooter, fl0w, and more obsess over games in ways only a game designer would - as they delve deep into an illuminating critical analysis of games they find exciting, inspiring, and influential.

An Indie Reality Check
Speaker(s) N'Gai Croal (Newsweek), Stephen Totilo (MTV News)
How does the world at large really sees indies? Prominent game critics Stephen Totilo of MTV and N’Gai Croal of Newsweek take an objective look at the current state of indie games from the perspective of news, media, and entertainment in general. How are independent games doing in terms of mindshare relative to games as a whole, how could we be doing better, and what can we do today to make indie games more prominent? N’Gai and Stephen debate the answers.

The Web Game Renaissance
Speaker(s): Chris Pasley (Kongregate), TBA
Small web games have become a viable creative form and business model, with sites like Kongregate, Newgrounds, Instant Action, and Arcadetown pulling down huge monthly incomes and attracting millions of visitors per year. Including representatives from the major players in this emerging game space, this panel will candidly discuss the eye-popping financials behind today’s most successful web games. From Desktop Tower Defense to a host of others, see how tiny in-browser games can be innovative, lucrative, and indie.

A Jonathan Blow Lecture
Speaker(s): Jonathan Blow (Number-None)
Session Description: The former Game Developer magazine columnist and creator of the IGF award-winning Braid, due out soon for Xbox Live Arcade, delivered one of the highlights of the 2007 Independent Games Summit, and has since keynoted the Montreal Game Summit. He's promised to deliver something special for IGS this year - more details soon.

Juggling Licensed, Original Indie Game Development
Speaker(s): John Beck, Matt Bozon (WayForward Technologies)
Session Description: How do you make the game great, especially when working on a licensed game, while also keeping the lights on? What are the realities of working as a long-time independent developer? WayForward (Contra 4, Shantae) has weathered the storm for longer than many, making acclaimed licensed and original games alike, and the business and creative minds behind the cult favorite company explain how to juggle priorities smartly.

Postmortem: Torpex's Schizoid
Speaker(s): Bill Dugan (Torpex)
As the first XBLA game to use Microsoft's XNA framework, and the first title from independent start-up Torpex, Schizoid is interesting from a multitude of perspectives. But what went right and wrong during the console downloadable title's development? Torpex's Dugan presents plenty of practical tips and specifics on the creation of the title.

Unique Knobs For Indie Games
Speaker(s): Raigan Burns (Metanet Software)
Session Description: With so many options for middleware and freeware, isn’t writing your own physics or graphics engine just technological masturbation? Raigin Burns of Metanet Software makes the case that creating your own unique technologies from scratch allows freedom of expression impossible with middleware and canned solutions. If Metanet’s hit game N is “just a regular platformer with novel collision detection”, could creating unique technology lead to innovation?

The Indie Lifestyle
Speaker(s): Noel Llopis (Power Of Two Games), Jacob Van Wingen (Gastronaut Studios), TBA
Hear from full-time indies. How do they manage their time, their projects, and their lives? This in-depth panel presents practical tips on working from home, with teams of friends, remote teams, motivation, and everything else indies typically have to face.

The 2008 Independent Games Summit is available to attend by purchasing a GDC 2008 Summits Pass. In addition, other passes such as the GDC 2008 All Access Pass also allow entry to the Summit. More information on the line-up for the summit is available the official IGS website.

December 25, 2007

Q&A/Essay: 'Smith Sam' Talks Gold Farming, Power Leveling

- Over at Gamasutra a couple of weeks back, we got an interesting article submission from a Chinese-headquartered gold-selling and power leveling company, USFine.com. The piece was notable because it tried to present a history of the ever-controversial (and likely EULA-busting) third-party item-trading business, which has thrived through use of cheap labor in emerging markets.

So I followed up with the writer, the Chinese-based 'Smith Sam', who appears to be one of the owners of USFine, and got a little background on the company he helps run. According to Sam, there are forty employees at the company, which offers power-leveling (having a third party level up your MMO character for you) and in-game gold in a pretty comprehensive set of games.

His company's Top 5 most popular games in terms of demand right now are World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI ,Runescape, Maplestory, and Lord of The Rings Online. But they offer services for almost 15 types of game, including Vanguard, Sword Of The New World, Gaia Online, and even 2Moons.

