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March 1, 2008

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

Aha, time to wander around the other sites in our network (which would include Gamasutra, as well as Worlds In Motion, Game Career Guide, you know the drill) and see what neat stuff has been posted this week.

This time round, there's a bit of a range - from Dwarf Fortress chats to an impressively spun XBLA interview, through an Atari 2600 history.

There's also some new Game Developer Research on regional perks and news that the CMP Game Group, uhh, isn't called that anymore (not that it affects any of our product names or ongoing business, heh. Rebranding for the win!) Anyhoo, here's going:

- A History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 2600 Video Computer System/VCS
"Gamasutra's A History of Gaming Platforms series - following the Apple II, C64 and Vectrex - continues with a look at the seminal Atari 2600, the undisputed star of the early console rush - at least until the Great Crash of 1984." (Impressive woodgrain controller pictured above!)

- The China Angle: 'Operation For Tomorrow' Means More Plugins Today
"In Gamasutra's latest China Angle column, Frank Yu looks at the government's 'Operation for Tomorrow' MMO game clients crackdown, and whether browser plugins like Flash and Shockwave, traditionally spurned by cafe users, may now point the way to the next 'console' of choice."

- The Art Of Games
"Following Jim Preston's controversial Gamasutra feature on games as art, Crash Bandicoot, Gex and Uncharted designer E. Daniel Arey responds with a fired-up, in-depth piece on why the art inherent in gaming matters."

- CMP Game Group Parent Rebrands Into Think Services
"Gamasutra and GDC parent United Business Media has announced that it will restructure CMP Technology into four independent organizations tailored to specific areas, with CMP's Game Group, of which Gamasutra is a part, fitting into the new Think Services division."

- Q&A: Microsoft's Wacksman Talks XBLA Business
"At GDC, Gamasutra talked with Microsoft's Jeremy Wacksman, global marketing manager of Xbox Live marketing, about some of the controversial news coming out of the show as regards realignment of Xbox Live developer profit structures, the XNA announcements, and more."

- Interview: The Making Of Dwarf Fortress
"Cult indie hit Dwarf Fortress is ASCII-based, but takes dynamic world and character generation to an level unprecedented in the history of video games - Gamasutra talks in-depth to co-creator Tarn Adams about the title."

- Best Of GDC: Peter Molyneux's Top 10 GDC Proclamations
"Continuing the Best Of GDC series - highlighting the best unreported elements from last week's San Francisco-based conference - Gamasutra takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the quote-based highlights of Peter Molyneux's Fable 2 lecture."

- Hey, That’s MY Game! Intellectual Property Protection for Video Games
"So you've made a great game - how do you stop people from using major elements of it without your permission? Dannenberg and Chang explain how video game industry copyrights, trademarks, patents and trade secrets work."

- Game Developer Research Releases 2008 Government Incentive Report
"Game Developer Research is pleased to announce the debut of its fourth report, 'The Game Developer 2008 Government Game Incentive Report', a comprehensive listing of over forty government-funded, local programs targeted at assisting game developers, small and large."

- GDMag Q&A: How Halo 3 Got Legendary
"In this interview originally published in Game Developer magazine, Bungie gameplay designer Francois Boucher-Genesse discusses the specific process that went into the creation of Halo 3's Legendary difficulty mode - from usability feedback to unscripted encounters."

The State Of Game Preservation - Post GDC Edition

The art and science of video game preservation is still a Very Important Thing, so I was pleased to see that Henry Lowood of Stanford University has written a lengthy post on the IGDA Preservation SIG mailing list discussing what happened at GDC, and possible plans for the future.

I'll highlight a couple of the notable findings - unfortunately I couldn't make it to either of the preservation talks:

"In the first roundtable, several people suggested that there is need for more work not just on software preservation, but also on matters such as archival collecting, oral histories, and video documentation of gameplay... There will be a new Virtual World videos collection on the Internet Archive as part of [a new U.S. Library of Congress funded project, through NDIIPP's Preserving Creative America program]."

The notes continue: "In the second roundtable on Thursday, more meat was put on the bones of a possible oral history project or set of projects that the SIG could facilitate." The Silicon Genesis project at Stanford, with oral history of the important history of the microchip, was put forward as one of the examples to possibly cue off.

For those wanting to know more, the IGDA Preservation SIG blog is updating regularly now, and the Game Preservation SIG Wiki has quite a lot of very useful information on it. They're also starting up a Memorials section, which I think is very worthy and worthwhile.

GDC: Feelplus' Nakazato Details Lost Odyssey's Collaborative Process

- [Over the next few days on GameSetWatch, we're going to be reprinting some of the more interesting GDC lectures which might have potentially got 'lost in the shuffle' of the show. In this piece, Leigh Alexander documents Ray Nakazato's fascinatingly honest postmortem of Lost Odyssey.]

Feelplus president Ray Nakazato was at the 2008 Game Developers Conference to discuss the collaboration between Final Fantasy producer Hironobu Sakaguchi's Mistwalker group and Feelplus to develop Lost Odyssey. It originally began as an in-house Microsoft project before Feelplus assumed a role, Nakazato explained, as he showed a trailer of the fantasy RPG.

Feelplus was established in 2005 to develop Lost Odyssey. Currently, there are 100 developers and artists on staff, many of them Microsoft and Sega veterans, and Feelplus also relied on freelancers to help develop the game. The studio is part of holding company AQ Interactive Group, a larger merger between three development studios: Artoon, Cavia and Feelplus. In addition to supporting Sakaguchi on Blue Dragon, Feelplus contributed to Yoshi's Island.

Cavia was responsible most recently for developing Biohazard (Resident Evil): Umbrella Chronicles for Wii. Altogether, the three studios have some 300 employees. Currently, their primary business is to make games for other publishers, but AQ Interactive has recently become a publisher itself, having recently acquired U.S.-based publisher XSeed.

Nakazato then explained the division of labor involved in Lost Odyssey: The project was funded and project-managed, tested and asset-localized by Microsoft. Mistwalker, with Sakaguchi and award-winning Japanese novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu at the helm, took responsibility for the story and character design, with well-known Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu creating the music, while Feelplus devleoped the actual product.

"To develop games, or to try to get professional game developers under the auspices of Microsoft was quite difficult, and it could be that Microsoft employees are expensive. So for that reason, they decided to create an independent studio, which is why Feelplus was established," Nakazato explained. It took the team more than four years, including the earliest days of Lost Odyssey's development, to create the game.

In the middle of 2006, Feelplus developed a Japan-only playable demo. "We developed this, or finished it, around June 2006, and then gave it off to the players in December 2006. But I think this was too early, because it ended up being a version that wasn't particularly polished at that point. But we launched a playable version a year and a half before the full launch," Nakazato recalled.

The game uses Unreal Engine 3 as middleware -- and the team did UE3 integration four times, which Nakazato said was "quite a task."

For the ambitious development project, the team divided into several groups: one responsible for building the game itself, a design group responsible for database systems and AI, and a level design team. A production management group was in charge of the game's cutscenes, of which there are over eight hours, including about 40 minutes worth of pre-rendered movies with the rest as scripted real-time events.

"All of these groups would create these parts and then put them together, and then the game and the cutscenes would be put together by combining these components. And then the Microsoft project manager would be in charge of project management," explained Nakazato. Finally, a Mistwalker-Microsoft liason would coordinate among the groups.

What Went Well

"Part of this is looking back and learning my lessons as well," Nakazato said. "The game system itself is a traditional JRPG, so we had a lot of people who had a lot of experience with this and we didn't have to worry. There are so many people used to developing traditional JRPGs, that from the perspective of game design, I don't think there was a problem."

As far as storytelling is concerned, the story's amnesiac, immortal protagonist whose past is told through 15-minute short-story dream sequences are "really good," Nakazato said. "[The stories] don't necessarily has anything to do with the game itself, but thanks to them, the story and the character have much more depth."

Nakazato was also pleased with the character and creature production staff, who he says produced great-quality content on time so that there was plenty of time left to design details.

What Didn't Go Well

"I think perhaps we started too early in the project, and ended up having too many people involved at too early a stage," Nakazato said. "We could have started with a fewer number of people. Game designers had to start the design before they even had the [Xbox 360] hardware, so a lot of what they did had to start off with trying to imagine what things might be in the future. So we had to redo a lot of those things."

Secondly, the battle, adventure and cut scene components were created separately. "It's fine while they're being developed, but while they were being combined, we realized there were various issues. So from now on, a seamless development is something I should think about doing," Nakazato explained.

Nakazato also found the environment production challenging. "Part of the issue is that there were more than 300 locations that were created. And it might be that one location is very important, while another might be a room that nobody goes into. But those were built to the same quality level. Perhaps had we concentrated more on the more important scenes, we would have been able to save cost and time as well as balancing things out better, but we ended up spending a lot of energy on locations where the player would rarely go to."

Nakazato also feels the team over-used the concept art stage. "In retrospect, we didn't need to have that much details [in the concept art]. I think we overdid it a little regarding this."

Cut Scene Production

The game's visual director was a film industry veteran for whom it was his first time working in the game industry. "He imported his way of doing things to our stuff, but at the end, we had a great product," Nakazato said. He was also pleased with the hand-animated facial expression, which he felt yielded a better end result than automation. "We also decided to use English voice acting, and we created a great facial expression which is going to fit the English voice acting, in particularly eye movement."

The text-based dream sequences featuring Shigematsu's storytelling is another point with which Nakazato is pleased. "Some people are against the idea of using text on a next-gen machine, but Mr. Shigematsu's story was so great that we convinced people to follow his lead."

However, the priority list caused challenges for the cutscenes. The team broke down the game's scenes into four types: pre-rendered FMV, A events, B events and scripted events. "When we divided them we didn't have a good understanding of the quality of each scene. Maybe we didn't need to use FMV. Pre-rendered events and A events use the same models, but has a slightly different tone... but we made a mistake in that we used the real-time cutscenes, but in real time we had the two prioritizations," explained Nakazato.

He continued, "In the A event, we first created scenes and we took a video of that scene and then we did a motion capture. But in the B event, we used off-the-shelf mocaps to create the scene. But in the A event we manually created facial expressions. So we did two different methods, but we ended up that the players didn't know which one is A event and which one is B event, so they just felt that the quality of the entire movies are inconsistent. That's what we are regretting at this point."

Working With Unreal Engine 3

As Nakazato said earlier, the team started without Xbox 360 hardware or rendering technology. "Unreal 3 was at the cutting edge at the time. Also, the PC version was available before 360 existed. So we actually used the PC version before the 360 was available, and we have a great toolset."

On the other hand, "Using the Unreal Engine is also a bad thing. In Japan, those who are used to JRPG engines have a different style. They have their own philosophy. But Unreal 3 Engine also has its own philosophy. Both are inconsistent and incompatible. If we knew that earlier, we could have a consensus that we should use Unreal 3's method and philosophy... but we just applied our old philosophy." Overall, he said, the integration did not go well.

"We feel like we are porting our product to a new platform," he said. "We expected it's going to be just a little update or version-up, and if UE3 has a new version, we can use it quickly. But every time, when we start using the new version when we integrated the new version into our engine, it took six weeks; it took a lot of time and effort, and everything evolved so quickly and rapidly so integration was very difficult. Now I hear UE3 is getting more stable, but at the time it evolved so quickly it was difficult to keep up with it."

The Japanese developers, Nakazato added, had a lot of difficulty reading UE3's manuals. "It was difficult to absorb the knowledge. For example, if there were some issue or failure in the Xbox it's really difficult to understand why it happened. So the debugging and final tuning ended up being quite cumbersome as well. We do hear that it takes a very long time to load, but it actually is 3 percent quicker in loading even now compared to before."

Project Management

Nakazato felt that Microsoft's milestone-based development structure was a good idea. "Those who are developing in the West are much more advanced compared to the way we do it in Japan, and Microsoft is closer to the West. There is a milestone every two or three months, and we have to deliver our milestone to Microsoft." He also praised the company's robust acceptance process and concrete and clear, agreed-upon schedule of deliverables communicated well in advance of due dates.

"After we provided the milestone, they check it very thoroughly, and they have to accept it -- and without that, our studio can't get paid," he continued. "But these acceptance criteria are very detailed as well. Because we had a three-month milestone, there was a source of tension all the time that I think helped push us along."

Microsoft assigned two program managers and a globalization program manager to development to check the game design and quality along the way. "It seems like there are way too many managers, but everyone was very cooperative," Nakazato said.

On the other hand, he continued, it was the team's first experience both in working together and working on a new platform. "Because of this, it took a very long time before we all felt a sense of unity. Because everybody is so talented, they have their own background and their own way of thinking... so there were some disagreements. Some people didn't stay in -- we started with 10 people and at the peak we had 150, so in that process, various management issues had to be resolved along the way."

Localization

Nakazato was also pleased with the localization process. "JRPGs tend not to be able to be launched globally. But we did two of them, and that tends to be not common," he said. "We continued to consult with Microsoft and decided to create a global build system."

Lost Odyssey was localized into 9 languages, and each region had a localization department to be translated and then returned for inclusion. "That didn't work very well, so we ended up having them become part of our team. The in-house tools were made to be very easy, so that the localization team could use that as well. We taught them these things and they brought them back to their own regions. And then they would use this tool and drop it into the game and check to see that it works really well in the game. They could do that locally without involving Feelplus."

The official build was done by Feelplus, Nakazato explained, but by the time it reached them the language-based assets were "quite clean. Even those areas that changed daily could be turned around quite quickly." Even the many last-minute changes could be accommodated expeditiously.

Tuning and Testing

Global bug tracking worked out well, Nakazato said, but the bugs all needed to be fixed by Japanese programmers. Microsoft Game Studios in Japan took responsibility for translating bug reports into other languages. "Thanks to that, I think we were able to work on the bugs pretty smoothly," Nakazato explained. The team used an efficient prioritization system that Nakazato said helped things progress well even if team members didn't always agree on a bug's priority level.

