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January 26, 2008

GameSetLinks: No Country For Old Arcades?

- Ah, yes, the latest GameSetLinks - those fine fragments of the Internet which transmit gaming goodness from the writers, through me, to you. And there's various neatness here.

In particular, I like GameTap Read's (pictured) look at Sunnyvale Golfland, which is promised to be the first in a series looking at the state of the U.S. arcade. Arcades are important because they're physical locations which practically radiate the history of games, and it's good to see game writers documenting them - before it's too late, perhaps.

No Country for Old Arcades: Sunnyvale Golfland - GameTap
Great idea - GameTap's Jared Rea is going around the country visiting arcades to discover the last great ones, and what's happening to them.

the-inbetween.com [ Comparing Matchmaking on XBox Live]
Why Call Of Duty 4 has an edge over Halo 3.

Bit Blot: 'Photoblogging: Aquaria at ACMI and Macworld'
Cool - first pics I ever saw of the IGF exhibit at ACMI, actually!

Confessions of an Aca/Fan: Games and Social Responsibility -- Perspectives from Shanghai
Good notes from Henry Jenkins in China.

Narrative in Casual Gaming: Miss Management « Emily Short’s Interactive Fiction
All of these Short vs. casual gaming posts are fascinating.

What kind of game is Lila Dreams? — Lila Dreams Blog
On Creatrix's massively multiplayer Flash game being made for Kongregate.

Orbus Gameworks: 'Setting A Standard'
'NCSoft has been providing Dungeon Runners game data (character stats) as an XML feed that can be accessed by third party website and applications.'

Sexy Videogameland: Incensed By Incentives
A little more perspective on the GSW-sparked blog payment question from Leigh.

such things that never was: King's Quest
Whoa, it's like a Maximo-ization of the classic Sierra series, odd.

Tale of Tales» Blog Archive » Hardcore reviews of softcore games
Somewhat what I've been discussing recently, I guess.

Wonderland: Buzz! The Schools Quiz
Neat, it's '...a version of the Buzz for 7-11 year olds to be used in primary schools.'

Opinion: On Japan, The Wii, No More Heroes & Super Smash Bros

- [Two key Wii titles in Japan are the just-launched No More Heroes and the about-to-launch Super Smash Bros Brawl, and Japanmanship's JC Barnett kindly let us and Gamasutra edit and reprint a recent post of his that looks at the reception for the former and how it maps to the latter - is SSBM too 'hardcore' to be an all-time top seller?]

"I wasn't expecting that Wii would be a console targeted only for non-gamers", says Goichi "Suda51" Suda of Grasshopper Manufacture, the man behind Killer 7 and the recent No More Heroes in the wake of massively disappointing Japanese sales of the latter.

In a recent interview he claims, like so many others, that only Nintendo can sell games for the Wii, which may be because only Nintendo is targeting this "non-gamer" market properly.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Suda followed up with an attempted clarification on the Grasshopper Manufacture website, but it's unclear whether his comments in defense of his statement actually contradicted it.]

The Wii's audience is vastly different from the other consoles' and previous generations, that much should be obvious by now. The undisputed major titles are Wii Sports and Wii Fit, aimed squarely at, what we mistakenly and slightly patronizingly call "non-gamers".

I guess the term should be "previously non-gamers" or “differently interested gamers” but ideally the real terminologies should be "gamers", people who enjoy games of any shape and size, and "hardcore gamers" those of us who spend too much money on games, own more than one console and have vastly inflated opinions and feelings of entitlement when it comes to our favourite titles.

Just because the new main target market is less interested in killing generic alien invaders or level grinding doesn’t mean they are “non-gamers”, if you ask me.

The reality is that the regular gamer market has outgrown the hard-core one, in terms of numbers at least, and that the hard-core is becoming increasingly niche. All this is widely known, or at least quietly realized, and has been written about before.

No More Heroes, even though it is fun and a game I'd recommend to any Killer 7 fan, is niche even for a hardcore game and sales have proven this. But the near future will see an interesting event to further explain how the Wii market is divided in Japan.

Next week sees the Japanese release of Super Smash Brothers Brawl for the Wii, or "Sumabura", as the cool kids here call it. This game is the ultimate in fan service, a fanboy's wet dream of IP crossover and a deliciously retro 2.5D beat'em up. It is hardcore, but it is popular hard-core. But is it a fit for the Wii audience? My guess is: not so much.

The media hype machine is in overdrive. Leading Japanese game magazine Famitsu gave it a perfect score and bundled last week's issue with a separate, quite thick informative booklet on the game's characters. To be played best, allegedly, you will need to purchase a classic controller or dust off your old Gamecube controllers. It possibly requires a lot of time to unlock all the events if it's anything like its Gamecube prequel.

As a spurious prediction I’d say we may see a promising start with the usual drop-off over the next few months and sales figures that would make anyone proud but that are still lower than expected, a bit like Super Mario Galaxy.

If "Sumabura" doesn’t sell that well it would be proof positive that the Wii isn't a hard-core friendly platform. I suspect already that it isn’t, but a title like this could prove it once and for all.

And that’d be a shame. With lower development budgets for Wii titles it offers a good platform for niche or truly original hard-core titles, as opposed to the mega-projects that make Xbox and PlayStation development so risky these days. But if nobody buys them, what is the point? The Wii will have painted itself into the casual corner once and for all, but seeing the sales figures that is not a bad corner to be in at all.

This also means the Wii is out of the “console war”. It has its own market distinctly different from its competitors, whom must fight amongst themselves for their own top spot. Both Microsoft and Sony are making wooing noises to the casual market but they’ll have a hard time stealing customers from the big N.

So any publisher looking to make money on the Wii must squarely look at casual and avoid hard-core at all costs. Also, they must make sure they have a title which is easily shortened for the Japanese fans, like “Kinhar” (Kingdom Hearts), “Grantsu” (Gran Turismo) or “Durakuwe” (Dragon Quest).

[JC Barnett is a pseudonym for a previous Gamasutra contributor and a Western developer working in Japan - his Japanmanship weblog regularly runs articles such as this.]

Indie Spotlight: Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden (Tales of Game's Studios)

[TimW originally wrote this over at the IndieGames Blog, but this is such a wonderfully obtuse game that it's worth highlighting over here as well. Riffing off the old Charles Barkley console game and using the DIY-styled RPG Maker software to spoof the RPG genre, the game is so ironic, it hurts. But it also works! Try forwarding the trailer to 02.41 to get the chiptune vs. b-boy soundtrack highlights, incidentally.]

"The Great B-Ball Purge of 2041, a day so painful to some that it is referred to only as the "B-Ballnacht". Thousands upon thousands of the world's greatest ballers were massacred in a swath of violence and sports bigotry as the game was outlawed worldwide. The reason: the Chaos Dunk, a jam so powerful its mere existence threatens the balance of chaos and order. Among the few ballers and fans that survived the basketball genocide was Charles Barkley, the man capable of performing the "Verboten Jam"...

Flash forward 12 years to the post-cyberpocalyptic ruins of Neo New York, 2053. A Chaos Dunk rocks the island of Manhattan, killing 15 million. When the finger is put on the aging Charles Barkley, he must evade the capture of the B-Ball Removal Department, led by former friend and baller Michael Jordan, and disappear into the dangerous underground of the post-cyberpocalypse to clear his name and find out the mysterious truth behind the Chaos Dunk. Joined by allies along the way, including his son Hoopz, Barkley must face the dangers of a life he thought he gave up a long time ago and discover the secrets behind the terrorist organization B.L.O.O.D.M.O.S.E.S."

Caution: strong language.

Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is the full version of the earlier Chapter 1 release seen last year, which tells the tale of the outcast basketball player named Charles Barkley and his quest to clear his name of a crime he did not commit.

The game is standard RPG fare but features an outlandish apocalyptic setting with the basketball sport and matches outlawed, while the players either condemned, executed or sentenced to a life of anonymity.

It will probably take around five hours to complete the entire adventure.

Name: Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden
Developer: Tales of Game's Studios (bort, Chef Boyardee, Drule, GZ)
Category: RPG
Type: Freeware
Size: 60MB
Direct download link: Click here

Screenshots in the extended.

