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Archive For February, 2008

XBLA Royalty Rate Changes - Closer To The Truth?

February 24, 2008 12:00 PM | Simon Carless

- 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').

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

February 24, 2008 4:00 AM |

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.]

GDC: Blow's Ten New Challenges For Game Design

February 23, 2008 7:29 PM | Simon Carless

- [Over the next few days on GameSetWatch, we're going to be reprinting some of the more interesting but lower-profile GDC lectures which might have potentially got 'lost in the shuffle' of the show. Next up - Leigh Alexander on a great Jon Blow design lecture.]

At his GDC session, independent designer Jonathan Blow (Braid) suggested that game design might be too ambitious in aiming to add meaning to games by richening characters and developing less linear stories. Instead, he offered ten easier problems with which to begin in order to build a foundation for deeper meaning and engagement.

"I don't really like saying the same thing twice," began Blow, explaining that he had no plans to repeat the same talk he gave in Montreal in November. This talk, he said, would focus on an area that didn't get as detailed a treatment as it would have -- and yet he began with Daniel Radosh's Halo 3 review again, which said that games would need to "stop pandering to the player's demand for mastery in favor of enhancing the player's intellectual and emotional life."

"The question that Daniel puts forth is, how do we make games more emotional and meaningful?" Began Blow. The usual approaches he cited were the departure from the linear story model, the improved simulation of characters -- both in terms of AI and in terms of emotions -- and the more realistic rendering of characters to provoke sensual responses.

GameSetLinks: The GDC Hangover, Part 1

February 23, 2008 12:04 PM | Simon Carless

- Well, after the monster week of GDC, it's going to take a while to get back on track with GameSetLinks, given the massive amount of blog posts put out this week.

But before I don the RSS hat again, here's some things left over from during/before the week of Game Developers Conference.

Some are IGF-related, for obvious reasons - actually, Tim W. has been compiling even more of them over at our sister site IndieGames.com: The Weblog, too - so go check that. Anyhow, here goes with what I got:

GameVideos.com - The 1UP Show: Episode 02/22/08
Starring indie games, including (the pictured!) Fez.

Indies Take the Cake at Game Developers Conference
Nice Kohler piece on IGF.

GameSpy: The 2008 Independent Games Festival Finalists
One of the best IGF articles I've seen so far.

Analyze This: Hoaxer Haunts Earnings Calls - WSJ.com
Haha, awesome! Via Waxy.

Rock Band - Typography affecting my enjoyment of things. | Typophile
Font geekery of the highest order - via The-Inbetween.

Super Ghouls N Ghosts - Level 1 on Vimeo
Cute annotated capture of doing first level without attacking - via InsertCredit!

Playing Politics: Game Makers' Political Contributions news from 1UP.com
Fascinating to see who digs whom.

...on pampers, programming & pitching manure: Felt tables and MMOs, and Match-3's of a different kind
Advice 'from another 'games industry' altogether'.

The Home of Quake2DS
Latest homebrew coding monstrosity - via Waxy.

Kotaku: No Gods or Kings: Objectivism in BioShock
Who says Kotaku ain't highbrow, huh?

GDC: Rod Humble Unveils User-Created The Sims Carnival

February 23, 2008 2:01 AM | Simon Carless

- [Over the next few days on GameSetWatch, we're going to be reprinting some of the more interesting but lower-profile GDC lectures which might have potentially got 'lost in the shuffle' of the show. First up, as written by Vincent Diamante - Rod Humble on The Sims Carnival website, v.interesting indeed.]

Rod Humble's GDC session, titled “The Emergent Gamer,” was originally titled “The Golden Age of Game Design.” While many might think he would be referring to such eras as the so-called Golden Age of Arcades or the rebirth of console gaming in America in the 1980s, Humble was actually referring to now and the near future.

The ease with which games can be made these days makes today the Golden Age, and he presented EA's attempt to push this ability further: TheSimsCarnival.com.

Starting With An Epitaph

Humble began by talking about the permanence of games in our culture, comparing of civilization's oldest games (mancala, go, etc.) to the world's oldest music. He played for the audience some of the Epitaph of Seiklos, the western world's earliest complete piece of music. “We still play these old games... but less people groove to the Epitaph of Seiklos,” he noted.

After Humble rapidly went through the reasons that games are an important and meaningful part of human history (“I think sometime novels will catch up,” he mused) game developers should be worried. “Professional game design is an anomaly,” he warned the audience. “Enjoy your jobs while you can... before the people take over!” He pointed to poetry as a notable art form that relatively recently enjoyed democratization through increased literacy in the populous and the rise of the working class poet.