There were many last-minute changes during the tuning process also. "I worked a lot with Mr. Sakaguchi, but what he tends to do is give a lot of requests when things are more or less done," Nakazato said. "But we knew that even though he did it that way we would ultimately have a much better product, so we did bear with it and follow along with him."

In summary, Nakazato said, the project's weak point was the speedy growth of the team. "I think we were able to get really highly skilled people together, but it was a new team, a new platform and a new middleware. Because of this, I think it was quite a challenging project. I don't think that could have been resolved, but we've done it once -- so if we were to do it again, we could do it much more smoothly and be more productive."

February 29, 2008

COLUMN: 'Jump Button': Handheld Gallery — Patapon Artist Rolito

-[Jump Button is a new weekly column by Drew Taylor, written specially for GameSetWatch, that focuses on the art and substance of video game culture.]

It's almost two in the morning, I'm dosed up on pain killers and my right wrist is sprained—possibly fractured—from a relatively nasty motorcycle accident I had earlier in the day. But that doesn't stop me from wanting to play 'just one more mission' of the addictive PSP rhythm/attack game, Patapon.

The narcotic effect is partly attributable to the simple (yet strategic) gameplay, insanely catchy rhythms and clever fusion of RPG-lite and rhythm/action genres. But it's the crazy-cool graphic style of French artist Rolito (real name Sebastien Giuli) that has me gripped in a 'fever'.

I want to see more.

Visually, the 35-year-old artist's work on Patapon is like Willy Wonka meets Frank Miller's 300. A candy-shaped universe full of strong geometry and complementary color palettes. Cave paintings for a Disney-Pixar audience.

Cute, cyclopsian eyeballs on legs—armed with bows, halberds and axes—march to the beat of drums, battling giant fire-breathing dragons. Brave armies endure scorching desert sands, fight beasts of gargantuan proportions, and sail across vast oceans in Viking boats. Trees with scratchy heads dance to the sound of trumpets. Bird-riding warriors rain spears down on their two-dimensional enemies, while catapults lay siege to cowboy forts and medieval castles.

'Some of my inspiration comes from Pre-Colombian and primitive arts, but not only,' explains Rolito, in sentences of broken English. 'This spiritual/mystic aspect is rooted in my passion for mythology, antique civilizations, the unexplained and impalpable. The part of mystery is really important to me, and my work; this is—for sure—what gives [my art] that bizarre and poetic side.

'I think my characters have their own evocative power. There's no need to read any story about them; if you see them you can feel the innocence and poetry. It's a world between the kid world and the adult world, a place where everything is possible.'

Indeed, Rolito's internet sites—Rolitoland, Black Polito and his blog—are filled with the kind of art, vinyl toys, photos and flash animations that seem to transcend ages and cultures; his graphic illustration distilled down to a bold, lovable comic book of humanity.

'My art style is cute and weird, [but the] indispensable element of my work is simplicity,' confirms Rolito.

For Sony's Japan Studio—the same team that brought Loco Roco to life—Rolito's graphic style was a case of love at first sight, particularly when it came to the little tribe of the Patapon.

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These characters inspired in game director Hiroyuki Kotani an image of beating drums, epic battles and great expeditions, and Rolito was quickly contracted to the new project.

'I created the Patapons in 2002,' explains Rolito. 'In 2004 they naturally became the main and animated characters of my web site. We can say that it was their first step to interactivity. To develop them in gameplay was, in a sense, a logical result.'

Logical, perhaps. But what makes Rolito's work on Patapon so special is that he is one of the only artists in the world to have a game developed entirely from their iconic graphic style.

Hiroyuki based the genre, story and game system completely on Rolito's work; Patapon being the first game in Hiroyuki's 18 years of game development where the final image of the game predated any hint of a game design document or gameplay ideas.

'This is my first time in the video games world,' admits Rolito, 'but from what I understand having a game based completely on an artist's own personal style is an unusual way of working [and making games]. It's been fascinating to have the opportunity to develop a whole graphic universe in a big project—such as a video game—especially since I was offered full freedom on the graphical style.'

On the bigger picture, Rolito adds, 'I believe there's the need for “open mind-ing” to other graphic [styles and] worlds, and not those already well known. I think that things of simple appearances can be really evocative. They may be considered by some to be less accessible than ultra-realistic 3D, but it seems to me that there are many graphical “new ways” that remain to be investigated, and which haven't been used in video games yet.'

'I really hope this kind of cross-over is going to happen more often in the future,' says Rolito, optimistically.

Rolito is onto something: the idea of putting aside the (frustratingly moot) 'Are video games art?' debate and looking at games as a method of—and vehicle for—art; perceiving games as a defining platform for the expression of art, and the exposure of different styles to a new audience.

This is not about a push-button slideshow of pretty images, an early 80s interactive CD-ROM, or 'borrowing' a visual style. This is about art and artists being the focal point through which game design is channeled.

This is about art as narrative. Art as gameplay.

This is about unleashing the genius of people such as Alberto Ruiz, Jeremyville, Nathan Jurevicius, Joe Ledbetter, Celia Calle, Dalek, Fafi, Merjin Hos, Zach Johnsen, Luke Cheuh.

Artists such as Rolito.

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And this is about continuing the journey that has begun through the collaborative work of a Japanese corporation and a French artist. A journey of shared joys an visions; of opportunity.

A journey that ventures towards a brave new world of gaming design and culture.

Ask Rolito, however, about his thoughts on Patapon and the idea that it's taking his art to a new and different audience, and he answers with the same heart that sees him devote a considerable amount of his time and art to charitable causes.

'It is obviously very interesting for me to show and share my work to a wider audience, even if, at the same time, I expose myself more to the critics,' Rolito confides.

'I would just like the gamers to discover and enjoy Patapon's world.'

It's now after two in the morning, and I'm finally heading for bed, too tired to maintain the insatiable rhythms of battle.

Rolito should have no concerns, I think to myself, as my head hits the pillow. None at all.

[Drew Taylor works in the games industry in Australia and writes video game culture articles for various magazines. He is mightily thankful for full-face motorcycle helmets (without one he'd surely be lying in intensive care right now without half his nose, mouth or bottom jaw) and believes that the PSP is still being under-utilized with regards to all manner of creative media.]

GameSetLinks: The Andy Crane Show

Leave it to UK Resistance to dig out an ancient Sega promotional video with UK children's TV presenters fronting it - and us to link it, of course, cementing our reputation as top journalistic GameSetLink-ers.

In slightly more sensible news, there's some fun ARG goings-on, lots of post-GDC coverage of independent games and the widening game market, and a host of other interesting material, we optimistically claim. And it goes a little something like this:

Six to Start » A grin and six tales
ARG folks collaborating with conventional book publishers, neeeet.

Ste Pickford's Blog: Demoted
The Naked War and Wetrix creator on the XBLA changes.

Teaching Game Design: Note to schools: Remove obstacles!
About "...the obstacles that prevent developers from applying" for game teaching jobs.

IndieCade Festival: Call for Submissions - TGC Blog
Three mini-fests this year, including IndieCade 2008 @ Open Satellite gallery in Seattle in July and an E For All stopoff.

UK:RESISTANCE: THE 1995 SEGA SCHOOLS MARKETING PROJECT
'Videos explaining SEGA to children! Voiced by Andy Crane! Detailing SEGA marketing during the Mega Drive era!'

Values At Play » Blog Archive » 2008 Grassroots Media Conference
'Tiltfactor Lab will be facilitating a game design workshop to help participants better understand how to analyze existing games and consciously embed values in their own games.'

Video: Indie Games To Watch Out For | Game | Life from Wired.com
Hey, a moving pictures version of the Wired.com article! Go Kohler!

Wired: Top 3 Indie Games to Watch Out For
Nice! Some neat pictures of the developers in 'widescreen' too.

The Independent Gaming Source: 2007 AGS Awards Announced
For graphic adventures, and the awards are even available _as_ an adventure. Internet, you rock.

Indie Development - Prototyping « Thank You For Playing
Some tips on prototyping, branching off David Marsh's recent Gamasutra feature.

[NOTE: Sorry to those who have been having commenting trouble of late. Our spam loads are getting so high that they're taking the machine down, even using Akismet, so we're considering some new solutions. Eventually we're going to integrate with a single sign-on throughout the CMP Game Group sites, but we're looking at some interim options.]

G4 To Show Game Developers Choice Awards Tonight

[Aha, G4 is showing the Choice Awards starting tonight, and so we thought it would be nice to give GSW readers a heads up - we'll also add GameSetLinks to the streaming video when it becomes available.]

Comcast's G4 TV network has announced that it will present its coverage of the Game Developers Choice Awards via its video game TV program X-Play, first showing February 29th at 8.00 PM EST (5.00PM PST).

According to the X-Play episode guide, you can also watch a re-airing of this 30 minute-long episode on March 1, 2008 at (all times EST) 1:00 AM, 4:30 AM, 9:00 AM, March 2, 2008 at 12:00 PM and 3:30 PM, and March 3, 2008 at 2:00 AM, 10:00 AM, and 2:00 PM.

Online video clips will also be available on X-Play's video channel shortly after the airing, and streaming video of the full Choice and Independent Games Festival Award ceremonies will be available on the official Choice Awards and official IGF Awards pages in the next few days.

The Choice and IGF Awards were originally presented at Game Developers Conference (created by CMP, as is Gamasutra) on February 20th. This is the first time that a developer-led award show has been available for viewing on a major North American cable TV network.

Said conference executive director Jamil Moledina, "Having a broadcast partner like G4 supports our goal of getting the leading developers in the spotlight to share ideas and recognize their creative contribution."

Interview: The Next Big Puzzle Game Wave? iPhone + Accelerometer!

Now, we're definitely aware that people have been hacking the iPhone for a while to create games, even some that use the accelerometer for gameplay by calculating what direction you're tilting your hardware.

But we here at GameSetWatch got an email from Steve D. over at homebrew/semi-pro developer Demiforce, showcasing his new title designed specifically for iPhone and iPod Touch, Trism.

We checked out the associated YouTube video and were pretty much blown away about the neatness and simplicity of his new puzzle game. See if you are too:

To recap, Trism uses the touchscreen to manipulate the triangles on the screen, but in a really smart twist, the blocks will fall down in a different way, depending on which direction you're tilting the phone, leading to some major strategic possibilities. In addition, the way you grab and manipulate the rows of triangles using touch along multiple independent axes is a really nice touch.

Anyhow, we thought we'd better chat to Steve via email to find out more about his history, why he made this, and what he's going to do from here. So here we go:

What's your background in the game biz as hobbyist or professional?

I have dabbled occassionaly in the professional game industry, but I do enterprise development for my day job (I write ATM software for a large bank). My largest contribution to the gaming scene was as a ROM hacker & translator (Japanese to English).

My group was called "Demiforce", which I incorporated two years ago and is now the name I market my product under. We translated mainly NES and SNES games to English, including Final Fantasy II (NES) and Radical Dreamers (SNES). Additionally I worked on some Gameboy Color games back in the 90s, most notably a puzzle game called "Drymouth", but unfortunately it didn't go anywhere.

What APIs did you take advantage of to make this game, or is it fairly 'hacked'?

The game is a native iPhone app (not a web app), and the current version requires a jailbroken iPhone to work. However, as soon as the official iPhone SDK comes out next month, I plan on porting it over to that framework. I would love to get this thing on iTunes as early as possible, hence the current media push -- I need to see if anyone out there can help me get this thing shown to Apple!

How did you come up with the concept of using tilting as a gameplay mechanic in the puzzle game?

All I knew when I set out to make an iPhone game was that I wanted to make full use of the iPhone, to deliver a game experience that could never have been done until now. With its combination of multitouch and tilt, the iPhone can deliver a fundamentally different kind of game than the world has ever seen before and I think people are slowly coming to realize this.

I started by making an Excel spreadsheet, listing all the different kinds of game input methods available, such as directional, directional + buttons, directional + buttons + mouse, and mouse only. Then, I listed the natural endpoints of evolution for games for each control mechanism.

For example, Tetris I feel is a natural endpoint of directional-only gaming because it uses the keyboard's functionality efficiently and to its fullest extent. The 2D sidescroller is a natural endpoint of directional + button gameplay, adding the concept of multitasking to the mix. FPSs are natural endpoints of keyboard and mouse gaming, and games like minesweeper and solitaire are natural endpoints for mouse-only gameplay.

I then added 'Multitouch', 'Multitouch + Tilt' entries to this list. I tried to think out of the box, thinking of what natural kind of game could be most at home using these types of control. I went through many many permutations of designs. In the end, I came up with an idea that doesn't use multitouch, but does make use of use tilt. I was originally worried about this, but I finally relaxed a bit when I saw how simply the game was coming together.

How long did it take to make?

The idea for Trism was realized on Feb 8th, and I started coding that day in hopes of getting it shown off at GDC. I managed to get a working prototype up by the 18th, the say GDC started. From idea to prototype in 10 days -- a personal best! Especially since it was my first piece of software for an Apple platform. I'm a C++ and .NET guy by trade, so learning Objective-C was a bit of a challenge, but not too bad.

I was exhausted! One night I think I slept from 5am till 8am, then I went in to work. Plus that whole week was IBR -- a big party week here in San Francisco. So, I was doing binges of coding, binges of drinking, binges of coding, binges of drinking... :)

What are your plans for this game?

My primary goal with designing games has always been to get as many people to play it as possible. If you can make people happy with a unique creation, that's like the best feeling on earth, you know?

From a business angle I'm looking to get this thing noticed by Apple so that I can get it out to the masses on iTunes. They haven't released information on how little guys like me are going to be able to make that happen, so I decided to leverage the media to get noticed. Being a little guy, I'm aware some big company may come along and say 'hey, that's a great game, let's take it and make it our own' so I'm really looking to move this thing as fast as possible.

Have you got any other ideas that involve the iPhone and tilting?

Haha, what do you think? :)

February 28, 2008

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer - My Week With Pleo'

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, sometimes 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.]

