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April 19, 2008

Interview: Backbone's Sirlin On Remixing Street Fighter II

- [This ran on Gamasutra earlier in the week, and seems terribly GameSetWatch-ish in outlook, being a Brandon Sheffield-conducted chat with David Sirlin - about just how, conceptually, you re-imagine the details of a classic game like Street Fighter II.]

There are many notable questions to be asked on Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, one of Japanese-headquartered publisher Capcom's most high profile developments right now.

The game - which is a hi-def re-imagining of the classic Street Fighter II with both original and remixed gameplay modes - will launch for digital download on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network in the near future.

In this interview, Backbone Entertainment lead designer and competitive SFII player David Sirlin talks with Gamasutra about the design decisions he has implemented in working with Capcom on the game and why - arguing that accessibility is possible without damaging high-level play.

[NOTE: This interview goes quite some way into specifics. If you want to know something about more advanced tactics for the franchise to orient yourself, then Sirlin's tutorial videos from the earlier Capcom Classics Collection 2 are a useful starting point. In addition, he has written a series of articles for Capcom.com about tuning individual characters for the upcoming Remix title.]

You’re doing a lot of tuning with Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, and I know you’ve written articles about it, but still: why simplify it?

David Sirlin: There’s been a lot of reporting that the game was dumbed down or something, but I think people are off base there. The changes that make the moves easier to do, do not really affect high-level tournament play at all. There’s a couple of cases where the move changes really do affect it, and I’ve changed the properties of the moves to compensate, but in most of the cases, it doesn’t really affect the balance.

People maybe think it does, but it’s making no change at the high-level play, and at low-level, it’s giving people a chance to experience more of the game. If you’re stuck at the level of, “I can’t do Cammy’s Hooligan Throw,” then you’re not really playing Cammy and not really playing the game or feeling the strategy.

I want to get you past the beginner phase into the intermediate phase, where you get the strategy and the fun. So that’s the idea -- don’t mess up the high-level play, but get the beginners to the intermediate stage faster.

I remember when I first played Street Fighter II; there was definitely a bar that you had to pass before you could even figure out what was happening in the game. There was some complexity that kept people out: how can you really communicate this to people?

DS: It’s really pretty straightforward actually. With Cammy, say, you give any player Cammy and her new Hooligan Throw command, where she flies through the air and throws you, is a quarter-triple towards, and then punch, like a fireball, they do it all the time.

It’s just immediately obvious that they’re able to do all her moves when they couldn’t before. Even I couldn’t before. I didn’t really play Cammy before HD Remix, so that’s one of the reasons I probably steered clear of her, even the experts can’t do the original motion every time.

It doesn’t seem to me that lowering the barrier of the move complexity is changing the strategy too much, because really, you’re just using the right move at the right time; it’s all about timing and strategy rather than complexity of input, right?

DS: That’s right. There’s still a lot of nuances of timing. One developer I worked with during the project, at one point said, that Cammy’s Dragon Punch move -- call it a thrust kick or cannon spike depending on who you ask -- is too good and has too high a priority. That was the claim.

I was playing as Cammy at the time, and he was playing as Fei Long, and later we switched characters so I was playing as Fei Long, and he said that Fei Long’s Flame Kick has too much priority, it’s like his Dragon Punch.

The thing is, the priority on these moves is actually about the same; I don’t have the frame stats off the top of my head, but I have a feeling that both of them are invulnerable for a certain amount of time, and both of them become vulnerable later.

It’s really about, did you do yours a little bit before mine or a little bit after? It’s all about those nuances in timing, and we’ll deliver there just as much as ever.

How do you balance the priority of these moves? Excel spreadsheets?

DS: [Laughs] Well, maybe it’s not as you imagined. Of course I have access to all of the hit box data which is tables and tables of numbers, and all the formulas and equations of how the trajectory is computed, so you could say I have access -- they’re not in spreadsheets -- but I have access to all this data and I must use some kind of analysis and some formula to come up with what to do, but it’s really not to do with that.

