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March 15, 2008

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

- Ah, time to run down some of the more interesting feature articles and interviews on our sister sites such as GameCareerGuide and Gamasutra this year - all of which we have never mentioned here before, in fact.

Some of the ones I enjoyed - some of the detailed talk on game design in the High Moon interview, the Nordic Game Jam piece, and Denis Dyack being positively reflective about story and mythmaking in Too Human. Anyhow, here's those stories:

- Designing Filmic Games: Paul O'Connor And The Bourne Conspiracy
"How do you design a triple-A, next-generation cinematic gaming experience based on someone else's ideas? Gamasutra talks to High Moon Studios VP Paul O'Connor about The Bourne Conspiracy and crafting smart adaptations."

- Q&A: Krome's Davis On The Pinata Franchise, Australia Dev Scene
"Australia's low dollar and strong development heritage has made it an attractive proposition for publishers, and Krome Studios (Viva Piñata: Party Animals) lead designer Cameron Davis talks to Gamasutra about working with Rare and Microsoft's Piñata IP, as well as the state of development in Australia."

- Nailing The Interview, Part 2: Recruiting: What, Why & How?
"In the second in our series of game-specific recruitment articles, HR veteran Marc Mencher discusses just how you identify developers you want to hire, with many practical tips on advertising, sorting, and scheduling interviews."

- Nordic Game Jam 2008: 134 Game Developers, 40.5 Hours and 19 Game Demos
"'Game jams' - in which developers get together to improvise and create games in a limited time - are a key source of creativity, and Gamasutra has a full report from the rapidly expanding 2008 Nordic Game Jam, including game links/downloads."

- Educational Feature: The Artistic Pursuit
"In the latest feature on sister educational site GameCareerGuide.com, Carey Chico, executive art director at Pandemic Studios (Mercenaries, Destroy All Humans), lends his expert opinion on what kinds of artists are being hired into the game industry."

- Game Culture Vultures: Parkour
"This in-depth Gamasutra article looks at how Assassin's Creed and Crackdown were inspired by free running sport Parkour - just how well did they take the authentic cultural trend and apply it to gameplay?"

- Interview: Inside The AI Of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
"Gamasutra and AIGameDev sat down with Dmitriy Iassenev, the man behind the AI of post-nuclear PC first-person title S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, for a detailed interview on its surprisingly complex NPC 'A-Life' system and resulting emergent gameplay."

- Registration Opens for Paris Game Developers Conference 08
"Think Services, the organizers of the Game Developers Conference, and Connection Events have announced that registration has opened for Paris GDC 08, the June 23-24 conference being held in Paris at the Coeur Défense Convention Center to explore the various challenges of the industry from casual to core gamers."

- A Human Work: Denis Dyack On What Games Need
"In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, the Silicon Knights founder (Too Human) talks about story mythology in gaming, the role of 'directors' in the game business, and why - ultimately - it's better for your game to be late than bad."

Interview: Capcom's Judd On How Japanese Development Does It Different

- [There's some great honesty in this interview about the cultural differences, and why the Japanese game development biz still has a chance - tip of the hat to Gamasutra features editor Christian Nutt for doing the interview, and check it out.]

Capcom producer Ben Judd is a company veteran that's worked both in the company's U.S. offices and in its Japan headquarters, helping to explain Western suitability to developers while starting Capcom's internal localization team.

Now he's that rarest of things - a Western-heritage producer at Capcom's worldwide headquarters in Osaka, and is uniquely placed to explain some of the cultural differences going on in game development.

In addition, he has drawn attention for his high-profile work producing the next-gen Bionic Commando, in development at Swedish creator GRIN (Tom Clancy's G.R.A.W. for PC), and in this in-depth interview, we discuss his work at Capcom and how Japanese and Western game development still differs massively.

I want to talk to you about being the first, and maybe only American producer in a Japanese gaming company. I mean, I know there are some other guys working in Japan, but I'm not sure there's anyone else in that role.

Ben Judd: Not a full-blown, 100% producer, no. We have a few assistant producers, I think, but not 100% producers. What do you want to talk about?

Well, I want to ask, first of all: You've never worked in an American development studio, have you?

BJ: No, never have.

But you're working with the guys at GRIN in Sweden on Bionic Commando. So you have an idea of the differences and similarities between Western and Japanese development. I'd like to get some of your insight into that.

BJ: OK. First off, one of the things that has been helpful is that I've played some Western games, so I can say that I know what American gamers like and don't like, compared to the Japanese gamers.

This is because I've lived in Japan for so long, and have Japanese friends, and can hear from them. So it's nice; I've always lived a life where I'm understanding both sides. Which is great, because you have a lot of knowledge, but a lot of times you're in the middle. So a lot of times, both sides are crashing in on you.

But as far as the development side goes, it's been a learning process for me, because I've worked in a Japanese development studio before, but never in a Western one, and one of the biggest differences is that Japanese design, usually, is: you design and create two or three levels -- you put everything into it; all the AI, everything, scripting, all of the graphics -- and so, within about six months to a year, you have a beautiful level, that is something that you can PR many months before the actual game is launched.

So, there are two advantages to the Japanese design style: I would say one is, you reduce risk. You know what your game is going to be like; you've already created 100% of what a level will look like. And then the other advantage, of course, is that you can PR things earlier, because you've got something beautiful right from the start.

And with Western development -- at least, the only thing I can speak for, of course, is GRIN -- and I do believe that each studio has its own culture, so this may not be 100% what it is for the other companies -- but they build things in layers. So you'll have a game that doesn't have any scripting; you'll have a game that has some limited animation; you'll have a game that has some props: but these things can be shared universally across all the levels. So it's a lot more efficient design.

And I think they're forced to do that, because with Japan, with Japanese workers, you can sort-of pile them into a project and force them to work 18 hour days right from the start, all the way to the end. So, it's not that I don't think Western development doesn't have its own fair share of long hours, but I just think that Japanese workers, you know, you can just burn them, hard, and for a long time. And because you can do that, you don't have to be as efficient.

And I think, also, that the level of detail that they try and build a game to is also a lot higher. But that's certainly one of the big differences; that you're working with games that are not complete, and don't look that beautiful. It certainly makes you a lot more nervous, and it makes it harder to PR, because they don't look truly beautiful until toward the end of the production -- but by that time, it's not enough time to generate the steam and the hype that you need to.

Why did you want to become a producer in Japan? I'm sure it has to be much more of an uphill road than it would've been in the U.S.

BJ: I just love Japan. It's that simple. I mean, the people there are so nice, and I love Capcom. There is, of course, political nonsense, and yeah, the uphill battle -- it's never fun. Every day, Japanese developers are sometimes negative by nature. So even if there's something positive that's come in the latest build, they'll only see the negative.

So, whenever I get those comments, and I'm telling them to GRIN, I have to sort of filter some of them out, because otherwise you have a totally demotivated team. The way it is in Western culture, it's more that you compliment the people, and make them work harder rather than sort-of talk down to them. But, you know, every time I start to get depressed, I think: Hey! I'm working for Capcom! That's what keeps me up.

When you show the game to the management in Osaka, -- since, like you say, the development style of the two cultures is pretty different -- how does that work as an interface? Can you make them understand that, culturally? Or is it a real challenge?

BJ: Not initially. It's taken me probably a year and a half, just to get people -- the Japanese that are creators, that are on my team, that I always take over to Sweden, that had seen how the guys work -- it's taken me a year and a half just to get them to understand how the development is. And those are a few people that have been on the project, right? Trying to get the higher-ups to understand... people that only know Japanese design, to understand... is near-impossible.

So, the way I see this is: I'm always trying to do something new. I was the first, I think, foreigner that worked in Capcom Japan for a long time. And I was the first person to start the localization team. See, each one of these challenges, I bring home myself. It usually comes with a lot of pain, but the idea is that if I can just open this road, maybe there will be other foreign producers out of Capcom Japan.

And I think that Japanese companies need to do that. They only look at Japan a lot of the time, and the market is going more and more global; unless they start trying to internationalize themselves internally, then they're going to fall by the wayside.

Are you bringing in any of the working practices, or would you like to bring in western working practices to the Japanese studio if possible?

BJ: Hmm. Probably not. And the reason why is: I've seen a lot of different cultures, and I've seen a lot of different styles of working, and some things just are not meant to be mixed. Some things are just not meant to work out that way. Having someone, a single person like me, in the middle, to make sure that you're borrowing the good parts...

Like, for example, with Bionic Commando Rearmed, we've got the art coming from the Japan side for the in-game cutscenes -- which is great, because I love that art -- you've got the tech coming from GRIN's side; being able to pick and choose those parts, the best of both worlds from both sides, is great. But trying to force them to work together is not always easy.

Bionic Commando Rearmed is the XBLA/PSN game?

BJ: Correct, correct. The in-game cutscene art only is being created in Japan.

I mean, of course, we always have the designers; I've got several designers that were always on these projects, from Japan, that constantly get from them feedback.

It's helped out a lot with the bosses, because, traditionally, western bosses are not that good -- for a reason -- and the Japanese bosses are designed much better. They have a lot of insight. So, getting their director to talk with our directors is nice; people realize, "Oh, there's this new way I could do it!"

The other thing is the story; when we were planning out the story, one of the Japanese guys suggested this ridiculous idea, and at first, everyone is like, "Huh?" But then we sat down and thought about it, and said, "Yeah! That's a great idea!" And it feels very Capcom.

And later, Ulf Andersson -- who is the Swedish director who's directing next-gen BC -- he said to me: "If that idea had come from a Westerner, we all would've laughed him out of the room." And, I thought about it later. He's right. That idea only could have come from a Japanese person, to have been accepted the way it was.

At TGS last year, I was talking to Ryan Payton from Kojima Productions...

BJ: I know him - we did a podcast together, actually.

That's right! When we spoke, he said one thing he did to encourage people from Kojima Productions to look at western games, is he put a 360 in a high traffic area in the office, and he put in, like Gears of War, Halo, other high profile games that are popular in the West, that have a lot of ideas.

Apparently, people just, you know, walking by, they'd screw around a little bit; he'd leave them on the attract mode, and maybe people would play them, maybe they wouldn't, but it seeped out. Have you tried anything like that?

BJ: We've already got something like that. We've got a gigantic 60" TV, and constantly, teams are playing software. We've got a marketing team that constantly gets them new software, so... Most of the guys have already played Call of Duty 4, Assassin's Creed, Halo 3.

I mean, don't make any mistakes: The Japanese guys know that the west is starting to kick ass and take names, and they are studying those games. And from what I know of Japanese motivation and business practices is, if they ever feel that there is something that they're not staying on track with, or on target, then they study it, see what's great about it, then they learn how to do it better.

A lot of people talk about the Japanese industry being, you know, on the way out, in terms of design and stuff like that. I don't think that they're out yet. I think that they'll come back.

GameSetLinks: Oh No, It's GooGate!

- Swerving tipsily into the weekend, we have some choice GameSetLinks for you, principal among them the revelation that multiple IGF prizewinner World Of Goo is plagiarized... from nature!

So, as we wait for God to file that inevitable defensive patent, let's check out some other choice links - including CrispyGamer's comics, Clint Hocking on Bully, and something about the Internet and cats and me. But not necessarily in that order. Here goes:

2D Boy » Blog Archive » World of Goo Teams Up With Nature, Borrows Liberally
2D Boy are such ripoff merchants!

Gism Butter » Blog Archive » Sega Ephemera
Alex Handy + Bay Area recycling + old school games = fun.

WSJ.com on what attracts us to content on the Internet.
'Just like the laser and the cat, technology is playing a trick on us. We are programmed for scarcity and can't dial back when something is abundant.' This is me and the Web, oh dear.

VG Cats: '100 Kirby-s'
Oops, missed this at the time, totallyadorable.

Crispy Gamer - Comics: Ding!
One of CG's comics, from PvP's Kurtz - they also have Backward Compatible. I respect them for trying this (a la Keefer's old gig at GameSpy) - comics attached to editorial sites is kinda... cool in an oldskool way?

Click Nothing: A Teacher's Primer
Clint Hocking challenging a teacher on Bully criticism - would be choicer if he'd played it, but the offer is bold and good.

GS's Army of Two Review: Unprofessionalism at its finest? - NeoGAF
Reviews should either be wholly personal or 'attemptedly' universal (which is impossible!), here's a bad unintentional muddying.

YouTube - Far Cry 2 Dunia Engine
Out-Crytek-ing Crytek, are they?

UPDATE: GameSetWatch - Anatomy Of A Goof - Xbox '360' Sales Down!
An Australian TV network has taken Smarthouse (one of the through-sources of this false report) and stitched them up like a kipper for plagiarism. Bravo.

InstantAction Beta Blog: Game Dev Contest Winners!
Cool, some indie goodness here!

March 14, 2008

Quizzed: Blueside’s Henry Lee On The State Of Korea

- [This Brandon Sheffield-conducted interview ran over on Gamasutra the other day. We thought it worth reprinting here because it's part of our continuing attempt to cover the South Korean biz more than anyone ever, and it's got some really interesting and honest insights into the market and console gaming there.]

With the rise of microtransactions and the rise of titles such as MapleStory in the casual MMO business, South Korean gaming has been growing in respect and relevance in the West. There's a lot to learn from this rich, constantly evolving market, which grew up along lines so different from the U.S., Japan and Europe that it's difficult to compare -- and compete with.

To that end, Gamasutra has already spoken in-depth with a variety of members of top companies in the market, conducted principally at the recent annual Gstar trade show, to offer their perspective on the industry in 2008 and going forward.

