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March 22, 2008

Being Kotaku: Crecente's Hidden Smash Bros. Review, Site Stats

A couple of interesting tidbits related to the biggest game weblog in the world which I feel GSW must compile together into a coherent, slightly cheeky Kotaku-filled whole. So we will!

Firstly, you may have seen Kotaku EIC Brian Crecente debating silly game-related child predator stories on Fox News. But it turns out that awesome new game blog Eegra has unearthed a previously unknown pilot for a Crecente video game review show.

It's a review of Super Smash Bros Brawl - and it's so amazing, so theatrical, and therefore so YouTube-d below (make sure you hang on for the 'Day Note' writing at the end!)

On another Kotaku-related tack entirely, there's an interesting Portfolio.com article about Gawker Media (via Nelson) is discussing pay for Gawker.com writers based on their pageviews. I think it might be possible, extrapolating from that discussion, to have a go for Kotaku, but it's the weekend, and that's a bit much even for stats hogs such as me.

Still, the interesting thing about the article is that it points out a somewhat uncommented on Kotaku stats page, which actually lists total page views per writer for the past 6 months - including me, from my guest stint in November, even (yes, not many page views, shh, my 'appeal is becoming more selective', to cite Spinal Tap).

Anyhow, there are some bugs resulting in duplication (and who knows, it could additionally be busted!), but getting out the calculator for a minute to smoosh them together, we can work out the following. In February, the Kotaku massif managed to scare up the following total and per-editor page view score (remember this was GDC month, so extra kerfuffle!):

TOTAL FOR SPECIFIC AUTHOR PAGES, FEB 2008 = 13,258,100 page views
Brian Ashcraft = 2,317,874 page views
Michael McWhertor = 2,270,321 page views
Luke Plunkett = 2,186,295 page views
Brian Crecente = 1,697,596 page views
Mike Fahey = 1,617,459 page views
Mark Wilson = 1,603,039 page views
Flynn DeMarco = 848,035 page views
Maggie Greene = 248,775 page views
[+ various other legacy folks under that.]

[NOTE: That isn't the overall page view total for Kotaku, of course - just for individual pages. If you take into account indexes and other things, according to Sitemeter, looks like the entire site did 33.8 million page views in February 2008. That ratio (individual author page views to whole site page views) doesn't seem right to me, but hey.]

So, obviously, page views don't necessarily denote quality of coverage and vary widely based on when people post and what kind of 'breaking' stories come their way in that time. And heck, I don't mind admitting that GSW gets but a couple of hundred thousand page views a month, which is why it's an unmonetized editor blog and not our sole source of income.

But stats are fun! And we're pretty sure Brian's page views will surge after he does more of those video reviews!

Interview: Yoshi Ono On Bringing Back Street Fighter

-[This Gamasutra-originating interview, conducted by Christian Nutt, chats to Capcom's Yoshi Ono about the much-vaunted Street Fighter reboot. I think it's worth crossposting to GSW for some of the thoughtful discussion on the graphical style and how it's evolved from drawn concept art - they are self-avowedly retro, but the result seems to be oddly intriguing, at least to me.]

Creating a new iteration in the Street Fighter franchise is no simple matter, with tough decisions to be made choosing an engine and the visual look.

Thus, in this in-depth interview, we talk to Yoshi Ono, general manager of the online game development department and R&D management group of Capcom about his thoughts on the process with Street Fighter IV - which is due for a 2008 Japanese arcade release before moving to home platforms.

Questions include the gap in returning to the much-loved series, the decision not to use Capcom's MT Framework engine utilized in Dead Rising, and the inspiration behind the game's intriguing-looking shaders:

It must be very challenging to bring back a series after a long delay, even when it's really beloved by fans. How did you feel that that affected the decisions to actually make this game?

Yoshi Ono: If we look at the history of the series, we had the four officially numbered titles: Street Fighter 1, and II, and then we did Zero, which of course is the Alpha series [in the west], and then III.

In all honesty, and I feel this way, to a degree -- we could have stopped at III and been pretty satisfied. We didn't hit a brick wall, so to speak, but we did pretty much all we could do with 2D fighters by the time we got to III. We were very satisfied with the results, and it was hard to imagine doing more than that; certainly, staying within 2D.

But, we've had ten years to think about it, had a lot of ideas being bounced back and forth. For this series, I almost think that we are better off having waited. It gave us a lot of time to settle down and throw ideas back and forth, think about how we would tackle it.

In the beginning we were not exactly sure which direction to go. Should we stick to something entirely new? Should we stick to the roots? Having the time to step back and look at the series up until now, to think about the various options that we have, I think was very helpful.

Having that time actually helped us to get the game headed in the direction that it's headed now -- which I think is a good direction -- and to get us where we are today.

Another reason I think that it's actually better that we let it sit on the back burner for ten years, is that technology has advanced so much in the last decade. There is no way that we could have envisioned arcade boards as powerful as this. The 360 and PS3, certainly, are incredibly powerful compared to what we had to work with ten years ago.

So really, in looking at how to use this power that we have now, we took a look back, and we looked at what has always been a strong point of the Street Fighter series, which is the art design, which was from Akiman, who unfortunately is not with us anymore. [Also] from Ikeno who is still here; a lot of guys who have really put their all into the art and created the awesome, iconic characters.

So, we thought, what could we do to reproduce this art, in motion, literally moving in 3D before your eyes, with modern technology? This would not have been possible ten years ago. There is just no way. So we are finally at a point where technology is aiding us, and helping us to do something that would not have been possible ago.

Is Tokyo studio newly formed?

YO: Actually, the Tokyo studio is not new. It's been around a good six or seven years. Actually, the latest Onimusha game, Dawn of Dreams, was made in the Tokyo branch. Chaos Legion was before that.

You were involved with Dawn of Dreams?

YO: I was indeed. Street Fighter IV is being produced in Osaka, it's being created in Osaka, but the producer guidance is coming from Tokyo. So that means a lot of business trips, a lot of phone calls.

So you're the only part of the team that's in Tokyo?

YO: Yeah, officially, technically, it's pretty much just me. Also the project manager. Ikeno, the art guy, is in Osaka; all the art guys are in Osaka. It's the project manager and I in Tokyo, and that's about it.

Did you guys develop your own engine for this game, or are you using the MT Framework engine that the other next generation Capcom games (such as Lost Planet and Devil May Cry 4) are using?

YO: Yes, we are looking at an original engine. We did not use the MT Framework, for a couple reasons. One is, it's versatile, but it's very well suited to games like Lost Planet, or a game like Onimusha, or something like that; for a sort of 3D perspective action game.

It's an incredible engine working with a game like that, but this time not only is the game style completely different with Street Fighter IV, but the art style itself, the shaders we're using, are extremely unique and all custom made for this title. We felt that we would be better off with a different engine than MT Framework, so we are working with original technology this time around.

And, of course, MT Framework is a great engine, and certainly we are borrowing bits and pieces of that technology for what we are doing now. There are so many good parts that we can pick and choose, and blend into the engine now, so we have most certainly been doing that, and exchanging information with that team.

Lets talk about the shaders. They're very unique looking and they really serve the graphical direction of the game. What was your goal with the shader look? What did you use as inspiration, and how did you get that technology up and running?

YO: As far as the reason we decided to go with the shader like this, we thought that a really important part of Street Fighter, and the series up until now, has been the artwork.

The paintings that Akiman used to do, the art that Ikeno has provided for us, it's really integral to the series. So we certainly didn't want to go realistic. It was a very easy decision for us, as far as that's concerned.

So as organic as the process was to determine what we wanted, making it was very difficult. Basically we had Ikeno, who is the art director for the title, working very closely with the R&D team to get this just right. And it was not an easy process.

Ikeno would give guidance, and say he wants a shader that does this, and then the R&D team would do it, but then they would also add specular maps and other things until everything was kind-of shiny, and realistic, and Virtua Fighter-like; and then we'd kind of dial it back a bit, into a kind-of anime direction, but there was too much standard cel-shading, so we'd have to dial it back to the other direction.

So, basically, what ended up happening is, Ikeno produced a series of artwork that the tech guys would literally tape to the side of their monitor, and compare them bit-by-bit to make sure that they were doing it right.

This is a lot like what we used to do with 2D games; you'd have a piece of art on the left side of your screen that you actually reproduced on the screen to your right. So it was really kind-of nostalgic for us to work that way again. It was a difficult process, but I think we're happy with the way it's turned out so far.

It's almost embarrassing to say that we had to do it that way. I'm sure Takeuchi and the guys working on Resident Evil 5, there, are very much in tune with the technical side of things.

They're very digital about the way that they do things, and we are a bit more analog, a bit more organic in the way that we did it. So it's almost embarrassing to admit it, but at the same time, the nostalgia almost makes us proud to say that that's how we did it, as well.

GameSetLinks: The Good, The Bad, And The More Shirts

- Ah, yes, damn there basically the weekend, and how about the second GameSetLinks dealing with game shirts in a row, since those slightly amazing 2D Boy/EGP/Chronic Logic shirts seem to have popped up in some Target stores?

Somewhat blown away by the esoteric links that made that happen - I was talking to the Kyles about it at the Indie Game Summit - but they look really cool, and it's probably the widest big-box store distribution of indie games so far, apart from the IGF-licensed compilations, perhaps - so go support them, and put sightings in comments, perhaps? And now, the news:

2D Boy:'Sexy Indie Game Shirts!'
World Of Goo and Gish game/T-shirt combos in... Target? Only $12? Mind officially blown.

GameSpot News: 'Introducing... Press Spotting'
Kyle Orland sorta re-does his GameDaily Media Coverage column - now written by Gus Mastrapa at GameSpot - complete with hilariously telegraphed GameSpot editor's note about spin-controlling Gerstmann-Gate. Still, Kyle can be trusted to do the right thing.

They Told You Not To Reply - Washington Post Security Fix
The owner of DoNotReply.com cited here is OldManMurray's Chet, who works at Valve on Left 4 Dead and others, hee.

VH1 Game Break: Sayonora: The Last Game Break Column
Aw, sorry to see it go, it was a tad quixotic and under-read but interesting nonetheless.

Temple of the Roguelike - » Blog Archive » 2008 7DRL results are in
7-day Rogue-creating challenge done! Lots of odd and playable variants here.

Arthouse Games critiques Rod Humble's 'Stars Over Half-Moon Bay'
My boss lives in Half-Moon Bay, coincidentally.

MTV Multiplayer » Sex, Violence And Video Games: Developing For A Worldwide Audience Is A Confusing Minefield
Good piece interviewing Randy Pitchford, others.

Infogrames - Letter Of Employment (Dave Perry, Shiny)
This was at the Shiny acquisition stage, we presume - via Perry's delicious feed, must have been Googling himself!

Experts State: Do Not Banish - Instead, Manage Violent Video Game Play — Open Education
The third in a three-part series (scroll down), with more analysis on Grand Theft Childhood.

Crayon Physics Deluxe, an ingenious video game that looks like it was designed by a third-grader. - By Chris Baker - Slate Magazine
Indie goodness alert! I was interviewed for this but sadly, Slate editors don't like me.

March 21, 2008

Opinion: Where's The Democracy of Game Innovation in Japan?

- [Microsoft's XNA Creator's Club (pictured) is just one new Western-originated platform with the potential to democratize game development. But whither Japan for an indie console renaissance? Japanese-based game developer JC Barnett argues Japan's corporate culture may not be positioned to allow such sweeping changes.]

If we allow ourselves to be swept up in the hype of Microsoft's (and to a lesser but no less real extent Sony's and Nintendo's) advances towards amateur and independent game development, it would seem we are on the verge of a new era in console gaming where any person with enough of an idea and the chutzpah to work at it can create and release a title over one of the major networks.

