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April 5, 2008

Quiz Me Qwik: Boštjan Čadež Talks Line Rider

linerider.gif['Quiz Me Quik' is a new weekly GameSetWatch column by journalist Alistair Wallis, in which he picks offbeat subjects in the game business and interviews them about their business, their perspective, and their unique view of life. This time - Line Rider creator Boštjan Čadež.]

There would have to be a fairly large percentage of people who've played Line Rider who first experienced it through YouTube videos. It's a pretty amazing sight – the rider swooping and diving through intricately created courses, coming close to peril on oh-so-many occasions, but always pulling through and continuing on his epic journey. And then you try it yourself and realise that – eep – it's a lot harder to put something like that together than you'd think.

That's really testament to the versatility of Line Rider, though. It is an amazingly simple idea – like all the best innovations – but it allows people to create their own unique vision and have fun with it, even if you're not able to recreate level 1-1 from Super Mario Bros.

It's going to be interesting to see what inXile can do with the game on a commercial level. Will it be as compelling with the knowledge that you're actually having to shell out money to play this on your Wii or DS? The issue of value in games has been gone over again and again, so I'll leave it well alone here, but how do you create value in a game that effectively lets you control just a pencil and eraser?

It could even be that it goes too far in trying to create value in the game, of course. Maybe people will pick it up and sigh, 'Jeez...I remember the good old days, when Line Rider didn't even have an eraser'. Only time, sales figures and the collective whining of forum users across the Internet will tell, I suppose.

With the game's release only a few months away, it seemed like a perfect time to talk to the creator of the Flash toy, Boštjan Čadež, and ask about the history of Line Rider, and his experiences with inXile in putting together its future. Oh, and also about whether the little sledding dude has a name.

GSW: Firstly, I'm curious: do you think of yourself as an artist, or a programmer?

Boštjan Čadež: Heh, I'm not actually educated to be either. Currently my qualification is dental technician. I studied design but haven't graduated so far. I guess that puts me closer to art than programing.

If I think about what I do most of the time, I could say I consider myself an artist of some sort.

GSW: What were you studying at the time you created Line Rider and isoType?

BČ: Industrial design.

GSW: So you didn't finish that course, and moved into dental work?

BČ: No, actually quite the opposite. I finished dental work as part of high school, but later never finished the design part.

GSW: Do you think you could work full time in the games industry?

BČ: Well, I wish I could but my knowledge isn't specific enough. I have no skills as a designer, producer, programmer, anything. I just made a game. As far as I experienced it, I don't fit anywhere.

linerider.gifGSW: How did you come up with the concept of Line Rider?

BČ: I've told the story about the sketch in my sketchbook too many times, so I'll skip that and talk about a wider background. I used to program AVS [Advanced Visualization Studio plug-in for Winamp] presets and later VJ in clubs. I learned the basics of programming that way, and learned some more with little projects in Flash.

Anyway, I enjoyed procedural animation because it didn't involve frame by frame 'slave' work, which I was always too lazy to do. But procedural stuff gets boring, monotone and predictive very fast. It especially bugged me with VJ-ing. Pre-coded stuff was too much like video - too much in the past – and even if it was reacting to audio in real time, it looked always the same. So I started thinking about how to find something which had the best of both worlds: something which I could change on the fly, some way of animating stuff by just drawing it.

Then I saw Cronodraw, by Anderas Gysin. It's a simple idea which kind of had what I was looking for. So I kind of ripped the idea and made a preset that repeated what I drew in the window in an endless loop, or just moved some sprites along the path my mouse moved. This was kind of what I was after, because it was a simple way of doing moving images by just drawing lines; no frame by frame or tweens.

And then after I finished isoType I saw the sketch and it clicked. Line Rider still has limitations though, so I hope I can find something better in the future!

GSW: What would you say they are?

BČ: The limitations I see are: you can't animate anything but the character. It's not a limitation of the game, its a limitation of Line Rider as an animation tool.

GSW: I've always been amused by your detailing of a back story for the game - is that something you still talk about? Has it filled out any more since you first wrote about it?

BČ: Not really. Well, there is a story that's in the games inXile is making, but I cant talk about that just yet.

GSW: Did you ever settle on a name for the Line Rider Dude yourself? I know he's now known as Bosh, but was that your idea?

BČ: We tried to give him a name while I was at inXile, but couldn't settle on anything. My proposal was Sanka, as 'sanke' is 'sled' in Slovene, but it didn't stick. So one day, [inXile founder] Brian Fargo said, 'Why not call him Bosh?', because that's what they called me in the US, since no one could pronounce Boštjan. And Bosh it was.

GSW: How quickly did Line Rider gain popularity?

BČ: It got 'popular' in a matter of hours. It had 10000 views in the first 24 hours it was on Deviant Art. I guess it all started when Unconed posted it on Digg.

GSW: Did the popularity of Line Rider videos come as a surprise?

BČ: Sure. Line Rider, as it is, doesn't even let you make videos without a screen capture program. So videos by themselves were a surprise. I still wonder how much videos had to do with the popularity of the game itself. I mean, they are like adverts made by the players. And in the start, YouTube's view count was a kind of 'high score' of the game - so when people competed in making the best track, they also promoted the game.

GSW: Yeah, I think that's true - it's almost adding a competitive element to the game, in a way.

BČ: Exactly. Line Rider wasn't even a game until YouTube.

GSW: Were there any videos that you were amazed by - people doing things that you hadn't intended or didn't realise were possible with Line Rider?

BČ: I was mostly amazed by how much patience people have. I knew you could draw until you drop - or Flash player does - because I made it that way. I just didn't expect anyone to bother. I also never expected for people to do such technical stuff. I mean, all the complex tricks and cool uses for quirks – a.k.a. bugs I never managed to fix - in the collision reaction algorithm!

GSW: How did you decide what to add or remove in subsequent versions of Line Rider? Are there any features you added that you're particularly happy with?

BČ: I didn't remove anything. I only added because people asked for stuff, like the eraser. Apart from the bugs, I still think Beta 1 is the coolest. It really forces you to put in some effort. In my opinion, the fact it didn't have an eraser made it more addictive.

GSW: Are there any awards or write-ups that you're especially proud of?

BČ: The GDC achievement award of course [for innovation in 2007]! Still don't know how that happened, but I sure didn't mind. I mean, it was my first - and last so far – game, which isn't even a game and how it got that award is still beyond me!

linerider.gifGSW: When were you contacted by inXile, and what was your initial reaction?

BČ: I think it was sometime in November 2006. I was thrilled about my game getting published. I used to play Game Boy when I was a kid and the idea of seeing my game on Nintendo hardware was something special to me.

GSW: How much did you know about the company's plans for the game when you signed the rights over to them?

BČ: Well, I knew the game would keep its basic idea and that's pretty much all that mattered to me.

GSW: You weren't concerned that they would build on it in a way that would remove the simplicity that people seem attracted to?

BČ: I was, but at the same time I wanted to add stuff which was impossible in Flash. Flash is quite a limited platform, as far as performance goes.

GSW: How much involvement have you had in the development of the Wii and DS versions?

BČ: I was quite involved during the three months I was in California, but that only covered the very early stages of development - tossing around ideas and such. I kind of cut the line when I came back and focused on other stuff, because I'd had enough of it for a while.

Later I just saw the game as it developed, and gave my two cents where I thought I should. To be honest, I don't really like how games are made when there is business involved. Too many compromises, too many deadlines and too many people that have too much say in stuff just because they have money and need to make something that sells.

GSW: What are you working on now?

BČ: Building an art museum inside wooden boxes with my friend, playing with Lego Technic, experimenting with Processing, and slowly making another Flash toy.

GameSetLinks: Deconstructing Captain McGrandpa

- Ah, yes, the inevitable weekend attack, and let's pretend we're not still catching up on GameSetLinks after April 1st stupidity and inspiredness, eh? Which reminds me, if anyone has a good April Fools game site round-up, please post in comments.

In the mean time, we tangentially mention some gag favorites, as well as examine Lost's use of its license for a game, Kyle Orland making list articles referencing lists, and all kinds of other fun and games. Here's those breaks:

GameTap : A Captain McGrandpa Postmortem
In case you missed the improvised forum-based GameTap April Fools game.

GPU Gems - full book available
Nvidia making the important graphics programming book available for free - via Satori.

Satori: The new Nokia N-Gage
Whoa, some serious Sidetalking spoofing from Nokia themselves here.

GameSpot: PressSpotting on 'the top 10 journalism cliches'
Kudos for making #1 'top lists', haaah.

David Hellman » Blog Archive » The Art of Braid, Part V: The Emotional Experience
Very late, COMPLETELY AWESOME April Fool.

chewing pixels » Songs for the Boys
The RSS reveals the first line of this 'disappeared', and was: 'When I was working at developer Kuju/ Zoë Mode on a still unannounced (but-this-week-goes-Alpha) Xbox 360 rhythm-action game.' Sorry!

Penny Arcade Launches 'Greenhouse', Online Indie Game Store | Game | Life from Wired.com
No games available yet, but hopefully a good critical mass opportunity for overlooked indie PC games.

Valleywag: 'It's April 1 and I don't know what my salary is'
More hilariously transparent discussion on what writers get paid at Gawker (also home of Kotaku, hence nosing around.)

Joystick Division: Video Game News, Views and Reviews
Village Voice Media's gaming blog, apparently. Looks like it'll be interesting.

Design Rampage: The Unethical Usage of Licenses
Ranty-thoughtful essay on the Lost game, but he should have played it first, prolly?

Round-Up: The State Of The Arcade At ASI 2008

[The arcade game scene is still alive in North America, and Game Set Watch asked Arcade Heroes' Adam Pratt to write up a report on last weekend's ASI 2008 event in Las Vegas, revealing just where the arcade scene is heading, even after its reported Western demise.]

For the most part, the game industry events that get most of the attention focus on what is happening in console and PC gaming.

In fact, few - even within the industry, realize that there are conventions for other sectors, including coin-operated arcade games. Arcades actually have several conventions throughout the year worldwide, including ATEI in the UK, AOU in Japan and ASI, IAAPA and the AAMA Gala in the US.

This year’s ASI (Amusement Showcase International) event was held in Las Vegas between March 27-29th. Despite their overlooked status, there are still significant amounts of new arcade machines shown for Western distribution, among a large amount of other redemption and entertainment machines.

With that being said, the most anticipated arcade title for several years, Capcom’s Street Fighter 4, did not make an appearance at the show. But many other companies were there, to demonstrate that they too have something to offer to the 3000-plus arcades in the US.

Namco

While Namco's primary focus at ASI this year was redemption (or tickets for prizes) games, they did have a couple of video games set up at their booth including the popular racing title Maximum Tune 3, with four linked units; two Mario Kart GP2 units; a couple of Pac-Man/Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga combo cabinets (including a bar-top version); and two Rockin' Bowl-A-Rama cabinets.

While not in their booth, a game that Namco has some involvement with, Wacky Races (a Mario Kart style racer with characters from the popular retro cartoon) was also on the floor.

2008_04_03_wacky.jpg

Wacky Races

Namco was reserved when asked about future game releases, but when approached about the possibility of seeing Xbox Live Arcade critical favorite Pac-Man C.E. debut in arcades, they suggested that they are already discussing that idea - though there are no firm commitments.

However, the company's Tekken 6 was not at the show as it appears that the game is not to be released in arcade format in the U.S. - a major disappointment if correct.

Global VR

U.S. based arcade firm Global VR has been making waves in the Western arcade industry through continued support for non-Japanese markets, and their booth demonstrated that they are not backing down from that position.

The focus at the Global VR booth was on NASCAR Racing, with ten linked cabinets that included two deluxe motion-enabled versions of the game, and on the recently arcade version of Blazing Angels - which takes stands out from its console brother by featuring a sit-down cabinet and unique controls.

2008_04_03_nascar.jpg

Nascar Racing

Global VR also showed two America's Army arcade cabinets, two standard Paradise Lost cabinets (a light-gun shooter based on Far Cry Instincts) and a cocktail Global VR Global Arcade Classics (a multi-game system including officially licensed titles such as Mortal Kombat, Dragon's Lair and Defender).

There was however no information on upcoming releases from Global VR, such as the recently announced Need For Speed: Carbon.

Raw Thrills

Eugene Jarvis-headed developer Raw Thrills was also at the show, exhibiting games including Big Buck Hunter Pro, the new Big Buck Hunter Pro Online and Big Buck Safari.

Raw Thrills also demonstrated a new kit version of The Fast and The Furious Tokyo Drift, in an inexpensive add-on form made to fit into old Cruisin' USA, Cruisin' World and Rush 2049 cabinets.

2008_04_03_bigbuck.jpg

Big Buck Safari

Unfortunately, there were no revelations at the show what Raw Thrills is working on next - but the firm did state that there are about 4-5 development teams working on new projects for the company, making them possibly the largest Western arcade game developer.

Sega Amusements

Sega is having a rough time at the moment in the arcades - and this was demonstrated by the fact that they had a fairly small booth tucked away from the main section of the floor with only two video games to show off - Primeval Hunt (a cross between Big Buck Hunter and Jurassic Park that features a touch screen) and Sega RaceTV.

The firm also had a couple of crane games on show, but expectations had been high from some observers for Sega to show off some new games, such as the new Sega Rally apparently in the process of being location tested in the UK.

Trio-Tech

This Canadian outfit had a small booth, but one game that attracted a lot of attention. This was UFO Stomper, which uses two projectors to create an image on the floor that one or two players can interact with - offering a variety of interesting foot controlled mini-games.

2008_04_03_fash.jpg

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

iMOtion

This relatively new developer had an arcade motion cabinet set up. The iMOtion cabinet has an electric motor motion base and a cockpit cabinet design with a flight stick controller and flat-panel LCD that slides into place. Two games were loaded into the unit - a racing title and Panzer Elite Action.

iMOtion was also demonstrating a video of their new power boat motion game, which was reminiscent of Hydro Thunder.

Conclusion

Overall ASI was a positive show for the arcade biz, despite attendance being down slightly from previous years, and some notable more 'hardcore'-styled game absences from Japanese companies.

Most of the exhibitors were showing their newest developments - with a notable concentration on new machines from Western companies creating more culturally appropriate titles for American bars and casual arcade locations - and promising more to come.

April 4, 2008

Opinion: Ceci N'est Pas Une Gamer

- [In this impassioned opinion piece, IGF finalist (Euclidean Crisis) and writer Douglas Wilson discusses why developer and gamers alike should step away from a militant defense of the artform, and move to a more inclusive view of politics, media, and the world.]

I can’t stand gamers.

No, that’s not quite true. I can’t stand the concept of gamers.

And no, I’m not some anti-gaming nutcase. Far from it, games have always been an important part of my life. As a child of the 80s, I grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System. I watched my older brother play Sierra adventure game classics like Quest For Glory and King’s Quest.

When the Internet finally found its way to our house, I immersed myself in text MUDs and played real-time strategy games with my friends over TCP/IP. I’ve finished a hefty number of RPGs, including Final Fantasies I, IV, VI, VII, and IX (I gave up on V because, well, Squaresoft mailed it in on the storyline).In my heyday I could complete Paranoia Survivor Max on the highest difficulty. I was there at the first PAX, and I’ve attended E3 twice and GDC three times. Hell, I like videogames so much that I’m doing a friggin’ PhD in game studies.

