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March 8, 2008

Irrational's 'The Lost' Turns Up... In Bollywood?!

- A little-read NeoGAF thread from a couple of days ago (via Ferricide, thanks!) has uncovered a pretty spectacular piece of oddness, and we're delighted to pass it on to you:

"So a friend of mine that worked on this game just sent this over to me, and I figured GAF might enjoy it. Irrational's game, The Lost, was nearly completed but never released. Apparently everything was sold to Indian company FX Labs, and released. A lot of the art was redone, but apparently the core game and even story are relatively intact."

The game is now called Agni: Queen Of Darkness, of which it's explained: "An exciting new Action/Adventure game for the PC. Immerse yourself in the puzzle and suspense of finding Tara's lost child; use AGNI's dynamic powers to fight your way out. Visually stunning environments, challenging boss battles, find your answers through the gates of AGNILOK and unfold the mystery of Milli."

The original GAF poster also points out that there is a promotional music video associated with the game - as described: "A mind blowing remix of In Aakhon ki masti, this hot new music video features Bollywood star Malaika Arora, and Tara who is the lead character in the Indian role playing game AGNI". And here it is, blimey:

As for the original Irrational game on which this is closely based, apparently, there are videos available on YouTube, but interestingly, the Wikipedia page for the game reveals "...The Lost was a third-person shooter/survival horror game co-developed by Irrational Games and FXLabs." So it's less FXLabs buying it from Irrational than the company being the original co-developer and adapting it, perhaps.

Sure enough, the FXLabs news page adds, from 2004: "FXLabs Studios announces its development agreement with Irrational Studios on "The Lost", an Xbox and PC action horror game. FXLabs in conjunction with producers and designers from Irrational will collaborate to bring the vision of this innovative product to life. It is currently scheduled for release in early 2006."

So evidently this title went south, Irrational got bought by 2K and turned their attention to BioShock, and FXLabs managed to rejigger it for a Bollywood PC release. Interesting.

GameSetLinks: From Zool To N, Huzzah

- Yeehah, it's time to relax and get a little more esoteric still, and some of these fine GameSetLinks include a look at Valve's GDC slides, as well as some retro Amiga (and SNES) platform book tie-in goodness.

Elsewhere in this fine mess - I particularly enjoyed Chris Kohler's keen advocacy _for_ Wii shovelware - or at least, the ability to choose - because firstly, he makes some fine points, and secondly, America's all about freedom, right? Red white blue - go:

Valve's GDC 2008 talks as PDF slides
Neat, the Portal postmortem slides are actually funny without the talk - via Shackblog.

Introducing the new digital media blog, Dean Takahashi, and NOT Britney Spears » VentureBeat
Ah, the proper VentureBeat relaunch is upon us.

Brand New Braid Gameplay Clips news from 1UP.com
Still mind bending, now great looking - looking forward to its XBLA debut.

Infinite Frontiers: Ian Edginton Interviewed
'I wrote a couple of children's novels a few years back, about Zool (pictured above!), a cartoony ninja computer game character' - never knew there was a Zool novel tie-in!

the-inbetween.com [ The Value of Rez]
'I can relate with the thrill of it because, for a brief time, I was a collector. I’m better now.'

LIVE Activity for week of 2/25 - Xbox Live's Major Nelson
N+ at the top of XBLA in second week, nice.

Opinion: Why Wii Shovelware Is a Good Thing | Game | Life from Wired.com
But you can generally tell the difference between good and bad movies a little easier from looking at the box, right, given there are stars, directors, etc?

GameSpite.net: 'GameSpite Issue 5: Gently-Used Games Journalism'
More good off-work ness from the not 'creatively' bankrupt (Ziff joke!) Jeremy Parish.

‘Gaming’ in Brazil Manifesto « CybeRarts
The state of gaming in Brazil (w/opening swimsuit shot, is that meant to be emblematic?)

...on pampers, programming & pitching manure: What a great time to be alive!
ARG stuff can be spectacularly cool - watch out for a big ARG kingpin interview on Gama soon.

Craiglist: 'Conference Coordinator - Game Group'
Wanna work on GDC and our other conferences? This is a fairly entry level position, but hey, gotta start somewhere!

Record Labels Targeting AudioSurf With Custom Compilations

- We've written extensively already on multiple IGF winner and current Steam darling AudioSurf, and cute little indie label Asthmatic Kitty has furthered the music/game crossover by announcing a freely downloadable compilation specifically designed for the game.

This is neat on multiple levels, of course - not least that the compilation has Sufjan Stevens and Anticon's Dosh on it - and here's the full press release and download links to check out:

"Inspired by the recent release of independent videogame AudioSurf, Asthmatic Kitty Records has curated an album specially designed to play within the game. Asthmatic Kitty is releasing the album as a digital release, available for free on its website in MP3 form.

Music for Videogames v.1 marks the inauguration of Asthmatic Kitty Records into the world of videogames. This fifteen track compilation is unique in that we painstakingly combed through their web of friends to find songs that represent not only high quality music, but also intensive and challenging gameplay experiences for the independent videogame, AudioSurf.

AudioSurf, a cross between Guitar Hero, WipeOut, and REZ, constructs its game levels around inputted songs from CDs or MP3s. Players must navigate their own music while playing a Tetris-like puzzle that matches the tempo of the song. It is synesthesia realized as play, innately weaving sound and sight to form a completely extraordinary way of listening to and experiencing music.

The songs in
Music for Videogames v.1 accordingly emphasize distinction, intensity, and dynamic.

The collection of songs also subverts videogame music at large, which often leans to either established "indie" acts, or the predictable electronic stereotypes. With just over a third of the tracks exclusive to the compilation, tracks from the likes of The Beauty, Grampall Jukebox, Seth Kauffman, and Asthmatic Kitty's own artists Ero Gray (aka Papa Alabaster of the Future Rapper project), Rafter and Sufjan Stevens serve notice that this is not your dad's videogame music. Aspects of Physics, Anticon Record's Dosh, and zygote employ dissonance and dynamic in a way that only incites even more challenging gameplay from AudioSurf.

But nor does this compilation eschew the pure joy of digital to digital; exclusive tracks from Fantastic Mr. Fox and new Anticon Records signee Son Lux masterfully demonstrate a compositional maturity beyond their years, Ablerock ends his world, and contributions from Actuel and Mansbestfriend are finely sharpened directions. Each song represents a different challenge in the videogame, changing the feel from a puzzle game to frantic hyper-racer with each track.

But while designed especially for AudioSurf, Music for Videogames v.1 is a also compilation just as easily enjoyed outside of a game. Because Asthmatic Kitty carefully selected each song not only for quality but the less frequent criteria of "playability," the album carries with it an uncanny sense of purpose, distinctive even outside of the game space of AudioSurf.

AudioSurf has received remarkable critical acclaim from across the industry, and won the 2008 Independent Games Festival honors for Best Audio and the Audience Award. AudioSurf is available now for just $9.95, on Windows based PCs via Steam."

March 7, 2008

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer - Completion Anxiety Disorder'

-[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.]

If you're reading this column, you definitely own at least a couple video games. You probably own several, and some of you are the custodians of an innumerable collection that you meticulously arrange and then photograph for posting on internet forums. And you spend at least a decent chunk of your time playing, and another portion still of your time coveting the next purchase.

But what percentage of them have you ever completed?

Beaten, conquered, finished, whichever your pleasure. I recently spoke with Naughty Dog Studio vets Dan Arey and Bob Rafei on the launch of their new studio, Big Red Button Entertainment, and they theorized that the average gamer confronted with the average game is more likely than not to leave it unfinished -- and it seems a reasonable estimation. Rising retail costs mean that for most, it's damn near painful to crack the wallet open at the game store, and yet implausibly, despite the larger financial investment, it actually seems like we're finishing fewer games than we once did.

We demand more engaging, immersive and enduring game experiences -- and then we don't finish them. What's wrong with us?

Do you suffer from Completion Anxiety? Looking for answers? Yeah, me too.

Symptoms And Possible Causes

There are a few easy theories close at hand as to why we're finishing fewer games. "Failure to Complete" almost sounds like a condition for which we'll start seeing prescription drug ads on morning television, doesn't it? And as a matter of fact, size, length and depth are involved. It's quite possible that in these areas, modern games have outgrown the available free time of the average player in all of these areas. And a core portion of the gaming audience has begun to age, meaning time is even more at a premium.

-Despite this, next-gen games can no longer escape the court of public opinion unscathed should their available gameplay hours fail to equate, in the player's mind, to the dollar value invested.For just one example, early next-gen title Heavenly Sword took knocks in reviews and, more broadly, in public discussion, for being too succinct. These days, few (if any) companies can get away with charging $60 for fewer than 60 hours of gameplay.

To be fair, games are now much bigger and larger than they used to be. 16-bit veterans who used to spend months at a time whittling away at a platformer in their clumsier youth can now buy it on Virtual Console and knock out a victory in a handful of hours. Nonetheless, we've demanded deeper experiences for years -- those old games are generally a nostalgic snack, not a long-term project.

Now, extensive and complete multiplayer campaigns have become increasingly essential to a title's success. Multiplayer's supposed to add value in that it's infinitely replayable, as users create a different experience amongst themselves each time. Yet many users end up spending far more time on the multiplayer component than they ever did on any single-player campaign -- so doesn't that mean time's not the culprit for Failure to Complete?

Problems Paying Attention?

So if time's not really the issue, then maybe our attention spans are dwindling. We live in a wired society connected to multiple sources of various stimuli at any given time during the day -- and gamers tend to be more tech-savvy than most. Could this have atrophied our ability to sit still and concentrate?

We can now hold a gathering of our friends, assign tasks and cope with an evolving environment without ever having to get up and get dressed, thanks to online play. And while doing that, we can put on the TV, order our dinner, pay our bills and call our parents from the very same chair, all at the same time, all without having to wait for a minute. It's easy enough to theorize that living in such a world has made it difficult for us to engage fully with any one single thing, or to invest time in it, if time is what it demands.

WoW fans, for one thing, don't seem to have a problem making time for their hobby. And the most oft-cited reason is instant gratification -- the game can scratch that itch with a relatively low investment of attention, behaviors that are almost automatic, small rewards on the way to bigger ones. Are we an audience of gamers who just doesn't want to put time and effort in for the payoff?

Unable To Do The Things You Once Did?

Maybe it's more persistence, better problem-solving skills we need. Are today's games too difficult for us?

I was recently having that completion discussion with Arey and Rafei because their new studio work is predicated on the idea that frustration and inaccessibility is the reason why many gamers don't finish. During the interview, Arey proposed, "Can you imagine what the film industry would be today if you could only watch 60 percent of a DVD and then stop?"

What, indeed. Especially given that we're welcoming a wider audience of players into our world and want to continue doing so, the pair told me that a dynamic difficulty level, that lets the players control how they're challenged, is the key to a taller stack of finished titles in every gamer's home.