This is a situation not uncommon on the PC side of the gaming fence, and even the console world has had its dalliances with initiatives like Sony's NET Yaroze.

But this time, with the release of so many free tools and cheap engines, it really seems anybody can live "the dream" and give the big publishers a run for their money in all areas, from creativity and innovation to downright niche market pandering.

Though it's too early to talk of shockwaves reverberating around the globe, it has at least caused enough of a stir to be noticed in Japan too. In the wake of GDC, Nikkei reporter Shin Kiyoshi writes [in Japanese] of the "democracy of innovation" spurring on the U.S. game industry, and mentions big hitters like Crayon Physics and World of Goo.

He then goes on to paint a rather bleak picture of the Japanese indie scene, despite the inclusion of an "indie category" in the Tokyo Game Show's game awards, which usually includes a mobile phone title or two.

Japan - Missing Out On The Indie Wave?

Shin points out that the burgeoning amateur and indie development scene is helping push the creativity and competitive edge of the U.S. market to an extent that pushes Japan's own industry even further behind the curve. And Kiyoshi is certainly not the only one to have noticed this; more and more Japanese pundits and developers are, sometimes with only basic grumbling acceptance, noticing the growing gap between the two cultures.

And though there is some amateur game development in Japan, it is almost negligible: it certainly isn't allowed to encroach upon the established industry thinking that once made Japan a great nation of video gaming but is increasingly turning it towards mediocrity and obsolescence, save for a single digit number of exceptions.

Much has been written about the communal nature of Japan's national spirit, as opposed to the drive for individual excellence, and it's true that there are far fewer Japanese willing to suffer the risks of independence, favoring instead the increasingly tenuous security of a full-time job at (preferably) a large corporation.

But economic factors, too, help dampen the entrepreneurial spirit in Japan, which was recently ranked second worst of all developed countries with a staggeringly low rate of start-ups and new business ventures. With pretty much zero government support and the unwillingness of banks, still suffering the debts of the decades after the economic bubble burst, to invest in or lend to risky business ventures. The "terror" buzzword on Japanese television is "subprime", with countless hours of program time devoted to the massive negative effects the American economy can have on Japan, which is not helping create an atmosphere of positivity and hope.

A Lack Of Startup Culture?

Whereas there seem to be several new, independent start-ups for every major corporate merger in the Western game industry, in Japan we just see an increasing conglomeration of faltering businesses trying to find solace in umbrella corporations, safety in numbers, with almost no new companies to fill the gaps at the bottom.

Whenever new companies are formed it is usually instigated by industry veterans who have gone the accepted route of corporate ladder-climbing, have a proven track record and start their own businesses with either a personal fortune or heavy investment from their former masters or publishers.

It is almost unheard of for a group of young turks to start up and “give the establishment what for”, which perpetuates the cycle of complacent development practices which has caused Japan to lose the lead over the last few years.

Aside from the cultural disposition towards individual risk, there are other factors halting the progress of young talent into their own business. Language barriers are by far the most problematic, with a lot of the tools, engines and information, so readily available to all keen amateurs in the West, presented mostly, often exclusively, in English.

Is XNA Relevant For Japan?

The potential of Microsoft's XNA Creator's Club also has a more obvious problem in Japan with the console's failure to win any significant market share. That isn't to say it is enough to stop the hobbyist in Japan creating games that can be enjoyed in the West, but here again the cultural divide is an issue with localization and niche game development making crossing the gap a lot more troublesome.

Though a certain segment of American audiences may be very interested in scrolling shooting games, beat 'em ups or even amateur dating sims, Japanese bedroom developers would have to present the game in a language their audience can understand, which, without publishers' localization support just isn't going to happen.

As it stands it is up to corporations like Microsoft and their slightly baffling and expensive (though welcome) support for the ailing Japanese market to organize XNA Creator's Club events and competitions. Though the number of entrants is low, compared to the West, the quality of the projects seems high, showing that there is talent in Japan.

Yet the way corporate life is expected to unfold, people like these are slated to be hired into the machine and set to work as a junior, following the design of the established auteur until possibly 20 years of hard graft later, they might get their own shot at fame and freedom.

Young talent with enough insight would probably rather move to the U.S. where their skills will be able to be nurtured more effectively and where the rewards seem more commensurate - rather than alleviate Japan's struggling and shrinking pool of suitable applicants from which companies are having a hard time finding new recruits.

Conclusion - Some Possibilities For Growth?

Now more reports of the status of Japan's game development industry are arising, each painting a bleaker picture than the preceding one, it comes as no great surprise that the lack of independent, bedroom developers isn't doing the community as a whole any favors. Acceptance truly is the first step towards a cure, but there seems to be little indication of any support for young entrepreneurs.

As with most things, the problems are numerous and a solution will take time and a lot of effort on many different fronts. Like some Western companies possibly some Japanese developers could do their bit in fostering young talent and an aggressive economic push by government organizations could help people set up their own businesses.

From the West's point of view Japanese support for engines and tools would be an immense boon, but may be more effort than it is ultimately worth. As it is we must rely on larger corporations, for example Capcom, to change their ways to mimic western development sensibilities and hopefully stretch that initiative to include a support system for young talent in much the same way Valve let a bunch of game students create the surprise mega-hit of 2007. But don’t hold your breath.

In the end, Japan's corporate and cultural life simply doesn't sit well with the idea of democracy of innovation. The young play and enjoy themselves, the middle-aged work hard and long, the older, established talents rule with iron fist. Young arrogance is frowned upon, old wisdom is respected.

Keen youths willing to strike out on their own will find no help from government or banks and will have a hard time being taken seriously by publishers until they've personally lead a 500 man team to making a million selling console hit. Let's hope Microsoft continues to support the Japanese indie scene, with any luck forcing Sony and Nintendo to do likewise. Japan has talent, just no real systems to nurture it properly and effectively yet.

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

Quiz Me Quik: 'The Czech Bus Game Powerhouse'

-['Quiz Me Quik' is a new weekly GameSetWatch column by journalist Alistair Wallis, in which he picks offbeat subject in the game business and interviews them about their business, their perspective, and their unique view of life. First up - the Czech Republic's SCS on their odd success with... truck/bus driving sims?]

There's a few things that make game developer SCS Software a tiny bit different: firstly, the company's based in the Czech Republic, making it one of a relatively small band developing out of that country. But more unlikely still, there's the focus on trucking games - an odd niche genre, to be sure, but one that's proved pretty surprisingly lucrative for SCS.

The company formed back in 1997, and released Rocky Mountain Trophy Hunter III in 2000. For years before that, though – before SCS was officially formed, even – the group worked on an engine: Prism3D. 2002 saw the release of Hard Truck: 18 Wheels of Steel, the first of five Wheels of Steel games from SCS.

The company's latest title, Bus Driver was released late last year. It's fairly self explanatory kind of game, described amusingly by The Escapist as “the bus driving simulator that lets you drive a bus” - here's a demo video from YouTube, surprisingly reminiscent of Japanese regulation-heavy titles like 'Densha De Go' for trains.

So sure, there's a bit more to it than, say, Desert Bus, and while it's received criticism from some that it's watered down the, uhh, 'level of simulation' expected from SCS, reviews have generally been positive.

More recently, the game was picked up by publisher Meridian4 for retail release in the US and Australia in May, and that's how we got to speak to SCS Software CEO Pavel Sebor about the company, its history, and about the unlikely success of Bus Driver

GSW: Was there a clear idea of the kinds of games the company wanted to make when it was formed? Were you always aiming to get into the... bus driving game niche?

Pavel Sebor: Back in 1997, when the original group of programmers officially formed the SCS Software partnership, our business model was supposed to be 3D engine development and licensing, with focus on FPS genre games. With the various challenges, obstacles and hard-to-refuse opportunities along the way since then, the company has evolved and changed quite a bit.

GSW: Is there a local market for your games, or are you generally aiming for an international audience?

PS: The local market is too small. All the studios in the country are concentrating on games to be published internationally to recoup the development costs.

GSW: Is piracy an issue in the Czech Republic, even for the kind of games you make?

PS: Before and just after the fall of the so called Iron Curtain, the piracy was pretty much 100%. The situation has changed dramatically since then, and it is approaching the rates of Western Europe. Which is still far, far from ideal, especially for PC games. For a small studio like us, piracy hurts us a lot.

Judging by our server logs and the amount of traffic on our websites, we know that our truck games are played by an order of magnitude more people than there are paying customers. This of course vastly affects our ability to re-invest what we make into new game projects. Sales of our games are the only source of financing of new projects for us.

GSW: How big is the market for truck/bus simulators? Were you surprised by this?

PS: It is a niche market for sure. For a few years, this market looked pretty stable, large enough to sustain a small developer like us year after year, but the situation is changing now.

With the PC games retail market in the US shrinking fast, there is less and less shelf-room for non-triple-A games available, and there may come a point when the retailers will simply refuse to stock our games.

We need to alter our business model, and just as everybody else these days, we are experimenting with digital distribution as an alternative. It complements boxed games sales nicely, but it will take more effort to make it sustainable on its own.

GSW: What has the reaction to Bus Driver been like in the year since its initial release?

PS: Much to our own surprise, Bus Driver has been picking up pace over time. When we created it, we thought that the audience for a game about buses would be only a small fraction of the established pool of trucking sim fans. We knew the potential was there, but we doubted that a hardcore bus sim could sell in decent volume.

So the decision was made to make it more kid friendly, to hopefully expand the audience, even if we upset the hardcore sim purists a bit. So far, this bet has proved right.

GSW: What do you feel its target audience is, then?

PS: First and foremost it is anybody taking interest in buses, regardless of age. Feedback that we have received from the customers so far suggests that we have addressed this audience perfectly when it comes to 8-12 years age group, but our older customers would prefer the game to include more simulation features.

GSW: Do you think its sale on American store shelves in the coming months will greatly affect its number of sales?

We certainly hope so! From a promising start in digital distribution, we have picked European countries retail distribution one by one, and almost everywhere, sales were above expectations. The game has just been released in Spain, and France is going to follow shortly. This will pretty much cover all major European markets. Now with Northern America and Australia covered, too, we hope to repeat the same formula.

-GSW: How challenging was it to develop a title based purely on rigid, regulation and schedule-based bus driving and still keep it an enjoyable experience? I notice even Meridian4 marketing director Steve Milburn admitted – in a press release, no less - he was dubious about the game prior to trying it.

PS: It certainly wasn't an easy process coming up with the gameplay that we have now. When we started working on the game, we were not sure whether to make it a game for what we assumed was a smaller but hardcore and very vocal simulation fans group, or whether to try to make the game appealing to a broader, younger audience. We thought that we could do both at the same time, but eventually we had to pick just one angle.

GSW: Here's the burning question in the world of bus sims - how do you feel about the criticism that the game should have included an "in-bus" view?

PS: We are probably losing some sales because of it. In-cabin view is a repeatedly requested feature, we have been getting several e-mails asking for it every day since the game was released. The game's ambition was never to be a really deep simulation, but many people expect it to be.

GSW: Are there plans for expansions or sequels to Bus Driver?

PS: I am not making any promises, but we may revisit the theme again. When it comes to it, we owe it to our sim-oriented fans.

GameSetLinks: It's The Meat Inside The Bun

- Ah, a good collection of GameSetLink-age here, headed by Kotaku's Michael McWhertor (who gave us much moral support on the GameSetApparel project) starting up his own Meatbun.us game T-shirt store - with awesomely geeked-out game tees to the fore.