January 25, 2008

GameSetNetwork: Advancing To The Board

- Well, I fear it's that time of the week again where we peruse some of the notable features posted at Gamasutra.com and associated CMP Game Group sites - this time featuring a veritable cornucopia of Q&As, theory and design articles, and other fun stuff. [UPDATE: Added neat David Jaffe interview posted today!]

I particularly enjoyed Tyler Sigman's board game balancing-article discussing probabilities, even if it was centered on the non-digital - there's plenty of ramifications here for video games, after all. Oh, and the Nintendo localization interview is pretty interesting too - here's the rundown:

- The Future Of The Real-Time Strategy Game
"In this thought-provoking piece, Toronto examines the history of RTS titles such as Starcraft, discussing a possible future where building political elements into the genre makes it more realistic and compelling."

- Interview: Nintendo, Advance Wars, & The Art Of Localization
"It's a balancing act to shift cultural touchstones from Japan to the West, and Nintendo is renowned as one of the best game localizers around - thus, Gamasutra quizzed NOA's Tim O'Leary on his work on (the pictured) Advance Wars: Days Of Ruin and the art of localizing games."

- IEZA: A Framework For Game Audio
"In this technical Gamasutra feature, two academics compare film audio to game audio to reach a definitional framework for game audio, which they claim will help game audio practitioners make richer sound designs."

- Q&A: Alone In The Dark - Up Against The Possibilities
"Alone in the Dark is a key title for publisher Atari, and the firm's Todd Slepian and Alissa Bell met with Gamasutra to discuss the multi-platform title launching in early 2008 - how has the originator evolved the survival horror paradigm?"

- 2008 GDC Reveals Killer 7, Folklore, Final Fantasy Sessions
"As part of his latest Director's Cut post, GDC 2008 executive director Jamil Moledina has revealed Japanese luminaries joining the GDC lineup, including Killer7 composer Masafumi Takada, FeelPlus (Lost Odyssey) president Ray Nakazato, and Game Republic (Genji, Folklore) boss Yoshiki Okamoto."

- Plundering the Seas of Probability
"Age Of Empires DS designer Tyler Sigman returns to Gamasutra with an entertaining article in his 'probability for game designers' series, discussing how dice-based board game probability teaches us key lessons about design."

- Game Design Expo: Daglow Maps The Console Wars
"At the recent Vancouver-based Game Design Expo event, Stormfront Studios' Don Daglow (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) reflected on the way the games industry cycles through each console generation in stages, and Gamasutra was there to document his intriguing talk."

- Exploring The Rhetoric Of War: A Turning Point Interview
"Gamasutra sat down with Spark Unlimited CEO Craig Allen to discuss the concepts behind the upcoming Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty, an alternate history WWII title which asks some surprisingly potent social questions about government and conflict."

- Navigating A Crossroads: David Jaffe Talks
"Eat Sleep Play's David Jaffe is renowned for his work on the God Of War and the Twisted Metal series, and Gamasutra catches up with him for an in-depth interview on the state of the industry, casual games, and the console war."

Unmissable: Steve Meretzky On 'The Most Perfect Video Game'

This is the oddest, most wonderful thing. You might know Steve Meretzky from his pioneering work at Infocom, working on his own to create Planetfall and A Mind Forever Voyaging, and with Douglas Adams on the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy text adventures.

Since then, he's bounced around the industry in an endearing fashion, spreading impish creative wit wherever he goes, and most recently joined up with Blue Fang, where he's helping them be Zoo Tycoons in fine fashion.

But in this case, he's caught at the Boston Postmortem, a game development-related gathering, and his Google Video-stored 'rant', captured by Jason 'Textfiles.com' Scott, is simply called 'The Most Perfect Game'.

The full seven-minute mini-rant is embedded below - be prepared for randomness, truth and an uplifting game-specific punchline [link semi-via Grand Text Auto]:

GameSetLinks: The Clover's In The Field

- As we sweep so rapidly towards the weekend, some more GameSetLinks of various vintages reveal, in particular, Gus Mastrapa doing an artful job of claiming that Cloverfield has the "reality TV gimmick that makes it feel more like a game than any movie I've ever seen."

Of course, there's a history of people claiming that films are gamelike and vice versa - with the almost subversively literal first-person shots in the Doom movie being a particular highlight - but I at least somewhat believe this one. Elsewhere in the rundown - Etrian Odyssey, game dev comics and 'interesting' traffic numbers for big game sites.

Looky Touchy: Cloverfield: Third-Person Shooter
'There's something inherent to the movie's reality TV gimmick that makes it feel more like a game than any movie I've ever seen.'

Losing the War Against Banality in 2008 (Magical Wasteland)
Hee hee.

The Eerie Events That Inspired the Mars Volta's New Album Also Fuel a Frightening New Flash Game | GameCulture
Spooky goings-on with board, web games.

Arcade Renaissance: AM-Net's most anticipated arcade games of 2008 (final results)
Viva Japan - a horse racing sim wins out!

popular culture gaming » Blog Archive » the incestuous nature of the gaming blogs revealed
Oh dear, another one of these badly sourced repastes surfaces.

Off-Road Velociraptor Safari - the website.
Great press release: 'It may appear we have contradicted the established understanding of what exactly a Velociraptor looks like, particularly with regard to the presence of feathers.'

Siliconera » Master English with the power of Starcraft English
Wow, those South Koreans sure do love their Blizzard.

Skellington Parade » Archives » Etrian Odyssey
Nich Maragos, the lead localization editor on the game at Atlus, discusses this stealth DS stand-out's fascinating, ecological themes with passion (and, yes, spoilers).

Twonks and Plonkers (New T&P Comic: TWITCH!)
Game Developer mag contributor Tom Carroll has a new comic about life at a dev studio.

comScore data on the big video game news web sites - A+E Interactive - Your Bay Area hangout for gaming, music, movies, culture
Wow, surely these are, like, almost completely wrong?

January 24, 2008

The State Of Indie Games: Explosion?

- Over at Wired News, a new column by the excellent Clive Thompson sums up his indie games of the year, adding to the top tens he's busted out in previous years, but he's "decided it's impossible." Huh? But why?

According to Thompson: "This is not because I can't find any games to praise. It's because I can find too many. Two years ago, the number of people making genuinely polished indie games was pretty small, numbering in the dozens or scores. A single columnist could reasonably hope to sample the year's offerings and make some picks."

However, there's been quite a change: "But in the last two years, things have blown up spectacularly. There are now hundreds and hundreds of superb indie games coming out every year, from creators in the United States, Japan, India, China and all points on the globe. I'm not counting the crap games, by the way. Throw them into the mix and you're well into the thousands... No, I'm talking about the good ones."

Can't say I disagree. Thompson goes on to randomly pick a few favorites for different esoteric reasons, and leave us with the following grinning-visage statement: "Indie gaming is a field that's come of age, such that you can sample its enormous variety all year long. The best-of column is dead. Long live the best-of column!" [Chalk randomly but happily pictured.]

Researching Guitar Hero: The Creation Of The Original

- [Brown University ethnomusicologist Kiri Miller has very kindly given GameSetWatch permission to reprint some of the highlights from her research weblog about the Guitar Hero music series, explored from an analytical, academic angle. After a talk with Freddie Wong, GH shredder extraordinaire, there's this neat excerpt from original GH designer Rob Kay's interview.]

I recently had a terrific conversation with Rob Kay (lead designer of Guitar Hero and the now-released Rock Band) in his office at Harmonix. I feel very lucky to have been able to talk with a game designer on-the-record, which is something I never managed to pull off during my Grand Theft Auto project.

Rob gave me permission to post excerpts of the interview transcript here; I'll start with this one, which begins with my asking a question about "star power." (When you are playing a song successfully, you gradually build up "star power," which can then be deployed by lifting up the neck of your guitar; the crowd goes wild and you earn extra points for a while. The folks over at ScoreHero have made star power strategy into something of an artform, as Rob and I discuss later.)

The thing about star power that I think is really interesting is the way that it visually shakes you up when you’re playing. And I wonder what went into that decision.

RK: Do you mean, how the visuals react on-screen?