The problem is, the “gaming community” has become a kind of cult. Organized around worship sites like Kotaku, 1UP, and Penny Arcade, the Church of Gamers congregates in Internet forums and online games, rallying against the Great Satan of Jack Thompson. Smitten with near-religious fervor over their hobby, these so-called gamers increasingly treat digital games as a devotional object, a thing morally good in itself.

It’s great to be a passionate about one’s hobbies. But when fans lose touch with reality, they also lose perspective on the more important parts of life. And in doing so, gamers ironically stifle innovation in the medium they so love.

Game Fandom And Perspective

I have a number of apolitical gamer friends who loathe Hillary Clinton, but who focus only on her harsh words against violent video games. For them, media policy seems to be a top political priority. And this isn’t just about Hillary.

Earlier this year, Barack Obama made a somewhat controversial comment about media consumption: “We're going to have to parent better, and turn off the television set, and put the video games away, and instill a sense of excellence in our children, and that's going to take some time.”

This sound-bite certainly seems questionable, although not entirely unreasonable. Nevertheless, my friend, a game researcher who I otherwise respect enormously, disgustedly declared, “Obama just lost my support.”

As a European citizen, my friend was half-joking, given that he can’t actually vote in the election. What alarms me is that he was also half-serious – that a candidate’s views on video games could alone determine one’s political support.

There are many good reasons to both laud and criticize Senators Clinton and Obama. But their views on videogames strike me as irrelevant. In 2008 we face a number of complex problems, including faltering economies, large-scale environmental change, viral epidemics, healthcare policy, genocides, terrorism, war, and souring foreign relations. No matter how you spin it, millions of human lives are at stake.

And yet, some gamers remain acutely concerned with what kind of regulations will be levied on future Grand Theft Auto sequels. This is not just outrageous, it’s altogether absurd.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should all give up games and go join the Peace Corps. After all, I’m not exactly a saint myself. Nor am I saying that we should altogether ignore issues of media policy. A candidate’s view on media usage could be indicative of their more general views on free speech. But I do know that it’s essential that we always keep the larger picture in mind and not fall victim to our overly narrow interests.

The Mass Effect Backlash

The recent controversy over Mass Effect demonstrates why the gamer mentality is so juvenile. In January 2008, self-help author Cooper Lawrence appeared on Fox News to deride the game’s now infamous sex scene. During this televised “debate,” Lawrence admitted that she had never even played the game.

The poorly masked smear on videogames was certainly reprehensible, but the real story was the way in which the gaming community chose to respond. Spurred on by the great echo chamber of the blogosphere, hundreds of gamers spammed Amazon with negative reviews and tags of Lawrence’s books.

In fact, the response was so strong that even The New York Times took notice, bemusedly remarking, “The Internet hath no fury like a gamer scorned.” The gamers’ intended effect was clearly irony (“I know all about this book but have never fully read it”), but the end result was a sad kind of hypocrisy. The gaming community had allowed itself to stoop to the angry, mud-slinging hijinx of its opponents.

This story is doubly sad because Cooper Lawrence is only a symptom and not a cause. Like Jack Thompson and even Kevin McCullough, Lawrence is clearly a fool, a nobody. The more that gamers flame her, the more undue attention she receives. The real culprit, of course, is Fox News.

The Mass Effect debacle is not just the story of how the mainstream media views video games. Rather, it is a more general cautionary tale against bad journalism and biased media coverage. Instead of using the controversy to channel their collective power against the deeply manipulative Fox News organization, gamers largely stuck to the limited domain of the relationship between video games and society.

Unable or unwilling to connect the dots to the bigger issues, the gaming community successfully pigeonholed itself, effectively muzzling its own resistance in the process.

Inside The Church Of Gamers

The Church of Gamers is not only morally problematic; it also ends up working against innovation in the medium. Imagine, for example, how ridiculous it would be if all television watchers identified as their own “Tubers” subculture. It’s a humorous hypothetical precisely because a vast majority of first-world citizens watch television, from the romantics who tune in for soap operas and sports fans who catch game highlights over breakfast, to the sci-fi fans addicted to the latest Joss Whedon serial and insomniacs who watch old gameshow reruns.

The very notion of the “gamer” implies that games are a niche hobby, only for the sufficiently devoted. This exclusivity is exactly what impedes games from attracting a more diverse player base beyond the white adolescent male stereotype.

Given that more and more people are beginning to embrace games, it’s finally time to dump the anachronistic “gamer” label. We longtime players of games need not feel sad about this change. Opening games to, well, everybody can only result in a wider selection of genres and ideas.

I think many gamers do have their hearts in the right place. Wil Wheaton’s heartfelt keynote at PAX 2007, for instance, touts the importance of sharing the gaming experience with others. The problem is that the gaming community pines for two fundamentally opposing realities – one in which they maintain their sense of community and another in which they spread games to the mainstream.

I therefore cringed when Wheaton made declarations like “Jack Thompson can suck my balls” and “all that matters is that we are gamers.” The rhetoric is certainly catchy, but it is still too divisive. That kind of talk sets up a dangerous dichotomy of “us” versus “them.” As the Jack Thompson skirmishes have shown, such a division only serves to further radicalize each side. Our operating concept must instead be “everybody.”

Conclusion: A Call To Non-Arms

Of course, my depiction of the militant gamer is itself a stereotype. For every crazed devotee to the Church of Gamers, there are videogame players who do community service, get involved with their church, or volunteer for their political party. But unfortunately, as the Mass Effect controversy demonstrates, the rabidly protectionist gamer is the public face that gaming community increasingly presents to the larger world.

Thus, this article is a plea to the gaming community - both developers and gamers - to stop talking about Jack Thompson; to hold itself to higher ethical standards than its critics; to stop falling into the victim complex; to resist exclusivity, and embrace players from all walks of life; to demand that gaming blogs stop the hysterical muckraking and misogyny; and most of all, to get more political, and not just about issues of games and media policy.

Initiatives like Child’s Play are wonderful first steps. But as enlightened citizens of the 21st century, it is our responsibility to push ourselves even further and locate our own personal interests within the larger constellation of global issues and challenges.

We avid players of digital games, there’s still hope for us. Just stop calling us “gamers.”

GameSetLinks: Twitch It Up With Onechanbara

- If I could pick a film site that was most like GameSetWatch (and I think this has come up before), then it would be TwitchFilm.net, a beautifully geeky trawl through the obscure, cult and generally alternative in moving pictures.

Therefore, it's a delight to link them (via Brandon Boyer) pointing out a trailer for the film adaptation of D3's The Onee Chanbara, the exploitationishly awesome Simple 2000 title which "involves the player controlling Aya, a Japanese cowgirl in a bikini who wears a scarf and wields a katana."

Where TGS starts, the movies finish, personification wise. And links:

Twitch - Bikini Samurai Girls vs Zombies! Trailer for ONECHANBARA
Detaching Simple 2000 fans from floor... now!

GROW-A-GAME | Values at Play Game Contest!
Second contest now starting!

The Monad - Lit Fuse Forums
Interesting new HL2 art-machinima from a GSW reader.

LegalTorrents - Home
The relaunch of a site I set up a LONG time back - Jonathan Dugan has helped bring it back, it still has 2 or 3 free game torrents on it, yay.

Waxy.org: BBC2's The Net, first episode from April 1994
'Thomas Dolby takes us into his home to talk about his approach to dynamic audio design in gaming.'

Last Man Standing Coop :: View topic - Last Man Standing Final Release!
Final release of the IGF-winning Doom 3 mod (from when we had a mod competition, aw.)

Kotaku: 'Feature: You Just Won IGF! That Means...?'
Stuff! Brief quote from me, and some other good follow-ups. Yay.

OMG! Denver girl's Txt It! game is winner - The Denver Post
Winning Hopelab-related idea - like DDR with texting, heh?

Spectre Collie » Blog Archive » There is no places for writers in the games industry.
An excellent analysis of the original opinion piece and various rebuttals.

Furu Furu Park (Wii game) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Just checked this out - neat for Taito geeks (Cameltry, Pocky & Rocky minigames) but story mode removed for the U.S., boo.

What's New in Indie [March Edition] by Game Tunnel
GT still finds pay-to-play indie titles that others don't notice, for whatever reason.

IndieGames.com Game Of The Month: Data Realms' Cortex Command

[Over at sister site IndieGames.com, editor Tim W. has started up a pay-to-download 'Game Of The Month' club, highlighting some really neat indie titles and helping to support the site at the same time. First up, Data Realms' pixel-perfect Cortex Command.]

Welcome to the new IndieGames.com Game of the Month pick! Every month, we will highlight a special pay-to-download indie game worthy of your attention. Selections are based on the quality of each game and the fun factor they offer.

More importantly, these games are the ones that stand out in the crowded space of commercial indie releases - the crème de la crème, so to speak.

Our inaugural pick is Data Realms' title Cortex Command - the indie team-based PC combat game with neat pixel graphics and physics used to simulate every character, particle, and explosion in extreme detail.

Although still a work in progress, Cortex Command features two main gameplay modes and support for up to four players in splitscreen mode. It is sure not to disappoint fans of action-packed battles in the style of Soldat and Worms! Click through for more info on key game features.

[NOTE: If you buy Cortex Command from the IndieGames.com Game Of The Month page, you are supporting both its developer Data Realms, and also supporting IndieGames.com, allowing it to continue bringing you the latest news on independent games.]

Digging Fully destructible environments - The gold you need to excavate is sprinkled throughout the terrain of each scene. Use special digging tools to blast your way into the dirt and debris. All the pieces of bodies and ships from your struggles will fall to the ground and permanently add to the battlefield. Get more powerful (and expensive) diggers and you can even tunnel into your enemies' bunkers from below!

In-game buying menu - At any time and place during the game, bring up a powerful menu to order new bodies and equipment, all delivered at the location and by the transport ship of your choosing. Rockets are cheaper but unreliable and harder to land. Drop ships are far more expensive but can quickly deploy entire groups of puppets onto difficult terrain. Ships and equipment returned to the TradeStar are refunded to your account.

Build your own bunker - At the start of most missions, you are able to take your time and build your own command bunker from scratch. Easily design twisting tunnels and place doors, traps, and turrets to thwart your enemies' intrusions! Pre-deploy and equip bodies in and around your installation to prepare yourself for your objectives. Don't spend too much though, or you won't have enough funds left when the mission starts!

Four-player cooperative and/or versus multiplayer - Gather your friends and plug in those game controllers! Play skirmish or campaign missions with or against up to three of your buddies. 2 vs 2, 1 vs. 3, 4 vs. the CPU - it's up to you! (rhyme intended). Flexible control settings allow you to use the keyboard, keyboard + mouse, or any generic game controller you can find and plug in.

Built-in editors and modding - Several in-game editors allow you to easily create your own stuff. The game's engine is built to make it very simple to modify and add your own content. Design your own missions, guys, ships, weapons, tools, bombs, and shields - and easily share them with your friends. Join and download some fantastic mods from the community at the Data Realms Fan Forums.

April 3, 2008

Opinion: Why Gamers Need To Open Up To Hollywood

- [In this new opinion piece, Justin Marks, the film and game writer who penned the currently filming Street Fighter: Legend of Chun-Li movie, as well as drafts of Voltron and He-Man films, steps up to discuss the relationship between games and movies - referencing films from his own to Halo.]

I remember when the new Street Fighter movie was first announced. The internet went ballistic. And not necessarily in a good way.

On the very same day that someone was green-lighting a reboot of a franchise already believed to bear the mark of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Peter Jackson announced that his adaptation of Halo, a daring game series, was being dropped by the major Hollywood studios. Boy, these guys just can't get it right. They dump Halo and give us another Street Fighter movie. Unbelievable.

Well, to quickly answer this criticism in biased terms, Street Fighter isn't your ordinary game adaptation. It's a gritty, realistic character piece (if I don't say so myself) that just happens to use characters taken from a video game. All hype aside, it's going to be a very different game-to-movie adaptation and I urge everyone to go see it when it comes out next year.

Between Movies And Games

But I don't want to talk about Street Fighter right now. It's worth discussing because I genuinely believe the producers on that film got it right, but maybe in another column. For now I want to address a much larger issue that faces the gaming community... how to deal with this perception that Hollywood is pissing all over our favorite properties.

The relationship between games and movies is a tough one. I've seen it firsthand. As a lifelong gamer who was fortunate enough to find a corner in the screenwriting community, I've often straddled both sides of this fence.

For starters, and I hate to say this, but the fanboys used to be right. There was a time when the movie business just didn't get video games. No one had yet grown up on them. Filmmakers saw games as inane and often shallow experiences that didn't deserve serious treatment.

Thinking back to the Double Dragon or Super Mario Bros. (shudder) films, it's not hard to see what the problem was. The users of these games were pre-adolescent children (or teenagers who acted like them), so why should we make a serious movie for them?

But things have gotten better over the years. A lot better. Contrary to the message-board-driven fantasy that "Hollywood is screwing up my childhood," this mystical "Hollywood" is actually a real place, filled with executives and creative people who are now young enough to have grown up during the Golden Age of Nintendo.

I know this because I work with these people every day and play with them on Xbox Live every night. I call it the Nerd Hollywood. They're genuinely smart people. And they genuinely want to make good movies.

Holding Back On Hollywood

For an analogy, think about the state of comic book movies a little more than ten years ago. Before the film Blade came out, nobody believed that comic books could be taken seriously. Now we have franchises like X-Men and Batman Begins. That's because the people making those movies grew up on comics and knew they should be considered an adult medium. The new generation had taken over.

And that's what's ready to happen in the world of game-to-film adaptations. I'm not saying you should expect "Mario Begins" in theaters anytime soon, but the time is upon us for some hot and heavy game movies.

And yet here's the rub. The gaming world isn't holding up its end of the bargain. Fans (and publishers, to some extent) are still resisting Hollywood with territorial reluctance, thinking that if they give away a game's rights to a studio, Hollywood will inevitably "piss all over our childhood."

Part of this is because there's been a past pattern. That's fair. But it's also because the game community fundamentally believes filmmakers just don't understand why games are so great, and if they would only directly and literally translate a game to film, it would succeed beyond all expectations.

Frankly, in the case of most games, this is just not true. We all need to take a long look in the mirror and realize that there are very few mainstream game franchises that could stand next to the best comics of the 1980's, or the best movies ever. And yes, Shadow of the Colossus and Portal are hands-down better than most anything out there, but no one is playing those games. What is the mainstream audience playing? Halo 3.

So let's talk about Halo.

The Halo Effect

First of all, I love the Halo franchise. Master Chief's action figure is sitting on my desk right now as I type. For any doubters out there, simply click here. Halo is the gold standard for our community. Ethereal, epic, with great setpieces and some wonderful aesthetics. We should all be so lucky as to make a game as good as that.

Master Chief has been trying to make it to the big screen for a few years now. I've read the scripts. Some of them aren't bad. But Hollywood, even Nerd Hollywood, has failed to green-light this film. And it's not like they're throwing a bunch of hacks at it. We're talking about Peter Jackson. He's no slouch. If they won't make Halo with Peter Jackson producing, clearly Hollywood is just out of touch with what the world wants, right?