Oh, and before we get going tonight - are there any GSW readers who are based in Las Vegas and available to go to events a) next week during the week or b) next weekend and write up some notes for us? There's a couple of non-major but intriguing events going on - ping us if you're around. And onward:

Crispy Gamer: 'Backseat Driver'
This is a good piece, why call the anon developer 'GameCynic' though? Just seems prejudicial to start with.

the-inbetween.com: [ Crystal Castles vs Chiptunes]
Good piece on the state of the bleep.

YouTube - Mahalo Daily on Game Boy Music
Veronica Belmont strikes again! Bleep report.

Academic writing on video games? | Ask Metafilter
This is a pretty good rundown of interesting writing, though it's not all 'academic', as such.

CGDC5 Finalists are up!: Jay is Games
A very, very neat set of games.

Kotaku: 'Meat Bun: Steamy Hot Game Shirts + Mike'
Very fun from Mr. McWhertor - I wholeheartedly support alt.game T-shirt fun.

Water Cooler Games - Review of I Can End Deportation
Extremely interesting.

Scents and Sensibility: Books: The New Yorker
Another example of just beautiful writing that transcends all boundaries - more of this in gaming, plz.

Gism Butter » Blog Archive » Great Haul At the Flea Market
Mm, game hunting is the most delicious of sports.

MTV Multiplayer » Do These Freshly-Baked Cakes Get You Excited For EA’s ‘Dead Space’?
Yes they do, MTV News, yes they do.

No More Heroes is not punk « schlaghund’s playground
'Travis Touchdown (and No More Heroes with him) is the indictment of a culture that has lost sight of the potential for that deeper meaning behind a thick wall of decadent and indulgent entertainment.'

March 20, 2008

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Zeta no Ronde

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, sometimes by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. And sometimes not. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers the problems with releasing games outside the cultural cocoon they were created within.]

senko_360_cover.jpgSenko no Ronde is a game that has caused a fair amount of confusion since it’s Western release on the 360. The traditional shoot-em-up fans think it’s awful, whereas the Virtual On crowd seem to be fine with it. Ultimately, the problem with it is the absence of the pop cultural mythos that gave it context within Japanese arcades, as it’s not trying to be either a shoot-em-up nor a Virtual On clone (though it does bear similarities with the latter).

Like many mecha games it’s trying to give form to something that has never actually existed in the real world. The issue is that without the understanding or knowledge of this inspiration the game is caught partially with its mechanical pants down. This is not to say that Senko no Ronde is unplayable without knowing its functional roots but the learning curve is made far more obtuse than it was actually intended.

Believe in the Sign of Zeta

msz-006_200.jpgWith a game like Portal, where you are placed in the first person and expected to shoot portals in walls that you can walk through, the objectives are pretty much implicit. The viewpoint and the genre of FPS as whole is probably one of the most inclusive out there, as what you see is literally what you get.

When G.rev released the first iteration of Senko no Ronde in Japanese arcades, the gaming userbase already had a handle what it was trying to pull off and so took to the game without the confusion as to what its objectives were.

So what is Senkou no Ronde riffing off then? Well, like Virtual On, the main influence for the lateral and planar movement in relation to another opponent most closely resembles the mobile suit combat in the 1987 anime TV series Zeta Gundam. This meant that in Japan there was already a visual familiarity in terms of the movement and pacing that’s present in Senko no Ronde’s combat.

Admittedly, Senko’s approach is more comprehensive in terms of its viewpoint (as in top down and covering both players) but that’s a concession to the arcade beat-em-ups of yore. Yet even with this visual shift, the functional element remains very familiar.

It’s ironic in some sense that Virtual On’s influence was the same as Senko’s but the interpretation was wholly different, as in third person and sans the whole danmaku styling. It’s why the common thread of distinct vectored dashes is prevalent in both though, as Zeta Gundam and Yoshiyuki Tomino’s influence is something that has shaped mecha gaming for close to quarter of a century.

Idealistic Name Changes

wartech_cover1.jpgWhat does this mean when something Senko bridges the cultural divide and lands in the West? Well, the first thing that happens is a name change to make it more palatable to the average Western gamer.

The new moniker of “WarTech” may sound facile but it served a purpose; it insinuated the fact that this game will probably allow you to shoot things with guns (something the cover art emphasized further with a large gun taking up a sizable portion of it). Now shooting things with guns is a common thread in terms of the gaming medium in the West. Unfortunately, the name alone couldn’t explain the rest of Senko’s cultural baggage, which is where the problems started.

The name change was a naive one as it over simplified what Senko was actually offering to the player. Instead of packaging the game in a manner that was culturally palatable, it would have made more sense to have just gone with it. As one of the main problems that faces mecha games in terms of their marketing is that they are forced into cultural niches where they don't fit.

The irony is that this is done with the best intentions, as often the people trying to bring these games over to the West want them to be successful. If they just exposed the games in their natural state to the public their would be cumulative cultural boon towards the genre.

Unfettered Access

senko_4.jpgThat aside, minus the mecha mythos propping Senko's functionality up it was quickly misjudged as a traditional shoot-em-up, as the bullet patterns look like a Cave-esque dodge-o-thon, right? Actually, no as the bullet patterns and large bosses were a visual throwback to G.rev's shooter background. The main meat of the game was about fixed dashes and wrong footing your opponent to that effect. Something that was spearheaded by Virtual On but originally inspired by Zeta Gundam.

The big difference between the two is that Senko's approach is more akin to Zeta's original implementation. Whereas Virtual On was very rigid and had multiple obstacles littered throughout the arena, Senko is far more tactile in terms of the dashing and the environments are completely clear of obstruction. The latter harking back to the space based combat seen in Zeta.

senko_3.jpgThe problems arise when, without the familiarity and subsequent interest in a series such as Zeta Gundam (and all it's multitudinous progeny) Senko comes across as being a bit rubbish. In the same way my mother isn't interested or knowledgeable about cars, she subsequently has no time for games like Forza or Gran Turismo. Senko has a similar predicament, though amplified by the fact that outside of Japan mecha isn't really part of our everyday pop-cultural make-up.

There isn't an easy or quick fix for this, as in Japan it's taken half a century of incessant mechanical bombardment from manga to anime and now games for any of it to take hold. All that can be done, is to afford the public an unfettered access to the genre as a whole. Something this column, in its very small way admittedly, does its best to contribute towards.

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

Opinion: The Case Against Writers In The Games Industry

- [Are writers a necessary part of game development? In a striking counter to current industry thinking, game designer Adam Maxwell (Auto Assault) argues that they are not, drawing on his own experiences to state that they are always better replaced with another designer.]

There is no doubt in my mind that it was my skills as a writer that opened the door to my becoming a game designer. It was 1997 and a designer from the Warcraft II team had left Blizzard to join another ex-Blizzardite in creating a new studio.

They had a 3-game deal with Activision and an idea in mind to create a paradigm breaking RTS game, called Third World, but what they lacked was someone who could write their documents for them. I wasn’t technically hired as a writer, but rather an assistant designer. This would prove to be a decision that I am eternally grateful.

Had I been hired simply as a writer that would have been the end for me. You see, that studio imploded very shortly thereafter, but it’s not that implosion that would have doomed me -- as a designer I survived. No, what would have doomed me is the simple, and some would say sad, truth: There is no places for writers in our industry.

Writer Vs. Designer?

When we discuss of the role of the writer, we have to be clear. There is a huge amount of writing in game design -- and good writers tend to make better designers (all else being equal) -- but being a writer doesn’t automatically make one a game designer. Writers do not dictate the way players interact with the world, nor do they dictate the way the player experiences the content that they themselves may create. These are the responsibilities of the game designer.

A writer might create the characters, and a writer certainly architects the plot of a game’s story, but the work a player actually sees and consumes? That is the work of the designer, even when the writer has written the dialogue, decided the plot, created every character and conceptualized every setting. There’s a critical reason for that, a reason that is perhaps the most compelling fact behind avoiding writers:

The work of the writer is inherently linear – the work of the designer is typically not.

When a writer sits down to build a story, they are usually building a plot. Most games certainly have plots, so you might be asking yourself why a writer wouldn’t be useful. After all, an experienced and well-educated writer will know everything there is to building a plot, and games could certainly benefit from better plots, right? I couldn’t agree more, but I’m afraid that it’s something of a leap to go from there to, “the person to architect a game’s plot is a writer.”

Plotting On Games Vs. Films

Now, I’m not going to talk about methodology specifically, but a writer expresses the plot by putting together scenes. Scene A leads to scene B, which leads to the climax in scene C and finally to the resolution in scene D. By placing particular scenes in a particular sequence, the writer’s plot is fed to the reader in such a way as to evoke the emotional response desired by the writer.

This is why the writer’s work is linear -- the writer’s power depends on the sequence of events. It is why a writer’s work is so powerful, at least in static media. It’s also why Roger Ebert thinks games can never be art. In Ebert’s mind, this inherent authorial control is what makes art of other media. I mention Ebert’s opinion because there is one small grain of truth implied by it: This type of authorial control is not something native to video games.

It exists, I don’t deny it, but where it exists it does so because it has been enforced. Special effort has to be made to accommodate it; in the early history of gaming new technologies had to be created to enable it at all, in fact. Video games, abstracted beyond the specifics of any one genre or title, do not require this authorial control to be considered such, do they? Pong is certainly a game, but what about Final Fantasy VII, or Bioshock?

Both are certainly games, but there’s something else there, something that makes what are otherwise two mundane examples of gaming stand out. Their stories. Now, one could make a case for the story making those games better, but if you look at the games themselves, You see games hamstrung repeatedly to allow for storytelling mechanics.

To many, Final Fantasy VII is reviled as the game that introduced us to interminable cinematics, boring exposition dialog and pointless interruptions to the gameplay. Bioshock’s railroaded experience is such because of the story. I don’t think I’d have played Final Fantasy VII without the story, but Bioshock? Done as a sandbox game, I might still be playing it now. Of course, it would all depend on the implementation, but that’s where designers come in.

How Do Writers Help?

And that’s something you can never say about a writer. No matter how well written, a story can’t make the game better. It can make the game more memorable, perhaps, but when it comes to playing the game, to interacting with the world presented within, a writer has no real power. To have any effect in that realm of what we do, the writer would essentially have to be a designer or at least have the knowledge, skills and sensibilities of one.

So, when I wonder about the place a writer has in our industry, I have to ask myself a simple question: “What does a writer give me?”

Good characters, interesting plots and memorable worlds? Evocative emotional experiences, wouldn’t you say? I would, but when I come to that conclusion, I ask the next question: “Is any of that necessary to make a good game?”

Sadly, the answer is no. So then I start to wonder about what designers give us. Designers give us puzzles to solve, worlds to explore, new ways to interact and above all, new games to play.

Despite my love of the written word and the way I tend to identify myself as a writer, I have to admit that when it comes time to add to the team of a project I’m on, I would rather have another designer than a writer.

Writing may have gotten me my first gig in this industry, but it’s my skills as a designer that have kept me in the industry for as long as they have. That I can write certainly makes me better at what I do, but I have to admit that it is, in the parlance of my world, a bonus stat, not a primary one.

An extra designer on your team can mean the difference between 8 levels and 12 or between 10 hours of content and 15, or the difference between a 60 and an 80 on Metacritic, and this is true whether your game has a story or not. Designers bring fresh perspectives that could bring with them innovations in your game… but what about writers?

How Writers Do Help!

Writers are at their best when they can write stories. That means there are whole market segments of our industry where writers are only somewhat useful.

Even in a linear single player experience where story is king -- say an old school RPG, writers alone can’t get your game done; you will need designers to implement game play. In other words -- even on a story heavy game, a designer who can also write is more valuable than a writer alone. This is bad for the pro-writer camp because writers are expensive and often in ways that don’t show up on the books.