Yep.

RK: So, I think one of the big things that you try to do in game design is give people instant gratification, feedback for anything that they do in the game. And feedback is always audio and visual. And if you can, if you’ve got these big moments, emotional moments in your game you want to make sure you’re using both the audio and the visual to really give you a positive feeling for doing something good in the game.

So, star power is the big bonus moment, and you want to feel like you’re being rewarded for doing it. And then—you know, that’s like on a purely mechanical level? And I know we spent a lot of time trying to figure out, what should the visuals be, what should the sound be, and I was really keen that we had a theme, that we found something to link it all together. And so, we thought, well star power, should we put little gold stars or something like that, I was like no, that’s a little bit cheesy.

And so then we thought it would be fun to go with the whole, hey look, it’s the electric guitar, you’re playing an electric guitar, so let’s make the theme electricity, and overloading, and all that kind of vibe. So we went with this kind of electric blue color scheme, and little kind of fizzes and spark sound effects when you deploy as well. So it was trying to bring a little bit of the raw, amp, overload kind of feel to the feedback. And that’s what drove the visuals.

So as well as serving that functional purpose, which is to let you A. know when you’ve earned star power because you see the blue little sparks go off, you know that as your meter fills it’s blue, and it’s got sparks, so you’re identifying it conceptually, okay, blue glowy stuff is star power, it’s serving that functional job, but it’s also serving an aesthetic, an experiential kind of thing as well, making you feel like, oh yeah, it’s all electricity, and I’m kind of overloading the crowd with energy by releasing it.

That was kind of an important direction.

It’s interesting how that sort of replicates a really iconic, mythical moment in rock, which is the moment of Dylan going electric.

RK: [laughs]

I don’t know if that ever occurred to any of you at all, but it just struck me just now when you were talking about it because it is this huge [snaps fingers] sort of transferral at this moment, although of course the crowd reaction was different—

RK: Yeah. Not explicitly. That’s right. Yeah, well that wasn’t an explicit goal at the time. But yeah. I mean, it’s very much a part of what, I mean Guitar Hero from the beginning was always, well, not right from the beginning, I think when we first started we didn’t know whether it was even going to be about rock or whether it was going to be about guitar. Because first of all it was about guitar, and then we only kind of realized a couple of weeks into the project that it made sense to make it all about rock.

Really, so did you consider initially having a bunch of different genres so that you could be the country guitar hero, or the whatever guitar hero, the classical guitar hero?

RK: Yeah. Up until that point the normal thing to do in music games was to have a mixture of music from different genres. And I think the real, I mean, you could ask, why would you do that, it seems so obvious to put it into one genre and have a real identity, but I think people are probably just thinking about, oh how do we appeal to lots of people, oh, put lots of different music in there.

And certainly in our karaoke games they were pretty pop-centric but they had a pretty wide range of songs. And Guitar Freaks, which I’m sure you must’ve heard about and looked into, had a strange mixture of songs, it had blues in there as well as rock

And you know we kind of had to make a decision early on, were we going to have blues as well, and were we going to have other stuff that people think of as typical guitar music, and it just seemed right to us to make it about, you know, balls-out rock guitar, that it’s the iconic thing that bringing a guitar game to America should be all about. Seems like the obvious think to do, to take it in that direction.

So there is that American aspect to it. [NB: Rob Kay is from Manchester; one of the many limitations of this transcription is the fact that you can't hear his accent and speech cadences.]

RK: Yeah. I was always joking with Ryan who’s our art director, that it’s gotta be like a balls-out American thing, people identify with that I think. And it’s just the cliched thing, and often in videogames it’s those cliches that are easy to hold onto and get into, you just, you step out of yourself for a little while. And I enjoyed it, even though I wouldn’t necessarily identify, for me, you know, that American guitar rock as being my favorite thing. I know what it is, and I know how to get into it.

Opinion: How To Sell More Games Through Trial Versions

- [In this opinion piece, XBLA portfolio planner David Edery discusses - with plenty of practical examples - how console and PC downloadable games can increase their popularity and purchase rate by releasing focused, smart trial versions.]

I’ve debated writing this article for a long time. My hesitation has stemmed, in part, from the recognition that many people have already beaten this particular horse.

At least once a year, I hear an excellent presentation on this subject, usually at a casual games conference (where necessity breeds ingenuity). That said, I believe that many developers and publishers are making mistakes — on many platforms, not just XBLA — which if corrected could improve the sales of their games.

So what the heck, I’ll jump on the bandwagon and say a few things. Hopefully some of them will actually seem insightful.

PR… it’s not just for Halo

Having a free trial does not exempt a downloadable game from taking advantage of PR; not even in XBLA, where every game gets downloaded by a large number of people. Why? Two reasons. First, that “large number of people” could be a lot larger. 2x (or more times) larger, in fact. Just because a lot of people download every game that comes their way doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore the people who don’t. Plenty of consumers only think to download the titles they are familiar with — that’s why licensed IP is so popular with many publishers.

Second, conversion rates are influenced by anticipation. This is easy enough to understand. Imagine being faced with two games, both of relatively equal quality. One has been hyped in the press for months. One is unheard of. Your friends are all talking about the first game. You yourself have been looking forward to it. But the other game is just as good. Which are you going to buy?

Bottom line: neither independent developers nor publishers should be counting on base platform traffic alone to drive sales — not even with games featuring popular IP. Build buzz early and steadily, till people are falling all over themselves in anticipation of your game. Take a page from the playbook of The Behemoth, developer of one of our most anticipated titles, Castle Crashers.

These guys have been actively building buzz for over a year. They showed up at PAX with a bright display you could see from across the floor, selling some of the best game shwag I have ever encountered (interchangeable CC figurines FTW!) I get asked every month “when are you finally launching Castle Crashers??” (Answer: I can’t tell you, but I’ll bet that when we do, it sells reasonably well.)

The trial… it’s not just the first five minutes of your game

It’s surprising how many developers don’t think about their game’s trial experience until the very last minute of the development process. A downloadable game’s trial is everything! If someone doesn’t enjoy your trial, then they probably won’t buy your game. It doesn’t matter if you licensed the three greatest IP of all time and fused them into the holy trinity of game design itself. If the trial stinks, most people won’t bother to lift the curtain on the full experience.

That said, here are a few tips on how to improve a game’s trial. To be clear: these are not scientific — they are based merely on my personal observations of what seems to be working on XBLA and elsewhere.

Many of these tips may appear obvious to you, but producers, designers, and marketers should not simply assume that their development teams will appropriately handle trial design on their own. They might not — and frankly, they wouldn’t be the first!

Don’t confuse or frustrate the player

Like I said… seems obvious right? And yet, I can think of several trials I’ve played over the course of the past year that were so insanely difficult I couldn’t even reach the end of the experience. If the trial kicks my ass, I’m not going to spend money in hopes that the full game somehow gets easier.

Another example: some trials do nothing to explain how to play the game, leading me to wonder if the game stinks or if I simply don’t get it. (Note: the vast majority of people will assume the game stinks.)

Don’t make the player wait for the fun

Many people aren’t willing to play a trial game for 20 or 30 minutes before they start having a lot of fun. This tends to be a problem for developers who are used to creating retail games.

Once a customer plunks down $50 for a game, you can generally be sure they’ll play past the tutorial. Not so with trials. I’ve heard different rules of thumb, but my gut feeling is: if your game isn’t fun within three minutes or less, you’re in trouble.

Don’t make the trial too short

This is a tough one. How do you define “too short?” Basically, if the player never has a chance to really get into the experience and have a good time, they aren’t likely to buy the game. Many people don’t buy a game immediately after playing the trial for the first time. They need to remember it fondly if they’re ever going to come back and play again.

This is one of those things that are worth testing — bring in some test subjects who fit your target audience and ask them to rate how much they enjoyed the trial. Have them play the trials of other, similar games that have sold well and ask them to rate those trials, too. If your rating is coming up short (comparatively), you know you have a problem.

Don’t make the trial too long

Again, how do you define “too long?” There are various theories, ranging from amounts of time (i.e. 60 minutes), to gameplay milestones (i.e. after the first boss), to number of levels, etc. I can’t claim to know the right answer, here, but I will say that developers should step especially lightly around highly-replayable content.