My biggest secret is that, even though I have a math degree from MIT, it’s not about math at all. If I was going to make a fighting game from scratch, starting with nothing, there’d be a tiny bit of math to make sure that, if you make them block a move, you can’t block it again to prevent infinite loops, so there’s already a little bit of maths done for me in Super Street Fighter, but when it comes to things like, should this guy’s priority be a little bit better or not?

It’s just this holistic approach. We know the results from all these tournaments from all these years, and it’s just having an intuition of what a tweak is going to do.

So for Fei Long, for example, he’s invulnerable for a certain amount of time, and then he’s vulnerable. Some people suggested he should be invulnerable for a greater amount of time. Now, I don’t need a spreadsheet to tell me that’s a good idea or not. I just know that his Dragon Punch is pretty much effective as it is, and that’s not the reason he loses matches. So, when I look at expert players try to play Fei Long and try to be successful with him, it’s just that they cannot get in, can’t get close enough, and once they do, he has a lot of options and a lot of ways to deal damage.

There needs to be a trade-off, it needs to be kind of hard, but not as hard as it currently is. So I have to look at things and ask, what can I do to let him get in a little more easily? One example is that he has a flying kick where he flies through the air as one of his special moves. It’s really hard to do before, we made it much easier to do.

I made the small version of that -- there’s three versions, small, medium, and large -- I made the small version be able to go through fireballs at the beginning. So that’s one more option he needs to get in. The opponent can counter it by just backing up and sweeping, but he didn’t have any really good options. So it’s a feel, it’s intuition.

Have you talked to any of the original team to see what they think?

DS: I have not. Most of them do not work at Capcom. I did say hello to [Yoshiki] Okamoto. I spoke to him briefly, but he’s really moved on from Street Fighter and didn’t have anything to say.

Have you had the ability to put anything extra in? Such as dashing?

DS: What you have to understand is that it’s technically very hard to make a lot of these changes, so a lot of the changes are bound by what we can reasonably do in a certain amount of time. Changes to sizes of hit box, which affects the priority of moves -- they take me a while to do, but I can definitely do them. Anywhere that’s needed, I can put in the time to get it done, without relying on other programmers or anything.

Things that have to do with the trajectory of how things fly through the air, I can actually affect those too myself. Changing frame-stats, like how quickly a move starts out or how it recovers at the end -- this is actually a strange thing, but if I want to change it, there’s a certain threshold where if I want to change it too much, everything breaks and I need a programmer, but if I want to change it a fair amount, I can do it myself.

But you’re asking about really new moves, and Ryu’s Fake Fireball is an example of a new move -- of course, it uses the graphics of the old move -- but I needed a programmer to implement that because it’s actually pretty complicated assembly code. And we gave Bison a new fake slide, actually, which is similar in that it required a programmer to code that. So, most of the changes I’ve been able to do involve those first things I talked about; starting, recoveries or trajectories.

That gives a lot of the old moves -- they feel like new moves. For example Blanka’s Rainbow Roll, where he hops back and then rolls diagonally forward, it was so slow it was completely worthless, and now it’s very good, so it feels like you have a new move in your repertoire even though it’s using the same graphics.

It sounds to me like a lot of the changes are in order to combat the fact that for some characters there is no way to get close fast.

DS: Fireballs are really powerful in this game -- more so than other Street Fighters -- and I actually think that’s a really good feature, one of the things that’s a characteristic of what makes the Street Fighter II series what it is, so I really don’t want people to think I want to nerf fireballs and have them be worthless. It’s really that they’re too much: they’re a ten out of ten and really they should be an eight out of ten, and they should be dialled-back a little bit.

So, yeah, Fei Long was an example where his short Flying Kick can now go through fireballs. Cammy’s Spinning Backfist? That move could go through fireballs in Super Street Fighter II, but not in Super Turbo. But I gave it back that ability to go through fireballs. But it’s kind of slow, though, it’s not really overpowering, so it’s just an option instead of no options.