Think of how great a Halo movie would be if they made it exactly like the game was (which is part of the deal Bungie has fought for). Imagine showing up to the theater on Friday night to see the first showing. Fade in. Outer space. A giant star cruiser sails into frame, dropping from it a flying convoy that descends into an alien planet's outer atmosphere.

We touch down in a foreign world and the door slams open. Badass space marines jump out, pulse rifles locked, cocked, and ready to rock. They engage in some funny banter, then march into a futuristic complex built by a community that's since disappeared. After a few suspenseful minutes of "what the hell happened here?", the creatures start appearing. Nasty aliens, who don't take no for an answer, begin to tear the space marines apart. A wild gunfight ensues.

Sounds like a pretty cool movie, right?

That's because it already was a movie. I just described the opening hour of James Cameron's Aliens.

Ready for some heresy? As great a game as Halo is, and as much as it deserves to be a true benchmark for this industry's success, when you take away the awesome gameplay and reduce it to character and story, we've really seen it before.

Don't start screaming on the message boards yet. Take a long, hard look, because this is true of a lot of popular games out there. On a story level, they often take place in familiar worlds and lack the character work (read: compelling enough to make a movie star want to be in the movie) that would elevate them above the level of a good genre film.

What Would Jackson Do?

Peter Jackson probably has a bold vision for Halo, but he's going to have to do some bold-re-envisioning to make it work. The standards that make a good game (complex sci-fi world, silent hero, more emphasis on repetitive action) are not the same standards that make a good movie. Neither standard is inherently better or worse --- they're just different.

That means a film adaptation can't just be a carbon copy of its source material. It has to be inspired, sometimes with new ideas. To inject these new ideas, the filmmakers risk pissing off fans who want the movie to be exactly what the game was. And thus begins message board backlash. Hence the catch-22.

Why does the movie have to reach more than just the gamer audience? Because movies cost an awful lot of money to make. Halo alone would cost roughly $200 million. To gain its gross back, you'd have to generate about half a billion dollars' worth of revenue. Halo 3, the game, made $170 million in 24 hours.

Break that down and it comes to roughly 2.8 million rabid fans lining up to buy it. Multiply 2.8 million fans by the average cost of a movie ticket, 10 dollars, and you have an opening weekend of $28 million.

Let's even be generous and say half those guys brought a date. $40 million opening weekend. Spend $200 million dollars on that and you're looking at one of the biggest flops since Ishtar. People lose jobs. Game over.

If Halo were to be a success --- and Peter Jackson's a smart guy, he knows this --- it's got to be more than a genre film. It's got to appeal to a much bigger audience than just us hardcore gamers. Girls have got to see it. Our parents have got to see it. They've got to see it twice. And take the whole family.

The Way Out

So how do we solve this problem?

We've got to look at adaptations as what they are... an opportunity to adjust the source material to suit it to a new medium. A chance to take a great game and make it into a great movie. That means as a game community, we've got to be open to new ideas being applied to properties that we consider perfect as-is. And as a film community, we've got to be willing to take more risks. To believe that a game should be considered art, and that a movie should honor that.

A new generation of filmmakers is emerging, and this generation takes the medium seriously enough to realize all game adaptations don't deserve to be treated like Alone In The Dark. But it takes time. And patience. And maybe the corpses of a few experiments gone wrong.

So as a young filmmaker speaking to the very gamer population that birthed him, I say - please hold on. The best is yet to come, and we all need to be patient because the right formula isn't as obvious as we would like to think.

And hey, I may be biased, but I think the new Street Fighter movie is the right start. Maybe in a future column we can talk about other qualities I believe would make for a good game-to-film adaptation. For now, just consider me a self-promotional jerk.

Interview: Certain Affinity's Hoberman Talks Plunder, Cross-Platform Politics

-[This Brandon Sheffield-penned interview originally ran on Gamasutra the other day, but it's totally GSW-worthy thanks to its digital download chatter, and it features a geek-out over the possibilities of 'octagonal technology' superseding hex-based gaming, heehee. So here it is!]

Texas-based indie game developer Certain Affinity has an interesting split of projects, having been formed by Bungie veterans and having first worked on add-on map packs for Halo 2.

However, the firm now has two projects in progress, since it's working with Valve and creator Turtle Rock to develop the Xbox 360 version of the upcoming zombie action title Left 4 Dead.

At the same time, Certain Affinity is preparing to release their first original title, hex-based strategy game Plunder, to be published by Capcom for digital download later this year.

In this in-depth interview, Gamasutra spoke to Certain Affinity president and Bungie vet Max Hoberman about some intriguing industry-related issues centered around both Left 4 Dead and Plunder.

Topics include the advantages of developing from scratch as opposed to using middleware, working with Valve and Capcom, and the 'messy' politics of doing cross-platform play across PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.

Tell me about Certain Affinity. How did you get started?

Max Hoberman: I’m originally from Austin, Texas, and I moved up to Chicago and then out to Seattle. I went to work for Bungie and I was there for about ten years. I moved back, finally, to Austin. I missed the sun.

When I went back, I was working for Bungie remotely, but there’s only so much you can do remotely in the game development business. It’s very much collaborative, especially since I worked in multiplayer as the multiplayer online lead at Bungie. It’s just an extremely collaborative business.

I wanted to go on and do bigger and better things. I met a really good group of guys and we ended up founding Certain Affinity. Austin has a lot of people with a lot of experience – some of my guys are old Origin guys, going back to the late eighties. Our lead programmer started in ’87, and was the lead programmer on some Wing Commander games. So we put together a really good initial group, and since then we’ve about tripled in size.

To what?

MH: We’re eighteen people right now, and we’re interviewing and have a number of people we’re probably going to make offers to soon, so we’ll probably go up to twenty-two or twenty-three in the near future. Yeah, we’ve got a really good group of guys, and since Halo 3 wrapped up, I’ve managed to get a couple of good friends from Bungie who moved down to Austin and are now working with us – good team.

Is the company going to be very multiplayer focused, coming from your background?

MH: It’s kind of weird. It’s kind of unavoidable for us – the common thread running through us at the company is that we all love multiplayer. I say 'multiplayer,' and then I kind of catch myself, because it’s actually cooperative multiplayer play that we like.

Multiplayer in a free-for-all setting, I don’t think it has the same kind of appeal as team-based cooperative multiplayer, whether it’s a cooperative single-player experience against the computer or against other people. It’s cooperative, team-based games that are really fun, and that’s a thread that I see going through everything we’re doing. We’re doing the Xbox 360 version of Left 4 Dead for Valve, which is this cooperative zombie FPS, and it’s definitely a common thread for the company.

Are you doing the Xbox 360 version or the multiplayer stuff?

MH: We’re responsible for every aspect of the Xbox version, and the game is also in development so we’ve helped them out a lot with the PC version. It’s not exactly a port, it’s simultaneous development on the Xbox version and there’s a lot of back and forth with those guys. But yeah, we’re responsible for everything from the control scheme to the matchmaking, and doing some pretty cool, pretty ambitious things. I can’t talk about that too much without Valve here, but we’re doing some pretty cool stuff.

Regarding Plunder, it’s hex-based, and there haven’t been a lot of hex-based games for a long time. A couple of Japanese RPGs have filled the gap since the eighties—

MH: --Was there a gap? I wasn’t aware there was a gap?

I haven’t seen a whole lot.

MH: Yeah, I know what you mean. I actually wrote up the design doc for the very first draft and it’s changed a lot, but the very first design doc for Plunder I wrote up a couple of years back, and at the time I was playing Settlers of Catan. I was just incredibly impressed with that game. Everybody I’ve brought in to play that game has enjoyed it, whether it’s my friends, parents, wife, my siblings, everyone. I just wanted to make a game that had that same accessibility.

You know, one thing I hated about it, because I’m impatient, is that it’s turn-based, so I thought I’d start with some of that, take away the turn-based, turn it into a real-time strategy and see where that leads, and we ended up with a really interesting game. It’s hex-based, but it doesn’t feel hex-based.

Some of the early shots I saw of the Live Arcade version of Catan, where you can play in a 3D environment got me thinking, "Oh, wow, you can do 3D in a hex-based game really well," and I think we have.

When you’re playing the game, it doesn’t feel hex-based. I think what actually happens is that you actually forget you’re playing on hexes. You think you’re in this little 3D world. Hexes are a beautiful interface for the map editor, for example. You’re laying out hexes, and that sort of thing and interface for controlling your ship and all of that.

So is that the reason for the hexes – a gauge of where you are?

MH: Well, the hexes provide the interface in a way, because you’re always telling your ship, go here, go to this hex, when you’re attacking an enemy two ships cannot occupy the same hex, so everything’s always based on adjacency of hexes.

So really, the foundation of the control scheme and the interface of the game is really based on hexes – it’s very novel. It’s not something we’ve seen before. When we did it initially, I was actually amazed, because it all came together so beautifully. I sort of had this idea on paper, and when we put it all together, and I was like, do this, do that, and when it all came together I was, ‘Holy shit,’ – can I say that? – ‘this is awesome!’ Wow, this just came together beautifully. I’ll admit I was surprised.

I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but what do you see as the benefits of hexes against squares or octagons?

MH: Oh, we don’t have that kind of technology yet – octagon technology? Too far in the future. But the nice thing about hexes is the directionality of them – every hex is surrounded by this ring of hexes, and you can come at them from the bottom, from the top, from the sides, and that’s kind of the problem of doing something with squares – you don’t get that same directionality. It’s kind of a centered experience.

You can go to more complex things, but you don’t really gain anything. Hexes are just the perfect in-between. It is weird when you start laying out maps and you realize one direction is going to be completely vertical, and you can go straight down this line of hexes, but for the other one you’re going to have to zig-zag as you go, but we solved all the problems inherent with that.

I mean, the first time we implemented it, and you told your ship to go somewhere, it followed this crazy path, but we got the logic in there that traverses the hexes in an intuitive fashion, and the path-finding and that sort of stuff. You actually forget that it’s hex-based after a little while.

What did you use for path-finding?

MH: Oh, we did everything in-house. We did all the engine -- every single thing in this game is from the ground-up. There’s nothing from a third-party. The most recent thing was we needed a particle editor, so our lead programmer locked himself in a room for a week, and that’s our particle editor, and it’s actually pretty awesome, too, and that’s from the ground-up.

What do you see as the benefits of from-the-ground-up development as opposed to licensing?

MH: The benefit is that you’re really doing something which is custom-designed for your game. I think there’s also some potential, just from experience now, we’d looked at some particle editors that really slowed down our performance. If I pop-up the frame-rate counter while we’re in there playing a game, you’ll really be amazed, because for a multiplayer game right now, the frame-rate is absurd. Usually our counter’s at 170, maybe 130 at the really intense times.

So performance is definitely a big thing, and we’re able to fine-tune the technology and really get the performance we want. It’s got a lot of up-side in the custom-tailored technology, but it’s got a down-side too in the time it takes and the financial investment that we’ve made in this game is really huge given the scale of the game. But it is our first original title, so we wanted it to really kick ass.

Do you think digital download is a good way to recoup the investment? Have you had to get VCs?

MH: So far, the company is 100 percent self-funded and there’s no outside money – it’s an employee-owned company. We’ve done really well. But at the same time, obviously we’re working with Capcom as a publisher and they’ve made an investment in the game. But we’ve also made a pretty big financial investment ourselves, to really push it and to get some of these systems that you only really see in bigger games – really sophisticated matchmaking and a party system and that sort of thing.

It’s a huge investment for us, and I think to recoup our investment the game will have to do really, really well. But that’s to recoup our financial investment, because for us, it’s an investment in technology, in building a team, in relationships with publishers, an investment in the IP. There’s so many things that go beyond the initial financial investment.

Is your engine going to be extendable for future games?

MH: Yeah, that’s always been our intent. If you ask our programmers, there’s some other things they would love to rip out and redo because that’s the way it always goes, and you always get rushed and that sort of thing, but there’s elements of the technology that are absolutely applicable to any other game.

And a lot of that’s to do with the shell that surrounds the game in-play. It doesn’t matter if you’re sailing a ship, or flying a spaceship or whatever you’re doing – you still need a lobby, the ability to get together with friends, move around collectively, join games as a group and those sorts of things that transcend what it is you’re actually doing in the game, so as far as that goes it’s a technology investment for us also.

Is it your engine or Source for Left 4 Dead?

MH: Left 4 Dead is all Source-based. We’ve obviously done a lot of custom work on it, especially when you get into the online systems – a lot of stuff from the ground up, essentially, but the core game engine for Left 4 Dead, that’s all Source-based.

Is Capcom running specific servers for this, or is it Microsoft?

MH: There’s no servers, it’s a client-hosted model, so one of the players in the game is also the host. The game play: there’s not a lot going on. We’re not dealing with physics engines and stuff so it’s really easy to get good performance out of that model. So there really isn’t any need: the Xbox Live service provides the backbone that we need on the Xbox, and then there’s other similar services for the other platforms.

Map-storing; is that stored in a similar way? In order to play a certain map does the host have to have the map?

MH: The map-sharing’s actually a really interesting model. It’s map-sharing lite in a way. Internally, we call it viral sharing. It just sort of happens. The way it works is that you make a custom map, the host loads any custom map that he has on his ‘box, and in just the act of loading that map in the lobby, the map gets blasted out to every single player in the lobby, and they now have it automatically saved in a Recent Maps list without even having to do anything.

And now they can go into that list and permanently save it into the My Custom Maps list, so it’s really, really easy. We’re putting in a mechanism for when you’re in the lobby to hand-off to someone else so they can load their map. You don’t have to play the map to have the map in your list – it’s actually a really cool system.

And that data’s then stored locally for each player?

MH: Yes, all the data’s stored locally along with any of your custom maps and that sort of thing.

How was it developing for all three platforms?

MH: It’s pretty overwhelming. What we’ve ended up doing is that we have a partner who’s working with Capcom. We help them out a lot, but Capcom’s managing it, and they’re doing the PlayStation 3 version, following along, and we’re helping them figure out the back-end and stuff like that.

We’re doing the Windows version and the Xbox version, but we have so much on our plate we’ve even had to get some help from some friends of ours on the Windows version. We’re still responsible for it and we’re still driving it, but we have contracted some of the work out to some guys down the street from us who are helping us out.

I know there are problems with licensing and people not liking each other, but do you think it would be possible to have cross-platform multiplayer on all three versions?

MH: Oh, God, I know all about that and the politics of it. I’m right in the middle of it, what with Valve being a PC-based company and Microsoft and everything. It’s actually possible and pretty simple to get the PlayStation 3 version playing with the Windows version – I don’t know if a final decision has actually been made on that.

For Plunder?

MH: Even if we wanted it to, yeah. For the Xbox version, Microsoft tends to be a little bit more closed, if we wanted the Games for Windows Live, we could get cross-play between those platforms, but between all three is – technically – not that hard, honestly, but it’s the politics. I’d be surprised if it ever happens. You’d have to be a pretty big player to get something like that to happen.

