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January 19, 2008

GameSetLinks: PixelJunk-ing Up Our Tiny Life

- You know, there are all kinds of neat gaming links out there on the web - and GameSetLinks compiles them all for your viewing pleasure. This time, we have a variety of craziness - from Habbo's 'unique' charm to Dibbell's classic game book.

But there's other goodness too - from Mr. Gillen getting excited about the eminently worth it World Of Goo, to the addictively derivative Line Golf and various other varieties of entertainment. Here goes:

Habbos In the Mist « The Skinnerboxer Rebellion
'It provides a Lego set…except its a Lego set geared at that awkward age where you’re trying to figure out all the mysteries of life, and what you’re going to do with yourself from now until never.'

PlayStation.Blog » PixelJunk Monsters Set to Launch Next Week
The second PixelJunk title from the Kyoto massif, very 'Defence'-ish in a good way.

Tale of Tales» Blog Archive » The meanings of games
More activism from those who also walk the walk, pleasingly: 'With game technology’s increasing sophistication in representation comes a moral obligation to design games around stories, and not the other way around.'

Julian Dibbell: 'My Tiny Life'
His classic book on online MUDs/worlds now available via PDF for free.

'Scrabulous' debate may rewrite the rules of the game | The Social - CNET News.com
I was always surprised Hasbro didn't do something about this sooner - Scrabulous is pretty cheeky.

I'm Not Offended, I'm Just Bored: Why Gaming Journalism Should Stop Treating Women Like Meat
Not completely wrong, but as commenters points out, tries to condemn stereotypes while simultaneously perpetuating them - via Wonderland.

Virtua Fighter 5 Title Update - Xbox Live's Major Nelson
Best patch ever: 'Some characters will now be able to equip select costume-specific pants in alternate costumes.' ALTERNATE PANTS!

World of Goo First Impressions // PC /// Eurogamer
'It's as instantly charismatic a character-lead puzzle game I've played since the first Lemmings way back in the days of the Amiga.'

The Candystand Blog: Tada..... Introducing Line Golfer
Interesting - is this with the help of the Line Rider creator? Guessing not.

Hardcore Gaming 101: Earnest Evans Series
GSW's previous Telenet article 'inspired me to write a bit about Wolfteam's Earnest Evans series, which also includes El Viento and Annet Futatabi.'

Aperture Science Rocks: The Top 12 'Still Alive' Cover Versions

Inspired by the absolutely awesome news (ta Jane!) that singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton - the composer of the spectacularly catchy Portal end-theme 'Still Alive' - is playing a gig in San Francisco on the Friday of Game Developers Conference, GameSetWatch had a fun thought.

So, the Internet is good with this whole 'user contributed content' thing. And 'Still Alive' is so damn hummable, it hurts. So, could we put together a Top 12 of 'Still Alive' cover versions, as posted on ubiquitous and gigantic video upload megalopolis YouTube? Oh boy, we could - and here's the sometimes delightful, sometimes painful results:

12. 'Still Alive' - The Fursuit Version

Needless to say, furries are some of the first people to seize on a trend and 'enhance' it to their level, hence the 'Still Alive' (Fursuit Edition), which is, simply enough, somebody in a furry suit playing the song on a keyboard. User comments include: 'I wish I learned a fursuit friendly instrument the guitar doesn't lend itself to being easily played in a fursuit'. Sigh.

11. A 'Still Alive' FPS Shooting Duet?

Possibly the video that came closest to blowing my mind, this performance was conducted using Garry's Mod for Half-Life 2, with one player shooting chords from a distance and the other one hitting the melody from close up. Complete insanity.

10. Bizarre 'J-Pop' Cover Version

You've always wanted to see an Asian lady in dungarees and a beret playing on a kids playset while singing along to a xylophone-replete cover of 'Still Alive', right? OK, just checking, cos that's what you're getting with Portal " Still Alive" by Cana:n Cana:n.

9. The Band Bros DS Cover

The Japan-only DS title Daigasso! Band Brothers allows you to compose music using the touchscreen after you unlock 'score maker pro' in the game - hence this not unreasonable cover version using that app.

8. Hatsune Miku Takes A Hack At It

For those not in the know, Hatsune Miko is a major Japanese craze, sophisticated voice synthesis software which allows any geeked-out otaku to compose, synthetically create and replay vocals from a super-cute Japanese cybergirl - hence this version, using Yamaha's Vocaloid tech to good, slightly Japanese accent-tinged effects.

7. Incredibly Awkward Bedroom Singalong

This version had one solitary view when I came across it, which was more because it was new than particularly terrible, of course, but if you enjoy nerdy girls with obvious gothloli leanings singing along using a webcam - with occasional use of Bob Dylan-esque cards - then, uhh, go right ahead.


6. The Player Piano Is 'Still Alive'

Didn't realize that today's breed of player piano can be programmed pretty easily, apparently, and so we get this spookiness - a piano _playing itself_ and blasting out 'Still Alive', thanks to a reader request, apparently. Does the piano want cake? Is that it?

5. The LipSync Is The Message

Where would we be without the lipsync-ing webcam video? In a world without Numa Numa Kid, that's where, so we have to thanks 'RaisinAznJason' for this particular version, with some strangely choirboy-like emoting and choppy audio - but hey, Portal folks, someone likes your ending song enough to randomly emote to it.

4. The Revenge Of Vocaloid

Wait, we're not done with Hatsune Miko - here's a Japanese-language cover of 'Still Alive', also done with the Vocaloid 2 synthetic voice software, and actually replete with some nice vibrato, slide, and delicate vocal phrasing, I reckon. Great job, if no actual accompanying video to speak of.

3. The Devil Music Version

Possibly the strangest of all of the versions on YouTube, this has a simple logo screen and the song played backwards, for no discernable reason. However, it sounds much cooler than one would expect, and there's a rash of inevitable comments insisting GLaDOS is saying rude, (even more) diabolical things only now revealed by the backwards spin. Suuure.

2. The Song, 'Covered' By The Auteur

OK, this is somewhat cheating, but here's Jonathan Coulton himself appearing on the AT&T Tech Channel (!), with a beautifully simple version of 'Still Alive', just him, acoustic guitar, and a grinning idiot eating cake.

1. Still Alive On 8080

Linked quite a bit recently and topping our largely random chart, this version geeks out in style: "Everything on the terminals and sound is controlled by an Intel 8080 Microprocessor at 2MHz. The sound chip is a MOS SID (From a Commodore 64)." And yes, the source code is available.

COLUMN: @Play: Angband - At Last!

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.]

I've put this one off for a long time because of the sheer bulk of the game, and the time it takes to get good at a game this large as Angband. Nethack is pretty involved too, of course, but at least I have the advantage of having played it for many years. Still, something has to be said.

Unlike many of the other games we've discussed, especially Nethack, Angband is a moving target. The active development it undergoes really is active, and various things about the game may change in the future.

While it's possible that everything I've said about Nethack will be invalidated by some upcoming brilliant release by the DevTeam, few seriously believe it will happen. (In fact, I would be one of the most anxious to have my notes invalidated.) Thus it is that, everything I say here should be considered provisional, although I will attempt to stick with the more permanent facts about the game.

The Journey Of A Hundred Levels

The object of Angband is, starting from a town level on the surface, to descend into a gigantic dungeon, find Morgoth on the 100th floor, and kill him. That's right:100 floors! Or 5000', as the game puts it, for each floor is 50 feet deeper than the last.

The dungeon actually goes deeper than that, and the player can continue to explore for higher scores, but level 100 is hard enough for most. Killing Morgoth earns the player the attribute "*Winner*" even if he later perishes. Nethack's dungeon at most contains about 80-85 levels, and they're all solidly limited at being one ASCII screen in size, while Angband's scroll around all over the place. A Nethack game may take days, Angband, weeks.

angband1.pngOn the other hand, Angband is a more random game than Nethack. The latter game has slowly been progressing towards giving the player more guaranteed rewards to balance out the random number generator (RNG). Angband takes the opposite tack, providing very little that's certain in every game. Most of what is reliable comes from the shops in town, which provide renewable quantities of some important items like scrolls of identify. This, and its many well-differentiated character classes, mean that Angband is far less likely to come down to a static game later on than Nethack, where most classes play similarly after the halfway-point.

On the other hand, Angband lacks Nethack's complicated, 1st edition D&D-inspired system of object uses and mixtures. An Angband item is generally more straightforwardly useful, or useless, on its face. While items must still be identified, the steady supply of identify scrolls in town, and other sources of this service, makes this more a formality in Angband. Use-identifying in Angband is a sucker's game, and later on it can even be instantly fatal. Use-testing isn't the best way to play Nethack either, mind you.

The source of these differences is probably the game's different lineages. All roguelike games owe their inspiration to Rogue, of course, but after that there evolved two different major philosophies of play, represented by the Hack branch and the Moria branch. (There were a few others yet that didn't thrive as well, like the Larn branch, and the various SRogues and UltraRogues.)

Hack stuck pretty closely to the Rogue basis, and took its greatest inspiration from the clever little bits, like standing on scrolls of scare monster and gaining max hit points from drinking healing potions while at top health. Moria, on the other hand, focused more on tactics and the turn-based, step-by-step movement and fighting. (For more information on this, check the previous column on Roguelike tactics.) Hack had a couple of competing versions that were merged and became Nethack. Moria became UMoria (the inspiration for Diablo according to that game's credits), and ultimately Angband.

Because A Game Called 'Valinor' Would Be Boring.

But what's this? "Moria?" As in, the Mines of Moria? Yes, one of the series' enduring trademarks is the huge number of Tolkien items and monsters that have been playfully thrown in with other D&D and invented creatures. "Angband" itself is the name of one of Morgoth's fortresses in the early days of Middle-Earth. Nearly every weapon Tolkien wrote about, and a good many he didn't and were assumed by the creators, are in Angband somewhere as an artifact. If they're not actually in a book you'd be forgiven for not realizing it, for they were given suitable Tolkien language names just like the others. The One Ring itself can be generated and used by the player, although it's the rarest item in the game, not completely positive in effect, and permanently cursed.

angband2.pngIt's important, by the way, for all you Tolkienophiles to not look for rhyme nor reason in the included artifacts or monsters. The developers just threw 'em in to increase play variety, but many are far from contemporary in the books. Much inspiration was found from the Silmarillion, and please forgive me for not cracking that book open again to find the details. While the main guys of The Lord of the Rings have been avoided (except for Smeagol, aka Gollum), one can find such notable bit characters as Farmer Maggot, Bullroarer the Hobbit, orcs Shagrat and Gorbag, and even the trolls from The Hobbit. The major uniques of the game, Sauron and Morgoth, are found on levels 99 and 100 of the dungeon respectively, and their deaths in the pits of Angband won't be found in any work written by John Ronald Reuel.

But what if you don't like the idea of playing the Generic Tolkien Roguelike? It's no matter. Perhaps Angband's most astounding attribute is that, after former maintainer Ben Harrison got done with it, it was perhaps the roguelike with the cleanest codebase of all. While not technically Free Software because a few bits of it were written by folks who have yet been found to obtain their permission to license the lot under a compatible license, the code is effectively open source, and has been used as the starting point of literally dozens of variants. Many major fantasy book series have served as the basis of an Angband variant at some point, the most notable ones being Amber, Pern, and the Cthulhu Mythos. Most of them retain Angband's cheerful chucking together of monsters and artifacts, sometimes retaining a portion (or all) of Tolkien's for good measure. There's even another major Tolkien Angband variant, ToME (Tales Of Middle Earth), which includes aspects from other major 'Bands and has a more complex world structure than Angband's 100-level downward dungeon.