We already see a lot of this creation of games by the masses in player mods. Things like the nude Tomb Raider patch and the recent Hot Coffee Grand Theft Auto mod are electronic equivalents of the little mods that occurred to early games like Chess and Backgammon; in fact, the modern Chess we play is the result of numerous player mods atop the original game of Chess made years ago.

A few years ago, people within EA decided to try some experiments in making a platform for easy game creation. Released amongst themselves in the form of a MySpace-like website, 100 developers ended up making over 500 games in the course of a month. It ended up being such a hit with everybody that they evolved it into a new form: The Sims Carnival. While that earlier iteration was EA only, as of today, SimsCarnival.com is accepting sign ups for invitations into the closed beta.

One-Click Game Development

All of the games that are featured on The Sims Carnival are essentially Flash applications, and experienced developers may upload their own straight Flash games to the website. However, the biggest selling point for the site is how simple it is for complete non-developers to make their own games.

The site uses a wizard interface to allow people to configure pre-made components for integration into a game. For example, the user can simply select a genre, then a more specific genre, then select some of the types of items that are found within the genre and the quality of their effects in the game with a few clicks of the mouse.

On stage, Humble showed how a very simple puzzle game could be made with the wizard in less than a minute. A few dialog boxes later, the abstract shape assets that were in the game were replaced by some notable American politicians, much to the delight of the crowd.

For users who would like to go further than the wizard interface without becoming a full Flash developer, EA provides a tool called the AGC or Advanced Game Creator, which users can download and use to make more advanced games from scratch in a custom development environment.

Humble finished his presentation by noting that even though this could be seen as pushing the game developer out by enabling more gamers to make the transition to designers, it could also drive up the attendance of conferences like GDC.

GDC Gallery: Game Developers Choice Awards 2008

February 22, 2008 7:00 PM | Simon Carless

[Gamasutra and GameSetWatch contributor Vincent Diamante has been documenting this year's Game Developers Conference in visual form. Here's his look at the 2007 Game Developers Choice Awards, held on Wednesday night at the Moscone Center - and in which Portal came away with Game Of The Year.]

Choice Awards presenter and Crash Bandicoot co-creator Jason Rubin.

A first appearance from multiple award-winners Kim Swift and the Portal folks.

The Waxy View Of GDC: Still Alive at the Valve Party

February 22, 2008 12:00 PM | Simon Carless

[As previously trailed, Andy Baio from Waxy.org is attending GDC as a guest 'Web 2.0/geek culture/game culture crossover' observer, and blogging about it on his popular blog and GameSetWatch. Here's a quick geek-out update from Wednesday night's Valve shindig.]

At the risk of turning Waxy [and GameSetWatch!] into a Jonathan Coulton fan site, he performed a short set at the Valve Software's Steam Party capped by a finale of "Still Alive" performed on Rock Band, backed by the Harmonix developers on guitar and drums.

JoCo covers himself on Rock Band

I'm pretty sure this is the only published photo of their final score, a 5-star performance:

Jonathan Coulton's final score, backed by the Harmonix team

And yes, Coulton sang his own song on "Easy." (Afterwards, he said the Harmonix guys lowered the difficulty because thought the crowd noise would mess it up.)

Shortly after the set, I saw a tipsy geek hop on stage to copy the unreleased song from the Xbox 360 with a USB key before a Harmonix team member tackled him. I discovered he wrote up the story this morning, which was a fun read.

[SIMON'S ADDENDUM: I ran into Harmonix's Ryan Lesser at the IGF Pavilion yesterday, and in the course of our chat (he was checking out the awesome IGF music games like Audiosurf and Fret Nice!) he mentioned that full album downloads for Rock Band - my most-wanted feature - are still in the process of being worked on, yay.]

Microsoft Talks XNA Creators Club Distribution Details

February 22, 2008 5:14 AM | Simon Carless

- [Jeez Louise, GDC is hopping this year. Go check out the Gamasutra coverage page for GDC 2008 for the full rundown - there's literally 10+ new session write-ups every day right now, with all kinds of awesome insight.

But I particularly wanted to point out that Microsoft sent us an in-depth piece for our XNA microsite on how community-distributed Xbox 360 games work, with a lot of interesting specifics and screenshots - here's the overview.]

Following the GDC keynote unveiling of XNA-created community-distributed games for Xbox Live, Microsoft's Dax Hawkins goes in-depth on exactly how game submission, review, and posting will work for the Spring beta of the service.

As part of the new sponsored feature, created for Microsoft's Gamasutra-based XNA microsite, Hawkins explains the details for XNA Creators Club members:

"As many have foreseen – and passionately anticipated – the next step for community game development is to let creators share their games widely with others. We are pleased to announce that in spring of this year we will enable community game distribution with a beta for Xbox LIVE.

As a premium (paid) XNA Creators Club member, you’ll be able to share your games with other creators via Xbox LIVE Marketplace. (For information on becoming a premium member, see XNA Creators Club Premium Membership.) After the beta, you’ll be able to share your games with 10 million Xbox LIVE users.