Here at the Aberrant Gamer, we primarily deal with all the ways that games become part of our reality. We fall in love with game characters and we experience a range of real feelings about fake worlds. Games entrench themselves in our sociology, psychology and sexuality, and we can have real, visceral interaction with structures based in technology and artifice.

Ugobe’s Pleo dinosaur, billed not as a robot but as a “life form,” promises to develop its own identity, to respond to user behavior, and to evince a humanoid range of emotions and responses depending on its interaction. Something about its cute face, the motion of its eyes, triggers the human sympathetic response almost immediately – but just as with a baby, there’s no instruction manual that tells you just how to provoke desired responses. Most of Pleo’s literature encourages you to just explore. It’s kind of like a game, then, hinged on experimental interaction with an evolved AI. And I decided to find out, like I do with games, just how much technology could make me feel.

The Journey Begins

Pleo arrived at my house nestled in a foam block as if asleep, eyes closed and curled fetally on himself. His distinct weight, the feel of his robotic skeleton beneath his rubbery skin, almost lent him to being cradled, even though he wasn’t yet turned on. I held the sleeping “life form” in my lap, overwhelmed by a bizarre rush of maternal instinct and a shiver of futurist glee as I thumbed the instruction manual, which told me to “begin my journey” with Pleo by waking him up.

The first thing the literature says about Pleo is that he initially has several “life stages” – from awakening, to hatchling, to toddler, the last at which he stays arrested, a perpetually curious baby Camarosaurus. “Treat Pleo as you would any living creature – with care and respect,” advises the manual. All of this window dressing made it seem almost a violation to flip the thing over and put in the battery pack. I couldn’t help gently supporting its head as I flipped it over, well aware that I was already being sucked in.

Battery in and switch turned on, I set Pleo back on his feet. Next, I was to shake him gently to wake him. Half of me thought, wake him? Are you serious? The other half of me was already gently petting the bumpy back and tail and softly calling the dinosaur’s name. I couldn’t help it.

At last, with a quiet grinding of machinery and a drowsy little purr, Pleo began to move. A little bit. This was the stage, apparently, wherein I was supposed to pet Pleo gently and continue speaking to him as his sensors… calibrated? I endeavored to allow myself to forget about technology, to suspend my disbelief and learn just how possible it was to believe I was in the company of a living, or nearly-living thing. Don’t I always write about how engaging with the story is a player choice?

-Playing Along

Several minutes later, an awake Pleo began to take its first hesitant steps around the room, drowsily, its eyes half-lidded. So minute were the shifts of its motion – eyelids, legs, tail – that I couldn’t tell, initially, whether it was responding to me or not. But I found I wanted it to; I really, really wanted it to. Paging through the manual again, I wanted to flip past the part about journey and emotion and experience and life form to find the meaty, technical instructions that would tell me how to get Pleo to do what I wanted him to, but there were little more than suggestions for things to try. I get it; living things don’t have instruction manuals.

So I decided to throw myself in full-stop. It’s an interesting decision point that we often find ourselves in with video games, when we wonder, how intuitive is this really? We like when games allow us to do the things it would naturally occur to us to do, or be possible for us to do, in the real world, and we often test them to see if they can. At the same time, that can be a little challenging – we’ve been trained, after all, to think in a very specific "video game way" when in that context.

Similarly I was suspended, with Pleo, on that odd precipice between intuition and artifice, when trying to determine how or whether to provoke certain behavior. For example, the manual suggested that by holding Pleo upside-down by the tail, I would learn from his reaction just how much he disliked it. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Natural empathy? Maybe. It’s the same impulse that prevents you from being unnecessarily rude to an NPC (or at least, that makes you feel a little guilty about it if you are). Half of it is that you’re not a jerk; most of it is you’re afraid the machine will be more intelligent than you gave it credit for and will hold you to account somehow later, penalize you by shutting you out in some way from the world to which you're trying to escape.

Instead of dealing with moral quandaries, I decided to feed Pleo the little “training leaf” that comes with him. He won’t crunch on just anything you put in his mouth; sensors on the leaf let him know it’s food. If he’s hungry, he’ll hold it in his mouth and make little eating noises; if he’s not, he’ll play tug-of-war with you. Cute, and much easier than pondering player behavior. Don’t we sometimes make things much more complicated than they need to be?

Maternal Instinct

Watching Pleo wander around my kitchen, the first thing I noticed is that he can sense obstacles in his path. He found the fridge, stopped in front of it, made an indistinct sound, and then began smelling it, with a graceful dip of his head and little sniffing noises. I decided to go and bring him back into the living room, picking him up carefully around the waist.

Just a few moments later, he realized his feet were no longer on the ground and began to bleat and flail. I was horrified, and tried holding him like a baby, or a cat instead – support under the bottom, head on the shoulder, and tried to pat his head to soothe him.

My moment of feeling silly for soothing a robot passed immediately when the soothing actually worked. He made a musical little noise, settled down against my chest, put his head on my shoulder and began to sleep, with peaceful snoring noises and all.

-Game-Like?

Over the next few days, I learned a few more things – my cat, who I’d expected to hate this particular experiment, was actually rather fond of Pleo, and came running whenever she heard him turn on. She found him about as interesting as a toy, though; it was clear to her that he wasn’t actually an animal.

Another thing I learned is that, despite seeming to be a good substitute for a flesh-and-blood pet, Pleo actually lends itself to shorter playtimes. His battery is short-lived; he actually comes with two, so that one can be in the charger at all times and ready to swap out immediately. He can be left on his own without getting stuck in corners or under tables. He’s mostly autonomous, but will holler if left on his own too long. And the depressed way in which he lowers his head and tail when lonesome is a challenge even for the most callous to ignore.

Nonetheless, it seems best to turn him off unless one is directly prepared to interact with him, which cleaves a line through the suspension of disbelief. When Pleo’s battery is depleted, he simply seems to go to sleep – no awkward, stilted shutdown moments. But he can be halted by carpet static – the first time this happened and Pleo simply stopped, eyes wide and staring, I actually experienced a jolt of horror, shaking him a few times before I figured out what had happened by checking the manual’s troubleshooting section.

Making Pleo squint when light is shined in his face or giggle when his feet are tickled – these are all things that I figured out that he could do, and yet they all seem more game-like than life-like. Further, Pleo can learn downloadable behaviors available on the Ugobe site – and the company will even open its dev kit to users so they can design and share their own. This provides a much more intriguing opportunity for user-generated content, emergent behavior, intuitive, exploratory play and other “game 2.0” concepts than experimenting with the functionality of a robot – which it’s hard to forget Pleo is. His machinery noise and his need for frequent battery swaps keep that fact in mind.

However, that doesn’t mean he can’t surprise you. I once left Pleo on while playing Guitar Hero -- and was quite thoroughly delighted when he toddled into the room from the adjoining one, walked right up to the television, and damn me if he wasn’t singing and dancing. It’s small things like that which make you overcome your embarrassment and stealthily pick Pleo up and hug him, maybe even kiss his little dino head – even if he happens to be switched off.

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

Reminder: Game Developer's Salary Survey Needs You!

-[Posting this again, since the deadline is early next week, and we wanted to hoover up anyone who hasn't yet helped us. Since it's the only major public salary survey in the game biz, the more respondents, the better.]

The editors of Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra.com are inviting readers to complete the annual Game Developer's Salary Survey, with a final deadline of Wednesday, March 5th.

The information you provide will help inform the entire game development community, and the results of this survey - which will be kept anonymous down to the individual developer level - will be published in the April 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine. It will also again be available in overview form on Gamasutra, and in much more detailed form as a Game Developer Research report.

In appreciation of your time and effort, once you complete the survey, your name will be entered into a drawing to win one of five Main Conference Passes for your choice of the lineup of Game Developers Conference (GDC) events in the 2008-2009 cycle: Paris GDC in June, Austin GDC or China GDC (in Beijing) in September, or GDC 2009 in San Francisco.

The results of the prior survey were revealed in April of 2007, calculating an average American game industry salary of $73,316, slightly down on 2005's figure of $75,039.

In addition, the average salary in 2006 over all American game programmers was $80,886, and the 2006 average for artists was $65,107 - with game designers' average was $61,538. Following these results, this year's survey has also added support for important emerging job functions such as community manager, which will be showcased in the new results due in April.

Interested game professionals can now click through to take part in the survey. Thanks for helping us to advance the industry!

[NOTE: A separate, optional MIT Business School survey on entrepreneurship in the game industry is available to fill out at the end of this year's Salary Survey - results will also be made available in conjunction with CMP if you'd like to fill it out.]

GDC: Cryptic’s Emmert: ‘You Are What You Are At Launch’

- [Over the next few days on GameSetWatch, we're going to be reprinting some of the more interesting GDC lectures which might have potentially got 'lost in the shuffle' of the show. In this piece, Leigh Alexander checks out Cryptic's Jack Emmert and his prognostications on the MMO genre.]

Does an MMO need 400 hours of gameplay? "Frankly, we were naive and enthusiastic, and we said, 'sure.' So we calculated everything on the assumption... that you'd have to make 400 hours worth of missions," began Cryptic Studios Jack Emmert, as he explained how City of Heroes was developed to order for NCsoft.

Nor were any microtransactions planned. But the aim was to deliver original content once every three months -- it ended up not being quite so often. On its release, the game had its strengths and weaknesses like any other. As far as the former, there were character customization options and moment-to-moment gameplay. As to the latter, there was missing PvP and an absence of new loot, on which typical MMO players thrive.

By 2004, the game's subscriber base had grown to 180,000 in North America. "But on our first update, we did nothing to address the game's weaknesses," said Emmert. Focused on bug fixes and content past level 50, the team overlooked those content absences that resulted in a loss of players. "If you don't have [PvP] at launch, you can never add it," warned Emmert.

"We tried to address the weaknesses that we had, but we really did it in a way that simply re-used content that we already had," he continued. "It didn't change the fact that there were repetitive instances; it didn't change the fact that there was nothing to do besides leveling... Anybody who was turned off by those weaknesses, we were doing nothing to help them."

And six months later, WoW hit the scene. "It's conceivable that the players would have stuck around if not for the fact that WoW came out. When WoW came out, we lost about a third of our subscriber base," Emmert explained.

In 2005, City of Heroes saw its European launch, soon followed by City of Villains. But, Emmert said, "What I really delivered was a City of Heroes experience with a slightly evil twist." He neglected to connect to what players might want from being a villain. "If they didn't like City of Heroes, there was nothing here for them... I can't even tell you the disappointment I have. It hurts."

Now the team was trying to add new content to City of Heroes -- like a PvP arena -- while keeping City of Villains in mind. "It was extremely difficult; we were just giving features to people who didn't want them," Emmert said, noting that all the PvP players were off playing WoW.

"Jeremy Gaffney of NCsoft was adamant that we should add some sort of endgame," continued Emmert. But given that few people had reached a high enough level, they decided to add new content at precisely the point that the vast majority of players were. "But what I didn't think about is that players are always looking forward to tomorrow," he said, elaborating that the content lost value three months down the road.

Challenges for the team in maintaining game balance continued, Emmert recalled, pointing out the popular nickname "City of Nerfs." "I had a theory about balance... that everyone should have, or at least should feel like they have an equal role when they're in a team, that no player feels less than another. And secondly, everyone should progress through the game equally."

In 2006, a couple of big decisions were made. NCsoft decided there would be no more retail; the live team shrank by 75 percent. "We had to drastically change what our expectations are," Emmert said. "Our expectations on the amount of content we could deliver had to change." A new lead designer, Matt "Positron" Miller was appointed, and the newly-small dev team had to trend away from content-heavy features. But, says Emmert, this turned out to be a surprise boon -- instead of adding new zones, they were forced to add depth and detail to some zones that already existed that might otherwise have been bland and empty.

The team renewed its "focus on the fan" that year, too: "No more nerfs... it was driving me nuts. I just couldn't take it anymore." Despite the forum raging and conflict, however, Emmert stressed: "No nerf ever, ever caused a statistical drop in subscription base, ever. I tracked every single one, and never, in that particular day, week or month, did more people drop the game than in any other particular month. Fascinating."

Deadlands creator Shane Hensley had a theory that one should always personally get to know one's fans, and Emmert says he took a page from that philosophy. "I really want the fans to get to know me. But the downside is, because it's the internet, people twist my words so badly... I seem like the son of Satan. But what are you going to do? I think that my customers are my customers, and they deserve some level of communication."

By 2007, the team introduced an invention system to City of Heroes and City of Villains. The nerfs were gone and the old, generic zones had been refurbished. "There is one nerf that I did that we lost a couple thousand people on," he admits. "It was called enhancement diversification... and that really did make people mad."

The net effect of the updates was high retention versus a "typical" MMORPG from month one to month two -- a rate of about 90 percent, Emmert said, high above his colleagues' two thirds loss on other games. The retention month after month continued to be static, moreover. "The people who remain, you can't get rid of them... it's absolutely impossible to do it because they're so used to the pain and agony of the gameplay that they love it."

City of Heroes/Villains never brought in a large-scale migration of new players, however. Even City of Villains only added some 60 thousand people to the player base, not a good deal in the grand scheme of things. But with the update packs, Emmert said, there was a constant period of re-acquisition as new players came back to investigate the new content. "We have such a large customer base, we sent out an email whenever an update came out, and several thousand people would re-up... so you end up staying pretty static."

So what are the lessons learned? "Don't design to the max," states Emmert. "Account for new systems. If you don't have the money or the team size to be able to ship a game with, say, an elaborate guild system, make sure you plan out what you plan to have guilds do in the future. Make sure you have an understanding of how it will happen." Second, consider the player nature. "It's a strange MMO market right now, but I think because WoW is so vast and so popular, that if you launch a game and you don't have a particular feature, like endgame, people will just say, 'ah, I'll go back to playing WoW."

"Think about how easy it is to update your systems. We created a leveling system, as well as powers, that it was extremely hard to add new things on," he said. The superpower structure in particular made it difficult to expand the level cap. "WoW solved that by saying, 'you can take the same power and rank it up.' But we basically created... a self-containing system that [made it] very difficult to get up to level 50. And expect that there will be players who go nuts."