Ancient Foes Compared: Angband vs. Nethack

One thing that Angband unquestionably does better than Nethack is preserve its sense of danger. Even expert players can never take the game for granted. It is possible for a perfectly-outfitted player to die to an unfortunate arrangement of monsters, even with pretty good play. A character missing an important resistance can find himself dead within a turn. There are monsters in the game who do so much damage with a single unresisted breath that they can empty a max-level player's hit points in a single attack.

angband3.pngI said unresisted. In Nethack, gaining some resistance will make the player nearly immune to that type of attack. A player with sleep resistance will never have to worry about being put to sleep, and if he gained it from eating a sleep-resistant monster (the most common source) he'll have that attribute for the rest of the game. The same goes for poison, fire, cold and electricity. A successful player will normally acquire all of these, and they're all binary, either 100% effective or not at all. A poison-resistant player will never again be affected by poison! Gaining poison resistance is actually an important game milestone, because it eliminates a common source of insta-death.

While resistances are just as important in Angband, the game implements them by way of a tiered system. For one thing, "resistance" is different from "immunity," which is more similar to Nethack's resistances but (only comes from certain artifacts?) is fairly hard to get. Angband has no way of gaining intrinsic abilities; all the resistances the player can get are through items or spells. A lot of its artifacts grant them, but there are so many possible artifacts, and no generation guarantees along the way, that the player must generally make due with what he finds and use caution to make up for the rest.

And there are a lot of resistances to acquire! Angband characters begin by
aiming for the basics of fire, ice, lightning, acid and poison. Eventually they'll want to gain resistance to confusion, blindness, paralysis, fear, disenchantment, life draining, light, dark, sound, shards, chaos, nether, and nexus. (What is nexus supposed to mean? It's the awful power of shuffling player attribute scores around.) In addition to equipment-granted sources, there are also potions that provide resistances for a short time. The permanent sources don't "stack" with each other, but the resistance from a temporary source and a permanent source does. Just one of them cuts elemental damage to a third, but two lowers that to just one-ninth. So, wearing two items that provide fire resistance doesn't provide any more protection than one, but wearing one then drinking a potion of Resist Fire will greatly decrease damage taken from flame while it lasts.

Because of the immense danger of taking unresisted breath damage from the wrong monster, gaining resistances is an important goal in Angband play. Nethack's like this too, but there are more common sources, fewer to gain, and because eating monsters can provide permanent intrinsics the player doesn't need to use up equipment slots to keep them. But this also means that, once acquired, a Nethack intrinsic resistance figures very little into later game strategy. Meanwhile, decisions concerning which ego items or artifacts to keep and which to dump lends depth to Angband's higher-level play.

"You Enter A Maze Of Down Staircases...."

Resistances help defend against sudden death, so it's essential to obtain them before encountering a monster which could cause that death. This is where knowing how the dungeon changes in character as the player delves deeper becomes important. Angband monsters and items are generated by dungeon level, so a player who knows the levels that Great Wyrms appear on can be prepared for their ultra-damaging attacks. Angband levels are discarded when the player leaves them and regenerated when returned to, with new monsters and treasure. Because of this, the player can explore the same levels as many times as he likes to find needed stuff. This eliminates the drive to explore ever downward to collect more stuff, but items are also generated by depth, so to find better types of stuff he'll eventually have to go deeper anyway.

The generation algorithm carries some other implications. There is a set of levels, around the 30s in the dungeon, that are colloquially referred to as "stat gain depth." These levels are the ones on which permanent attribute potions are most often produced. Many players stick around here until their stats are boosted as high as they'll go, because the stats will be helpful later in the game and there's no real penalty for doing so.

angband4.pngBecause of things like this, while there is generally less for an Angband player to learn to survive than a Nethack player, it's not a great deal less. Nethack is about as difficult as Rogue if the player knows nothing about the dungeon, but once he learns all the many gotchas, commands and hidden uses for stuff it's much easier. The essential knowledge successful Angband players is more things like generation probabilities, the abilities of monsters, and the advantages offered by X weapon or Y artifact. A perfectly knowledgeable player must still be careful, more careful than the equivalent Nethack player in fact. Nethack makes players remember facts, with Angband, what's learned is more like strategic knowledge.

Another basic play difference is that Nethack's play is more purposeful than Angband's. Nethack games in which the player just clears out levels and descends levels at his own pace are nearly always losses. A Nethack player must know what things he needs and how to get them, a process that, unlike Angband, is never as simple as searching shops and/or re-exploring levels at the best depth. Building a supply of holy water is a Nethack tactic that winning players learn is of vital importance. It requires finding an altar, sacrificing at it if it's not of the player's alignment, keeping in good stead with one's deity, obtaining potions of water (most often by diluting or cancelling other potions, itself a process with its own nuances), and finally prayer. The player must judge when he's running low and then take a break from exploration to initiate the process of making more himself.

It's nearly a side-quest all in itself, and lots of other stuff in Nethack is also like this: gaining protection, making proper use of magic lamps, building AC, using enchantment scrolls without destroying items, gaining artifacts through sacrifice, making dragon scale mail, using wishes. To do these things a Nethack player must be more obsessive than an Angband player, sometimes tripping back through many levels to get to a stash or altar. Ang-players may regenerate levels many times to get stuff they want, but that's a more open-ended activity, and its regenerating levels mean that it still involves dungeon exploration.

The Game With The Vaunted Vaults

This introduction wouldn't be complete without mentioning Angband's infamous vaults, perhaps the greatest risk/reward activity in any roguelike. First off, there exist in Angband things called pits. A pit is a middle-sized room with a lot of a theme monster, maybe easy ones, maybe tough. The contained monsters range from jellies to undead to dragons. They might have okay treasure.

angband5.pngThen there are lesser vaults, which are larger, contain a variety of monster, and come in many designs. The monsters and loot in a lesser vault are "out of depth," that is, it's generated as if the level were a bit lower in the dungeon, so it's a good way to get a leg-up on the difficulty curve. But since the player is probably not ready for the monsters inside, stumbling on a vault is a bit of a heart-stopping moment, like wandering into a zoo in Rogue (and not like finding a throne room in Nethack). But if he can survive or otherwise remove the monsters there's good treasure to be found there, including artifacts.

Finally, there are the greater vaults, which are always generated away from the main complex of rooms. Not only must the player dig to them, but they're surrounded by undiggable walls, and the player will have to excavate around to find the way in. And once he finds entrance, he'll face a truly awe-inspiring challenge: a large number of greatly out-of-depth monsters, with treasure to match. It isn't uncommon to find multiple unique monsters, named opponents with powers greatly above the average foe. Likewise, multiple artifacts are a frequent feature of these direst of rooms.

Now, Angband games can be of two types, determined by the player upon starting, those with "preserve mode" on or off. The difference is what happens to artifacts, those supremely powerful unique items, if one is on a level when it is exited. Remember, Angband levels are discarded once left, the layout and contents determined anew when the player returns. If there was an artifact on that level, then what should happen to it? Sometimes the player will have not discovered it, or maybe he wisely decided not to challenge a vault.

angband6.pngWhen preserve mode is on for that game, then artifacts on discarded levels are returned to the generation mix. It's really unlikely, but it's possible that the artifact could be found again later on. If preserve mode is off, then the artifact is lost forever! If it was a particularly good artifact then that can be a grievous blow to a promising game, and if the player fails to pick up many artifacts then it's possible to reach a point, in a very long game, when there just aren't many left to generate. This provides a tremendous urging of a player who has a greater vault generated on a level to make a run at it, or else not even know which artifacts were just removed from the game.

To make up for this, the player receives a "feeling" upon entering a level, a brief message letting him know, in vague terms, the general quality of the stuff there. If preserve mode is on these feelings reveal little information; Calris (a much-loved artifact) could be on the level and the player would have to explore it all to find out. If preserve mode is off, the level feeling will imply something very nice is on the floor, but the player must find it before he leaves the level or it is lost forever.

There, that should serve as a suitable introduction to Angband. We've now covered all five of the major roguelikes! Honestly, this one's not my favorite of the lot (it's all a bit too grindy for my tastes, like most MMORPGs), but Angband is perhaps the purest representation of roguelike tactics in any game. Later on we'll have a look at some of its variants, many of them rich games in their own right.

Links:
The Angband Newbie Guide

January 18, 2008

GameSetNetwork: Pachinko Machine Of Disney!

- You might perhaps want to know some of the rather neat game-related features we've launched this week on Gamasutra.com and associated CMP Game Group sites - including one of my favorite named features of all time, from Lost Garden's Daniel Cook.

Also notable - an interview with Disney's game boss on how they span the hardcore to the High School, as well as a good piece on compulsion in gaming and the latest in John H's quirky but readable 'Top 20' series. Here's the rundown:

- The Watery Pachinko Machine of Doom: Project Horseshoe's Thoughts On Story
"In a video game, veteran designer Daniel Cook suggests, each player is just like a pachinko ball, "moving on their unique path" through gameplay - and he presents the results of a fascinating recent 'think tank' on game story's evolution and future."

- Compulsion Engineers
"Game designer Tynan Sylvester takes a close look at how games, alongside most forms of entertainment, "meticulously trigger human instincts" to create emotions and desires, suggesting ways these compulsions can be used positively."

- Evolving Disney: Graham Hopper Speaks
"Last year, Buena Vista Interactive became Disney Interactive, and the company now spans High School Musical games to Turok - Gamasutra talks to GM Graham Hopper on the intriguing evolution and future of Disney's gaming efforts."

- Game Design Essentials: 20 Mysterious Games
"Following three previous charts, Gamasutra's 'Game Design Essentials' series looks at the design lessons from titles in which 'the player must solve mysteries' - from finding secrets to wrestling with algorithmically generated content."

- Catching Up Casually: A Chat With Alexey Pajitnov
"In this in-depth interview, Gamasutra sits down with legendary Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov to discuss the state of the casual game market, a form he helped to birth - as well as his current game projects and the storied history of Tetris."

- Plus, some bonus Q&As and other good stuff from this week on various sites: Q&A: Crytek's Seeley On CryEngine 2's Asian Invasion (Gamasutra.com), Interview: Link-Dead Developers Michal M. and Sigvatr (IndieGames.com), Q&A: 3DV's Barel On The Future Of Camera-Based Game Control (Gamasutra.com), Ask the Experts: Books and Blogs for Game Design (GameCareerGuide.com), Q&A: Sanzaru's Egan On Fun With Ninja Reflex, Wii Development (Gamasutra.com), Types Of Game Designers (GameCareerGuide.com).

Private Eye Explores Games, Game 'Personalities'

- For those unaware, the British 'satirical magazine-newspaper' Private Eye (for which a voluminous Wikipedia page has been created) is one of the continuing journalistic wonders of the Western world - snippy, cutting, if practically morose at times, and not afraid to dish the dirt on "public figures deemed incompetent, inefficient or corrupt".

Since my copy of Private Eye makes it out here to California on a bi-weekly basis, I was delighted to see a video game reference (the first in some time - Private Eye readers are not generally very gadget-savvy) in the latest 'Pseuds Corner' column, which takes particularly pretentious media quotes and presents them to be pointed and ridiculed.