How many, of the past several games you left unfinished, were either too hard for you to finish or too easy for you to remain engaged with? If you could have had control over the difficulty level, would you have finished the game? I'm still not convinced that dynamic difficulty wouldn't result in a few too many hollow victories for my taste -- what's the point, after all, of overcoming a challenge that you've set precisely in your comfort zone? But then, that's assuming that difficulty level is the issue at all. I'd say, in fact, that today's games have gotten much easier.

Loss Of Pleasure And Interest?

Now, the tricky one: Maybe it's just that a lot of these games aren't very good. You didn't finish them because you were bored. You weren't frustrated because it was too hard, but because it was too unwieldy, difficult in the wrong way, or you just hated the characters. We talk a lot about the promise and potential of games as an engaging storytelling medium -- but words like "promise" and "potential" are words we use when something could be there, but isn't there yet. Game design is trying every day to raise that bar, and what "does it" for some players won't do it for others.

Still, it's a safe bet that there are many games with which you can't necessarily find fault, that are still sitting and waiting for you to haul through that last leg of the journey. While you've probably abandoned plenty of games because they were just terrible or you didn't enjoy them, it's likely there are just as many others that you're not exactly sure why you never got around to winning.

I've got plenty of such titles. In most cases, I'm much further than halfway through, averaging perhaps 40-20 percent left to go. They're good games. I want to finish them, or so I say. And yet, I just can't, or don't, or won't. It isn't an issue of time, it isn't an issue of my attention span, and it isn't an issue of engagement. I've dumped some 95 hours just into Pokemon Pearl, doing repetitive behaviors over and over again, so I've obviously got plenty of time and attention. Those games I haven't finished? I think about them, even write about them rather often. It's not necessarily an engagement issue either, unless it's on some subtle level beyond my cognition.

-There's Hope...

So while we've suggested that even the most decent of games go unfinished because the investment required is too steep -- time, money, attention, skills, patience -- how can we really say that, when everything we as an audience say and do suggests we want to be immersed, we want to commit that investment, we want to be challenged?

Except for the price -- of course we all would like games to cost less -- we're actually most frustrated when a game doesn't provide that depth of experience, when it's over too quickly, when it's too easy, when it lacks places for us to make an enduring emotional connection.

What if it's just that, after investing so much, we just don't want it to be over?

You poured hours into your character. You navigated an inscrutable chain of events to obtain his weapon. You grit your teeth against boss battles, and you came to care about your character's success. You fell in love with the world -- why would you want to face its ending? After all that work, there's probably no replay value left unless you're hardcore. And even then, the second playthrough is an architecture, a science experiment, a manipulation, not a new discovery.

Failure to Complete analogizes us to the social archetype who breaks up with their partner just when they start to fall in love. Who bails just when it looks like this could be forever, or who flees at the first suggestion of commitment.

Don't we have relationships with some of our games? Think about it -- it begins with attraction, when you see an appealing description, a good preview, a sexy trailer. Then comes the skepticism, the scrutiny of the developer's previous efforts, the steeling yourself for disappointment. The swapping gossip with your gamer buddies after the first "date," the sense of careful, hesitant joy as you start to get drawn in. At first, the new game was all you could think about.

And then, once the novelty has worn off, you realize you're comfortable. You're satisfied -- and coming to the game's end result might exhaust the possibilities. You love the game while it's still young and exciting, so much you don't want to visualize yourselves married and aged.

You're afraid of disappointment. Maybe you sense the game taking a turn for the odd and you're afraid of the pain of betrayal. You fear that the ultimate result of all your work will be a letdown. Or you're just afraid of being alone and starting over again when it's all done with. A shiny new release catches your eye, and before you know it, you've ditched your old companion for the excitement of a new relationship.

Is our obsession with multiplayer gaming really a deep desire to play everything with our online friends? Or is it just that we want gameplay that will never nosedive on us, never break our hearts and never be over?

As for me and my 95 hours of Pokemon Pearl, I'm about to go and buy all of the rest of the portable Pokemon games I don't have, so that I can collect more Pokemon from older games. No expense of time, money or affection would be too steep, because the nearly-impossible task of completing the National Pokedex means that I'll always have something left undone in a world that I already trust. Even if I can complete the National Dex, I'm sure the next game will be out by then. I feel secure in the relationship. That's why, despite requiring a good deal more investment than any of my other still-unfinished games, I recently completed the story.

Maybe I still need treatment for my Failure to Complete if I ever want to have longer, deeper, more sizable gaming sessions. But this is a good start, I'm sure.

[Leigh Alexander is not a doctor, and neither are the guys in the prescription drug ads. She 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.]

GameSetLinks: Luigi Scores Highly

- Good gosh, it's almost the weekend once more, and this particular GameSetLinks strays further into the path of madness than is perhaps sensible for this late in the working week.

In particular, there's the below article rating Luigi, uh, himself, as well as the canned game 'Wet Corpose', which - let's face it - has almost as excellent a Japlish/Engrish name as 'Irritating Stick'. Gotta love those odd naming jags - anyhow, here goes:

Xtra Gamer » Blog Archive » Luigi
Almost postmodernly bizarre: 'I would give Luigi a rating of 9.5/10!'.

Klei Entertainment Inc. » Blog Archive » Why do community features in games suck so much?
Restated: 'Why is it that none of the three consoles have user ratings on content?'

Wet Corpse - Saturn / N64 Beta, Cancelled [Unseen 64]
Best game name EVER.

THE MAKING OF... Japan's First RPG : Edge
Black Onyx is surprisingly influential and forgotten.

Wii GOTY Review (Williams Pinball, natch) - Quarter To Three Forums
I've spent a lot of time on the PSP version of their Gottlieb pinball game, which is awesome.

Design Rampage: Audiosurf – Building Community Through Information Pushing
A good new design blog!

San Francisco Chronicle: 'Tough competition for video-gaming jobs'
GameCareerGuide.com gets a nice shout-out in this, yay.

David Perry's Game Industry Map 2.0
Very cool, actually - though why is Dave's name bigger than the name of the site? Hee.

Famitsu: XNA Game Studio Japan 2008 Spring Contest report
Panda straddling and gondola descending - that's how they do it at Microsoft Japan (via Kotaku!)

John Davison: The Problem with Games Journalism is All of Us
'The media produced about video games is a direct reflection of the audience it’s produced for.'

Nintendo, Infinity Ward, Blizzard Top First-Ever 'Top 50 Developers' Countdown

-[We just debuted this announcement this morning - OK, perhaps charts are a little obvious, but for our first-ever Top 50 Developers chart, we actually used multiple factors, including sales, review scores, and reputational survey comments, to synthesize the best developers in the world list.]

Think Services’ Game Developer magazine and Game Developer Research division - sister divisions to Gamasutra.com - have announced a major new study ranking the top 50 game development studios worldwide.

By combining empirical market data with a detailed survey taken by game development professionals via Webby Award-winning site Gamasutra.com, the Top 50 Developers report features a first-ever holistic view of the top game developers, using both sales and reputation data.

For the first-ever countdown, of which the Top 20 Developers are listed and detailed in the March 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine, Nintendo’s Kyoto studio came out on top - thanks in no small part to incredible sales of a healthy lineup of DS and Wii software, notably Wii Play, Wii Sports, and two Brain Age games.

These titles rarely left Japanese and Western sales charts, demonstrating Nintendo’s mastery of the casual games market. Survey comments heaped praise upon the Japanese giant for its focus on quality, and this was reflected in high review scores all around.

The second place went to Activision-owned developer Infinity Ward, thanks to both the resounding critical and commercial success of its 2007 release Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and high scores and healthy praise for the developer's working conditions, professionalism, and attention to quality.

Rounding out the Top 3 was the Vivendi-owned Blizzard Entertainment, with major critical and commercial success of its World Of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade expansion, along with some notable praise in the reputation section of the report.

The top 20 rankings of game development studios for the first-ever countdown, alongside some of the notable games they released in 2007, are as follows:

1. Nintendo Kyoto (Brain Age, Wii Play)
2. Infinity Ward (Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare)
3. Blizzard Entertainment (World Of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade)
4. Electronic Arts Canada (FIFA Soccer 08, NBA Street: Homecourt)
5. Valve (Portal, Team Fortress 2)
6. Konami Japan Studio (Winning Eleven: Pro Evolution Soccer, Dance Dance Revolution Universe)
7. Insomniac Games (Ratchet & Clank Future)
8. Capcom Osaka Studio (Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, Monster Hunter Freedom)
9. Electronic Arts Tiburon (Madden NFL 08, NASCAR 08)
10. BioWare Edmonton (Mass Effect, Jade Empire: Special Edition)
11. Bungie Studios (Halo 3)
12. Ubisoft Montreal (Assassin's Creed, Naruto: Rise Of A Ninja)
13. 2K Boston [& Australia] (BioShock)
14. Harmonix (Rock Band)
15. Bandai Namco Tokyo (Ace Combat 6: Fires Of Liberation, Beautiful Katamari)
16. Square Enix Tokyo (Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, Front Mission DS)
17. Game Freak (Pokemon Diamond/Pearl)
18. Epic Games (Unreal Tournament 3, Gears Of War PC)
19. Hudson Soft (Mario Party 8, Mario Party DS)
20. Neversoft (Guitar Hero III, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground)

The methodology for the first-ever Game Developer Top 50 Developers countdown was as follows. Each game developer was first assessed by combining the top ranking games using all weekly Top 10 charts of U.S., U.K., and Japanese sales in 2007, as well as number of games released and average Metacritic review scores - specifically making eligible those developers whose games were released in calendar 2007.

In terms of the reputational part of the ranking, an anonymous survey was fielded on Gamasutra.com asking community members to score game developers on overall reputation, as well as direct interaction working for or with that developer, where possible. The resulting report is the only multi-input empirical ranking available for game development studios.

“Nintendo's incredibly accessible and well-designed games continue to support its hardware success, which is why they reached the Top Developer spot in this first-ever Top 50 Developer Report,” said Simon Carless, Publisher of Game Developer Magazine and Director of Game Developer Research. “In addition, the mix of Western and Japanese developers in the Top 20 shows a flourishing world ecosystem for game development, as the medium continues to grow strongly into the 21st Century.”

A more detailed analysis of the Top 50 Developers, including brief analysis and reputational quotes, is available in the March 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine, out now and available at the magazine's website.

However, the full Top 50 Developers data set, including full feedback, comparative charts, and canonical statistics for all top 50 developers and additional feedback for other companies, is available via Game Developer Research's website.

Indie Interview: Samorost Developer Jakub Dvorsky

[Originally printed over at our sister site IndieGames.com - The Weblog - you have RSS-ed it, right? - which is really blasting the indie goodness recently, here's a cutely clipped interview from the creators of awesome IGF winner Samorost 2, all about their new projects.]

IndieGames.com is proud to present an interview with Jakub Dvorský of Amanita Design, the development team responsible for Samorost 1 and 2.


Hi Jakub, can you tell us a bit about yourself and also introduce the development team working on Amanita Design's upcoming 2D point-and-click adventure epic, Machinarium?