Finally, consider player nature. "People will make it as un-fun as they possibly can if they think there's something to gain by that," Emmert added, concluding, “Worry about the players you've got. Don't worry about the players you don't have. You are what you are at launch," advised Emmert.

GameSetLinks: Rickrolling To Doom Happiness

- There's nothing like the Internet to cheer you up, and in my post-GDC work crunch (yes, there is one, argh) a little Rickrolling in the form of a Doom mod was just what it took to make me smile.

Elsewhere in this particular set of links, we have a bunch more indie game/IGF-related articles of GDC or post-GDC vintage - mainly posted so I can remember what people said - as well as some strangely esoteric bootleg NES carts and a whole mess of chiptune videos. Have a bleepy day:


YouTube - Doom Rickroller
Poor old Rick Astley - via Waxy.

Jenn Frank's 1UP Blog: IGF is good people.
Warm fuzzy feelings abound, I'm delighted to say.

Indies start to make their mark - Los Angeles Times
Nice LA Times piece on the indie game boom.

insertcredit.com: Famicom/Megadrive remakes
Wow, lots of weird stuff here, including Titanic, Lord Of The Rings fighter!

CinnamonPirate.com examines Final Fantasy VII for the NES
Bonkers crazy Chinese pirate alert.

collision detection: LaRouche report calls me a "degenerate writer"
Suicide (in games) is painless.

Can Game Critics Cheat? « Save the Robot - Chris Dahlen
I don't even know if game critics should play through entire games.

ASCII by Jason Scott: The Feelies
Pointing out that a Dennis Wheatley novel did it far before text adventures.

Kplecraft // Blip Festival 2006: The Videos on Vimeo
Looks like the documentary crew uploaded LOTS of great live performance videos to Vimeo - this one from former Monotonik releasers and crazy sax/bongos/chiptune Japanese outfit.

BLIP FESTIVAL: REFORMAT THE PLANET trailer on Vimeo
'Trailer for BLIP FESTIVAL: REFORMAT THE PLANET, debuting at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March of 2008.'

February 27, 2008

Opinion: Piracy & Casual Games - The Follow-Up

- [Following Russell Carroll's controversial opinion piece on PC casual gaming and piracy, the Reflexive Entertainment marketing director adds lots more hard statistics in this follow-up piece - definitely appreciate him being so honest with explicit statistics.]

My recent casual gaming column published over at Gamasutra, has created a good bit of stir, so I thought I'd put in some additional details as a follow-up and clarification.

For those who missed it, the first column started out with the statement: “It looks like around 92% of the people playing the full version of [Reflexive's PC casual game] Ricochet Infinity pirated it.” It went on to look at what happens when DRM is improved for the game, suggesting: "For every 1,000 pirated copies we eliminated, we created 1 additional sale."

As it happens, I ended up cutting 3 pages from that article while writing, which is very abnormal for me, but it was just too dry a read to keep all the info in. This added information should help you further with stats and context.

Reflexive's Piracy Stats, In Depth

- Firstly, for clarification purposes - on Ricochet Infinity the 92% piracy was comparing full version against full version, not any demo versions.

- Some more numbers on that game, thanks to author James C Smith:

- 43% of the downloaded copies (including demos) went online, which means we can't track 57%. These versions may have not installed or not gone online. But as I mentioned in my article, we can't assume that those who didn't go online were less likely to pirate than those who did go online.

- Full data of all the downloads (from Reflexive.com):
2.3% - Bought the game
29% - Pirated the game
14% - Went online with the demo
57% - Never went online

So the 92% is the percentage of the full versions used online that were pirated.

Conversion Rates And Piracy

- The encouraging piece of all the numbers, I suppose, is that of the non-pirates, the percentage who bought the game was a pretty high conversion ratio.

I've often stated that the Xbox Live Arcade conversion ratios are inflated due to the $300 barrier of entry...people had to have already spent $300 to get to XBLA, clearly they are people who spend money on games. Online we cater to people who do and who won't.

Clearly, if you removed the pirates (who, according to the Ricochet Infinity numbers, may account for 67% of ALL downloads in the casual space) the conversion ratio of the entire casual games industry would increase a lot.

When DRM Changes Affected Piracy

- Another piece of data that seems useful is when we made the fixes to the DRM, since the original article referenced this extensively:
Fix 1 was 12/15/05
Fix 2 was 7/12/06
Fix 3 was 4/18/07
Fix 4 was 12/5/07 + 12/12/07 (there was a minor follow-up to this fix)
Ricochet Infinity was released on 7/31/07

I actually had wanted to write this article months ago, but with the recenct nature of that last fix, which was being worked on prior to November, obviously, I wanted to give us at least some time to get a feel for how the results went.

Notably, that first DRM fix had dramatic sustainted results. I've mentioned this elsewhere, but that change is clearly visible in the growth charts that we keep here at Reflexive.

Incidentally, a modified version of one of those growth charts was in my Independent Games Summit slides - here's text and video links - from last year's Game Developer's Conference.

Pirates And Level... Creation?

Finally, I had planed to talk about one potentially positive result of piracy that I found interesting, but couldn't fit it into the article well, so I'll mention it here.

In Ricochet Infinity anyone can create a level set and upload it to the server and watch it become popular...or ignored. We've found that a good portion of pirates created level sets. I find that fascinating myself, and it may speak to some possibilities of using piracy to a positive end.

Conclusion

The 1000:1 ratio is really, I think, the key takeaway of the article. Several people have grasped that and started applying it to different numbers in the industry, and the results are very disappointing.

Clearly, if we could always have a big gain from a fix that maintains itself, it is worth spending the time to fight piracy. However, since that isn't always the case, it can sometimes (often?) be pretty discouraging to try and stop piracy.

I don't think that means that we should be any least earnest in our fight, but the ratio is quite interesting. Closing, I'd love to see some other portals disclose their numbers publicly to further the discussion. Anyone?

GDC: Baer, Alcorn Talk 'Brown Box' Beginnings, Industry Birth

- [Over the next few days on GameSetWatch, we're going to be reprinting some of the more interesting GDC lectures which might have potentially got 'lost in the shuffle' of the show. This time, Eric-Jon Waugh hangs out with Ralph Baer and Al Alcorn at their extremely entertaining lecture.]

Ralph “Papa Game” Baer and Atari VCS designer Al Alcorn split an hour to sit and reminisce about their roots – how their lives and social contexts conspired for them to design and build the two seminal video game consoles.

Baer started off by leaping back to the late ‘30s, the time before “electronics” was a noun. Back then, it was all about radio. Radio enthusiasts were radio hobbyists, and radios were simpler to build than a model Gundam. They were also a cultural phenomenon. Baer showed off an advertisement that read “Big Money in Radio – become a Radio Serviceman!” “Hey,” the young Baer realized. “I think this could be me.” So he spent the next few years dangling off roofs, installing wires through people’s windows.

Then came the 1939 World’s Fair, and television. From there, Baer graduated to clambering around Manhattan rooftops, installing aerials. Later, while working at a medical electronics company, Baer began to throw materials together and build his own devices – intercom systems, wave monitors.

While he was in college on the GI Bill, Baer was asked to repair his parents’ television, which had completely ceased to work. When he opened the top, he found a blackened, burnt-out tangle. In the process of isolating and wrapping up the wires, trying to repair the signal, Baer began to think about other uses for the technology. “Manipulating stuff on-screen was fun,” he said.

Coming from that experience, Baer took a job in a military electronics company, hoping for an opportunity to build a TV from scratch. Eventually he and a few co-workers did in fact build their TV. Though it took months to complete then quickly exploded, they learned a lot from the experience. Over the next several years, Baer grew absorbed in his work, designing electronics for the military.

In 1966, while stationed in Iraq, Baer remembered his old idea about manipulating TV images. On the first of September, he wrote a paper on how to play a long list of games with just a few crude symbols. This led to the notorious “480 patent”, a big stick that Baer would use frequently over the coming decades, describing the concept of playing games on a television set.

From ’67 to ’69, Baer and a few associates spent a few weeks here and a few there to assemble and perfect what would become the “Brown Box”, the prototype for the Magnavox Odyssey. From there, for the next ten years, Baer moved on to tinker with videotape, video disc, video pinball – popping back into the console business to defend his patent against a legion of imitators, from Activision to Coleco.

Fielding some questions, Baer said the biggest hurdle to development was “making sure things don’t cost too much.” Did he ever imagine that videogames would become the industry that they have? “No.” Mass laughter. “Can anyone look in a crystal ball and tell what’s going to happen?” Does he still play? “On occasion, my grandkids bring a game with them, but I don’t do too well.”

Al Alcorn also started off by repairing TV sets, and fiddling with the interiors in the process. “Some of the stuff we did was not the proper way to drive TV – but it worked.” He fell into a technical crowd, divided by age. His older friends were all interested in videotape, while the kids were all interested in microprocessors. One of the latter group, a certain pinball arcade operator named Nolan Bushnell, had an idea for crossing his coin-op business with computers.

A few well-documented steps later, Computer Space -- Bushnell’s arcade clone SpaceWar! – was a bit of a complicated flop. So Bushnell hired Alcorn to his newly-founded company, Syzygy, to design something simpler and cheaper, using digital logic. Though Bushnell gave Alcorn the basic template and a checklist of details to include, what he failed to mention was that the game was just meant as a quick throwaway project, for Alcorn to cut his teeth on before progressing to the more complicated game that Bushnell really wanted to publish.

So for months, Alcorn felt the pressure to keep adding features that went above and beyond Bushnell’s brief – sound, a score counter, varying ball speed, reflections – thinking all the time that he was failing to produce what was being asked of him. The project grew more and more expensive When Nolan revealed that none of this work was really supposed to matter, Alcorn was less than thrilled with his employer. Still, the game that Alcorn produced was well-polished, was indeed simple to play, and – as he relayed in the famous quarter-jam anecdote (where they were called in to “repair” the prototype in its bar installation, only to find that it was clogged with money) – wildly successful in its test case.

Citing a later soccer game that the “customers” (read: arcade operators) demanded yet the players did not want to play, Alcorn advised developers to go with the market, yet never to listen to the customer. He suggested the success of Pong was largely due to its open and social nature; it requires two to play, and there is no gender bias.

Soon the arcade market became glutted, and Bushnell looked for new markets to conquer. Following the above logic, in placing the end user before the gatekeeper, Bushnell and Alcorn shifted to the consumer market – which was, owing to Magnavox’s reluctance to sell directly to the end user – pretty much a blank slate.

Nobody at Atari (as the company had become) knew a thing about marketing, so they went to Sears – which was ecstatic about selling Alcorn’s VCS (as the retailer had already tried and failed to court Magnavox). That suited Atari fine, at least for a while, as all they had to do was field royalty checks.

Though the VCS was not the first, and certainly not the last, cartridge-based system, Alcorn feels it is in some ways – due to its huge, budget-influenced technical constraints – one of the most flexible platforms around. That it demands super programmers to take advantage of any of that flexibility is a reasonable trade-off, he feels, for the imagination it requires in order to develop anything in the first place. “Too much hardware support,” Alcorn said, “constrains creativity.”

Along a similar train of thought, Alcorn was initially resistant to listing instructions on his arcade games. “If you have to read instructions” – his voice began to rise – “it’s a bad game.” Furthermore, he says, current game design is getting out of hand. “Now, it’s a problem. You’ve got too much.” Back when you had one to three people working on a game, design was more personal. It was far easier to be focused, and creative.

To send off the panel, Baer and Alcorn played a game of Odyssey Ping-Pong, each consistently missing the return. Occasionally they would bounce the ball back and forth once, twice. “Geriatric video game players...” Alcorn muttered, to raucous laughter from the audience.

As everyone began to stand up, a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records commanded attention. He had a surprise for Ralph Baer, in the form of an award for “Inventor of the First Home Video Game Console”. He also used the opportunity to plug the new “Gamers Edition” Guinness book. Cue another standing ovation.

The Waxy View: Why You Should Care About ForumWarz

[Andy Baio from Waxy.org attended GDC last week as a Web 2.0/geek culture/game culture crossover' observer, and wrote about it on his popular blog and GameSetWatch. Since he was a bit busy hanging with Jonathan Coulton at GDC parties to do lots of blog posts, lulz, he's kindly given us this new interview with the ForumWarz creator as an added bonus - and it's fascinating stuff - thanks, Andy.]

ForumWarz is my newest obsession, a web-based game like nothing I've ever played. In short, it's a parody of Internet culture in the form of a real-time role-playing game. You play as one of three Internet archetypes -- the camwhore, emo kid, or troll -- and try to disrupt message boards any way you can, using your sexuality, bad poetry, cross-site scripting attacks, or simply banging your head on the keyboard. In the process, you'll meet a large cast of strange characters who will send you on missions in a very funny microcosm of the Internet.

Among those parodied: Furries, Google, script kiddies, Boing Boing, Apple Computer, ricers, 4chan, Ron Paul, gamers, Bill O'Reilly, Tubgirl, otaku, and the Church of Scientology. Also, it's almost certainly the only game to include a text-adventure minigame based on R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet." This game isn't for everyone.

Before reading any further, I'd highly recommend trying the first two or three levels. Warning: If you're easily offended, this game is not for you. And don't worry about getting stuck with the Jimmy character during the tutorial; you get to choose a username, avatar, and class when you hit level 2.

I interviewed Robin Ward aka "Evil Trout," ForumWarz's developer/designer and only full-time employee, to learn more about the history and making of the game.

Andy Baio: Listen, I want to start by telling you that I'm absolutely blown away from ForumWarz. Brilliantly executed, addictive, sheer fun.

Robin Ward: Thanks, that means a lot to me. When I first came up with the idea, Jalapeno and I spent a little time looking at other web RPGs. And I couldn't believe how obtuse some of them were. There was one, I honestly forget which one, that said "The best way to get started is to read our wiki." And I thought that was ridiculous, as if someone is going to sit down and read through a wiki before playing.