Case in point, as a part of my job on Dirty Harry, I met with our writer once a week to discuss the story, his progress in the script, changes we had made to the game that he had to accommodate. It was a great process that really helped the game, but it was also a 3-4 hour event, once a week.

During that time, I was not balancing weapons, implementing core game play systems or overseeing the work of the rest of the team, which was what my job description actually called for.

I’m not saying this time was wasted, but it was time where part of the game design was suffering for the sake of the writer. Games get delayed all the time, I suspect that the example I provided above is one of the reasons why.

Accommodating writers takes time and money that is often unaccounted for because people don’t realize that it takes extra work to integrate the work of a writer into the game, even at the fundamental planning stage.

Mind you, if your game has a story in it, these costs don’t go away if you hire a designer that can write. No, those costs exist either way, but here’s the final nail in the coffin for the writer: What do you do with the writer when the story is done?

Do you fire the writer? Do you pay them to sit around in case the story needs to change? Do you only hire writers on a contract basis? All of those questions have answers that can work, but I wonder why you would bother.

Conclusion: The Denouement

For the same price (sometimes cheaper, I’m sad to say), you can hire a designer who is also an unsung writing hero (they exist in far larger numbers than anyone wants to give the industry credit for) and when the story is done, that same designer can be there to throw his lot into the fire with the rest of the designers and actually make the game fun. He can be re-tasked as needed, and he can be useful at every stage of development.

For those reasons, and maybe even a few more, my money is on the designer over the writer, every time.

[Adam Maxwell is a designer (and writer!) who has worked on games including Auto Assault and Dirty Harry. This weblog post is adapted from an original posted on his personal blog Dopass.com.]

GameSetLinks: Blackwell, I Presume?

- Ah, yes, some more sedate and serendipitous GameSetLinks, and it's particularly notable to see an interview with Dave Gilbert about the 'indie->casual', if you will, of his Playfirst publishing deal (his 'Blackwell Legacy' pictured, left).

It's increasingly notable that the casual crowd is loving or appreciating the kind of games that are perilously close to the character-led, oldschool graphic adventure in terms of story, content, etc - look at Her Interactive's Nancy Drew, for one - and I'm surprised more amateur graphic adventure story creators aren't taking advantage of this. Anyhow, some links:

YouTube - The Legend of N
'A remake of Zelda from start to dungeon 1 end in the game N+ for the XBLA on xbox 360.' Wow. Via IndieGames.

Independent Game Developer Spotlight from 1UP.com
Lots of 1UP's awesome IGF interviews, collated.

Interview with Dave Gilbert, Wadjet Eye Games - Gamezebo.com
PlayFirst's deal with Dave is great - the sophistication of the PC casual market is increasingly being underestimated by, uhh, casual observers.

gameplaywright.net // 'LOTRO: WTS 1 [One Ring, The] 2g PST'
'I shell out money every month to play [Lord Of The Rings Online], because even when players don’t take it seriously, the game continues to admirably strive for a level of sobriety that I find compelling.'

How to Fix the Game Ratings System from 1UP.com
Ah, the full ESRB/Jerry Bonner piece from EGM is now posted.

Free Pixel » Go watch 'Afterworld'
Heard some early hype for this cross-media machinima-ish mini-show, but doesn't seem to have taken off, buzzwise - some interesting comments here though.

CALTROPS -- Article: The Top 100 Indie Games
Gigantic random fun list alert.

The Escapist : Where Things are Hollow
Wait, The Escapist wrote an article interviewing The Escapist's Yahtzee about being famous and beloved? Love you guys, but yep, all a bit self-reflexive.

Rock Band night brings out the fans -- and game's creators - The Boston Globe
"We wanted this to be: get your friends together and go nuts... then," he added, "we want you to buy an instrument and start a real band."

The HarmoNESica
Witty NES cart hack alert! Via Waxy.

March 19, 2008

20 Essential Japanese RPGs - Gotta Catch 'Em All?

- [The Japanese role-playing game is a surprisingly important genre for developers to study - and big sister site Gamasutra presents an 'Essential 20' - by HG101 star Kurt Kalata - explaining and chronicling the top JRPGs of all-time, from Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger to Xenogears and Shadow Hearts.]

Japanese RPGs that concentrate on narrative and battle systems, favoring storytelling perhaps more than any other genre, actually have more complex roots than many realize, as Kalata explains:

"Two of the most popular games back in the day were Ultima and Wizardry. Although all had followings amongst hardcore Japanese gamers, they were a little bit too uninviting for your average console owners, whose ages skewed a bit younger. Yuji Horii, a developer at Enix, decided to take on an interesting experiment.

By combing the overhead exploration aspects of Ultima (the third and fourth games, specifically) and the first person, menu-based battle system of Wizardry, a new game was born: Dragon Quest. Released for the Nintendo Famicom in 1986, the game became a phenomenon, and went on to inspire dozens of clones. Most of these are best left forgotten, but it did inspire two more notable franchises: Square's Final Fantasy and Sega's Phantasy Star."

With this in mind, Kalata presents a thorough run-down of the top 20 JRPGs of all time and detailed information on each title, including in-depth explanations for each as to why they're worthy of note.

Kalata covers more obvious candidates, like the Final Fantasy series and Chrono Trigger, to somewhat under-exposed fan favorites like Shadow Hearts: Covenant:

"Shadow Hearts is a game of contrasts. On one hand, you have an immensely violent and brooding hero, fighting in a world filled with hellish demons. On the other hand, you have flamboyantly gay shopkeepers, even stranger cast of supporting characters and a real world setting that grossly misinterprets historical figures and events to its whims. The games consist of moments of tragedy intermingled with moments of total ludicrousness.

The first Shadow Hearts -- which was released in American within a week of Final Fantasy X and got totally demolished at retail as a result -- errs a bit too much on the serious side. The third Shadow Hearts, subtitled From the New World, takes place a warped version of 1920s America and conversely errs a bit too much on the wacky side. Sitting beautifully in the middle is Shadow Hearts: Covenant, which balances its tone perfectly."

You can now read the full Gamasutra feature, which contains Kalata's complete top 20 as a journey through the best of JRPGs (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

Interview: Perplex City Creators Craft 'We Tell Stories'

- The milieu of digital games has been significantly extended by the Alternate Reality Game, which was pioneered by titles such as Majestic and The Beast, and uses puzzles and clues hidden in webpages and even real-life to entice readers.

UK ARG startup Six To Start, founded by Dan and Adrian Hon - previously at Mind Candy, where they developed the collectible card-based Perplex City, described as "the world’s first commercially successful ARG" - is now embarking on its first projects as a new company.

The first of these is We Tell Stories, a just launched project in collaboration with UK book publisher Penguin, and as the official site explains:

"Penguin has challenged some of its top authors to create new forms of story - designed specially for the internet... Over six weeks writers including Booker-shortlisted Mohsin Hamid, popular teen fiction author Kevin Brooks, prize-winning Naomi Alderman and bestselling thriller authors Nicci French will be pushing the envelope and creating tales that take full advantage of the immediacy, connectivity and interactivity that is now possible."

As an example of this, the first available story from Charles Cumming is "an adrenaline-fuelled adventure written and designed for Google Maps", and is itself inspired by Penguin Classic 'The Thirty-Nine Steps'. In addition to this, the site explains:

"But somewhere on the internet is a secret seventh story, a mysterious tale involving a vaguely familiar girl who has a habit of getting herself lost. Readers who follow this story will discover clues that will shape her journey and help her on her way."

Therefore, I had a chance to chat both to representatives from Penguin and from Six To Start about this unique collaboration - starting with Jeremy Ettinghausen, digital publisher at Penguin:

How did this collaboration come about? Who brought you together?

Jeremy Ettinghausen: We became aware of Dan and Adrian's work at a conference and became very excited about the potential to create a really immersive and engaging storytelling experience. At Penguin we are always interested in taking our authors and ourselves in new directions and to everyone here working with Six to Start seemed like a very exciting opportunity.

How did you collectively end up picking the authors and the classics they would be riffing on?

JE: All of the authors were selected because we felt that they would be interested in trying something new and different and because we felt that they would produce something interesting. The classics were chosen in consultation with the authors.

Are these Penguin authors weirded out by some of the more abstract crossmedia elements, or does it make sense to them?

JE: It's been suprising to me how open the authors were, but I should say that they were chosen on the basis that they might be open to this idea. There were a number of authors who perhaps would have been very weirded out by the concept!

I think that there is a growing number of authors who, far from being at odds with the internet and digital culture, are fascinated by it and see it as an opportunity to do different things with their writing and write different kinds of stories for a different kind of audience. We're thrilled to be able to facilitate this with We Tell Stories and hope that it might lead to other interesting crossmedia projects.

In addition, I caught up with Six To Start co-founder Adrian Hon to discuss the specifics of this new project with him:

This collaboration is obviously quite a lot about 'storytelling'. How do you knit separate stories together to create a coherent whole?

Adrian Hon: It's not easy, especially given that all six stories are completely independent of each other - in other words, you don't need to read one to understand another.

What we're doing is using the ARG to create a meta-narrative that sits above the six stories, occasionally weaving small details into them, that brings them together. But it would be overstating it to say that the six stories form a coherent, thematic whole - other than the fact that they are all adventures into new forms of storytelling online.

Are you expecting the 'normal' ARG coverage and collaboration on sites such as Unfiction, or is this meant to be more of a personal experience than a group-solved device?

AH: We wanted most of the six stories to be personal experiences. That's partly because that's what people are generally comfortable with when it comes to written fiction, and partly because we wanted these stories to be an easy entry into online storytelling.

Having said that, there's at least one story that will be a group experience, but if all of the stories were group experiences, I think we would have raised the bar for entry too high.

There is a 'seventh story' as well, which is more of a traditional ARG with puzzles and live updates, and so I'm pretty sure that the ARG component of We Tell Stories will be covered on Unfiction. I also hope that some of the people who enjoy the six stories might be intrigued enough to investigate the seventh.

Certainly I've seen more than a few people say (approvingly!) that We Tell Stories appears to be a good introduction to ARGs.

The first story looks to use Google Maps in some way - how did you work with the author to make this happen?

What the Google Maps story does is force us to think about the reader experience. While they might not realize it, authors simply don't have to think about this when it comes to books, since they already implicitly know the 'design' of books - it's words on page, divided up into chapters, and you can flick back and forth pages to look at the 'story history', and bookmark pages to keep your place.

The design of books is so great that it hasn't changed for hundreds of years, and so we just don't think about it any more.

When we had the idea for a story based around Google Maps, we knew that it had to incorporate a lot of movement - otherwise what's the point of having a map? So one early idea was a travelogue - a little like Around The World in 80 Days. Another was a thriller, like The 39 Steps. We ended up taking the latter option, due to its frenetic pace, and we asked Charles Cumming, an acclaimed British spy thriller author, to write a story for us.

To begin with, we simply told Charles to 'bake movement in' to the story. However, from early on, it became clear that this was rather trickier than any of had thought; it wasn't enough to have the protagonist walking and driving and flying around the place, they had to do it all the time.

Early drafts of the story saw the protagonist having a very tense discussion for a couple of chapters - riveting stuff - but it was all in one room. Luckily we had a great relationship with Charles and we worked together to incorporate more movement, or references to other locations, in every chapter.

We would often give suggestions about scenes that would fit the design, and Charles was always very open to revising the story and coming up with new ideas. Ultimately, I think it was his flexibility that really made things fit together.