My name is Jakub Dvorský, I'm from Czech Republic (that small country in the middle of Europe well-known for its beer), 29 years old and I'm a game designer and visual artist. I started doing games in 1993 and in 2003 I established Amanita Design and started to work on Flash games with my former schoolmate Vaclav Blin who is mostly an animator. At the moment we are also collaborating with programmer David Oliva, musician Tomas "Floex" Dvorak, sound maker Tomas "Pif" Dvorak and painters Jakub Pozar and Adolf Lachman.


Can you tell us what Machinarium is all about?

Machinarium is a strange rusty metallic place populated only by robots. The story is about a little robot who has been unjustly thrown out to the scrap yard behind the city. In the game he returns to the town where he meets the bad guys from Black Cap Brotherhood - they are just preparing a bomb attack on the central tower where the town ruler has residence in. Of course our hero must stop them and also rescue his friend robot-girl.


Machinarium

Does the main protagonist of the game have a name, or will he remain nameless?

At the moment he has just a working name which is Josef (after Josef Capek - Czech artist, initial inventor of the word ROBOT).


How similar will it be to the Samorost series? How different is it compared to the games you've created in the past?

It will be a point and click adventure just as Samorost was, but much more complex, bigger etc. The plot line is more complicated, the graphics are hand drawn this time as well as characters who are animated very carefully by cut-out animation technique. There will be many control improvements and also inventory.


What is the current progress of the project? Is Machinarium still set to arrive in the second half of 2008?

We are now approximately halfway done. Unfortunately there is a delay to the initial schedule - we have worked on one commissioned Flash game for a few months, because we needed additional money for the development of Machinarium. Now it seems the game could be ready by the end of this year. We plan on creating an online demo playable in web browser as it is in Samorost 2.


Is Machinarium part of a series? Will it have sequels? (perhaps an open-ended ending, to allow for more episodes perhaps)

No, it's not episodic - it will be only one part, but of course we can and we'd love to create a sequel in the future - the Machinarium world is a very good place for a lot of stories.


Inspirations for Machinarium?

Old industrial buildings, old rusty machines, SF books, some old-school games etc.



Technical

Is the object interaction interface for Machinarium similar to the Samorost series?

No, it will be a little different. This time it will be possible to click only on the objects which are within reach of the main character - then he will grab the object or carry out an action (therefore we need to create a huge amount of special animations for each action and each object).


How many "rooms" are planned for Machinarium?

There will be about 25-26 screens. Some screens will contain more "rooms" and almost every screen contains additional "windows" with puzzles, control panels, details etc.


How long is the game?

I'm not sure and it's difficult to estimate, but we'll be happy if it takes the average player six or seven hours to complete the game. It's not long, but it should be quite an intensive and enjoyable six to seven hours' worth of gameplay experience. We don't want to put there any boring filler sequences or insane puzzles to prolong the playing time.


I'm to understand that Machinarium will not have spoken words (like Samorost). Will it have subtitles?

Yes, there won't be any words, although there will be some communication, but only with symbols, pictures and animations.


Who is working on the soundtrack for Machinarium? Will it be just Floex? (music composer for Samorost 2)

Yes, we are happy with Floex and he is happy to write music for our projects so there's no need to change it.


Are the screenshots shown on the Machinarium front page the final art for the game? Is the game to run at a resolution of 1027 x 768, or higher?

Yes, these pictures are screenshots taken from the game. But the final resolution will be higher, 1280x1024.


Will you be posting more screenshots for Machinarium on the web site soon?

Yes, I will update it very soon. :)



Distribution

How much will Machinarium retail for?

We are not sure yet.


Are you planning to use some of the new distribution channels for the retail release of Machinarium? (e.g. Steam, GameTap, casual games portals like the collaboration between Playfirst and Wadjet Eye Games)

Yes, but nothing is decided yet.


Possibilities

Am I correct to assume that Machinarium isn't related to Samorost universe?

That's right.


Will there be crossovers, or subtle references to the Samorost series?

No, Machinarium is an absolutely different world with different physical laws.


The Future

What's next for Amanita Design? Will there be a Samorost 3?

It's too soon to tell. Perhaps a sequel to Machinarium, Samorost 3 would be nice too or something completely different.


Samorost 2 was submitted to the IGF previously (and won the Best Web Game category). Are you planning to do the same for Machinarium?

Yes, we'd like to enter the IGF again.



Afterthoughts

Any Flash games which impressed you lately?

Nifflas' Games and especially Knytt Stories (http://nifflas.ni2.se/index.php?main=02Knytt_Stories). And also this Limbo video teaser (http://www.limbogame.org/).


What do you think is the current state of 2D adventure games? Is there a revival?

I hope so. :) I'm tired of all those 3D realistic games.


You've mentioned that you're interested in creating games in other genres (besides adventure games) in a past interview. Is that still the case?

Not at the moment and I'm not sure if I can do that.


Ever considered developing a 3D adventure game?

No.


Public Response

How successful has the Samorost series been? Are you working in your own office space now? Is developing Machinarium a full-time job, or are you supplementing the production with other projects?

Samorost is helping a lot, but as I said above we've done one commission game recently to get some more money (it's game for children commissioned by BBC - it should be online very soon - check out our web www.amanitadesign.com for the news). It's a full-time job for me and for Vaclav Blin, for others it's paid part time job.


What's the best accolade you've received for your works?

Probably all that very nice emails from fans of all ages (from 4 to 80).


Final Words

In closing, anything you'd like to say to fans of your works?

I'd like to gratefully thank all people who bought Samorost 2 and therefore helped us to stay independent and work on our own projects as a full-time job.


March 6, 2008

GameSetInsight: Disgruntled Of Presidio Writes...

- Browsing big sister site Gamasutra's comments earlier, I came across a new comment on the (fairly recent) story 'LucasArts President Ward Steps Down', and it's worth reprinting here.

Of course, we have no way of proving whether this anonymous commenter is at LucasArts. But he certainly seems to have some interesting (if cynical) insight into the state of George Lucas' developer.

So - definitely to be taken with a pinch of salt, but some interesting insider perspectives on their upcoming games and ILM convergence, as follows:

"Whether Jim Ward resigned or was asked to leave is up in the air. However, one thing is clear and that is Mich (& company) was unhappy with his delaying of the Force Unleashed and Indiana Jones titles. They also didn't trust his numbers for increasing expected sales as a basis for delaying the game.

LucasArts has a motto and that is to release kickass games, on time, on budget. Of the three Jim chose chose to prioritize kickass games over "on time" and "on budget", for that he should be commended (most games that go on to become blockbusters were delayed to improve quality).

Additionally, LucasArts is a "young company" in the fact that it fired every engineer save four in 2004. So they've had to rebuild from scratch - including a substandard engine. This is where Jim comes in, rebuilding the company from the ground up.

Now the head of licensing (Howard Roffman) is now interim president for Lucas Arts and this could spell trouble for the LucasArts division. There are some that believe that more money can be made by licensing the SW and Indiana Jones IP to third party developers than through in-house development. Whether Mr. Roffman's taking over the reins of LucasArts represents such a shift will be only be revealed in time.

But one thing is for sure, Jim Ward was in a no win situation from the start, trying to meet unrealistic expectations - young team and some of the worst tools in the industry to work with. He chose kick ass games over selling out early on a game that was half done. It will be too bad that he will not be with LucasArts to reap the rewards of a job well done. The Force Unleashed will be a stellar success (aka won't suck) because of Jim Ward.

And their tool for convergence with ILM is a joke. Zeno is garbage for game design (everything is 4x to 10x more complicated because it's forced to be shared tech with ILM). Saying that it is one of the worst first party developement tools out there would be a fitting description.

This may be shocking to the outside but really this is widely accepted as fact by the engineers, designers, artists, producers and animators working at LucasArts. The fact that they they present this in SIGGRAPH as a standard for convergence is a laughable farce. As far as Zeno is concerned it's the model of how *not to do it*. It can be fixed but it won't because the people on the top really don't know how bad things are."

Hm, so... any former or current LucasArts folks want to weigh in on this, either anonymously or... not? From my point of view - it's clear that LucasArts' 'new gen' games are significantly delayed, but it also seems likely that Force Unleashed, at least, will be interesting.

(One of the unfortunate parts of the delay, though, is that games like Grand Theft Auto IV will be coming out first with the NaturalMotion Euphoria tech that LucasArts was trumpeting before GTA IV even announced it had the license. Doh.)

GameSetLinks: The Final Weekend Countdown

The only problem with checking the gigantic GameSetLinks RSS list twice a week or so is that it takes until Wednesday or Thursday to unspool the links from the previous weekend - and then some of those are from two or three days before that.

Fortunately, most of the stuff we're linking only ripens with age, like a fine wine or a brown banana. Also, it gives me an excuse to use one of my favorite random pictures, above - from my visit to Shanghai in 2006, where WoW-mania was in full effect. So here goes:

In Defense of the Meaningless Video Game (Magical Wasteland)
'World of Warcraft means something (to millions of people) because it provides the framework for meaningful occurrences, not because it, itself, contains and delivers meaning.'

Eludamos video game academic journal Vol 2, No 1 (2008)
Some worthwhile stuff in here - via RockPaperShotballs.

Siliconera » Brainstorming: Interview with LUMINES composer Takayuki Nakamura
Neat piece, Japanese composers don't get interviewed enough.

TIGSource's new Video Game Name Generator Competition
'First, open up the Video Game Name Generator... Next, find a name for the game that you want to make... finally, MAKE THAT GAME.'

MTV Multiplayer » Microsoft Forced Removal of Online Level Sharing in ‘N+’ — ‘We Were Devastated,’ Says Co-Creator
I wondered why that was missing when it was clearly possible - there's still _some_ sharing func in there but very buried via multiplayer joins.

Moogle.net » Blog Archive » Justifying “Camera Waggle”
'There is still a solid argument to be made for interactivity in cutscenes.'

John Davison: The Problem with Games Journalism is All of Us
'The media produced about video games is a direct reflection of the audience it’s produced for.'

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Trailer: Noitu Love 2
Just insanely beautiful sprite work from the IGF Grand Prize finalist - here's the YouTube version.

DESTRUCTOID: Full list of links to GDC Experimental Gameplay Sessions playable games
Or the ones available online, anyhow - useful, since Gamasutra doesn't have a detailed EGS write-up this year - we'll see if we can do an audio transcriptor something eventually.

The Independent Gaming Source on The Mighty Jill Off
A BDSM-themed 2D platformer? ...odd!

Opinion: Myst Online: Uru - Beyond Cancellation

[Following the recent shuttering of Myst Online: Uru Live, game developer and Uru chronicler Andrew Plotkin - who's freshly blogging at Gameshelf too - looks back on the history of Cyan's 'alternative' MMO, examining fan-run resurrection efforts and the title's future.]

The truth is, I've been writing notes about this game for more than four years. So I have a notion I oughta say something about its end. But it's a silly notion.

I haven't even been here for the whole run. I only logged into Untìl Uru a few times. The community was playing UU; history piled up; things happened. But new worlds were what I was interested in, so I didn't hang out.