Is there any major thing you would have added if you had the time or the resources?

DS: Off the top of my head, it’s hard to answer this, but there were a lot of times where we felt a character needed something to balance them, and if only we could think of a new move. T-Hawk was one of those. But we were able to find solutions with what we had. So, yeah, it would have been nice and maybe easier to add more moves, or to add another character, but that’s technically very hard and was not scheduled for our project.

So nothing like a dash, or counters?

DS: I guess I never really considered that. I guess I thought it would be too radical of a change. If someone said, hey, make some new Street Fighter, then maybe, yeah, I would consider that, but this is supposed to be based on Super Turbo.

How often did you feel, “Oh, I can’t change this because it will break people’s ideas about SFII”?

DS: There were a few of these things -- just trying to remember what they were.

Balrog’s one of the best characters in the game, and my balancing tricks here don’t work too well on him, because a lot of my tricks are: take a move that is not really used or doesn’t do much, and then really improve it so it feels like you have a new move. So Balrog already is really good and all of his moves are really good, so what am I supposed to do?

One solution is to add a new move that is just for fun and doesn’t do a lot, and we spent a lot of time thinking about that and maybe trying to do it. Another solution is to just leave him, because he is what he is. Another solution is to change him around a lot, you could say for the sake of it.

But I mean, I could change the commands of his moves, make his headbutt not go through fireballs, make the turn-punch go through fireballs, and the sum total of these changes give you a really different Balrog experience. It might be more fun, but that’s one case where I was just too afraid to do it. He’s just a really dominant character in that game, everybody knows him and has had to fight against him forever.

If I really changed him around, people would not understand: Why am I doing that? Why am I making these changes? So that’s a case where I think I’ll back off and go to how the game was originally. One more thing is -- a big issue is the length of time you have to do a reversal attack.

So you get knocked down and then the opponent is sticking his move out as you get up, and you want to do a Dragon Punch right when you get up, but you have a really short amount of time to do that Dragon Punch -- I think it’s one frame, I haven't actually looked, but I’m sure it’s 1/60th of a second. So people suggested we increase that time to two or three frames -- double or triple the length of the window. On the one hand I’m in favor of that because it’s sort of artificially difficult.

If you look at Dead Or Alive or any of those other games, if you get knocked down, you have a full second to do your rising kick as you wake up, but in Street Fighter, it’s super-hard. But, if I were to make that change, it has all sorts of ripple effects throughout the entire game -- it would change everything, a lot of it would be bad, and even though I would like the game to be easier in that way, it would have required so many counter changes, the whole thing would maybe not be Street Fighter II anymore. It would be a ton of work and risky, so that’s a point where it’s probably best to just be left alone on this project.

It sounds small, but the reason it has such an effect so large is because if you made it really easy to do those wake-up attacks, it would shift the whole balance of how good is attacking against a guy who’s knocked down. And in Street Fighter II, the answer is, really, really good.

If you can knock a guy down, even if the knock down didn’t give you any damage, you’d still do it because it gives you a positional advantage, and you can play guessing games with a knockdown guy and they’re all in your favor because it’s so hard to reverse. And for better or worse, it’s balanced around that, so if we made this change, it would really improve defense -- but it’s better to have a good offense. The game’s more fun on offense.

Characters look a little thicker -- has that affected the hit boxes of the characters?

DS: The hit boxes are the same; I’m not changing the hit boxes to match the art. If you perceive that the new art looks kind of different, a lot of that is coming from you playing the widescreen mode, and the widescreen mode zooms in, but it doesn’t change the aspect ratio, and it does mess with your head a little bit.

We could actually show you the widescreen mode with the old art, and then you’d see it’s actually not that far off. It’s pretty close. Yes, some characters are more beefy -- Sagat especially, was very skinny in Street Fighter II and is much thicker here. I guess the jury’s still out until we get all of Sagat’s artwork in the game in a final state, but so far it seems okay. It doesn’t really throw me off.