Something that is worth mentioning is that none of the authors we're working with are particularly tech-savvy - some of them are the completely opposite. And while it does help, it only helps up to a point. From my point of view, I can teach an author about technology and interaction, but I can't teach someone how to write.

GameSetLinks: Cactus Broke My Brain

- Yikes, time for more calamitously collected GameSetLinks of peril, and this time we're poking at indie fave Cactus (he of Clean Asia!) and friend's new company, Lo-Fi Minds, as well as wandering around the innermost thoughts of David Jaffe.

Elsewhere in this set of oddness - Metaplace launches in mini-form on MySpace, David Hellman shows off some more Braid art, the original progenitor of Gauntlet has a related prototype unearthed, and many others. On to ze linkz:

Lo-Fi Minds - Work in progress
Cactus and Villek's new games, looking awesomely abstracty (one pictured!).

davidjaffe.biz: SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!!....or,er. don't....unless I earn it.
Making a lot of sense here, through the slightly mangled grammar, hee.

Metaplace - (A piece of) Metaplace Launches!
'Today we’ve released the very first Metaplace world on MySpace: Metachat.'

David Hellman » Blog Archive » The Art of Braid, Part II: No Shame in Tracing
Awesome series showing the visual evolution in... visual forms!

Avant Game: The Lost Ring - the alternate reality game for the 2008 Olympics
Official announcement from Ms. McGonigal.

The Brainy Gamer: The Brainy Flamer
And Future just invested in N4G, didn't they? Sigh.

AtariProtos.com - Dark Chambers (Atari 7800)
Interesting because it's an update of the original inspiration for Gauntlet, Dandy - which I didn't know about.

8bitrocket.com: Review: Pinball Hall Of Fame:Williams Collection for the Wii
Just grabbed this for PSP, worth re-iterating - this game is awesome, despite not even being stocked at GameStop.

Eegra: Feature: Kenichi Nishi and Archime-DS Interview (Part One)
The folks behind Chibi Robo and LOL (the American name!) for DS - they're pretty unconventional, in a good way.

Sex & Games: Lighting Warrior Raidy Goes Gold
English-language hentai games get more sophisticated.

March 18, 2008

Trends: Intel's Larrabee To Combat Nvidia, ATI In PC Game GPU Market

- [As you may have noticed, GameSetWatch daily posting has settled happily into 'one original GSW story, one notable Gamasutra story you might have missed, one link compilation. I like this, and I will beat you up if you do not.

This newly filed Gamasutra story - from Christian Nutt - is notable because, blimey, Intel is coming out blazing against the traditional graphics card folks, and I'm not sure many people have noticed yet - could have next-next gen console ramifications too.]

Intel recently held a key press briefing in San Francisco on its upcoming processor architecture, discussing several of its current and upcoming technologies, including its upcoming Larrabee graphics tech (due in 2009-2010), which has significant ramifications for PC gaming.

Patrick P. Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager, digital enterprise group, delivered the presentation and took questions from the media gathered there as well as over the phone.

He began by discussing the breadth of Intel's ambitions for its IA architecture and "expanding its range further and further" by taking it "much more aggressively into high end computing... to solve scientific problems that have never been addressed before".

The most relevant topics to gaming discussed at the briefing are Intel's new Nehalem microarchitecture, its Visual Computing initiative, and its Larrabee architecture, which will deliver its high-end graphics products to compete with NVIDIA and ATI's products.

Intel's Nehalem architecture, which will begin to ship this year, will eventually form a core of products that will range from notebooks to high-end servers. It's scalable from two to eight cores and compatible with Intel's integrated iGraphics. According to Gelsinger, it has been "designed so that we can produce, very rapidly, different solutions for different market segments."

At this point, Gelsinger began to talk about graphics more concretely. In his (and Intel's) opinion, "as graphics moves away from a traditional polygon model to light physics, global illumination... it needs to not be just a traditional rendering of graphics but the integration of media as well... video and media elements." This shift is answered by Intel's Visual Computing initiative.

Visual Computing

Gelsinger said that "new visual workloads which will define the architecture of tomorrow." Noting that "we've analyzed literally hundreds of workloads, hundreds of core algorithms. It's not a simple problem to design an architecture for that future... one that looks at CPU graphics and media... from mobile up to server systems... the level of performance we can do is just about enough, but we need to scale it from any process point into the future... a rich set of tools and developer support."

Visual Computing seeks to offer solutions for graphics, A.I. and other processing tasks both on the hardware and software side, though currently the company is fairly unspecific on this, noting mainly that "...a complete platform is required. This includes the multi-core CPU, chipset and graphics plus software and associated developer tools."

The Future of Intel's Graphics: Larrabee

But more importantly, the rise of Visual Computing is "the defining thesis of much of the work that's gone into Larrabee," according to Gelsinger. While the Larrabee technology has not yet been demonstrated publically just yet, it will form the core of Intel's products in the graphics market, where it intends to compete against entrenched competitors AMD/ATI and NVIDIA.

What sets Intel apart in this market? Gelsinger suggested, "traditionally caches haven't been effective for graphics... we're bringing our leadership cache technology to this visualization and Larrabee architecture."

He also noted that "when we've talked with software and game vendors... the number one question is, 'What are your tools?' We're going to bring a complete set of tools" including such products as a compiler, debugger and more "when we bring that to the marketplace."

Q&A Time - Larrabee

After discussing Larrabee, the briefing moved into a Q&A session. Gelsinger refused to answer questions about Larrabee from a technical perspective as well -- "Other specifics such as cache size, number of cores, we're not yet saying."

When asked how Larrabee will compete with NVIDIA and ATI's graphics offerings, Gelsinger appeared to suggest that familiarity with Intel's products on the part of programmers might be its advantage. "This next generation of workloads has gotten highly programmable... we have the most successful highly programmable architecture in the industry... let's be the solution of choice for next generation workloads... let's take IA and bring it forward and extend it for these new types of workloads and that's what we're doing with Larrabee."

He contrasted Larrabee against the Emotion Engine and Cell processors, saying that software vendors don't like them, thanks to the "heavy lifting" required. He also mentioned that Larrabee "will be delivered as a discrete graphics product" -- i.e. a graphics card for PCs, as NVIDIA and ATI do with their products.

Gelsinger added: "We've said we're going to have versions of Larrabee for discrete graphics... we're going to compete well in benchmarks like 3DMark and we are going to have to support [standards] like DX and OGL."

He did acknowledge that some of the ideas Intel has about techniques -- such as raytracing and physics -- for programming Larrabee are not currently standard across competitor's products (though he demurred comment on how competitors might respond to Intel's moves.) If Larrabee is a success, "[Intel] expect[s] that... these models of programmability will become standard."

Q&A Time - Integrated Graphics

Returning to the question of integrated graphics, Gelsinger echoed earlier Intel statements on performance. "What we've said, and what the Intel commitment is, is that integrated graphics will be upgraded substantially over '08, '09, '10. We'll do a 10x improvement in the integrated graphics we'll deliver to the market [over that period]."

A question came up about Intel's integrated iGraphics, and what kind of performance they might deliver for gaming -- including DirectX support.

Gelsinger responded that compared to prior Intel integrated graphics, "generally it's going to be a much more aggressive implementation. As we've described already, as we move to leading edge technology... it will be a significant boost in graphics, will be a much higher performance. It will support DX... even though we haven't given any more specifics on what [version] and features. Stripped down? No, it's a major upgrade."

COLUMN: 'Jump Button': Beyond Pong — 'Hacker' Allan Alcorn

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

He's done non-stop interviews, Q&A sessions and media press conferences, but in the three days that IT entrepreneur Allan Alcorn has been in Melbourne to take part in ACMI's Game On exhibition, this is the first time I've seen him physically withdraw from a question.

In a small, crowded Japanese restaurant, Al closes his eyes and places his thick-set hands over his face; and for a long moment he's silent.

It's evident that Al's revisiting a time in his life that has haunted him for the last five decades; a memory so personal that out of simple respect I already know I'm not going to ask him to describe it.

'Honestly,' he says, slowly opening his eyes, and pulling away his hands. 'What scares me is running out of money. I come from a poor family and actually going broke and having to go back to [that] lifestyle...

'I don't want to do that.'

Al's reply confirms something I've long suspected. By creating Pong—the 'world's first successful video game'—Al may well be relegated by media to a particular slice of gaming history and culture, but as far as he's concerned, the achievement and its significance is but a blip on a much larger screen, and neither defines nor motivates him. Al is not a video game designer, a cultural beacon for all things retro and gaming. He is a hacker, a finagler, a ring master and a businessman.

He always has been. And he always will be.

'My wife could tell you that it can be a real problem, but for some reason I see things differently to other people,' explains Al. 'I don't see the same things as them. I'll see what things aren't, and that works well, but not in a social situation. I'll make the wrong connections. I know they're wrong, but they're much more fun than the right ones.

'When I was a little kid, I was always curious about how things worked, so I'd take stuff apart and not put it back together. My neighbor was a repairman at a TV repair shop and I was fixing televisions at a very young age. But even with photography I was, "How does it work? Why does it work?" So I went to the store and bought an old Tri-Cam pack—an old, clunky camera that was almost being thrown away, with film that you couldn't even buy anymore. And I developed it. I read the instructions and figured it out. I wound up taking photographs simply to have something to do in the darkroom and not because I cared about the images. It was just the process.

'I want to know how it works,' Al re-emphasizes. 'I can't understand how some people can drive a car and not understand what's going on in it; why it doesn't go when they ease up on the gas. So that's just been a part of me...'

Al quickly smiles; the look of an uncle about to bestow a gift on a small child.

'Oh yeah,' he says, as a matter of leading. 'I also wanted to know how explosives worked, so we got into that. We got a contact with a big chemical supply company, so it wasn't a problem, and we had everything and did lots of neat stuff. Nobody got injured... Okay, so one guy got injured, but he's still got one eye that works. True!'

'I was always precocious with science,' admits Al, who got into electronics because 'it just seemed really cool'. 'When I first got started I was working with vacuum tubes, then the first transistor came out when I was in Junior High School, so I bought one just to see if I could make it work. I just loved that stuff, and it really helped when I finally did video games and TVs. When we came to [do Pong] it was all, 'Oh, that's not the right way to do it!' But our way was cheaper, so that was how I learned about hacks.

'I've always been a hacker, to that extent,' says Al. 'A hacker to me is defined as somebody who takes something that was built for something else and does something really cool with it. Like taking a computer and using it for games, instead of for something serious, like building bombs. They get mad at you for doing it,' confirms Al, 'but it's more fun.'

-If Al sounds like a misbehaving teenager, it's with good reason. Breaking the rules, scamming and 'finagling' (obtaining something that's hard to get by using unfair or unusual methods) has long been a survival technique for Al.

'When I grew up, I came from a relatively poor family,' confides Al. 'My mother and my father were divorced, and I never got an allowance. So I finagled.

'At the age of 17, a friend of mine managed to buy an Aston Martin—this was when the James Bond movie came out. And I was really into photography and knew somebody and got a deal on this really cool, really hot-shot camera. So here I am and we've got this cool camera and I'm driving an Aston Martin and I'm flat broke.

'I remember going to a drive-in movie at the time. We had a Chevy motor in the damn thing and way too much power, and brakes that worked on one side, but not the other. And people would go, "Is that an Aston Martin?"

'"Yeeeup", I said. We're sitting in the lot eating hamburgers and whatever.

'And the guy said, "Is that like James Bond?" And I'd go, "Yeah."

'"Wanna race?" he asked. And I'd go, "No-no-no!"