You want to hear something funny? Untìl Uru -- the fan-run, fan-hacked servers -- lasted longer than any other phase of Uru. Nearly two years. Some players had more attachment to UU than to the "real" run of the game. It was buggy, inconsistent, devoid of plot, prone to half-assed extensions and updates... it wasn't a game, by any definition. But players felt they had a stake in UU, in a way that never gelled for Uru Live.

And I say this without having been there. I'm reading the tone of the community. In the days since the cancellation post, people have been all over the idea of bringing back UU.

It's Cyan's decision, mind you, and Cyan hasn't said anything about it. (They haven't said anything at all about their plans, except that they will continue making games.) But people remember what it was like to be the ones who kept the City open.

People liked that. I will return to this point.

You know what? I'm not even going to talk about the final cancellation of Uru Live. I'll give the thirty-second summary: Gametap funded Cyan for a couple of years. Whatever deal they made, it didn't work out. Cyan spent some time updating their 2003 code, some time fixing bugs, some time updating old material from Path of the Shell, and some time creating new material.

None of these really happened fast enough to build a stable, enticing game experience. Maybe if Gametap had pumped the money faster, or for another year, or if Cyan had built something else, or run their game differently, it would have worked. It didn't, so it's done.

(I must address one point specifically: I am not blaming the POTS material for killing Uru Live. It was old hat to a lot of old players, including me. But Uru failed because the growth rate was insufficient. Growth is defined as new players, meaning people who (mostly) haven't played the 2004 expansion packs. 2007 was all new to them. And it still didn't bring them in fast enough. So now you know.)

The real question is: Do I see Uru coming back?

Not in its original form. The plan for Uru was a commercial, online, massively multiplayer adventure game, with new adventure material constantly being produced by Cyan and consumed by players.

This plan now has several fatal holes. Cyan is smaller than it was in 2003. It has not managed to produce a stream of great adventure material in the online mode. The Uru codebase has scaling issues on multiple axes.

I'm not just talking about frame rate. The player-to-player message system is nearly useless for a large community; the world state model has synch problems in crowded Ages; the physics system is a millstone in several ways; the avatar and clothing system can't make a crowd of people look distinct.

None of those are unbreakable obstacles -- but breaking any of them would take a pile of time and money. Another pile, I should say. Cyan spent all of 2006 working on these problems, using Gametap's money. The 2007 Uru was vastly better than the 2003 model, but not enough better.

Which brings up the real fatal hole in Uru's plan, which is that it's failed twice now. Only a crazy person would fund it again. By "crazy person", I mean someone who would be willing to throw tens of millions of dollars into a hole and never see it again. And even if you found such a person, would Cyan want to exhume the project? I cannot remotely imagine the burnout, the pain that those coders and admins and artists must associate with Uru right now.

So that's a dumb question: Uru is not coming back as a commercial Cyan enterprise, not anytime soon. The real question is, will Uru return as a player-supported project?

It could, as I've said. If Cyan opens up exactly the same server system that they did in 2004-2006, people will run servers and hang out. It would not be a blip in the gaming universe, mind you. It would be some people sharing a virtual space. Maybe several hundred, maybe as few as fifty, on a regular basis.

Or maybe more than that. If new areas begin opening up, it's more than a chat room. And players have been working on new Uruareas, using homegrown tools, for years. Those efforts went into high gear in mid-2007, when Cyan announced that Uru's social model would grow to include Guilds, modeled after the Guilds of D'ni history -- including the Guild of Writers, the creators of Ages. (In December, Cyan slipped a hint that their intended arc for 2008 was "Rise of the Guilds".)

The player-organized Guild of Writers is using the Uru software of the 2004-6 era. Several showcase Ages are already shaping up. So there's an obvious route: fan-run servers, connected through Cyan but not under Cyan's direct management, with fan-created content posted as it appears. Anarchic and vital, as I've been pushing for all along.

I am glossing over an entire sub-argument: how much oversight Cyan should have over player Ages and storylines. Do they review designs before implementation? Do they accept some as "official" after release? Will there be such a thing as an official constellation of Ages, an official storyline?

I've discussed all these arguments before, in the pre-cancellation era. There wasn't any community consensus then either, but of course all the goalposts are shifted now. (And will continue to shift, since Cyan's plans are still unannounced.) The past week has seen dozens of posts about the "obvious" plan of bringing back Untìl Uru with fan-created Ages. Each of them has an "obvious" notion of Cyan's role in this plan. No two such notions quite agree.

If you dig even a few inches down, I suspect, you'll uncover the real relic of contention: was Cyan's plan for Uru a work of genius, murdered by insufficient funding? Or was it clueless blundering devoid of story, immersion, and interest? (Both sides add a twist of the shallowness of our corrupt society, chill and serve with bitter aperitif.)

I am condensing these points of view, not exaggerating them. Forum threads are going on right now on both themes, and both have been stated in about so many words. (And, I admit, many more judicious and less extreme.) The valuable question is not which is right. (Both are self-evidently true, to an extent. You already knew that.)

The real question is, can you criticize Cyan's handling of story, interactivity, and game design -- all of which I've done, intelligently, I hope -- without also criticizing Cyan's role as the ultimate arbiter of Uru fan work? That is: who says they're so smart? Look at all the mistakes they've made.

Cue wild disagreement on just what mistakes those are. Which is precisely my point.

One might argue someone has to be in charge, if the universe is to have any consistency, and it might as well be Cyan. To which I say: Cyan hasn't been that big on consistency either. Look at any discussion of linking-book logic, or Age instances. Or, don't. Every such discussion descends into pages of detailed minutiae, precisely because Cyan has fudged their rules again and again in their quest for better gameplay. I don't hold this against them -- gameplay should come first.

Since Uru invites us to design gameplay on an Age-by-Age basis, the argument for a Grand Master of Consistency vanishes. This is massively-collaborative art, not a single game. We've had the era of rigid central control. Look how well it worked. Next!

The whole debate assumes that Cyan wants to be overseer of Uru; it assumes they'll have that power. In the UU era, Cyan ran a central authentication server. So they had no real power except the power to shut all the servers down (which they did, when Uru Live launched). But nothing says Cyan even has to go that far. If they release server binaries without that authentication hook, Uru moves entirely into the hands of the players.

Or, for all I know, we could do that hack ourselves.

To some degree, the Uru code -- venerable and scary as it must be -- is not the heart of Uru. I mentioned scaling issues. Who says Uru should continue on Cyan's client and server architecture? Certainly, if I had fifty million dollars to refloat the project, the first thing I'd want is to rewrite a whole lot of code.

Yes, we have reasons to lean towards continuity. Dozens of Age models using the current codebase. The Guild of Writers tools are geared for... well, a three-year-old version of that codebase. If Cyan restarts UU, just as it was three years ago, everyone will go there by default.

But virtual world platforms are becoming a commodity. From a quick web search:

* Second Life. Okay, everyone knows it. And I can't mention it without using the phrase "rain of genitalia". But it's big, well-tested, and you can fence off areas for your own community. Or, heck, run your own Second Life server -- the code is open-source, and I hear it's not expensive to run if you turn off all the server-side physics.

* Metaplace. Not open yet; don't know much about it. It doesn't seem to be open-source, but the goal seems to be to let people create and script game environments.

* Project Darkstar. Sun offers MMO-specialized server hosting. Open-source, but you have to like Java.

* Croquet. Open-source software system. Looks low-level, but therefore powerful.

* Multiverse. Software system for MMO creation. Not open-source, but free for non-commercial use.

This is not intended to be a complete list. (See this post for a much better one.) I'm pointing out that a lot of people are working on this. Multiplayer world hosting is going to be an off-the-shelf solution soon, if it isn't already. Uru is not a perfect system today; it's tempting to ditch its bugs, and equally tempting to ditch the effort of writing our own Age creation tool.

So the real question is: what do we want? And what's stopping us?

March 5, 2008

Wright To Go KRAZY!, Kurate Game Space In New Exhibition

- This just came in over the wires, and seems to be an interesting attempt to smoosh together leading 'pop-art' movements into a collaborative Vancouver-based exhibition, with the game part of it being curated by Will Wright and including an apparently playable version of Spore.

Looks like Mario, Civilization and Pac-Man might be shown there too, judging by the list of contributors at the end - and the exhibit will hit New York (destination as yet unrevealed!) in 2009. Anyhow, here's highlights from the full release:

"For the first time, the Vancouver Art Gallery will bring the worlds of anime, comics, cartoons, video games, manga, graphic novels and contemporary art together in one exhibition. Offering an innovative and dynamic survey, KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art reveals the uniqueness of each medium, while uncovering their histories, interrelations and future trajectories.

On view from May 17 to September 7, 2008, the exhibition is co-curated by some of the art forms’ most influential artists and cultural producers, including Maus author Art Spiegelman, The Sims creator Will Wright, comic artist Seth and animated feature film director Tim Johnson. Conceived and developed by Vancouver Art Gallery senior curator Bruce Grenville, the exhibition will travel to a New York City arts institution in March 2009.

“The Vancouver Art Gallery is committed to fostering new and dynamic understandings of visual culture. With the exhibition KRAZY!, we seized a tremendous opportunity to forward the study of some of the world’s fastest growing art forms,” said Kathleen Bartels, director of the Vancouver Art Gallery. “Despite the pervasive presence of these media, little has been done to assess the ties that bind them. By offering an interdisciplinary account in a major survey exhibition for the first time, we will illuminate their importance as a sustained cultural force.”

One of the largest exhibitions ever organized by the Gallery, KRAZY! will occupy two entire floors of gallery space and is designed in collaboration with Tokyo-based architectural firm Atelier Bow-Wow—a design team renowned for their understanding of informal culture and ability to enhance communal visual experiences.

Divided into seven sections defined by medium, the exhibition takes viewers through ever-changing gallery environments, which include a mini-theatre for viewing animated cartoons and anime, immersive video spaces and innovative reading environments for visitors to experience a deluge of manga, graphic novels and comics.

Built to ensure visitors are exposed to the full breath of the media, the exhibition comprises more than 600 artworks, including original sketches, concept drawings, sketchbooks, storyboards, production drawings, films, video games, animation cels, three dimensional models, sculptures, books, manga and much more....

KRAZY! is a rare opportunity to see artworks that have shaped the history of contemporary visual culture, including Art Spiegelman’s drawings for the first three-page version of his Pulitzer prize-winning Maus; George Herriman’s last three drawings for Krazy Kat; Lotte Reiniger’s 1927 The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the first feature-length animated cartoon; a sneak preview of Will Wright’s groundbreaking video game Spore; and an extraordinary selection of drawings from Yuichi Yokoyama’s latest manga, New Engineering.

The exhibition also includes works by Moyoco Anno, Lynda Barry, Marcel Broodthaers, Chester Brown, Cao Fei, Milt Gross, Pierre Huyghe, Ichiro Itano, Tim Johnson, Yoko Kanno, Satoshi Kon, Harvey Kurtzman, John Lasseter, Roy Lichtenstein, Christian Marclay, Winsor McCay, Sid Meier, Shigeru Miyamoto, Junko Mizuno, Mamoru Nagano, Claes Oldenburg, Mamoru Oshii, Katsuhiro Otomo, Nick Park, Raymond Pettibon, Seth, Iwatani Toru, Chris Ware, Masaaki Yuasa and many more."