A single replayable mode of a really great game (i.e. Bomberman) is potentially satisfying enough to entertain many consumers for hundreds of hours. If you like the game but don’t love it, that one replayable experience might be enough to make you happy. Highly replayable content should be capped in some meaningful fashion. Not stripped down — you still want the trial to be as fun as it can be — but capped (by time, by early termination of the session, etc) such that hundreds of repeat sessions fail to satisfy.

Intensify the player’s curiosity

Who says a trial needs to end at an arbitrary point (i.e. end of level or after 60 minutes?) Why not, after an enjoyable sequence of gameplay events, end with a major cliffhanger (i.e. immediately before battling a particularly cool boss, instead of afterwards?) To be honest, I’ve had this tactic used on me when I’ve been pitched games for XBLA.

One developer cut off his prototype just as a massive (and really cool-looking!) boss creature appeared on the horizon. For all I know, the subsequent battle may have been a bore, but my imagination was already spinning with possibilities. That trick can be played on potential customers, not just portfolio managers. ;-)

Work that upsell message

When ending the trial, that upsell screen is (potentially) the last thing your customer will see. Every other trial is promising “more levels,” “more characters,” blah blah etc. Why is your game different? If you don’t have an answer to that question, this tip may not be so useful.. but then again, maybe trying a little wit (or something else that’s memorable and positive) will help?

Show off your best features

Here’s an example: if your game is most fun when played cooperatively, make darn sure players know they’ve missed out if they haven’t experienced the trial in cooperative mode. Don’t simply hope they stumble onto cooperative play — highlight that mode in the menu, and mention it in the upsell screen.

If your game has an incredible mode that fires up anyone who plays it, but that mode is only encountered in the final third portion of the game, think about ways you can expose a slice of that mode during the trial experience. There’s no law that says a trial must begin at the start of a game. And there’s no law that says you should be forced to “level up” in a trial to the point at which you can finally enjoy the most fun aspects of a game.

Know your audience

Last but not least, take the time to understand your audience and be honest with yourself about their expectations. For example, let’s say you’re making an arcade racing game, and you intend to sell it to racing game enthusiasts. Well, chances are, those people own some of the best retail racing games on the market. You aren’t going to beat those games on realism, and you probably won’t beat them on scope, either.

So what exactly are you offering this audience that they don’t already have? “More of the same gameplay in a cheap package” probably won’t cut it — that $10 or $20 you’re asking for may seem cheap, but it’s $10 or $20 more than the customer needs to spend, given what they already own. So you need to be offering them something new. Or you need to rethink who your target customer is, which, again, means that you ultimately need to rethink what you are offering. After all, a racing enthusiast has very different needs than an occasional player of racing games.

A downloadable game portal, be it XBLA, PSN Store, or anything else, is not simply an opportunity to sell the same gameplay with reduced scope (or polish) at reduced prices. You need to be offering something different — something that fills a specific need that $60 retail games generally do not. Otherwise, what’s the point?

[This article was reprinted on GameSetWatch from Game Tycoon, David Edery's personal blog.]

January 23, 2008

GameSetLinks: The Long Dark Wednesday Of The Soul

- Well, as we stagger into midweek, there are plenty of RSS feeds to be read and interesting opinions extracted from them. First up is Sam Kennedy's extremely in-depth discussion of the state of GameSpot - which is interesting because of and/or despite him managing one of the site's chief rivals.

Also on this particular countdown - NCSoft's Adam Martin being harsh but intriguing about how game events interact with the Web, Mega64's latest highly ridiculous Web ad skits, and The New Gamer on spending in-game riches when you've got it - all worth checking out:

Sam Kennedy's 1UP Blog: GameSpot's Sad State of Affairs
Long and interesting, if from a direct (and concerned) competitor.

YouTube - Mega64: ArmorGames.com Ad
Fake infomercial, Mega64 makes me grin every damn time, glad they're doing IGF interstitials - also see their new Magic the Gathering skit.

LogicMazes.com: Theseus and the Minotaur
Logic maze goodness (pictured) explained, with a shout-out to Tablesaw's GSW puzzles column.

toypop » Blog Archive » The Cyptic Boss Strategy Advice from Radiant Silvergun as Poetry
This is neat.

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Interview: GameTunnel Founder Russell Carroll
Very interesting - apparently their end-of-year indie awards extravaganza didn't do as well as previous years.

T=Machine » Games industry conferences versus blogging
NCSoft's Adam Martin has some interesting and very cutting comments.

theblackhound - The Black Hound FAQ
The Black Hound is "...a new unofficial campaign module for Obsidian Entertainment's Neverwinter Nights 2 roleplaying game. The module's author is Josh (J.E.) Sawyer, currently employed by Obsidian as a lead designer, and formerly the lead designer of Icewind Dale 2 - via Jiji.

Hoarding and Waiting | The New Gamer
'I steadfastly hold onto the ways of the old, like a Depression-era survivor who bitterly remembers times of great scarcity.'

VG Frequency » Blog Archive » Dwelling of Duels: MAGFest 2008 Results (Free Month)
Rather awesome video game music remix competition - latest results!

Road To The IGF: Cinnamon Beats' Emergent Rhythms

- Passing on Patrick Murphy's latest ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, as originally printed on Gamasutra a day or two back, he talks to Jani Karahma and Jetro Lauha about their IGF 2008 Excellence in Audio finalist Cinnamon Beats.

It's a physics-driven rhythm puzzler where players create their own beats, and it's extremely unconventional and rather mind-bending - I believe they're working on a full version to release (for PC and consoles too?) later in 2008. Anyhow, here's the interview:

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

Jani Karahma: I've been writing random game designs since I was a kid, but professionally things got started in a company called Fathammer, which was making 3D games for smartphones. I worked there for four years as a game designer, producer and creative director in more 15 games, mostly original IP, but with the occasional big-brand project.

Jetro Lauha: I created some shareware games back in the 90's. In 2001 I got offered a job at Fathammer, which was my first job in the games industry, and it was where I eventually met Jani as well. After that I worked for two years at Sulake Corporation, until I joined with Jani to start up Secret Exit.

What motivated you to create a game like Cinnamon Beats?

Jani: The original idea is Jetro's, and we decided that the concept is interesting and unique, and may have good gameplay hidden in there somewhere. So we made a prototype, and getting this far with it has been incredible!

Jetro: Yeah, I already thought of the concept last year, back when I was making Racing Pitch - which also was a finalist in the IGF. I like to toy around with different ideas, and this was one of them which I felt I have to try at some point.

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

Jetro: Well, I could single out at least a little video in the net called "Apartment Beats" which was a wonderful piece about making rhythms from household objects. Naturally the Stomp musical is also quite inspiring. Back then I didn't think about Animusic, but that also serves as a good reference, getting towards integrating rhythm with physics simulation.

Jani: As for the gameplay, I have fond memories of a game called The Incredible Machine.

What sort of development tools are used by the team?

Jani: I used Jetro for coding of the prototype - that proved to be a good choice. Our tools are all standard stuff: Visual Studio, Photoshop, Maya, et cetera, but the one thing I'd like emphasize is the importance and usefulness of a wiki in our company. We set one up right in the beginning, grew into using it, and now it's an essential element in our communication and production.

Jetro: You can guess I used Jani as the tool to test out things and refine gameplay ideas. He also replaced my placeholder graphics with better placeholders.

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

Jani: The emergent rhythms, absolutely. There's a wonderful chaotic element to the game, with balls bouncing around, and suddenly with a little tweaking a rhythm pattern appears. It's spontaneous and rewarding.

About how many people have contributed to Cinnamon Beats, and what has the development process been like?

Jetro: Well, I kind of stole the time to start to code on the first proto, which was kind of a surprise for Jani. I hadn't taken actual vacation time in the summer, so one could argue that I just took some, and caved in to do some coding, and then suddenly say that 'hey, I'm working on a little game like this.' Of course, as soon as I got some first thoughts out modeled in code and explained the next ideas to him, he became an integral part of the development to work with the gameplay and graphics.