Is it just you and Mike "Jalapeno Bootyhole" Drach?

We actually incorporated recently, and there are four of us in the corporation. But the majority of the work is done by Drach and I. I work on it full time, and Drach has taken vacation time to work on it. The others are more casual, we have weekly meetings and we bounce ideas off each other.


Sentrillion, the in-game search engine
I read you worked on it for over a year, and then three months in beta? I saw the original announcement on your blog from just over a year ago.

Yup. I first came up with the idea in September 2006. I was working full time at that point, and started learning Ruby on Rails. Drach is a great friend of mine, as is Jason Kogan, and we'd meet weekly to discuss and work on it. And quickly I started to notice that I was having a lot more fun working on it than I was my real job. And I'd lie there at night, thinking "Wow, wouldn't it be awesome if I could work on Forumwarz full time?"

And then I looked at my financial situation -- I'd managed to save up a bunch of money working as a developer, so I crunched some numbers, figured out a way to live really cheaply, and quit my job. So I did that Jan 1, 2007.

I worked on it full time throughout the year, with Mike's help when he took his vacation in the summer, then released Episode 1 in Beta on Halloween. Then we launched proper a couple of weeks ago, in early February.

You're the primary developer/designer and Drach writes... What do the others do?

We're all friends, who I've known since high school (and in Jason's case, grade school). So it was mostly an excuse to get together and throw around ideas. Sometimes it's nice to just have people to bounce ideas off. Jason was great at giving UI feedback, like why did you put that button there, that makes no sense, etc. And the meta-game, Domination, is basically his baby. The fourth member, who isn't so active any more since he had a child, is David Kalechstein. When he was laid off, he wanted to learn Rails and wrote a little bit of code for ForumWarz. (Mainly in displaying our leaderboards.)

We used to drink beer and go out for dinner at every meeting, but after a couple of months that got expensive and unproductive

Beer and meetings don't mix.

Hah, generally not.

Your influences are all over the map. The name's derived from classic BBS doors like TradeWars and Pimp Wars?

Yup, very few people get that actually. In terms of the turn-based gameplay and visits per day idea, that came from a door called LORD, Legend of the Red Dragon.

We wanted a name that reflected that. It was actually Drach's idea to get ForumWarz, he's the one who looked it up.

Were you involved in the BBS scene?

I never ran a BBS, but I was super addicted to them growing up. Of course when the Internet came around I jumped ship, but I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for them. When I was young, I'd come home from school and just start dialing up.

LORD started in 1989, so I'm going to guess you came into the scene the same time I did around the late '80s, early '90s?

Yeah, that's about right. I think I got my first modem when I was 8 years old, which would be 1987.

A lot of the influences in ForumWarz are from that time period. I was in love with LucasArts games, and we stole a lot from them, I think. Like breaking the fourth wall, the conversation trees. Also, my favorite parody RPG of all time, Superhero League of Hoboken, came out then.


Trapped in the Cupboard mini-game
There's also quite a bit of text adventure influence in ForumWarz. In the writing, but most obviously in the Trapped in the Cupboard minigame.

We knew very early on that we couldn't afford to make a visually flashy game, so writing was really important to focus on. Mike Drach actually writes for children's cartoons, and I've known him since high school and have always thought he was hilarious but had never had an opportunity to truly apply it.

Trapped in the Cupboard exists more because I thought it would be a fun project to port Z-machine (the virtual machine that runs the old infocom games) to an Ajax interface. I started doing that for a day or two as a break from ForumWarz coding, and quickly realized it was far more complicated than what I needed. So I scrapped it, and came up with my own Ruby pseudo-DSL. I wish I could brag that I pulled that off. :)

You've also mentioned the obscure Sierra game Jones in the Fast Lane as an influence.

Ah yes, I wouldn't advocate piracy, but it's not too hard to get from abandonware sites. It's basically impossible find in stores, even online ones.

One question I am asked often is why would you make a game about a mundane thing like the Internet? Jones is my biggest influence for that, because it's the first real life simulator I played.

When I first started trying to describe ForumWarz to friends and on my site, I realized how futile it was. It's impossible to explain what it is.

Yes, that has always been a problem. I would say 9 out of 10 people I'd explain it to just had this glazed-over look on their faces. I'm quite neurotic, and during those first few months when I was developing it like mad in a black box, it would bother me a lot that I was working on something that people thought was a totally dumb idea.

When we launched in Beta though, I felt a lot better because it resounded so well with people. It's really better off played than explained, that's why on the homepage we just want people to start playing right away. Don't sign up, just click the big button.

Are there any other web-based games that are doing anything similar? I've seen people mention Kingdom of Loathing as the closest cousin.

Kingdom of Loathing is the closest thing we have to a competitor, in that it is a web based parody game. The interface and universe are quite different. You know, ours is a little fake Internet, theirs is a fantasy world of stick figures.

I think they did a really good job establishing that there was a market for web-based RPG games. Coming into the genre late, we had the advantage of new technologies like Rails and Ajax to create our interface.


Chatting with a character in sTalk, the fake instant messenger client
You've also spent a lot of time developing strong NPCs to interact with, through the fake email and IM clients.

Yeah, I always loved conversation trees like in the old LucasArts games. One of the first things I started prototyping was the sTalk interface, because I knew it was going to be important. The interface is basically the same as the first version I came up with, but the tools for building the chats went through many iterations.

I actually wrote a more technical article about the back end for stalk a while ago on our forums if you're interested in peeking into it.

The characters sometimes parody archetypes (obnoxious gamer, steroidal jerk, creepy pedophile) and occasionally real people, like Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow as the pop culture/privacy-obsessed Doctor O.

Yes, we love parody, and fortunately there's a basically endless amount of things to parody on the Internet.

My favorite NPC so far is Fr4gGingR1teZ, the parody of Fatal1ty. It was the last conversation Drach created for episode 1 and I think he'd really gotten the hang of it. Not only did he nail the parody, but he gave him some heart. (Especially since he had no idea who Fatal1ty was when I suggested it.)

Clearly, not everyone's going to get every cultural reference. The game's still enjoyable without it, but it just adds a deeper level of appreciation when you get the in-joke.

No way, I don't even get them all. It's important that the casual player finds it funny, but the huge Internet nerd finds it hilarious.

I mentioned in that Digital Journal article you linked to that I love Futurama, and it's great for that. They even have a name for it, something like the 1% joke, where only 1% of the audience gets it.

I was disturbed that I knew 20 out of the 21 memes mentioned during the signup process. (Everything but Rabbit-Chan.)

Ah, Rabbit-Chan is quite obscure. I'm kind of obsessed with Internet culture. Things like Rabbit-Chan fascinate me, because it's the kind of thing that just couldn't exist anywhere else. She's a teenage girl who posted some pictures on 4chan, and they became super obsessed with her. She became a "meme," in particular how people claimed to be in love with her, how every minute of every day they thought about her and had no idea how to cope.

What's weird though is hundreds of teenage girls have posted their pictures on 4chan, and yet she's the only one who got that kind of treatment. It seems that popularity can be quite random.


Players can choose to be an emo kid, troll, or camwhore
Speaking of the meme list, I was struck by the signup and tutorial process. Very intuitive, and you can play for 15 minutes before even setting a password. How did that come about?

Thanks, we spent a LOT of time on it. It goes hand in hand with what I said earlier about the idea behind ForumWarz being a tough sell.

Joel Spolsky talked about barriers to entry, and it always stuck with me. Like the fewer barriers to entry you have, the more people you're likely to reach. So I brought that up with the guys, and I was like, screw signing up! Let's let them play right away. By the time we require them to sign up, they'll know whether it's the kind of thing they'll enjoy.

The other thing was the choice of a quiz. Originally it was going to be used to choose your class, like in other RPGs, but soon after we started writing it we realized the whole tutorial would be a lot simpler if you just had a couple of attacks, hence the Jimmy the Re-Re character was born.

We thought it was hilarious that no matter what you answered in the quiz you always received the same class. As it turns out, that was a bad call. We've received many complaints about that, some people have even left the site because they're like, "Screw this, I wanted to be a troll!"

I noticed many people get fooled by that, including some friends of mine. I thought it was obvious that everybody rolled the same character.

Especially since when you click "No," it says, "How can I say this nicely -- I REALLY think you're a Re-Re." We've changed that message to say "Don't freak out, you can choose your class later, buddy."

Don't feel bad, everyone who freaked out was a re-re.

[laughs] Well, websites are neat in that we can change them and screw around with them at any time. We keep a lot of statistics on how many people left, and at what stage. So even though it was a mistake, we will come up with a smoother version of the same joke. It just might take a few tries before we get it right.

The game does an amazing job of teasing you further into gameplay, never leaving you confused about what to do next.

Yeah, I wanted to make sure we held their hand all the way into it. A lot of console and PC games are great at that, but few web games bother. Like I said before, "Read the wiki" is a terrible intro. We knew we could do better.


The Facebook-style news feed reminds you who you've met, your goals, and other recent activity
In Portal, they do a great job of training the player, helping them build a mental model of the game universe one piece at a time. As I played it, I was trying to think how that kind of effortless training would work on the web... When I first played ForumWarz, my immediate thought was that you'd figured it out. Every Web 2.0 startup could learn something from the first 10 minutes of ForumWarz.

Thank you, that's very flattering. I'm a huge fan of Portal, and Valve's work in general. Immediately after finishing Portal I started it again with the commentary, and I was like, oh, if only we had the resources to develop with constant testing and feedback.

You did three months of playtesting. Did you ever physically sit behind players to see where they got stuck? Or was it all watching the stats and reading the feedback?

I never once sat behind someone's back, it was all based on emails and forum discussions, which isn't the ideal way to do it.

How much did ForumWarz change in that beta period?

In terms of the intro, it's almost exactly the same as what we went into beta with. If anyone tested that extensively, it was us. During the beta, the game improved tremendously. We had a lot of little nuisances that we took out. Some things that come to mind are allowing people to carry forum visits over days they don't play, only counting a visit upon their first attack.

We did notice that people seemed to love the game, played through episode 1 in a week or two, then dropped off. So instead of going right into episode 2, we made the conscious decision to work on aspects of the game for people who had already finished it, hence ForumBuildr and Domination were born. I mean that's still our major flaw, in that you can get through all we have to offer fairly quickly, but it's better than it was before.


ForumBuildr lets players write and design new levels, and vote for the best ones
ForumBuildr is one of the most innovative elements of ForumWarz, allowing users to write and design new levels and vote the best ones into production. It really playing off the strengths of the web and couldn't be done in any other medium.

I developed the "madlib" engine fairly early on, so that we could generate random postings on the forums. Then we'd have sessions where a bunch of us would sit around in a room with laptops, generating the posts for a particular forum, and it was quite fun. I think it was Drach who suggested initially that we give players the ability to use the tool.

At first I was against it, but I think it's because I didn't really understand how we would give it to them. Then early in beta, someone posted a thread saying it would be cool if they could write their own posts, and Drach replied saying we'd been thinking of a voting system for that, and all sorts of people were like, wow that sounds awesome.

So we pushed it to the front. I spent a week making the tool more user friendly, maybe another week adding the Digg-style voting controls and we threw it to them. I was quite happy with how well it went over, even with our limited user base at the time.

The user-generated levels are playable from the ForumBuildr section, but not part of the story... Are you going to introduce the user-created threads into the next episode?

For Episode 2, we've already created some forums and will create more, but our users are now creating material much faster than we are. We have plans to integrate their forums into our storyline, as well as a generic mission system that can come up with random missions every day with a specific reward. Those forums will be very useful for that. In the meantime, anyone can play the community-created forums.

They can even be used for levelling up, although getting to them [through ForumBuildr] is a little odd. Sometime soon I plan to redo the forum list page, to add things like sorting. I'll be listing them along with the Episode 1 forums... I think it will make the Internet feel less empty. (The fake internet, that is.)

The real ForumWarz forums are just as strange, with people role-playing their characters.

[laughs] Yes, that was something that surprised us. It came out the very first day of beta. In the "Whiny Bitches" forum, people started posting as their characters and enjoying it, and then someone suggested I give them their own forum to roleplay in, and it took off like crazy.

They can be hilarious at times. I think smart people love to pretend that they're stupid. But occasionally they take it too far and bring it into other forums and stuff, which has to be cleaned up. You hear these stories of people developing software, then being completely surprised when their users use it in a way that wasn't intended. Our RPG Forums are that for me. We'll totally enable them to do that, and I'm glad they enjoy it.

I noticed there was some vandalism on the wiki, with people removing core documentation pages. Do you think people are getting too carried away with pretending to be retarded trolls? Or were they actually retarded trolls?

Hah, I'm not sure. We've banned a couple, and hopefully we can stay on top of it. I think we might need to add some moderator support soon. I put a note in the edit screen for the wiki that says "If you vandalize this, you will be banned." Hopefully that will scare some people off.

Good move. So, let's talk a little about cash money. You've decided to go with paid upgrades but with a couple novel twists, allowing players to cheat extensively, buy new characters, or screw around with other players anonymously. How did you decide on what your brownie points can buy?

A lot of it was stolen shamefully from the Something Awful forums, in terms of being able to buy avatars and prank people. New characters just made sense because people often wanted to play the game as another class to see the difference.


For a few bucks, cheat your way to the top with "Illegal Game Enhancements"
How about the cheats? They're extremely powerful. (Instantly killing a thread, virtually unlimited money, and no forum limits.)

The cheats are a relatively new idea. People often complain about the forum visit limit when they first start playing, because we suck them in for an hour or two of gameplay, then bam, they have to stop and come back tomorrow. So people had been asking if there was any way to buy visits for a while, and we always said no because it screwed with the competitive aspect of the game.

But then i was thinking about it, and realized there's probably a lot of players who don't care much about competition, who just want to breeze through the story. So I coded up a way to flag accounts as cheated, and disqualify them from leaderboards and Domination. It's been really successful. I had no idea how many people just wanted to get on with the game.