It would be pretty cool if you could get 360 and PC, and PC and PS3 running, because then you almost have it. What is the likelihood?

MH: There’s definitely a chance, and I need to go talk to some guys about it and see where we’re at with this, because it’s still an open issue about whether we want to have cross-play between PS3 and Windows. There’s definitely a possibility there. We’re not really going down the GFW Live on PC route, so I don’t think we’ll see cross-play between Xbox Live and Windows.

I thought that was actually going ahead.

MH: It’s all political and messy.

It’s kind of a silly aside, but there’s a wave of pirate popularity right now – are you riding that wave?

MH: Certainly the wave of popularity – the Pirates of the Caribbean stuff – it hasn’t really been a big influence on us. There’s some things that are just universal and universally liked and enjoyed by everyone, and pirates is just one of those things.

Pirates, when they’re light-hearted and done with a sense of humor, is just universal. So it’s not bad timing with the wave of pirate stuff coming out, but pirates are just fun and they have the right fit for this game – it was just kind of a natural choice.

GameSetLinks: The Guardian Heroes Will Continue

- Arr harrrr! The latest GameSetLinks are upon ye, me hearties, and really that's no excuse to talk piratical but it's the end of the day, and I'm tired, and there's a Daniel James link in there, and you know...

Anyhow, apart from lapsing into pirate-speak when fatigued, other good stuff going on in this link set includes a really interesting Sony-funded PlayStation 3 demo-scene production, various bits of World Of Warcraft lore (as if you haven't had enough!), and, uhh, the Pottery Barn Kids catalog. So there:

The Flogging Will Continue… » Whirled goes Open Beta
Daniel James on the Beta launch of Whirled, which is v. interesting.

Elder Game: MMO game development » Design Analysis: Noblegarden
Deconstructing World Of Warcraft's Easter event from a design perspective.

ARGNet: The Sky Remains
'Combines interactive ARG elements with GPS technology and the thrill of geocaching and treasure hunting using mscape (short for "mediascape"), HP Labs' experimental mobile gaming platform.'

Pouet.net: Linger In Shadows by Plastic (.pl)
It's fascinating that Sony is now hooking up with the demo-scene, with gorgeous results - though another example of Sony's 'open yet not' attitude, given homebrew/RSX issues.

Game-Ism: 'Pottery Praise'
Wow, the Pottery Barn Kids catalog has "...real game systems with the appropriate real game controllers on them" in the posed pics, for once.

Design Progression in World of Warcraft, An Illustrated Guide « Broken Toys
Good insight into World Of Warcraft patches changing game elements majorly.

MMOG Nation » Free Realms: Getting Rid of the Bullshit in MMOs (Pt.2)
Zenke has some interesting early perspectives on SOE's attempt to go non-hardcore, MMO-wise.

Konami’s new BeMani Slot - the videos « Arcade Heroes
Weird, Beatmania vs. slot machine mashup.

Arcade Renaissance: Arcadia Magazine's top 10 for January - February
Continues to be fascinating to see what's big in arcades in Japan.

Speed Demos Archive - Guardian Heroes
A new speed run through the classic Treasure hack + slash title for Saturn, yum. XBLA plz!

April 2, 2008

Column: 'World of Warcraft Exposed': Before You Make Your First Character…

Draenai Warrior ['World of Warcraft Exposed' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about the culture and experience of the globe's biggest online game phenomenon, the ten million subscriber-strong World of Warcraft. This second column looks at how character classes are actually differentiated in the game.]

There are so many people playing World of Warcraft today, it’s almost a joke. At game conferences it’s almost become a sort of mini-game: “Who’s the most obscure person in your life playing WoW?”

One guy I spoke to at GDC this year pretty much won the game forever by claiming that his mom and her hairstylist had a gripping conversation about questing in the zone of Westfall while a perm set. WoW’s widespread playerbase is a direct result of the game’s accessible gameplay, a topic we discussed in last week’s column.

Despite that highly-regarded accessibility, there are still a number of things you should keep in mind when jumping into World of Warcraft for the first time. While Blizzard’s monolith is much better than other MMOs when it comes to making irreversible decisions, there are still many important choices you have to make at character creation.

Today we’ll run down the most important things you need to keep in mind before you ever set foot into Azeroth. We’ll discuss class roles, racial benefits, servers and transfers, and (an ever-important element to RPGs) the question of motivation. Read on, and then get rolling.

Let’s Start At the Very Beginning

Even before you load up World of Warcraft for the first time, there are a few things you need to consider. Most importantly, why are you playing? My hope is that it is because you’ve heard it is fun. You might already have some friends playing it, or perhaps you’re just curious about virtual worlds. Regardless of your motivations, keep them in mind before you make your first character. Are you going to be playing alone most of the time? Are you rolling up a character on a server where your friends are already playing? If so, do you know what kinds of characters they play?

If you are planning on playing with friends, knowing which of the many, many servers are out there is vitally important. Once you’ve made a character on a server, it costs money ($25) to move them to a new server and there are certain restrictions that might prevent you moving it to your friends’ server at all. Blizzard has an extensive FAQ on the service at their official site.

Double-check the name of the server your friends are on; they’re all based on World of Warcraft lore, and as such many are highly non-standard words, with strange spellings. A final note on servers: find out what type of server your friends are on. If it’s a ‘Normal’ (Player vs. Environment) or ‘RP’ (Roleplaying) server you won’t have any problems, but if it’s a ‘PvP” (Player vs. Player) server there are several additional considerations you’re going to want to make. Make sure to read the FAQ on selecting a server to make an informed decision.

To complete your pre-character screen pondering, think back to other games you’ve played, regardless of whether they were MMOs or not. What kind of games do you play? Are you a stealth game fan, or do you prefer FPS titles? Are you a gung-ho sort, or do you tend to mull things before moving forward, even in a game world? Don’t worry about past gaming too much, but try to keep your gaming likes and dislikes in mind as you consider what kind of character to play.

Why Am I So Short, and Why Are You So Tall?

Choosing your race and class are important to your experience in World of Warcraft. Depending on which race you pick, you’ll be limited to a certain selection of classes. If you’re playing with friends, you should also need to know that there are two different factions of PC races, the Alliance and the Horde. Choosing a race that fights for one side bars you from grouping and playing with members of the other. If you’re planning to level up characters together from level 1, you might want to even choose all the same race; most races start in areas far distant from the others.

Whichever faction you choose, you’ll have at least four races to pick from. On the side of the Alliance, there are Humans, Dwarves, Night Elves, and Gnomes. The Horde is made up of the Orcs, Undead, Tauren, and Trolls. The Burning Crusade expansion added two new races, one for each side, with the Horde now counting the Blood Elves as part of the ranks.

The Alliance added the race known as the Draenei. In order to play either of these last two races (or visit the high end area known as Outlands) you’ll need to purchase the expansion. No need to worry about being isolated from fellow players, though – Blood Elf and Draenei characters can play just fine with folks that don’t own the expansion.

To fully explore this part of character creation, we’ll run down each of the races and some of the things to keep in mind when considering them for a character.

  • Humans: A comfortable, familiar option for players of all types, Human characters are going to play into many fantasy tropes. They adventure in idyllic meadows, ruined farmlands, and creepy forests, and the classes available to them are many of the standards you’d expect from an epic tale. If you’re not sure about fitting in, humans are a fantastic choice because they’re a very common sight in Alliance cities.
  • Night Elves: The most ‘beautiful’ character race in the game by many accounts, Night Elves are also an extremely common sight on the Alliance side. Their adventuring experiences deal a great deal with the corruption of nature, shadowed and ancient forests, and the waning of a civilization. Their class choices see them shunning magic for more ‘outdoorsy’ pursuits, and are the only race on the Alliance side than can play the highly popular Druid class. Blood Elf
  • Blood Elves: The most beautiful character race on the Horde side, and the most popular in that faction by a wide margin, Blood Elves are a tragic race. They adventure through autumnal forests beset on all sides by a scourge of evil undead creatures, and have one of the strongest new player stories in the game. Their classes focus on magic-use, as befits the magic-starved nature of their backstory. They are also the only race on the Horde side able to act as a Paladin, a heavy-armor wearing class considered ideal for soloing.
  • Undead: Another race with a tragic background, these ‘goodly’ undead were the most popular Horde race until the beautiful Elves were added. Their story is one of out-and-out tragedy, and they adventure through once-vibrant areas now succumbed to rot, pestilence, and death. Their character classes are essentially identical to the options the Humans have – with the exception of the Paladin class, once denied to the Horde faction.
  • Draenei: Dreanei are a fascinating race, and have a backstory completely unlike any others in World of Warcraft. Crashed on the planet in their ‘magical spaceship’, Draenei will be instantly appealing to anyone with an enjoyment of science fiction. Their early adventures pit the race against nature run amok, startled by their entrance on the scene. They are considered by some to have the best starting experience (quests, stories, area design) in the game. Their classes are a mix of several different highly enjoyable roles, and as a result the race is very popular in the Alliance faction. They are also the only race on the Alliance side able to act as a Shaman, a unique leather armor wearing class with a great degree of flexibility.
  • Tauren: The cow-like Tauren are one of the most visually distinctive races in the game, and have a devout following as a result. Their early careers will see them adventuring in areas reminiscent of the great plains of North America. Their culture and quests have much in common, too, with the Native Americans of those plains. Their classes focus on nature, the wild, and combat. Likewise, they are the only race in the Horde faction able to act as the Druid class.
  • Orcs: The savagery of the Orc is legendary, but the early experience playing as one of these characters proves that they are merely a practical race. Adventures as this race will focus around taming the hardscrabble wilderness, forging a niche for the Orcish people. Classes available to this race focus on combat, conquest, and domination.
  • Dwarves: The noble Dwarven race lives in a land of snow and ice; their story tells a tale of a proud race beset on all sides by invaders and interlopers. The Dwarves and the two other races below are some of the least popular in the game world, and as a result you can expect to stand out in a crowd slightly more by playing one of these races. Dwarves have fairly limited class choices, with a focus on martial prowess.
  • Gnomes: These diminutive tinkers have been thrown from their ancestral home by invaders, and as a result start in the same area as the Dwarves do. They have no tale of their own, but the gnomish quests completed during the early dwarf-area levels seek a return to the abandoned Gnomish capital city. Gnomes have some of the most restricted class options in the game, but each class is emblematic for this tiny race – the Gnomish Warlock in particular being a cultural icon.
  • Trolls: The least popular race in the game, Trolls also bear the shame of sharing a starting area. They begin in the Orcish starting zone, but at least have a quest hub entirely peopled by Troll to look forward to soon after beginning. Troll tales center around maintaining their tribal way of life in their harsh environments. Unlike the Gnomes, though, Trolls are one of the most class-flexible races in the game.

There are just a few other facets to keep in mind when choosing a race. Each has a ‘special power’ associated with it. In some cases these are purely utilitarian, like the Undead’s ability to hold their breath for quite a long time. Others are more active, like the Blood Elven mana tap/silencing power. Reading up on the racial powers couldn’t hurt: some are very useful, while others borderline on the irrelevant. Your character race also determines what kind of mount you’ll be riding once you reach level 40. Racial mounts say a lot about the ‘character’ of that race, and some are more prized than others. They all operate the same way, though; it’s simply up as a matter of taste and style what kind of mount you prefer.

On Square Pegs and Round Holes

With your race chosen, you now have a very specific number of classes to choose from. Some, like Gnomes, have only four choices, while races like Humans and Trolls have six. Each and every class is a viable way to play the game; there are no ‘broken’ classes in World of Warcraft. That said, each class caters to a very specific style of play. Choosing your class is vitally important, as it will determine a lot of what your experience in WoW is like. We’ll run down the game’s nine classes, going from the most-to-least solo friendly options in Azeroth.

  • Hunter: A high-damage ranged-combat expert with the added benefit of an animal companion, the Hunter is seen as the ‘most fun’ class in the game. The Hunter pet is, for all intents and purposes, an always-available group member; a loyal companion throughout your leveling experience. There are probably more Hunters in the game than any other class, and it’s a fantastic ‘first class’ for a new player if you don’t expect to always have group access. In a group, the Hunter’s role is to pour on high damage, while occasionally providing a ‘tanking’ role through their pet.
  • Paladin: This armored warrior can not only dish out damage with weapons large and small, but she has the ability to heal and ‘buff’ herself and group members as well. The Paladin class was built by Blizzard from the ground up to promote survivability; as a result she’s another ideal class for the solo player. In group play, Paladins are one of the three flexible ‘hybrid’ classes available. They can be a front-line damage dealer, a combat-managing tank, or a very well-armored healer. Tauren
  • Druid: For pure fun-factor, it’s hard not to enjoy the shapeshifting nature of the Druid. These nature fans adopt their different hybrid roles by literally changing forms: to act as a ‘tank’ they adopt the form of a bear. To do high damage, they become a predatory big cat. They can also act as healers, eventually gaining the ability to transform in to an ambulatory tree! Druids can solo well because of their healing abilities, and are another one of the most popular classes in the game.
  • Shaman: The Shaman class has a unique ability to aid in combat with ‘totems’, stationary objects that provide aid to the caster and his allies. The Shaman is the third hybrid class, with different opportunities for healing, damage dealing , and pure ally enhancement. Their leather armor makes them more well-defended in a fight, and their healing abilities ensure their survivability.
  • Warlock: The demon-trucking Warlock class shares the ‘pet’ nature of the Hunter, but is less survivable soloing because of their cloth armor. Warlocks focus on destructive damage-over-time spells, ‘debuffs’, and using their pet to take pressure off of an adventuring party. A support class, essentially, but one with the potential for high damage and big impact in certain situations. For these reasons the Warlock is also a very popular class for Player vs. Player combat.
  • Rogue: The last four classes here are, ironically, what many think of as the ‘holy four’ class roles. These classes are the bedrock of any adventuring party, with very specific purposes. The Rogue, for example, is all about high melee damage. She has the ability to ‘stealth’, and sneak up on targets unawares. For this reason the Rogue is a popular class in PvP, and tends to support a ‘twitchy’ style of combat that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Rogues are paper cannons, though; low hp, leather armor, and no healing means they aren’t as viable for soloing as some other classes.
  • Mage: Where the rogue focuses on melee-range damage, the Mage does high damage from afar. Mages have the ability to focus on the elements of fire and ice, or specialize in arcane itself – each specialization offers its own rewards. Fire Mages in particular can do some of the highest damage output of any character in World of Warcraft. With cloth armor and no healing, though, a Mage that doesn’t take its foe down quickly is probably going to regret it. They can be very tough to solo.
  • Warrior: It would seem like the heavily armored Warrior would be an ideal soloing class, but without the healing of a Paladin that just isn’t so. Warriors can stand up to a lot of damage, but even specializing in damage output Warriors just don’t stack up to classes like the Mage or Rogue. Instead, Warriors are intended to provide a ‘meat shield’ for other classes in groups, getting and holding the attention of unfriendly monsters. This group-oriented gameplay style is very rewarding, but does mean that leveling up a Warrior can be more challenging than other classes.
  • Priest: At the very bottom of the soloability stack is the benighted Priest. A cloth-wearing magic user with a focus on healing is the ultimate party animal. They’re invaluable for group play, and high end raids just wouldn’t happen without them. The downside to that, of course, is that it’s very challenging to play one solo. With healing and certain protective spells their survivability is actually not in question – Priests just don’t die that often. Instead, they just kill monsters more slowly than other classes, meaning leveling on the whole takes longer. Priests can specialize in doing ‘Shadow’ damage to speed up this process, but their damage output is still nowhere near a Rogue or Mage.