GDC: Game Designers Rant On Making Games That Matter

- [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, Brandon Boyer writes up the most canonical retelling of the always-intriguing 'Developer Rant' session.]

In a special designer-focused rant that showed a surprising amount of thematic overlap, Clint Hocking, Jenova Chen, Jane McGonigal, Jon Mak, and Daniel James 'expressed opinions forcefully' on the state of games, all seeming to agree that the industry is too scared to say anything with real meaning.

First up, and with seemingly the most actual fire, Ubisoft designer Clint Hocking said that though he originally planned to rant on creative stagnation, he eventually concluded it was a "tired generic topic," and "can't get pissed off about it" as he was "not sure that it's there."

Beyond Fetishism

"Pound for pound," he said, "we're actually the most creative fucking industry in the history of the world. Being creative is actually pretty easy -- having the courage to challenge people, that's hard."

Instead of wondering if games can make you cry or if games mean something, he said, accept that it's true and move forward on the assumption.

What if there was a game, he posited, with a virtual spouse, someone you had to develop a relationship with in a systemic way, what if the goal was to comfort the spouse? "Why can't Call of Duty be actually about duty? Why isn't Medal of Honor about honor?" he asked.

"What if you actually packaged the experience of what it means to be honorable -- 95% of people haven't felt that. It would sure suck to have 10 million gamers running around being the most honorable people on earth," he snarked.

Showing screenshots of Passage and The Marriage he said, "Two guys tinkering in their spare time have moved things forward more than the rest of the industry," saying the industry had to start using "proven techniques for building compelling emotional investment in things real human beings give a shit about."

People interact ten times as much with Lord of the Rings than games not because of the potions, and staffs and spells, but because of the human interaction. "The mechanics of trust are not harder to model and simulate than the mechanics of rope," he stressed, saying this object fetishism was abundantly apparent when you consider the most meaningful relationship in a game last year was with a cube.

"What we lack is not creativity, what we lack is the courage... we have to challenge something more than our reflexes... but we lack courage to risk ourselves for our art," he said.

Adding a quote from a programmer friend, he concluded, "we have the pieces of the puzzle in our hands. We have the creativity, the money, the demand is there -- 'dude it's code, we can do anything.'"

Interpretive Rant

Following Hocking was Everyday Shooter creator Jon Mak who chose to make his point metaphorically, and instead of delivering a traditional rant, asked the entire audience to stand and cued a music track.

At that point, Indiecade's Sam Roberts took the stage in his place, gesticulating wildly in a muted faux-rant while Mak and friends ran through the audience distributing balloons, pinwheels, and bits of paper with inspirational message, as the audience kept the balloons in the air for the duration of his allotted time.

Reality Is Broken

Next up was ARG designer Jane McGonigal, who admitted her rant wasn't actually about game designers. "Compared to rest of the world we have it all figured out," she said, "we invented a medium that kicks every other media's ass... We occupy more brain cycles, make more people happy than any other medium in the world. Basically, we've won already."

It's taken the industry three decades to learn how to engineer systems that engage brains, bodies, and hearts, she said, but "the bad news is we rule the virtual world. In truth, reality is too messy, we don't want to fix reality, we want to create alternative realities."

"Reality is broken," she said, and "we are the people that are supposed to fix it, as the smartest people on planet." Game designers know how to engage human beings, and it's imperative that they create systems that make us happy, successful, powerful in real life.

Showing a photo of graffiti she passes every day, a sticker saying 'I'm not good at life', she said she's been spending the last year researching happiness and positive psychology, and shared the four key elements of happiness: having satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something, time spent with people we like, and having a chance to be part of something bigger.

Games kill boredom, she said, games kill alienation, anxiety, and depression, and said there are easy things games can fix today, in the real world -- running, making a game from the NikePlus iPod pedometer; being on a plane, with Virgin America's on-board chat and game system; playing fetch, with Snifflabs social networking dog collar; commuting, with a game based on the Trackstick GPS.

Can we fix things, she asked the audience, responding Yes. Should we? Hell yes. Will we fix things? I have no idea, she admitted.

An Intermission

Next, Spore's Chris Hecker was brought to the stage to be given a new game rant award for the "most controversial meaningful media grabbing rant" -- the first ever duct tape award, a reference to Hecker's 2007 speech where he famously referred to the Nintendo Wii as two GameCubes duct taped together, causing a blog uproar for which he later apologized.

Hecker shared some of the responses he got from his rant, and said he stood by his apology but still felt he was slightly misrepresented. "After everything I've been, through," he said, "I still believe in the power of ranting" -- or rather, expressing opinions forcefully (and thoughtfully, and politely).

The reason he's still into it he said, is simply that complacency equals death, and while the industry knows in the bottoms of its collective hearts that games could be preeminent art form of the 21st century, "on our current trajectory, not sure we'll get there."

Less Little Pigs, More Little Prince

Fl0w creator Jenova Chen then took the stage admitting shyly that "Clint said most of my points, and Jane made me feel like an idiot," but continued saying that the industry isn't necessarily in the worst of times -- that indie games were moving to consoles with increasing regularity, that new digital distribution methods meant more people had greater access to their games.

Instead, his rant was from a gamer's perspective, someone "growing older every year, and losing interest to try new games" -- finding that while games are more engaging and satisfying, behind the physics games still weren't "that much more complicated than a set of wooden toys."

People never say that people should grow up and out of reading books or watching movies or playing sports, and while each could be seen as more intellectual, emotionally fulfilling, or social, respectively, there's no reasons games can't provide that more mature content.

"We don't need more Three Little Pigs, we need The Little Prince" -- games that make you feel and think about your life, he concluded.

Aren't Video Games Brilliant?

Finally, in a rant inspired by Paul Whitehouse's "brilliant!" Fast Show character, Puzzle Pirates creator Daniel James started by saying "isn't GDC fantastic!"

When he was young, he admitted, from the ages of 6 to 11 he essentially stayed in his room playing with Lego, and now Lego was being made into an MMO, a space where he could do the same socially (brilliant!).

After that he played Elite and at night used to dream that you could play with other people," and now we have EVE Online -- after MUDs came 10 million people playing World of Warcraft (WTF, amazing!).

Psychic implants are coming in the near future, Facebook applications are being used by 20 million people, developers are being funded well (totally awesome!), but as the line between the virtual and the real is very thin, it puts creators in an incredible place.

Again, as the rest of the panel stated, James concluded that the industry needed to take a closer look at what it's saying, and not just creating and then justifying themselves afterward, drawing the session to an emotional close.

GameSetVideo: Same As It Ever Was

Aha, a note from Thuyen Nguyen: " I've just completed my latest machinima film, and seeing as you were interested enough to feature my last film on GameSetWatch (The Most Powerful Person in the World, 2007/05), I thought you'd be interested."

So what is it? "'Same As It Ever Was' is thematically similar to my last film, in that it is another "defense" of video games. But while the last film was a celebration of all that good about games, the new film is a direct response to all of the video game critics. I argue that critics are simply re-using the same arguments against games as they did for movies, music, television, comics, etc":

Thuyen's conclusion? "Simply put, games are just another in the long line of scapegoats for society's ills. To make my point, I use, amongst other things, a rabbit :)"

March 4, 2008

GameSetLinks: Tuesday Is The New Monday

Yay, it's totally Tuesday, and there's all kinds of leftover GameSetLinks to be spooling out here.

Particularly please to see the text adventure genre still blasting here - I really enjoy these subgenres, and it's great to see they're still flowing even now, a couple of decades after the ostensible 'end' of the genre in commercial terms. Here goes:

XYZZYnews: 2007 XYZZY Award Finalists
Another wonderful subgenre still kickin', the text adventure.

Haxed by Megahurtz / a Wii [Flash] game made by the mentally ill.
Extreeeeemely strange, in a good way - via everyone.

Critical-Gaming: Reducing the Clutter
'In this post, I'll take a moment to point out some of the trends I have found that most easily lead to creating cluttered gameplay experiences.'

Citizen Game » What Is The New Ninja Theory Project?
Big in 2009 for PS3? Makes sense to me, too.

Scene.org Awards for 2007 - Nominees
Demo-scene still trucking, Media Molecule sponsoring (Alex Evans aka Statix is a demo legend!) - via Waxy.

YouTube - Kariodude's custom Guitar Hero videos
How soon before Guitar Hero or Rock Band allows user-uploaded songs and/or song tracking, given the quality of these?

Grand Text Auto » PvP: Portal versus Passage
Did I not link this? I should have!

GDC 2008 - snarfed.org
Oop, only just found this - a great round-up of the show from a trends perspective.

NVScene 08
An Nvidia-sponsored demo competition in San Jose this August as part of their NVParty? Uh, rock.

ffwd: Simon Carless' personal linklog
Not _generally_ game-related, but if you like GSW, I realized you might like it.

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Wrestling with robots

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, sometimes by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. And sometimes not. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers the the recent release of yet another Armored Trooper VOTOMS game and the developer responsible for its creation.]

yukes_logo_small.jpgDeveloping mecha games isn’t easy, not only do you require a team of incredibly knowledge individuals that have an almost innate understanding of the mecha mythos but you also need that expertise tempered with a common sense approach to games design. Outside of Japan, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a team that can bring the best out of the genre. Even within the land of the rising ninja, there are a lot of developers that lack the nowse to pull it off.

So when a developer renowned for its wrestling games is slated to develop a game that celebrates quarter of a century of real robot anime, certain negative assumptions are made. In this case, those assumptions were thankfully wholly without merit.

votoms_ps2_cover.jpgYuke’s is a developer that has been around a while. More commonly known for their legion of wrestling games, this particular columnist is more familiar with their third person action RPG by the name of Soukaigi. It’s also probably safe to say that they are a developer of pedigree but most certainly inexperienced when it comes to the treacherous waters surrounding the creation of mecha games.

In a previous column, the anime luminary Ryosuke Takahashi was covered in some detail. It’s clear that his influence has had a palpable effect on the creation of mecha games but on the whole whenever his animated works are converted into game form they very rarely work. In some ways Takahashi’s striving for realism trips up games designers, as they try to interpret that in a more ostentatious manner than it was originally envisioned.

In many ways Soukou Kihei VOTOMS, or translated as Armored Trooper VOTOMS, has defined Takahashi’s mark on the medium of anime, for nearly 25 years its has acted as a beacon for developers to create games based around coherent rule sets. The Armored Core series, for one, would simply not exist had it not been for VOTOMS. As the anime utilises the same rule set that From Software almost entirely copied (as in the customised mecha, with hard points for different weapons and a finite amount of resources at their disposal). Not to mention the series narrative premise; that of a lone mercenary unravelling the web of political intrigue and conspiracy, only to find a large computer behind it all.

votoms_ps2_1.jpgNaturally, you’d think that if a VOTOMS game were to be made then a developer like From Software would be the obvious choice. Well, they weren’t.