'We managed to finagle a deal where—get this—we actually had two Aston Martins. One ran, but the other was just a chassis with a motor in it. And the guy who was the manager of the Playboy Club in San Francisco had an Aston Martin, but the motor was shot. So we made money selling him the engine which I had to swap out in his back yard in one day, and I got it to run. So I had all this money and my mother was totally frustrated because she couldn't withhold an allowance, because she wasn't giving me any money to begin with.

'I learned from that: don't tell me we can't do something, just how can I finagle to do it.'

Being resourceful is one of Al's greatest traits; almost every time he talks, it's about taking something and finding a way to make it more valuable. Even—or perhaps, more accurately, especially—Pong.

Despite being released in 1972, Pong is still a doorway, an opportunity to exploit.

'It's great having done it' admits Al, 'because people are like, 'Oh, you invented Pong' and they'll want to talk and listen to me for a minute or two. So it's given me access that I don't deserve sometimes,' says Al, modestly; 'many times.

'People will think that I know a lot about stuff that I don't know shit about and I'll get away with it for while, until they figure it out, or I pick up what they're talking about!'

'It's fun to share and bounce ideas off others' continues Al. 'The best moments for me are when I'm in a small room with a team of really, really bright engineers, that are smarter than me, and we work together to build something that none of us could create, to synthesize something new. I'm lucky I can do that. It's fun. I enjoy it.'

That joy is never more evident than when Al is talking on-stage or being interviewed; when he takes on the role of mythical story-teller, a skilled campfire narrator recounting decades of Silicon Valley history.

'I'm told that for most people, getting up in front of a big audience and talking is one of the most frightening, nerve-wracking things that can happen,' says Al. 'But for some reason I'm at ease getting up in front of a group. It's fun to have people who don't know you like you. And it's fun to tell stories that are true. I'm good at that.'

Indeed, in just the 35 minutes we have together over lunch, Al manages to discuss (among other things) his role in the invention of Firewire, how he sneaked a jug of liquid nitrogen into a fancy hotel and body-tackled an executive vice president of Apple, how financial constraints breed creativity, his disappointment with his slot machine business, his biggest mistake ('turning down founder stock in Apple that Steve Jobs offered me'), why there's no leadership in universities in Europe, how he shared his son's childhood and discovery of the world, and why Stanford University got it wrong with their artificial intelligence research.

All the while, Al name drops more frequently than a gossip mag. Not because he's trying to make himself look good, but because these are the people he associates with. Fortune 500 CEOs, Stanford and MIT professors, think-tank geniuses, revolutionaries and visionaries. Even... cartoon superheroes, such as Space Ghost.

'I was at this classic gaming convention,' explains Al, 'and this guy came up to me and said he was from Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. He said he's got a suite upstairs with a blue screen, and would I mind if he interviewed me for the show. I thought, “What the hell is that?”, but I did it, and he asked me all these weird questions. The next thing I know, my daughter's boyfriend has found it and sent it to me. And, my god, look what they've done to me! I didn't know, but apparently I'm Zorak's father. And my daughter said, “Oh, no! I'm Zorak's half-sister!”

-'Honestly, though,' says Al, debunking any idea of being a retro icon, 'in Silicon Valley it's a different thing. It's what you're doing lately. This is old stuff that's interesting, but things are moving so fast. It's the shiny stuff, it's the new stuff that's coming out. It's the whole idea of what's going to be hot, what's cool, what's new, what can be done with the technology.'

For Al, this is invariably where it's at. The cutting edge. The entrepreneurial leap of faith. The place where new technology is able to realize the dreams of the past and the future.

Revisiting the topic of games, Al launches into a passionate dissertation on VR consoles.

'Think about it,' he says. 'Remember Atari in 1983 said that the video game business was over. Everybody thought it was over. But Nintendo said no. And guess what? It's not over.

'Do you know Jaron Lanier? He was the guy who popularized the first VR stuff and put two silicon graphics computers together and lashed it with a glove and goggles and a helmet. And that was a clue. It was really hard to do. But did you play with one of those VR machines?'

Another rhetorical question. One of many to come.

'It was kind of fun,' continues Al, not missing a beat. 'It had a few problems. But how long ago was that? Now here we are, 15 years later, and people aren't looking at it. But what if you could do something, like put a little something on your head, like glasses, and go back to it? When Jaron did it, it required a silicon graphics computer to just do fong shaded shit, nothing technical. Now the Xbox can do better, real world stuff.

'So, wouldn't that be cool? To be able to sit in your chair and play World of Warcraft—or whatever the hell it is—and actually interact like the goddamn holodeck from Star Trek?

'But no-one's doing it because they're too busy working on the next generation of Halo; because of the money they've got invested in Halo.'

There's too much risk for them, says Al. And to do it, 'you'd have to hi-jack the technology'.

'Have you ever tried to write a program for the PlayStation on your own, just for fun?' asks Al. 'It's not something you pull together with just a little basic program. And it's all because of this greedy mentality where they close the box and protect what they do. They limit everything that's going to happen because they think all the wisdom comes from them. Nuh-uh. That's where the Google phone comes in; read up on it. I love their approach, because they say—they actually say—we're going to make an open platform phone and we think we're really smart and we're going to write apps (applications) for it that are better than anyone else's apps. But we also know that we can't do all the best apps, We can't think of them all. So we've got a 10 million dollar prize—no strings attached--that we will pay to the person who writes the best app in the next year for it. Because they want it to be open, they want that to happen, because that's where fucking innovation comes from.

'I think there's gold over there,' says Al, his mind already analyzing the technological and financial possibilities yet again, 'but nobody is looking at it.'

[Drew Taylor works in the games industry in Australia and writes video game culture articles for various magazines and online columns. He's not ashamed to admit that Hackers (starring Jonny-Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie) is one of his favorite films of all time.]

GameSetLinks: If You're English, And Dead

- Then you'll be wanting English Of The Dead, Sega's latest adorable attempt to extend the franchise beyond breaking point. And that's why it works, really!

Elsewhere in GameSetLinks, there's a little less conversation and a little more action, including an interesting conversation on graphical fidelity in games, a slightly tongue-in-cheek look at game developers popping sprogs, and Italian arcade dreams. So yay:

Seven Degrees Of Freedom: The Breeding Edge
'Yes, you heard right, game developers are not only having sex, they are actually breeding.'

Tale of Tales» Blog Archive » Audio Games for DS Homebrew
We all need a Hyena in our DS.

Ste Pickford's Blog - 'Documentation'
You just can't design a game on paper. You have to actually make the game to design it.

Big Bear Entertainment, animated music video creator, raises $550,000 » VentureBeat
The MTV2 game mod animators - odd that things like this get VC.

NCSX: Zombie Shiki - Eigo Ryoku Sosei Jutsu: English of the Dead for DS
Sega should do language learning in the West this way, too!

NCSX on Edo Culture History - Tokyo educational non-game for DS
'By plugging the Edo Culture card into an NDS, users may take virtual tours, learn about the culture, visit the Edo Museum, and view important landmarks.'

YouTube - Johan Agebjörn featuring Nintendo - Mega Man II
Neat remix video alert - via The New Gamer.

The Ludologist » Blog Archive » Better Graphics, Diminishing Returns
Interesting jumping-off point (a Game Developer article) to discuss graphical fidelity.

Insomnia | Commentary | Untold Tales of The Arcade: Mission Secret
Italian arcade reminiscences: 'It should be clear by now that I'm a bit of a Taito fanboy. I'm also a martini fanboy.'

Short and sweet game | MetaFilter
Cecropia's post-'The Act' Flash game work discussed - also via TNG.

March 17, 2008

MIT's Jenkins On Gamers, Youth Culture, Brother Leeroy

- [It's always worth listening to what Henry Jenkins has to say, so our correspondent Jessica Maguire was at SXSW recently to transcribe his keynote with 'Everything Bad Is Good for You' author Stephen Johnson - there's some game references but a lot of important wider issues raised here. And sorry, despite the headline, Leeroy isn't actually in here - just playing with y'all. Enjoy!]

Amidst accusations of the dumbing-down of American youth, Henry Jenkins stands as a profound defender of popular culture, and a notable commentator on media and video game-related issues.

The Co-Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, author of numerous books including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, shared the stage with Steven Johnson, author of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, Everything Bad Is Good for You, and other popular books about emerging technology, for the opening remarks at SXSW 2008.

The Decline Of Youth Culture?

To begin their conversation about the impact of new media and gaming culture, Johnson asked Jenkins about the emergence of books like The Dumbest Generation and the big NEA report about the decline of reading among kids today.

“Never underestimate the desire of parents to see their children dumb,” opened Jenkins. “It’s easy to imagine our children as failures. And they are going into worlds that are unknown to us, and were not a part of our play when we were their age. Kids are early adopters of all new technologies. And they do it outside the watchful eyes of their parents. So there’s a sense of fear among parents. I myself wind up saying everything to my son that I swore I never would as a parent. “

“All it takes is one instance of a Columbine or declining test scores, and we have the making of a moral panic,” Jenkins continued. “Currently we’re focused on IQ and school-based learning. There are new literacies that are not being understood by the older generation. The dominant message in the media is that something is wrong with young people. “

Johnston felt that he’d “like to see empirical measures of those new skills... There are other skills, maybe more important than your ability to read a 400 page novel,” he felt. “Have you seen anything out there?”

Jenkins opined, “The whole structure of assessment has been based on a model that is wrong for these new skills. It starts from the assumption of the individual and autonomous learning. As we move to an era of collective intelligence, the capacity of people is to process knowledge together, to communicate ideas with each other, to pool resources. Nobody knows everything, everybody knows something. It’s a very different model than how we process information in school. If we’re measuring for total mastery over an ever more complex body of knowledge, we’re going to end up with disappointing scores.”

“But what are the skills that allow us to process this information together?” he asked. “Right now, you and I are up here playing the experts. The reality is we all know different things. If you look out into the hall, there is much greater brain power out there than there is up here. And it’s the same thing in the classroom. There’s more in those 30 kids than there is in the teacher. Pooling knowledge is how we work and play today. But it’s not how we do schooling. There’s a fundamental shift in what it is to learn and what it is to know. The MacArthur Foundation is beginning to look at new models. “

Asked Johnson, “Do you ever look at a new technology and think, that is just stupid?”

“It’s a momentary flash in my mind,” admitted Jenkins. “But people don’t do things, in the end, that are meaningless. We may couch potato out sometimes, but that’s meaningful to us as well. So the challenge is to dig in and figure out what is meaningful about it to the person doing the activity. It may not be meaningful to me, but it’s clearly meaningful to the people engaging in it. People aren’t idiots. They do things for a reason. And the reason is usually very interesting. “

Lost vs. The Wire

Almost a non-sequitur, Johnson then asked, “There’s been a lot of popular focus on the success of shows like Lost and The Wire. Which is better?”

“The question is what criteria would we use to evaluate that,” Jenkins asked in return. “Television is many different things. The Wire may be the best show inside the box, and Lost may be the best show outside the box. Everything that happens on The Wire is inside the television. With Lost, most of what happens is taking place through other media – through the ARG, through fan interactions. The complexity of engagement and what the community has brought to Lost makes it a very compelling thing. The Wire may be the last gasp of old school television pushed to its limits. Whereas Lost seems to push us in a new direction in terms of what it is to engage in a television experience. “

“It’s amazing how much time people have,” Johnson added. “One person creates a map from 45 freeze frames – it must have taken 3 days – and they put it in the discussion frame, and then other people chime in with corrections and additions. But the time commitment is amazing. “

“Rather than pathologize that, and say what’s wrong with these people that they spend so much time this way, let’s ask what’s wrong with America that these incredibly intelligent people are given so few opportunities to demonstrate their intelligence in their workplace,” said Jenkins. “Right? And this is what I found looking at fans as a population. A high number of them are pink collar workers. Their jobs require a high amount of education, but their actual work uses only a small part of what they can do. And so most of their intellectually rewarding experience takes place outside of work. Why are those skills so underutilized in the workplaces we’ve constructed?”