Although power leveling is also a major part of USFine's business, and the subject of the essay below, Sam notes that gold and/or in-game currency tends to be the best market for them overall. Interestingly, Sam also comments that Google and Yahoo! search engine results are one of the chief methods of advertising his company's services - showing how much the major generic search engines have penetrated these types of niche, potentially infringing markets.

What follows are some edited highlights from 'Smith Sam''s on the ground impressions of how this power leveling market has evolved. Of course, with major companies like the VC-funded Live Gamer trying to officially muscle in on this market by partnering with publishers for secure item trading - if not power leveling, one suspects - it'll be intriguing to see how this controversial and oft-maligned submarket evolves.

The State Of Power Leveling For MMOs
by Smith Sam

At present, most companies are engaged in power leveling (generally for World Of Warcraft) mainly in China and some countries in Southeast Asia. The primitive North America power-leveling companies changed their role gradually, or faced bankruptcy thanks to inexpensive labor in Asia.

Chinese-based game service companies offering WoW power-leveling numbered less then 30 in 2004, but service companies will surpass 2000 soon, and this number is growing continuously. Looking over the entire Southeast Asian market, many of these companies are concentrated in the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and other areas in India. North Korea is worth mentioning because the labor cost is currently the most inexpensive. [EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first we've heard of North Koreans playing World Of Warcraft - can anyone point to further evidence of this?]

Since power-leveling services for World Of Warcraft started, competition has certainly caused the price to curve down. Also, thanks to the WoW expansion, it's now changed to Levels 1-70 from its original Levels 1-60. Therefore, Levels 1-60 was originally 350 dollars when such services started, dropping to about 129 dollars in today's market. For Levels 1-70, it started costing about 490 US dollars, and has now dropped to 250 US dollars.

The variety of services now offered include specific quest completions and PVP power-leveling. For leveling itself, according to the average price, each level started costing around 6 US dollars, and has dropped to less then 2.5 US dollars. The reasons for this are as follows:

1. The power-leveling companies increased, bringing huge competitive pressure.
2. The skill of leveling is more and more demanding.
3. The large-scale company's monopoly on cheap prices causes other companies to have insufficient funds. To compete, those companies have to reduce prices to survival.

There are risks in the services provided because Blizzard continuously attacks power-levels and massively power-leveling account can get suspended and banned. However, inexpensive labor force costs and relatively high profits allows these companies to weather more risk.

As for us here at USFine.com, the company was established in August 2006. It was originally engaged in equipment resells, but when the WoW power-leveling market developed, its strategy for entering the market was to offer services "slightly lower price then the market value." In 2006, the average power-leveling price of Levels 1-60 stabilized at basically around 169 US dollars.

As a result, Usfine expanded quickly in early 2007. Usfine entered the second development phase by increasing the power-leveling service, and deliberately lowering the price for Levels 1-60 to 129 dollars - the lowest price on market; resulting in fierce price competitions from 2006 to the beginning of 2007. However, the company also encountered many problems regarding low risk control in this initial period. Therefore, some customer accounts got banned - but during 2007 Usfine has come a long ways regarding the risks involved.

Overall, the battle between leveling companies and game producers will be long-lasting. At present, there is no explicit legal rule to claim whether the service is allowed or not regarding - therefore, WoW power-leveling needs a long period to be completely mature. Everyone is waiting to see what happens.

China GDC 2008 Announced For Beijing

- [The first GDC China, co-organized by my co-workers Meggan and Stephanie, seemed to go off pretty well, so it's neat to see they're doing it again in 2008, this time in Beijing - info broke just before Xmas, just getting round to reprinting it now!]

CMP, creators of the Game Developers Conference (and parent of Gamasutra), along with technology media and events company IDG, have joined with China Joy producers Beijing Howell International Exhibition Co. to announce the second annual China Game Developers Conference, set to take place in Beijing on September 24th-26th, 2008.

The event, to be held at the Jiuhua Spa and Resort in Beijing, builds on the success of the 2007 event, held in Shanghai, which exceeded expectations with more than 2,000 attendees. China GDC will once again feature content programmed by an advisory board of Chinese developers who share a commitment to promote and support their country's game industry.