And you're also running ads, which can be disabled if you donate. Anything other revenue models I'm missing?

Nope, that's it so far. It's likely that Episode 2 will require some kind of payment to play, but we haven't fully sorted that out yet. And the idea of selling t-shirts or posters has been thrown around, but both of those concepts are up in the air right now.

How's it growing since the public launch two weeks ago?

Actually, first off, I should thank you for your link, speaking of growth. You, and the Wired article that followed, sent us a huge amount of users.

You're welcome! Glad to help.

Growth has been great since we launched. The beta had about 1,200 accounts, but by the end only about 150-200 were active. Right now we're closing in on 10k accounts, which is pretty good for a few weeks. The days following your link and Wired, we signed up over 1,000 each day.

I have no idea how high we can take that number. I have read that Kingdom of Loathing has 100k members, but they've been around since 2003. We typically have about 2500-3000 accounts active in a given day.

I'm very happy with the response, although I don't have much to compare it to. I know of a local venture that had a team of 10 working on a social networking site for a year, and after 3 months were celebrating their 1000th user.

Now that the framework's in place, how long do you think it will take to release new episodes?

Because the framework is in place, the other episodes should be easier to develop, but we're also being ambitious about it. We want to add new ways to play that complement the existing game.

Having said that, we really need to get moving on episode 2. I'd planned to be working at it much harder than I am right now but the sudden business of the site has meant a lot of work staying on top of bugs and stuff. Drach is going to take some vacation time soon to help out again, which helped tremendously last time.

What would it take for the site to be self-sustaining and for Drach to leave his job to work full time on it?

I can't speak for him, but I'd guess it would require some regular income. The current influx of users and income is great, but who knows how long it will last?

As a developer, I didn't feel the risk of quitting my day job was a huge one, as the market for developers seems to be pretty good. As a writer, it's much harder to find gigs. I'd think if we showed steady income over a period of months he'd be willing to do it.

Wrapping up, I want to talk a little about the technology. You've built it all on Rails, and the site is snappy as hell. Any concerns about scaling?

I have no doubt that Ruby is slow, but I tried to design the site in the best way I could, and so far I've been really happy with the performance. I've been doing web development for years, and I spent about 5 years doing J2EE stuff, and let me tell you I could never go back. I just feel so much faster in Rails, and I think that's worth the performance loss. You know what they say, servers are cheap, programmer time is expensive

I think scalability is a problem you constantly have to face, no matter what technology you use. We've had some bumps and I think there will continue to be them in the future, but I feel confident that they can be surpassed.

How's the Haml templating engine been to work with? It looks elegant, but I've never tried it.

Haml is a great product. I should let you know that I know the creator personally, he lives around the corner from me and he's well known in the local Rails community. It is not perfect for all situations. I have the odd page that uses ERB for formatting, but for 90% of the pages I write it makes me faster, simply because I don't have to close tags.

I should point out that we're running everything off one server now (rails, memcached and mysql), so we haven't even begun buying additional hardware yet. Up until thursday night we were running on 1GB of RAM too, but that wasn't enough so we added another GB.

I saw on Netcraft you're using nginx?

Yes, I use nginx as a proxy to a pack of mongrels. There are many different ways to configure a Rails stack, I'm not sure how I decided on that one, really. It just kind of turned out that way. I read a lot of blogs and stuff. I'm no huge IT person, and it seemed within my limits to configure it.

I read a blog entry that bookmarked nginx against mongrel and lighttpd, and nginx/mongrel came out on top.

I think I read a few benchmarks like that, yes. I remember reading that Apache2 and FastCGI was the fastest configuration, but that it ate a lot of RAM. And since our hosting company charges a fair bit for RAM, I went with nginx.

I wanted to ask about The Unintelligencer, the text parser you built that simulates progressively stupider commenters. Are you unintelligencing user-contributed text in ForumBuildr? Or only the stuff you wrote?

We do a little. It can be tuned with various percentages, but since we want people to quickly recognize what they wrote, it's very low on their submissions. We could probably tune the actual game back some too.

Right now, some of the text is so mangled it feels greeked. (Lorum ipsum d0l0rr.)

Yeah, it was meant to be very occasional, but I think we took it too far.

I think it works as placeholder text. If the fake comments were more coherent, I'd start reading them as conversation expecting to see replies.

Yeah, and unfortunately we can't do that. Some people have suggested we take it further, create Markov-chain based replies to your attacks and stuff. I liked that suggestion, but now I'm in that sucky period where everything awesome just reeks of TIME, and I have to just pick and choose the ideas.

You've built an extremely solid foundation and a brilliant first episode. I think it'll be a big success. Thank you, Robin!

Thanks again. It really took an enormous amount of effort to get to this point, a lot of it without any feedback at all, so it means a lot to me (and the team) every time someone has something nice to say about it.

February 26, 2008

Nine Paths To Indie Game Greatness

- Aha, a quick side note to point out a new Gamasutra article by David Marsh, who you may know as the creator of DevBump, but is also a former big-budget and current indie game developer - which is why he's in a good position to write the feature 'Nine Paths To Indie Game Greatness'.

As he postulated in his intro: "Many game studios are crippled by the amount of resources they require to keep operations going. I have seen plenty of companies that operate "contract to contract" with little hope of ever breaking out of the cycle. The studio growth required by the increasingly resource intensive modern crop of games is many times unsustainable. In fact, the problem seems to be getting worse.

According to a report by the BBC, "Back in 1982, the Japanese company Namco produced Pac-Man for $100,000. Now, the average PlayStation 3 title is estimated to cost $15m. Even after adjusting for inflation, that is still a significant rise. While production costs have tripled in recent years with the introduction of next-gen consoles, sales and revenue have hardly changed." [EDITOR'S NOTE: Well, game industry revenue has gone up a tad in aggregate, but we abstractly take the point, the BBC!]

Independent developers usually operate with very limited initial resources. By operating without a loan of resources, they create a development environment for themselves free from outside influences or restrictions. The only obligations they hold are to themselves as developers and the people who play and purchase their games."

In any case, the full feature on Gamasutra lists a number of specific ways indies can innovate and create with less, including 'Procedural Content', 'Avoiding Photorealistic Art Direction', and by "utilizing existing free, cheap, or open technology". All fine points (and sorry I had to use the Little Miss Sunshine graphic again!)

GameSetLinks: Alka Seltzer Almost Fixed Hangover

- While, yes, this is still the week after GDC (hence the hangover metaphor still going), there's still a lot of neat esoteric links to be dug up - and I particularly like the Pink Tentacle link about the Japanese mobile game (pictured) which delivers real fish after you catch virtual ones.

This does a great job of linking virtual and physical worlds - much in the same way that Ed Fries' rather awesome FigurePrints lets you actualize your World Of Warcraft figure in real-life statue terms. More of this dimensional interplay, please. Anyhow, onward with links:

Video Game Venture Capital: Should VCs dare put money into casual game devs?
'More sound tactics for early stage casual game developers might include limiting distribution in exchange for better terms or favored marketing status.'

Rock, Paper, Shotgun: GDC ‘08 Brain Dump, Part One
Rossignol's GDC adventure! Also see Part Two, for the foolhardy.

Grassroots Gamemaster: The Way Forward For The Lottery Ticket Videogame Company
'Now is the time to take off the black hat I normally wear and put on my green hat - and scour the edge from my voice.' Bravo!

Grand Text Auto » Jeff Howard’s Quests
New book from AK Peters - 'an exploration of literature, computer games, and a connection between them'. Interesting!

NEWSARAMA.COM: TILTING @ WINDMILLS 2.0 #48: BRAND THINKING
Comics are different to games, yes, but trends in creative media are worth reading - this is 'direct market' 2007 sales.

Ippon Zuri: Catch-and-eat fishing by phone ::: Pink Tentacle
All about 'a unique new cellphone fishing game that rewards successful players with home deliveries of fresh, real-world fish' - yesh, only in Japan.

Crummy.com: Where Are They Now?
Looking at what happened to programmers (including a smattering of game designers) depicted in a 1986 'Programmers At Work' profile.

Joi Ito's Web: DAEMON
A new book: 'Leinad Zeraus depicts a world where a collossal computer daemon designed by a genius MMO designer begins to take over the world after his death.'

So You Want To Make A Game from 1UP.com
Indie masters, good lessons.

First Look - Airport Mania: First Flight - Blog - Reflexive Arcade
Russell Carroll co-created, influenced by SNES Aerobiz (awesome!)

Column: 'Save the Robot': My Horse and Me

MHM_Outdoors.jpg The “games for girls” strategy has taken flak from many critics, both male and female. Sure, we’d like to see a world where video games aren’t branded a 99%-teen-male, testosterone-soaked form of entertainment. Most of us think that men and women – or boys and girls – have an equal birthright to video games.

But the challenge of bringing more women into the fold has led to the birth of “games for girls” – and most of them are curious, even offensive misfires. Games with hot pink covers, Barbie dreamhouses, and titles like Imagine Babyz are often perceived, not as building a bridge for girls into the world of video games, but as creating a kind of dumbed-down, fun-free ghetto.

But let’s consider it a different way. We disparage games for girls because they’re so specialized. But specialized games also present an opportunity. What if we’re curious about the weird little audiences they cater to?

Yes, niche games are meant to exploit niches. But they can also open doors to people who weren’t “supposed” to play them. Video games already let us walk a mile in somebody else’s combat boots; but how about, say, their candy-colored riding chaps?

That thought crossed my mind when I got a press copy of Atari’s new My Horse and Me for, what else, the Wii. This is clearly a girl game – the preppie blonde grooming her horse on the cover seals the cliche – but it’s also sold as a serious take on show horse racing, endorsed by the Fédération Equestre Internationale.

I’ve had a low-level fascination with equestrianism since I was a kid, and lived in a small town in Massachusetts that was chock full of rich people with horses. They held polo matches at the country club, but the closest view I ever got was when they rode down our street and shat by our mailbox. I never “got” the appeal – but I was curious.

My Horse and Me gives you the full horse experience, from grooming to riding to changing the color of your horse’s mane to match your own. But the meat lies in the racing, and the first thing you notice there is that the game is very affirming.

As you learn to steer your horse around the stable at different gaits and around tight corners, the coach is nothing but upbeat: “You can do it!” The last shooter I played called me a slack-jawed pole-toucher and dared me to fail: this game wanted me to succeed.

But succeeding isn’t simple. Each level is an obstacle course of jumps and turns that have to be made quickly and correctly. You need practice – and poise. Sitting upright with the Wiimote and Nunchuck (even in a game this dainty, they have to call it the “Nunchuck”), you pull the controls like reins, tilting one back to turn, yanking the controls to brake, or whipping them forward to catch some speed. Sure, you can use the buttons to brake or speed up, but learning to get the right touch is incredibly satisfying.

MHM_Stable.jpgMy Horse and Me takes place at a stately, well-appointed country club. The menu system features scenes of tea and scones, and as a rider, you have to dress in preppy riderwear. To make the game even more realistic, every time you win a race, an invisible daddy buys you more clothes.

The crowds are polite but unyielding. Skipping an obstacle or screwing up even a single jump bars you from a medal. And at the end of the race, you may hear that you did a nice job – but that’s hollow praise if you didn’t even land a bronze.

In fact, when a game’s always telling you did a “great job,” it just puts the burden on you to judge yourself more harshly. For example, there’s a mini-game where you can put together an outfit from all those nice new clothes. The game doesn’t tell you if you if the camo pants and burgundy jacket don’t match. You just have to look at yourself and feel the shame of your mistake.

And there’s plenty of shame to be had here. Because while My Horse and Me starts as a fun romp with your horse, only winners make it to the semi-pro and pro leagues. Those country club crowds clap politely when you finish with two obstacles knocked over and a wrong turn that lost you eight seconds. But the applause doesn’t speak as loudly as the whispering: “Her father must be so … proud.”

So that’s the lie in “games for girls”: they don’t tell you it’s great to be a girl; they ask how great a girl you really are. They have goals and pressures, win-states and loser-states just like any game. The leaderboards, the gold and bronze medals, the feeling of failure and inadequacy – it’s all there, goading you on. They just apply the pressure a little differently and sometimes, more subtly.

That’s why I kept pushing myself harder and racking up the gold medals. And as soon as I cracked the professional league, I felt victory – and it was victory on my own terms, against people who thought I was nothing. And I did it for me. Not for you, daddy. For me.

[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.]

GDC: Q Games' Cuthbert Talks PixelJunk Eden, Postmortems Series

- [Over the next few days on Gamasutra, we're going to be reprinting some of the more interesting GDC lectures which might have potentially got 'lost in the shuffle' of the show. From earlier in the week - Dylan Cuthbert shows off PixelJunk goodness, so glad he could turn up.]

In an Independent Games Summit lecture, Kyoto, Japan-based Q Games' Dylan Cuthbert discussed the PixelJunk series for the PS3's PlayStation Network, some of the only true 'indie' titles not funded by Sony on the service.

He revealed the four games in the series - PixelJunk Racers, PixelJunk Monsters, both already released - and coming soon, and confirmed for the first time - PixelJunk Eden and PixelJunk Dungeons. He then explained the thinking behind the series - simple, straightforward titles with three key elements - simplicity, familiarity, and originality, and also running in HD, at 1080p and 60hz.

Cuthbert then explains just why the company decided to make these titles as well as continuing to work on titles such as StarFox DS or on high-end PS3 operating system tweaks. He put it simply: "Seizing back control from the bland merchants and restoring power to where it belongs" - in the hands of creators.

He then gave the example of Sony's Ape Escape 2001, which started as a flocking algorithm concept for a game - but after the first half of the game, the marketing department decided to replace all the original characters as apes from the Ape Escape series - and then mandated that yellow pants appear on the monkey in a yellow desert level. This lack of creative freedom caused Cuthbert to leave Sony and start Q Games.