In this case, Chris Suellentrop of Slate.com was cited for the following section of Slate's 'The Gaming Club' year-end special, in which he started their 2007 round-up as follows:

"Go buy an Xbox 360 and BioShock... it is a game about the illusion of choice in video games wrapped around a larger and less provocative rebuttal of Ayn Rand's Atlus Shrugged and her philosophy of objectivism."

Leaving aside the fact that the quote has been chopped up a little from its original context - is this pretentious? In my opinion, not quite as much as the Private Eye editors may think - I'm presuming that they are considering the Ayn Rand comparison entirely dreamt up at a theoretical level, rather than being quite as overt as it actually appears in BioShock.

But nonetheless, it's great to see video game journalism being 'honored' by Lord Gnome alongside such gems as this from Nina Campbell in the UK's Sunday Telegraph 'Stella' magazine:

"Houses have to have character. You must let your house become its unique self. I always tell my daughters, 'Husbands come and go, but whatever you do, hang on to your curtain-maker.' There are very few curtain-makers left now. It's sad, really, isn't it?"

And as a curious aside, John Walker, who is one of the British game journo massif regularly brightening our days at Rock Paper Shotgun, also made it into this issue of Private Eye for telling a tabloid journalism to go away in a spectacularly barbed (and justified) fashion.

[UPDATE: Oh, wait, the latest Cartoons section has a Wii-related cartoon (on the right) included - see, Private Eye 'loves' games more than it knows.]

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Playing The Field'

-[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.]

I started with nothing but an empty lot, overrun with stones and weeds. And over the course of years, I labored from sunup to sundown, building my humble farm. The seasons marched on, sometimes singing my nape with blazing heat, at other times blanketing my fields in a mantle of snow. But I persevered.

Now, I am the proprietor of a successful dairy farm where ten cows earn me hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in cheese. Tiny sprites, masters of their craft, labor dutifully across my acres of seasonal crops. I own a private island, a vacation cottage, and a barn built entirely out of golden lumber. I’m a billionaire.

The only thing left for me, as master of this fruitful domain, is to find one special girl to make my wife.

-There’s something indescribably unique about the Harvest Moon games. Though the gameplay never gets more elaborate than the maintenance of the daily chores involved in running a farm, it’s the periphery – the way the light turns gold in the afternoon, the way the mornings darken in winter, the way the blooms come out in spring – that make the games a unique experience for each player. Each town has its own special landmarks, seasonal rituals, and community holidays. There’s no set way one is required to spend one’s day. The mechanics exist to allow one to build one’s own story around them, even to build one’s own relationships with the townsfolk that go merrily about their daily business alongside you.

For example, in Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town, the surly woodcutter Gotz, who was prone to abandon his building duties unless he felt appreciated, could be found at certain times in a certain season atop the highest peak in the land, musing on the nature of life and death. He lost his wife and child in those wilds. I got in the habit of bringing him a hot pumpkin stew in the winter.

Sharing The Big Bed

-In More Friends, the protagonist is a good sport of an overalls-clad female. I wrung every last drop of gameplay from that title; I think I empathized with the heroine, being also female myself. It took me some time to decide on a husband, and I rode laps on my loyal horse around my farmlands at sunset while I pondered. Eventually, though, I married (the blacksmith’s apprentice, Gray), had a baby girl, and ran out the natural course of my interest in the game. It was a carefully-considered decision – after all, this is the sprite who must greet me every morning and lie in my pricey Big Bed at night alongside me. But I felt Gray was an appropriate partner; once deciding, I didn’t hesitate.

In Harvest Moon DS, where the protagonist is a male, I’m having a much more difficult time. The game has some unfortunate glitches that make the two most difficult bachelorettes – the Harvest Goddess and the Witch Princess – literally impossible to wed, but other than those two, I’ve been on a campaign to woo every girl in the town until she’s absolutely red-faced with adoration. It’s not that I mean to toy with their hearts. I’m just keeping my options open.

-When I played as a girl in More Friends, I eagerly settled down with a nice boy as soon as I’d established myself respectably. My new life with my new husband and, eventually, my child, I thought, would provide a fresh impetus to push the same button day after day in the fields and complete the game’s available goals. The repetition of Harvest Moon’s game mechanics is Zen-like, soothing. It’s these adjacent concepts, truthfully useless in mechanical terms, that personalize the experience. But in the DS version, where I’m male, I was constantly plagued by a sense of inadequacy.

Hoeing Around

I’ve earned more than sufficient funds to support a family (although having a family does not, in practical terms, actually cost you money in the game), and my farm is thriving, even ostentatious. I own multiple properties. My animals have won awards, and the townsfolk adore me. I’ve even rescued a goddess. And yet, I continue to maintain the attention of numerous females at the maximum numerical and color value the game allows, without proposing to a single one. One of my cows must win a gold medal first, I’m reasoning. Got to earn just a bit more money, have to grease the wheels around the farm just a little more.

-I’ve got to complete the arduous process of achieving the full suite of blessed farm tools. There really is such a thing as a Blessed Hoe, but I’m the one whoring around town. The game’s characters are absolutely adorable, and every time I look at a blushing little face, day after day, only to ply her best friend with a gift of pizza right in front of her face, I feel a slight pang. I even dig 255 floors down into the mine, day after day – no mean feat – to daily woo a mute princess sleeping between the earth. She can’t say a word, but I want her anyway.

Why can’t I settle down? I wonder about this every time I pick the game up, which is periodically these days, to relax. I wonder if it’s not because I’m accustomed to writing and thinking critically about hentai games – wherein you sleep with and bond emotionally with some five, six different females, and then only after you’ve christened them all may you pick one to love forever. Of course, most of those games have a so-called “harem ending,” wherein you never have to decide. They all move in with you, and live out their days taking care of your every need while giggling in their underwear.

The Girl From The Sea

-Admittedly, my own gender makes it impossible to know for sure whether this “harem” situation really is “the ultimate male fantasy.” But I’ve sure been told it is, fairly or not – could it be that my unconscious attitudes and socially-taught ideas about how males behave toward women are affecting the way I play as a male protagonist, when allowed to interact with female characters as I please?

Harvest Moon, of course, has no harem ending. Can’t have them all, so why not just pick one? I did, actually. I positively adored the semi-juvenile, vaguely temperamental mermaid who’d been living in the bathtub of a nerdy scientist. After receiving a letter in a bottle from her mother under the sea, she returned there, but I visited her once a week at midnight on the shoreline. It was so romantic, I bucked up and gave her the Blue Feather that signified a proposal.

-But she’s a mermaid. She needs water. I found myself, after our wedding ceremony, with a very sweet little wife who lives, round the clock, in the duck pond outside my house. The very fact that, despite my marriage, I still had to sleep alone, prompted me to reset the game – which, of course, I’d saved before proposing. Just in case I changed my mind.

Wild Oats

Even worse, after realizing the mermaid was exotic enough to capture my attention and yet too exotic to settle down with (I confess, I’ve heard real men describe some girls in similar terms), I turned my attention to the quiet, sweet and domestic little farm girl. Her health is frail, and she likes to stay home and cook delicious vegetables. I could picture her shuffling peacefully around my kitchen. I ought to be ashamed of myself.

-Women are exposed to a lot of ideas about men, through tacky TV dramas and talk shows presumably targeted directly at us. Even some woman-oriented programs and properties masquerading as “feminist” seem to broadcast the message that we are helpless against the machinations of low-life, superficial and contradictory men who will treat dating like a game of blackjack, eager to swap us for a new card if they think they can do just a little bit better.

Certainly, I don’t believe such things are true, any more than I believe I belong in the kitchen or any other such divisive stereotypes. And yet, when given a chance to play as a man in pursuit of a wife, I’m playing the field. I’m two timing – hell, I’m five-timing. I’m in the prime of my wealth and success, and every day all I want is the right woman – and yet, I just can’t stop sowing the wild oats. If only Harvest Moon allowed you to actually grow oats, the symbolism would be just perfect.

-What interests me is the fact that these subliminal social messages informed the way I play in an open world without my even realizing it. I always thought that the way we play, when given the freedom to create our own stories, is enormously telling about who we are as individuals, about our latent issues and secrets. But catching myself placating Flora while flirting with Muffy, going to hell and back for Keira while dreaming of Celia, I notice that what I’m doing is aping human social stereotypes that, when asked, I’d say directly I disagree with. It’s possible that the decisions we make in interactive media are reflections not of ourselves, but of our society -- the way it’s been taught to us through other media.

Then again, I’m into those harem hentai games. Maybe I’m just a man-whore, simple as that. Everyone knows some guy, somewhere, whose behavior makes all men look bad. Thanks to video games, that guy might be me. Sorry.

[Image credit for the blushing bachelorettes go to Ushi No Tane, possibly the best Harvest Moon informational resource on the web.]

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances often for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]

January 17, 2008

2008 Independent Games Festival Audience Award Voting Opens

-[This is the official announcement of the IGF Audience Award voting, with 10 games submitting playable demos this time. May the best game win - indie hounds may note that this is the first public version of Audiosurf and Goo, and the guitar-controlled Fret Nice is available in demo version again now.]

Organizers of the 2008 Independent Games Festival (IGF) have launched the IGF Audience Award voting website, allowing game fans everywhere to download, play, and choose a favorite all of the eligible Main Competition finalist indie games which submitted a publicly playable demo.

Online voting is open now and continues through the day of the IGF ceremony, taking place alongside the Game Developers Choice Awards at the 2008 Game Developers Conference February 20th. The games with eligible demos/versions are: Goo!, Snapshot Adventures: Secret Of Bird Island, Synaesthete, Gumboy Tournament, Iron Dukes, Clean Asia!, Fret Nice, Battleships Forever, Globulos.com, Audiosurf, and Tri-Achnid.

The winner of the Audience Award will be awarded a $2,500 prize, part of the $50,000 total in prizes being given as part of the IGF Main and Student Competitions. Downloads and web-playable versions of eligible Audience Award games are available at the official IGF Audience Award website; the full list of IGF finalists is available at the Independent Games Festival website.

In addition to those available to play via digital download, all finalist games will be playable at the IGF Pavilion, February 20-22, on the Game Developers Conference (GDC) Expo floor. Finalists were chosen from a record 173 entries and represent the growth of the independent games movement with innovative games of excellent quality, across various platforms. GDC, CMP Technology’s annual conference dedicated to the art, science and business of games, takes place Feb. 18-22, 2008 at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco.

“The independent game movement is truly about giving everyone a voice, so it is always important to us to echo that sentiment by giving the public their chance to give out an IGF award,” said Matthew Wegner, IGF Content Director.

The IGF was established in 1998 by the CMP Game Group to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers, in the way that the Sundance Film Festival honors the independent film community. Wizards Of the Coast’s Gleemax.com is the 2008 Platinum Sponsor, alongside Microsoft’s XNA division and Sony as the Silver Sponsors, and DigiPen is the Platinum Student Showcase Sponsor.

For more information on the Independent Games Festival and to register for GDC, please visit the official Game Developers Conference website.

GameSetLinks: 101 Free Harpoons

- Mopping up some more RSS-stolen GameSetLinks, nice to see free games getting a good shake in the resolutely commercial Games For Windows magazine (as reprinted on 1UP) - and it's a good, eclectic collection of links, too.