Does it still look like moves are connecting in the right spots where they did in the past?

DS: It does. I think we’re saved here by, if you analyse what the original game was like, it’s much worse than you think. You think it was pretty good, but there’s all kinds of cases where moves are intersecting pretty far before they hit, or even more cases the other way around, where you think they’re not even close to hitting but they hit -- and you get tricked by the hit spark.

We actually had one version of the game that had no hit sparks, and I thought the entire game was broken or something: how come people are hitting from so far away, and nothing looks right? It’s just that those hit sparks solve all your problems for free. There’s a much bigger margin of error than you might realize. I think we’re within the margin.

COLUMN: Quiz Me Qwik - 'Being (Pranked By) Michael Trewartha'

-['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... we go a little off the rails.]

I’ve become mildly fascinated with this little mystery lately. It’s a FAQ detailing the ‘programmers door’; an un-openable feature of the designers ending of Chrono Cross. According to the FAQ, there’s a lot of really weird things that can happen in that ending, if certain conditions are met. But, of course, it’s random whether or not they will be met, and so results may vary.

The overwhelming cynic in me suggests pretty much immediately that this is complete crap. It’s entertaining crap, at least, and seems to have enough basis on what really happens in the game to be believable for some people, but crap all the same.

But then, some people – especially younger gamers – will believe anything. I’m not talking about the EGM Sheng Long prank style stuff so much as simple playground stories. Things like the hidden level on the island above the Top Secret Area in Mario World; hidden characters in Wrath of the Black Manta, and so on. Stories that are products of a time when technology hadn’t quite caught up with the imaginations of nine year olds yet.

There are two examples that stand out for me. When I was younger, I only really had a 286 for games; we did have an Atari 2600, but it was pretty well broken by the end of 1988. Most of the games played on said 286 were “gifts” from a friend of my sister, and didn’t come with any documentation. Therefore, I had little idea of how to actually play them, and so when my friend Michael Trewartha told me in year four that he knew how to get further in two particular titles that had stumped me, I was all ears.

In a way, that’s something infinitely more insidious than April Fool’s jokes in magazines. That’s taking advantage of the trusting innocence of someone who doesn’t even know how to play the game. That’s not making up tales about how you found a secret ending for Double Dragon II which involves the evil clone end boss turning into a two headed dragon – it’s deliberately misleading someone looking for help in a basic sense.

And so, I tracked down Trewartha to ask about this gross displacement of trust, and to fish for an apology that should have occurred 16 odd years ago.

GSW: Michael, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today on record. I’d like to get right to the point and ask if you remember the games Baal and Star Goose.

Michael Trewartha: [Laughs] This is what you wanted me to be on the record about? I don’t, no.

-GSW: Okay, I don’t think this is a laughing matter, but basically, Baal was a pretty badly received side scrolling shooter from Psygnosis. Star Goose was a top down shoot ‘em up that was also badly received at the time, which I believe was around the late ‘80s. Maybe ’88 or ’89.

I’m telling you this because in year four, when we were both in Mr Harris’ class, those were two of the games I played quite a bit of, and I recall telling you at one point that I was stuck in both of them.

MT: I don’t remember that, but okay.

GSW: Well, what I remember is telling you I was having problems with them, and then you telling me that you knew a bit about them because your older brother had them on the computer and had clocked them.

MT: That’s possible, yeah. He played a lot of games, and I don’t really remember many of them. I was more interested in the Master System, and then later we got a Mega Drive. Remember?

GSW: That’s completely off topic for the focus of this interview, I think.

Let’s tackle Baal first. I could get past the first section of the game without being hit at all, but following that it all opened up too much and I had no idea where to go. It was a weird design, because there was only really one way of getting through the first section, but it was a very non-linear game from there on, because it introduced a jet-pack. One day, you told me that I needed to climb as high as I could, then go to the left, because there was a hidden walkway that would lead to some kind of ultra-powerful weapon.