China GDC will be produced "by China, for China," offering opportunities for learning, networking, and inspiration in the Chinese market, and for those looking for a vertical reach into that market. More information on speakers and registration opportunities will be released in early 2008.

Meggan Scavio, senior conference manager of CMP's Game Developers Conference, commented, "While GDC connects the worldwide game development community, the goal of China GDC is to provide the burgeoning Chinese market a unique, specialized experience. We look forward to expanding on the success of the 2007 event by complementing the formula and spirit of GDC with the extended reach of our partners in China."

Konami's Yamaoka Talks Silent Night, Uhm, Hill

- Over at Gamasutra, we posted an Xmas Eve interview with Konami's Silent Hill music supremo Akira Yamaoka, and it actually covers a number of interesting avenues - from the Silent Hill movie to Japanese development to Silent Hill 5.

The interview, originally printed in the December 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine, has been expanded for its appearance on Gamasutra, and includes Yamaoka answering why Konami chose California-based developer The Collective for the currently in-development Silent Hill 5: "Basically, their graphical skill... and also they really understand the world and concept of Silent Hill."

In addition, when asked: 'What is it like working with an American team for Silent Hill 5? Is it different from having a team in-house with you?', Yamaoka commented:

"It's completely different working with an American team. There are of course advantages and disadvantages, but overall, I'm really impressed with the American staff and their technology. Their graphical and technical ability is amazing.

There's a huge gap, actually. They're very advanced. I'm Japanese, and I think this is not just with Silent Hill but with the whole of the industry -- I look at what American developers are doing and I think wow... Japan is in trouble."

Later in the interview, Yamaoka elaborates in-depth on the issues he currently sees in Japanese game creator, explaining why he feels Japan has some issues when it comes to creating cutting-edge titles:

"There are two reasons I think. One is that the development environment in Japan is divided into developers and publishers. Publishers have to create a game in a short amount of time at low cost, and it's a lot of pressure on them in that respect, and they pass that on to the developers. So basically it has to be done as quickly and cheaply as possible. And the people doing this are getting old like me. And tired! And the salary isn't that great.

So you've got pressure on these people to perform like they did when they were 20, and it's just not possible. I look at a game magazine, and I see interviews with the "important creators," like Mr. Sakaguchi. He's a great game creator, but he's not young. And I don't see many young game creators in Japan. Then I look at the west, and I see all these young guys coming up so fast, it's just amazing.

The second reason is that... well for example, on another project [we] were in development for a while, and we realized that we needed a new driver for some graphics program. That happens of course. So we looked around for it, and we found it, OK. Same maker, same everything, should be fine right? But the problem is they're all in English. So we get this thing and we have to localize it into Japanese.

So we don't have a lot of people who can understand English deeply enough for something like that, so that reduces speed. And while we're waiting for that, we're already a step behind everyone else who can understand it intuitively. This sort of thing builds up, and we just fall further behind. I mean of course we can understand it once we know what it says, but this falling behind really affects the quality of what we can do. So that's the second big problem."

The full interview with Konami's Yamaoka is now available at Gamasutra, including plenty more in-depth information on his history in the business, his work on the Silent Hill movie and his new CD, iFuturelist.

December 24, 2007

GameSetWatch 2007 Game Company Xmas Card Countdown: Nintendo To Free Radical

Finishing up the series - here's the first and the second set of holiday greetings - this is the final set of publisher/developer Xmas cards we received in time for the 2007 holiday season at our offices here in slightly chilly San Francisco.

These cards are compiled from everyone in the CMP Game Group offices - special thanks to GDC exec director Jamil Moledina, Game Developer senior editor Brandon Sheffield, and Gamasutra features editor Christian Nutt for letting me take their cards home to scan. [Also, former Gamasutra and current Joystiq editor Jason Dobson posted a few other cards on his Flickr account, for those wanting more.]

Here goes:

Nintendo's Xmas card features a snowflake-specked version of Super Mario Galaxy iconography - and is flecked with glitter, whcih is particularly fetching.

Now, here's the ironic card inclusion. This card is not personalized in any way to the company who sent it. But... that's because it's from 'game development ninjas' Tose, of course. Haw haw.