Whichever class you play, make sure to give it a few level s to see if it is right for you. One of the best things about World of Warcraft is the speed at which the first few levels go. It’s not hard at all to reach level 10 in just a few short hours of play time, as which point most classes gain some sort of defining benefit (Druid shapechanging, the Hunter pet).

If the class still isn’t fun for you after that point, it’s not hard to just create another character and try again. Once you’re in your 20s and 30s you’ll find it much less appealing to turn back. Making sure your class fits your playstyle is one of the most important elements of creating a World of Warcraft character, and it’s definitely worth it to take your time.

Character Created

DwarfThough there’s a lot of information to take in here, there are a few simple things to keep in mind. First and foremost, choose the race and class that fits you best. You’re going to be looking at this avatar for many many hours, and you don’t want to make a choice you’ll end up regretting. Do you need to have a very attractive character, like one of the Elven races? Or do you like personality and character, which the Gnomish and Trollish races have in spades? Are you going to be playing with a group a lot, and can focus on the group-oriented gameplay of a Priest or Warrior? Or are you going to be by yourself a lot and might prefer something like the Hunter or Druid?

Really, it’s all about what motivates you to play. World of Warcraft’s accessibility largely comes from the lack of barriers it puts in your path. Soloing is a perfectly viable way to play the game, and even the most die-hard group player will explore Azeroth by themselves at least somewhat. All of the classes are equipped for that single-player experience to some degree, ensuring that how you want to play will always be more important than the characters you have at hand. Choose well, choose wisely, and you’ll grow to have a genuine affection for your little representation in the World of Warcraft.


Panel: Can Advergaming Spur Creativity?

-[GSW and Gamasutra correspondent Mathew Kumar was at the relatively obscure ICE 08 conference in Toronto, but this particular panel was really interesting - because it shows how games can be great for advertising engagement, and because the cheeky chaps at Kerb plugged their slightly outrageous strip poker game - pictured - along the way. Blimey.]

As an engaging ‘new’ form of entertainment, games are being courted by big brands as a platform for advertising, through in-game billboards and branded web games. But can their money allow developers more freedom?

In this panel at the ICE conference in Toronto, a panel including Ian Bogost (Persuasive Games) and Jim McNiven (Kerb) discussed the influence of marketing money, including social and ethical issues, on advergames.

Moderator Austin Hill, Co-Founder & CEO of Akoha, opened the session by stating that the preface was that “the traditional advertising industry is dying,” and initially asked “what does it have to learn from the games industry?”

Ian Bogost opined that the opportunity presented by games was the ability to simulate experiences, and as a result offered a new way of presenting products and services via interactive media.

Creating Compelling Advergame Content

Jim McNiven stated that currently advertisers are trying (and failing) to advertise online with games by “throwing their brand in your face” with pop-ups that shout “look at us, look at our brand.”

“You have to create games that people want to seek out and play,” he said. “Build an experience around a brand. Once players have experienced the brand’s message, they will click through.”

McNiven recounted working with gambling companies as a “perfect example.”

“They don’t care about fuzzy marketing, they want acquisitions,” he explained. “We worked on a project to ‘educate’ people to play poker online by creating a video strip poker title that ‘taught players to read their opponent.’ The woman who was stripping… Well, when you got her down to the point where her bottom came off it became clear she was, well, pretty much still a fella. It was quite outrageous, but the click through rate was incredibly high."

“I was receiving e-mails from the company every day saying ‘thank you Jim, thank you ladyboy!’ I’m pretty sure they weren’t referring only to me in those e-mails,” he quipped, “Gambling is for over 18s, so that kind of advertising makes sense, and 60 million people played that worldwide."

McNiven continued by discussing the way in which a traditional ad agency would try and reach that many viewers.

“Ad agencies have always made their money through the media buy – purchasing as much media space as possible rather than putting the effort into creativity, production. The mentality is still the media buy. If you have a million dollar ad campaign, $900,000 is going to be spent on the media buy.”

Can Marketing Fund Creativity?

Hill asked, “What does the games industry have to gain or lose from advertising getting involved in the industry? Can it fund creativity?”

Bogost wasn’t completely convinced. “From the perspective of the large commercial game industry, the sorts of companies that the in-game adverts want to get (to get in-game billboards in front of adolescent boys) it’s not that big a revenue generator, and it can detract from the experience."

However, “at the lower end there’s a lot of space for inspiration when the idea comes from a product or services. There’s a lot of stagnation in the industry when it comes to design, so anything that comes from real life that can be made playable is something that is very valuable to me,” he said, recounting positive and creative titles such as Yoshinoya - a PS2 title that allowed players to run a Yoshinoya (a popular chain of restaurants in Japan), and the recent Burger King/Xbox 360 collaboration.

“They took the character of ‘The King’ and made three very small scale but very polished Xbox 360 games -- packaged and everything -- for $5 with a BK value meal. For $5 I’ll buy anything that runs on Xbox. Games cost $60-$70, so for $5 who cares? The games were kind of interesting and unusual experiences. You can imagine doing more with this -- not only offering new ideas but new distribution --how many people go to Burger King compared to the ghetto that is the game shop? Moreover the promotion was profitable. That’s one example, but how many more are there out there?”

“There’s the John Deere American Farmer game, the Yoshinoya games. These are big games that you would buy and spend a lot of time on, a really deep experience immersed in a brand. There are theme park simulators like the Sea World game. They’re interesting because they teach you how to manipulate people and make you knowledgeable about how you are manipulated, place a gift shop next to the seal enclosure to sell more merchandise, that sort of thing.”

Bogost continued, “Unfortunately the advertising-based games on the web are very repetitive,” he admitted. “How many games are made from Bejeweled, replacing the jewels with M&Ms or whatever?”

McNiven cut in, “Most of these come from traditional advertising agencies, though.”

“Yes, they’re basing their development on proven metrics about game playing – but it’s not the Bejeweled-ness that would make the brand attractive.”

“We find that creating games based around brands has helped us do more valuable stuff,” said McNiven. “Not only do you get a budget but you have the freedom to try and really create something good. We’ve worked with BBC and other companies like that, and they’ll ask to own the IP and even the engines, whereas advertisers aren’t interested in that. It’s very hard to build unique games around a brand. We’re one of the few companies that actually budget play testing, for example.”

Social And Ethical Issues

However, are there social and ethical issues in creating advertising based games?

McNiven felt that there wasn’t: “People make a rational choice to do something, and if games were able to make people ‘do stuff’ without thought then we’d all in trouble. Thanks to GTA everyone would be going out and stealing cars. If the worst thing that happens as a result of games is that people go out and buy burgers then I think we’re alright.”

Bogost did feel that when it came to creating games built to advertise children there were some issues. “Creating desires in kids is a real problem. We’re not just seeing large portals of online games with advertising, but so many games have become about consuming in commercial worlds, teaching that life is about buying stuff. Branded games reinforce this perverse relationship with consumption.”

“It’s funny, because the original game that is the most about consumption is the most critical of it,” concluded Bogost of the social satire of The Sims, ending this entertaining and wide-ranging panel - which went some way to pinpointing ways that advertising and games might work together in constructive ways.

GameSetLinks: Lamping Up A Storm

- Ah yes, a bit heavier with the GameSetLink-age, and this time, we lead off with some delightfully random ranting about the state of video game news - with some gems of wisdom subtly in there. Subtly.

Also hang out - more discussion on Parking Wars, a new video game music site aggregator, some good discussion of XBLA achievement design, a critique of God Of War PSP, and various other smartness. Here's the stuffses:

Insomnia | Commentary | The videogame news racket
I do like linking to crazy, and Insomnia.ac outputs reliable crazy.

Moogle.net » Blog Archive » Commandments for Achievement Design
Game players "...want a buffet table of content, and we need them to chew what we give them for as long as possible, so to speak, or else the kitchen will run dry."

Nobuooo.com - Digg-style video game music news site
Great name, in a totallygeek way. Uematsu ftw!

z a c k h i w i l l e r » Parking Wars, redux
Haha, totally cute anecdote - is Parking Wars the first _decent_, non-ripped off (ahem Scrabulous) original Facebook game creation?

Where are all the Real People? - Gamezebo.com
Incendiary headline, discussing racial profiles (or lack of diversity) in casual games.

The Ryan Lambie column: the dawn of literary videogames - Den of Geek
'Kafka’s Metamorphosis would make a superb XBLA platform game.'

Video: Space Invaders 2003 - Ken Ishii vs. FLR ::: Pink Tentacle
'The music video for Ken Ishii’s “Space Invaders 2003” is a touching, behind-the-scenes look at a Space Invader family torn apart by war.'

God of War: Chains of Olympus | The New Gamer
'My best educated guess is that people really like those puzzles where you have to turn cranks but then enemies attack and while you're fighting them the crank slowly starts to reset to the neutral position.'

ConnieTalk: PETA Targets Clothing Co Burberry With 'Bloody Burberry' Video Game
More activist gaming, this time anti-fur.

ASCII by Jason Scott: GET LAMP Trailer Out
Wait, did I not run this? The new text adventure doc trailer from Mr. Scott is now out, yay.

April 1, 2008

Opinion: 2D Boy's Carmel On 'Publishing' A Self-Funded Game

- [In this opinion piece, 2D Boy producer Ron Carmel (World of Goo), co-creator of the multiple IGF award-winning PC and Wii title, talks about the ups and downs of managing a relationship with a publisher with an independent game - from sales estimates through guarantees.]

For this essay, I use the word "publisher" in quotes because the meanings and connotations it has for different people vary almost as greatly as those of the word "relationship".

From the little I know, getting a game published could feel like a great success, like selling your baby to slavery, like validation of a vision, a compromise, a realization of a dream, a fist fight, and I could go on, but I won't, because I'm starting to sound melodramatic.

I think of publishing as getting the game from the development environment onto players' screens (and, of course, collecting some money along the way). In the last few months we've been talking to a lot of people at various companies about the best way to do that for World of Goo, and in the process I've developed a bit of a personal world view around it.

What A Publisher Can Help You With

There are many valuable contributions a publisher can make towards the success of a game, but nothing is for free, so we're focusing on getting help in the areas we really need it and trying to do everything else ourselves, even if a publisher could do it a little better. This is our baby, and we want to keep it that way.

The two things a publisher is uniquely qualified to contribute in this case are:

- Getting the game onto retail shelves - we can do digital ourselves, but don't have the money, the connections, or the expertise to get to retail on our own.

- Putting some publicity bucks behind it - again, we have neither expertise nor the money.

The question then becomes how the publisher is compensated for their contribution. How much would they need to contribute? What's the expected return on investment? It's a calculation that publishers can and do make and I think it's essential to consider that and even talk about it directly during negotiations. Their spreadsheet has to balance in order for an agreement to work.

But What's A Good Deal?

So what's the equivalent calculation that we small developers can make? How do we figure out if the deal is right for us? This is a complex question because it's not purely a math problem.

It might be hard to not take it personally when someone offers you much less than you think your game is worth. Maybe you're tight on cash and need as much as possible as quickly as possible. Maybe things didn't turn out the way you'd hoped and you're just trying to get what you can and move on.

But assuming that things are going OK and you aren't working with any major constraints, I think the math can be even simpler for a developer than for a publisher.

When a publisher takes a game to retail they need to estimate how many units the game will sell. They need to decide how many units to manufacture based on this number, so this number must exist at some point.

If you've given them a playable demo that is representative of the final experience, they should be able to give you an idea of what this number is. It doesn't guarantee that the number will be accurate, but for now we don't really care about accuracy, we care about how well the publisher thinks this game will sell.

Considering Sales Estimates

So let's say, for example, that a publisher tells you they expect your game to sell five million copies and offer you a buck for every copy sold (I'm not going to get into royalty rates here). That's a lot of money, but there's no guarantee that the game will sell that many units.

It could be a bad estimate, the timing of the launch might turn out to be all wrong, or it could even be an "optimistic estimate" intended to get you excited about signing the contract.

If you sign with a publisher, it often means you can't sign with any other publisher, so there's an opportunity cost here, a risk. How do we make sure we're not being sold pipe dreams?

One way is with a guarantee. A non-recoupable advance on royalties that the publisher would easily cover if their sales projections are even remotely accurate. If they project five million units at one buck a piece for you, that's five million they expect you to make.

Well, if that's the case then paying you a 2.5 million dollar advance (using some payment schedule) should not be an issue, especially considering the total amount of money flying around this game (five million units times whatever the per-unit wholesale price is).

The math on the publisher's side should still work out just fine. With an advance for a self-funded game, the publisher says "yes, we're confident of our projections, we recognize the value you've created, and the risk you're taking by signing with us".

Conclusion

By the time the game is nearing completion, a self-funded developer has already taken on almost 100% of the development risk and (hopefully) created a lot of value in the process.

For a publisher to share in this value they need to make their own contribution and assume some risk as well. It's up to you, the developer, to ask for that and make it happen.

If you have a good product and you don't need money to finish development, you have leverage. Don't be shy about using it.

COLUMN: 'Jump Button': (Losing) The Fame Game — Red Vs. Blue's Gus Serola

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

In the world I'm imagining, Peter Molyneux is dead. His body is still flip-flopping in his grave, but the front page of the Sydney Herald Sun is of some tennis player who's drunkenly peed on a police car.

The Frag Dolls are pushing up daisies, the entire team wiped out in a freak mini-bus accident, and the UK's Daily Mirror has the headline, 'World's first pregnant man!'

Suda 51 has testicular cancer and the Indian Express is headlining new Bollywood fashions.

This is the future of gaming as we know it.

Karima Adibibe has keeled over, face down in a private hot tub, and the China Daily is excited about a new mobile phone carrier test.

Gabe Newell is beaten to death with a crowbar and the Norway Post is running a story on head lice. The Mexico Daily a story on Gordon Ramsey and Cathy Freeman. The Jerusalem Post a report on future uses of technology and dictatorship. And this is what we're heading towards.

Mario still exists; but they only roll him out for anniversaries. Special occasions. Historical exhibitions, correctly costumed in his trademark overalls and insignia hat. Sans 'It'sa me', of course, because such comments cause racial tension and promote negative stereotypes; and are boring.

This is the future of gaming as we know it. A maybe reality; content culture without mass media celebrities.

Bits in a bubble.

Wind back the clock now. Back to the Machinima Film Festival held in Melbourne, early 2007. To the breakfast conversation with Rooster Teeth Production's Gustavo Sorola, second floor of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

Bircher muesli and scrambled eggs.

-Turn back the clock now, to Gus, to where I'm proposing the idea—mouth full of fluffy albumen and cooked ham, latte growing cold on the side—that for gaming to really break into the mainstream it needs more celebrities.

Gus responding without hesitation, 'I think that's really valid.'