In this previously unpublished interview, Gamasutra spoke to Henry Lee of Blueside, best known for the Kingdom Under Fire franchise (including the recently released Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, published for Xbox 360 by Microsoft Game Studios.

One of the few purely console developers in Korea, Gamasutra talked to Lee about developing console games in Korea and the looming development threat of China:

What is the workflow like on console games here? Is there a lot of heavy pre-production on console titles like these, or do you have a lot of iteration after you've made a prototype?

Henry Lee: Actually, there is almost no console developer in Korea. We are supposed to have a pre-production for six months or a year, but for Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, we needed to rush, so we had only two months for pre-production. It was very tough time.

In Japan I know there is huge pre-production, and they just make that game the game that they designed at the beginning. In the U.S., they make a loose design, and they make a playable demo, and they make new iterations… How much do you that kind of stuff?

HL: We are in the middle. I mean, we have a detailed design document at the beginning of the project, but it doesn't cover the full development, it has a basic idea, and basic continuity script for the players, and that kind of thing. And the feeling, or the design, that kind of thing, it depends on the designers.

So we have some basic concept art for the player and background, but the actual detail, or the actual feeling will be added by the character designer. And the animation, for some parts we use motion capture, but for some sensitive parts it's directly related with the playability, the usability of the game. So that part will be done by animator by hand.

In the west we have a lot of communication between development studios; they share technology ideas and that sort of stuff. In Japan, it's the complete opposite. Nobody talks to anybody. Even different teams in the same company can't talk to each other. Obviously there aren't that many high-end console developers in Korea, but is the Korean industry trying to work together, is everyone tackling problems separately?

HL: Other companies are trying to work together, but not us. We are just so different from the others. We are sort of… isolated. I mean, we get some support from Microsoft, but we don't have any connection -- actually no connection, zero connection with developers from the US, and Japanese developers really don't want to give anything to us. We want to contact other developers, but nobody know about us, or...

It seems like if they have better network support, and you have a better engine, you would be able to take something from each other. Because, obviously, in the US people write about, or talk about the things that they've done, and how other people can learn from it. Is that the kind of thing that would be welcome in Korea, or is it not necessary? Do you want to be more focused on the west than each other?

HL: I don't know that much about other companies. But as far as I know, there are not many game companies that successfully finish their projects here. The first priority is progress of the game development. The biggest problem is that there are not many real directors here.

It would be very helpful if technology could be used from the U.S., but I'm not sure the developers here would want to use the technology. I mean, Korean developers have a lot of know-how about network play, but, when I see World of Warcraft, even in that US developers are much better than here.

How did you fix that at Blueside?

HL: It sounds arrogant, but we set the goal of the game clearly. Usually at other companies, the game director, or game designer, plays Diablo and said "Oh hey! Let's make Diablo!" The next day he might play World of Warcraft, and then, "Hey! Let's change this to Warcraft!" It's very funny, and very stupid.

First of all we set up the design and design document very clearly, and we just -- well, actually, it's very common in Japan or the US -- we calculate the resources, make a schedule, and try to make everything predictable. And so, not for this project, but Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, and future projects, we try to make a prototype.

How do Korean developers compare?

HL: When it comes to graphics, I think we are just as good as the U.S. or Japan. Actually, just graphic artists here, for me, are the best in the world. We, I mean, the company cannot have enough support for the graphic designers. They are really very good.

Our programmer talent is more troublesome. Actually, in Korea, these days, almost nobody wants to code, because it's very hard, it's very tiresome. It's very hard to hire. So we are trying to hire people from Russia, or Spain, or Eastern Europe. I heard that Japan has the same problem.

And game designers? In Korea, usually game designers are like, "I want to make a game! But I don't know how to code or how to draw! What should I do?" Then be a game designer! It's so funny and stupid. That's the biggest problem. I tried to hire some game designers here, but nobody can do these kind of things.

We have three designers -- two main designers, and one sub-designer -- but they’ve been here for about 7 years, 8 years. They started this job as a QA team, and they became game designers.

Do you think that universities are going to start teaching people more of this stuff? So they will be useful?

HL: We have successfully hired about three or four programmers from university. Some are very good, and some are very bad. Some are useless. But the biggest problem is, well, I think for the programmers, they need to study not only DirectX but also English that they can read the whitepapers from the US or elsewhere, physics, 3D math, basic mathematics and languages. And software engineering, programming languages, that kind of standard curriculum. They need to study that but still many universities teach only DirectX and OpenGL.

A lot of other countries are doing outsourcing, but it sounds like you are receiving outsourcing from other countries.

HL: Well, the big part of the atmosphere of a game depends on the music, and so we asked an U.S. composer to make some music for our games. And sound effects.

Actually, sound effects -- music and sound effects in Korea or Japan are … the feeling is very different from U.S. And sometimes we try to ask other companies to make some small stuff like icons, because of things like scheduling problems.

So are those other companies you ask in Eastern European countries, or within Korea?

HL: Within Korea. Actually we need to talk to them a lot, so if the company is overseas, it's very hard to control. But it’s all very small stuff.

When do you think console games will be popular in Korea?

HL: Well, I think as soon as the players can earn money through playing. I mean, in Korea, only MMORPGs are popular, because they can earn money by selling items or different things.

I don't think there are many true game players here. They need to, they have to be able to get games for free. That is the first rule here. That is the funny thing. I mean, they have no idea how to buy games here. They can download games here.

That's why all the game developers in Korea give player the game for free, and then they can earn money by selling items. So, if console wants to be popular, it has to lend itself to that kind of weird market.

So as far as the Xbox 360, it's not doing well in Korea because of the mentality of the western games. It's just not being accepted by the Korean gamers. The gamers always want free games, and they want to get online, spend a little money on specific items, and just make a living on it. Not playing the game.

Would you ever consider doing smaller stuff like Xbox Live Arcade?

HL: We are on it. We are working on a new project for new platforms. Some small, portable platforms.

Nintendo has an office in Korea now. Do you think they will do well?

HL: From a marketing point of view, they are very good. But from the development point of view, they're very bad.

For developers, they offer nothing. They’re not even a channel to the Japan office.

They don't have developer relations -- really?

They always keep saying that they want to have relationships with developers, but they have nothing. They don't support anything.

It's like, if we need some information about hardware -- that sort of thing -- they give us nothing. They just ask for us to wait for orders from the mother company in Japan. They’re absolutely not helpful to developers.

But at selling their platform here, I think they are very good. They hired the right people, right actor, right actress for the advertisements, and so they are very popular here. And the launch games for the platforms -- definitely the DS -- they chose the right ones.

Do you think that western markets are starting to take the Korean games more seriously yet?

HL: No. Korean companies have some good online games, but it's very localized. Some games like MapleStory, I've heard are very popular in the U.S., but I don't think it's a major thing. I think the game companies in the U.S. are very interested in the Korean or Chinese market, but not in Chinese games or Korean games.

Are you worried about the future of the Korean industry?

HL: Slightly, yes. Because games from the US or China will take over the market here. A good example is World of Warcraft. It's the best. I actually don't like MMORPGs that much, not since Ultima Online, but World of Warcraft is the best. Nobody will -- I don't think anybody can make that kind of game again. I mean, the scale is so big.

I mean, many Korean games are just copies of games from other countries. Kart Rider, that kind of thing, it's just a copy of Nintendo's Mario Kart. That kind of game is not that hard to make, and so it's very easy to copy, and that market will be taken over by China, because China has the technology now, and China is very good at copying stuff.

The popular casual games here are copies of Japan's games. And Korean developers copied the games easily, so it means the Chinese can copy the Korean games easily, and they are cheaper.The Chinese will make tons of games and they will take over.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer - What's My Motivation?'

-[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.]

I never had any designs on becoming a game journalist. Actually, I went to a two-year acting conservatory, and got a very good education, too. These days, I imagine my parents peek some of my articles – a defense of breast physics or a discussion of incest sex games – and wonder why they bothered sending me there.

But given the wary dance games and films have done about one another over the years, maybe I can yet use what I’ve learned. Now, it’s a rare film knockoff video game that’s worth playing. On the contrary, actually, film and games seem to be converging by moving further apart. Games that try to sell us that drawn-out, cutscene-heavy, empty-action experience that has been called “cinematic” (though to so call them seems to insult cinema) are a dying breed. Developers are learning that what makes a good movie doesn’t make a good game, and so we can hope that the film studios aren’t too far behind when they’re at the table to talk licensing.

Acting school was very much about the emotional experience. If you haven’t any experience with actors – no, not high school “Drama Kids,” but trained actors – I can tell you that the whole thing was very much as you might imagine. Lots of skinny folk in black, odd teachers who stood on chairs to shout at you, lots of open weeping. People got naked. But somewhere amid all that, we learned about what it takes to deliver honest, emotionally-grounded entertainment.

Perhaps one way to elevate games – both in terms of how they affect their audience and in terms of how they’re treated by our culture – is to take a page not necessarily from the final product of films, but from their creation process.

Pageant Kids

When I moved to New York to go to conservatory, I met a small class of others from around the world who were here to do the same thing – all of us fresh-faced and nervous, with big dreams of Broadway lights and Hollywood screens. Each of us was the best singer in our High School musical, the star of our local community theatre, the president of our hometown Drama Club, and willing to try as hard as it took to be the best, most famous and most beloved actors we could be.

The first day of class saw us in pageant pose, with frozen grins and too-bright eyes, hoping to impress our teachers, outclass a room full of strangers. We produced fake accents and fat crocodile tears with ease; when we were assigned our very first scene work, many of us pulled out our best and heaviest-wrought impressions of the professionals we admired, wringing our hands and sighing our heavy little hearts out in front of the class.

Our teacher told each and every one of us, to the last, that we were awful.

-She really said that, and yelled at us. As I said, it was very much like the Saturday Night Live satires you’ve seen – but she was right. We did learn that we were trying too hard, and that connecting with the audience wasn’t something we should force ourselves to do. We were just trying to be good actors – but we needed to stop trying. Those first weeks of our education in acting were spent not acting at all; to the incomprehension of many of us, we were simply taught to quit holding tension, to breathe “correctly,” to relax when under the gun, and to let impulses come through us naturally while we just sat still and read a script in our own voice. No passionate faces, no crocodile tears, no aggrandized stances. For my part, the idea that the subtlety that happens in a human face in response to a buried feeling is more stirring than anything you can conjure through artifice was something I didn’t really internalize until a bit after my graduation. Maybe that’s why I turned out a writer.

Crocodile Tears

What does this have to do with games? Well, how often have you played a game that you know is aiming to manipulate you? You’re in the midst of a contrived character death, poignant orchestral music is playing, and you’ve put the controller down in your lap to watch beautifully-rendered tears well in the corner of a hi-def character’s hi-def eye.

Oh, please, my teacher would interrupt, if she were directing the game. She’d stand up and yell; she’d tell the designers who crafted the scene to get the hell out. Maybe she’d even say, are you sure you’re in the right career? You’re much better at writing…

Ahem. Anyway, maybe some of those emotionally manipulative games even succeed at affecting you. The measure of a great game used to be whether you wept at the ending, right? But does that necessarily mean that you gained something from the experience? Moreover – does that mean it was a good game?

The characters and events in games are obviously not real; those poor characters can’t take the blame for their bad acting. Instead, a team of game designers obviously collaborated on the project; you can imagine that they sat around a table and discussed what they wanted their end result to look like. “Gamers today want affecting experiences,” someone must have said, “We want this project to have an emotional impact. So what can we do?”

That innocent act of goal-setting – wanting a design in which they’ve deeply invested (in every sense of the word) to have an effect on the player – might actually be the game designer’s first mistake, just like wanting to make our audience weep at our sincerity was our first mistake on that beginning day of acting school.

-An Honest Performance

Am I proposing that, before setting design goals, game developers sit around and do some deep breathing?

Well, maybe I am. Game design is not all that far off from a film or a stage play in its fundamental parts – there are a number of different elements that must work in concert to convey, essentially, a single thread from beginning to end, from different scenes and settings to visual aesthetics and sound. It’s one thing for our acting teacher to have told us to “just relax and be organic,” but films, plays and video games are actually meticulously crafted, very deliberate and complex affairs.

The key to a good theatre performance is for the actors to be genuine; in other words, we had to learn to have honest, natural desires that corresponded in some way to those of the characters we were portraying; their objective must become our objective. We mustn’t tear at our hair or stride across the stage because we think it’d look stirring, or because we think it’d be affecting to watch; we do those things on natural impulses. The actor’s goal is, in other words, to develop the character into a reflection of our inner self, and an expression of our natural goals and desires.

There’s no science to it; as I and many others in my class learned, it’s damn hard to stop scrutinizing oneself, to stop worrying about how a performance will be received by the audience. It’s hard to stop thinking and to stop trying. But one thing’s clear: Most of the games that critics and fans have found most affecting and refreshing in the last few years are the ones that were not trying.

And when the developers of those titles – most of them independent – were asked what their secret is, most of them said that they simply made the game that they wanted to make, that the games they created were an expression of themselves or their enjoyment of the design process.

Perhaps that’s why some games feel honest and others don’t; some game experiences capture us on a personal level, and others are cheap entertainment, a performance with a lot of explosions placed at the exact moments the directors thought would most excite the audience. They contain a ready cultural lexicon proven to cause reaction for its own sake. There’s little room for personal interpretation.

My teachers had favorites, and they would have absolutely adored Jonathans Mak and Blow, for example. And I wish I could send those teachers into some of the big-budget studios to play preview builds, and have them march in their long scarves and tweed jackets on the board room tables and shout and wave their arms. I’m aware the investors are the ones that might need the most yelling at, as would, ironically, the Hollywood studios who want games based on their films. But it might work.