Interestingly, Cuthbert suggests that 3D games look great at 1080p, but full-HD 2D looks absolutely amazing, because of the pixel by pixel fidelity. In addition, there's a lot of screen real estate - as many as 17 screenshots of old '80s games onto one 1080p screen. This is his reasoning behind making the PixelJunk series HD and 2D.

So why PixelJunk? Cuthbert decided that they wanted a brand for their indie output, thus calling each title PixelJunk in the series, and letting consumers identify that each dissimilar design was made by the same 'brand'.

So, what of the constraints? The PixelJunk series is set to be created by 5 or less people in 6 months or less - any game design they came up with must fit this requirement. In addition, the concepts needed to be 2D in terms of design - though he revealed that Series 2 of PixelJunk will be unique ways of using 3D in games. Later in the session, he revealed that Series 2 would "...maybe take some of the old 3D looks and bring them up to the full HD kind of style."

How about the tech? PixelJunk uses a scripting language called GameMonkey, and Cuthbert mentioned that StarFox for Super Nintendo - which he co-created - even used a custom scripting language. He noted that GameMonkey used quick iteration for tweaking, goodbye to long compile/link times, safe (no memory corruption), and C-like - but with Lua-like flexibility.

Cuthbert showed an early sketch for PixelJunk Dungeons, the fourth game in the series, depicted as a top-down dungeon crawler, showcasing some potential visual styles for the upcoming post-Eden title.

He then explained the scheduling for the PixelJunk games released so far and in development - Racers development began in February 2007, and it was released in September. Monsters began in April 2007 and was released in December, and Eden began in June 2007.

In concluding, Cuthbert pointed out that the PixelJunk series is self-published in Japan, and published by SCEA/SCEE in the rest of the world. In self-publishing, he discovered that advertising is expensive, but you can get perks sometimes - he got a free week's advert in Famitsu.

He pointed out that viral marketing works - but had an interesting point on game demos. He claimed that a lot of people who had no intention of buying the game downloading the demo, and then potentially complaining about it.

He noted that on PixelJunk Racers, he was "very disheartened" by people who played the demo for short amounts of time and then slated it - suggesting that if you build up you "own little army" of supporters - and also revealed that the titles are doing well - PixelJunk Racers has broken even, and Monsters "is doing much better than that... it's already sold more than Racers."

As an ending point, Cuthbert then showed a video for PixelJunk Eden, the next in the series, and a spectacularly abstract physics-based game where you collect pollen and birth flowers as a small blob - with plenty of primary colors and combo effects.

The Q Games co-founder suggested that the title was "kind of like an organic Mario, in a way" - and its psychedelic visuals went down very well with the audience.

February 25, 2008

GameSetLinks: Tuning Prongs For Poison Pink

- Ah, yes, some more GameSetLinks turning this way - from Zero Punctuation's GDC skits through some fun design articles and even a Salon piece on game character fidelity.

Also notable - the new Japanese SRPG Poison Pink - which is one of the more fun names for an import strategy RPG we've seen for a while. More and more good material is getting picked up for the West (OK, mainly by Atlus!), so here's hoping this one turns up too. Here goes:

The Escapist : Zero Punctuation: Yahtzee Goes to GDC
Oh no, the horrible bleeping!

The Forge · I Hate Legal Bullying
IGE lawsuits and threatening of MMO bloggers, oh dear.

What do you look like? Designing an Iconic Main Character « High Dynamic Range Lying
'Master Chief, Gordon Freeman and the lead of Crytek’s PC hit Crysis are all excellent examples of gateways.'

Moogle.net: '3 Prongs of the Tuning Fork'
'Tuning can affect the fundamental interest level of your game, to the point where no matter how many times the player fails, they come back for more.'

National Console Support, Inc - 'Poison Pink' for PS2
Neat-looking (pictured) import SRPG - Atluuuus?

The quest for a realistic human face in video games | Salon Arts & Entertainment
David Cage, among others, speak - via The New Gamer.

Hidden Palace - Sega prototype site
Releasing over 1000 Sega game prototypes - blimey.

richardcobbett.co.uk > Richard's Online Journal > The Crystal Mess
It's a bit ARG-y, really, isn't it?

Siliconera » Out in the open, AQ Interactive owns XSeed Games
Interesting!

Speed Demos Archive - Portal
PC and console superspeed blasts through the Game Developers Choice Game Of The Year.

Mega64's 2008 IGF Award Skits Hit The Web

- So, the full IGF Awards show will be coming in due course, but in the meantime, the gods at Mega64 have posted up their three specially commissioned IGF skits, and they are really, happily ridiculous.

All three of the videos are rather 'special', but rather than trying to redescribe them, I'll just quote what they said on their official website:

"So as you may have heard, Mega64 once again provided videos for the big awards show at the Game Developers Conference. This year, though, their videos instead focused on the independent games. Was the Mega64 crew indie enough to do the game industry justice! Watch these new videos to find out!

First off, watch our Intro video, featuring a pleasant greeting from Dan Paladin, the award-winning artist behind the characters of games like Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers! And if that's not enough for you, there's even a bonus Behind the Scenes video!

Then watch our next indie game video, "I Am Independent," where the Mega64 crew speaks candidly on their independent gaming views!

And then finally, watch "Independent Inspirations" to prepare yourself to be an indie winner!"

Ah yes, and one more things from the Mega64-ers - a little vignette, if you will: "My favorite thing about GDC is how every time we go, we seem to have one defining moment that makes us realize, 'Wow, this was totally all worth it.' This year, for me, it was Jason Della Rocca, after winning his Ambassador Award, coming down to tell us that Ralph Baer, the father of modern video games, apparently looked like he was going to have a heart attack during our awards intro video.

Now of course we love Mr. Baer and everything he's done for video games, and would never wish any ill will unto him. But just the fact that we even heard that spoken to us was just a mindblower- How the hell did we get here? I mean, really? (Love you, Ralph)."

COLUMN: 'Jump Button': The Toys Had It Coming — Musical Outfit Toydeath

-[Jump Button is a new weekly column by Drew Taylor, written specially for GameSetWatch, that focuses on the art and substance of video game culture.]

If Stephen King, a carton load of Barbie dolls, three glam rockers and a coin-op version of Berzerk were lashed together, set on fire and subsequently fried with one kajillion volts of electricity, then Australian musical outfit Toydeath would be the mutant offspring of the smoldering, glitching, molten plastic remains.

The band's appearance is the first indication of a lo-tech experiment gone wonderfully wrong; the Sydney-based trio taking on the disturbed, future sex-doll party visages of 'Big Judy' (Melissa Hunt), 'Disco Barbie' (Chris Murphy) and 'GiJoe' (founder Nick Wishart). But it's only when the band busts out a bunch of electronic toys and sends them into a crazy, wailing, spluttering frenzy of hyperactive melody that the true extent of the band's demented genius and ridiculously brilliant choreography manifests.

'All of our music is made from children's electronic toys,' explains Nick. 'We take the toys and modify them using electronics. ”Hardware hacking” or “circuit bending”, as it's called, is a technique where you change an existing circuit so that it behaves in a different way; you're effectively making a new instrument, or “bentstrument”. '

The critically hit-and-miss result is anything but conventional. High pitched bursts of feedback blends rhythmically with the broken neighs of a horse, while Jesus stutters out passages of Scripture to the bleeping, screeching crescendos of white noise, cheap sax guitars. fairy wands and a naked George Bush doll that says, 'I come from Texas'.

'We have a new DJ toy that's chock full of great drum sounds, scratches and beats' enthuses Nick, describing just one of the hundreds of toys he's collected. 'The bending makes it a mind blowing instrument!

- 'The green guitar is also an awesome machine. It instantly turns you into Steve Vai on acid. While the Hulk Hands are a perennial favorite. They're just so damn visual and they say, “HULK SMASH!”'

It's hard not to get caught up in Nick's excitement. The list of the band's instruments reads like a monster toy compendium from the last 30 years, full of classics. Toys such as the Super Talk Barbie, Touch & Spell, 'Let's Jam' guitar, Crazy Frog and Alphabet Apple.

Nick acknowledges that this retrospective aspect is a large part of what makes Toydeath so appealing; nostalgia pulses from the band's every performance in giant, sonic waves, assaulting the crowd with multicolored neon memories of childhood.

For Nick, those 'big toy memories' are mostly of building things with Mechano and Lego. 'But I also had a 100-in-1 electronics kit,' he adds, 'and it's that which got me interested in electronics and gadgets.

'It's funny to think that when I was a kid there wasn't really a lot of electronic toys. Now nearly every toy is now packed with sound making electronics. Circuit benders are especially nostalgic for late 70s and early 80s toys such as the Speak & Spell because they have more open electronics; there are so many more bends in these toys for hackers.'

For a moment I forget that Nick's talking about 'music'. His choice of words highlights the potential for Toydeath's sound massacre to hold an even greater emotional significance for those who play video games.

- After all, arguably, electronic toys are the midwives and nursemaids of gamers.

Electronic toys were what we played with before we even knew what video games were. In their stilted, stuttering voices they taught us to count, to spell, to recognize shapes. They sat on our bedside tables and told us the time, and with a pull of a ripcord they repeated the lines of our favorite TV show, our celebrity idol, our most beloved creature from Sesame Street, The Smurfs, The Wombles, The Muppet Show. They played music to us when no-one would pay us attention. And they let us make our own music, even when we couldn't play a tune.

They were robots, dolls, trains, fire engines, books, sea creatures, play centers. And they taught us to push buttons, the principles of cause and effect.

Before we even knew what a joypad or joystick was, electronic toys were teaching us to play simple games.

The fact that bands such as Toydeath then take these much-loved toys and 'hack' their circuits to create something else, only furthers the affinity.

Hacking code and making mods has been a vital part of gaming's creative culture, often pushing and pulling development in previously un-thought of and experimental directions. They are also an enormous part of the collective identity of gamers, the 'criminal' heritage that has formed many of the attitudes and actions of gamers over the last three decades.

This is how gamers play. Pushing boundaries, breaking down elements, exploring possibilities.

Unsurprisingly, the emotional and ideological synaesthesia hasn't been lost on Nick. The 2005 launch of Toydeath's CD, Guns Cars & Guitars, for example, was held at an Intencity video game arcade in Sydney.

'We wanted to do something special for the launch that reflected the character of the band,' says Nick. 'All the games were in free play mode, and the place just packed out! It was complete mayhem with all the noise of the games mixing with our glitchy sounds.'

Nick has also been playing with the idea of starting a new band, one that uses gaming hardware and software in the same way that Toydeath uses toys.

- 'My idea comes from the “hardware hacker” ethic used to produce our music,' explains Nick. 'I was originally interested in developing a musical performance using Guitar Hero, SingStar or other musical type games live on stage. However, I know now that Guitar Hero is more like a Dance Dance Revolution style game that rewards you for accuracy rather than producing music when you play it. I need to find ways to hack games that will produce an interesting live performance, similar to the way that some musicians--such as DJ Scotch Egg--use Game Boys to produce music.'

'I'm also interested in machinima and was blown away by [Rooster Teeth's] Red Vs Blue series. I love how creative it is and its subversiveness; it's accessible and it unites gamers. Ideally our first film clip would be produced using these techniques, or something similar.'

While a fully fledged 'GameDeath' might be a short while off, Nick's keen to begin incorporating some of his game-related ideas (without diluting the Toydeath paradigm), particularly in live performances, where the band's looking for new ways to increase audience participation.

'For a while we used an animal mat as an instrument in one of our songs and it worked well,' explains Nick. 'It looked and sounded great and it left your hands free to play another toy. But we'd love to get some kind of mat out on the dance floor that punters could play. We'd also love to use more visuals in the show. It would be great to have people playing games on a backdrop. Maybe,' enthuses Nick, 'they could do Dance Dance Revolution on a projection screen behind us.'

- For most bands, handing controllers over to the audience for the purpose of whipping up a frenzy of electronic interaction would almost certainly spell 'awkward creative death'. But felicitating mania at live gigs is where Toydeath excels, whether that's playing in Korea or China, at a primary school for disadvantaged kids in Utrecht, Holland, or on the back of a truck for an outdoor festival in Munster, Germany.

'Our most memorable live gig,' says Nick, 'would be [our performance] at a recent Spank party in Tokyo. Spank is a funky clothes shop that puts on wikid [sic] parties. It just goes nuts! Imagine 300 colorfully dressed teenagers hanging on your every move.'

Nick's words cause me to pause, and smile. I don't even have to try to imagine: exposed to a live performance, contemporary Japanese would eat up Toydeath like it was a breakfast cereal called Super Happy Joy Joy. And if that's what Nick and his bent trio of childhood Frankensteins are able to do with toys, there's no telling what nostalgic and code-bending evil awaits when they make their fully-fledged foray into games...

Start running now, Mario. Start running now.

[Drew Taylor works in the games industry in Australia and writes video game culture articles for various magazines. He has nightmares about Evil Otto and is currently tormented by his 14-month-old triplets' obsession with a plastic turtle that plays calypso music and says things like, 'Uh oh. Try again. Find.The.Green circle.']

GDC: The Inter-Species Game Design Challenge

- [Over the next few days on GameSetWatch, we're going to be reprinting some of the more interesting GDC lectures which might have potentially got 'lost in the shuffle' of the show. This time - Mathew Kumar on this year's Game Design Challenge.]

This year, the Game Design Challenge 2008 at Game Developers Conference asked Brenda Brathwaite (Wizardry), Steve Meretzky (Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy) to take on reigning 2007 champion Alexey Pajitnov (Tetris) in designing an “inter-species game”.

“The inter-species game is a riff on the idea of opening up new markets,” presenter Eric Zimmerman quipped in his introduction, before showing an Arlo and Janis newspaper strip that Meretzky sent around to his other contestants as a joke about the idea – a cat unable to understand “pressing the button to pounce,” instead choosing to pounce at the TV itself.

“I didn’t want them to develop some kind of hardware that would allow a cat to play, say, Quake,” Zimmerman said, setting out the rules, establishing that the focus had to be on the play, not “some kind of space age hardware.”