This card from Ubisoft is available in a couple of other places too, and only just fits on the scanner - but showcases a massive range of Ubi characters, all the way from Rayman to the 'Imagine' casual game series.

A group card from NIS America, this one features some art from the much-awaited Disgaea 3, as well as lots of signatures from key folks at the Japanese-headquartered, SRPG-happy firm.

   
   

The final card is from the folks at Free Radical, and all four page reveal a rich tapestry of l33t gaming puns on the holiday season - along with a spoof disclaimer that channels Assassin's Creed, somebody mentioned to us. A fine end to the series, we believe - happy Christmas to all.

GameSetWatch's 2007 Game Company Xmas Card Countdown: Ninja Theory To Double Fine

Continuing from the first in the series, it's time to rummage around some more of the neat game publisher/developer Xmas cards we received in time for the 2007 holiday season at the offices of Gamasutra, Game Developer magazine, GDC, and, heh... GameSetWatch.

A reminder - these cards are compiled from everyone in the CMP Game Group offices - special thanks to GDC exec director Jamil Moledina, Game Developer senior editor Brandon Sheffield, and Gamasutra features editor Christian Nutt for letting me take their cards home to scan.

Good ol' Ninja Theory have their special Heavenly Sword-themed Xmas card - which I think they've used before, since the old-style PS3 design and 'boomerang' controller sneak into the design. Fun.



Koei aren't afraid to plug Dynasty Warriors 6 in their card, with the perennial Japanese history borrowers suggesting that 'heavier armor' is the answer to your holiday chill-related issues.

Over at Sony Computer Entertainment America, they've paid someone to carve the PlayStation controller button insignias onto a snow bank, in marvellous holiday stylings. (OK, it's probably a Photoshop trick of the mind, but close enough.)


You might know D3 Publisher of America from Puzzle Quest, of course - not to mention Earth Defense Force and their Japanese parent's Simple 2000 series. In this case, a simple play on their logo makes up their Xmas greetings card.

Finally, last year's Double Fine card was really darn cool, and the Psychonauts and Brutal Legend creators have again come up with something neeto, with the double-headed 'Fine mascot riding a sleigh hotrod, and some cunning prose. Bravo, Sirs. Final Xmas card compilation coming soon...

GameSetLinks: Heads In Jars Say ZX Spectrum

- Not giving up yet on the GameSetLinks, and this set encompasses a multitude of sins - particularly Chris Baker's game-related bonus access to the Futurama crew thanks to his recent Wired article, yum.

Also notable, though, is the Eurogamer crew (who rarely put a step wrong) getting an honest-to-goodness Xmas-themed Spectrum game made about them, Gus Mastrapa's neeto Rock Band list, Petri Purho's latest distinctly tongue-in-cheek indie game, and a few other gems - za za zoo zoo:

The Compleat Gamer Geek's Guide to Futurama | Game | Life from Wired.com
Leftover game goodness from Mr. Baker's Wired Futurama profile. YUM!

The Flogging Will Continue… » There and (mostly) Back Again; A Solstice Greeting
All kinds of Daniel James randomness, including him being fashion blogged in a truly horrific (in a good way?) suit.

Looky Touchy: Something For the Ladies: 25 Songs With Female Vocals That Should Be in Rock Band
Thoughtful list articles involving Rock Band FTW.

Kloonigames » Blog Archive » M3 - Molesting the Match-3 Market
'The idea in the game is that you’re a casual games’ level designer and it’s your job to create levels for the game, in which the players can get the maximum score without really doing anything.'

richardcobbett.co.uk > Richard's Online Journal > Gamer Snap
Some awesome random gaming pictures, including a Tabula Rasa one that made me guffaw.

Insomnia | Reviews | Wii | No More Heroes
Distinctly lukewarm review - we'll see how polarizing the game is.

Eurogamer: Article - The Eurogamer Xmas game!
A special ZX Spectrum game all about rescuing them at Xmas from Eurogamer Towers. They win (and a screenshot is pictured above!)

MTV Multiplayer » ‘Dirty Dancing’ Game Brings Back Childhood Memories, Questions
Insert 'time of my life' joke here.

Sirlin.net — Your source of shocking insights on game design: CGS is Plagiarizing to Win
Oh dear, a writer borrowing Sirlin concepts for a championship gaming site blog.