This article provides general instructions on how to prepare your game for submission. It goes over the guidelines for acceptable content, describes the peer-review system, and shows you how to download and play a community game. Some of the procedures for the beta differ from the general procedures. This article will specify the beta differences."

You can now read the full Gamasutra sponsored feature on the subject, with plenty of details and screenshots on how submission and review will work, possible rejection criteria, and what the approved games will look like on the service.

The Waxy View Of GDC: The Jonathan Coultons Of Gaming

February 21, 2008 6:00 PM | Simon Carless

- [As previously trailed, Andy Baio from Waxy.org is attending GDC as a guest 'Web 2.0/geek culture/game culture crossover' observer, and blogging about it on his popular blog and GameSetWatch. Here's a Thursday update on the state of the conference.]

I'm mostly a casual spectator of the gaming industry, with my experience limited to being a fan, so it's been a delight to meet the people behind the games I love at GDC. At the same time, I've felt a kinship with these indie developers, having worked as a developer (and accidental entrepreneur) in the web industry for the last ten years.

One of the most jarring and frustrating differences I've seen between the web and gaming worlds is the dominance of middle-men: publishers and platforms trying to control the distribution of games. In the web industry, there's nobody controlling distribution and I don't need anyone's authorization to launch a new project. But the gaming industry is dominated by gatekeepers.

For consoles, you can pay through the nose for the privilege to be on Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network or the upcoming WiiWare, and then wait months to be released into the pipeline. On PCs, there's no clear monopoly, with distribution fragmented between a handful of game download portals and distribution frameworks like Steam.

Or you can go it alone and sell directly to your fans through your own web presence but, for the moment, this is very rare. Why? There's no clear answer.

The gaming industry today feels like the music industry of the recent past. Bands were desperate to get signed to label, and financial success was elusive without a record deal. Record labels provide the funding to record an album, the marketing to promote it, and access into the well-established distribution pipeline of record stores and other retail outlets. These gatekeepers are slowly losing relevance as musicians like Jonathan Coulton, Radiohead, and Reznor have started selling directly to their fans.

Small indies like Bit Blot (Aquaria), 2D Boy (World of Goo) and Invisible Handlebar's Audiosurf are like the Jonathan Coultons of gaming -- bootstrapping their game development, doing their own promotion, and cutting out every middleman to deliver games directly to their fans. And it seems to be working, at least well enough for them to grow and keep doing what they love.

Clearly, this route doesn't work for everyone. I talked to Jonatan Söderström of Cactus Soft, one of the most creative and prolific game designers working today. He releases an interesting freeware PC game nearly every month, but is struggling to survive at home in Sweden. In desperation and "on the brink of extinction," he recently added ads to his site and asked his audience for $1 donations so he could eat.

Talking to him, he reminded me of many other brilliant programmers I've worked with -- motivated and talented, but almost pathologically uninterested (or incapable?) in self-promotion or business.

Bit Blot and 2D Boy both understand that while game design comes first, marketing can't be ignored. They work with the media, speak at conferences, keep visible blogs, and connect directly to their community online. For example, Bit Blot's "Seven Days of Aquaria" campaign offered new information and gameplay videos each day until its release. The result? So much anticipation and demand that their servers died on release day. It was a brilliant campaign that cost them nothing but their time.

As an outsider, it seems obvious that the costs (monetary and otherwise) of going down the publisher/platform route are too high. Like a record label, the publishers take a cut and try to own your intellectual property and distribution options. Developing for Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, and Playstation Network all have their associated costs and royalties too. Between 30-50% of revenue goes to the platform and the development costs for localization and testing are much higher.

Even if your overall sales are 20% lower by skipping the distribution channels, it seems like you'd still make just as much money, with the benefit of more control and more time to focus on actual game development. (If you're interested in the topic, Simon Carless wrote an interesting editorial earlier this month that ran some of the numbers.)

Whether you work in music, gaming or web development, the ultimate goal should be to do what you love without compromise, get recognized for your work, and not starve to death in the process.

If your primary motivator is fame and getting your game in front of as many people as possible, regardless of the cost, it seems the only option for game developers is going to a major publisher and working with the big platforms. But if you're happy making a healthy living with a more modest audience, the DIY route is more viable every day.

GDC Gallery: The 2007 Independent Games Festival Awards

February 21, 2008 2:00 PM | Simon Carless

[Gamasutra contributor Vincent Diamante has been documenting this year's Game Developers Conference in visual form - here's his look at the 2007 Independent Games Festival Awards, held last night at the Moscone Center.]

Simon Carless & Jamil Moledina introduce the awards.

The Student Showcase nominees are... showcased!
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