Jani: One thing to remember is that the final game will be done around Q3 this year, so the number of people involved is going to grow. Thus far, the prototype involved code, design and graphics from a team of three.

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

Jani: I'd like to answer that around post mortem time. We're still a bit too early to point out big issues.

Jetro: I think you already got a glimpse from the funny start.

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

Jetro: Mostly I want to cheer out at the indies who are exploring out what can be done with physics in games. There still seems to be so many interesting things to try out.

Jani: First of all I tip my hat to the guys at The Behemoth. Great style, nice games, good people. For indies in general, I understand it first-hand that the problem is money, but I still have the nerve to call for focus and higher production values. Quite often, I see the choice taken to make something a bit too big, a bit too rough, rather than something small but very nice. I admire Everyday Shooter and Fl0w for the little gems they are. And of course, the esteemed competition at IGF - especially I'm cheering for Crayon Physics Deluxe.

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

Jani: You wouldn't be an indie unless you're doing this out of passion - remember to enjoy it! It's easy to get caught in the challenges of everyday production from tight deadlines to tight budgets and stress out. But it's important to enjoy the everyday life and the challenges and not just consider it something nasty to endure on the way to the inevitable success glimmering in the golden horizon... 28, 29, 30.

Jetro: I'm saying only something short to leave you room to think about it for the rest of the 30 seconds: "Consider what's most important in the long run."

IndieGames.com's Best Freeware Adventure Games 2007

[Some more goodness from Tim W. at sister site IndieGames.com, this time mining the rather productive Adventure Game Studio/graphic adventure scene for the top titles of 2007.]

The third of the 2007 Best Of Features on IndieGames.com's blog, our sister site is proud to present twenty of the best freeware adventure games released in 2007.

The adventure game genre certainly isn't dead, and IndieGames proves this by picking the top freeware adventure independent titles released last year, from Rorschach through the awesomely named Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy.

Best Freeware Adventure Games 2007

  1. Fedora Spade
  2. Covert Front
  3. Anika's Odyssey
  4. Rorschach
  5. The Infinity String
  6. Fate by Numbers
  7. Masq
  8. Dr. Lutz and the Time Travel Machine
  9. A Tale of Two Kingdoms
10. Ben Jordan Case 6
11. Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy
12. Passage
13. Soup ver 0.9
14. Ruckblende (Flashback)
15. The Adventures of Cagney
16. What Makes You Tick
17. Stranded 2
18. Menulis and Miestas
19. Thule Trail
20. Fighting Fantasy Project

January 22, 2008

Conundrum: How Should Game Blogs Incent Writers?

- This is less of a slam or a complaint than an open question - but it's based on an important fact regarding probably the biggest game weblog around, Gawker Media's Kotaku.com (for which, disclaimer, I guest blogged back in November.)

So, the fact - at the beginning of 2008, Kotaku moved from paying its contributors for each post to a new system with base pay and traffic-based incentives - so the more page views each editor gets every month, the more money they'll earn.

Over at sister Gawker-owned weblog Valleywag.com, site contributor Paul Boutin published the internal Gawker memo from Noah Robischon & Nick Denton. It makes fascinating reading - and Boutin was typically cheeky in reprinting it in public, since I'm pretty sure it wasn't intended to be. Some highlights:

"On top of your monthly base pay, you will be eligible for a bonus based on the number of pageviews your posts receive each month. This total includes any pageview on any story with your byline that was read during the month, even if the story is months or years old... One guest editor on Wonkette [where the system was already in progress] landed a huge exclusive and walked away with an extra $3k in his paycheck... The site lead has the right to revoke pageviews on any post. This is to guard against the publication of material that may be inappropriate or illicit, and we hope it is never necessary."

In any case, I've confirmed with senior Kotaku staff that this change has indeed taken place - but that they're taking the change seriously, and that Kotaku boss Brian Crecente has given extensive guidelines to his staff on what they should and shouldn't be doing under the new regime. In addition, the 'new deal' for Kotaku, at least, includes at least one mandated multi-source feature to be written every month by each regular editor.

Comparing and contrasting among the more major game weblogs, I affirmed off the record that the AOL-owned Joystiq continues to use the 'pay per post' metric that has been fairly traditional up to recently. In addition, Wired News' Game|Life was using 'pay per post' up to recently (EDIT: Apparently there is a 'small' bonus for big page views on Wired News blogs nowadays), whereas blog upstart Destructoid pays a basic (much lower) per-post sum, with 'bonuses' for getting linked by particular sites such as Digg and Kotaku, from what I've heard.

What does this all mean, other than me spending too long being nosy? Well, I think the possible disadvantages of both 'pay per post' and 'pay for traffic' methods are obvious - 'pay per post' could encourage inconsequential linkblogging, and 'pay for traffic', the newer and arguably scarier of the two, might encourage sensationalism at the expense of accuracy for easy page views.

But there are advantages of 'pay for traffic' too - particularly that editors may stray away from the linklog-only approach and towards snappy, fun pieces like this debunking of the Madden curse posted today. But, of course, it notably dissolves some church-state boundaries, since it directly links how Gawker makes money (page views) with editor compensation.

Let's look at the underlying trend, though. With page views - and therefore monetization - on the Internet diffusing further apart daily, where does the future lie for those who want to write creatively/critically about anything on a salary? This is probably a much larger issue than anyone claiming (not with much justification, I suspect) that linking page views and pay has in any way 'broken' journalism.

Where's the HBO subscription-style 'magic bullet' that allows enough dollars and cents for a little journalistic freedom? Or will the future of writing on games consist of thousands of personal, largely unmonetized viewpoints, with only the aggregators drawing enough juice to make a decent living? Maybe. And who knows? Maybe that's not such a terrible thing. [Illustration tip o/money hat to Penny Arcade.]

Portal, BioShock Lead Game Developers Choice Awards Nominees

- [Having been involved in organizing the voting and Advisory Committee for this year's Choice Awards, I'm delighted in how the nominees have turned out. Also - Zero Punctuation and Mega64 in one show? The universe is going to collapse.]

Valve's Portal and 2K Boston/Australia's BioShock lead the nominees for the eighth annual Game Developers Choice Awards with five nominations each, including the coveted Game of the Year title, organizers have announced.

The Game of the Year category also includes Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4, which follows with four nominations and, with both games receiving two nominations each, Harmonix's Rock Band and Nintendo's Super Mario Galaxy.

Produced and hosted by CMP's Game Developers Conference (GDC) and presented by Gamasutra.com and Game Developer Magazine, the Game Developers Choice Awards honors the developers of the best video games released during the previous calendar year, as well as awarding key figures from the video game community.

Other multiple nominees for this year's event include such diverse and notable titles as BioWare's Mass Effect, Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed, Infinite Interactive's Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, Sony Santa Monica's God of War II, and PopCap's Peggle.

In addition, special recipients already confirmed for this year's Choice Awards, to be honored in person during the ceremony, include 'father of video games' Ralph Baer (Pioneer), IGDA executive director Jason Della Rocca (Ambassador) and Civilization creator Sid Meier (Lifetime Achievement).

Winners in all major categories will be honored at an awards show taking place Wednesday, February 20 in the Esplanade Ballroom of the Moscone Center's South Hall, during the 2008 Game Developers Conference. The Game Developers Choice Awards ceremony, held in conjunction with the Independent Games Festival (IGF), will be hosted by legendary game developer Jason Rubin, mastermind behind the smash-hit Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter franchises.

In addition, it's been revealed that specially made video entertainment for the Choice Awards will be produced by The Escapist's popular animated show Zero Punctuation, while long-time contributors Mega64 will produce exclusive video skits to accompany the Independent Games Festival Awards.