In addition, there's such important fare as the exact track list from the DDR Disney Channel edition, as well as comments on procedural content, offspring with regard to Lara Croft, and a strange, twisted (social commenting, or?) harpoon-centric freeware title. Here goes:

101 Free Games 2008 - The Best Free Games on the Web! from 1UP.com
This was in the latest Games For Windows - v. neat list.

insertcredit.com: 'iron kid'
A Korean/Spanish GBA game based on a CG animation series? So Sheffield it hurts.

Bullet Points @ timlongo.com » Blog Archive » The Lens #3 (Special Marketing Edition)
On Tomb Raider T-shirts and daughters: 'She should be careful with her guns', indeed.

SimCity Source Code Released to the Wild! Let the ports begin... - Fear and Loathing
Rather awesome, and apparently EA-approved, with a new non-'Sim' name attached.

What's Up With the Mod Scene and Independent Bots? — AiGameDev.com
'Why has the mod scene become less active over the years?' A good, complex question.

NeoGAF - Harpooned: Japanese Cetacean Research Simulator
Oh dear, Internet - using Torque Engine, too! Via JVM.

Amazon.com: Aaron Merkel's review of Dance Dance Revolution: Disney Channel Edition
Track listing included, for those wondering what the DDR/Hannah Montana crossover has birthed!

Ascii Dreams: The Death of the Level Designer: Procedural Content Generation in Games - Part Three
'Why has PCG failed to deliver on the promised hype?'

Giz Banned For Life and Loving It: On Pranks and Civil Disobedience at CES
Further downgrading some blogs (and Gawker, actually) in most people's eyes. What an idiot.

Road To The IGF: Treading The Path Of Fairy Tale Horror

- Continuing sister site Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, Patrick Murphy talked to Tale of Tales' Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn about their Independent Games Festival 2008 Excellent in Visual Art finalist The Path.

The Path presents a dark take on the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. On the way to Grandmother's house, there is only one rule, and you must not follow it. There is only one goal, but if you attain it, you lose.

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

Michael Samyn: Not too much. Our background is in fine art, internet art and web design. We always had playful elements in our work, but never made an actual game. And I’m not sure if we’re even doing that now. When we started with games, made a prototype for a game called 8 and then an online multiplayer environment called The Endless Forest, which has been going since 2005.

Auriea Harvey: We taught ourselves how to use 3D and programming because we loved interacting with PlayStation games, and we were really curious to see if we could do something with game technology. We were shocked that there were game genres, and quickly found we didn’t have much use for those classifications. We’ve just been making it up as we go along. Luckily this is a time when people are very open to new play experiences, unlike when we started in 2002.

What motivated Tale of Tales to create a game like The Path?

AH: The Path grew from wanting to tell stories about ephemeral things, like footsteps on dry leaves on a moonless night, being in the dark and wondering what you are afraid of, is there anything to be afraid of? What scares you most is in your own mind. I was most interested in that aspect.

Telling stories about growing from a girl to a woman and different ways of dealing with men and dealing with darkness outside, darkness inside. Relationships between generations (girl, grandmother). But we are not trying to be writers -- we use the tools we are best at. So we tell these stories through image, sound and interaction. Most of the interaction is quite simple. We hope that people can get to the content by becoming these girl characters.

MS: The Path is a game where the design is driven by narrative factors. Not in the sense of a linear story, but in the sense of dealing with certain themes and creating a certain atmosphere. Rather than designing a game around certain interaction mechanics and play structures and then slapping a story on top of things to justify it all, we’ve designed the interaction and the structure to serve the story we want to tell.

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

AH: Javanese shadow plays. Line drawings. Walking in the woods. Old houses. Jarboe’s music. Saturation, saturation, saturation. Pasolini, Wong Kar Wai.

MS: We learned a lot about playing from watching people play our multiplayer screensaver The Endless Forest. We learned that it wasn’t necessary to construct elaborate challenge and reward structures for people to enjoy a game or understand its theme. On the contrary, people like being creative in the games they play and expand upon the stories in their imagination.

This has inspired a kind of minimalist approach to interaction design where we remove all elements that could distract the player or destroy the immersion.
For this purpose we tend to make (“implement”) the game first and only design it afterwards. We need to see the game world and get a feel for it before we decide on what kind of activity would support and enhance the experience.

The music made for the game by Jarboe has helped a lot in this: it gave us an atmosphere that we then needed to match with our game design.

What sort of development tools are used by the team?

MS: We built the engine using Quest3D, precisely because it allows the kind of design outlined above. Quest3D is a realtime visual programming interface. It gives us instant feedback, and allows us to mess with the numbers in a very intuitive way. It’s like painting with algorithms.

AH: Blender for the models and Zbrush in concert with Photoshop/Painter for painting textures.

What do you think the most interesting element of The Path is?

MS: I think the open-ended nature of the main part of the game is interesting. There is no obligation to do anything. This is in line with our narrative because we want the player to take full responsibility for his or her actions (which may lead to the death of their avatar).

Another thing that I like is the fact that you need to replay the game six times, each time with a different avatar and a different antagonist. I think that that is going to be a very moving experience, as you see them die one by one.

AH: That we are using music only, no texts, no words, no sound effects. It feels like a silent movie with a reactive soundtrack. But for me, the most interesting part is what each character’s life represents and by extension what their ultimate death means to the player.

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

MS: The Path is developed by a core team of four women and one man. Two people work on the game full time: Auriea and I, assisted by three freelancers (Laura Raines Smith for the animations and Jarboe and Kris Force for the music) and an outsourcing company (Dragonfly Studios for some of the 3D assets). We’re also going to need some help from an experienced programmer to clean up our “artistic code”.

We’ve been working on The Path for a long time. It’s been difficult to get the funding together. And also figuring out what exactly we wanted to do with the story of Little Red Riding Hood took a while. Over the past year, we have developed the technology and a playable demo that we’re happy with. The hard part is over-touch wood.

If Tale of Tales had to rewind to the very start of the project, is there anything that you’d do differently?

MS: Yes. While it has been useful to some extent, I wouldn’t have put so much effort in concept art or finding the perfect character modeler. It’s much more efficient to just work with what you have and then improve the parts that aren’t good enough later.

AH: I totally agree. I think I had a bit of difficulty understanding that even though I am not the best painter, modeler or whatever, I am still the only one who knows who these characters are. I should have had more faith in that vision from the start instead of thinking there were people out there who could translate my thoughts into 3d better than me, wasting time trying to direct other people and then in the end making it all myself anyway.

Sometimes, deferring to expert technicians just makes things worse and you can lose what makes the artwork special. I think that if one is inspired to make something, one should go ahead and do that.

MS: I think this applies to programming as well. It’s about being creative, not about solving problems. For designing interaction and breathing life into a virtual world, you need a playful attitude and trust your artistic instinct. It’s not easy to tell somebody what you want, if you can’t express it in any other way than through your game.

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

AH: While I am very serious about making games, I really cannot play most of them. I think my motivation for making them is that I am not liking what I’m playing. I think that most people make games because they love them, I make them because I desire to love them. So I’m making things the way I think they ought to be instead of the way they are.

For me this is why it is important that independent development can happen. I'm sure I am not the only person who feels this way.

MS: I’m very happy that the industry at large is paying attention to independent games now and that there is more opportunity for independent developers. Indie games are popping up everywhere. The quality of the products is increasing. While at the same time leaving plenty of room for a strong hobbyist culture.

We do feel a bit lonely with Tale of Tales. It’s amazing how far independent developers have taken traditional game design concepts, and how they were able to refine genres like the side-scrolling platformer and the top-down shooter. But we hope that, in the future, more independent developers will embrace new technologies and explore the new possibilities that they offer.

We shouldn’t act like the underdogs all the time and settle for old-school. We should be out there, showing the BioShocks and the Assassin's Creeds how it should be done. As the technology becomes more accessible, I think a true avant-garde will rise from the independent scene.

I hope the selection of The Path will encourage other independent designers to explore a bit further. And that excellent indie projects like The Night Journey, Penumbra, Fatal Hearts and Masq get selected in the next IGF.

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

MS: If I had 30 seconds left to live, I don’t think the game business would be on my mind. But if I have a single message for the games industry, I think it would be “Grow up!” It’s time to leave the primordial slime of games in the toy store and proudly develop this medium as the new entertainment medium that it is destined to become. Leave the puzzles behind. Stop shooting at things all the time. We have the technology. Let’s develop the know-how. And take the next step.

AH: ...Hmmm, it’s a secret.

January 16, 2008

COLUMN: 'The Amateur': WYSIWYG Game Design

- [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.]

The advent of WYSIWYG in word-processing revolutionized the ability of non-specialist users to be able to design professional looking documents without having to know technical details about kerning, DPI or colour spaces. This came about because there was strong and immediate feedback between the user actions and the final printed document. So a user was free to experiment within an sandbox before committing to the final design.

Games, as a visual medium, should have an equally strong correspondence between the visual elements and in-game state. But this is often forgotten due to the difficulty of implementing this connection. Instead, game-designers fall back on the various short-cuts adopted by other games in their genre, such as targeting reticles, health bars and ammunition counters, while forgetting that these are not necessarily intuitive for non-specialist game players.

While I don't advocate the complete removal of HUD elements (for a great article on this, see "Off With Their HUDs!: Rethinking the Heads-Up Display in Console Game Design"), anything that takes the player away from concentrating on a single game-space can interrupt their 'flow' and ruin the game experience. These can include awkward inventory systems, such as those in Mass Effect, on-screen text, which as the commentary in Portal notes is rarely read, and map screens or alternate views. Luckily, the industry is moving in the right direction and we would now be surprised to see a 3D game where enemy graphics didn't include the weapon they were attacking you with, and the option to sight down your own gun. Hopefully it won't be too long before other elements of game-play, such as health state and inventory are more consistently shown in-game.

Here are seven examples of WYSIWYG game-design, good and bad.

1. Target reticules in King Kong

King Kong is one of the games highlighted in the above Gamasutra article on removing HUD elements. The screen shakes and reddens when you are injured and the sound of your heartbeat increases, there is a dedicated button press to check the ammunition count, which is audibly reported to you, and your current weapon selection, as in many games, is indicated with an on-screen display of the weapon as if you were holding it. But while modern weapons can be sighted down using iron sights, the primitive spears and shards of bone you will frequently find yourself fighting with are a different story.

When you ready a spear to thrown, you'll raise it above your head in an alternate position. And at the same time, your other arm will stretch out, as if you were balancing for the throw. And the fingertip of this out-stretched arm will be in the position normally occupied by a target reticule in other games. The game is literally pointing at your target for you.

2. Hand grenades in Infiltration

The same aiming mechanic is used in Infiltration, a mod for Unreal Tournament, for throwing hand grenades. It's surprising how many games do hand grenades badly, given that they are one of the few weapons in a standard FPS arsenal capable of killing the user if mis-handled.

Grenades are one of those problematic game conventions, that increase the game design difficulty, without necessarily providing equivalent fun. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: The Shadow of Chernobyl does not let the enemies throw them at all due to implementation issues with the AI - one of the features of Clear Sky is that this capability has been added. Team Fortress 2 removes grenades entirely except for one class, due to the incessant grenade spam that plagues many other multi-player games.

Have a look at this video on hand grenade use that Dsylecxi puts together as a part of the article The Best of Tactical Gaming: Infiltration.