Or maybe a whole bunch of game developers would quit and go become journalists.

[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: Shut Up And Barkley, Already

- Ah, yes - the shine of GameSetLinks beneath the murk of the average Webcrawling denizen, or something. Are we the pearl farmers working to unearth the gems of the mixed metaphor from Gringotts? Or are we merely swinish?

In any case, this set of links includes Eurogamer getting to grips with Barkey Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden - which is just what all major consumer sites should be doing, mixing games like these into their normal coverage - and other news spanning a fitting Gygax tribute to the televisual death of jPod. Let us receive the data:

Wired News: The Dungeon Master: The Life and Legacy of Gary Gygax
A good, detailed, and fitting tribute.

Waxy.org @ SXSW: Worst Website Ever, Redux
At least one MMO-related one, and these are all semi-plausible.

Fez Plushie | ALBOTAS - A Little Bit On The Awesome Side |
Cute indie soft toy alert.

Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden Article // PC /// Eurogamer
Good Lord, Eurogamer = epic win for genuinely covering this (pictured) maverick work of genius.

Behind the Game: Diner Dash Hometown Hero - Gamezebo.com
Stats aren't THAT hot on this yet, interestingly. But a very intriguing experiment.

XYZZY Awards 2007 - IFWiki
Winners announced - Lost Pig cleans up!

IGF Pavilion - Inside the GDC 2008
GameDev.net doing a great job, interviews and pics of all IGF Pavilion denizens - also missed 'The IGF and Game Developers Choice Awards - Inside the GDC 2008' and 'Indie Games Summit - Inside the GDC 2008' from the same site.

Japan criticized over child porn loopholes - CNN.com
Games and animated portrayals are specifically mentioned, and very true.

sardius_: reviews unfit for print vol. 1 -- lost: the shitty video game
This should be printed everywhere!

The Canadian Press: Leafs to blame for cancelled shows? Quips producer: 'One more reason to hate'
The adaption of Coupland's JPod - which is about game creators - canned, darn.

March 13, 2008

Game Competition Alert: Announcing The Dobbs Challenge

- [So, as part of my work with Gamasutra and Game Developer, I also manage Dr. Dobb's Journal, the seminal programming website/magazine - founded in 1975! - which provides awesome hardcore coding info. We've just launched two big websites based around Dobbs - Dobbs Code Talk, which is a blog/forum destination for coders, but more pertinently to GSW, the Dobbs Challenge game competition. Here's what it's all about.]

Think Services is pleased to announce the launch of the first ever Dobbs Challenge, a special game competition brought to you in association with the world-renowned Dr. Dobb's Journal for software developers, and Microsoft.

To participate, firstly download the specially created 'Dr. Dobb's Challenge' games for either Windows and Windows Mobile. Then you can win from a prize pool of $10,000 by modifying the games using a trial version of Visual Studio 2008.

The games star the first-ever personification of Dr. Dobbs, alongside the characters from Microsoft's 'Defy All Challenges' machinima videos, as you battle to collect Visual Studio icons and complete the levels. Full source code and art for the games are freely provided for programmers and artists to 'mod' the results and win prizes. Here's all you need to know to participate.

Some notes for indie developers interested in participating. Firstly, the Windows version of the game (which is fun to play even if you don't know how to mod it, actually) was created by the folks at Grubby Games, the makers of IGF finalist Professor Fizzwizzle. The whole thing is really well commented in code, and there are also tutorials on the site.

- The Grubby folks designed the fun SD-style cartoonization of Dr. Dobbs and Microsoft's 'Defy All Challenges' machinima characters - who are featured in this video, in case you wondered who they are. The game itself lets you pick from the main characters and has somewhat of a 'time attack' feeling to it - you can also use the mouse to grab icons from far away.

In addition, there's a different Windows Mobile version of the game designed by the folks from indie PocketPC developer B3Team, and there's actually a conventional Windows executable version of that game in the Windows Mobile download package, if you want to check it out. It has slightly different, more 'oldschool' gameplay and specially designed pixel art of the main characters from Adam Saltsman.

As for deadlines and other info, there's a $1,000 'First Month Challenge' that closes on April 14th, and the other $9,000 of prizes have a June 13th deadline - including Best Windows Game ($4,000), Best Windows Mobile Game ($2,000), Best One Button Game ($1,000), Best Game Starring Dr Dobbs And The Defy All Challenges Crew ($1,000, and Best Total Conversion ($1,000) - for making something that's completely different in genre/style from the original Dr. Dobbs Challenge, but still keeps 'collect Visual Studio icons' as the mechanic and starts from the same codebase.

Finally, I know independent game developers care about what they can do with games after they've made them. So we are intending to allow games that use the source code to be released elsewhere by the creator - if they desire - after the competition is finished. This will probably be by licensing the underlying code itself under a BSD license at that point, though you would obviously need to remove any Microsoft/Dobbs character assets if wanting to release it elsewhere - watch this space.

COLUMN: 'Play Evolution': The Evolution of World of Warcraft and Its Many Games

Yeah, I wish that thing in the back was a mount, too.[“Play Evolution” is a column by James Lantz that happens sometimes and discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: evolution in World of Warcraft]

You can’t beat World of Warcraft – there’s no such thing. There are no victory conditions, and you’ll never see a screen that pops up and says, “You win!” You may think that getting to the highest possible level is an obvious victory, but that’s not true for everyone. Some people are satisfied with hitting the level cap, but others want to beat every raid boss.

It’s perfectly feasible to imagine hundreds of personal goals, even ones as obscure as crossing from one capital city to another at level one, or camping an important travel NPC so no one can reach his hub. Because there’s nothing as simple as beating the game, every goal in World of Warcraft is completely arbitrary and set by each player to match his or her own desires.

With this in mind, it seems less bizarre that World of Warcraft shipped without any PvP system to speak of. The scaffolding was there – you could attack other players and enemy NPCs in PvP zones – but there were no rewards of any sort for defeating opponents, and absolutely nothing to lose. In a way, though, this was a breath of fresh air in a massively multiplayer game where every menial task was rewarded and every action had an incentive.

In a game where all the goals are ultimately arbitrary, what’s the difference between the player who PvPs with no reward and the player who levels up to level sixty? At the end of the day, neither player is closer to objective victory, because there is none.

Hell, if a player sits and dances in his hometown for twelve hours, he’s just as close to beating World of Warcraft as the level sixty is. The only difference is that one of them has a “sixty” next to his portrait, while the other one has a “one” and has been dancing for half a day.

Despite the complete lack of structure for PvP, non-instanced (or open world) PvP was popular on PvP servers, especially in places where the Horde and Alliance cities were just a stone’s throw away from one another. One such place was the small area between Tarren Mill and Southshore called the Hillsbrad Foothills; on any particular day, sixty or seventy players would be engaged in the back and forth tug-of-war that bounced between the two cities, occasionally bringing one side or the other to its knees.

This perpetual battle had no lasting impact on the game – and yet it was perpetual. Even though there were no hard numbers to support claims of victory or defeat, the battle was interesting and it was genuinely difficult and entertaining to capture the other side’s town, even when one knew that the NPCs would respawn indefinitely. After all, it was still just as much a victory as anything else in World of Warcraft. However, players clamored for a system that would allow PvP to affect the game outside of these small victories, and Blizzard ultimately answered them with the Honor System.

The old honor system. The Honor System was patched in about five months after World of Warcraft’s release. The math behind the system was complex, but the principles were simple: if you killed an enemy player close to your level, you got points, if you killed an enemy player far below your level, you got no points.

As you got points, you ranked up, and as you ranked up you gained access to better items in the PvP shops. It got more complicated as you got higher in rank, requiring you to be #1 on the server to receive the most points, but the grind was so steep that the vast majority of players never got close.

Because there were no points for assaulting random cities or killing guard NPCs, the Honor System discouraged the ragtag half high-level half low-level groups that had fought around the Hillsbrad Foothills. Most dedicated PvP players formed hunting groups in high-level zones instead, hoping to prey on other high-level players so they could get points. Although the fighting around the Hillsbrad Foothills continued, it had lost its strongest players, and it was never really the same after the Honor System.

A patch or two later, the introduction of special instanced pvp areas called Battlegrounds created another game within the Honor System. The Battlegrounds became the most effective way to farm honor points, but every time you went to the Battlegrounds you played a series of individual rounds, each of which had two teams vying for victory. After this patch, the Honor System became an overarching game where victory was determined through a number of short games in the Battlegrounds.

Through its evolution (expressed, for the most part, through Blizzard’s numerous patches) World of Warcraft has come to embrace its status as an environment for multiple games, only some of which are acknowledged and supported. Since the release of its expansion, World of Warcraft has turned the Honor System into a more gradual grind without ranks and created the Arena for competitive PvP players, so you can pick and choose.

So, as of now, open-world and Battlegrounds PvP and competitive PvP in the Arena are two completely different games. The Arena has ranks and seasons, but in the Honor System you just gain points and spend them as if you were grinding for money. And by increasing the level cap to level seventy, Blizzard created a new level to race up to; a way of extending the finish line for that particular game.

Some expansion PvP. In fact, most people play a combination of four or five games in World of Warcraft. There’s the leveling up game, which almost everyone plays. In this game, people try to optimize their ability to level up with regard to the amount of time they spend playing the game, and attempt to get to the highest level without wasting too much time due to inefficiency. Of course, most people take breaks from this game on their way to level seventy but when they’re leveling up, they’re trying to do it efficiently.

After this game, some people play the endgame game, in which they try to fill out their character with the best items, or the other endgame game, in which they try to beat all the raid bosses. Some people play the Honor System game, where they try to amass honor points, and others play the Arena game, where they get to the top rank in any given season. Then, there are the less popular games – or the one I just made up: going from one capital city to another as quickly as possible at level one.

In the end, World of Warcraft is an environment for people to create games, a web of intertwined systems that are all connected through common terrain. Some of these games rely on other games in the environment (most of them, for example, rely on leveling up) but all of them are different games. Through patches, Blizzard adapts World of Warcraft to create new games and modify old ones – so, as World of Warcraft evolves, half through Blizzard and half through the players themselves, a hundred games evolve with it.

[James Lantz is a starving writer who spends a large part of his time rebuilding regular-sized doors for exceptionally tall people. He also writes a blog, of course.]

GameSetLinks: Multiverting The Paradigm

- Ah yes, a tad more GameSetLink-age for your caboodle, and there's some fun stuff in here - particularly Warlords Online, which I hadn't really spotted, and is an interesting move from the Puzzle Quest folks.

Elsewhere, there's a chat with Introversion, some Japanese student DS games, more info on some of the Australian goings-on around the ACMI Game On exhibition, and a host of other fun topics. Please enjoy the following:

Warlords Online Launches - Infinite Interactive Forums
From the Puzzle Quest guys, browser-based - they kept quiet about this, didn't they? Via HDRLying.

Mega64: "Brainpower" Music Video
Freezepop + Mega64 = adorable.

Game-ism: 'Creed Critique: Glitch vs. Pretty'
V.interesting discussion of how jumping works, animation and reaction wise, in Assassin's Creed.

Amusement Magazine - coming Spring 2008
Paris-based... glossy game culture mag? If it sticks around, this could be interesting, nobody's really tried an overt art-mag about games recently. Via mbf.

YouTube - Npeaen's Grateful Dead Rock Band demo videos
In case you wondered what the new 6-track Grateful Dead pack sounded/looked like - useful! He also has videos of all other Rock Band DLC, including the (sorted first!) new SXSW pack.

QBlog: 'A Little Sad'
Richard Bartle debunking (or at least rationalizing) a 'girls play across genders in MMOs a lot' scientific paper.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun: RPS Interview: Introversion’s Chris & Mark
Good read on where they are with Multiwinia, (the pictured) Subversion.

The Age (Australia's) Digital Life: 'Museum Piece'
'The race is on to preserve the cultural history of games.' Regarding ACMI and the Game On exhibition.

Siliconera » Student developed DS games downloadable at DS stations
In Japan only, of course - and lots of Japanese text in them. Shame.

The Age Blogs: 'Show And Tell'
With a full PDF of the ACMI game exhibition goodness - more institutions should do this.

March 12, 2008

Q&A: Ookibloks' Flanagan On His Ocean, Sega Past And Indie Future

- [An industry path spanning the UK's Ocean, working as a foreigner at Sega Japan's CS2, and on to IGF 2008 nominated indie puzzler Ookibloks? We talked to Brian Flanagan on how his lifelong diet of Japanese games has influenced his current indie output.]

A clearly Japanese inspired art style and aesthetic is something that normally garners a moderate amount of eyebrow raising when executed by Westerners.

However, in the case of the IGF 2008 nominated Ookibloks, it actually turns out that there’s more to the game’s main designer than initially meets the eye - and we chatted to Brian Flanagan about his influences in creating the 2D puzzle-action title.

Growing Up Next To A Northern Ocean

Like many, Brian Flanagan grew up on a steady diet of Japanese arcade games back in the 80s, as he explains: "Living in a beach front town in Northern England meant that I had full access to the arcades on an almost daily basis. I'd play Xevious and Starforce a lot. The metallic graphics on both games were intriguing, Xevious more so, as I found it very mysterious.”

“Apart from those, probably Defender for a while simply because it was so stark and brutal," he continues, "as well as Robotron. In my younger days it was mostly shooters, I guess I'd say. Dig Dug and Mr Do! were two others I'd dabble with, once the fighting game genre became established, I was a big Street Fighter II fan”.

Following on from his arcade gaming fix, Flanagan then went the next step and tried to get his foot into the British games industry as an artist, as he says; “I got my careers officer at high school to get me an unpaid work experience placement, and after that I'd actually call Ocean up pretending to be the careers officer just to get me an unofficial placement during the school holidays.”