Adding, 'Even before we started [the Halo-inspired machinima series] Red versus Blue, a few of us made and worked on Drunk Gamers, which was an alcohol and video game review site. At that time when we were making the web site, which was back in 2001, I think, we were looking at this web site and we said the same thing. We said that gaming needs celebrities.'

Gus, one of the people who put machinima in the spotlight, who describes himself as a 'pseudo-celebrity', saying, 'When you think of gaming and you think of video game-related celebrities you think of Gabe and Tycho from Penny Arcade. You think of a few select developers, and that's about it.

'At that time we wanted to be the celebrities that everyone associated with video games and then, of course, that web site died and it didn't work out.

'Without that much thought about it...'

Gus, his words trailing off momentarily, alluding to the success that's seen him go from Puerto Rican 'beach bum' to international traveler. 'I wouldn't say it's happened, but I'd say it's started to happen.'

'I think you need a mix of all types of people,' adds Gus. 'You definitely need developers, because they're the ones who fully understand the implications of the game and what's possible. And you need people who can give commentary about the gaming industry, which I think the guys at Penny Arcade do a good job at.'

Gus, a year ago, 'And you need, I guess, professional game players; I guess you have Fatal1ty doing that.

'I think you're really starting to see the first wave of that now. You need a healthy mix to get a full perspective on it. Just like in Hollywood. You have directors who are famous, actors who are famous, you have someone from just about every aspect.'

This is Gus and I, thinking about Pure Pwnage and Leeroy Jenkins. Over a year ago, thinking about celebrities such as Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw and Jack Thompson and Gerstmann-gate, even if they didn't 'exist' back then.

-This is Gus and I. Not thinking big enough.

Not thinking 'second wave', not thinking mass market.

John Romero and Stevie 'Killcreek' Case, only without the fizzle. Artists like Invader, with the metro daily profile of Banksy. Altruists, eccentrics, Billy Mitchell (post King of Kong), Uwe Boll. Only bigger. Alan Bradley, Velvet Strike, Brody Condon, All Your Base Are Belong To Us, but on a level equal to Paris Hilton, to Osama Bin Laden, to Justin Timberlake, to Princess Diana (post death, post conspiracy theories).

Gaming culture, only with 150% more people that other people are interested in.

This is the future of gaming. Bits and bods. Bits and bods and warm blips.

Kissable blips.

Gus again—talking about what he knows—saying, 'All it takes is. Really what it takes is a breakthrough work. That's all it takes for just about any industry. And once you have your own breakthrough [locally] I think you'll see a huge growth and [more] people doing it.'

A breakthrough, like a celebrity, I ask?

'Right. And then it's sort of like a competition. You'll have other people saying, “I could have done that better. I'm going to give it a shot.”

'And that's how it all starts.'

[Drew Taylor works in the games industry in Australia and writes video game culture articles for various magazines. He knows the secret to creating the first real mass-media video game celebrity, but will only tell it to the first person who creates a professional, 13-part YouTube series on how to make video game themed birthday cakes. Complete with downloadable recipes and patterns.]

GameSetLinks: That Mysterious Arcade Machine!

- Ah yes, a return to the inevitable GameSetLinks, and this time around, a slightly over-caffeinated GameSetWatch MC of ceremonies (haw!) brings a whole plethora of links.

Notably, there's a fun Jason Scott piece on elitism in Halo 3, as well as Kohler's WiiWare thoughts - for those who missed it - and why we need more vulgarity in game reviews. The interesting starts here:

Why People Don't Finish Games Anymore from 1UP.com
Cos they're, uhh, too long?

'Funspot rolls out red carpet' - Foster's Daily Democart
Oo, a shoot for what sounds like a Polybius-inspired 'evil '80s arcade machine' horror movie.

On Being Gross « Save the Robot - Chris Dahlen
Referencing Zero Punctuation, and suggesting: 'The game crits business actually needs more dick jokes.' Heartily agreed.

Q&A: Battelle talks blog roll-ups, Google, and Federated Media's future | Tech news blog - CNET News.com
This is a TREMENDOUSLY important interview about the future of media - as applicable to writing about games as anywhere else.

ASCII by Jason Scott: Confessions of a Staff Captain
On Halo 3 rankings: 'What they now have is a system that breeds a level of nastiness far and beyond mere pseudo-jingoistic team puffery.'

Jetpack Brontosaurus Visual Technology on Vimeo
Flashbang going craaazier - via The-Inbetween.

MTV Multiplayer » Game Designer Jason Rubin Makes The Tabloids
Wacky stuff, he's one of the beautiful people.

What's New in Indie [March Edition] by Game Tunnel
GT still gets indie titles that others don't notice, for whatever reason.

Coverage Wrapup: Why WiiWare Needs Work | Game | Life from Wired.com
Extremely useful analysis, if you didn't see.

Top 5 Racist Videogames from 1UP.com
Hiding behind '1UP Staff', I hope you guys aren't?

March 31, 2008

Opinion: How Game Ads Can Be Done Right

- [Brothers In Arms developer Gearbox Software has announced a new partnership with in-game ad/branding firm Double Fusion - but what does this actually mean in terms of integrated content and authenticity for the developer's games? Gearbox co-founder and CEO Randy Pitchford (pictured) explains why he thinks in-game brands can be good from multiple perspectives - including authenticity, notice, and increased budgets - in this opinion piece.]

I'd like to take the time to shed more light on the announcement that Gearbox and Double Fusion are partnering to consider connecting advertising with our games.  Some gamers have voiced their concern, and I want to set the record straight about this announcement.

We respect any contempt for exploitive advertising that negatively effects the integrity or the quality of the game because we, as hardcore gamers, share that same contempt.  If anything, that's a big understatement.  I'll say it again:  We hate exploitive advertising that doesn't offer value to the gamer.

We partnered with Double Fusion because we believe they approach this kind of thing with the right attitude and because we wanted to be in control of these kinds of decisions for some of our games.  It is important for us to ensure that we're able to keep our artistic interests in mind and that our gamer customers' interests are cared for.

As of this post we haven't committed to any particular in-game advertising for any of our upcoming titles (including Hell's Highway, Aliens: Colonial Marines, and Borderlands).  What we've done is to enable Double Fusion to connect us with opportunities.  If this leads to anything, we intend for the results to bring you advantages that can increase the quality of our games, including improved authenticity, increased budgets, or out-of-game promotion that helps attract more gamers.

I'll speak a bit about each of those advantages:

Improved Authenticity: Brothers in Arms Hell's Highway takes place in the historical Operation Market Garden.   In the town of Eindhoven, in the center of the 101st Airborne Division's operational area, there was a factory for a company called Philips.   You've probably heard about Philips – they invented the CD and some other neat technology over the years.  One of our missions happens to take place in that factory.  Philips was eager for us to use their physical logo in the factory as it was then, and we placed an old version of their mark.  Without that agreement, we would've had to leave that authentic detail out. I'd like to share some photos to go along with this example from Hell's Highway - the blog does continue after these, but I felt it was important to illustrate this case:  

The Philips emblem and logo as they appeared in 1944, and the Philips factory from the side (background), 1944.  Note the tower.
 
 
 
The factory as it appears in Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway.  There's the tower from the last image.
  
A shot from inside the factory, also from the game Hell's Highway - there's the Philips logo.


From the rooftop of the factory during WWII
 
 
Faithfully recreated in Hell's Highway (slightly different angle)
 
  
In the past, our publisher's legal department had to ask us to change or remove the logo on the front of the Opel blitz truck that the Germans used in WW2. They asked us to do that because we don't have the rights to use the Opel logo from 1944.  If we did a product placement deal with Opel, we could use the logo and actually better fulfill the authentic promise we're making with our game.

These are just two examples where cooperation with brand owners via advertisers actually helps improve the authenticity of the experience.

Increased Budgets: Not all games are created equal.  The difference between some games that have a great promise but don't quite fulfill it and the really great games is often about budget allowing the commitment to quality that most game makers have.  The folks working on games that don't turn out so well generally care just as much as the developers for those that do; the difference is usually about budget.  The better the budget, the better the game.   If we can find ways that bring value to you and help us increase the budget, everyone wins - we think that it's a good thing to proactively look for opportunities where everyone wins.

Out-of-Game Promotion: Sometimes, cross-promotional activities exist outside of the game and the goal of these activities is to reach people.  Examples include the special "Halo" version of Mountain Dew that was launched just before Halo 3 came out.  The value that this kind of activity brings is that it gets more attention for the game.  For people who care about our games, the idea of bringing more people to the games is very exciting. The community benefits by having more people to play with and share in the experience of playing, and can benefit from more support for the game post-launch.

These are the kinds of things we hope come from Double Fusion helping to connect Gearbox with advertisers.  The smart and successful advertisers' goal is for you to trust and respect them.  If their ads invade or injure our entertainment, we get angry and reject them.  If, however, something feels natural and unintrusive, they get the value they were looking for.

So, please don't judge us by the fact that some folks out there do it wrong and with exploitation as their key driving factor.   This is not our motivation or intent.  Don't judge us based on fears that may not turn out to be true.

Instead, judge us from the result.  If you see in-game ads for some stupid product that has nothing to do with the context in which it occurs and actually detracts from the experience, then you can feel justified in bashing the developer, publisher, or advertiser that made that decision.

However, if we can improve authenticity and make things feel better or more natural because of the right kinds of permissions with folks that have important brands, if we can make better games with higher budgets and if we can help bring more people to the games we love, then I think we're fulfilling our mission of creating entertainment that serves you – the gamers. 
  A challenge for the forums:

-  What kinds of examples can you think of where an in-game, in-show, or in-movie product placement felt really good, natural and actually added value?
-  Conversely, what are examples where it was done wrong and should be avoided?
 
Here’s some examples I thought up to start you off:

-  Toy Story:  The movie was better and more authentic because Mr. Potato Head was one of the toys, not in spite of it.  The Pixar guys rule and do a great job, we respect them a lot!  We respect their decision to use a few real toys in Toy Story – we don’t hate them for it!

-  Cast Away: Tom Hanks’ character worked for FedEx.  That was much more authentic than if he worked for some fictional over-night air delivery service.

-  Super Monkey Ball:  The bananas have the Dole sticker!  I thought that was cool and funny, not cheap or sucky.  It felt natural and was a nice detail that added character.  It did not feel like an advertisement that was exploiting me.

[This opinion piece was originally made available on Gearboxity, the official community site of Gearbox, and is reproduced with permission here. If you'd like to comment directly in the Gearbox forums on this matter, a special thread has been set up for gamer and even developer feedback.]

Seriously, GamesRadar, Are You Proud Of This?

- [Future Publishing puts out Edge, sure, and the official Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft magazines in the States and the UK. But their flagship U.S. website is GamesRadar, and I'd just like to reprint the media alert I just got from them without much further comment.]

Last week's "Week of Hate" on GamesRadar.com gave the videogame destination its best March traffic numbers ever.

GamesRadar.com's first ever "Week of Hate" had new programming every day, exploring just what ticks gamers off on every major platform, plus gamer stereotypes, why Japanese RPG's suck, game innovation flops, etc.

As expected, the contents got everybody taking sides, driving traffic to new heights.

1) Tuesday March 25th was the biggest day ever on GamesRadar (340,000 uniques & 3.2MM page views). That was the day GamesRadar.com posted "100 Reasons Fanboys Hate Playstation."

2) Year over year page view growth for the week was +57% (uniques and visits were up +33%).

3) March 08 page views will exceed March 07 by approximately 30%.

In case you missed any of The Week of Hate, here are a few highlights --

http://www.gamesradar.com/f/100-reasons-fanboys-hate-nintendo/a-20080326101446794055

http://www.gamesradar.com/f/100-reasons-fanboys-hate-playstation/a-20080325115556490021

http://www.gamesradar.com/f/why-japanese-rpgs-suck/a-20080325134138142047."

[Oh yes - the release didn't mention GamesRadar vs. Shirley Phelps-Roper, something they were trailing enthusiastically last week, and which is possibly even more trolltastic than this particular set of links. Someone hand me a shoesaw...]

Opinion: Is Spore 'For Everyone'?

- [Writer and developer Ian Bogost got a chance to try Spore's Creature Editor in-depth, and view members of the public using it, at the ICE Conference in Canada - and he has some intriguing conclusions on Will Wright's game and the question of its universality.]

In the game industry, Will Wright's Spore is surely the most highly anticipated game in recent memory. Everyone knows about it -- we've been seeing previews and demos and hearing news and talk for years now. The same goes for hard-core game consumers. Games magazines and websites have covered Spore extensively, tracking every announcement and rumor obsessively.

I spent a considerable amount of time with the Spore Creature Editor at the ICE 2008 conference last week in Toronto. I'd seen it many times, and touched it a few, before now, but this was the first time I really got to dig in deep. The demo was shown by TransGaming Technologies, the Toronto company that's doing the Mac port of Spore, which will release simultaneously with the PC version.

Impressions of the Creature Editor

The Creature Editor is slick and easy to use. It makes smart decisions when the player drags and moves parts around. The procedural animations are compelling and credible, although they do start to break down if parts are pushed to their extremes, joints placed too closely or limbs stretched to incongruous positions. Gravity doesn't seem to exist for Spore creatures, which means that one need not worry about a creature's ability to balance; they'll do so automatically.

In test mode, the player can choose animation presets like Scared, Laugh, Punch, Ta-Da and so forth. These seem to be taken straight out of Ken Perlin's many procedural animation experiments, although they also resemble expressions in multiplayer games. They are fun to watch and very motivating because they are so credible; it's hard not to want to go back and tweak a critter to see how he cowers differently with new arms, or dances differently with shorter feet. The editor encourages tweaking and experimentation.

For a long while now, both Wright and EA have been talking about Spore as a "franchise." With the announcement of PC, Mac, Nintendo DS, and iPhone versions of the game, it's easy to misconstrue "franchise" as "released on all platforms." But exploring the game more extensively made me realize how much more Maxis and EA hope to get out of Spore.

When you test a creature, it is possible to take photos or capture a performance in video and upload it directly to YouTube, making Spore a general puppetry machinima tool. The use of this feature is incredibly seamless: press the record button, puppet your creature, press record again. A window pops up with the local disk location of a saved AVI movie and an Upload button to send it straight to YouTube. I'd expect the same of photos for other services like Flickr and Facebook.

- There is also a "Spore Store" built into the game, iTunes Store style. In addition to the asynchronously downloaded assets from other players, the store allows players to purchase external merchandise.

Interestingly, the coupling between the editor and the broader simulation is somewhat understated. The player has limited resources to spend on creature parts, and the choices he makes affect the creature's performance -- how it moves, how effectively it attacks, and so forth.

Interestingly, the interface display that provides feedback on the relative merits and weaknesses of the creature's current state is among the smallest on the screen, squished into the top right corner of the display. Whether or not this will change before release is uncertain, but it struck me that the editor privileged construction, creativity, and sharing more than the critter's role in the broader "SimEverything" universe.

Spore for Ordinary Creatures

ICE is a games-friendly conference, featuring panels on virtual worlds, mobile games, games and mass media, and games and marketing. But it is also a more general event, catering to new media professionals across media -- broadcst, web, mobile. In their words, the event focuses on "the business of content on interactive platforms." These are still technically- and media-minded people, but they are less dialed-in to the details and idiosyncracies of the games industry.