I attempted to do that as soon as I got home from school, only to find that I fell to my death. After trying another 20 or so times, I rang your house. I’d say this was probably around 7:30pm, or so? Your father picked up the phone, and proceeded to yell at me not to take too long, because he was expecting a business call, and this was before mobile phones and such.

-Okay, he might not have yelled, exactly, but I was a pretty sensitive kid, and he was an authority figure of sorts, I guess.

MT: Because he coached the [Australian rules] football team?

GSW: Yeah, though I think I’d quit after year three, because I ended the season with two handballs and a throw. And one of those handballs was a throw anyway, but I think the umpires felt sorry for me at that point and just let me get away with it.

Anyway, do you remember what you told me to try, that time?

MT: No.

GSW: You told me to jump into the jumping demon that was near the start of the second area. Does that even make sense to you?

MT: I still don’t really remember this.

GSW: But does it seem like a logical move, would you say? I mean, does that seem like something designer Wayne Smithson might have programmed into the game?

MT: I guess not, but I really don’t know what game you’re talking about.

GSW: Baal. We’re talking about Baal still.

MT: I never played Baal.

GSW: I know – that’s what I’m getting at. You told me to jump into the demon, and I believed you, because you said your brother had clocked the game. But when I tried it, did it work?

MT: No?

GSW: No. It didn’t. And I was so scared about calling you back, because I thought your dad was already angry with me for calling once, and it was 8:15 by this time – almost bed time. I hated the phone enough already.

But I did call, you know? And your dad was really short with me that time, and he gave the phone to you, but he yelled at you as well – and then you had to admit to me that you’d never played the game or even heard of it.

MT: [Pause] Okay.

GSW: You don’t think that’s bad?

MT: Yeah, I guess. I mean, it wasn’t very nice, but we were just kids and that’s the kind of thing kids do.

-GSW: Easy to laugh off, right?

MT: Sure.

GSW: Yeah. Until it happens again. [Silence] You don’t remember it happening again?

MT: I really don’t.

GSW: Let me refresh you. It was later in the year – I believe it might have been August or so, and we were both in the soccer team just after playing against Happy Valley. James Lutterus’ mum was taking us both home that day, and in the back of the car when I was talking about Star Goose, you told me you knew how to get through the game.

Now, I mean – keep in mind I had absolutely no idea how to play this thing. I kept trying to get to the second level, but with absolutely no luck, because I didn’t have a manual. I just ended up repeating the first stage over and over again because when you came to the end of it, it would spit you back out at the start unless you completed a certain goal. And I had no idea what the goal was.

I didn’t even find out until years later that you didn’t play as a goose; that was just the name of your ship.

MT: I don’t remember this game either. We did play Sonic 2 a lot though, remember?

GSW: Yeah, I do, and your mum yelled at me for being too loud when we were sitting in the lounge room playing it, but that’s totally irrelevant to this issue at hand, okay? We can maybe go over that later or something.

The point is, you told me that if I flew through the stage 50 times then I’d fight the boss, which was a giant space dragon. When we had to write in our journals the next Monday about what we did over the weekend, I wrote all about that. Mr Harris had no idea what I was going on about, I’m sure, but he double ticked it because he could tell that I was pretty bloody excited about being about to finish the level after trying for months. Years, maybe.

-I think by now you should be able to guess what happened?

MT: I would guess that it didn’t work?

GSW: No. I sat there for hours trying it. Literally five hours to do it 50 times. It took me a week to actually get it right, and to do it without dying, and then nothing happened. [Silence]

I just think...[Pause]

Just that maybe it’s something that you should be aware of. I mean, I just think that I was maybe taken advantage of, and that I placed a lot of trust in what you said, and I don’t think it paid off, and I felt a little let down by that.