“What can we do to harness that creativity to make a better society?” Jenkins then asked. “People are acquiring skills and competencies in their play that are almost immediately being applied to more serious undertakings. We are seeing new models emerge that push us to the next level – a culture of collective intelligence. How do we turn that back into something that enables us to transform the political culture?”

We Are Wizards

“You alluded to fan fiction, and there’s a documentary about that with Harry Potter fans called We Are Wizards,” said Johnson. “You’re in that film, right?”

Jenkins responded, “The Harry Potter phenomenon is a good example of what we’re talking about. Kids are learning to read through Harry Potter. There are also tens of thousands of stories written by young people based on the world of Harry Potter. And they’re learning to social network through Harry Potter. Songs are circulating using MySpace and Facebook – entirely outside of the commercial music sphere. It’s not always very good. But some of it’s really interesting. “

They’re learning to become political through Harry Potter,” Jenkins continued. “When Warner Brothers took action against these fan fictions, one 15 year old girl went on national television and debated studio attorneys about her right to write stories. Articulating and defending fair use. She wound up heading an organization. She said, ‘they went after kids in Poland and Thailand thinking we wouldn’t know, and within hours we knew because we know already know those kids.’ This is a global network of young people who are connecting around the world through their interest in Harry Potter. “

“Then there’s the Harry Potter Alliance informing kids about a variety of issues that affect young people,” followed Jenkins. “The premise is that Harry Potter was a young man who stood up for what he believed in and inspired others to fight for what’s right. The impact of what young people did with that book illustrated the changes in learning I’m talking about. In hunting society, kids play with bows and arrows. In information society, kids play with information. Young people, as they become adept at navigating together, are going to become a powerful force for social change in the world. “

Interactive Media And Urban Centers

“The young people who grew up with these interactive media – what are they like?” Johnson asked. “If you look at the broad demographic trends, they are incredibly good. They are the least violent since the 1950s, they are the most entrepreneurial on record, and the most politically engaged generation since the dawn of the television. Do we have a crisis here or an incredible opportunity? People seem to be more engaged generally than they’ve been since the rise of mass media. The idea that there’s some kind of reason for a moral panic at this time is very strange.”

In response, Jenkins revealed, “At the new MIT Center for Future Civic Media, we are looking at how to build an infrastructure that enables civic engagement. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone describes the way leagues used to bring people together. While waiting your turn, there would be many important conversations. Putnam blames a decline in that kind of civic engagement on the rise of media. I’m skeptical of that. Even if we do blame it on media, there’s a new kind of civic connection taking place through games. Who’s to say video games are not serving that same force that bowling leagues used to provide, where people develop a sense of social responsibility and participation.”

“The challenge is to take that civic engagement back out of those virtual worlds and bring it into our physical neighborhoods,” Jenkins argued. “What is the move from democracy as a special event, where we all feel proud because we went out and voted, to democracy as a lifestyle? Over the last 40 years, there’s been a breakdown of that – not because of the Internet, and not because of television. In part, because the average American moves once every five years.”

“Alvin Toeffler predicted that under those conditions face-to-face relationships would become increasingly disposable,” Jenkins explained. “He underestimated the degree to which we now carry our network with us, like a turtle with his shell. As we move to a society of mobile and network communications, the social connections we invest deepest in are online connections. The challenge is then what does that leave to our cities and towns? How can we enable people to engage with each other at the local level?”

Johnson took the opportunity to describe his recent project: “Our project, Outside.in, is trying to build out the infrastructure for the geographic web. The fear in the 1990s is that no one would want to live in a city again because of the digital revolution, but the opposite has been true. The Internet is actually an urban location enhancing device. At the level of neighborhood and community, people care passionately about what is happening. People have a lot of expertise, a great deal of interest, and that zone is completely uncovered by traditional media.”

“We built Outside.in as a service to help people see those conversations and use geotagging tools to tag different aspects of neighborhoods,” Johnson expanded. “We’re about to launch ‘on my radar’, which is basically the Facebook newsfeed applied to geography. We’ve been working with Yahoo and their new location technology Fire Eagle. It lets you enter your location and get back all the conversations happening within a certain radius. You can zoom out to see the whole neighborhood, the city, etc. So new tools can amplify what local experts on the ground have been doing traditionally by word of mouth. “

“The challenge is how do we harness the community to share information with each other?” asked Jenkins. “One group we’ve underestimated is high school kids. How many kids have LiveJournal accounts, and are learning to write at the same time as we see school newspapers being shut down. And kids are being punished for things they’re saying about administrators on their own private outlets. Young people can contribute to these kinds of outlets, and they want to. How do we give them the tools to do so and free them from a restrictive atmosphere?”

Audience Q&A

The audience Q&A session began with an audience member asking “Do you think the ratio of consumption to production is changing as a result of new media?”

Jenkins responded, “Three years ago the Pew Center for Internet in American Life found that 57% of teenagers online had produced media, and about a third had circulated media they produced to a larger community beyond their family. And that number is growing fast. Some of you know the story of Soulja Boy. There are incredible successes happening as a result of the new technologies. Including the way young people are inspiring each other to create media expressions.”

However, “there is a participation gap,” he warned. “40% of kids do not have access and are not feeling empowered to create. Those inequalities are not just technical. They are social and cultural inequalities. We’re also all finding our way through this digital world without guidance or support. Young people need the involvement of adults. I’m all for giving young people control over their voice. We also need to be sure they are safe. Not so much from Internet predators, but from the difficulties that arise as they explore this new terrain. “

The next question was, “How literally should we take the notion of collective intelligence? What individual skills do you see as useful for relating with others in that way?”

Jenkins offered: “There are two views of collective intelligence. The aggregate model of an average solution, and the one where people share knowledge and arrive at consensus. The latter puts emphasis on diversity. In that model, each individual must have their own expertise and knowledge. It ideally creates mechanisms where we represent all of the perspectives that are brought to the table. It’s like the difference between Wikipedia and YouTube. Wikipedia blends all of what is added. YouTube popularizes a top 100 that tends to be dominated by a white middle class male perspective. Not a lot of diversity at the top.”

“What are your thoughts on cyber-addiction?” came from the audience. “How do we battle it?”

Johnson piped up, “A friend’s sister was dating a guy heavily into Ultima, and she was losing him. One time they were supposed to be going out on a date, and she stuck her head in the door to remind him. He looked up in the dark room and said, ‘Can’t you see I’m getting stronger?!’”

“The question of addiction is a real one, but the minute we use that term we are defining something in a negative way,” felt Jenkins. "It’s more interesting to ask what it is that’s so compelling. What could we do to make other activities that compelling? Translating the mechanisms of video games into real world situations. What manifests as addiction seems to be a larger problem of depression. We also tend to cite examples from China, where the language of addiction is used to control young people’s access to information. They say young people are staying up all night playing video games, when really they are surfing the web to learn about the larger world.“

“How do we balance the tension between the democratic and the commercial?” followed from the audience.

“I’m an optimist, and I believe in participatory culture,” said Jenkins. “But if we take it as a given we’re going to lose it. This is not an inevitability. By holding up a notion of a more democratic culture, we say there’s a world we’re moving toward that could be better. And that gives us a measure against which to critique the real world. We have to go out and challenge the terms we’re given. The terms of participation are up for grabs. We have to hold companies accountable. I believe in the communities, but when communities are commodified and disrespected, then we have to question some of the discourse of Web 2.0. The fact that it’s commercial doesn’t mean we can’t use it, but we have to recognize that the interests of companies and the interests of users are not always the same. “

Johnson concluded, “There’s a tendency to write us off as utopians, but we’re progressives in the classical sense. Rather than look at all the flaws in the world, we want to look at the reasons for hope and the positive trends; to encourage the trends that are potentially empowering.”

GameSetLinks: Easy Like Monday Morning

- Ah, yeah - a week's worth of RSS concatenated into the latest GameSetLinks, and the colorfully titled Grand Theft Childhood book - actually expressing some sane views, we've heard - is one of the things discussed below.

Also notable is Capcom being relatively honest about Xbox Live Arcade costs and suggesting that $10 is a _big_ rough to actually make money with its 2D update of Bionic Commando. It may be too late to change the price up, but we can at least make everyone aware that it's an issue, mm? Links are here:

EngRish Games blog
A Japanese indie gamer trying to point out/translate Japanese titles for us non-native speakers - via The2Bears.

Capcom reveals price for Bionic Commando | XBLArcade.com
'The poll says $10 so that’s what it will be. Since the title will have to do quite well at that price point to break even... I guess we have to roll the dice and see where they land.'

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Flash Game Pick: Questionaut (Amanita Design)
Amanita Design (Samorost) + BBC + education = wonderful Flash game.

Valiant Entertainment - Brett Ratner working on 'Harbinger' movie
Interesting because Valiant used to be owned by Acclaim (see: Shadowman, though not Turok), was bought out after Acclaim's bankruptcy.

Pro Wrestling Roundup: John Cena Has His Own NES Pro Wrestling Shirt
Cena is known to be a video game geek, I believe - this seals the deal.

PC World: Game Myths Debunked: Grand Theft Childhood
Discussing a new Harvard-authored book on the subtleties of video game consumption and kids.

Brand Week: Pontiac Evokes Nostalgia in New Campaign
Some of the reasoning behind that new Spy Hunter-inspired ad.

Vancouver Sun: 'Inside the EA Magic Factory'
Apparently it's a factory where they make magic!

Jim Flora :: Fine Art Print :: Manhattan
Completely random, but wouldn't it be cool to see a game using this art style?

Retro Sabotage: Dysfunctional time machine - Flash Games [ver.9.0 req.]
This is very surreal Flash game pastiche territory.

Trend: The Late Blooming Of The PS2 For Hardcore Gamers?

- Having just got the new issue of Game Informer magazine with Alpha Protocol on the cover, I was very interested to spot an ad for O3 Entertainment's Chaos Wars, which SiliconEra has been discussing for a while.

It's coming out in April now for PS2 - there's a pre-order page on GameStop's website. This is actually a pretty obscure product - as the Wikipedia page explains:

"Chaos Wars is a crossover between several companies' console role-playing game series: Aruze's Shadow Hearts, Atlus's Growlanser, Idea Factory's Blazing Souls, Gakuen Toshi Vara Noir, Spectral Force, Spectral Souls and Hametsu no Mars, and RED Entertainment's Gungrave and Samurai Police/Shinsengumi Gunrouden."

But yet it's managed to get a U.S. release on PlayStation 2, and that's part of an interesting trend. As the PS2 hardware has matured, but continued to sell (heck, it managed 350,000 units in the U.S. in February), we seem to be seeing SCEA relax its concept approval on casual titles and Japanese niche games alike.

Time was it that standalone 2D games wouldn't make it out on PlayStation 2 - difficult to work out what was actually permitted, since there are some extravagant rumors, but it certainly seems that titles like Arcana Heart wouldn't have made it out previously. And now it has.

So here's my brief list of some neat North American PS2 titles of recent and upcoming vintages that might appeal to the hardcore GameSetWatch geek. I have almost certainly missed some, so that's what the comments are for:

- Arcana Heart (PS2, Atlus, April 2008)
"A 2D arcade fighting game developed by Examu (formerly Yuki Enterprise)... the game features an original all-female cast (each a variation of the moe Anime-Girl archetype), and after choosing a character the player chooses an "elemental alignment" which determines the character's special moves."