The complete list of nominees is:

Best Game Design
BioShock
Call of Duty 4
Mass Effect
Portal
Super Mario Galaxy

Best Visual Art
Assassin's Creed
Team Fortress 2
Crysis
BioShock
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Best Technology
Halo 3
Crysis
Call of Duty 4
Portal
Assassin's Creed

Best Writing
Portal
God of War II
Mass Effect
Half-Life 2: Episode 2
BioShock

Best Audio
Call of Duty 4
Everyday Shooter
BioShock
God of War II
Mass Effect

Best Debut
Crackdown (Realtime Worlds)
flOw (ThatGameCompany)
The Witcher (CD Projekt)
Everyday Shooter (Queasy Games)
Aquaria (Bit Blot)

Innovation
Rock Band
Portal
flOw
Peggle
Mass Effect

Best Handheld Game
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
Phase
Contra 4
Peggle
(for iPod)

Best Downloadable Game
Pac-Man Championship Edition
Everyday Shooter
Peggle
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
(XBLA version)
Flow

Game of the Year
BioShock
Call of Duty 4
Portal
Rock Band
Super Mario Galaxy

"Behind every great game is a great team, and it's a core principle of ours to honor and recognize that talent on stage," said Jamil Moledina, Executive Director of the Game Developers Conference. "Given the open peer-based structure, the Game Developers Choice Awards have earned the utmost respect within the developer community and we're looking forward to the award ceremony next month to see who the 2008 recipients are. Good luck everyone!"

For more information about the Game Developers Choice Awards, visit its official website.

GameSetLinks: Hero's Journey To Saturn

- Aha, finishing up the neatness that is GameSetLinks, we wandered across to io9 (a new Gawker blog of some neatness!) to check out some rants on the Hero's Journey.

Then we dart back to to see Gamecock vs. John Romero, a largely unnecessary bitchfest, as well as game-related videos, German Sega Saturn brochures, and the massive amount of other weird ephemera and relevant linkage you've continued to expect from GSW. Hurray:

io9 - Rant: Eight Reasons Why The Hero's Journey Sucks
Gawker's new sci-fi blog weighs in on something oft cited by game writers.

The Future of Ideas is now Free (Lessig Blog)
Lawrence Lessig's book has important implications even for game markets.

Fatworld fall down, go boom « Save the Robot - Chris Dahlen
'Fatworld makes so many mistakes that if it had come from anybody other than Bogost, we’d throw it in the budget bin next to Coffee Tycoon and Prison Tycoon 2.'

Drama: Gamecock Head Tears Into John Romero, It's Getting Ugly
It's the Trump vs. Rosie of the game biz, oh dear.

It’s Not All Chocolate « Emily Short’s Interactive Fiction
This is fascinating stuff, you just don't see game design critiques of casual games (correct or not!) very often.

Top 5 Game-Inspired Music Videos | Gamelab
Pixels plus music equals fun.

Metacriticism « Pixel-love
Some of the same vein of discussion that the Croal-Carless showdown emerged out of, the other week.

The Saturn Junkyard: Sega Saturn Consumer Brochure Winter 1995
'And uhm... did I already mention that the whole brochure is in German?' The Internet is for niches!

Polybius » Blog Archive » THE OFFICIAL FFX-2 DRINKING GAME
'Whenever Brother’s antics become completely insufferable: TAKE A SHOT.'

YouTube - Bill Gates' Last Days - CES 2008 (HQ/Sound Fixed)
I'm SURE you've seen this, but this one's cleaned up - for game geeks, note the Guitar Hero and Robbie Bach appearances.

COLUMN: 'HDR Knowledge': Controls, Simplicity, Focal Interest, and Contextual Sensitivity

[HDR Knowledge is a bi-weekly column written by Nayan Ramachandran and chronicles his hopes and wishes for the future of the industry. This week, we dive back into controls and games, but this time, we talk about control design philosophy.]

In my column Controlling the Future, I talked about changes in controllers in our current generation, as well as future generations, from touch and gyroscopic control, to pressure sensitive buttons and analog sticks.

There are two parts to the equation, though. Once developers have controls in front of them, how do they utilize them for their games? It’s no surprise that every developer has its own design philosophy when it comes to how their games control. Nintendo is famous for creating their games to be as accessible as possible, while still allowing for complex moves and actions if the player is willing to invest the time.01.jpg

Companies like EA’s Tiburon studio steps farther and farther away from the line of accessibility in each installment of Madden, making use of every button on the controller in increasingly complex and complicated ways. Games like Sony’s Siren overused certain buttons for a variety of actions, making the controls clunky and frustrating, when they could have been intuitive and simple.

This really is not an argument of casual gamers versus hardcore gamers. Not all casual gamers find multiple button presses too much to handle, and not all hardcore gamers welcome the ever-increasing complexity of game controls. There are a number of factors to consider when designing the player's controls; perhaps some of them many gamers do not know of. Mood, tactile interaction, demographic and focal interest are all important factors when considering the control method for your game. Addressing each in order could mean the difference between beautiful intuitive controls, and a jumbled, frustrating mess.

Demographic

Let's first address the most obvious of factors when considering a control method for your game. Demographic can have a number of effects on the controls for your game. Let's take a Sudoku game, for instance. Who would be the general demographic for a traditional Sudoku game? Likely, your largest buying audience would be those who already enjoy Sudoku, either in the newspaper, or in dedicated puzzle books. Sudoku players are usually older, and would rather their experience not be drastically different in control from what they're used to. With this kind of information in mind, it seems an obvious choice to provide a touch pen interface for the game.02.jpg

Tactile Interaction

This might seem like another obvious factor at first, but readers will be surprised when I don't lay thick praise on the Wii remote in this category. Tactile interaction is largely to do with a players connection to a given action based on the action performed on screen, and the action performed with the controller. This doesn't necessarily equate to 1:1 movement, nor is button pressing automatically less immersive.

Take for instance, a fighting game. One button is the kick button, while one is the punch button. Each time the player hits the kick button, the character on screen performs a kick, and the resulting hit to the opponent is felt through the force feedback in the controller. The precision with which a player is able to execute a kick is directly in parallel to the precision a trained martial artist would be able to perform and duplicate a given move. This kind of connection helps to make the player's connection to the world stronger, despite the fact that his button press visually does not match that of his character's kick.

Holding a button to grab objects is also a fantastic example. Even within the Wii's own dashboard OS, users can grab a channel monitor by squeezing the A and B buttons (simulating a pinch), and then move the object by moving their arm. This is largely excellent application of 1:1 movement, and could be used to greater effect in situations like adventure games, where slight, methodical movements are favored over frantic, fever-pitched motions. Using the Wii remote in every game is not the answer to interactivity, but it certainly improves immersion in certain situations.

Focal Interest

Gaming has a very simple tenet that must always be followed: players must feel in control. Even in the case of adventure games with long cinematics, providing simple decision making can give players an amazing feeling of control over their environments. With game controls becoming more and more complex, developers are using context-sensitive controls more and more. A single button press does a different motion depending on the context in which the character is currently interacting with the world. If near a wall, hitting the A button might make the character hide, while pressing A in the open might make the player jump or roll.04.jpg

While context sensitive controls help to alleviate the issue of increasing complexity, it also impedes the tenet we set forth earlier. When a single button press does a variety of motions, the player's interaction lessens, and the game begins playing itself more and more. How do we stop this from spinning out of control? We do it by establishing focal interest.

Every game has a focal interest: It is the main action or feature that the game is built around. In First Person Shooters, it is the ability to fire the gun. In an action game like Devil May Cry, it is ability to swing the character's sword. In a puzzle game, it is the ability to perform the most simple action that garners points for the player.

Game control is successful when the focal interest is the action with the most tactile interaction. That is to say, players should feel in control the most when they are doing the most important thing in the game. This seems almost elementary when reduced to simple terms, but it is still surprising how many developers misstep in this regard.

Tertiary or unimportant actions can be relegated to context sensitive controls and the like, so long as the focal interest remains involving and interactive.

Mood

A game's mood might be more important than any other factor when considering the control scheme for the game. Simplicity isn't always the answer, but neither is complexity.

Mood is a difficult thing to pinpoint and illustrate, as well as a difficult thing to predict. For a developer, the best course of action might instead be to design the controls around intended mood. To illustrate, let's choose two existing games with entirely different moods: Bit Blot's Aquaria, and Devil May Cry 3.05.jpg

Mood-wise, Aquaria is a tranquil game of discovery, taking hints from Metroid, Ecco the Dolphin, and even fl0w. Peaceful but troubling music plays in the background as the main character swims smoothly through the environment, sometimes fighting sea creatures that block her path. The game has its moments of tension, but it is largely a relaxing game. It's no surprise that Bit Blot chose to use a simple mouse-only control scheme that's both fluid and intuitive, allowing casual gamers to pick it up, but still engage hardcore gamers in a way that many of today's blockbusters cannot.