3. The Spy in Team Fortress 2

Valve's multi-player game of mayhem is worth studying, not just because of the strong visual style, but because the designers at Valve have repeatedly discussed how the radical overhaul of this style look was done to complement the in-game mechanics and simplify the 'pick-up-and-playability' of the game. The masks worn by the Spy are the best example of this. The Spy's disguise ability has been used in other games such as Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and the original Team Fortress. But nowhere has the information of 'I'm a disguised Spy' been better represented than by putting a paper-mask on the original character, with an image of the disguised class on the front of the mask.

As Valve notes in the commentary, having floating indicators around the character model just distracted attention from the model itself. Consider this any time that you attempt to convey information about an enemy state, particularly an enemy one that you should be encouraging people to target directly.

4. Health-packs in Left4Dead

Many games have an on-screen inventory system, or at least, an on-screen display of the current weapon that you are using. But Left4Dead by Turtle Rock Studios looks to take it a step further. The character models incorporate the presence or absence of a health-kit, so that it is immediately obvious to your companions if you are carrying aid able to revive them. And this supports the overall co-op experience, by making it impossible to hold-out on the other players, while not requiring either an on screen pop-up or some sort of query mechanism.

5. In-game tips in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

In game tips are generally handled badly: either through on screen text or a spoken suggestion from another character in the game, which inevitably gets repeated over and over. For bad examples of this see Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare where the you get to experience the full impact of being ordered around like a modern army grunt and Shadow of the Colossus where the worst of both techniques results in the weird groans of a god-like voice translated in sub-titles which fail to contrast against the washed out colours of the world around you.

In both the Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and The Phantom Hour Glass, the cell shaded animation and simple character design emphasize the eyes of the main characters. We are naturally drawn to the eye as a visual image, which is why it features so prominently in advertising, and there is a real possibility that humans have a separate part of the brain devoted to processing faces (The fusiform gyrus) of which the eye and eye brow form a significant part of the recognition process.

When there is something interesting in nearby in either of these games, there is a simple in-game tip mechanism that occurs silently and without popping up extraneous information. Link's eyes focus on the object of interest and will keep focused as you move, allowing you to instinctively triangulate what it is that he is looking at. This is only possible in a third person game, but a brilliant technique that obviates the need for a hint mechanism in many circumstances. The fact that the art design supports this shows incredible foresight.

6. Interactive screens in Doom 3

While Doom 3 was perhaps unfairly slated - the unrelenting darkness of the early levels opening up to more impressive vistas once you make it to Hell, there is one game mechanic that should have been used more widely, both in-game and in more recently released first person shooters. The majority of these games have some kind of sequence involving opening a door with a keypad, using a computer terminal or an interactive hacking game. But this inevitably is implemented with an on-screen pop-up or separate sub-screen which takes the player out of their immediate environment and interrupts the flow of game-play. This can be critical when the player is under fire and forced to stand still and enter a pin code, or breaks the immersion by making the sequence take no time at all.

In Doom 3, moving your gun sight onto a terminal screen replaces the on-screen hud with a computer cross-hair, that is displayed directly on the terminal screen in the 3d environment. There is no interruption at all: you can chose to move around if you wish, and raise your gaze and fire instead of entering in a choice. It's a pity that the sequences where you interact this way are so limited and uninvolved.

7. Driving directions in The Getaway

The Getaway is another example of a HUD-less game, but some of the design decisions look less sensible in the critical light of release. It's a third person shooter, so the designers were able to show your state of well-being by adding blood spatters to the character model. But by slowing the movement of the character as they are progressively more injured, they add a negative feed-back loop that makes the game harder if you are overwhelmed. And instead of having the rapid regeneration models of Call of Duty 2, King Kong and Halo, they instead opted for a rest and recovery command, which involves leaning against the wall and taking a bit of a breather. The cup-of-tea-timeout pacing of this is hardly well-suited to what should be a tense fire-fight and just serves to highlight the artificial trigger points which spawn new enemies.

The prize for effort with unintended consequences though goes to the in-game map system. There isn't any. While this can be a good thing, particularly for sand-box style games, where the distances involved can sometimes lead to a drive by map methodology, the intended replacement is full of side-effects. When you are in a vehicle, the game designers decided to use the indicator lights to show which direction your target is, by blinking left or right turn. The problems with this are manifold.

Firstly, the information presented is far too limited, and the path finding not particularly brilliant. You have no indication of distance, and limited idea of direction. You can end up in a situation where the blinkers alternate left and right by turning a few degrees because the target is directly behind you. The easiest way to figure this out is by driving slowly, preferably around a roundabout, until the indicators stop. Hardly the stuff of adrenaline-filled car chases.

Secondly, and more importantly, you can disable your ability to navigate by ending up in a mild collision, particularly through reversing, which can mean you end up in a completely functional vehicle, except for broken indicator lights. This inevitably requires that you ditch the car and find another to navigate to your destination. Which works fine, except for the multitude of missions that require you drive a particular vehicle to your destination.

Consequently, you end up getting a mission briefing and doing the driving section twice: the first time to memorize the route and the second to do it within the allowed time limits. I learned to navigate my way around inner London through playing this game well before I ever traveled to the city. Luckily for everyone, my interaction with commuter traffic in London was limited to the Underground, taxis and buses.

Early Registration Closing For Game Developers Conference 2008

- [Just a quick note - if you're not a member of the press, or an IGF finalist, or a speaker, or a CA, and haven't bought your GDC pass yet, GameSetWatch's eagle-eyed corporate overlords point out that now might be a good time to do so, before the price zooms up and conks you on the head.]

CMP have announced and reminded that today is the final day for early bird registration to its February 18-22 2008 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, with an 11:59pm PST deadline for a conference pass discount of up to 30 percent.

The world's largest industry-only event dedicated to the advancement of interactive entertainment has taken steps this year to boost its focus on community-building and networking with the expansion of its lineup of summits that take a closer look at the industry's emerging trends, and through its myGDC initiative, which features enhanced social/professional networking capabilities on the GDC site.

The conference is also simplifying the pass structure to provide more intuitive access to the diverse experiences at the GDC. Complete details and registration for the conference is now available at the official website.

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

GDC 2008 will see previously announced keynotes this year from celebrated inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who will inspire attendees to take a dramatic look at the future of games and electronic entertainment. Microsoft's Windows and Xbox Live VP John Schappert will also be delivering a speech setting the stage for revolutionary changes in its community-oriented campaigns and game development in general over the coming year.

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

More than 16,000 game industry professionals will convene during GDC and, as such, intuitive access is another priority for the conference. GDC passes are therefore now being divided into five easily navigable categories. The All Access Pass offers entry into all GDC offerings including lectures, panels, roundtables, keynotes, tutorials, summits like the Serious Games Summit, and even the standalone GDC Mobile conference.

The Main Conference pass gives attendees access to the GDC's lectures, panels, roundtables, and keynotes. The Summits and Tutorials pass allows entrance into the entire summit lineup listed above, as well as the GDC's popular technical one and two-day tutorials. There are also Expo Passes for those who want to peruse the expo floor only, without attending any of the GDC's editorial content, and a GDC Mobile pass for entry into that conference exclusively. Details, prices and registration for all passes are now available at the official GDC website.

GameSetLinks: Saul & Trent Go Uncharted

- All kinds of fun stuff in this GameSetLinks round-up, then - leading out with some real-world download/payment numbers for the Saul Williams & Trent Reznor Internet-only album. It's actually quite useful for understanding percentages of people who pay for free content, if it's free as an option - something tried on occasion in the game world.

Also in this particular round-up: the return of the North American demo party, some good afterthoughts on Uncharted, extracts from MIT Press' excellent 'Second Person', and a whole host of other notable links. Here we's goes:

Saul Williams download numbers » Brad Sucks
Good stats on what people pay for high profile freely distributed music - comparison point to games? 'As of 1/2/08, 154,449 people chose to download Saul [and Trent Reznor]’s new record [cover pictured]. 28,322 of those people chose to pay $5 for it.'

ASCII by Jason Scott: Invitation to Blockparty 2008
North American demo party alert!

Insult Swordfighting: A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Case Study: Guitar Hero
Some thoughtful demographic-related theory here: 'How might we differentiate between Skill Players and Tourists in Guitar Hero?'

selectparks - 24C3: Console Hacking and Corrupted Blood
Good coverage of the Chaos Computer Congress' game-related lectures.

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Afterthoughts from 1UP.com
From EGM: I like these honest, informal chats than hone in on game-related issues, after reviews.

Grand Text Auto » Taking Tabletop Seriously: Second Person part 1
Posting parts of the MIT Press game theory/design book online.

GameDaily: Media Coverage - Frozen Out
Talking to Dan Hsu about the EGM 'banning' marginal nonsense.

Logler announces Top 10 Games of 2007 - Gamezebo.com
The PDF has a lot of good info about what hit big in casual games last year.

The Forge · Casual Games on Facebook
Some interesting stats on most popular games and genres.

Call For Votes: Game Developer's Top 50 Developers

- The editors of Game Developer magazine are asking all game professionals to complete a brief anonymous survey which will help decide the rankings of this year's first-ever 'Top 50 Developers' feature and research.

For the first time this year, the magazine is conducting a Top 50 Developers survey, using multiple criteria, including peer responses to determine the top game developers in the world.

Much as in Game Developer's (pictured) recent Top 20 Publishers countdown, there are two parts to these questions - firstly a reputational survey, which can be answered by all game professionals.

The second part of the Top 50 Developers survey is to be answered only by those professionals who have worked at or managed relationships with specific studios. All responses are completely anonymous, and no personal or IP information will be tracked.

Game Developer recommends using the exhaustive studio lists maintained by Gaurav Mathur's GameDevMap or David Perry's Game Industry Map as a refresher on possible developers, but respondents are free to add any names they choose.

The first-ever Top 50 Developers survey is now available for filling out by all video game professionals, and will be kept open until Wednesday, January 23rd - please pass on this information to your peers where possible.

IndieGames.com's Best Freeware Arcade Games 2007

[Another cross-post from the IndieGames.com weblog, after the 'Best games by Cactus' chart, is Tim W.'s very neat list of the top arcade freeware games of the year. Check 'em all out - especially Chaffinch Challenge, haw.]

The second of the 2007 Best Of Features here on the IndieGames.com.blog, we're proud to present twenty of the best freeware arcade games released in 2007 - from Chalk through Gesundheit to a host of other neat titles. Here's the rundown:

Best Freeware Arcade Games 2007

  1. Chalk
  2. Trilby: The Art of Theft
  3. Flywrench
  4. Death Worm
  5. Gesundheit
  6. Iwanaga
  7. Pen Pen Xmas Olympics
  8. Frozzd
  9. Garden Gnome Carnage
10. Winter's Heart
11. Swarm Racer
12. dive
13. Cottage of Doom
14. Tekkyuuman
15. Rider V2
16. Colocoro
17. Merry Gear Solid
18. Non-Stop Action Hero
19. Chaffinch Challenge
20. Empyreal Nocturne

January 15, 2008

Deck The Halls With Game Center CX's Holiday Episode

- As is well-established, the best video game TV show in the world (sorry, revamped X-Play, Videogaiden) is Japanese 'beat classic games' show Game Center CX, as previously covered on GSW and painstakingly documented by our buddy Ray Barnholt at Crunk Games.