December 23, 2007

GameSetWatch's 2007 Game Company Xmas Card Countdown: PopCap To BioWare

Well, we're making this a yearly event now - following 2006's game company Christmas card gallery, GSW has got its trusty scanner out and is posting all the neat Xmas greeting cards we collectively got from our friends in the game biz.

Firstly, let's give a shout-out to the other sites who've started this job - in particular, the UK chaps at ComputerAndVideoGames.com have posted over 10 scanned cards from this year, including neat Rare, Konami, and Blizzard ones. In addition, Kotaku has 7 more cards posted, with some awesome Namco Bandai, Petroglyph, and Lionhead digital/physical cards. Oh, and there's Valve's ApertureScience.com online card, of course.

These cards are compiled from everyone in the CMP Game Group offices - special thanks to GDC exec director Jamil Moledina, Game Developer senior editor Brandon Sheffield, and Gamasutra features editor Christian Nutt for letting me take their cards home to scan.

Between us, we have over 15 specially designed game firm Xmas cards not posted online by C&VG and Kotaku yet this holiday season, so we'll be putting them out in three posts, and compiling them all into one big megapost after that. Fun! Let's go:

PopCap's card came with some really cute set of three notebooks with embossed PopCap game characters on them, and a little Xmas-y company factsheet which revealed the firm has managed 50% growth per year _every year_ for the past few years. Good lord, casual games megaton.

   

Another 'reveal'-styled Final Fantasy card from Square Enix this year, and this time, it looks like a snowman... before opening the card reveals that the eyes are actually from a super-kawaii Chocobo. Aw!

The folks from Marvelous Interactive (Harvest Moon) sent over this distinctly Japanese-styled card celebrating Santa's skydiving prowess. Reborn!

From Naughty Dog, the stars of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune take the opportunity to wish us a happy holiday season - further displaying some of that Magnum P.I.-ish vibe that makes me grin.

   
   

The crown jewel of this particular set, BioWare's Xmas card features completely awesome custom Mass Effect art (both Santa-themed and super-deformed!), and a catchy 'Jingle Bells'-pastiche Xmas poem within which starts 'Mass Effect, Mass Effect, Shepard's on his way, He's out spreading Christmas cheer throughout the mass relays'. More cards soon!

Game Developer Editor Brandon Sheffield's Personal Top 10 Games Of 2007

- [So sure, we already did the countdown thing, but Game Developer magazine senior editor and Insert Credit blogger Brandon Sheffield didn't have a chance - so we grabbed him in the office yesterday and made him cough up his picks.]

I decided to make my own Top 10 games list for 2007, just for fun. It differed slightly from the general Gamasutra list, which I didn't have time to be on, due to finishing the January issue of Game Developer magazine.

So here you are, my games of 2007 (note: these are the top 10 games I actually played. There are some nice ones out there that I just didn't get to). Get ready to be EXCITED and AMAZED by another list!

10. Halo 3 (Bungie, Xbox 360)

To be honest, I haven't even played the single player campaign for more than an hour. I played a bit on Legendary with a friend in co-op, and that's it. This game is on the list for its robust multiplayer and system link capabilities. Having 8 friends in a room, two online in various parts of the U.S., split across two teams, fighting with strangers in 16-player battles is really something that could only happen efficiently these days, and it's really quite invigorating.

Adding in the replays and screenshot-ability means the next day, hilarious images of you getting launched into the air by your pal will grace your favorite forums. To me, it's an awesome realization of the online environment, which I never thought I would enjoy participating in.

9. Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (Infinite Interactive + friends, PSP, DS, Xbox 360)

Take a derivative puzzle game, add battle features, and a derivative story – what do you get? A game I played for almost 30 hours. The fact is, Bejeweled is nice, but I didn't have a lot of incentive to keep going. In Puzzle Quest, the limited tactics of battle are enjoyable, and even though I didn't care about the story in the slightest, the small tasks it gave me were enough incentive to keep me moving around the map. Plus, the battles and quests are bite-sized, making it great to play on the train, which is where I do a lot of my gaming. Unfortunately, the level cap (50) and the lack of things to do after you beat the game kind of left me hanging.

8. Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD (Backbone/Capcom, Xbox Live Arcade/PSN)

Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo for Matching Service never came out on the U.S. Dreamcast, and this is basically that game, plus achievements, plus rebalanced AI, and new graphics for the gems, backgrounds, and explosions. Sure, the characters look horrible now, with their 'super eagle'-style filter, but a good game is a good game.

7. Wartech: Senko no Ronde (G.Rev, Xbox 360)

Virtual On meets curtain-fire shooter, with very nice arcade-style gameplay. A lot of people hate on this game, and it's easy to see why – it's simple, it's not amazingly fun without friends (what arcade games are?), and has a relatively new gameplay system. But if you sit down and get into it, there's a lot to offer, I find.

6. Arcana Heart (Examu, PlayStation 2)

Arcana Heart was released on PS2 this year (in Japan – there's a rumor it might be coming to the U.S. though!), and is an excellent take on the 2D gals fighting genre, which had been pretty stagnant since Asuka 120% Limited. Yes, I do like the gals fighting genre, and yes, I am being serious. These games tend to be faster, have lots of air dashes, and double jumps, and simple recoveries, and in general are not as overpowering in their character designs.

The 'arcanas' in this game each have a specific power that any character can use, but each character has a special affinity for a certain one. Each character plays differently enough as it is, and the addition of these arcanas only serve to refine the characters to suit your play style. That said, I do suck at it terribly, and each character design is more or less based on an anime fetish, but if that doesn't bother you, it's really quite a fun game.

5. KOF XI (SNK Playmore, PlayStation 2)

I have a long history with the King of Fighters series, so it pains me to put this at number 5 on the list, when it's clearly the best KOF in many years. My personal favorite is 2001 (Dreamcast version, with puzzle mode), but I didn't like the evolution of the Strikers system that much – strikers are gone now, and proper VS-style character swapping is in – and it's really well done, too, with different swaps for mid-combo, guarding, and normal changeups.

This means several gauges to watch, but it's not really too much to manage. Unfortunately, for me KOF was very much about the characters, and as much as I appreciate the addition of characters like Hotaru from MotW, Silber from Buriki One, and other rather obscure fighters, a lot of my very favorites are gone: Joe, Angel, May Lee, Yashiro, Chris, etc. Story-wise some of those should be gone, but I don't care. I want them back.

4. BioShock (2K Boston/Australia, Xbox 360/PC)

I've written plenty about this game elsewhere, but the way the story is implemented through choice in-game 'moments', as well as the recordings of the ruined utopia's rapidly deteriorating residents is just awesome. The gameplay is fun enough, but that's not why I'll remember the game. It's got such an appealing and well-realized universe that I just want to spend time there. That, and the music is awesome. Considering the time period it's supposed to take place in, there's no real reason for Django Reinhardt, The Andrews Sisters, and Billie Holiday to be in there, but hey. I'm sure glad they are.

3. Jeanne d'Arc (Level 5, PlayStation Portable)

I originally had this further down the list, but I had to bump it up. If I'm willing to play through a 40+ hour SRPG, there's got to be a reason. And there is! To me, if you're playing an SRPG the main thing you're doing is managing units, making choices, and executing them. Essentially, what you're 'doing' all the time is messing with the user interface. Jeanne D'arc has streamlined this to an amazing degree, heretofore unparalleled in the genre. It does things like reminding you that if you save before a battle, you can't back out to a town, so might want to make a separate save.

Crafting skill stones has you combine stones you have to create new ones – but if you've already created something, it auto-fills the recipe, so you don't have to remember it. It automatically tells you the stats of a new item for each character. It's just taken away or streamlined all the obnoxious things you always had to back in and out of menus for, and for that, it deserves praise. The story is boring, one chapter is ridiculously obnoxious, but the solid UI, combined with a variety of character types and skills, as well as a non-magic-reliant game system, makes me a happy camper. There's a lot more I could say about this game, but I'll leave that for a later date.

2. Call of Duty 4 (Infinity Ward, Xbox 360, PS3, PC)

Anyone who knows me will be horrified that I've got three shooters on my list so far, but this one has the best, most opaque writing I've seen in a game, and is so well designed that I never felt like screwing around. I was always engrossed and felt like completing the task at hand. That never happens! The scenarios were excellent, the scripted gameplay moments were exciting, and the dialog it proposes regarding war was rather mature I thought. You've got your 'being a soldier is power!' bits, but you also play through the horrible death of one of your main characters. Quite gripping.