“I got told by one of the more established artists I should go to college before trying to get a real job there, and after a year of college I applied - the first choice they went for decided he couldn't handle it and I got the gig.”

“The environment was pretty easy going, slightly self governing and a little bit disorganized, and there were some artists people I learned a lot from - I worked on the port of Taito's Operation Wolf during my work placement, and then worked on the (disastrous) port of Operation Thunderbolt when I first started.”

However, things at Ocean at that time became somewhat unbearable, as Flanagan points out: “I think the major decision that I had to at least try and get a job elsewhere was during the development of a SNES game I was on, as the main design methodology was ‘make it up as you go along’."

"I'd pretty much taken the helm of the project as producer, designer and lead artist," he says. "I was trying to get the staff to conform to a graphical style, but everyone was just going whichever way they pleased - the backgrounds had no stylistic unity at all, and I was getting abuse, and even threats of violence, simply for trying to get the game to look right."

"At that point I'd had enough, and because the game was a license, and the movie bombed big time in the U.S., the game was canned, even though we hit the deadline and it was pretty much complete,” Flanagan explains.

“If we'd had an art director that had established a colour palette and look to adhere to, the issues wouldn't have happened," he admits, "but we had 3 other artists who wouldn't adapt their style, but it was my job as designer to at least try and get some coherence into the look - it was like herding cats.”

“I think things are better organised nowadays, I think the results of most good quality games reflect that, but there's still the problem where I feel engineers go for the most 'clever' approach as opposed to the most optimised and sensible way,” he adds.

Living The Life Of A Ninja

Seeing that life at Ocean wasn’t for him, Flanagan began looking abroad for employment. Considering his gaming tastes as a youngster, the only and natural place to work would be in the Japanese games industry but back then getting a gig there wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.

“I managed to get over to Japan in 1994 after a lot of letters, phone calls and meetings," he recalls. "Luckily, Violet Berlin, the TV game show presenter was a good friend of mine at the time, and she took me to an arcade show in London so I could hunt down some Capcom Japan staff on the show floor and show them some colour prints of some of my graphics I'd been doing in my own time - I also looked for recruitment ads in LOGIN magazine, my contact list grew, and I finally pinpointed individuals I could send letters to.”

“The short story on the Capcom interview is that after traveling to Osaka from Tokyo, I showed up at the interview to be told, 'your work is good, but we hired a Westerner (an American) before, and we don't want to repeat that mistake," Flanagan remembers.

“After the disastrous and somewhat racist interview at Capcom Osaka, I braved the Sega CS2 entrance exam and got a 'borderline' result according to the department head," he continues, "and did some R&D on the very early stages of an unnamed GameGear RPG. I believe the game finally came out as Royal Stone.”

“I produced some backgrounds for the early version of Royal Stone, but it seems that the colour palette had a hefty overhaul and ended up a lot ‘lighter looking’ than what I started working on, but that’s the way they worked on things,” he says.

The good news for Flanagan was that his fellow staff were far more inspirational than his British compatriots, as he says: “The development staff at CS2 were amazingly talented, all the art staff had amazing illustration skills. Most art staff had large sketch sheets mounted into their desks, and to just see some of the fantastic doodles that would come out was humbling, and the toolset they had for its time was pretty amazing."

"In fact," he continues, "their handheld dev setup was something I've never seen since. They had these GameGear size screens mounted to the top of your monitor so you could upload your work screen directly to the GameGear screen so you could preview your work accurately - all the Megadrive artists could dump workscreens to a TV, as that was the target display.”

“I think my favourite staff member was Motomu Hayashi - he was the writer, game designer AND character artist on Astal. His artwork was so original and dynamic, he also did most of the graphics," says Flanagan. "He's still at Sega I believe, but hasn't had a chance to be character designer on anything since, which is kind of sad. He did animation on Feel the Magic: XX YY on the DS, though it's sad how they'd give someone with such artistic talent such a basic job, but its not surprising for Sega.”

“The director of CS2, and executive producer on all products at the time was a very knowledgeable, but scary man, if you were doing something wrong, you'd certainly know about it. I heard he was even more aggressive with the Japanese staff,” he recalls.

Getting Funky With A Monkey

So it’s clear that Ookibloks isn’t just a matter of aesthetic homage to Japanese gaming but an actual grass roots implementation from someone who has worked in the Japanese games industry during its 2D heyday. However, while Flanagan does have the hard nosed experience, he is very quick to point out that the passion for gaming very much still remains.

“I love a lot of games for specific reasons, but I'll say for 2D, Super Castlevania for its incredible soundtrack and overall vibe, Gunstar Heroes for its groundbreaking technicality, Assault Suits Valken (Cybernator) for its control system and AirRade Air for its professionalism.”

When asked what were his main gaming influences for Ookibloks, Flanagan is refreshingly open, not ashamed of utilizing gaming knowledge as a useful tool for designing: “It's undeniable that the 'ice skater' maze games are the main base of the game, but the banana collection system was inspired by shoot-em-ups by Cave, the single screen play areas of Bubble Bobble, Don Doko Don and PANG! and the graphical stylings of Bomberman and Puyo Puyo.”

“If you take a look at those Taito games, you'll see that they all have the same core mechanic," Flanagan continues, "use one technique to stun, use another technique to defeat and then repeat that process to clear the stage. While Ookibloks doesn't require you to kill everything, it’s undeniable that Taito's influence is responsible for that.”

“My approach to game design is always that of the game mechanic coming first, and the characters secondary, which seems to reflect a very Nintendo way of doing things," he says. "I feel that a lot of the time, Western games are built around a scenario and then the game design is forced to adhere to that.”

“The basic idea of Ookibloks was getting an object to move according to the game mechanic," he explains, "the thought of portraying the character, or whether the view was to be considered top down or side on wasn't even thought about, it simply wasn’t important - then I realised that top down would be incredibly dull."

Concludes Flanagan of his design inspiration: "The only way to express the in game characters was side on I felt, after that I considered what kind of a creature would jump around the screen. After a few nights of listing possibilities, it boiled down to a monkey. He could perform all the moves required, has longs limbs to express poses, and could have a large expressive face to convey some humour. And, everybody likes monkeys.”

OMG: Korg, AQ and Procyon Unveil Synth Tools For DS

-[A quick crosspost, but this is far too important and cool not to run on GSW, given our predilection for the beep and the bleep of computer game-related music. Don't forget AQ owns X-Seed, too - a possible U.S. publisher for this?]

AQ Interactive, Korg and Xenogears composer Yasunori Mitsuda's Procyon Studios have unveiled Korg DS-10, a full-featured music creation package for the Nintendo DS based on Korg's MS-10 synthesizer.

Musical instrument producer Korg created the sound sources for the software, which uses the DS touchscreen and also features two analog synth simulators, a drum module, and a 6-track/16-step sequencer.

Additionally, DS systems can connect and be played together wirelessly. Additional features include two patchable dual-oscillator analog synth simulators, a four-part drum machine that uses sounds created with the analog synth simulator, delay, chorus, and flanger sound effects, real-time sound control and three modes of entry: touch control, keyboard screen and matrix screen.

The software, for which an official site has been revealed, is set to be unveiled at Germany's International Musikmesse Frankfurt music trade fair, and will be officially released in July 2008 in Japan - with no information on an international release thus far.

Column: 'Save the Robot': Transcendental Air Guitar - Why Games and Music Need Each Other

2188127164_6f818761ae.jpgMusic games are on the rise. The Guitar Hero series and its younger cousin, Rock Band, have paved the way for the Harmonix iPod game Phase, indie title Audiosurf - a top-seller for Valve’s Steam service in February - and the new rhythm-action game Patapon.

But broaden the net, and you can check out the playable instruments and jam session possibilities of Lord of the Rings Online, the strummable guitar tossed into BioShock, or Portal - which didn’t end with a plot-packed cutscene, but with a musical finale.

And yet, as someone who covers both music and gaming, I’m well aware of the gulf between the two communities. The games industry makes more money and sees a brighter future for itself; the music biz is tanking, and has to console itself with drugs, sex, and two living Beatles. At the same time, the music industry sees opportunities to regain some vim – and make some scratch – through games.

Personally, I love ‘em both – and I’m incredibly excited to watch these worlds come together. In fact, nothing pumps me more than the thought of games and music living up to their joint potential.

Here are a few ways they can do it.

Licensing: This is the most obvious and the most boring, and I almost didn’t include it. Artists get checks when games license original music – whether it’s the hits loaded onto EA’s sports games, or the sprawling soundtracks of sandbox gangster games like GTA or Saint’s Row. And the Guitar Hero/Rock Band series have been a goldmine for hard rockers, who see an uptick in iTunes downloads for songs that faded off the charts years before the average player was even born.

But everything I just said about licensing applies to car commercials and Grey’s Anatomy. Let’s go deeper.

Fantasy: This is strange to say, but being a rock star ain’t such a good gig anymore. Sure, a few elder statesmen enjoy the riches, knighthoods and universal devotion that their work from the ‘70s has earned them.

But for most of the working musicians in the world, the chance of achieving true rock stardom has dwindled to nil. Steve Albini warned us back in the ‘90s that signing a major label deal would likely ruin you. And as record sales keep dropping and the malaise persists, more and more talents give up the dream that they could someday quit their day jobs.

Real musicians have become so cynical about fame that the storyline to Rock Band is almost miraculous. You mean my band could win fans just by rocking? And we could play arenas? And get a jet? Musicians still get jets?

Banging the buttons on a plastic guitar is fun, but hearing the mohawked crowd roar again is what makes the game. And the music world gets it. In his must-read, may-scoff insider newsletter, music industry expert Bob Lefsetz wrote about trying Rock Band on his new PS3. He came away converted. “People want to rock out. They want to believe. … This shit is expensive. But people pay for it. Because it delivers the visceral thrills we USED to get with music. When bands made a ton of bread because they were unsullied, spoke from their hearts and never sold out.”

Innovation – in Games AND in Music: As we discovered last winter, the legendary Brian Eno has signed on to create music for Spore. Eno’s presence on the game is almost as exciting as Will Wright’s. And it proves a point that we’ve been seeing for a while: game soundtracks aren’t just a new channel for music – they open up a whole new bag of techniques.

In a world of recording studios and sampling laptops, music doesn't have to come from musicians on a stage. Eno discovered generative music thanks to Life, a “game” – some would just call it an algorithm - by John Conway. In the ‘70s, he worked on “ambient” music – music that could soundtrack a space and provide a subliminal accompaniment to your daily experiences; 1982’s On Land featured music for “imaginary landscapes.”

David Toop’s fascinating book on experimental music, Haunted Weather describes artists who turn the sound of a dog barking across a desert into music, or construct dance tracks from samples of liposuction surgery. Others evoke memories for a place through the use of “soundmarks” (landmarks made of, you guessed it, sound). Charles Ives envisioned two different marching bands colliding in the street; in a game, they could fight to the death.

A lot of what these talents are trying would be easier inside the imaginary landscapes and limitless rhythms of a game. And by the same token, games stand to benefit by inviting composers into the development process and laying their wildest ideas to code - just as Wright may have done with Eno.

Amateurs: This may be the most important thing of all: games attract a whole ton of amateurs.

Over time, we've given the job of making music to the experts. It’s true that teenagers still buy pawn shop guitars and start garage bands, and anyone can publish their shambolic first demos on a MySpace page. But a giant divider separates them from "real" musicians. All of the newcomers who are spreading their music on the ‘Net are widely dismissed as stealing the oxygen from the professionals – as if their music is an unavoidable, undifferentiated mudslide that smothers all the talent left in the biz.

This wasn’t always the case. In the old days, music – like sports, or cooking, or a million other social acts – was supposed to involve everyone. As musician and neuroscientist Dan Levitin put it recently, “The ancient Greeks said that one measure of the quality of a society or civilization is the number of its members who participate in the making of the arts. And in the last three or four hundred years, we've witnessed a kind of transformation in this society, which is that we don't all make music anymore.”

One of the greatest achievements of music games – especially multiplayer, social ones – is to help turn that around. They make a safe, fun space where anyone can take part in music and not feel ridiculous. Sure, some Rock Band vets will move on to a real drum kit; a handful could even become stars. But that’s beside the point. The player’s engagement matters more than their skill. They don't mind being amateurs. And their participation could make them love music more than ever.

[Photo credit: Adam Penney, photographing The Comuppins. "Transcendental Air Guitar" title thanks to Sandy Pearlman.]

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

GameSetLinks: Beyond The Rainbow (Edition)

- Aha, one of the most amazing art forms out there is that of the hacked 2D fighting game, and one of the latest GameSetLinks finds a Street Fighter II bootleg infinitely more crazy than the (pictured) Rainbow Edition - extremely awesome.

On this type of subject, my colleague Brandon Sheffield has been traversing the globe of recent, getting interviews (well, he was out in Texas last week at Gamecock's EIEIO, and at Capcom's press day on Monday!)

One of his chats was with Street Fighter II remixxy supremo David Sirlin, so expect to see hyper-detailed discussions about Dhalsim's hit boxes (or whatever extreme gameplay-balancing nerds talk about!) up on Gamasutra in the next few weeks. Anyhow, onward to the linkses:

Subatomic Brainfreeze: Life is too short to be little, and Kouryu is ONE BIG COUNTRY
Oh, Street Fighter II bootlegs! 'Kouryu is a game that seeks out to make Rainbow Edition look normal by lacing it with PCP, and it is an overwhelming success.'

Tale of Tales» Blog Archive » Games in Star Trek
With _lots_ of screencaps - rather charming.