Alexey Pajitnov’s Dolphin Ride

“When I got this challenge I thought that this species that I would include in the game could help the player to enjoy a new space which would be hard to get to without the help of the species. Flight was my original concept, but later I decided to go more conservative and return to the water. I’ve always dreamed of having a game set under water.”

“My game takes place in the real word with real dolphins, but in the virtual space at the same time. The team consist of one dolphin and two human players: a navigator and a shooter. It uses a special hardware which I call the dolphin saddle.”

Apparently not breaking the rules as the saddle consists of real-world parts (a simple pair of cameras, wireless transmitters, a pneumatic paint gun plus a headphone/mic for the dolphin) the game design consists of a playfield, generated by a common server: a 3D space with virtual objects with a free real space of the same size in the real sea. The virtual objects are simple balls, of three colors (precious blue, expensive green and cheap red, of varying occurrence.) The goal of the team is to take out as many balls as possible, and “shoot out” the opponents dolphins. Balls could be taken or shot by dolphins, but dolphins can only be “killed” by being shot. The winner is the one that collects 500 points, either through shooting other dolphins or other collecting balls.

Game play occurs by players seeing the real space with the virtual balls superposed, while the dolphin sees only the real space – but is led by the communication from the players.

Steve Meretzky’s TrayStation

“People have been playing games with animals forever: from fetch, to good old fashioned fox-hunting,” Meretzky joked, “which, by the way, featured animals in both a co-operative and competitive way.”

Meretzky asked himself which animals he could think of that had first of all the cognitive capacity to play games (which include parrots and bonobo monkeys) and then those that had “disposable income,”: pets, but unfortunately, while a pampered poodle could understand games, “their owner couldn’t”

He initially settled on strip poker with sheep, but found that well, “they would act like sheep!”

His next failed idea was that players like to collect things, and so did squirrels, so… “Why not use squirrels as Chinese gold farmers?”

Finally it all came down to the possible market -- why make a game for the 20 remaining Yangtze river dolphins when he could make a game for the trillion ants out there? But then, why make a game for a trillion ants, when there were so many bacteria out there?

So Meretzky developed the "TrayStation": a Petri dish containing millions of bacteria battling virtual castles on the player’s screen -- against the players “defence microwaves”. Of course, millions of bacteria would die: but those that didn’t would “level-up,” Meretzky said, reaching to a near fever-pitch: “It’s the game that makes germ warfare available to the whole family, the game that puts the fun back into fungicide,” he finished.

Brenda Braithwaite’s One Hundred Dogs

Braithwaite began by playing with Photoshop, with the crowd responding well to her ideas including Assassin’s Breed and Poop Scoopem but she began her real pitch: “I liked the idea of playing a game with my dog, and my dog being an equal and necessary part of the game, and something that really could be done.”

“So I considered things like strapping four Wii controllers to my dog, or using GPS, and then I thought: wait a minute, I’m already playing with my dog.”

She didn’t want to “strap something to her dog,” but she wanted “a co-op game, not an competitive game,” and came up with an “Interspecies Facebook ARG.”

“It’s called One Hundred Dogs. There are basically 50 players with 50 real dogs and 50 virtual dogs across 50 cities. It starts at the Westminster Dog Show. Players register at onehundreddogs.com, and there are challenges in 50 cities, including owner-based challenges and dog-based challenges. Winners are awarded points, and there’s a leader board. It was designed to build community among local players. That’s phase one.”

She continued with phase two, beginning with “Dog FiftyOne.”

“The 50 leading dog/owner groups get a friend invite from Dog FiftyOne. The social network develops and the quest progresses through a typical RPG design, where people have to do X, Y, and Z to get to Dog FiftyOne. Cities must work together to reach the next dog. The emphasis is on social net play.”

But suddenly disaster: Dog NinetyTwo never shows up after all of Dog NinetyOne’s challenges. “The game turns from competitive to co-op,” Braithwaite explained, “finding Dog NinetyTwo requires total networking: all human skills and and all dog skills from all 50 dogs in all 50 cities, working together,” until the final dog, Dog OneHundred, is found.

And the Winner is…

Judged from the audience’s applause, the winner was incredibly hard to pick between Brenda Braithwaite’s One Hundred Dogs and Steve Meretzky’s TrayStation, with TrayStation just winning out in the end by a sliver.

Over the thunderous final applause, Zimmerman invited the audience to “go out there and “make the craziest, most fucked-up games they could.”

February 24, 2008

GameSetLinks: GDC Hangover, Part Deux

- Woop, there's a whole bunch of GameSetLinks coming down the wire, post-GDC, and in this case, here's a few neat IGF things mixed in with much more obscure fun.

I particularly enjoy the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities retro text adventure craziness - and actually, the entire site has a lot of fun stuff on it, not available anywhere else. That's the fan-led video game history movement at work, woo. Onward:

Gallery Of Undiscovered Entities: 'Real Life - The Game'
An '80s text adventue - 'Real Life: The Greatest Adventure of All... is billed as a simulation of life, to help you figure out where you're going, or perhaps how to avoid getting there.'

The Associated Press: Black Crowes Say Maxim Review a Fraud
Notable because the same March issue has reviews of Rainbow Six Vegas 2 and Army Of Two. Wonder what versions were used for those?

Mahalo & Joystiq @ GDC - Veronica Belmont
Good IGF videocast from last week's show.

Jeff Green's 1UP Blog: Me and GDC: BFFs
The 1UP/Ziff PC supremo gives a little IGF love, yay.

The Path -------- a short horror game by Tale of Tales
New trailer for the IGF nominee, following its appearance last week.

Nothing But Fighting in 2008 - GameTap Read
Bully for you, indeed - the one-on-one fighter still endures.

Game Cabaret: Repressed Homoeroticism in R-Type
Silly, and possibly offensive - so a good start to the new group blog.

"Jennifer Ann's Group" - Teen Dating Violence Prevention flash competition
I'm helping to judge this competition for a worthy cause.

1UP's Retronauts podcast goes Phantasy Star crazy
Starring our very own Christian Nutt - lots of Phantasy phrothing, LISTEN AT YOUR PERIL!

What They Play - Guitar Hero: The Encyclopedia of Rock
Ah, What They Play has editorial now! A 30 Rock exec producer talks the music game awesome.

XBLA Royalty Rate Changes - Closer To The Truth?

- So, one of the big stories from earlier this week was Kotaku's one on Microsoft apparently 'cutting XBLA royalties in half', and it's one that has caused a lot of controversy, with plenty of predictable name-calling and insistence on the death of XBLA as a viable platform.

One of the problems here, of course, is that Kotaku's report only had one side of the story - and Microsoft isn't really in a position to refute the reports, because it will not discuss original or current royalty rates in public. Which leads us to a problem to be resolved - did Microsoft really cut its XBLA royalty rates in half without _ANY_ changes to the developer package?

The answer is no, of course. How Xbox Live Arcade works is badly understood by many, but let's try to split it up. Firstly, there are two different ways you can publish your game - either via Microsoft's own XBLA producers (let's call that 'first party'), or via an existing retail publishing partner such as Electronic Arts, Sierra, THQ, and so on (let's call that 'third party').

From what I understand, third-party royalty rates - which I believe were already less than 70% - are not affected at all by any of these new royalty changes. (Of course, if you're an indie and you have to go through a third-party, you will be getting a percentage of a percentage, because Microsoft takes a cut, and then your publisher, and then you. But you don't have to worry about testing, localization, getting ratings, and so on - it may be that Microsoft is keen for a greater percentage of games to run through those parties.)

So, it's the 'first-party' rates which are changing. And I didn't really have the specifics of how until an IndieGamer post by XBLA developer Paul Johnson helped fill in some of the blanks. As he explains:

"If you had a 70% deal... for a game, then you'll get your 70% for the life of the product. There is now a sliding scale in place for royalty payouts that is sure enough less than 70% at its best, but I've always thought that 70% to be unsustainably high from the get go, not that I was going to complain about it...

In return for the more realistic but still commercially viable lower rate, you get a variety of services for free that would've cost you plenty and would previously have presented a barrier to entry. Worldwide [game] ratings, localization, etc. It's a good deal. Unless you think saying M$ makes you clever, in which case I'm sure it will suck."

So basically - yes, the rumor is essentially correct, in that some royalty deals on first-party games may now be as low as 35%. But these lower royalty deals will now apparently include a lot of the 'grunt work' in localization that the developer had to pay up front - and sometimes perhaps couldn't afford.

In the N+ postmortem at the Indie Games Summit this week, it was noted that the minimum estimated cost to make an XBLA title was $125,000. It's possible (though it's unclear) that you can reduce that significantly with this new option - so you have to pay less up front, but you'll be making less on the back end.

There are still ramifications for many Xbox Live Arcade developers, of course - which is why I think it's even more important that XBLA pricing be reconsidered. Particularly, the traditional royalty rate if you 'roll your own' localization, etc and pay for it up front is now clearly less than 70% - but above 35%.

Which is a major shame - but paying for Microsoft's producers, game submissions, and so on _has_ to be self-sustaining, otherwise the XBLA ecosystem won't work. Overall, this _is_ a blow and a sign that the initial deals set up weren't at the correct level for sustainability. We'll see how this affects things for the indie going forward.

(As for what Sony and Nintendo are trying for - I'll be writing some pieces on the pros and cons of their approaches very soon, since they're equally interesting in different ways.)

[UPDATE: veteran programmer Jake Simpson also takes on the subject, suggesting "publishers still get the 70/30 split" and that "a rate of 35% going up to 45% based on sales [for first parties] has been put in place", particularly noting:

"MS is obviously attempting to steer indies to publishers, because then their certification requirements are considerably less (in so far as a publisher will do pre-cert to make sure you only need one certification submission, not many), and publishers deal with the indies instead of MS having to."

He also claimed of the changes: "So it's either go to a publisher and have to fight hugely to own your own IP, or take what little MS have and pray to god that you make enough to break even and fund the next game, not something particularly attractive to a small indie.

Whats really going to happen is that anyone who can create a decent product is going to run straight to Sony to do it, and have it released on their PlayStation Network instead. If they self fund they can retain the IP and the royalty rates are higher and best of all there are no publishers involved."]

[UPDATED UPDATE: Some particularly whiny but still smart correspondents of mine are complaining that I didn't run the numbers this time, as I did in my previous Xbox Live Arcade post. Mea culpa - it's true, and because I don't feel I have a full grasp of the facts on what is and isn't included.

Suffice to say - there's a real-world value (which I do not know!) for the 'extra things' Microsoft is doing. If it's $1, then this is a worse deal for XBLA developers. If it's $1 million, then this a great deal. Most correspondents so far - including several current XBLA developers in the comments - seem to think it tends towards a worse deal. Please do the math from there.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': The Best Japanese Mag You Never Heard Of

yugekishu.jpg   bugnews.jpg

This is something I've been tracking down a long time -- examples of Japanese magazines Yugekishu and its unofficial continuation Bug News. They are rarer than hen's teeth in Japan and tend to cost the most money I've seen thrown at old computer/game mags on Yahoo! Auctions when they pop up -- sort of the Japanese equivalent to Electronic Games and old Creative Computing, you could say.

Yugekishu, an A5-sized monthly from publisher Nihon Micom Kyoiku Center (Japan Microcomputer Education Center) that premiered June 1984 and closed up shop with its ninth issue in February/March 1985, is unlike any other PC game magazine I've seen from the era anywhere in the world.

How can I describe it succinctly? Let me give it a shot: You know how people sometimes whine that there's no video-game equivalent to Roger Ebert or Lester Bangs, no truly unique-sounding game pundit whose views are trusted and influential in a way that transcends whatever publication they're written for? Yugekishu (which is Japanese for "shortstop," as in the baseball position) was an attempt to attract the wannabe Eberts of video games and gather their longform reviews and commentaries into a single magazine, one meant for hardcore gamers and industry insiders. In 1984, I remind you.

(Bug News, picked up for publications by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in August 1985, kept the same theme but focused on the entire PC industry, not just games. It lasted for several more years before morphing into a Macintosh and desktop-publishing mag in the late '80s.)

What makes these magazines special? Besides the fact they cover much of Edge/Next Generation's beat nearly ten years before either of those magazines existed, it's also one of the few examples of a nationally distributed Japanese game mag that actually, uh, says things. There are, and have been, tons of game mags in Japan, but (from my admittedly removed perspective) they are in even more of a symbiotic relationship with game publishers than their US and European counterparts.

Famitsu's cross reviews are about the only chance you have of seeing any non-cushioned negativity thrown against a game in the entire mag, for example, and they can get away with that because like EGM, they've established a brand name for their reviews that goes back decades. Other mags can't, and real opinions are surprisingly rare -- often, even when they're there, they're concealed in the form of user-submitted reviews and such. To put it a more charitable way, game mags are meant to be a guide and resource that happens to be entertaining, not the video-game equivalent to Cahiers du cinéma.

Yugekishu and Bug News were different. The editors wore their biases on their sleeves -- they loved Infocom and most of the big-name American RPGs; they hated nearly the entire PC game output of Japan, which at the time was mostly porn and knockoffs of overseas games (hey, the more things change, huh?). They didn't bat an eye at writing six-page reviews of games like Castle Wolfenstein and Softporn Adventure, discussing the role of war in games and other forms of media and so forth.

They published extensive strategy guides with professionally-drawn maps and exhaustively-researched enemy and item lists. They ran multi-page interviews with industry figures, some original and others translated from Softalk, which they had an informal licensing agreement with until that mag's closure. All this in 1984!

US computer mags hated reviewing games in the 8-bit era -- the great majority of the time, the reviewers saw it as something beneath serious criticism. This mag was different. Not even the British mags of the time treated game coverage this seriously. Yugekishu was a magazine at least 15 years too early, and its existance as an obscure mag, just barely supported by a tight-knit contigent of hardcore fans in its native country, is almost as sad as the lack of a real tradition of game criticism in America.

[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.]



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