Devil May Cry 3 is diametrically opposite in almost every regard. The game is about as tranquil as a punch in the face, and that's just the way any fan of the series wants it. The game uses all the face buttons for various actions, and button presses are quick, staccato, and other than movement, the action does not exude fluidity. In both of these situations, though, their individual control schemes are totally viable for their given situations, but would probably suffer if they switched control schemes.

What factors do you think are important when designing a control scheme? Let us know, drop us a line by posting in the comments box below!

[Nayan Ramachandran does not want to start an argument about buttons versus waggle. He does want you to read his blog, though.]

January 21, 2008

GameSetApparel: Full Series Available, Spotlight On 'Hostage Negotiator II'

-[Well, it's been long-promised, but we now have all four GameSetApparel T-shirts available for individual order. We're going to highlight one tee per week here on GSW - though you can buy any/all of them now! First up - with a special discount just for this week - is Dan Paladin's 'Hostage Negotiator II' design.]

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

The first series of four T-shirts are named 'Games That Never Were', with shirt numbers GSA101 through GSA104, and are limited to just 111 copies each - with the first shirt and pre-orders becoming available in December 2007, and all four T-shirts now available for individual purchase as of January 2008.

The high quality custom printed T-shirts feature noted artists interpreting the idea of imaginary, legendary, or fictional games in neat ways, and are created by Gamasutra collaborator Erin Mehlos (Hell's Corners), Dan Paladin (Alien Hominid), James Kochalka (American Elf), and Schadenfreude Interactive (Accordion Hero).

T-Shirt Spotlight: GSA102 - 'Hostage Negotiator II'

- The newest and currently featured shirt in GameSetApparel's limited-edition 'Games That Never Were' series, which is strictly limited to 111 copies of each tee, is 'Hostage Negotiator II' by Dan Paladin (Alien Hominid, Castle Crashers).

For his design (GSA102) in the 'Games That Never Were' series, Paladin, who is well-known for his distinctively twisted cartoon-styled art seen in console and XBLA title Alien Hominid, as well as the keenly-awaited Castle Crashers, has chosen to interpret the subject by going for a game that doesn't exist right now - but perhaps should!

Dan explained in an email to us just how he came up with the concept:

- "I based it off of a discussion that happened at my family dinner table once. Someone at the table suggested I work on games that focus far less on violence, and my father joked about having hostage negotiations, instead of the current form of dealing with them. it was all light-hearted and we all knew it'd probably never happen, so when you asked me to make something that'd probably never happen, this is what I thought of."

The high-quality navy shirt (available in XL, L, or M, with only 111 in total over all three sizes) is the result, and interested parties can now order the GSA102 'Hostage Negotiator 2' T-shirt design in multiple sizes from the GameSetApparel store. As mentioned before, supplies are extremely limited.

IGF Nominee Audiosurf Sends Internet Into Frenzy

- After the IGF organizers (including my good self) announced the 2008 IGF Audience Award, there's been a notable buzz around music-based puzzle title Audiosurf, which I've previously described as an "...original melange of F-Zero, Frequency/Amplitude, and Klax."

Anyhow, the NeoGAF forum has gone particularly gaga over the game (to the tune of 9+ pages of comments!) - a limited Beta weekend test of the title just finished, but there's still a limited public demo available.

There's delight over the diversity of MP3s that 'work' great with the game, and a massive amount of demo videos available on YouTube, with people trying a gigantic diversity of songs.

Looks like we'll have to wait for the next online Audiosurf Beta to get wide-ranging high-score tables back, but for more detailed impressions, Jim Rossignol previewed the game at Eurogamer, commenting: "Audiosurf's core concept is a remarkable trick, and one of those things that games do that seems vaguely magical to my stone-age understanding."

Oh, and a disclaimer - we're not advocating GameSetWatch readers to vote for any game in particular - actually, all Audience Award nominees are awesome, and it's going to be a super-close race. So go play/vote already.

[UPDATE: When Andy Baio at Waxy.org linked us up he added a couple of his favorite YouTube Audiosurf runs, and I was totally enchanted by how bouncy ELO's 'Mr. Blue Sky' is. In addition, the most frenetic clip I've seen so far (via NeoGAF) is for Sy & Unknown's 'U R My Phantasy', which is happy hardcore mayhem par excellence. Links to other notable song clips in comments are welcome!]

GameSetLinks: The Great Zoo Race Of Boll

- Yes, the GameSetLinks crew is back, with a great deal of random and not excessively old links, starting out with the UK Resistance crew cooing rather endearingly over Sega Superstars Tennis - and who can forget when UKR was a Sega Saturn fan site through and through, hm?

Also worth noting - IGF entrant The Great Zoo Race (pictured above) gets press for being certifiably crazed, IndieGames.com checks out Cactus' SeizureDome, and I remember Bill's Tomato Game fondly, for some weird reason. Here goes:

UK:Resistance on the fanboyness of Sega Superstars Tennis
Like they say: 'Best SEGA intro movie since Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg'. Nice to see all Sega's strong characters in one game, really.

arne360 - Sundance Short Films on Xbox LIVE Video Marketplace (…and iTunes, Netflix) - videogame industry discussion from an industry insider.
Digital distribution _is_ good for stuff like this.

Uwe Boll: Bad filmmaker or trash visionary? - Movie opinions- msnbc.com
Completely ridiculous (but fun) counter-opinion - via Boyer.

the random Gnomes' random Lair: 100 excellent free games in bloom
Another one of these handy, longform link posts.

Kotaku Feature: Wanna Study Game Design in Japan? Here's How
Good piece on how Japanese game schools work.

Crayon Physics Deluxe First Impressions // PC /// Eurogamer
John Walker takes a hack at the IGF finalist, with more positive results.

Bill's Tomato Game - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Referenced in the EG comments for Crayon Physics Deluxe, I recall playing this puzzle-y vaguely Crayon-ish thing (minus physics!) on Amiga - what an awesome game name!

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Freeware Game Pick: SeizureDome (cactus)
Great name! Cactus is doing about a game a week right now, or something - it's insane.

Kotaku Clip: Christian Animal Racing HELL
This game (The Zoo Race) was entered into the IGF this year and got some 'interesting' feedback.

January 20, 2008

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Some Hardcore Downsizing

- I didn't notice for a whole month (the publisher sent an email announcement that wound up in my junk folder), but Hardcore Gamer magazine is lowering its frequency from monthly to quarterly:

"Due to the massive shift in the video game journalism industry to a more online-focused strategy, we have decided to also shift our main focus for Hardcore Gamer to a a model that better takes advantage of our website, HardcoreGamer.com.

That means we are going to start posting our reviews, previews and features to our web site as soon as they are ready instead of waiting for the print version to hit street as we used to.

At the same time, we will be providing unique content within the printed version of Hardcore Gamer so that the two no longer conflict with each other."

All current subscribers will get extended to the Winter '08 issue, which is nice. Not so nice is the fact that subscriptions still cost $24.95, meaning that if you subscribed last month expecting to receive 12 issues, well, you're getting four instead - sorry! Don't like it, here's a refund!

Of course, subscription fulfillment houses are like this for every magazine in the US, so I can't complain too loudly. What I'm wondering about is what the editors will do with the quarterly issues -- they haven't said much publicly, other than they'll concentrate on non-timely things and really, really hope the paper quality can remain the same. How's that for optimism?

Now, HGM has been an anomaly for its entire run, starting up in 2005 at a time when print mags were just launching their current shrinking contest and offering up a design/writing formula that went out of style when the GameFan generation grew up.

Still, I can't help but like the little guy anyway -- it shows spunk and enthusiasm, and it plainly couldn't have survived this long unless it had decent support from its readership and ad base.

Nonetheless, I think it serves as the latest reminder that while video game magazines printed on paper are not a thing of the past, game mags that follow the tried-and-true, outdone-by-the-Internet-a-decade-ago formula of previews and reviews most certainly are.