- Taito Legends 2 (Destineer, May 2007)
"Taito Legends 2 is a follow-up collection of... Taito arcade games for the PlayStation 2 [including Cameltry, Cleopatra Fortune, Elevator Action Returns, and a host of others]... Bonus content includes hints, cheats and tips for most games, original game flyers, and one interview with Taito."

- King Of Fighters XI (SNK, November 2007)
"The latest installment of The King of Fighters series. The game continues the story of The King of Fighters 2003." But also see a host of others, including Neo Geo Battle Coliseum, World Heroes Anthology, Fatal Fury Battle Archives, and more. SCEA sometimes allowed compilations of SNK 2D titles before, but it definitely seems like they are getting more friendly as resources shift to Wii and next-gen consoles.

- Heavenly Guardian (UFO Interactive, February 2008)
"The successor to the cult favorite Kiki KaiKai series, known more commonly as Pocky & Rocky in North America. It is not precisely the Kiki KaiKai 2 sequel that had previously been announced and canceled - however it is developed by the same company, Starfish SD, and has been described as a "spiritual successor" and is allegedly "very similar" to the cancelled game according to Kiki Kai World's publisher, UFO Entertainment."

Some alternatives might include Baroque, Mana Khemia, Guilty Gear XX Accent Core, Persona 3 FES and a host of others. Again, it's not as if these titles all wouldnt have been released before. But in a time that a lot of people are concentrating on the 'next-gen experiences', it's great to see some exquisitely niche PlayStation 2 titles - often with wonderfully crafted gameplay - flowing into the West.

Sure, these are niche games which may only sell 10,000 or 20,000 copies, but with the titles already produced for the Japanese market, and with Japanese game developers increasingly targeting the Western market - the more that hardcore gamers such as ourselves support them, the more we'll see of them. So get to buying!

March 16, 2008

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 3/15/07

cyoa049.jpg Being a packrat is a dangerous thing. Don't worry -- my place is not a mess, overrun with stacks of magazines to the point where you can't navigate it anymore. Everything's still nice and neat; I can still keep a facade of normalcy as long as I don't show guests my home office/ferret habitat/magazine room.

But I've worried that I'm picking up a new hobby, one that I don't really need right now. I stop by used bookstores almost whenever I pass one, and lately I've been buying whatever $1 Choose Your Own Adventure books they have.

I do this for the same reasons I collect magazines and collected video games before that -- part nostalgia (I devoured these things as a grade-schooler), part gotta-catch-em-all psychology, part sheer nerddom. Now I'm even starting to peruse eBay and AbeBooks for deals on CYOA and other gamebook series. (I have a strict policy -- don't pay more than a buck for anything -- and so far it seems workable.)

Is this the plight of the geek? The desire to collect stuff of no vital value? Where does it end? In my case, it ends once I run out of shelf space -- which, sadly, I still have a lot of. Could be worse, I suppose -- I could have a taste for all those $60-and-up anime figurines I write about all the time for my magazine. As shelf filler, gamebooks give you far more bang for the buck. (PS: You got any extras, drop me a line at kevin@piqmag.com. Wait, don't. You'll just be encouraging me if you do!)

Anyway, click on for my views on all the new US game mags of the past fortnight. Big things are happening this month (except to book sizes, those are still small) -- nearly all the mags are livid with GTA4 coverage, but one stood out above the rest...

Electronic Gaming Monthly April 2008 (Podcast)

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Cover: Grand Theft Auto IV

This is the first EGM that reflects the new editorial changes around the Ziff offices. All the editors in ZD-land -- sorry, the 1UP Network -- have been consolidated into "one super-mega editorial team" that contributes stuff to every outlet. It's basically the same folks, but now the masthead has a voluminous cast of Seniors and Executives and Group whatnots, so it's a little hard to tell who's atop one another any longer, so to speak.

This is also the issue where letter grades debut, which I commented on a bit last week -- I understand the motive (to help ensure that both the writers and the readers understand where the "average" is on the scale), but I'm not sure this is the most pressing issue facing EGM's three-person review system, which -- just like the Famitsu cross-review system it copied 19 years ago -- is showing its age in the modern game marketplace.

Otherwise, things are quite lovely this issue. Every mag is doing their next-to-final GTA4 previews this month, but EGM's is the best for getting Dan Houser to talk outside of the PR-mode he's always been in for previous coverage. It also has a couple amusing sidebars, one with the Dutch hacker who found Hot Coffee first and another outlining the influences GTA3 has had in and out of the industry, complete with assorted dev quotes.

I am increasingly taking a shine to the way EGM does industry pieces, the way that pretty much no news article is throwaway any longer -- at the very least, it's either something wholly original (like the 3-page bit in this issue where an ex-ESRB game rater offers his suggestions on how to "fix the system" and ESRB head Patricia Vance rebuts him in a long, caustically-worded sidebar) or dotted with quotes from a pool of devs that I suppose are EGM's equivalent to the pundits that news channels seem to summon out of thin air whenever something requires commentary. It's interesting to read, and my only complaint is the same as always -- that print mags are too small anymore to have more than one or two of these pieces in a go.

Games for Windows: The Official Magazine April/May 2008 (Podcast)

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Cover: The Sims 3

Speaking of shrinking print mags, GFW is apparently shifting frequency to ten issues a year, skipping the advertising-sparse months of May and August. I'm assuming that outstanding subscriptions will be extended accordingly. It's naturally impossible to tell how permanent this is, but it's not a very encouraging sign. PC Gamer is leaps and bounds better than it was even a couple years ago, but GFW's charms are still unique in my eyes, and I want more of it.

I'm sure the fact that PC gaming is dead... er, wait, I mean kind of slow... doesn't help much, either. The industry's loss is my gain, though, because except for the cover feature and the reviews section, this issue is almost entirely original news or features. It's all good stuff, too -- bits on the maturation of writing in games, the presence and meaning of death in games, a history of game packaging trends, and a roundtable where GFW asks 17 developers what they'd wish for if a genie allowed them to solve any game creation-related problem in an instant.

To put it another way, this issue of GFW is convincing me that the mag is turning into Computer Games in all the good ways. Hopefully it won't begin copying CGM's missteps this summer.

Game Informer April 2008

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Cover: Alpha Protocol

We now know the face of next-gen role-playing games, and that face is Adam Sandler's. The feature inside is typical GI, and I know I sound like a broken record about GI's features by this point -- the text is stylistically similar to something IGN would post and it's a much better use of my time to look up all the game facts on the forum threads instead of wade through it. The sub-feature on the new Aerosmith-themed Guitar Hero is better, as is the annual Game Infarcer section (hmm, I just realized GamePro didn't do their LamePro schtick in their April issue this year... shame).

The Connect section is also a little light this month, including one spread titled "PC Customization" that is basically free advertising for Alienware. What the 'ey? Buying an Alienware PC is what you do when you can't be bothered to customize your PC! (Admittedly, the feature does have actual customization tips in the text, but many likely won't notice this because the piece is illustrated with nothing but selections from Alienware's catalog.)

Official Xbox Magazine April 2008 (Podcast)

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Cover: Fallout 3

The cover preview-feature is nice and thoughtful; a lovely status report on the game, if you will. The roundup on upcoming XBLA stuff ain't bad, either. Otherwise, this issue's heavy on the usual reviews and previews.

The ad situation seems kinda sparse right now in Xbox-land, too -- there's a ton of in-house ads, and the old Halo 3 advertisement has popped up out of nowhere for a return appeareance. There's a half-page spot for independent console repair outfit 360 Pros, which is the first ad I've seen of its type in a very long time within the confines of a game mag.

PlayStation: The Official Magazine April 2008

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Cover: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Kind of the same old over here -- the small staff behind P:TOM have put together a mag that's mostly previews and reviews, without a heck of a lot much else (although the little community bits in the back are nice). I'm still looking forward to better things.

Game Developer March 2008

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Cover: Call of Duty 4

I forgot to mention the February '08 issue here, which I apologize about. I don't know if this began last month offhand [EDITOR: It started in March, starts its 'official' run in May], but this number has a new back-page feature, a humor page called "Arrested Development" that's actually pretty funny -- this one parodies game-industry books by introducing titles like Making Money with GameCube Ports: A Fast and Easy Guide to the Wealth You've Always Wanted.

Ths issue also includes a piece on some tech stuff by Jay Koottarappallil, which is frankly the greatest name I've ever heard. He ought to be an action-movie star.

[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.]

GameSetLinks: Good Lord, It's Pu-Li-Ru-La

- More GameSetLinks then, and I was pretty astounded to read the link below which has Hardcore Gaming 101 discussing the completely surreal (and rather obscure) Pu-Li-Ru-La from Taito - talk about hidden dada art action, hm?

Anyhow, very annoying that it's left off the U.S. version of Taito Legends 2 (which I just picked up, and is a great archive of classic Taito titles) - guessing it's something to do with the bizarre 'legs akimbo' art pictured in the HG101 article, which was altered for the U.S. arcade version. Oh well. Onward with plenty of other esoterica:

chewing pixels » The Golden Compass: Blame It on the Reviewer
Interesting follow-up on the Gamasutra interview with the Golden Compass game scripter.

Hardcore Gaming 101: Pu-Li-Ru-La
Again, some awesome screenshot-heavy researching from the HG101-ers - Kurt Kalata from the site has an article or two forthcoming on Gamasutra, by the way.

EvoTab » Keeping tabs on game news
GameTab evolved, from the mercurial Reed.

Lost Levels :: View topic - K-Project (Rez Beta) Dumped
Wow, I wonder what the music tracks used are - via SiliconEra.

PiQ Entertainment Magazine Hits Newsstands - Anime News Network
Mr. Gifford's magazine, he of Mag Weasel fame.

Creator of Eliza, Joseph Weizenbaum, Dead at 85 - Boing Boing
Indeed, a v.appropriate eulogy - via Waxy.

insertcredit.com on the Tower Of Druaga MMO
Check out the last video - it's Benny Hill: The MMO!

PlayStation.Blog » thatgamecompany’s 24hr Game Jam
Cute! Now I wanna play it.

Bob Ostertag's 'w00t' experimental music album - free download.
'w00t was composed entirely from fragments of music' from games - from Balloon Fight to World Of Warcraft! Via The-Inbetween.

Kotaku: Did Konami Inspire Gibson's Patent Suit?
Meh, how about looking at the Gibson patent? Seems to be some kind of crazy VR headset silliness not inspired by Guitar Freaks.

The Art Of Play Makes CMU Into ArtGame Central

- Over at Carnegie Mellon University, they've announced they're doing a two-day festival called 'The Art Of Play', starring art-game neeto folks like Jason Rohrer (Passage, Gravitation), Heather Kelley (Kokoromi kru), and even former Ion Storm-er and current Spielberg co-conspirator Randy Smith.

It takes place on March 31th and April 1st, and here's the vision:

"The Art of Play brings together creators and researchers of games from multiple contexts - large AAA productions from major corporations, mid-sized developers completing work-for-hire projects, indies developed by small teams and released for free on the internet or for a small price on one of the many alternative distribution channels, and experimental games produced within an academic context."

What's more: "The aim of this Symposium and Arcade is to survey the games that brought us to this moment with their unique creative vision, and to frame the field moving forward, as game makers finally abandon the question "CAN games be art," and begin to ask ourselves in how many ways they WILL be."

Not really clear how open this event is to the public, but there's a PDF brochure, an afterparty (!), and the website art is by Cactus, so hey - the more events like this, the better.



If you enjoy reading GameSetWatch.com, you might also want to check out these UBM TechWeb Game Network sites:

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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