MT: Right. Look, I really don’t remember any of this. [Laughs]

GSW: Yeah. [Silence] Okay. Well. Yeah.

GameSetNetwork: This Week In Links

- Ah, so the 'media consumed' count on my Mexican holiday sojourn has swelled to 5 1/2 books (including some fun Dr. Who novels and an excellent Philip Pullman - for which the TV version apparently stars Who-connected Billie Piper, I had no idea), plus most of the fourth season of Futurama (poor old Welshie!)

But the Gamasutra train has rumbled on unimpeded, so here's some of the highlights from this week's features, company-related news and original Q&As on our big sister site - avast ye:

MMO Class Design: Up With Hybrids! An Economic Argument by John Hopson
"Designing fulfilling classes in MMOs is difficult -- creating compelling hybrid classes, particularly so. Here, Microsoft Game Studios' John Hopson proposes a new way of looking at character design: an economic model."

Digital Bruckheimer: Cameron Brown On Mercenaries 2
"The long-awaited Mercenaries 2 is a key title for EA-acquired developer Pandemic - and Gamasutra talks in-depth to creative director Cameron Brown on the game's creation and influences, from Will Wright to Jerry Bruckheimer."

Q&A: Marvelous's Kimura Talks Chulip, King's Story
"Marvelous Interactive's Yoshiro Kimura is the name behind cult Japanese title Chulip - and he talks to Gamasutra about his work on the odd 'kissing'-centric adventure title, and upcoming Wii Pikmin-like RTS title Ousama Monogatari (King's Story)."

Fewer Mechanics, Better Game by John Rose
"Do BioShock's complex mechanics actually weaken the game? In the latest Gamasutra feature, gameplay programmer John Rose examines how limiting mechanics can result in stronger play experiences -- tossing aside fashionable notions in favor of an argument for discipline in design."

Paris GDC Reveals Cousins Keynote; Id, Sony, Baer Lectures
"June's Paris GDC event has revealed a keynote from Battlefield Heroes executive producer Ben Cousins, as well as new lectures from id's Matt Hooper, SCEE's Tamsin Lucas, EA Sports' David McCarthy, and 'father of video games' Ralph Baer."

A Western Initiative: Svensson On Capcom's Digital Future
"Capcom may be best-known for its Japanese-created franchises, from Street Fighter to Devil May Cry, but it's working hard to make Western-focused games and digital download a priority - VP Christian Svensson explains more."

April 18, 2008

Opinion: One Love, One Format?

- [Though the fabled 'one-console future' might be great for consumers, the industry, especially mid-level developers, could suffer serious repercussions - not the least of which are higher stakes, bigger risks, and lost jobs. Brandon Sheffield investigates in this opinion piece, originally printed in Game Developer magazine.]

Lots of folks have been talking about a unified games format recently. I'll leave why I think it's terribly unlikely alone for now, but suffice to say holding consoles, PCs, handhelds, and mobile devices to one standard is going to be one hell of a job.

A recent blog post from David Jaffe said "I've yet to have a good argument from anyone ... as to why a single console is wrong." It's true that most reactions have only discussed why it's not possible.

I don't think it's wrong, I think it's an admirable goal-but I do see some serious repercussions. It'll be great for consumers, but it would be pretty bad for about 50% of the industry (that's a very rough estimate), and would probably cost a lot of people their jobs.

Bigger Necessitates Better

This is an odd position to take, but imagine what would happen if every developer were competing for the same slot-everyone aiming to be king of the hill, without console lines to divide them. Companies like Capcom, Valve, Konami, and Rockstar-they'd all do fine.

But what about the mid-level developers? Indies have little overhead, and require low margins - I'm talking about the Italian companies making racing games, or the Japanese companies making giant robot games. These are companies that are competent, but have yet to make a breakout hit to define themselves. Where will their market go if they don't have platforms to define them?