[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.

Breaking News: China Targets... Azeroth?

- This is cute enough to be worth reprinting on its own, and it comes from Grady Hendrix's Variety-hosted Asian film blog Kaiju Shakedown, of all places. He has a piece entitled 'China attacks Warcraft' which explains the following:

"Last week, China's CCTV 7 Military Channel showed a documentary about war exercises that took place around the world last year. One of the maps they used showed Turkey, Iraq and Iran... Later, a Chinese internet user posted this map from the popular online game World of Warcraft. The area shown is known as the Arathi Highlands. Notice any similarities?"

Yep, looks like the Chinese government have been borrowing and airbrushing over maps from Azeroth, of all places. (Mind you, as GameSetWatch documented when we visited Shanghai in 2006, World Of Warcraft is rather gigantic in the territory.) And as Grady grins in his write-up of this: "The PLA needs to be at least lvl 30 or higher to invade this territory." Very droll.

Opinion: Can A Stuffed Bear Hold The Secret To Game Piracy?

- [In this opinion piece also printed on Gamasutra, industry veteran Kim Pallister looks to a surprising source - the Build A Bear Workshop - to suggest that personalization and customization of games before their delivery may be the key to developing a relationship with the gamer, incenting them, and helping stem game piracy.]

While traveling with my family recently, my wife and I decided to treat our four-year old twins with a visit to the Build A Bear Workshop. For those unfamiliar with this great little enterprise, here's how it works: You bring the kids in, they pick a type of bear, various accoutrements, and go through a ritual where the bear is 'brought to life' by filling him with stuffing, inserting a heart, stitching him shut, etc.

Before inserting the heart, the kids rub it on their heads to make it smart, on their muscles to make it strong, etc. For those interested in the full ritual details, they are laid out in syrupy-sweet level of detail here.

The whole thing struck me as kind of a sugar-coated version of Frankenstein, but that’s beside the point. The result is that they get a bear that is 'unique', and are given a birth certificate for the bear with the name they give him.

Building Relationships With Purchases

It occurred to me that this kind of visceral experience - which develops quite an bond between child and bear - would be ideal to partner with a kids virtual-world company to go compete with Webkinz and other kids’ virtual worlds which have been talked about in our industry quite a bit as of late (I blogged about a few of them a while back.)

My thinking was that if Webkinz is more compelling than Club Penguin because of the plush toy that acts as a physical connection to the experience (not to mention moving the financial transaction back to a parentally-comfortable retail channel); then Build-A-Bear is more compelling because the plush toy is now personalized.

Of course the thing with good ideas is that other people have the same ones – usually before I do! So it is in this case, as lo and behold, there already exists a BuildABearVille.

Now the key point is this: With Webkinz, you enter your product code, and the online animal matches the physical product you bought at the store - which for kids, is COOL. With BuildABear, you enter a unique ID number off the birth certificate, and you get an online version that is identical to your one-of-a-kind, custom bear that you built. Of course the "one of a kind" bear is only one of given number of permutations of options, but still, to a kid, this is MAGIC!

So anyhow, it's cool, and I suggest you check it out. Take your kid, or a friend’s kid, or a kid-at-heart, to your local Build-a-Bear Workshop and give it a whirl.

So what does this have to do with software piracy? Bear with me (and my puns) while I first talk a little about music.

The Fan Relationship In The Music Biz

2007 was a pretty incredible year for the music business. Not because any record amount of money made, but because of some pretty amazing occurrences in the business. Radiohead’s “Pay what you want” release of their latest album, artists breaking with their labels in favor of self-publishing or leaning more heavily on touring as their revenue source. Most significantly of all, as of last week, Warner was the third of the four major labels to sign with Amazon for DRM-free MP3 music distribution (Sony BMG is the last hold-out).

The significance of this last point cannot be over-stated. There may be some Amazon-vs-iTunes gamesmanship afoot, but at the end of the day this is at heart a response to customer demand. Customers are saying (with their wallets as well as their mouths), that they prefer not to buy from companies that treat them like criminals, and that they are willing to pay for music but not when its usability is hampered by DRM.

The direction here is clear: DRM-burdened products will lose in the music world. And then the consumer is going to look at how they consume video and begin to ask the same questions. And after that, they are going to have the same questions about their games.

Wired recently ran a great piece in which David Byrne interviews Radiohead's Thom Yorke to discuss these recent shifts in the music business, discussing how music went from being about performance and artist relationship to being about manufactured product and now it's being shifted back the other way, where the manufactured product is no longer monetizable as it once was, and so the value will come from performance and from the relationship that artists can have with fans.

Others have been talking about this too, how the value is in the artist/fan relationship, not in the product per se; and how if the relationship is there, people will gladly pay for it (and for the product in turn).

Traditionally in games, the discussion around 'relationship' has been around that of service provision. e.g. You provide a service and the pays for that service on an ongoing basis, whether it's on a per-month basis, per-game basis, per-item basis or whatever. MMO's, Xbox Live, Kart Rider, GameTap, are all examples of this.

But perhaps another path exists, other than "service provision as proof of relationship". What if we think about "Personalized product as expression of relationship"?

On Building Personalized Objects

So what do I mean by this? Consider things like architecture plans. These are copyrighted; architects that do plans for 'cookie cutter' houses, and the like have to worry about their designs being used without their permission.

However, an architect hired to do a custom design for a client very likely has to worry less. Why? Because the plans were done for that client, and that client very likely doesn't want his design copied and takes pride in its uniqueness and that it was done for him. "You like my kitchen? It was personally designed for me by Hans Arkitekt."

To take this to games, if we could find a way to build a game for a specific customer, tailored to them, then this should mean that they could share it with a friend, but that friend wouldn't want it, they'd want their own. In the same way that I may covet my friend's tailored suit, but that doesn't mean I want his suit, but rather that I want one of my own. Meanwhile, off-the-rack designer label suits do have to worry about counterfeit copies of their designs.

So what would it mean to build a game *for a specific customer*? I'm not sure. But I'm not talking about binding it to the user's machine with DRM. No, people will find a way to strip it out anyway. No, the personalization has to add value in some way. DRM doesn’t add value for the customer, it adds inconvenience at best and outrage and resentment at worst (one need only to look as far as the numerous postings about the PC release of the otherwise-wonderful BioShock for an example).

I’m not advocating for the removal of DRM from games. I understand why games are distributed today with DRM today. I just believe that it’s a losing game, and that we need to start thinking about ways in which we make it irrelevant. Moving from ‘games as product’ to ‘games as service’ is one path. There may be room for another, and that may be ‘this product was built just for me’.

The Future - The Personalized Game?

The personalization has to add value, make the game *better* for that individual customer. It could be an object of social status ("Look, Cliffy B personally autographed my copy of Gears and thanked me for my business"), an element of personal integration ("It came pre-built with my character stats already set up, and the villagers were singing songs about the time I single handedly held off that Orc assault!"), or custom fitting ("all the graphics assets and settings came perfectly tuned for set up for my personal machine").... who knows.

Actually, it's very likely none of the above. Minds more creative than mine will come up with far better ideas. The best example I can think of is that of The Behemoth and the custom trophies they built for leaderboard winners; not personalization of the game but certainly a commitment to personal relationship with customers.

I do think the idea of the ‘personalized game’ is a path to be explored. The first requirement to finding the pot of gold at the end of that path is a change in mindset.

To change from viewing the game as mass-produced product to viewing the finished game as an asset; 95% completed, and now ready for customization and personal delivery to each and every one of your fans. The extent you *value* each one of those relationships, is the extent to which they'll provide value in return.

I guess like any relationship, you have to decide if you are ready to put some work into it and hold up your end of the bargain...

[Kim Pallister is Content Director for Intel’s Visual Computing Group. He recently re-joined Intel after a few years at Microsoft working on casual games for MSN and Xbox Live Arcade. He’s been around the game industry for 15 years. When not migrating between large technology companies in the Pacific Northwest, he finds time to blog at www.kimpallister.com - from which this article was adapted and expanded - and at www.vgvc.net. His views on those blogs and in this article and others are entirely his own and not those of his employers past nor present.]



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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