Terra Nova: Human Data as a Playfield: The Passively Multiplayer Online Game
I still think this is too bonkers to work as a business, but it's conceptually awesome.

DadHacker » Blog Archive » Donkey Kong and Me
Great story on creating the Atari 800 version of DK - via Slashdot.

The Independent Gaming Source: "Blueberry Garden" Sneak Peek Trailer Looks Sweet
Another very neat-looking, mysterious 2D alt.indie title.

Games That Launched the Band - GameCareerGuide.com
EA's Steve Schnur on the Electronic Arts soundtrack experience.

tooNormal » Engines, Names and Evolution - Part 3
Read the others in the series - some really fun DIY game engine talk.

The Triforce » Blog Archives » OLL and Some Introspective Musing on Creativity
Worth mentioning that Eurogamer are helping to broadcast the rather excellent One Life Left podcast now.

Values At Play » Blog Archive » Better Game Contest Spring 2008
Cool... the results of the first competition aren't out yet tho? By the 15th, apparently.

Amazon.com: EA: Celebrating 25 Years of Interactive Entertainment: Mojo Media: Books
Just spotted this at Best Buy, an EA coffee-table book, has had absolutely NO press, looks intriguing. Very odd.

March 11, 2008

Highlights: Infinity Ward On Call Of Duty 4 In Game Developer Magazine

- [So, the new issue of Game Developer magazine is out - you do subscribe, right? - and there's Infinity Ward recounting a neeto and pretty much entirely exclusive Call Of Duty 4 postmortem in there, alongside the Top 50 Developers piece - hence this 'highlights' news piece picking some good bits.

But since you're GSW readers, and deserve MORE PURE INFORMATION, here's another bonus factoid - the March 2008 issue of the mag is the first to debut our new humor column, 'Arrested Development', which is written by Matthew Wasteland of Magical Wasteland fame. We're excited about this - as should you be, since 'Five Short Game Industry Keynotes' is but the tip of Matthew's sarcasmatroid brain. Also, we're pretty sure that's not his real last name. Anyhow... the story!]

The new March 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine has an exclusive creator-written article on the making of Infinity Ward's Call Of Duty 4, and Gamasutra has extracts from the piece, discussing a second 'new IP' team once working at the developer and the relative successes of CoD4's PC and Xbox 360 demos.

The postmortem, written by Infinity Ward's Zeid Rieke and Michael Boon, is described by the Game Developer editors as follows:

"Call of Duty 4 is one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2007, and the authors make no secret of their pride in the product. There are many important lessons in here, from sticking to your ideals for a game (even if you aren't completely in charge of the series), to maintaining focus when alluring new IPs loom."

The Evolution Of CoD4

In this first extract, the Infinity Ward team discuss the start of the project, and some of the thought processes the team went through when creating the highly rated title, which Activision is claiming is the best-selling game of 2007 at 7 million copies:

"Call of Duty 4 was Infinity Ward's third Call of Duty game, and as such we approached it knowing we needed to do something fresh. We don't want to pigeonhole ourselves any more than we have to, and many members of the team came off Call of Duty 2 promising never to work on another WWII game.

We tried several different directions, many of which were failures, but the ultimate result was the best game any of us have ever worked on. As a game development experience, it seemed to go so smoothly that it was difficult to come up with five things that went wrong...

Coming off Call of Duty 2, we knew we wanted to do something different for our next game. We don't agree with some critics who say that WWII as a genre is dead, but we couldn't muster the same passion for the subject that we had in our first three WWII games (Call of Duty 1 and 2 and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault).

We had a few ideas that we wanted to do and eventually settled on two. One was Modern Warfare, and the other was a new project."

Infinity Ward's Second Team Dilemma

In this second extract, the Infinity Ward duo discuss one of the items that needed to change through the development of the title, referencing a second parallel game team that was eventually folded into the CoD 4 team:

"At the start of development on Call of Duty 4 we tried to branch into two teams. We started a second project with a small prototype team, intending on shipping it a year after Call of Duty 4.

Our intentions were to create a new risky IP, which would allow us to stretch our creative muscles. We are determined not to stagnate creatively and just make clones of our previous games indefinitely. Growing a second team was one idea for how to do achieve this.

Almost immediately, the two projects began to compete with each other for ideas and people. We hired extra people, including some seasoned leads, so that neither project would be understaffed. As time went by, we were aware of the difficulties, but we initially focused on how hard it was for the team on the new game, failing to notice the damage that the second project was doing to Call of Duty 4.

The area hit hardest was the game design. Our design leadership was distracted by the second project and put a lot of their creative energy into it. This meant that problems like ['What Went Wrong' reason referenced in the full article] "too much desert" were allowed to linger for longer than they should have."

To PC Demo, Or Not To PC Demo?

Finally as part of these extracts, the team discuss what didn't quite go right with the PC demo of Call Of Duty 4, contrasting it with the Xbox 360 beta version, which helped build anticipation in a much stronger fashion:

"Our pre-release buzz was stronger than it had ever been for any of our previous games; we were getting tons of press despite it being a very crowded holiday season for games; our trailers and other videos on the internet were getting amazing numbers of viewers.

Despite all this, we did as we had done with all our previous games-about a month before release we put out a single player demo on PC consisting of one of our missions.

The reaction to the demo completely blindsided us. Our fans were disappointed. The demo was "more of the same," or even worse, just "meh"-not even worth talking about. After a couple of days we realized what went wrong. Anticipation was so high that we couldn't possibly live up to expectations.

Also a huge part of the appeal of our single player game is the gameplay variety. Playing Call of Duty 4, you almost never do the same thing twice. That makes it impossible to select just one mission to represent the entire game. Instead we had to choose what part of the game to represent with the demo. If we had chosen one of our radically different missions we would have alienated fans of the previous games, so we chose a level that we felt represented our "core gameplay," which is fairly similar to the core gameplay of Call of Duty 2.

Lastly we had to worry about story spoilers, as most of our favorite missions also advance the story. Giving away one of those as a demo mission was out of the question, as we didn't want to wreck the game for players.

Given all these constraints, looking at the examples of other games which managed to build tons of pre-release buzz like Gears of War and Halo 2 and 3 without doing pre-release demos, we should have realized that a pre-release demo would be likely to hurt us rather than help us.

In hindsight, the PC demo was a distinctly different case from the Xbox 360 multiplayer beta. The beta was released earlier and was responsible for much of our buzz, it was much more novel on the Xbox, where gamers are not as used to free content, and it showcased a large amount of what was new in Call of Duty 4. The beta also played a vital role in helping us ship a polished game."

Conclusion: Game Developer's March 2008 Issue

The full postmortem, including much more insight into the critically acclaimed game's development, with plenty more 'What Went Right' and 'What Went Wrong' reasoning, is now available in the March 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes a number of other major features, including the recently revealed Top 50 Developers countdown and a fascinating technical article on ambient occlusive crease shading - plus tool reviews, special sections, and regular technical columns from Bungie's Steve Theodore, Neversoft co-founder Mick West, Lucasarts' Jesse Harlin, and Sinistar creator Noah Falstein.

Yearly print and digital subscriptions to Game Developer are now available, and all digital subscriptions now include web-browsable and downloadable PDF versions of the magazine back to May 2004, as well as the digital version of the Game Career Guide special issue.

In addition the March 2008 issue of Game Developer is available in digital form (viewable in a web browser, and with an associated downloadable PDF), and as a physical single-issue copy.

COLUMN: 'Jump Button': When “Good Naughty” Girls Make Games — Creative Director Holly Owen

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

The email from Holly Owen—Creative Director of cross-platform entertainment company Champagne for the Ladies—pops up on my computer screen, quite unexpectedly.

It's only been a few seconds since I sent her a message proposing a deadline for her interview answers, and up until this point there's generally been a day or two between replies. As a result, I'm a single click away from logging out of my webmail client and switching off the computer.

Instead, I open up her email, where I'm greeted by her shortest message to me yet. It contains just four words.

'Easy peasy pimply squeezy.'

A giant grin leaps onto my face, and in an instant I know that interviewing Holly about Coolest Girl in School—the Australian-made mobile phone game that's been controversially labeled 'GTA for girls'—is not just going to be an insightful exploration of developing a game for young women, but filled from start to finish with such quintessential phrases as, 'knickers in a knot' and 'truth dare double dare kiss'.

This is Holly's world I've entered into. A world where female gamers are referenced without the slightest hint of condescension, or the need to push the 'anything boys can do' tough-girl rhetoric; a world where terms such as 'pwnage' and 'teabag' simply don't exist.

It's a world of high school, period pain, experimentation, fashionistas, average sex and perfect hair. And it all begins with an SMS...

-Released in Australia in late 2007 (with a US, Canada and UK release expected early this year), Coolest Girl in School has more in common with trashy magazine quizzes, online social networks and personal diary entries than it does with the usual mobile phone game fare. Crazy, magazine cut-out visuals, overlaid on lined notebook paper, lead the player into a non-linear series of confronting and hilarious multiple-choice scenarios, while hand-drawn icons and over-the-top narrative give constant feedback on how cool (or not) the player is.

The gameplay itself focuses on ten days of high school, just prior to the school prom. The prom queen, however, has been found dead (her only remains being a pile of ash, a tiara and a bra) and the player now has the opportunity to lie, bitch, gossip, suck up and flirt their way to making as many friends as possible so that they can be nominated for the prom queen title.

The sheer fact that the story sounds like a B-grade high school Hollywood film is evidence that Holly knows her audience, but it's even more apparent in the team she assembled to bring the game to completion. These include co-producer Karyn Lanthios from Kukan Studio ('an amazing mobile game producer and a big gamer'), abstract artist Jo Kerlogue, QA Manager Emma Bonnici, and three male coders.

Of these, Holly approached Jo first, to help her create the right visual style.

'I'm not a fan of photo-realistic 3D animation or cutesy-looing crap,' admits Holly. 'I wanted the visuals to play with 2D and 3D and collage, and have a DIY zine style that plays on imperfection. High school is all about awkward growth spurts, first periods, acne and festering hormones, clashing with a quest for physical perfection and ultimate coolness.

-'Lots of Australian gaming “nyerd” boys have commented online about how crap they think the graphics are,' adds Holly, '...which (understandably) we are so relieved about.'

Having the story and art under control, Holly and Jo then teamed up with Karyn's Kukan Studio to work on the technical aspects. As part of the process, three male coders were assigned to the game.

'The funny thing about the guys that worked on Coolest Girl in School,' says Holly, 'is that initially some of the scenarios freaked them out a bit (perhaps it was too much insight into the minds and bodily functions of teen girls). But pretty quickly the guys were totally down with our ideas and offered great ways to distill the chaos and uncertainty of a teen girl's mind into (shudder) formulas and a scoring system'.

While the coders introduced certain game mechanics, arguably, one of the most interesting additions in functionality was the incorporation of a rapidly growing form of female media: online social networks. In a style resembling that of an Alternate Reality Game, Coolest Girl in School utilizes MySpace pages as a means of increasing the gameplay experience.

'As far as we know,' says Holly, 'we are the first mobile game to involve a social network. Players can communicate with game characters [via the characters' MySpace pages], get 'codes' for contraband and clues about how to suitably suck up to the right peeps. The game can be played with or without the social network, but just like school, it's all about who you know.'

Perhaps, when it comes to game development, Holly should add, 'or who knows you.'

Recognizing the game's use of Australian vernacular, new media and unique gameplay, last year Coolest Girl in School was nominated by the Game Developers Association of Australia (GDAA) for Best Mobile Phone Game of 2007.

-Across all of the award categories, it was the only game on the list created predominantly by women specifically for a female audience.

It's a situation that both culturally and commercially begs the multi-million dollar question: how does female-skewed game design differ to what else is available, and what exactly is it that women want from a game?

'I'd go so far as to say it's the squillion million katrillion truth dare double dare kiss command torture full stop no returns amen question,' quips Holly, 'but I'm prone to exaggeration!

'In all seriousness, though, what women want varies from woman to woman; it's prone to constant change as identity and desire are—in my opinion—quite fluid. I think women want variety and Coolest Girl in School goes some way to meeting that desire.

'It's important to note that Coolest Girl in School was not a response to the general question of what do women want,' says Holly, explaining the game's creation process, 'but rather a response to the question, “What do I, Holly Owen, an out-and-proud non-gamer want in a game that I am not getting anywhere else?” The initial concept, then, was a response to things I didn't like about games and things I did like about popular culture as a whole.

'I wanted to create a game where almost all the non-player characters are female, and where the player can only take on the character of a young woman,' says Holly. 'Like the Hollywood women's films and melodramas of the 1940's, I wanted to put women at the center of my gaming universe and I wanted them to have an extensive wardrobe, bitchy peers, a sound knowledge of popular culture and independent music, bad period pain and the ability to poke fun and play with one of the most seminal institutions any person will have the (mis)pleasure of passing through: high school.'

-As a writer, Holly believes high school is the ultimate source of drama and comedy. And so, before she began working on the narrative for the game, she wrote to everyone she knew and asked them to share their most embarrassing high school moments.

'We spent a really long time delving into our own experiences and exaggerating them for comedic effect,' says Holly. 'We also indulged in all our favorite high school films and television series. I am a fan of the more ludicrous scenarios and I also love that the presence of your parents in the game ensures the constant threat of social death. No matter how much you may get along with your parents, during high school anyone over 22 who's not a rock star should really be made to keep at least two kilometers away from you at all times.'

'I went to about five different schools, but only one high school,' says Holly. 'I was really into everything and I actually liked my teachers and got along with all my peers, which I guess makes me a freak of nature. I found that by being “good” it was much easier to get away with things. Karyn says that she fit into the “good naughty” category, too. It's not hard to work out how to get what you want.'