1. Portal (Valve, PS3, Xbox 360, PC)

Under two hours of the best-integrated narrative and gamplay I've seen in a long time. I'm hitting similar notes with picks 1, 2, and 4, but that's where my interest lies right now. Portal allows you to discover everything about the world without any exposition. It's all implied, but is only there if you want it. Additionally, the first 17 stages of the game feel like a test environment – because they are. But the final stage sees you break out of that environment and you're given control of your powers within the "real world," and the game actually makes you feel that way. So, here's my effusive praise for this game to lump in with everyone else's.

Honorable mentions (for games unplayed or just outside the Top 10):

Rock Band (Harmonix, PS3, Xbox 360, PS2)

Being able to sing while my friends play is simply awesome. I also enjoy that Expert (for vocals) is the most accurate, and thus easiest to sing if you know the song well. Huzzah!

Death Smiles (Cave, arcade)

I'm relatively certain this 2D horizontally scrolling shooter from Cave would've been in my proper list if I'd actually played it. It's only in arcades in Japan now, but has excellent music, a very good Cave-like system, and stunning 2D parallax scrolling. Hope it gets a port.

Neo Geo Battle Coliseum (SNK Playmore, PlayStation 2, arcade)

Maybe this should've been in my list, but I've kind of played it to death and so it didn't feel very 'best of 2007' to me. It is, however, great, and has tons of characters from all over the SNK universe in a relatively well-balanced fighter. And everyone should buy it.

Odin Sphere (Vanillaware, PlayStation 2)

Awesome graphics. Simply amazing. But given that I played its spiritual predecessor, Princess Crown, for all of an hour and a half before becoming incredibly bored, I've yet to actually touch this game. I've heard it's more of the same as far as that goes. If they could find a game designer to match their story, music, and visuals, Vanillaware would take over the niche gaming world.

GameSetNetwork: Agile Use Of The Vectrex

- Aha, time to round up some of the interesting stories (particular features) posted on the CMP Game Group's other sites, including Gamasutra, this week.

Of course, one of them is the gigantic 'Best Of 2007' compilation, which you've already seen most or all of reprinted on GSW, but there's plenty of other interesting material round here somewhere - such as:

- Scrum and Long Term Project Planning for Video Games
"The agile methodology known as Scrum is rapidly gaining development credence, and High Moon Studios CTO Clinton Keith (Darkwatch, The Bourne Conspiracy) presents this in-depth Gamasutra article explaining how publishers and developers can benefit through regular, focused iteration."

- A History of Gaming Platforms: The Vectrex
"The 'ambitious and unusual' vector-based Vectrex console was one of the most intriguing game console failures of all time, and Loguidice and Barton continue their 'History Of Gaming Platforms' series by analyzing the rise, fall, and legacy of the cult '80s console."

- Persuasive Games: The Holly and the Ivy
"Ian Bogost's latest 'Persuasive Games' column takes a seasonal twist, as he examines the history of holiday-related themes in games - from Christmas NiGHTS through Sims 2 expansions - and suggests that the industry should produce more Christmas games."

- Sponsored Feature: Going Live - Announcing XNA Game Studio 2.0
"This is the first in a series of game development articles hosted on the new XNA micro-site at Gamasutra. This month's article gives you an insider's look into the new features of XNA Game Studio 2.0. In addition, we introduce you to the broader XNA organization which serves both professional and community developers on Microsoft platforms."

- Better Living Through Order: An Eidos Montreal Studio Tour
"Want to know how Deus Ex 3 is being created? Gamasutra presents an in-depth Eidos Montreal studio tour, including comments from GM Stéphane D'Astous and DX3 producer David Anfossi on the update to the seminal franchise."

And a couple of bonus original Gamasutra news stories/reports that are worth checking out - 'China Angle: Top 2007 Events Shaping The Future Of China's Industry', plus 'GDC Lyon: Kuju's Baverstock On Developer Marketing' and 'IGC: BioWare's Dubose Talks QA On New MMO'.



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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