EA is banking on widespread popularity of the game, and this event offers a unique opportunity to see how a somewhat more general, yet still media savvy, audience might respond to Spore. Familiarity with the game was mixed. When a panelist polled the audience in the virtual worlds session, asking how many had heard of Spore, less than a quarter of the room raised their hands in affirmation.

As a dedicated videogame player, developer, and critic, one who has been following the development of Spore for five years now, my own experience with the Creature Editor must differ from that of the average person, especially players new to games or who haven't been following the project. I tried very hard to put myself in a position of ignorance, and I also watched some people try it who were totally green, ones who had never before heard of Spore.

The results fascinated me. For example, the editor emphasizes symmetry. When you drag legs or eyes to the body, a wide distance between them doubles the object, but you can get a single leg or eye or horn or whatever by moving the two together into one. This was pretty intuitive, but it's not the sort of thing one would know before making a few mistakes.

The same goes for the various handles and modification tools in the editor. It's possible to grab any vertebra, joint, or part and to use mouse controls to rotate and adjust them. The mouse wheel scales the size of the part. These mappings aren't completely clear, and some people I saw had trouble using them. All that said, the beauty of the editor is that it's so playful. It reveals more of its secrets as the player fools around with the knobs and handles, so "intuition" isn't really a fair measure for judging its approachability.

That said, The Sims only required pointing and clicking objects and menus. Spore demands a more sophisticated use of and comfort with mouse handles and interfaces that, despite their incredible power given their relative simplicity, are usually found only in higher-end software like modeling programs.

- What Is Spore's Market?

I also noted confusion among green Sporeists regarding who the game is for. A lot of passers-by were fooled by Spore's cartoon-monsteriness. They seemed sort of incredulous when the TransGaming rep explained why it was "for everyone."

After Will Wright's first public demo of Spore at GDC 2005, everyone was impressed, but some also wondered: would a game about designed evolution, the Gaia spore, and ruling the universe win the broad appeal that had made The Sims such a success? Reactions like the one just mentioned might suggest that the concern is justified.

It's likely that the forthcoming EA marketing barrage will combat this preconception, but it's impossible to conclude that the preconception does not exist. People of all sorts wanted to play The Sims because they could immediately recognize it as a game about real people's lives and relationships. I'd be curious to know how newcomers would describe their first impressions of Spore.

But the observation that surprised me the most was how people totally unfamiliar with Spore reacted to the very idea of a creature editor. From my perspective, it's a brilliantly engineered, elegantly constructed content authoring tool. But from theirs, it's an unfamiliar interface to an almost deviant act.

I'm used to living in a world drunk on Spore anticipation -- at any other conference, I would have had to battle my way to the screen. But among the newbies, there was a significant amount of uncertainty and performance anxiety. People weren't sure they would be able to build something, even with encouragement and example. One even said, over my shoulder, "I'm not sure I'm creative in that way." I found this reaction fascinating.

Conclusion

One of the premises of Spore is that it allows the player to co-create with the game very easily and with extremely high quality results. I bet the self-doubt would melt away after a few minutes trying it out, but It was interesting to see people resist digging in due to this cognitive dissonance.

I have no doubt that the game will be a success, but I wonder if new players will pick up the box and think, "I'm not sure I'll be able to create anything good," or "I'm not the kind of person who toys with life." And I wonder what marketing strategies and play styles might combat this.

My observations are anecdotal and unscientific, but they point to an important fact: like it or not, Spore will have a profound impact far beyond Maxis and EA. Its success or failure will likely have an impact on how funders, investors, will perceive risk-taking in the games industry, how game developers and publishers will perceive the role of difficult technology R&D in new properties, and how the general public will imagine what experiences and sensations are possible in games.

These are issues in which we are all invested, and reason why concerns like the ones I relate here must be embraced, addressed, and even exaggerated by us all.

[UPDATE: Although Ian Bogost checked with TransGaming representatives regarding the Spore Store and microtransactions, it appears he was given incorrect information on the nature of the store. An official statement given to Gamasutra by EA on the matter reads as follows:

"Sharing or “downloading” player created content is a core feature of Spore, not at all something that is part of the Spore Store or even under consideration for additional charge. The entire game is based on players making creatures, buildings, and vehicles which can be accessed from what we call our Sporepedia – a web based collection of all player created assets.

The Spore Store simply gives players the ability to purchase out-of-game merchandise such as t-shirts and posters or any additional game products we might make down the road such as expansion packs. For example, we are working with a company to provide the option for 3D versions of a player’s creature to be made and the Spore Store is where that purchase would originate.

We have also mentioned that we will be providing the Creature Creator tool as a stand alone product in the month or two before the game launches so that players can begin to design their creatures, but we do not have plans to sell individual parts via micro-transactions."]

Analysis: Why The Novint Falcon Might Be The Most Underrated Game Peripheral

[One of the most intriguing game add-ons of the last few years is the extremely unconventional - but extremely interesting Novint Falcon, a haptics-based PC controller that pulls against and responds to your touch. In this article, originally printed at his Nonpolynomial Labs research site, Kyle Machulis explains, analyzes and deconstructs the add-on, which perhaps deserves better game support (and overall interactive possibilities - not just for games) than it's thus far received.]

After my article on the Novint Falcon box got linked by GameSetWatch and Ars Technica, it seems like it might be time to do a nice, technical throwdown about what's going on, inside and out of the novint falcon, since everyone else seems hung up on games usage (I guess it's a game controller, but that's not the fun part!). I've been working with the Falcon since early August, and am actually getting fairly far with it.

If you didn't understand my box article, read on anyways. I'm gonna try to make this as understandable to everyone as possible, so you'll all learn C and inverse kinematics and algebraic geometry and come romp with me down the happy streets of writing a driver for a badly marketed piece of hardware no one is buying.

Come on, what other relaxing hobbies do you have that involve Jacobian Matrices, hmmmmm?

Please note: I have not used Novint's SDK. I do not plan on using Novint's SDK (That would be cheating). I don't know what their developer support is like (though Tom seems nice enough on the forums. Hi Tom!). What you see here is what I've gained from lots of web searching, talking to people that know what they're doing (I'm not a haptics engineer, in fact, this is my project to learn haptics engineering and programming), and randomly trying things while hoping I don't break the falcon. I'll wikify all of this information in time, but it's honestly much faster for me to brain dump in conversational blog mode than it is into a wiki.

So what the God Damn Hell is the Falcon anyways?!?!

It's everyone's favorite time of class, video time! *wheels in the TV with bad color and hissing, blinking 12:00 VCR*

Seriously. I can't figure out how to explain it. Novint can't figure out how to explain it. So, watch this video, which tries to explain it.

If you don't understand what it is yet, well, I can't help you anymore. But enjoy this randomly technical description that follows anyways. I worked hard on it, and I did it JUST FOR YOU. Yes, you.

A Little Background on Parallel Robots and Haptic Controllers

Before we dig into the guts, let's start with what you can find out before you take the case off the thing. For reference, here's a picture of the Falcon:

A bit of background (this will contain much glossing as I'd like to focus on the falcon, but it's good to have a knowledge of what's out there otherwise). In the world of haptics, there are two major types of controllers. Serial (pen type controllers), and parallel. An overview of a bunch of the different hardware types is available in an article on bracina.com.

The NovInt Falcon is a parallel robot. Parallel robots are called such because they have multiple chains of joints working together to create the final position of the controller (or end effector, if you want to be technical about it). Not to mention, the math uses parallelograms to line up the positions.

If you watch a lot of How It Works (which, if you have cable with the Discovery Channel, you invariably end up doing no matter what. That show is video heroin.), you've seen these before.

They're real popular in pick and place operations. That's exactly what it sounds like. Pick something up, put it somewhere else. Repeat ad inifinitum. Puttin' things in or on other things. They're good at that.

Here's one in action.

So, you're probably like "But it's all pointing down"

Ok, look more familiar now? The NovInt Falcon is a parallel robot turned on its side. It's actually a Delta variant of the parallel manipulator (Here's a nice overview of the Delta Haptic Device, which is quite similar to the Falcon/Omega setup). If you want all sorts of interesting history about where it came from, check out this article on parallemics.org. But for now, we'll just say: France. It came from France.

There's lots of reasons why using parallel robots in haptics is important. However, I don't quite understand the math behind it all yet, so I'll just repeat what all the webpages say. "Good stiffness and accuracy in a small workspace". Having used some serial controllers before, I can see what they mean. Hard definitely feels... hard. I'm sure I'll be talking more about this in later articles on the development of libnifalcon.

To show a bit of what else is out there, here's the ForceDimension and their Omega series of controllers.

Once again, looks familiar, no?

Well, one major difference.

The Falcon is $249US.

The Omega starts at around $20,000US (the more degrees of freedom, the more expensive. The Omega 7 is around $50k.)

Ok, and the Omega comes with a PCI interface and all sorts of APIs and what not and FD is actually an offshoot of the subset of France that we mentioned above that created this whole thing in the first place, but still. That's some significant 0's worth of difference there.

There's rumors that ForceDimension helped out on the Falcon design. There's also rumors that it came from Sandia with Tom. Only Art Bell truly knows.

So why all this about parallel robots? Well, many future posts will be talking about research in this field, so I figured I'd at least introduce the term. There's also lots of reference and searchable material in here if you're interested in going your own direction with this information. Anyways, back to hackyness.

Internal Circuitry

Now that we've got that out of the way, what's inside it?

Click the image below to go to an annotated flickr picture of the insides.

The Inside of the Falcon

Connectors:

  • USB B Connector
  • Power Connector - goes to 30V 1A wall wart of DOOM

Yes, the falcon is quite possibly cranking 30W through the motors when you max the torque on all the axes.

Chips (Links to Datasheets or Product Websites):

I don't have specific parts on the 3 motor blocks in the circuit (they're all exactly the same), but what you've basically got going on there is three really large old style mouse encoders. Each of the 3 large wheels attached to the motors have a disc attached to them, alternating little clear slots with opaque slots. There's a photoresistor that shines light through those slots. Whenever the light goes through (clear), you get a 1. Whenever the light is blocked (opaque), you get a zero. And that's how we know how far the motor has gone.

Whether direction is measured using some sort of quadrature encoding or Back-EMF polarity is something I forgot to check (but will do so at the point where I can figure out how to write my own firmware for this thing).

Communications and Initialization/Bootloading Sequence

Now, for the part I kinda sorta know more about than the other parts.

The Falcon uses the FTDI chip as it's main communications link to the computer. Everything is filtered back and forth through the FTDI chip, converting from USB on the computer side to RS232 on the circuit side. This is because it's orders of magnitude easier to program your microcontrollers to talk RS232 than it is to talk USB.

Novint distributes and uses the stock FTDI driver with their software. The only change they've made is to the VID and PID. They've chosen to use FTDI's free "have a PID" program, which has them listed under FTDI (0x0403) as a vendor, but with their own special product ID (0xcb48, as opposed to the default PID for FTDI chips, 0x6001).

NOTE: I have not actually proven this next paragraph, it's more what I think is going on than anything. You might've noticed in the Internal Circuitry section that there are two microcontrollers on the board: the PIC and the TI. This is where the bootloader sequence comes in. The TI DSP uC is actually reconfigurable on connection to a PC. The PIC acts as a bootloader, maintaining the logic needed to run the FTDI communications to pick up firmware and program the TI with it. This allows a developer (currently just Novint, since I've had no luck analyzing the pins. Stupid tiny LQFP pins and my shaky hand.) to possibly speed up the control loop on the internal processor depending on application specific needs. Damn fine idea, even if it did crank the price of the hardware quite a bit, I'm sure.

When a program wants to connect to the falcon, the following sequence occurs (if you want to follow along, check out nifalcon_libftdi.c). Note that the bauds get funky, because baud rate actually turns into a clock subdivision on the board, so I just converted the rate to the lowest clock subdivision possible that would still make them work. See the How I Mapped The Test Firmware Protocol section for more info.

  • Open connection to FTDI chip
  • The "Are we at least connected" Step:
    • Set to 9600 8N1, No Flow Control, DTR High
    • Write a 3 byte check message, {0x0a, 0x43, 0x0d}
    • Read, expect 5 bytes back
  • The "Send the firmware over" Step:
    • Set 140000 baud, DTR Low
    • Write a single byte (Usually 0x41 "A")
    • Read, expect same byte back
    • Send firmware file in 128 byte chunks
    • Read, expect exact chunk we sent back from the falcon as error check
  • The "Ready To Go" Step:
    • Set baud to 1456213 (Maximum for the chip?)

After we've gotten this far, we're ready to run an I/O loop to the falcon.

The Test Firmware

So far, the only firmware that's usable with code I've written is what I call the "test" firmware. This is the NOVINT.BIN file included with the drivers, that the utilities in "c:Program FilesNovintFalconTestUtilities" in a normal windows nVent (I HATE NVENT but that's an article for another day) install will use.

Rather than repeat the info here, if you're interested in the packet layout of the test firmware, check out my wiki page on it.

Note, however, that there are a few things you might not be aware of. First off, when you set a motor torque, it's only for a very short period of time (Haven't scoped out the exact value). Basically, you're expected to be polling the falcon constantly and setting the torques as needed. The controlling program is closing the control loop to the falcon, as just keeping torques on until next update can cause lots of badness (motor wear, crunched fingers, etc...)

Goals of the libnifalcon Project

So, that's pretty much all I know about this thing right now. I'm working on learning the math behind the haptics and placement algorithms, and while I learn, you'll get to learn along with me, in the form of reading my ridiculously long blog posts!

All of this is going into code form in the libnifalcon project on Sourceforge. As of this writing, v0.2 is sitting in the repository waiting for me to finish a few cleanup things.

Here's a few applications I have planned for libnifalcon:

  • Max/MSP and PureData Patch (already done, just needs to be cleaned, threaded, and released. It's in the repository if you absolutely can't wait)
  • Mouse movement/simulation
  • Basic open source haptics library integration
  • Mapping the TMS320 pins and possibly starting on my own firmware

As you can see, right now I'm more interested in getting a code platform built and teaching myself haptics programming from the ground up than I am in implementing any specific application. However, I do spend a lot of time in Pd playing with the falcon at the moment, and will most likely be posting interesting projects out of that in between code geekouts.

Aside 1: How I Mapped the Test Firmware Protocol

Mapping the test firmware protocol was fairly easy. I used SniffUSB to record the packets going to/from the Falcon in the test programs, then compared the data in those with the protocol mapping for the FTDI available in the libftdi source code. The bootloader code is basically a handwritten replay of this sequence, except translated back into FTDI driver calls instead of pure USB comms, hence some of the weirdness in the explanation (the "send 3 get back 5" seqeuence, the odd baud rates, etc...).

This was, quite literally, all it took. No amazingness or code breaking or whatever. Figuring out the packet setup was just a matter of mapping the numbers from the test GUI to the changing bytes of the packets.

Aside 2: FTD2XX versus libftdi, Operating Systems, and You

libnifalcon comes in two flavors right now.