While that may have been true with Holly for most things, it didn't preclude her from painful experiences.

'At age 13-and-a-half,' confides Holly, 'a “friend” of mine told a much older, cooler boy (read: had all the best bands written on his school bag, didn't have to wear a school uniform, had traveled to Nepal, had a room separate to his house and spoke with a slight English accent) that I liked him. He replied that I would be bad for his “reputation”. That was a total “What's the color of red, Holly?” moment. (Luckily for me about a year-and-a-half later the tables turned. I punished him on a daily basis for his mean comment.) The whole experience was so painful that it completely turned me off “slight English accents”.'

Were Holly playing out her pay-back scenario in Coolest Girl in School, her actions may have just increased her score and gained friends with the cool clique. That is, if she hadn't already died of embarrassment (literally) from the boy's comment, or hooked up with the Emo crowd and carved a dirge about the incident into her thigh with a razor blade.

-Sound controversial? Then how about spraining your wrist from masturbating, smoking pot behind the shelter shed, finding out your mother has had a sex-change, walking out of a change room with your tampon string hanging out, asking a friend to shoplift, tampering with exam papers, or gossiping about the misfortune of another girl?

It's scenarios such as these—not to mention the tag lines 'GTA for girls' and 'Lie, bitch, and flirt your way to the top of the high school ladder'—that has seen Coolest Girl in School raise the ire of a number of family groups, both locally and internationally.

When the Australian Family Association found out about Coolest Girl in School, they condemned it for being 'toxic' and 'grossly irresponsible', arguing that 'the activities in the game have been shown through vast amounts of research to cause significant, long-term problems for young people'.

Canadian gaming expert Christine Daviault, from Montreal's Concordia University, said that she '[doesn't] think most people will see it as tongue-in-cheek,' adding that players of the game are 'at a crossroads in the formation of their personalities and [that Coolest Girl in School] basically fosters a warped idea of what constitutes success and how to get it.'

It's one of the great ironies that the game has received such criticism, particularly given the overwhelming volume of male-skewed games that manage to avoid condemnation, despite indulging (often quite graphically) in themes of aggression, misogyny, destruction and power.

'Hypocrisy never ceases to bore me,' replies Holly, pointedly. 'But there are a few key issues here.

-'There are the stupid people who cannot differentiate between gaming and reality and will continue to be pains in the neck and try to censor everything despite the fact there is no research that shows a correspondence between actual violence and violence in gaming. For some reason these people forget that violence and anti-social behavior predates gaming.

'Then there are the people who see a boy's relationship with aggression and violence as somehow innate and therefore acceptable. These people tend to get their knickers in a knot when girls want to explore sex and drugs and defiance through entertainment because they must have read the “sugar and spice and all things nice” poem one too many times throughout their lives.

'It's important to point out that Coolest Girl in School is not violent. There may be one teeny-tiny bitch fight squeezed in somewhere for accuracy, but essentially morally outraged media illiterate parents are wanting to burn us at the stake because teenage girls scare the hell out of their parents because they can get pregnant and teenage boys can't.

The intelligence of young women is constantly patronized by narrow minded fear mongers,' adds Holly, 'and it's heart-breaking.'

Regrettably, Holly's comment leaves her wide open for further criticism. Detractors will quickly point to the game's seemingly vacuous goal and use of trashy magazine quizzes, and ask how either can build a case for the portrayal of women as intelligent.

-On the surface they'd appear to be right. But probe deeper—see past the cut-out characters, lined notepad interface and menu-driven multiple choice questions—and it's evident that a lot of thought has gone into the game design. At one level, a player can simply click through the game, have fun, and pass away half-an-hour or so on a train or bus. But, should the player choose to invest in the ultimate goal, then there's an opportunity for them to try and increase their standing by thinking about who needs what and why, utilizing the online social networks and being strategic with their answers and actions.

At either level, however, the player is constantly being put into a position where there isn't necessarily a 'right' or 'wrong' answer. Each choice produces consequences. And this, for Holly, is an important aspect of the game design.

'I'm not sure whether there are more gray areas and contradictions for girls [than there are for boys],' she says with regards to the choices both have to make in life, 'but [for girls] there certainly are a lot.

'It was really important for me, then, not to impose any overarching moral code or deliver any final moral blow. The situational morality occurs because each non-player character has their own ideas regarding morality and they are the ones judging the player at any given point.'

It's a fascinating distinction, given the number of male-skewed action games that have a 'kill all your foes' single-minded heroism attached to them and obvious 'win' scenarios.

'Just as there are no real winners and losers after the trial of high school,' continues Holly, 'in Coolest Girl in School the ending is deliberately ambiguous. [That said,] the idea is to position yourself favorably for the next game. Well deserving players get props and the ability to start the next game in front with a handbag full of goodies.

-'We have plans,' reveals Holly, 'which include a Coolest Girl in School 2: The Prom, Coolest Girl in School 3: Gap Year, Coolest Girl in University/TAFE/Centrelink (unemployment) Queue, Coolest Girl at the Office Christmas Party, and more.

'Preferably all would then be adapted for “on ice” spectaculars,' continues Holly, tongue-in-cheek, 'presented by Mario Maiola accompanied by Sonic Youth playing “Kool Thing” repeatedly.'

Ice spectaculars? Games about proms and trashy office Christmas parties?

Sounds like I'd better start my estrogen shots now.

[Drew Taylor works in the games industry in Australia and writes video game culture articles for various magazines. In-game, his female protagonist glued on pubic hair to cover up the fact that she'd accidentally plucked off her eyebrows. Some time later in the game, after dying of embarrassment, she had mostly 'arty' and 'nyerd' types come to her funeral.]

GameSetLinks: A Whole New World

- Yeehah, there's all kinds of fun GameSetLinks zooming up in this set - particularly the new Olympics-themed ARG, which looks like it's going to go in some really interesting directions.

Transmedia gaming is, perhaps, a little overhyped, but when the future of advertising revolves around engaging the audience in clever, community-based ways, I can only see more companies and efforts based around smart interactive ARG-type things, rather than your standard 30-second TV ad. Hurray. Now, links:

PopMatters Multimedia Feature | The Carolina Games Summit Through the Eyes of the Ex-Core
An obscure conference, but a fun little write-up.

Vintage Computing and Gaming: How China Warrior Ruined My Childhood
'In my zeal to possess the ultimate in video game entertainment, I foolishly traded in Super Mario Bros. 3 and another NES game (I can’t remember which) for China Warrior.'

Write the Game » Interview with Kristen Perry
Neat interview with ArenaNet, Valve-utilized concept artist and community mainstay.

z a c k h i w i l l e r » Promised GDC Post #1: Indie Game Inspirations
Some nice IGF Pavilion impressions.

ARGNet: The Lost Ring: Taking the Blindfold Off
Jane McGonigal + Olympics Committee + McDonalds-supported ARG? Whoa.

Missing in Action: Scrolling Fighters « Arcade Heroes
Shame this genre isn't too well, yeah - still, in the non-arcade arena, Castle Crashers (pictured) is coming for XBLA.

PlayStationMuseum.com - Gen13
Lots and lots of info on early dev, alphas for the canned PS1 franchise.

3DO Interactive Multiplayer - Kamachi's Museum.
Incredibly obscure 3DO title: 'Yamada Kamachi was a 17 year old Japanese kid who died in 1977. He remains something of a phenomena.'

USS - a portfolio of probabilities - a photoset on Flickr
Oh my God, more Syd Mead-designed games, please - though his site says he concept designed Bounty Hounds, wha?

JEANSNOW.NET — More Than Fez
6955 on a No More Heroes remix album? Totally awesome.

March 10, 2008

Opinion: 'Shut Up and Save the World - The Silent Protagonist'

-[In this special guest GameSetWatch editorial, student and game commentator Andrew Vanden Bossche takes a look at the role of the silent protagonist in video games.]

So there you are, trying to save the world, but no one’s listening to you. Whenever someone asks you a question, one of your friends answers for you. When the game finally lets you make a choice, it’s usually between a) help an old lady across the street or b) poke her in the eye and steal all her money.

And even when you pick b) out of perverse annoyance, some smartass party member will intervene, and you’ll have to go through the dialogue tree again and again until you pick an option more respectful to the elderly.

So where does the silent protagonist come from? After all, the technology to give protagonists voice is still fairly young. While now it’s standard for even games with very simple plots to at least include some explanatory text, lots of games have never needed to.

The Origins Of The Silent Protagonist

The first Mario games didn’t contain too much more dialogue than “sorry, but our princess is in another castle” and Mario definitely didn’t need to say a word for you to understand what was going on. Early games like Zelda and Mario featured silent protagonists because there wasn’t any reason to have them speak. Like picture books, you could understand everything you needed to know about the story from what you could see.

Mario is an excellent example of this, because so much of the game’s personality comes from the charm of the scenery, from the brightly colored environments to the smiley faces drawn on clouds and hills. To this day, Mario gets away with extremely minimal dialogue, and many people find it weird when he talks; we’re used to him communicating through gestures and actions. In the Mario RPGs, he communicates through exaggerated gestures and silly nonsense words which are as expressive, if not more so, than actual speech.

So when is it that the silent protagonist started to stick out? Well, for one thing, the silent protagonist we see most often is, quite unlike Mario, supposed to be a representation of the player. It’s a really different narrative technique, who’s origins are less in the vein of technological limitations but arise from the earliest eras of RPGs, in which the protagonist is supposed to be an insertion of the player.

This is back when video game RPGs still had a lot more in common with pen and paper RPGs and the idea of “role-playing” (that is, actually trying to act out your character’s behavior) was still very strong.

A lot of these games got away with this because the either had a single silent protagonist or a group of equally silent members (check out Etrian Odyssey for a contemporary example) with very broad and sometimes quite simple quests, like exploring a dungeon for treasure. Hence, there’s nothing really defining the characters except for their stats and maybe a visual icon, which leaves the player free to imagine whatever they want about their characters (or not).

In the developer diaries for Etrian, Kazuya Niinou mentions his wish for players to imagine their own stories about the characters they make. It’s a system that’s not even built in the game really- there’s no way that it matters what you imagine about the characters you make, but you’re still given the choice to pick their appearance. There’s not much in game reason for it, but it’s a wonderful touch to make the game more personal.

The Silent Protagonist Conundrum

Okay, so if the silent protagonist is so great, what’s the problem? Well, that is the problem right there-it’s the silent protagonist that’s great, and very often we see games in which the silent protagonist just isn’t. The problem comes when there are contradictions.

Remember when Half-Life 2 came out, and the PR tagline was “You are Gordon Freeman”? What they wanted to imply with that statement was that Gordon would take no action that the player didn’t direct. Total freedom, right?

Except, there’s one really big problem with that line. You’re not Gordon Freeman. Okay, right, obviously. But think of everything that implies, because you’re not necessarily white, male or MIT-educated (not to mention no hazard suit or guns). The point I’m trying to make is that the player is still just playing the part of someone else, even if the player has complete control over his actions.

- The problem here is the Gordon Freeman is already exclusively defined. Sure, he doesn’t talk, but he has all sorts of backstory that severely limits what the player can imagine about him. Plus, it’s not as if Gordon is really in control of his actions. Sure, Gordon doesn’t do anything you don’t want him to, but he also can’t do things you want him to, either. You can’t shoot friendly targets, and most importantly of all, you can’t talk!

It’s not just that the player can’t make Gordon say things, it’s that his silence is a kind of weakness. Combat is thrilling because in a tangible way, the player is able make things happen, whether it’s defeating evil or protecting the innocent, or any number of reasons. But voice itself is very important power, even in action games. Without voice, it can often feel like the player is just being jerked around through the whole game like a puppet without any real power over what’s going on.

Only very rarely is this actually used intentionally (Portal comes to mind) to make the player feel like they’re not in control of their destiny. It’s very effective at doing that, but too often it’s used as if it was a way of increasing the player’s agency- and it pretty much does the opposite.

The Freeman Question

So what if Gordon Freeman can’t talk? He’s still Gordon Freeman, and the player’s never going to be him. The thing is, I don’t believe that players care if it’s them making the decisions or the protagonist. When we watch movies, we cheer (or boo) the protagonists along the way, and identify with them (if they’re well written) and understand why they do the things they do - even if they’re things we wouldn’t do ourselves.

But we don’t know why Gordon Freeman does the things he does, making the whole Half-life experience kind of weird. In this respect, I think the first game was much better, since all you’re trying to do is survive which is an extremely basic and understandable human impulse. But in the second game, when you’re supposed to be some sort of savior, it makes you wonder why you’re doing through all this trouble.

In fact, I don’t want to pick on poor Gordon too much. Half-Life does a very good job of working the silent protagonist. One of the feelings that defines that game for me is the irony of his last name. Especially in the first game, he’s a victim of circumstance, and the player spends the whole game trying to get him out of the biggest mess in the world. His silence is great, not just because he’s alone, but because I found myself agreeing with it.

The silence is powerful, letting the player know they’re just an observer, fighting against things they can’t understand or communicate with. The military wants to kill you, Xen wants to kill you, and the scientists just like to hear themselves talk. The only person who actually cares what you have to say is the G-Man at the end, and it’s the one time that you can really respond to another character, even if it isn’t though words.

Conclusion

Video games are often compared to movies. I think that’s accurate, although not in the way that it’s usually presented. In fact, I’d say games are closer to plays. The director is the game designers, the game itself is the script, the player is an actor.

Actors have a lot of wiggle room they interpret the lines and perform them, in ways that the director or scriptwriter may never have thought about or intended. But on the other hand, the actor can’t go outside of the script. Just like a game may have all sorts of alternate paths and endings, but the player can’t go outside them.