Now, Ray has updated Crunk Games (only the .org version, not the .com version - don't ask, I suspect!) with the full write-up of the Game Center CX Xmas Special, which is... epic. Let's have Ray explain:

"A year ago, it was Mighty Bomb Jack: a challenge game so unpredictable that it taunted Arino for three separate days, but culminating in a final battle live on stage. This time, in 2007, it’s The Quest of Ki: the challenge that’s spanned whole seasons of the show (OK, it was just one month) and was put on "indefinite postponement" by Arino himself, just as he had three more stages to complete. (If you’re not familiar with the Quest of Ki challenges, skim through Part 1 and Part 2 to get familiar.)

As it turned out, it would only be two more months before he faced it again, on live TV, in the Game Center CX Live Broadcast Christmas Special. The special was originally scheduled for just three hours, but crew and the network were prepared to go for up to nine hours if progress was going south. Needless to say, it did. For Arino, nine hours is a "good" day. But for fans, they got to see what it’s really like to do Game Center CX in an unedited fashion; to spend long, long stretches of time watching Arino die in a game over and over and over… and over again."

I wonder if we'll ever see this or the Game Center CX game for DS in the West? Probably not, but if you want to get a loving recreation of what it would be like to watch all, uhh, nine hours of the live Xmas show, then Crunk Games seems to have you covered. Bravo.

Column: 'Save the Robot': Gaming and Web Me.0 (Or: Why is My Butt Online)

SL Butt[Save the Robot is a new, biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media. This column discusses how online games should better feed data to the rest of our online lives.]

Excuse me if I sound a little distracted this week. See, someone posted a photo of my butt online, and I’m trying to get the situation under control. Actually, I’ll be honest – I posted a photo of my butt. It was a total accident. The other day I was changing my boxer shorts when I accidentally hit the “Take Picture” button on my cameraphone. Now, you’d think this wouldn’t be a problem: I’d see the photo on my phone, maybe admire it for a minute, and then delete it before it fell into the wrong hands.

But I want my photos to go straight online the second I take them. What if I take a picture of what I’m eating for lunch, and I want my friends to see it immediately? So with one stray click, my phone shot my butt online, where it was tagged, geocoded and ID’d and then posted for the entire world to enjoy. The minute it hit Flickr, everyone could see that it was my butt, taken by me, in my house, right when I’m usually changing into my silk eveningwear boxer shorts. There was just no denying it.

It got me thinking about the Internet, and how hard it is to stay anonymous. Time was, you could post a photo of your butt, and you could say it was anybody’s. But as technorati like Mark Davis of Yahoo! have said, “People who are living their lives online are living it as themselves.”

Sure, we may stretch the truth sometimes. But the days of anonymity are dying: now, we Twitter, run a dozen profiles on social networking sites, and trace everything back to our blogs and our Flickr albums, where we talk about every damn thing that happens to us. The thinking goes that people no longer want to hide behind anonymous, made-up or partial identities: they want to expose themselves online.

But as someone who reads the gaming press, I’m sure you can think of a giant exception.

Most of us who play games online work under an alias, and usually we stay there. In fact, most online games refuse to share your online life. Xbox Live, with its blog-friendly gamercards and social networking, remains the major exception – and it’s bizarre that MMOs haven’t followed its lead.

You can drop your World of Warcraft stats on Facebook, but you can’t pull in your portrait. And while you can rack up loot, ranks and role-play biographies on every other online game, pasting them to your blog – which should be a one-click process - is either torturous or impossible.

This bugs me, because – in the same way that I’m aghast and embarrassed and, at the same time, weirdly excited to see my butt wandering around Flickr – I also have an urge to expose my gaming life to the world. Partly, I want to do it for science. Our game lives are our fantasies – an expression of what’s lurking in our subconscious. And for all the research pouring into this space, we’ve only started to dissect what these fantasies mean.

To take an obvious example: slews of us guys love to play girls online. Yet I’ve heard every explanation in the book, and none of them really gets to the heart of what fundamental headgame we’re playing with ourselves by trying to see ourselves in a new light and a new set of anatomy. Most people don’t ask these intimate questions about themselves. In fact, a lot of people say that they choose female avatars just because they want to stare at a nice butt.

gsw_butt_1.jpg Maybe the next wave of gaming/social networking hybrids – Conduit, Areae, Rupture, Koinup – will nail the problem. But they have to give us what we really need: not just on-demand scores and bragging rights, but deep, personal revelations.

In the last couple years, the Internet has given us a whole new set of tools for looking at ourselves. Last.fm looks at every song I listen to, and tells me things I never knew about how I consume and enjoy music. My RSS feeds make a pointillistic portrait of my interests. My blog ties it all together. If I pull all that information into a single place, I’ve got a picture of myself that might surprise me – straight from my personal online therapist. I don’t call this stuff “Web 2.0”: I prefer the term Web Me.0.

While it’s always a hoot to share a list of my five favorite books and my ten best friends forever, none of this measures up to my gaming life. And I don’t just want a widget that lists my level, class and loot: I want it to judge whether I’m an explorer, a socializer, or an achiever.

Am I a chronically-banned griefer, or the kind of guy who helps total strangers with random buffs and heals. Am I rash and a risk-taker, or timid and cautious? Do I make friends easily or keep to myself? What are my most-used emoticons – wave, laugh, flirt or fart? Online games could be reporting this to me, but so far, they’re keeping mum.

The Internet knows me better than I know myself – but someday, I’ll get that data. After all, that’s what technology has always been for. Think about it: before we had mirrors? We couldn’t even see our own butts.

[Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for Pitchforkmedia.com, and blogs at savetherobot.wordpress.com. Contact him at chris at savetherobot dot com.]

Road To IGF Mobile: Jan Ulrich Schmidt And Anna's Secret

- As part of Games On Deck's "Road to the IGF Mobile" feature, our sister mobile game site talked to Jan Ulrich Schmidt about his IGF Mobile 2008 Innovation in Augmented Design Award (presented by Nvidia) finalist Anna's Secret.

The title is a GPS driven, location-based learning adventure game based in the city of Weimar, Germany - basically, you walk around the city with a PocketPC device and gives you location-based puzzles to solve, in association with video of period actors - rather neat, to say the least.

Here's the Mathew Kumar-conducted interview about the game and its development:

Games On Deck: What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?

Jan U. Schmidt: Anna's Secret is my diploma thesis. I write it for the Bauhaus University of Weimar, Germany. During my studies I learned many aspects about interactive television and mobile applications.

Currently I work for a game development company named enter.tv in the creation and production department. We create casual multiplayer games for the internet. I am working with the developers of the game Moorhuhn, one of the most successful games in Germany (as you might know.)

I also consult for the company Ubilabs on location-based-media games.

GOD: What motivated you to make your game?

JUS: My goal was to create an adventure game which respects the cultural background of the city of Weimar combined with fun gameplay. Many tourists come to this town and there are a lot of sightseeing-offers for seniors, but there are no interesting offers for young people or school classes.

A big thank you goes to my friends, my family and my teachers who motivated me and helped me to carry on with the project when I had reached a point where I wanted to stop and throw it all away.

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

JUS: I started this work during research on labyrinths and read a lot about this theme.

This inspired me in topics like navigation and the Greek myth of Ariadne and the Minotaurs. I found much of my inspiration in walking in the park and in wandering through libraries like the Anna-Amalia-Library, which plays an important role in this game.

I also took inspiration in adventure games I used to play when I was a child, like Ishaar and Might & Magic, as well as in the tutorial to the game Rome: Total War.

Also my friends and teachers gave me inspiration in creating this game. Additionally I read a lot about "ubiquitous gaming" from authors like Paul Dourish, Steve Benford, Chris Crawford, Henry Jenkins, Claus Pias and many others.

Finally I found the company Transformat, which helped me to realize the game by giving me software to implement GPS-Data to Adobe Flash. This was the kick-off to producing Anna's Secret.

GOD: What sort of development tools have you been using in the production of your game?

JUS: There were several tools I used and needed to produce Anna's Secret. In general I used the whole Adobe product palette, especially Adobe Flash Light for mobile devices. In the process of video editing and postproduction I used Avid, Combustion and 3DMax.

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

JUS: It is the mixture of real- and virtual world, the ironic combination of a game and a tourist-guide system, the real historical background story of the game and the character Anna herself. The game also respects an interface design and appropriate usability for small devices under outdoor conditions.

GOD: How long have you been developing your game, and what has the process been like?

JUS: The production took 6 months, including a long research on labyrinths and mazes, on games, ubiquitous gaming, adventure games, location-bases-media and surrounding themes.

It started with an idea and a brief concept, but during the production process, I recognized that some gameplay would not work and so I had to evaluate and redesign the game. My professors and mentors guided me to the right direction.

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

JUS: Yes... I would take more time on designing a good interface and on the look and feel.

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

JUS: There are only a few location-based or ubiquitous games out presently. Most of them are made with the intention to test technical possibilities whereas the content and plot of these games is secondary. Many prototypes in this context come from Swedish laboratories and which also inspired me.

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

JUS: Take more time to make educational games and please make a game which will teach people about the climate change! This could be an excellent way to inform coming generations in an effective way.

Opinion: The State Of Character Arcs In Games

- [In this opinion piece, also printed over at Gamasutra, EALA's Borut Pfeifer takes a look at the state of 'emergent player character arcs'. He references titles from Mass Effect to BioShock in order to analyze how immersion increases, when in-game events dynamically affect your character's personality and story arc.]

One topic of interest of late is emergent player character arcs. Most games allow very little expression of the player character's personality. Player-character being the opportune word here - the combination of the existing, predefined main character's personality, as it is interpreted or acted upon by the player.

Meanwhile - a character goes through an arc if they've grown in some capacity, changed, or learned something due to the events that have taken place.

Thankfully, yet sadly (in that it took so long to get to this point), it has become more common for game characters to go through an arc as part of a game's scripted storyline. Kratos, moreso in God of War 1 than God of War 2, is a good example - in the first game, he deals with how he killed his own family.

The Rarity Of Player Agency

It is still somewhat rare for games to allow the player to express their own personality through actions in a game. Even more rare that these actions have some impact on the game itself (going from player expression to player agency).

Games like Deus Ex or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. provide many options for a player to solve the problems in front of them but these options are difficult to describe as expressing ”personality” (unless being sneaky and blowing the shit out of things really are personality classes… INTP and ESFJ, maybe?).

Rarer still are games that explore the interaction between the player and the role they have taken on. This is partly due to two forms of long standing industry bullsh*t: one, the kowtowing to existing, scripted media that completely define the extents of a character's personality, and two, the completely reactionary response - that game characters should be blanks to increase player immersion, by allowing them to completely imprint their own personalities on the character.

Mass Effect & The Player Arc

Mass Effect (pictured) explores player character arcs in a few interesting ways. At the beginning of the game, you choose two backstory elements (from two groups of three - your background: Colonist, Earthborn, or Spacer, and your psychological profile: Ruthless, Sole Survivor, or War Hero).

There are specific missions for some of the types, but character dialog (both your options and what NPCs say to you) is affected by all. As a Sole Survivor, I came across one more survivor of the same attack, who was killing the scientists who had let the soldiers die to study the thresher (sand) maws (worms). Dealing with him and the scientists brought a new perspective on my character's past.

By adding a layer of hidden information between player dialog choices and actual dialog & action, Mass Effect also reinforces an element of role playing that can lead to such arcs. Often it has no consequences, but occasionally there are very large ones. A friend of mine and I had drastically different playthroughs because of how we dealt with this scene.