For whatever reason, Yuke's was chosen to helm the development of a new VOTOMS game on the PlayStation 2 to tie in with the release of the upcoming series the Pailsen Files.

It's worth clarifying at this point that there have been a lot of VOTOMS games over the years, not including games that feature the mecha, there are are a total of five dedicated games of which four of those were on the PSone. Each of the games, even the Super Famicom iteration, were suitably clunky to control and bizarrely eschewed the simplicity of function portrayed in the anime in favour of something rather obtuse.

votoms_slashdog.jpgAdmittedly, Bandai tried to sweeten the deal over the years by packaging the excellent Takara toys with some of the games (to which Lightning Slash received a bespoke armored trooper) but they still didn't hide the fact that the games were functionally awkward and only really suitable for hardened VOTOMS fans, who would overlook their many faults.

The biggest of which was how the AT's moved and tracked targets. In the anime, the AT cameras are hardwired into the pilot's goggles. Giving them an intense and thorough first person view of their proceedings. In addition, the Gilgamesh AT's had essentially in-built powered roller skates housed in their feet.

The combat choreography was then portrayed as something where sliding around on roller skates at high speed whilst firing off massive calibre anti-AT rounds was beautifully easy.

Well, in the anime the pilot's also had access to pedals and twin control sticks and years of training to pull such feats off. Unfortunately, the older games interpreted the movement of AT's literally without making up for the use of a Dual Shock pad, the lack of pedals and the aforementioned years of training. Consequently the games weren't easy to control and acquiring a target was close to impossible, as you had to manually track them.

votoms_ps2_6.jpgSome concessions were made, such as the move to third person, but the overall focus was on the faithful aesthetic recreation of AT movement; in short the animation took precedence over the design.

Yuke's approached the new version with the opposite mindset; that the controls had to reflect what the anime was doing and the animation would take up the slack. What has transpired, down to this simple reversal of design priorites, is probably the most fluid and engaging mecha game of recent years.

To explain, AT control is based around a lock system where you orbit an enemy. Admittedly nothing overly new there but if your target is visually obscured behind some foliage, your lock is broken. In addition, if they zoom past you at certain angles then again you're lock is broken. The strength of the lock has been perfectly, almost tactilely, gauged by Yuke's. As they've found that threshold that feels right without becoming too intrusive or irritating. Once a target is acquired the roller skating fun can commence and now that the lock has priority over the animation, it feels very natural and ironically looks more convincing as well.

votoms_ps2_5.jpgIn any other mecha game, the above implementation would cement its place amongst the great mecha games. Thing is, Yuke's went further in terms of the game's functionality. In the anime, the AT's aren't very big at all and house the pilot in its torso. They are also fairly uniform in terms of internal controls as well, so in the anime you often see the characters jumping in and out of AT's.

The brilliance of this new VOTOMS game is that not only did Yuke's nail the AT handling but they let the player out of their AT and walk around on foot. You can toggle first person modes too, both in your AT and outside it. It's also oddly rewarding taking down an enemy AT with just a rifle on foot (something that was shown admirably in the anime Mellowlink, a VOTOMS sidestory of a sort).

You can also cheat death as your AT explodes around you by ejecting and looking for another ride whilst you deal with the enemies in your vicinity. It's as close to Grand Theft Mecha as we are ever likely to get and it's also far more focused in terms of level layout as well.

votoms_ps2_3.jpgIf you're someone who's a fan of the original 1983 anime series it's also a nice touch that all the spin off mini-series are contained as unlockables once you finish the main campaign (even the Blue Knight manga series gets its place in the game, though they failed to include the Testa Rossa but that is hardly surprising considering how potent it is in the manga). For a developer not known for their mecha insight, the sheer level of detail Yuke's have gone to i is refreshingly wonderful. As most developers have a habit of thinking they know it all, overlooking the basic problems that can befall the vast majority of mecha games.

At present there are no plans for this new VOTOMS game to get a Western release. Admittedly, the original series is available on DVD in the US but it didn't exactly fly off shelves, so the fanbase is most certainly in the "discerning" category. If you're not averse to importing, then this is something that even non-mecha aficionados can appreciate.

[Kurokishi is a humble servant of the Drake forces and his interests include crushing inferior opponents, combing his mane of long silvery hair and dicking around with cheap voice synthesisers. When he's not raining down tyrannical firepower upon unsuspecting peasants in his Galava aura fighter he likes to take long moonlight walks and read books about cheese.]

Best Of GDC: Emotiv Knows What You're Thinking

- [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, Eric-Jon Waugh writes up some of the most detailed info available online thus far on Emotiv's fascinating brain-based game control device.]

At an in-depth lecture during the 2008 Game Developers Conference, Julian Wixson and a small panel of associates described and demonstrated the Emotiv headset and SDK, suggesting how a developer might incorporate the technology into a new or even quite finished production.

The svelte Emotiv headset uses an array of sixteen EEG sensors to detect electrical impulses in the scalp. These signals are then interpreted by a suite of tools, each with its own range of applications.

The "Expressiv" application identifies and interprets facial expressions; one of Wixson's associates demonstrated winking, blinking, and an unnerving grin, each of which was replicated on a rough facial model. Another application, called "Affectiv", recognizes emotional states.

The most substantial and interesting application is the most active one, "Cognitiv", which "classifies conscious active intent". That is to say, it interprets what the wearer wants to do, allowing a player to execute specific commands and actions through thought alone.

Origins

Emotiv began about four years ago in Sydney, Australia, as a medical research company, focused on identifying emotional states in the brain of the individual. After some development, however, the company soon changed focus to consumer hardware.

The reasons they chose EEG, out of all the available brain monitoring methods, are that it is the cheapest option; it is by far the easiest to use, requiring only about a minute of setup; that it is small and lightweight; and that it is a completely passive, non-invasive monitor of the body's "free" signals.

Touchy Feely

Some of the "Expressiv" signals, like blinking, are detected in binary (either they're on or they're off); most others, such as mouth movement, are progressive, interpreting a wide range of expression. Suggested uses include MMORPGs and other avatar-based situations, to enhance communication. NPCs in a standard RPG setting, however, could also react differently depending on the player's decorum (in place of overt dialog branching).

Amongst uses in development for "Affetiv" is a frustration detector, which could lead to dynamic difficulty adjustment. The player's emotional state might also drive aspects of the game, such as musical score or graphical flourishes.

On the more practical end, this application would be useful in monitoring play testers, offering quantitative user data. A more deliberate use might involve mental challenges, such as remaining calm while fighting, or meditating to generate magic.

The "Fun Part"

"Cognitiv" is the most complex application, and also the most flexible. As it is quite a different thing to detect active intent, compared with passive and more or less universal brain functions, both the software and the player need a bit of training and adaptation to produce much of a constructive result.

The training phase consists of the player being asked to imagine conducting a particular action – such as pushing a cube into the screen – for a certain number of seconds. Depending on the player's focus, this might at first take more than one attempt. As the player becomes more adept, actions become easier and more natural, and soon the player can begin to juggle multiple thoughts at once.

Some suggested uses include telekinesis, disintegration, and "social manipulation" ("I am the Master, and you will obey me!"). The Emotiv team stresses that it does not envision the headset as a replacement for traditional input so much as an additional layer on top of familiar control schemes.

Some Logistics

Any "Cognitiv" actions should probably be more properly thought of as more sophisticated and unconventional "super moves" rather than mere strings of button presses. That said, there are various ways of interpreting and integrating actions, from direct interaction (think the bat in Wii Sports) to various scripts (specific thoughts triggering abstract sequences of action).

One curious function, "Emokey", allows direct mapping of thoughts to keystrokes. This can also apply to legacy applications; the team discussed their experiences playing Bioshock with the headset.

It is up to developers to choose the depth of integration, from a surface-level key binding, down through some compromises with certain default settings, all the way to a hardcore, full integration, incorporating training into the game design.

Any training might be subtly, even subversively, integrated into the tutorial portion of a game. Since people change over time, it might also be wise to allow the player to train again and "refocus" at will.

"We expect to be amazed," engineer James Wright said, referencing some of the imagination vacuum in Wii and DS software. "I will be very disappointed if the only ideas [developers come up with] are ones we've talked about here in this session."

March 3, 2008

Opinion: Why EA Rocks (And Sucks) In 2008

- Electronic Arts is the world's biggest publisher, and sure, to many industry observers and even regular developers, they're handily categorized as 'The Man' - the billions-grossing, franchise-owning 'suits' of the game business.

But following John Riccitiello's return to the company as CEO, it's all got a lot more complicated than that. Sure, Electronic Arts is still the game publisher that grosses over $3 billion a year in revenues, and has 7,900 employees. And it's swallowing the competition swiftly, with the BioWare/Pandemic deal and its attempts to grab Take-Two.

But what has Riccitiello's return augured for EA? And how is the behemoth adapting to the rapid rise of the Web, social gaming, and the plethora of other factors that make the game industry an extremely interesting place to be right now? Can EA be an innovator even despite its mass? And what just isn't working

So, with apologies for slight hyperbole, here's five reasons why Electronic Arts 'rocks', and five reasons why it 'sucks' (with understanding that, in aggregate, the company does neither) in 2008:

Why EA Rocks

1. The Silo-ization Of What Makes EA Great
The re-organization of Electronic Arts away from a centralized structure in June 2007 was an extremely smart move. It separated out the company into EA Games (the 'core' AAA titles), EA Casual (to capitalize on the 'mainstreaming' of games), The Sims (looking to extend their signature casual franchise - more on this later), and EA Sports (a vital mainstay for the company).

These divisions, which are based around vertical slices rather than geographies, have inspired focus in the firm, and I think they've put EA ahead of the competition in terms of focus beyond the 'obvious' AAA game.

2. The Possibilities Of EA Blueprint
Of course, we don't quite know what this 'mysterious' Bay Area-based stealth EA division is yet. Variety's Ben Fritz tried to extract the facts, revealing that the Neil Young-headed division is "focused on developing, at low cost, original intellectual property that can spread across multiple media". It's overseeing the Spielberg games at EALA, as well as projects at Maxis.

But what it really represents is Electronic Arts' attempt to birth new IP across consoles, handhelds, the Web, and even non-game media simultaneously. Let's not forget Young's work on Majestic, a cross-media project that was definitely ahead of its time. So what EA Blueprint appears to be is Electronic Arts' skunkworks, and the fact that they have one is another reason to believe EA is trying to innovate.

3. EA's Small Team Innovation
As part of the Independent Games Summit this year, the 'Tale Of Two Kyles' lecture had, as one half, EA Tiburon's Kyle Gray discussing his experiences making a small-team DS title commissioned internally by EA Casual, after only a modicum of complex Powerpoint presentations to the 'suits'.

As part of the presentation, Gray showed the Nintendo DS platformer that resulted, with dual-screen gameplay featuring hilarious British stereotypes twinned with a clever puzzle game twist, and even a opera-singing boss. He quipped in questions: "It's this weird new face of EA... they're actually looking to do new things now." And, you know - I think they are.

4. EA Partners & Game Distribution
Part of the changing game paradigm is the understanding that some game creators are powerful enough to fund and creatively control their own games, but still need help getting them out to the public.