  • FTD2XX
    • This is the driver that FTDI distributes, and the one that the default Windows Falcon drivers use. It seems fine on windows, outside of the fact that I personally have issues connecting the Falcon through a hub. This may or may not be due to my machine. However, this drivers seem wildly unstable on Mac and Linux. Also, they have no versions available for 64-bit Linux
  • libftdi
    • This is the free, reverse engineered version of FTDI's drivers, that use libusb. They seem to be stable across all platforms, though I only recommend using them for anything non-windows (or non-publically distributed on windows. Don't make people switch drivers if you don't have to.). It's GPL'd, too, so if you want to use libnifalcon under libftdi, you're stuck with the GPL too. Meh.

[Kyle Machulis is an engineer/artist with interests in immersive environment and alternative input research. Going by his favorite mantra, "As free as possible", he works to create immersion in video games and virtual worlds through the absolute cheapest, easiest means possible. Not only does he not have a research budget, but he also enjoys proving the fact that simple user interface additions to a very complex computer-generated world can create new kinds of emergent play and interaction. In his spare time, he keeps a full time job as a developer at Linden Lab.]

March 30, 2008

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer - Material Girl'

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

By now, just about everybody's heard of Miss Bimbo, the browser-based "game for girls" that's ruffling feathers with its anti-feminist gameplay. Girls adopt a glam-o-rama avatar and, spending virtual "bimbo dollars" on chocolate, fashion and some unspecified "medicines," complete various simplistic challenges with the stated goal of becoming "the finest, coolest bimbo that ever existed."

This is, of course, the perfect recipe for auto-cringe: it embraces superficial and arguably destructive ideals, is ostensibly aimed at "'tweens" (itself a cringe-inducingly trendy marketing buzzword), and the website itself is a car accident of cartoonish pink featuring some kind of skank with bunny ears. Aberrant Gamer is arriving fashionably late to this party, actually, with too many outlets to link already providing analysis and experiences with the dreaded Miss Bimbo (just Google it). As for me, the servers were so stressed I couldn't even play to any significant extent. The universal verdict? Disgusting.

Games like Miss Bimbo (created by a man, by the way) just can't win. Women find them disgusting and offensive, and gamers worry about the bad PR. But aren't we being a bit hypocritical?

Ew, Girl Games

Numerous studies seem to show that females like casual games, and that casual portals and certain Wii games are broadening the traditionally majority-male audience. But gaming in general is still majority male, and video games, be it console or online, enjoy a far more favorable reputation among males than females. Most women who are into games -- your columnist included -- have now learned that mentioning their hobby is a great icebreaker among men at parties. Among fellow females and potential galpals, however, being a gamer is a warning sign, a red flag, an oddity to be overcome on the rocky road to female bonding. This large-scale failure of females to enjoy gaming on a level playing field with males continues to perplex both game companies and audiences, who wonder when the girls are ever going to come and play with us.

Maybe when we start welcoming them young? And yet gamers are usually perplexed and annoyed by the pink, pony-populous "games for girls" section at the store, many of us wondering if the target audience even likes being pandered to to such an extent. Take Ubisoft's Imagine series on DS. The company says titles like Imagine Fashion Designer, Imagine Animal Doctor and, of course, Imagine Babyz, are designed to enable girls to explore their favorite hobbies and interests.The audience has largely approached them with an eyeroll and a snicker. Even females generally find pink things insulting. The Imagine franchise, however, is one of Ubisoft's cash cows -- it's sold 3 million of them.

Why do games like these bother us? Is it because they specify an audience that is not us? Do we have a knee-jerk, PC-feminist response to pink things that refuses to accept that some girls like that stuff? The women of today are very interested in telling the young girls of today what they may and may not be interested in -- President, CEO, News Anchor (yes), Housewife, Supermodel, Princess (no). But really, why does every girl need to be Gloria Steinem?

This Barbie Will Self-Destruct

Teenagers and 'tweens are particularly vulnerable. When people are babies, it's almost expected to differentiate the bald, unremarkable little creatures with pink and blue blankets -- if you're the mom of a baby girl and you put her in a blue nursery, for example, you can bet nosy family members are going to be perplexed at your color scheme. And when kids are still single-digit in age, it's perfectly acceptable to throw them gender-themed birthday parties; a little girl will quite normally have a Disney Princess party, while a little boy might have Ninja Turtles party decor on his special day. No one cries gender discrimination then, but when Disney Princess Gal hits puberty just a couple years later, it's suddenly of concern or "dangerous" if she still prefers things that are pink and sweet? Doesn't she have a right to?

Being A Bimbo

The issue with Miss Bimbo, of course, is not just that it's pink and targeted at girls. It's that it seems destructive, espousing weight maintenance, consumerism and the superficial fashion-driven lifestyle. It presents your Miss Bimbo avatar with an "ideal height and weight" which part of gameplay revolves around maintaining, though Fox News.com found that later levels ask you to gain weight so that you can earn Bimbo Dollars at plus-sized modeling, and that while the game says being thin is important, keeping healthy and eating is key to the gameplay. It also features some budgetary resource management, and a marketplace where savvy girls can re-sell old accessories to new players.

It's a lifestyle game, and this lifestyle is mostly negative and rooted in female stereotypes. Had I a daughter, I certainly wouldn't want her taking her cues on how to prioritize her dreams from Miss Bimbo. But it'd also be unfair to prohibit her from playing it -- after all, this lifestyle is glamorized in an American society obsessed with the latest mad exploits of pop stars or the outrageous behavior of socialites. It may not be a value set we'd like to see today's young women emulate. But in addition to doing them an emotional disservice by quashing their curiosity about it, it's completely unrealistic to try and prevent their interest in it.

Girls want to play games where they can make women act like what they see on TV. And, news flash -- the average girl will at some point try out hilariously offensive, sexual and destructive scenes with her Barbie Dolls at some point in her youth. We all do it; sorry. I'd be willing to bet today's young Miss Bimbo players find the game just as hilarious.

Girls receive certain messages on a regular basis from society. Like it or not, today's women and girls are obsessed with their weight, the adequacy of their wardrobe and their social power, in alarming majorities. Given that, Miss Bimbo was almost doomed to emerge as a social practice game for the reality of our world. If we're repulsed by what Miss Bimbo asks girls to do, the game is nothing but the tiniest microcosm of a social epidemic that needs addressing on a much broader scale than shutting down a website could ever accomplish.

The Good Old Blame Game

It's easier to blame the game, of course -- it's challenging to find one article on Miss Bimbo that doesn't correlate it to problems with eating disorders, female self-esteem, gender equality or anything else. Finally, a point of relationship between Miss Bimbo and the everyday gamer. If you're going to be disgusted at Miss Bimbo, you should probably avert your eyes from GTA IV, too.

GTA casts you as a male gangster type, gaming his way up the ladder to wealth, power and gorgeous women by capping bitches and slapping hoes. It's all about hot cars, nice houses and warm guns, and it encourages men to eat junk food and work out to increase their strength. It's a negative male fantasy -- perhaps by many definitions an offensive one -- and it's become the whipping post for an entire legion of detractors who want to blame the game for social problems in young people.

And yet we as gamers will largely never capitulate in our defense of GTA, nor ever surrender our right to play it if we so choose. Because it's a game, a closed emotional experiment for its players. It'll always be attractive to young teens, and so we ask parents to read rating labels and prohibit their kids from playing it, or at the very least instill values adequate enough for the kid to determine that GTA doesn't warrant emulating in reality.

While Miss Bimbo, unlike GTA, is meant for kids, it's non-violent, and contains no pornography or overtly offensive language. It's distasteful and hard to agree with, but we can no more take issue with the game itself than we can blame the interesting social microcosm of Bully for -- well, bullying. Like GTA, Miss Bimbo is somewhat of a satire of these archetypes, and that can rob them of their venom. In fact, it's a safe way for girls to explore ideas about social pressures. What they do from there is a parental responsibility primarily, and an issue for our culture at large.

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

GameSetLinks: Gotta Love The Noitu, Part Deux

- Yay, some good ol' GameSetLinks for you, this time round - and probably the highlight is sister site IndieGames.com posting up a link to the (pictured) Noitu Love 2, for which a demo is now available.

In other fun linkage, we see the Video Gaiden award trails, the art of Braid continues, some ideas for Rock Band hardware upgrades, and a whole cornucopia of other neatness. And here goes:

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Indie Game Pick: Noitu Love 2 (Konjak)
Demo of the super-duper hand-drawn 2D sidescrolling IGF finalist now released!

Kotaku: 'Masahiro Kanagawa: Team Ninja Reacts to Kanagawa Rampage'
Japanese media attention on a game/violence connection.

anothercastle.com » I Attack the Darkness Lead Story » I Attack The Darkness: The God Complex, Part 1: J.C. and the Fun Time Band
'In a special three-part “Fun With Blasphemy” series, I will go one step further and compare different styles of Dungeon Mastering with the facets of the Christian Trinity.' More goth DM rantings plz!

Still Alive « Emily Short’s Interactive Fiction
Short takes on Portal, critique-wise.

Commercial Breaks - A documentary about the Imagine and Ocean Software
Wow, seminal UK game development from 1983/1984 - via Boyer.

David Hellman » Blog Archive » The Art of Braid, Part IV: Developer Mode
Yep, still linking these!

Game-ism: 'Peripheral Sequels'
Suggesting analog fret buttons for Rock Band 2 hardware would be a neat idea. Which it would!

GameSpot News: PressSpotting talks to Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw
Good to see Charlie Brooker namechecked in here - CASH PRIZE to anyone who can dig out the Brooker vs. Edge prank phone call.

Call of Jihadi Interview // PC /// Eurogamer
Games for political reasons, interpreting them, things getting banned, etc.

ScottishGames.biz: videoGaiden Game Awards 2008
The Consolevania folks have good taste, make interesting award categories.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 3/29/08

Can you solve the Mystery of the Video Game Scores? I know I can't. It's kind of a mystery to me why magazines care so much about their review score systems and score this and score that. Though, of course, the public's kind of at fault, too. Who remembers how many stars Roger Ebert gave Movie X?

You probably don't; if you remember anything, it's that he either said it's good or bad, along with maybe a couple zingers here and there. If game writing has produced text as memorable as Ebert's, then that's collectively our problem, isn't it?

And now that I've written enough text to (hopefully) clear this opening image, let's move right on to all the game magazines released within the past fortnight. This update may be a mite on the short side because I'm rapidly preparing for a trip to Japan, where I will be this time next week.

Hopefully I can visit all the secret places I know I can find old game mags for sale. (No, I won't tell you where they are. I can't have you go buying them all up before I get there!)

Edge April 2008

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Cover: Grand Theft Auto IV

Like this month's EGM, the main focus is on a long interview with Sam Houser as he discusses his soon-to-be-born baby. This piece is a bit different -- where EGM's had a lot of pictures and sidebars and other doohickeys, Edge's is virtually a 16-page wall of text. You will get a load of Houser as he goes over the entire GTA series, particularly GTAIII and later, performing a barrage of postmortem discussions years after the fact on all of 'em. There isn't much new on GTAIV if that's all you care about, but still you get Houser's opinion on virtually everything else under the sun in gamedom. Edge is willing to let him talk on for as long as he likes, and the magazine is a better thing for it.

Other highlights: Edge's late-as-'ell GDC coverage ("A large number of game design lectures related to narrative, and most mentioned BioShock or Portal in the first two minutes"), retro bits on SCE's Siren and Spectrum classic (I suppose) Pyjamarama, and a couple of rah-rah pieces on UK developer projects Race Driver: Grid and Lostwinds, a WiiWare title. Also, this issue marks Mister Biffo's last column for real -- yahoo!

Play April 2008

play-0804.jpg   play-0804-2.jpg

Cover: Death Jr. Root of Evil / Okami Wii

Dave Halverson is leaving his editor-in-chief role at Play -- "promoting myself," as he puts it, to Publisher/Creative Director of Fusion Publishing. In his editorial, Halverson states that this'll allow him more time to write features instead of just gush all over platform games in his reviews, as well as work on some of his manga projects (heavens be!). Brady Fiechter is the new EIC, although it seems like it's pretty much been that way the past few issues anyway. I hope he has great luck in his future endeavors, 'cos like him or not, he's done a lot to define US game mags.

However, as if to prove that the more things change the more they stay the same, this issue kicks off with a massive Halverson-written preview of the Wii Death Jr., a title I'm really not sure a lot of gamers care about. Okami is the chief review, and it's filled with lovely art, which is the important thing with a game like this.

PC Gamer May 2008 (Podcast)

pcgamer-0805.jpg

Cover: Action-shooter preview blowout

I'm not sure what brought this about, but EIC Kristen Salvatore takes her editorial this month to re-explain PC Gamer's review and advertising -- we review only finished game code, edit and advertising are wholly separate departments, and so forth. If PCG's integrity was brought into question, I musta missed it.

Otherwise, pretty typical issue -- a nicely-put-together preview roundup on shooting things (all 13 pages of it), then a small handful of previews, reviews, and tech stuff. Cellplay is back, but thankfully only four pages of it.

GamePro May 2008

gp-0805.jpg

Cover: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Huge bits on GTA4 multiplayer and The Force Unleashed, the latter of which is quite nice and extensively introduces the nuts and bolts of the game the way old Nintendo Power liked doing. It's a nice change of pace. A spread containing a world map with the locations of developers contains a few odd typos -- Dhruva Interactive is listed as being in "Bangaluru, India," which is what Bangalore is called in the local language.

Hardcore Gamer Spring 2008

hcg31.jpg

Cover: Super Smash Bros. Brawl

This magazine is the most crappity of crappy crap I ever did see. 68 pages for $6.99 is bad enough, but when you open it and realize that it's a bunch of reviews of ancient stuff, you start to feel doubly ripped off. A feature on how much money you can feasibly make as a professional gamer is kinda neat, but the cover review of Brawl is a mess -- far too little text for the eight pages it covers, with the amusing result that literally half the review's real estate is spent bitching about Subspace Emissary mode, despite the game getting a perfect 5 out of 5 score in the end. What the heck?

Future specials

xbox360howto.jpg   pcgamerhowto.jpg

For the spring, Future's prepared two "How To" one-offs, one for PC owners and the other for Xbox 360 maniacs. Both are primarily republished content, although the PC one has a bit more "original" stuff (original assuming you've never read PC Gamer UK before).

Neither are probably worth buying if you already read OXM and PC Gamer, but if not, they're pretty interesting reads to strum through. Although the copy editor must've been asleep when these mags were created -- one how-to in the PC mag references a sidebar that doesn't exist, while another kicks off with the sentence "Start by designing the terrain that'll be accommodate [sic] your new town."

And the rest

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Veteran readers will know by now how little enthusiasm I have for Tips & Tricks Video Game Codebook and Beckett Massive Online Gamer. And yet I renewed my subscription to both just the other day. What is wrong with me? I should probably see a shrink about this.

T&T has feature previews on Link's Crossbow Training and Assassin's Creed, the latter of which is old and the former of which is pretty superfluous. After that, it's all codes. Beckett MOG has, surprise surprise, a bunch of inscrutable strategy features and inane interviews, although this issue introduces a terrifying, badly-drawn webcomic reprint for good measure. Arrrgh!

[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.]



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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