We're not entirely sure of the exact differences, but by picking more aggressive conversation options (spoiler alert), the situation escalates until a party member kills Wrex without warning. Since Mass Effect allows a fair amount of non-linearity, in his game Wrex died fairly early, whereas he accompanied me through most of my game and I got to learn more about his character and his race.

However the exploration BioWare does into the player-character is still limited - with accordance to their style, it's very choose-your-own-adventure-y, having clearly defined branch points. So how would you create a player character arc, where the player, in the role of this character, learns something from the events they experience, which emerges from a more complex set of ongoing interactions?

Simple, Larger-Spanning Arcs?

Let's look at the very simplest system (hardly complex, but it's a start). Bioshock presents the player with one choice, over and over again. There's a few variants of how the player can navigate that space - they can always save the little sisters, they can always kill them, they can start killing them and then save them, they can start saving them and then kill them, or they can switch back and forth between both throughout the whole game.

Bioshock only gives the player consequences for their choice if they go the first two routes (all or nothing). The second two paths represent character arcs (killing the little sisters and then coming to the determination that that are redeemable, as you should be for killing them, or saving them only to come to the conclusion that they are an unsaveable product of a corrupt society). This is the simplest possible set of choices one could present the player with, yet there are still possible player character arcs.

(The last path, of swapping back and forth is an interesting case - do you discourage it via story and presentation, via mechanics, or prevent it entirely? We want to encourage the player to tell their own story interwoven with the game's story, but it's our responsibility to help them tell a good story at the same time. Unless they are both motivated & skilled in doing so, you can't safely assume they would.)

The Bioshock example is also an example of a pretty big character arc, which has to span the whole game. Smaller arcs, or smaller realizations, can be just as interesting to construct.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. & Player Arc Opportunities

In S.T.A.L.K.E.R. you often find bottles of vodka which increase your tolerance temporarily for radiation but naturally distort your vision and such (speaking of, a history of the simulated effects of alcohol in games would be an interesting thing to see).

My character turned to drink when faced with some of the unspeakable horrors of the world around him. What if this had other effects? Maybe you're forced to pick up all the bottles of vodka you come across as a means of reinforcing your addiction. Maybe you take larger swigs as you continue to drink, or maybe you develop a tolerance for its effects.

Do people treat you differently if you're drunk? If you increase your alcohol consumption as means of dealing with your problems, maybe some people won't associate with you. Or other people will only associate with you if you're a drunk. Maybe you kick the habit and stumble into a group of stalkers around a fire pit. They have something you need, but you have to sit and drink with them first, otherwise they won't trust you. Do you risk a relapse?

Those are a bunch of random thoughts, the answers depend on what you want the arc to be - learning the evils of alcohol/addiction, or developing coping strategies for stressful situations? Or maybe something about social drinking leading to more serious alcoholism? Anything goes.

Conclusion

The only way for us to really know the player has learned anything is if they've changed their actions. So you start with a continued action or set of actions by the player, and over time you can change either its direct effects, or the value of those effects by changing the context they can be used in.

If their actions change to another set, you can measure progress in the arc and advance to the next set of direct effects or context changes, representing what they player has learned/should be learning.

Direct effects don't just have to be mechanical, they can relate to the story in terms of how characters interact with you, or even be purely presentation/visual in nature. Changing the context doesn't change the what effects the actions have, but makes the exact same effects more or less useful by changing the situation.

One of the problems with the larger arcs is that players want to see all the variants - they don't feel ownership of those arcs. Lacking that feeling means the arc doesn't provide any meaningful closure for them, so for that closure they look to all the endings as a whole - whether resorting to previous saves, viewing endings at a friend's house, or YouTube.

In order for larger arcs to be meaningful, you'd have to combat the player's need for completion by giving them more satisfaction and a feeling of ownership over their own playthrough/arc(s).

Of course a feeling of ownership doesn't simply equate to the complete freedom to do anything, anytime. If only it were that easy.

[This opinion piece originally appeared in edited form on Borut's weblog The Plush Apocalypse.]

January 14, 2008

GameSetLinks: The Chocolatier Says... Yes!

- Ah yes, some more GameSetLink-age, and there's various randomness all over this particular set. I particularly liked Emily Short's critique of Chocolatier 2, the latest PlayFirst-published casual PC title.

Why? Because it reminds me (and possibly you guys) how relatively sophisticated a lot of casual titles are getting, as they move into genres like adventure, empire-building, and RPG, adding more complex gameplay elements, but still staying startlingly accessible. Here's the relevant links:

Rock, Paper, Shotgun: Ron Gilbert Interview
Talking about Deathspank. Hurray.

Xfire Debate Club on 'The State Of Independent Games'
Online chat in a couple of weeks, with some interesting (sometimes obscure) left-of-center indie types.

Chocolatier 2 « Emily Short’s Interactive Fiction
Casual games like this are getting increasingly sophisticated, and sometimes I feel like commentators/developers aren't noticing. Please pay attention!

Subatomic Brainfreeze: Guys, I like Guardians
Obscure 1996 MAME-emulated 2D sidescrolling fighter - 'Though I loved Spikeout, I'd really like to see this whole genre make a big comeback'

Elder Game: MMO game development » Subscriptions vs. Microtransactions
Quoting Seth Godin: 'HBO, for example, is able to spend its money making shows for its viewers rather than working to find viewers for every show.' V. notable game industry comparisons.

Ian Bogost - Video Computer System
Didn't know Mr. Bogost was working on a book about the Atari 2600 - he's busier than me!

Cryptic Sea blog on Gish, Blast Miner deals.
Just $5, $10 respectively on Steam - good stuff!

Insomnia | Commentary | Sequel: The Videogame
So ridiculous (especially the Resistance: Fall Of Man bit) that it simply must be linked.

Some Underreported Game Development Trends (Magical Wasteland)
Some good picks here, including: 'We’ll be seeing more sequels that re-use assets and environments.'

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 1/12/08

- As some of you may've heard, Newtype USA (the mag I worked for) will be discontinued with its February 2008 issue, which will be on stands in a little while. In its place, we will be launching PiQ, a magazine that covers the entire range of (for lack of a better term) "genre entertainment".

There's still much work left to be done on PiQ before I have anything more interesting to say about it, but this re-launch is one reason why I've been following the discussion around EGM and (pictured) editor-in-chief Dan Hsu's public revelation of his title's occasionally rocky relations with game publishers. He discussed his views of game PR and his duties as EIC with the Media Coverage corner of GameDaily, and the whole thing is worth reading, so go have a look. One long quote in particular caught my notice:

"The thing that always guides me is something my first editorial director told me on the day I interviewed at EGM...I brought up an old EGM editorial where the editor said that Capcom has pulled advertising [they later reinstated it], but EGM wouldn't change its ways to win them back. I asked the editorial director about that, and how can EGM survive without advertising...how does the magazine deal with that pressure? He told me, 'As long as you write for the readers and not the companies, the readership will come, and the advertisers will have no choice but to advertise with you'...Eventually, the companies all come back because they need to reach our audience...I know that sounds cocky, and I don't mean it to be, but that's what keeps me going, even when things are looking bad and down for us...We are unwilling to bend on this. I'd drag EGM down with me or quit before we compromise our integrity."

This is a very commendable credo for Hsu and his staff to work under, especially given how much prestige his mag's review scores are often given online. EGM's editors ought to be proud of their boss; I know I was back when I freelanced for EGM in 2003-05 [ish], when I couldn't imagine myself ever wanting a job in any other print-media game mag. And yet, the contrarian part of my mind, the part that can't help but play the devil's advocate (or simply wants to be a prick), can't help but say: Does not compromising your integrity mean having your average book size go down 40 percent between 2002 and 2007?

I'm not suggesting that EGM is suffering for its policies needessly. In fact, the ABCs will tell you that its circulation is higher than it's ever been, and I still think it's the most influential mag in the US -- a position that's the result of many years of consistency in its policies. However, every print-mag editor is facing a reality where they are almost nobody's first choice of media on any given game title -- not readers', nor professionals'. Very few gamers buy a game because EGM said it was hot; they buy a game because an amalgamation of websites, magazines, and their friends said it was hot. More than ever, they're a cog in a machine of hype -- and the way print media can escape this machine is by playing up the inherent advantages of print, concentrating on features, opinion, pretty pictures, the complete package, and not fighting an unwinnable battle with online.

So what does "writing for the readers" mean at this point, then? Every mag grapples with this question, and they all have varying degrees of success at dealing with it. I give nothing but the highest of praise to EGM for doing things like publish opinionated previews -- and being willing to deal with the fallout afterward. That sort of thing we need to see more of. However -- and I say this with the utmost of respect -- I wonder if basing so much of the integrity of one's magazine on what amount to a bunch of numbers is really the best place to put one's efforts. Would it perhaps be better to take some other approach, concentrate on other parts of the mag and so forth? Didn't Gerstmann-gate teach us that an over-reliance on scores in your media trivializes your content and could even set you up for trouble?

These are rhetorical questions and not for me to answer, but obviously, we at PiQ are trying our best to come up with a product that interests and entertains the readers we want to attract. I think that it's time game-mag editors rethink this fundamental topic, too, especially considering that book sizes (not to mention reader mindshare) ain't getting any bigger anytime soon.

That said, here are all the mags of the past couple weeks. Back to the tiny issues again, sadly...

Edge January 2008

edge-0801-1.jpg

Cover: Street Fighter IV

Edge does a split-cover this month; the other cover, depicting Ryu, is largely the same as EGM's Jan. '08 issue.

This is one of those issues where you can really tell the difference between EGM and Edge. Reading Shane's SF4 feature in EGM, you can tell that everyone involved with the text of that article has years if not decades of experience with fighters -- meanwhile, Edge freely admits that "some of the current staff had never played each other at a Street Fighter game before we began working on this issue" (something they, in their defense, call "unacceptable"). EGM's piece expended tons of ink on the planned fighting system and how the new combos and button arrangements work; Edge's covers a bit of that, but prefers to concentrate on producer Yoshinori Ono and the tremendous challenge he's taken up with this project. Both are interesting reads in their own way, but I preferred EGM's more hands-on approach to the subject, one obviously dictacted by the amount of SF experience Shane 'n crew had.

The issue is pretty Asia-centric, featuring interviews with Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Atsushi Inaba, the Ubisoft Shanghai guys, and the Nights dude. This is also the 2007 awards issue, and Mario Galaxy cleans up many of the top ones. (More interesting is the Alternative Edge awards, which includes such topics as "Lushness", "Unsound FX", and "Late to the Party" (the last going to the Dual Shock 3, of course).

Games for Windows: The Official Magazine February 2008 (Podcast)

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Cover: Demigod

This issue rocks. You can tell they tried their best with everything in it. The lame-o preview feature isn't so lame this time because it concentrates entirely on heavily delayed and/or entirely canceled games, kicking off with Huxley ("too much, too soon" personified into a PC game) and continuing with such high-profile cancellations as Gods & Heroes and Sin: Episodes. There's also a page on Warcraft Adventures, which I still have a soft sport in my heart for.

Meanwhile, the Demigod feature is a fun venture into the mind of Chris Taylor, and the annual free-games compilationis a neat mixture of dumb Flash stuff and loony original epics (and Dwarf Fortress). Some online discussion has been sparked by this issue's Unreal Tournament 3 review -- PC Gamer gave it 85%, Edge gave it an 8 despite being pretty negative all through the review text, but GFW goes right to the point, giving it a 6 and calling it too UT2004-y.