The EA Partners division of the company is probably the most high-profile entity in the game business that 'gets' this right now in terms of retail distribution - taking a smaller cut in exchange for accomplishing a simpler distribution task.

Thus, 2007's fruits were in the form of both Valve's Orange Box and Harmonix/MTV's Rock Band - both massive titles. Of course, digital distribution isn't quite such a hot spot for EA, but the power of retail for AAA games means EA Partners is a hidden gem in the company's output.

5. Rod Humble & The Sims
One of the least-discussed but most interesting announcements at GDC was Rod Humble's lecture announcing The Sims Carnival. Humble is important in art-game circles for his games such as The Marriage, and his role as the head of The Sims Studio is allowing some startlingly interesting concepts to make it into the expansion of that franchise.

In particular, as it's explained of TheSimsCarnival.com: "The site uses a wizard interface to allow people to configure pre-made components for integration into a game.... 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." While, sure, the meat and potatoes of The Sims is still the iterative expansion packs and so on, things like this are taking the franchise in new and innovative directions.

Why EA Sucks

1. The Failure Of RenderWare
Next-generation tools and pipeline are one of the key things you can get right when building AAA games - and Electronic Arts, by and large, did not. We covered this in a remarkably honest Bing Gordon interview in early 2007, in which the EA CCO admitted: "Renderware didn't get the next-gen parts that we needed. We actually underestimated Epic early on... We had a couple of teams that were waiting on Renderware. We probably stuck with it too long."

As a result, it appears that some of EA's key next-gen titles had to practically restart development on the (also still in-progress) Unreal Engine 3 - titles such as EALA's Medal Of Honor Airborne, which semi-buried the franchise with mediocre reviews.

And EA is lacking engine technology of its own, reliant on Epic for some of its top titles - not unique, of course, but still unfortunate given the Criterion/RenderWare purchase. This has all definitely put a crimp in EA's next-gen style.

2. Electronic Arts, Licenses, & Misfires
As everyone knows, licensed games are not that easy to execute on. But some people are getting it right nowadays - from Ubisoft with King Kong through Vivendi's soon to be updated Chronicles Of Riddick games.

Yet EA, of recent, has struck out both in terms of critical reception - Superman Returns, for example, and in terms of sales - notable if you compare The Simpsons Game's reception and sales with that of the movie. Do license restrictions make good gameplay impossible? If it's going to pay out big bucks again, EA has to work this out.

3. Gaps In The Studio System
While some of Electronic Arts' massive campuses do indeed excel at iterating on franchises, some of the public posturing in recent years about how applying Will Wright's 'cell/pod structure' to teams at, say, Electronic Arts Los Angeles don't seem to have really resulted in markedly higher quality games.

In fact, weak points such as the non-Criterion parts of Electronic Arts' UK operation and the much-hyped EALA office - which hasn't really produced an outstanding game yet, despite the massive expenditure - have been letting EA down and giving doubt to their claim that large regional studios can work for innovation.

It'll be interesting to see how the 'silo-ization' affects the studio output over the next couple of years. We now have a situation where one regional studio can be producing games for three or four internal EA 'labels' - and that may lead to different 'flavors' of developer even within single real-world locations. Or added confusion.

4. The Painful Birth Of Spore
Let's face it, folks, Will Wright's Spore has been the 'next big thing' for too long, and its horribly distended development schedule has taken its toll. This title won several 'Best Of Show' awards in E3 2005, for pity's sake.

While it's not reaching Duke Nukem-levels of backlash, the more we understand about its beautifully Maxis-designed but pretty darn abstract concept, the more we understand that an originally PC-centric game has been stretched onto console and handheld to justify its profile and budget. The game could well be a masterpiece, but its public birth has stretched patiences and may yet embarrass EA.

5. The Silos Don't Quite Line Up
One last side-effect of the new (and generally promising) silo structure at Electronic Arts - there's a lot of possible crossover, sometimes in some messy ways. For example, there's EA Casual, and then The Sims Studio, and some might argue that The Sims is simply a casual-oriented franchise - albeit a gigantic one.

All this twisting and turning can lead to some odd choices - like the branding of The Sims On Stage, which just doesn't work at all for me - or even Pogo Island for DS being produced by EA Games, a colleague was claiming to me last week. The bottom line - while this organizational change is a vertical slice, and a step in the right directional, it's not an entirely neat one.

GameSetLinks: From Gravitation To Takahashi

Ah yes, the linkage has returned, and this time, there's a whole bunch of stuff - particularly Jason Rohrer's new post-Passage art game, and Dean Takahashi's return to writing at VentureBeat.

I also appreciate Valleywag's cheekiness in reprinting the TED attendees, in typically disruptive Gawker style. Interesting to see who from the game biz turns up to the uber-elite conference, at least. Anyhow, here's those links:

Valleywag: Leaks: The complete list of TED attendees
Naughty Valleywag! Game-related folks I found - Bing Gordon, Dave Perry, Hal Halpin, Lou Castle, Michael Wilson (There), Morgan Webb. Comment if you spot others.

MIT Technology Review: Art Games
'Digital artists are using game technologies to create bold new works.' Brody Condon and others in the art world with crossover - a neat scene we don't cover enough.

Rock Band Drum Pads - noise dampening for your drums.
They were kind enough to send me some of these, and I recommend them wholeheartedly - nice co-ordinated color and LOTS less noise.

The Something Awful Forums - Let's Play!
Consistently some of the most fun co-op game playing - conducted via forums, of course.

Media's embargo on "Harry's war" sparks debate - Yahoo! News UK
This is really interesting for _any_ journalist, even game writers, to think about.

GameVideos.com - 1UP Specials: PixelJunk,That Game Co.
Two Independent Games Summit creators chat to the Ziff folks.

Braid » Blog Archive » Jason Rohrer’s new art game: Gravitation
Thanks to Jon for the heads up - another really interesting (pictured) title from the Passage creator.

Penny Arcade's sign-up form for the PAX 10.
Hey, more indie competitions, neat!

GDC roundup post: the overshadowed casual games » VentureBeat
Takahashi's debuts on his new gig - pt.1 - also see pt.2, pt.3.

Looky Touchy: I Want To Make Games
'There's a long tradition of people who think about and critique a medium before moving on to become a part of it.' True, but I wish more people would swing the other way.

IndieGames.com's Best Freeware Shoot 'em ups 2007

[Thanks to Tim W. and his co-editors over at our sister IndieGames.com weblog for continuing to provide some of the best coverage on the indie scene out there! This last year round-up chart looks at the sometimes neglected freeware shmup scene in 2007.]


The final 2007 Best Of Features here on the IndieGames.com.blog, we're proud to present twenty of the best freeware shoot 'em ups released in 2007.

Horizontal, vertical or hybrid 2D and 3D shooters - whatever your fancy, you'll find everything here as we unveil another twenty noteworthy shoot 'em ups from last year, some of them from the fertile Japanese dojin scene, but also showcasing the awesome Western shooter development blossoming happening in recent months.

Best Freeware Shoot 'em ups 2007

  1. Varia
  2. MinishoterRS
  3. Garden of Colored Lights
  4. Return to Sector 9
  5. Prototype II
  6. Storm Assault
  7. Arcanacra Black Label
  8. Echoes
  9. Sonic Ironstorm: Fatal Attack
10. Honeyblaster
11. Fraxy
12. XED
13. Exception
14. Axion
15. Genetos
16. Kamiha
17. Gaism
18. Blast Force
19. Dotechin
20. Reincarnation

March 2, 2008

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 3/1/08

It cost me many weeks of hard work, much endurance, and quite possibly my sanity, but we finally receieved printed copies of PiQ Issue 1 the other day. What a relief! I actually have been working on something for the past little while, and not just been ferrying my bloated body to and fro between the office and my condo for no reason! What a refreshing experience!

I don't want to reveal the cover until readers begin to receive the mag, but you can see a small snippet of it to the left. As you can see, we've got a thrilling expose into the world of dirty toilet seats. I'm thinking about a multi-spread feature on graft and corruption in the plumber's helper manufacturing industry for Issue 2, so stay tuned.

Anyway, enough tooting about my own mag -- let's start looking at all the lovely game magazines (and also Beckett Massive Online Guide) that were released over the past couple weeks. I wanted to do more commentary, but I've got a deadline-induced cold, so I'm going to lie on my couch right now and watch RoboCop.

Electronic Gaming Monthly March 2008 (Podcast)

egm-0803.jpg

Cover: Revenge of the PS3!

Fortunately for all of us, the cover is not devoted to a preview feature. It's divided into eight "reasons" why the PS3 will do lovely in '08, and doesn't descent into preview-land until the final reason -- the games, of course. The rest of it is a nicely researched, well-written look into the full situation surrounding the system right now.

The other bit that caught my eye: "Funny Business," three pages of game developers telling humorous stories about their careers. fun, although for some reason the images on one of the pages are all pixelated, as if someone saved a PDF at the incorrect compression setting or somesuch. Ah well.

Edge March 2008

edge-0803.jpg

Cover: LEGO Indiana Jones

This! This is the cover Game Informer ought to have had last month! Not to mention the internal feature, too! It's lovely and hilarious -- while it's mostly "The developer said this and this and that's pretty rad" in style, you can tell the author made an effort to get into the developers' heads, at least, and figure out what they're really after beyond the PowerPoint presentation. Another feature takes EGM's cover and asks the next obvious question -- how will the Xbox 360 survive in '08? Its answers are a fair bit more business-oriented than EGM's reasons for why the PS3 will reign supreme, but it makes for a more compact (and interesting) piece overall for industry watchers. Further features on the sudden rise of game-themed movies and the future of the racing genre round out the middle.

Sometimes I wonder if the top difference between Edge and US mags these days is that Edge is 130 pages every month, allowing it more space for longform pieces, while magazines this side of the pond struggle to hit 100. Could that really be it? Could it be time for mags to work on their page sizes a little? Is that so impossible?

Play March 2008

play-0803.jpg

Cover: Mirror's Edge

Another hot-sclusive reveal for Play (although technically this was on Edge's cover a while back), Mirror's Edge gets the graphically rich Play treatment this month. The game's definitely further along nowadays, and it (along with the feature) look great. There's another hot reveal feature for Tales of Vesperia, although the vast majority of it is interview content with the rather nerdy-looking director and producer.

The back end of the mag contains the most anime content I've seen out of a Play issue in a while -- a 2007 overview, similar to the 2007 game roundup the editors did last month, along with some commentary from each editor around the office. The opening introductory blurb has what may be the most Play-like passage I have yet to see: "There's no such thing as a cottage industry in the US any longer. Sadly, we've been driven to the brink by greedy unscrupulous corporate megalomaniacs with tiny penises who won't be happy until we all have credit card numbers and membership data tattooed on our foreheads. I have an idea of what companies might take anime to a level where it can thrive in the US< but that's a topic for another feature (coming soon!)." Clear writing, people!

PC Gamer April 2008 (Podcast)

Cover: Command & Conquer Red Alert 3

pcgamer-0804.jpg

My favorite cover this roundup, no doubt, and the feature's pretty rad as well though a bit too jargon-laden for my non RTS loving eyes.