I think the point really is that players have no problem being actors, even in roles that may be very different from themselves. I think many players want to expand their range a bit more than designers give them credit.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is an English and Creative Writing major at Oberlin College. He began gaming on his father’s Apple SE with classic games like “Dark Castle” and “Crab Attack” – hitting weak points for massive damage long before it was popular. His education includes console RPGs and Macintosh shareware games. He’s currently playing anything he can get to run on his Mac, since beggars can’t be choosers.]

Best Of GDC: 'Making Games For PlayStation Network - The Facts'

- [Over the next few days on GameSetWatch, we're going to be reprinting some of the more interesting GDC lectures which might have potentially got 'lost in the shuffle' of the show. This time, Brandon Boyer has a detailed write-up on an interesting PSN pitch, ahead of a GameSetWatch editorial on PSN I'll publish pretty soon.]

At his Game Developers Conference session, senior developer relations account manager Chris Eden revealed much of the inner workings of the PlayStation Network, including audience makeup, top PSN downloads, marketing opportunities, and how to become a fully-fledged PSN developer for just $1200.

"With the PlayStation Network, a lot of the land is still up for grabs," said Eden, promising that developers would be able to retain creative control, own their own IP, and see larger royalties than on competitive services. "Sony want to manage, but not own the platform," he added.

Eden said the PSN was open to distributing a number of different types of content: downloadable games, demos, add-ons, trailers, original videos (coming this summer), digital strategy guides, soundtracks, comics, and psOne games.

On that latter platform, especially, Eden advised that developers "go back and check your contracts. There may be cases where rights have reverted back to you... It's a great opportunity to make use of that old content."

PSN By The Numbers

Giving a little statistical background to the service, Eden said there are currently 2.8 million registered PSN users, and, since Christmas, 100,000 more have joined every week.

The service has seen 46 million downloads total, with 50 percent of PS3 owners going online, 82 percent downloading at least one piece of content, and 65 percent downloading something the first day they connect. As for the audience makeup, 92 percent are male, and 79 percent are between 18 and 34.

Eden also provided some lists of downloaded content. For the U.S., the top ten purchased games are, in order: Fl0w, Mortal Kombat 2, Tekken 5, Pain, Warhawk, Bowling, Super Stardust, Calling All Cars, Aquatopia, and Everyday Shooter.

The list differs slightly for the UK: Tekken 5, Warhawk, Fl0w, Loco Roco, Mortal Kombat 2, Super Rubadub, Calling All Cars, Gripshift, Lemmings, and Super Stardust.

The Cost Of Entry

After a quick rundown of the actual application process to become a PSN developer, Eden revealed that the cost of entry was actually considerably lower than one might think.

Sony have released a free to use graphics engine called PhyreEngine, which comes complete with a run time, art pipeline, more than 70 documented code samples and game templates, and is cross-platform optimized for multi-core PCs -- OpenGL and Direct3D simply need to be re-compiled for PS3.

The engine supports Maya and 3ds Max, Collada, Bullet, Havok, Ageia Physics on the development systems, with Eden noting that simply for the $1200 cost of a debug PS3 (a step down from the significantly more costly full development kit) and the free PhyreEngine, anyone could become a licensed PSN developer following the certification process.

The engine has already proven itself out as well -- Codemaster's DiRT, thatgamecompany's Fl0w and Sidhe's Gripshift we all developed using the PhyreEngine.

PSN Versus The Others

Eden added that what differentiates PSN from the competition was pricing, as well. "We don't set or recommend prices, or have price slots," he said. "Sony just acts as a digital reseller, you're free to set your own prices."

Unlike competing services, he continued, Sony doesn't slot releases into a schedule. Once a game has passed its final QA check, the content is uploaded to the network the following Thursday.

PSN Promotions

He then highlighted some of the marketing opportunities Sony provides its developers: in-store banner ads, weekly emails, monthly email to PS3 owners and likely owners, weekly updates on playstation.com, the PS3's browser home page, weekly PR media bulletins, the PlayStation Blog, and its XMB ticker.

660,000 PS3 owners receive the weekly email, he said, with an average open rate of 26 percent. Its PlayStation Blog, too, he noted had seen 1.8 million uniques, 4.5 million visits, 7.6 million page views, and an average of 14 viewed links by the end of January.

The Blog team was "always keen for content," too, he noted. "Send it in to us, we'll take a look over it and post it up there" -- anything ranging from game announcements, developer diaries, interviews with staff, and previews.

Why Does Sony Hate 2D?

Finally, he covered some frequently asked PSN questions. Royalty payments were made quarterly, with a statement coming from Sony every month. PS3 downloads have no size restrictions, while PSP downloads are restricted at 1.8 gigs.

Developers aren't required to provide a demo, "but we think it's a really good idea," he said. "A good demo can add 30 percent to sales." Developers "don't have to do a one level demo," either. "Consider a video demo, or look at other business models... View your demo as a starter pack and sell additional content later."

He also noted that SCE doesn't restrict the number of games per year or per genre across the board, and, more importantly, does not "hate 2D."

"We love good 2D just as much as we love good 3D games, said Eden. "If you have a 2D game you absolutely can bring it to us."

Games don't have to be exclusive to PSN either, he noted, saying Sony was always interested in high quality games that show off the platform. "We can always make it worth your while," he added, smiling.

Finally, in response to a frequent question wondering if developers would be rejected if they had an idea similar to that of a first party game, he said, "quite simply, show them how it's done. We don't reject games because of that." The history of PlayStation has shown, he added, that "our third parties frequently do things better."

GameSetLinks: The Jumper Over Saturn

- A little more GameSetLinks esoterica - and you'll find me, below, raving about Anthony Lane's New Yorker film reviews - and hoping we find more writers talking about games in similar ways.

Of course, it's not really that game commentary can't be as spicy as Lane's rhetoric - I suspect some of it is. It's just dependent on being literate, witty, and using context in delightful ways, rather than being rote or using mundanity. Or something. And here's those links:

It’s All About the Beat « Save the Robot - Chris Dahlen
'We’ve been lurching around finding hope in one clunky piece of narrative-based gaming after another, yet music games excel almost effortlessly.'

YouTube - Justice's 'DVNO' music video
Couple of tangential game things in this - first, Sega font, secondly - why don't more people (besides GTA Vice City) set games in the '80s?

Kevin Kelly: '1,000 True Fans'
Incredibly important for games, too: 'A creator... needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.'

The weirdest legal pleading ever. - By Bonnie Goldstein - Slate Magazine
Jack Thompson's legal document ravings make it to Slate, in a Smoking Gun stylee, hah.

Posts tagged Gdc Quest Quiz at Joystiq
Cute idea - Tim Schafer's responses just posted - via Metafilter.

Giant Bomb » Blowing up this summer
Gerstmann's new joint, in case you did not notice.

Crispy Gamer: Have the Big Three Learned from the Saturn's Mistake?
Steven Kent goes back into order to go forward.

'Beamed Down': The Current Cinema: The New Yorker
This review of Jumper made me heart Anthony Lane real bad and think about who does similar in games (Penny Arcade?) - all pop culture reviews should be this literate and witty.

David Hellman: The Art of Braid, Part I: Early Abstracts
Braid artist on creating the v.interesting visual style.

Retro interview: Phil Harrison 13 years ago | GamesRadar
Great idea for the exhumation, analysis angle.

March 9, 2008

@Play: Nethack Intensified

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a kinda sorta bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

"Commercial games cheat for you and against the monsters: The unarmed orc falls to the ground, dying. 'Whirling Blades of Doom... backpack', he gasps. 'Barbecue sauce... left pocket.'

"NetHack plays fair between you and the monsters: The orc wins the race to the Whirling Blades of Doom. He seizes it, grins, and whirls it at you. You fall to the ground, dying. Your last sight is of the orc reaching for his left pocket.

"Slash'em cheats against you and for the monsters: Staggering and more than half dead, you advance to the slain monster. If you can use the Whirling Blades of Doom against the rest of the pack, you just might live through this.
...There is no weapon at the corpse. The Whirling Blades of Doom are an intrinsic attack, not a separate weapon. The next platypus in line opens its bill. This one is a fire breather. Thoroughly barbecued, you fall to the ground, dying. When you hit the ground, something breaks in your left pocket.

Rob Ellwood, writing sarcastically in rec.games.roguelike.nethack

Beyond The Kitchen Sink

slashem-lamb.pngSome people consider Nethack to be the game with the "most". The most monsters, the most items, the most places, the most interesting things, the most everything. These people are wrong. They are wrong because there exists SLASH'EM, a Nethack variant that contains everything Nethack does, and then some.

SLASH'EM (capitalized because it's an acronym, standing for "Super Lotso Added Stuff Hack – Extended Magic") is a variant of Nethack that adds in hundreds of things more. It is a super variant, with bits culled from many other versions: Nethack--, Nethack+, SLASH, the Wizard Patch, Lethe and Heck are big influences, but it also has its own unique bits in the stew.

It's interesting to consider the differences between the base game and this one. As we have seen, Nethack's devteam used to have a more inclusive development philosophy, but around Nethack 3.1 that stopped, and all the versions since have been much more conservative. But SLASH'EM never stopped adding stuff. In addition to being up-to-date with the features in the most recent vanilla, it has five additional character classes, five new races (hobbits, drow, lycanthropes, vampires and doppelgangers), new abilities called "techniques" for many classes and races, a ton of new weapons including many new artifacts, new magic items in most categories, and a great many new monsters. Nethack's reorganization in 3.1 added dungeon branches to the game, but other than the addition of Sokoban some time ago (itself an import from SLASH'EM) it has steadfastly refused to further expand the dungeon. Meanwhile SLASH'EM has lots of branches, many of them optional.

It may be that there's good reasons the devteam reined back their impulse in adding things to Nethack. Or it may not. SLASH'EM has everything Nethack does and much, much, much much more. But it hasn't had the balance work put into it Nethack has. Tougher monsters appear sooner, there are lots more of them, and they have all kinds of nasty new things they can do to the player. Some standard Nethack tricks, like shopkeeper theft, are harder to perform. (Shopkeepers are much tougher opponents, too.) If, in adding a new feature, the developers had a choice between easier and harder, in SLASH'EM it will usually be harder.

The dungeon is BETA SOFTWARE, features may be more awesome than your universe will allow

slashem-yellowjackets.pngAn imperfect, but useful, way to think about it is being the "unstable" code branch of Nethack, both in design and tendency to crash. There's lots of new features, but much less of a guarantee that the game is fair in any way, or that it won't bomb when you look at it funny. But the Nethack devteam has been known to get ideas, and even code, from the game for inclusion in the original. Maybe the greatest example of this is Nethack's most unique role, the Monk, who suffers substantial penalties to wearing armor, wielding weapons, and eating meat. Yet SLASH'EM Monks are still fairly different from Nethack ones.

So what's different? This is far from an exhaustive list, for SLASH'EM has been quite promiscuous in adding ideas from user-made patches, but some highlights include:

Most monster classes have new members. Some of the more interesting ones are:
- Gypsies, which may offer the player draws from a Deck of Many Things
- Various Lovecraft monsters, like Father Dagon, Mother Hydra and deep ones. Also their invented-for-SLASH'EM cousins, deeper ones and deepest ones.
slashem-cockatoo.png- Lots of animals, including chickens, cows and sheep. Some of them are more dangerous than experience with their real-life counterparts might lead you to believe. The first screenshot game I started ended due to an irate cockatoo.
- A larger assortment of werebeasts. Since lycanthropes are a new race, and lycanthropy is an acquirable condition, this can also affect the player.
- Some humanoid species have royalty which can appear on special levels. Among them are Kroo the Kobold King, Grund the Orc King, Ruggo the Gnome King, and Aphrodite, boss of the nymphs, who can't be happy about her royal neighbors.
- Some other creatures have new unique versions: Pegasus the winged horse, the spiders Girtab and Shelob, and... Jumbo the Elephant?
- Austrialian monsters! Echidnas, koala, wombats, Tasmanian devils, wallabys, kangaroos, "wallaroos," and platypuses (no, the intro quote wasn't joking about that)
- There are no new mimics, but there are new mimic-like monsters like killer coins (a Wizardry reference), killer food and tripe rations, and a particular favorite of mine, the "bad egg."
- A few other D&D monsters have made their appearance, including a Beholder (undoubtedly irate for being commented out in Nethack for so long) and long-time D&D favorite Vecna the Lich.
- Of course, each new role has its own quest dungeon and unique leader and nemesis.

More?

slashem-mangler.png There are also a large number of new weapons, including multiple lightsaber types. An entire new category of weapons are modern firearms, which are more powerful than arrows but with much rarer ammunition. They are not generated laying around the dungeon floor, but soldier monsters sometimes get them on creation, making them a much deadlier class of opponent.

The main quest has an additional step besides collecting the three unique items to get to the Amulet. Now the player must also get two out of three aligned keys, which reside on special branches off the main dungeon. Of course, they are guarded by unique monsters.

Most major variants of Nethack these days take it upon themselves to address what is seen as the biggest flaw of the game, how the second half of the game, Gehennom, has become increasingly irrelevant (for its supposed hellishness, few characters die there), boring (maze after maze with no special features), and annoying (that damn mysterious force on the return trip). SLASH'EM is no different, and it has a much shorter Gehennom. To compensate, the main dungeon is much longer, and Gehennom is now composed almost entirely of special levels. Each of the named demon lords has his own now, including everyone's favorite, Demogorgon.

slashem-nightgaunt.pngAlso along the lines of fixing perceived flaws, unicorn horns in SLASH'EM have different trouble-fixing odds than Nethack. In the original, the factor in telling what a unihorn will do when applied is its curse/uncurse/bless status. At its best, it can fix a wide range of status ailments, and also make many dangerous potions harmless, while also helping to identify them. And it doesn't degrade with use. And it's a moderately-decent weapon in a pinch. To increase its curative properties in SLASH'EM, on the other hand, it must be enchanted as a weapon, which is a harder thing to do than just blessing it.