PC Gamer February 2008 (Podcast)

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Cover: Build the perfect...zzz...gaming PC

Hey, don't I want to run Crysis at 60 FPS, not 50? Oh, but there are more important things to discuss with this PC Gamer -- they've gone and redesigned it, again, for like the third time in the past few years. This redo is mostly aesthetic, with an easier-to-read text font, tabs on the edges so you can flip immediately to the section you like, and a generally cleaner look, as seems to be the recent fashion in games mags. The biggest editorial change: a Hopes/Fears box in each preview, also very high fashion among UK mags but not often seen around here.

Oddly enough, this rearrangement and cosmetic redesign has the effect of making PC Gamer look a hell of a lot like Edge, both in design and in structure. News, then previews, then features, then review, then columns -- that's Edge's structure right there, and now PC Gamer's got it too. I like it overall, enough that it's making me wish there was a multiplatform mag like this in the US.

Otherwise, this is your typical PC Gamer, one with a "best games under $20" feature that was timed well with GFW's "best free" games feature and a new column from the zeropunctuation guy which is tremendous good fun.

GamePro February 2008

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Cover: Super Smash Bros. Melee, t'would seem

Remember back when every GamePro cover featured original art? I'm glad to see those days back, at least for one month. A pretty straightforward issue overall, with the Melee feature the main highlight -- a highly enthusiastic preview/anticipation-a-thon, similar to their Halo 3 coverage earlier.

Game Developer January 2008

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Cover: Portal

You'll want to read the cover-story postmortem, written by three of the eight main guys behind Portal (including Erik Wolpaw). It's a lot more interesting of a story than the "real" postmortem this issue, no offense to the Stranglehold dudes.

Play Magazine Presents Girls of Gaming Volume 5

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Oh, sweet, it's that time again! *drops pants*

100 pages of girls, what can I say? I'm sure this magazine is pure profit for the Play folks at the price they're charging. And speaking of which, here's an interesting bit of trivia: you see how the price on the cover is the same for the US and Canada? This is literally the first magazine I've seen willing to do this. Many, if not most, other mags these days are just doing a split cover for the Canada market so they can continue to overcharge Canadians without them wising up to the fact that their money's worth just as much as ours now. Sucks to be you, Timbit heads.

PC Gamer Ultimate Strategy Guide

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A fine, if standard general-purpose strategy issue -- some maps, some dev tips, you know the drill. It's all original content and it looks nice 'n well-made to me. Cheers!

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also Executive Editor of PiQ, a new magazine hitting stands in March.

The Etch-A-Sketchist Explores... Games!

- Checking out a few of the recent GameSetWatch commenters, noticed a couple of sassy responses from 'the Etch-A-Sketchist', and checked out his weblog - which you may recall from an awesome BioShock Etch-A-Sketch that got passed around the major blogs from a few months ago.

But even though that particular Etch-A-Sketch got a lot of attention, there's been a whole bunch of other video game-related pictures on his weblog in recent months, so I thought I'd compile them.

Firstly and most notably (and pictured above), this Halo 3 in-game screenshot Etch-A-Sketch is super-duper detailed and grin-worthy. As the creator notes: "This pic is some hot Master Chief-on-Master Chief action from the multiplayer. It's an actual screenshot from an actual game which I think you actually see here."

Looping through his other recent pics with a game theme, there's also a cool Mario picture and also a skilfully rendered Chun-Li. More recently, he's been turning to U.S. Presidential Election pics, which are also rather marvellous. But overall - those pics are awesome game-related pop art.

January 13, 2008

GameSetNetwork: The Taito Braben Conundrum

- Ah, yeah, our various sister sites - particularly Gamasutra.com, of course - have been publishing a bunch of original interviews and features this week, and I wanted to particularly highlights a few here.

Some notables - a couple of neat interviews with Japanese developers (at Taito and Konami) from Brandon Sheffield, news from GDC and Game Developer magazine, a fun Game Career Guide piece on Halo 3, some more development-specific articles, and various other fun bits and pieces. Here's the highlights:

Revitalizing The Legacy: An Interview With Taito's Keiji Fujita
"Space Invaders and Bust-A-Move creator Taito is one of the seminal companies in gaming - but what are they up to now? Gamasutra talks to U.S. representative Keiji Fujita about the Square Enix-owned firm's success with Cooking Mama and its storied history."

Educational Feature: ‘How Halo 3 Changed Game Development’
"Does the Halo series measure up to other epic trilogies, like The Lord of the Rings, or is it nothing more than a set of really great games? A new article from sister education web site GameCareerGuide.com ponders how Halo has affected the mark of a successful game, as well as the nature of a successful relationship between developer and publisher."

Next-Gen Narrative: The David Braben Interview
"David Braben co-developed the seminal Elite, and his UK-based company Frontier Developments (Thrillville) is working on The Outsider, an espionage title intended to advance the art of game narrative. How? Gamasutra finds out within..."

2008 GDC Reveals Sid Meier Q&A, Dille on Transmedia
"As part of his latest Director's Cut post, GDC 2008 executive director Jamil Moledina has revealed a special Q&A featuring newly announced Game Developers Choice Lifetime Achievement winner Sid Meier, a Sims Studio session focusing on emerging gamer types, and game and television writer Flint Dille discussing the transmedia experience."

Translating World of Warcraft into a Tabletop Roleplaying Game: The Content Challenge
"What works and what doesn't when you want third-parties to extend your game world? In this exclusive article, World Of Warcraft tabletop-RPG co-ordinator Luke Johnson discusses how White Wolf worked with Blizzard to extend the massively popular franchise into RPG books.

Maya, UE3 Amongst Game Developer's 2007 Front Line Award Winners
"Sister print publication Game Developer has announced the winners of its 2007 Front Line Awards, inducting Autodesk's Maya into its Hall of Fame, and honoring Unreal Engine 3, PathEngine, and more."

Konami's Wii Wizard: An Interview With Shingo Mukaitoge
"Shingo Mukaitoge is a rising star within Konami, having spearheaded the company's original Wii titles Elebits and Dewy's Adventure, and Gamasutra sat down with him to discuss his roots, Wii development, and his upcoming projects."

Game Law: Development Contracts And 'New' Revenue Streams
"In his latest Gamasutra column, game lawyer Tom Buscaglia discusses the art of the game development contract, particularly focusing on making sure the developer shares ancillary revenue streams - from merchandise to in-game advertising - with the game's publisher."

IndieGames' Best Freeware Games By Cactus In 2007

- [We'll be running extended versions of a few of these 2007 indie round-ups, cross-posted from our sister IndieGames.com blog, since editor Tim W. really knows his beans. This one's frivolous, but fun.]

The first of the 2007 Best Of Features here on the IndieGames.com.blog, we're proud to present a countdown of ten of the best freeware games released by cactus in 2007. IndieGames.com interviewed Cactus, who is a current IGF finalist with Clean Asia!, back in November, and Gamelab.com also recently quizzed him in more detail, particularly commenting on:

"The quirky, unique freeware games made by Swedish developer Cactus - his shooters, adventure games and experimental titles have a visual aesthetic that combines mathematical precision and unruly chaos, and their gameplay is tight, balanced and challenging."

Best Freeware Games by cactus 2007

  1. Akuchizoku
("Akuchizoku is a horizontal shooter which features three levels and three different pilots, two difficulty levels and two modes of gameplay. The difficulty adjusts the amount of bosses and enemies you get to battle.")

  2. Burn the Trash
("In Burn the Trash, your ship is equipped with extremely destructive weapons though the enemies are no easy targets either.")

  3. Clean Asia
("Part Warning Forever, part Tumiki Fighters, all style. In Clean Asia, the eyes of mankind has decided to leave their hosts and take over the earth.")

  4. Fractal Fighter
("Fractal Fighter is a vertical shooter by cactus which features a limited palette of only two colors. Each boss consists of different weapon parts that the player has to destroy in sequence, randomly created using a tree generation code.")

  5. Minubeat
("Minubeat is a rhythm shmup. You have to use bomb and defense in sync with the beat.")

  6. Mondo Medicals, Mondo Agency
("Mondo Medicals could be described as an illogical puzzle game played from a first person view, with plenty of bizarre elements... Mondo Agency is the sequel to Mondo Medicals, featuring character portraits by Cow and music by Aaron Kurtz.")

  7. MSOIDS
("MSOIDS is a simple arcade shooter with the mouse and keyboard implemented as part of it's control scheme.")

  8. Protoganda: Strings
("Players start out with three minutes of play time in Protoganda: Strings. Defeating a boss awards an extra fifteen seconds, while getting your ship blown up deducts forty. If the timer reaches zero, you lose.")

  9. Silent Chain
("In Silent Chain, touch the enemies without touching their orange spikes to bind them to yourself. The more connections you have, the more points you get when you connect or destroy another.")

10. xWUNG
("In xWUNG, you play by moving the mouse to swing a ball. The ball's attached to a wire, and both of them kill enemies on contact.")

GameSetLinks: Alvin, Chipmunks Vs. Planet, Phantom

- Some more GameSetLinks dredged up from the old RSS, then - including some fun Suda51-related cultural references, how Nike+ can lead to alt.MMO goodness, and 2D Boy's latest Flash game experiment.

Oh, and on a random note, before we forget - we'll finally be revealing and launching (for individual/group purchase) the other three GameSetApparel limited-edition T-shirt designs later this week - and they're pretty darn cool, as you will see.

For those who pre-ordered all four shirts already, your other three should already be wending its way to you - or may have already arrived! Also, if you're still waiting for any of your tees to reach you and want to check in - mail orders@cmp.com with your order number and they'll help you out.

Looky Touchy: No More Heroes vs El Topo
Spotting the cult references in Suda51's Wii game. Why can't more game creators dig into pop culture?

dessgeega blog › arkanoid ds
My co-worker Jamil just got this with the DS paddle controller, which is _beautiful_ to use - someone bring this to the States, quick.

Avant Game: My run is a videogame -- wanna play with me?
On the Nike+ iPod-integrated tracking system: 'The world is waiting on an alternate reality MMO with physical input, and I think a fitness MMO or fitness alternate reality game with Nike+ would just kill.'

YouTube - Alvin & the Chipmunks - California
From the PS2 game, the Phantom Planet song (aka The O.C. theme). I think my eyes are bleeding - via JRP.

Water Cooler Games - Prepare to Fatten
Bogost's latest game, Fatworld, funded by public broadcasting money: 'As we explain in our creator's statement, Fatworld explores the relationships between obesity, nutrition, and socioeconomics in the contemporary U.S.'

Wonderland: WeGame: YouTube (and more) for gamers
Nice idea to include video capture, but really, how many more sites like this that won't make money in the long-term?

2D Boy: Game-in-7-days: Robot and the Cities that Built Him
Pictured - 'The robot / technology / what-is-man / what-is-machine / who-is-good / who-is-bad / perhaps-from-a-distance- we’re-all-killer-robots, poignant themes running throughout the game, are deeply moving.'

Work and Play: A Peek Inside the Lives of Gaming's Greatest
I was asked about this, but my desk isn't cool enough, so I passed :)

Games We Love - Digidrive | Gamelab
On the 'minimalist gameplay and experimental approaches' of the still under-discussed Bit Generations GBA series.



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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