Oddest non-endemic ad of the month: LifeLock, featured in this issue, featuring Mr. "My Social Security # is 457-55-5462" Guy.

GamePro April 2008

gp-0804.jpg

Cover: "Where is... GEARS OF WAR 2?"

If you want a great example of how to make a cover feature out of not-very-much, GamePro's it this month -- although, admittedly, game editors get asked "Where's my sequels?!" all the time by readers, so this may actually be a bit of a genius stroke. The features inside are half random industry quotes and half equally-random speculation, and it's oddly brilliant to read. I heartily approve, despite myself.

Beckett Massive Online Game February/March 2008

beckettmog11.jpg

Cover: WOW vs. Warhammer

Despite my best efforts at mind-control to force them to fold, Beckett MMO is still going strong and at its eleventh issue. The special feature on the cover takes up one spread and maybe 400 words, a bunch of random plinking abouut which game ripped off whom that's totally useless. Whyyyy?

A little Wii for you

wiigamersguide2.jpg   wiigameguide2008.jpg

Spring specials are a-coming, and I bought them all, because I am a silly American who spends his money on useless trinkets. We seem to be getting a lot of Wii coverage on the newsstand -- something that echos all the Nintendo 64 specials and seasonal mags in my collection.

The Wii Gamers' Guide Spring Edition from GamePro is much like the previous one, a mix of retreads and original content that looks much like a typical GP issue that covers nothing but Wii stuff. Nintendo Power Presents the 2008 Wii Game Guide looks a bit more professional design-wise, but its innards are composed almost entirely of old NP review reprints.

Ultimate Videogame Codebook (CHEATS!) Volume 14

cheats%2114.jpg

And then, oh no, it's time for my good friend CHEATS! to lighten my wallet. I'm not exactly sure what the deal is, but every local copy I've seen of those book only mentions the Canadian price on the cover, although the UPC rings up $US19.99 all the same. Was I ripped off?

[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.]

GameSetLinks: Your New York Times Idol

Yesh, the return of GameSetLinks, and with 15 more piled up quite apart from these 10, I feel like the flow of blog-based goodness will never end in this fertile post-GDC period.

Among the highlights - Carbonated Games' multi-touch prototype for Microsoft's Surface tabletop computer, the still awesome-looking but sadly not localized Idolmaster franchise - or at least the Xbox 360 version - and a cornucopia of other miscellany. Start up the shoesaw:

ARGNet: Start Spreadin' the News
'Come Out and Play is back, baby' - the 'real-life game' festival back in NY this summer.

Arcade Renaissance: Two empty boxes sell for over $400
'Imagine my surprise when I checked out the link and found that two empty PCB interior shipping boxes had just sold for over $400 (44,500 yen to be exact).'

Consumating: Annabel Lee sings 'Still Alive'
The meme marches happily on, Berkeley-style - via WaxyIM.

YouTube - Firefly: The first game for Microsoft Surface
Carbonated Games (Uno) made this prototype, with multi-touch - v.neat.

National Console Support, Inc | IdolMaster: Live For You for Xbox 360
This so needs to come to the States already, Namco Bandai. Via Ferricide.

Gallery: Professor Layton Takes Over San Francisco | Game | Life from Wired.com
This game is worth your time, folks.

As Gaming Turns Social, Industry Shifts Strategies - New York Times
V. interesting Seth Schiesel piece on what GDC means.

insertcredit.com: Remembering the XaviXPORT
Wii-like, before its time - only terrible. My co-worker Mr. Sheffield gets all the scoops, which is why I adore him.

Play This Thing! - Game Criticism: Why We Need It And Why Reviews Aren't It
A tad hectoring, but very much worth reading.

The Independent Gaming Source: Chromatron 2, 3, and 4 Now Free!
Ex-Game Developer code columnist Sean Barrett is super low profile but neat.

Exclusive: The Making Of Harpooned

2008_02_29_harpooned4.jpg[In this special article written for GameSetWatch, Conor O'Kane discusses the development of his personal project, the ironic "Japanese Cetacean Research Simulator" Harpooned, investigating his decision to make an activist game in which the main aim was to make something fun, not just educational.]

Why Make A Game About Whaling?

Whaling is big news here in Australia. Every December when the Japanese whaling fleet passes by Australia to hunt in the southern ocean, we see footage on the television and read about it in the local newspapers. This is largely due to Australia’s interest in whale watching as a form of tourism, and also because Japan kills whales in and around the Australian Antarctic Territory.

So it’s a controversial and emotional issue in Australia, however for the rest of the world it’s not newsworthy and I suppose most people never give it a thought. I decided to make a game about whaling and specifically about Japan’s claim that their whaling is scientific, to draw international attention to the issue. Games have the ability to reach a younger and broader audience than newspapers or television and a game distributed on the Internet can have a truly international impact.

So my objectives in making Harpooned were:

* To draw international attention to Japan’s claim that their whaling program is scientific, not commercial.
* To reach people who would not normally read a newspaper article about whaling.
* To encourage debate and discussion on the subject.

The Restrictions Imposed Upon Development

I decided to make the game around the middle of December 2007, and wanted to get it finished within 4 or 5 weeks so that it would be released at the peak of the Japanese whaling season. I knew that the game would be more likely to attract media attention if it came out while whaling was already in the news. So the first restriction imposed upon the development was time. I have a full time day job (as an artist at a game development studio) so for the first 2 weeks I worked on the game in the evenings, and then I had 2 weeks off in which to complete the game.

In order to reach the widest audience it was important that the game be a small download (I was aiming for less than 10Mb) and that it run on older computers. So I used Torque Game Builder, from Garage Games, which is a 2D game engine that runs well even on older computers.

From a game design perspective, there were two important goals:

Firstly, the game had to be fun in its own right, and not rely on the whaling issue to get attention. If the game wasn’t enjoyable people wouldn’t play it so the gameplay had to be the top design priority, with ‘the message’ being an important, but secondary consideration.

Secondly, it was important that the game be short and easy to finish so that casual players could finish it on the first or second play through, and hence experience the full message. That said, it was also important that the game have some depth and that it reward repeated play – I didn’t want people to just play it once!

Techniques Employed To Convey The Message.

Right from the start I knew it was important that the game not be preachy. I didn’t want to tell people what to think; rather I wanted to encourage them to think for themselves. I thought a humorous, satirical tone would enable me to convey a serious message without being patronizing. I also knew that it would be extremely hard to make interesting gameplay that revolves around saving. It is far easier to make a compelling game that revolves around shooting. So I cast the player in the role of a Japanese whaling vessel and designed the game around the typical shoot-em-up formula. This allowed for lots of sarcastic humor, with messages commending the player on the quality of their ‘research’ while they are blowing up whales with explosive harpoons in a distinctly un-scientific manner!

2008_02_29_harpooned1.jpg

Since whaling is a violent and bloody activity, it was important that the game too be violent and bloody. I was not concerned about offending people, in fact, the game should be offensive, since what the player is doing is horrible.

Providing a challenge for the player proved quite complex -- the standard technique in shoot-em-ups is to have the enemies shoot at the player, but since whales don’t shoot back, I instead used obstacles like ice-bergs and protestors to restrict the players movement, and a meat-collection-combo system as a secondary gameplay objective to encourage the player to move around and think about more than just the shooting. It was my hope that this combo system would provide enough depth to keep the game interesting for more experienced players who might want to replay for a higher score.

Press And Public Reactions

I am grateful to Matt Bachl from Australian TV/news network NineMSN, who ran a story about Harpooned on the NineMSN news site a few days after the game launched. This created a huge surge in downloads and probably resulted in most of the traffic to the game’s website. G4TV’s Attack of the Show also had a segment about Harpooned. I think they really captured the satirical tone of the game, although perhaps performing a live, onstage harpooning was taking it a bit far!

The public response to the game fell into 4 basic categories:

1. People who played the game, got the message and approved. This made up around 90% of the responses.
2. People who were appalled by the blood and didn’t play the game. These were often the most vocal responses, and invariably they were opposed to whaling, but didn’t realise that the game was satirical. These were a very small, but vocal minority.
3. Young males who were attracted to the game because it was violent. Often they didn’t notice or care about the message within the game at first. However this group are internet-savvy. They like to post their impressions online and read other people’s comments. I was delighted to see many in this group who started to engage in serious discussion about whaling, after at first only being attracted to the game because of the blood and gore.
4. Pro-whaling responses from English speaking Japanese people. Usually these were along the lines of “Australians kill kangaroos, so you can’t tell us what we can or can’t kill”, “Whaling is our traditional right” or “If we don’t kill the whales they will eat all our fish”. I have had some very interesting discussions with these people and I’m grateful for those who have taken the time to present their side of the story.

2008_02_29_harpooned2.jpg

Lessons Learned (And Plans For The Future)

Good timing.
Releasing the game during the whaling season greatly increased the exposure it got in the press. I doubt the game would have appeared on American television if I’d released it when whaling wasn’t already in the news.

Reliable tools.
I used Torque Game Builder for the game engine and the Nullsoft Scriptable Install System, along with HM NIS Edit for the installer. Both of these I had previous experience with and knew that they were reliable. This allowed me to focus on the game and not worry about tool chain issues.

Early playable prototype
Within the first week I had the gameplay 90% complete, using only simple box graphics. I knew there wouldn’t be time for re-doing art, so making a feature complete prototype with no bugs allowed me to simply add graphics until I was happy with the quality of the game, and then release it. The art was completed in 3 weeks, and then I spent about 5 days testing and tweaking before releasing the game.

Utilizing the online community
Not having a QA department of my own, I was reliant on feedback from the development community online. I am grateful to everyone at SHMUP-DEV and The Poppenkast who provided feedback and testing. The people on the Garage Games forums and IRC channel were also invaluable with their technical advice.

Misinterpreted humor.
It’s hard to know when writing dry humor if you’re getting the tone right. Is it too subtle or ambiguous? My high-score table listed the names of famous scientists, so that when the player finished the game with a high score they get to put their name in this list, as though by blowing up some whales they have earned the right to be ranked alongside real scientists. However many players were confused by this and wondered if I was making some statement about the evils of science in general. This joke basically fell flat.

Conclusion

Getting exposure on US television was more than I’d hoped for, so I think the game was a success. Thousands of gamers who were not concerned about whaling now know something about it, and maybe they will pay more attention when whaling is in the news, or even search out material to read about whaling, and ultimately want to do something about it.

If Japan continues its hunt next year I’ll probably update Harpooned and re-release it. It should definitely include a ‘capture protestors’ button.

As game developers, we have access to a huge audience who are eager to be entertained. We can make an effort to do more than just entertain – we can convey something important with our games, and even affect people’s opinions.

Game Data

2008_02_29_harpooned3.jpg

Release Date: January 13th, 2008
Developer: Conor O'Kane (full credits)
Platform: PC
Development Time: 5 weeks

[Conor O’Kane is an Irish born artist and game developer, currently working for Tantalus Interactive in Melbourne, Australia.]



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