One of the places SLASH'EM got many of its ideas from is an old variant created by now-devteam-member Stephen White, called Nethack+. One of the biggest things in that game was that it allowed shopkeepers to provide services for the player in exchange for some money. This was very good in that it made money a big part of the game again (it's been devalued ever since it lost its central place in game scoring), and it gave shopkeepers more personality. This was very bad because, to prevent higher-level players from just taking advantage of all the services offered then slaughtering the shopkeep to get his gold back, shopkeepers had to be made much stronger, which in turn made it much more dangerous to steal from shops.

Even More?

Altar conversion is riskier in SLASH'EM. Other gods are much more likely to get mad at you for converting their altars to your own alignment, sending in tough minion monsters to attack you. Conversely, sometimes sacrificing on a co-aligned altar will result in your own deity sending you some help to follow you around and slay stuff on your behalf.

slashem-dungworm.pngSLASH'EM has lots of new artifacts, which range from interesting choices drenched in D&D lore, like the Hand and Eye of Vecna, to the Bat From Hell, which is not, let's say, the flying kind of bat. The game is a lot more serious about artifact alignment than Nethack, though, so it might help to consult a list to make sure the weapon will like you before you pick it up.

Nethack's reference list ranges far and wide, but it doesn't get as geeky as you might think. The nerdiest gag I have seen in the main game, by a good margin, is a Ranma 1/2 reference on one of the T-shirts. On average, SLASH'EM's references tend to be one Nerd Tier above Nethack's: there is an artifact spoon called a Houchou which instantly kills any one monster it's thrown at*, Undead Slayers sometimes start out with a whip, and Monks have a ability which causes them to do special moves if the right arrow-key sequence is input***.

* Final Fantasy IV.
** Castlevania.
*** Fighting games, and also, perhaps, Final Fantasy IV.

Nethack creates bones levels (saved dungeon levels from when players die) less often at later levels. SLASH'EM reverses this tendency, creating them more often the deeper the player gets. The result is that deaths later in the game are more likely to have their stuff preserved for a future player, but the monsters that did the killing are also more likely to hang around.

In addition to new shop types like pet shops, shop prices have been remixed a bit, requiring price IDers to learn anew what everything is. The most useful items, like magic lamps and artifacts, tend to have much higher prices than before.

Dear God, Still More?

slashem-migodrone.pngLater on there is a special level, the Black Market, that is one of SLASH'EM's more interesting opportunities. Originally from Nethack+, most of the level is filled with a single gigantic general store. The way shops are generated is, the larger they are, the more varied their contents are likely to be. However this one is unique among them all: prices are 25 to 50 times greater there, it has special defenses against theft, polymorphed players are not allowed inside, it's on a special branch so one cannot just dig his way out, and the proprietor, One-Eyed Sam, has much greater resources for messing up thieves, including a weapon that has an instadeath effect and a cancellation effect. The result: the shop is large enough that useful things are bound to appear there, prices are high enough that players won't be able to walk out with more than an item or two, and theft is much more difficult to get away with than usual. Fortunately, the level doesn't appear until quite deep.

slashem-asphinx.pngIn Nethack, if the player polymorphs, it eventually will expire and return him to normal, but for monsters and items it is permanent. In SLASH'EM, all polymorph is temporary unless special measures are taken to make it permanent. This means you can't change a pet into something powerful and expect the benefit to stick, even though the usual polymorph risks like death from system shock or polymorphing into something suicidal are still present.

A big, yet often overlooked, feature added to the game is "techniques," which are special command options only certain roles or races can use. This greatly helps define the roles, although some of the techniques are a bit questionable as far as the role's milieu is concerned.

slashem-toilet.png
And at last, in addition to doors, fountains, sinks, thrones, altars and graves, SLASH'EM adds toilets. The uses for such a thing I leave to you to discover. As you might guess, they can be helpful in cases of sickness, or of overeating, or for interacting with a particular deity-figure.

But Why?

What is all this good for, other than blowing the minds of folk who think Nethack is too complex? As mentioned before, a major incentive for variant authors is to fix things in a game they find lacking. With Nethack, the things most often fixed are a loss of difficulty in the late game, ennui once all the monsters and items are fully known, and Gehennom. This may make SLASH'EM's development strategy more evident: it is a game made specifically for Nethack experts.

slashem-pitbull.pngThis may be why it's so much harder than Nethack. One cannot get as far here with a lucky start, like a pet polymorphed into a dragon, getting a lucky shopkeeper kill, or even an early wish. This evens out the game's balance, but also "fixes" one of those things people like about roguelikes: how a game plays can have a different feel depending on what they find on early levels. There are more different kinds of dangers to prepare for in SLASH'EM, so Nethack's big panaceas, like unicorn horns, prayer and magic resistance, each covers a smaller proportion of them. Level drain, in particular, goes from being trivially defeatable with an elven cloak to requiring special measures for protection, making vampires a serious opponent again.

The tremendous difficulty makes it difficult for me to recommend the game to anyone but die-hard 'Hackers. If you're already not thrilled about playing a game as difficult and complex as Nethack, then SLASH'EM may cause an allergic reaction. It is definitely a game with a certain userbase in mind... but for that userbase, it can be a lot of fun to play around with... at least until the Nethack devteam finally releases its next version. And who knows when that will be....

slashem-cthulhu.png

Addendum

It's been a while since the last column, so some minor things....

After a long hiatus, Tim Biskup has returned to roguelike development and is resuming work on JADE, his promising follow-up to ADOM. He's started a development blog to keep people informed about it.

Sega has released the DS version of Shiren the Wanderer to the US market! Will gamers take to it? It's possible many won't have the chance: no store near where I live carries the darn thing, and I've ordered my own copy from Amazon.

And finally, the RPG world was rocked by the news that Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax has passed away at the age of 69. As I mentioned back when the column first got started, much of the original inspiration for Rogue can be traced directly to the D&D books, and Nethack in particular attempts to keep the spirit of that version game alive. Gygax was long a defender of a game mechanic approach to role-playing games, the core hack-and-slash play, as opposed to the storytelling focus most creators have now. A joyous play style, not concerning itself so much with motivations and (usually bad) storytelling as it is with killing monsters and taking their stuff. There's still room for that kind of game, isn't there?

GameSetNetwork: Microsoft, Sony, Valve, Oh My

- Time to round up the various features and original Q&As we posted on Gamasutra and associated sites this week - and there's a pretty spectacular amount of noteworthy stuff, actually - including major interviews about XNA (the XNA-using Schizoid pictured!), the PlayStation Network, and Valve's Steam service.

Also stuck in there somewhere is the 'Excel as a 3D engine' article which has bagged lots of notice and a multi-hundred-thousand page view haul this week, as well as Ernest Adams on the copyrighting of game concepts, a nice explanation of business models for free to play, pay for item MMOs, and a host of other pieces. Here goes:

- Connecting Communities, Redefining Xbox Live: Chris Satchell On XNA
"Microsoft's major announcement at this year's GDC was the launch of Xbox Live Community Games - but how will it work? Gamasutra quizzed XNA general manager Chris Satchell on this, Zune game creation, and a host of other topics."

- Microsoft Excel: Revolutionary 3D Game Engine?
"We're all familiar with the leading game engines - from Unreal Engine 3 through Source and beyond. But veteran programmer Rakos has discovered a new pretender to the throne, in the form of... Microsoft Excel?!"

- Q&A: Musson Talks Writing For Movie-Based Games
"How does a movie become a game smoothly? Freelancer Dalan Musson, writer for The Golden Compass film-licensed games, has worked in both industries, and talks to Gamasutra in detail about how a film gets transitioned to interactive form with its innards intact."

- The Designer's Notebook: Damn All Gameplay Patents!
"In his latest column, veteran designer/educator Adams advocates against patenting any aspect of gameplay, suggesting: 'Our creativity is already under threat from enough directions without us terrorizing each other into mediocrity with the threat of lawsuits.'"

- Q&A: Valve Explains Why PC Gaming's Gaining Steam
"Gamasutra spoke to Valve marketing VP Doug Lombardi and business development director Jason Holtman to discuss why, from supporting indie development to alternative business models, PC as a gaming platform is far from dead -- and why it may be about to give consoles a run for their money."

- The State of PlayStation Network: John Hight Interviewed
"Sony's PlayStation Network has provided some stand-out digital games, from Everyday Shooter to fl0w, and Gamasutra talks to SCEA's first-party PSN exec about the company's philosophy towards fostering 'signature' indie developers."

- Educational Feature: Play Testing
"Game designer Bruno Urbain of 10Tacle Studios Belgium knows how to make any game better and more fun to play: play test it. He’s written an article for GameCareerGuide.com with 10 professional tips on how to do play testing. The educational article is aimed at game designers who are new to play testing and want to start using it, as well as student game developers."

- How To Compare Online Gaming Businesses
"When MMOs all had monthly subscriptions, comparing financial health was much easier. But, as CDC Games' Williams (Lunia) usefully explains, metrics for online games are more complex for today's microtransaction and ad-supported titles."

- Q&A: Arey, Rafei On Big Red Button's Cross-Platform Power
"Gamasutra has been speaking to Naughty Dog veterans Bob Rafei and E. Daniel Arey about new developer Big Red Button, revealing a cross-media, cross-platform attitude coming from 'seeing these great franchises we developed for Sony -- and seeing competitors selling 3 to 5 times more because they were on multiple platforms.'"

- Best Of GDC: The Games Industry Confronts The Press
"What is the games press's responsibility? How are they responding to the ever more broadening and inclusive medium? Continuing Gamasutra's best of GDC 2008 series, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal led a panel turning the tables on journalists, soliciting tough questions from the game industry to challenge the press."

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Down With Print-Mag Reviews

apluslogo.jpg I sometimes feel a little embarrassed writing this column because although I'm arguably one of the most vocal cheerleaders for print game magazines, my actual information consumption habits couldn't contradict that more. Most all of my buying decisions on games are driven by what I read on forums.

If I want to cheat in a game, learn more about an upcoming game, or bitch about a game because I can't cheat in it, then the Internet is right there. (I also subscribe to the local Houston paper mainly because they had a good deal for a year's delivery a while back, newsprint is great for lining ferret litter boxes with, and I just can't get enough of that Family Circus.)

Eagle-eyed readers may have noted by now that I almost never talk about reviews in video-game magazines. That's because, in my opinion, traditional reviews in game magazines should go to the same place that cheat and strategy-guide pages went -- i.e., somewhere where I don't have to pay money for them.

That's something I've found doubly true for EGM's reviews section. A three-reviewer system had its advantages back in an age when there was no other way to find out how good a game was before or at the time of its release. Nowadays, when this isn't the case at all, the flaws of the system are getting obvious. Putting three reviews on a single page gives less space for each review to discuss the game, which in turn makes the review both less useful and less interesting to read.

It's especially painful when the three reviewers share the same general opinion on the game, as was the case with the April '08 issue that just came out. What's so exciting about reading three different truncated takes on why Destroy All Humans! Big Willy Unleashed is average? I can frankly get that on Amazon if I wanted it. And when I say that, I don't mean EGM's editorial staff is just as good at game criticism as Amazon customer reviewers. Not at all.

What I do mean, though, is that while EGM's reviews can help readers make a buying decision, I'm not sure readers are willing to pay money for the privilege of access any longer when the net's full of reviews already. And that's where a lot of print mags still let readers down, I think -- just like how their cheat sections didn't really do anything that GameFAQs couldn't, their reviews often don't really achieve anything that isn't done on some Web forum. Or, in EGM's case, on 1UP.com.

We've seen a lot of game-mag evolution in the past two years along, as editors deal with shrinking ad buys and smaller books. I wouldn't be surprised if the next major evolution is doing away with traditional reviews and trying something else instead. I don't know what that "something else" could be -- maybe more critical postmortems with developers, maybe more longform Tom & Bruce-style gameplay diaries, maybe "Great Moments" screenshot montages, who knows -- but to me, a new approach would be both more interesting and give the mag more of a chance to differentiate itself from both the net and the print competition...something I worry about a great deal with EGM, given how intertwined it is with 1UP these days.

(On an unrelated note, the announcement earlier this week that Ziff Davis Media was finally filing for Chapter 11 was very dramatic, but not at all unexpected by anyone in the magazine industry. The filing has little to nothing to do with the performance or profitability of EGM, 1UP or GFW; it's all about the hundreds of millions of dollars in debt they took on when Willis Stein bought them in 2000. Ghosts from the dot-com mania period, in other words.

It's nothing short of a miracle ZD didn't go Chapter 11 until now, in fact -- as you'll read in the article linked to above, it's the worst-kept secret in the industry that ZD's debt has outpaced its net worth for years now and it never had even half a chance of paying it off any other way. That's why the upshot of this announcement is so positive; it means Ziff finally has a chance to be run like a normal publishing company and its employees hopefully won't have to worry about the future of their jobs for much longer. I've got a lot of optimism and look forward to a healthier '08 and '09 for all their mags and sites.)

[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 at PiQ magazine.]



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Gamasutra (the 'art and business of games'.)

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Finger Gaming (news, reviews, and analysis on iPhone and iPod Touch games.)

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

Worlds In Motion (discussing the business of online worlds.)


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