This sounds crazy, but bear with me. Think about the DS market right now. Unless you're Majesco and got in under the wire with Cooking Mama, or Ubisoft with Petz games, releasing a DS title in today's market is like crying into an ocean - nobody will notice your tears unless they're big enough to make waves!

What a bizarre metaphor that turned out to be. Anyway, Nintendo conquered 2007 with both of its consoles, and of course, what do you see on the best-sellers list for DS and Wii? Nintendo games. Are Activision, EA, and Ubisoft on there? Hardly.

It's not only because third parties aren't making games that are good enough. Too many people are trying for the same things. If three equally good RPGs come out for the DS in a given week, the markets for those titles have all been reduced by a third.

How many companies cited the "Halo 3 effect" when explaining their poor numbers? Gamers can't necessarily afford to buy Halo 3 and two other games in a given month. But right now, some consumers don't have a 360-and they didn't buy Halo 3, they bought something else.

The One-Console Solution?

What if all these games were released on one console? Certainly not everyone wants to play Halo, but 4.8 million people did, in the first few months it was out. Plus, now your game that the publisher told you to make "more like GTA" is now competing against all the other games that publishers told developers to make more like GTA.

Of course, this means that in general, games are going to have to get better in order to stand out. I'm in favor of that! But it also means that the developer that makes the slightly less good GTA clone is going to be in the poorhouse pretty quickly, and a lot of people on that team are probably going to be pretty talented.

Where will there be room for them? In the 200-person teams working to make a homogenized mass-appeal product. That team will now be much less likely to go on and create the games envisioned when they wanted to get into the industry. After they proved themselves with the GTA clone, they might've been given a shot at an original IP.

But this also brings up another problem. One console or format would mean higher stakes, which would mean bigger risk, which could mean more licenses and lack of control for developers. Increase of potential marketshare makes people with money get both excited and nervous - they want to do more, but they want to make it safer.

But maybe this is also a way to circumvent the money? Maybe having one large console space would mean the smallest games can actually get noticed, because they've got the potential attention of the entire gaming populace.

Anarchy In The Gamespace

What if Microsoft didn't gate the games on XBLA, releasing them every Wednesday? Would it be as easy for your game to make a splash? Would anyone be able to find it?

That's what I'm not sure of. Thinking about the casual PC market, it's big money - but how do you get the word out? There are tons of these games, so how does one become successful over another? Right now, it's portals that do that, pimping content where it can. Portals are the consoles of the PC, even if you take it up to the Steam level.

When I boil it all down, it strikes me that a unified console or standard just doesn't work with our existing publishing and funding models. If we want to move to a single format, we've got to change that first.

COLUMN: 'Save the Robot': The One-Game Diet

Checkers.jpg[Save the Robot is a biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]

In the gaming press, everybody's looking for new games: this week's big hit, next quarter's big buzzmaker, the most hyped, the most indie, the longest-awaited sequels and the most likely flops. We're swimming in new product.

But in the real world, many people don't care about what's coming out this week, or the next. They're fine spending their time with just one game.

In my circle of friends, there's a guy who plays Rock Band. He's been playing it since before Christmas, owns all the downloadable content, and uses practice mode to get himself to expert level on drums.

Another guy, who used to be in the habit of trying every new game and then selling it on half.com, has gotten stuck on Call of Duty 4. I lent him Devil May Cry 4 last month; it's still collecting dust under his couch. And I know a woman who never played games until she discovered World of Warcraft. She's still playing it, to the exclusion of anything else.

We all know that some gamers need more variety than others. But what if these friends I’ve mentioned – who are happily living on a one-game diet – have the right idea?

A $60 game purchase can either be the best value for your entertainment dollar, or the worst. On the one hand, we have games that are disposable entertainment - an experience that can be consumed in 8-10 hours and set aside.

While bonus achievements or a token multiplayer mode might extend the short lives of Dark Sector or Condemned 2: Bloodshot, you’re really supposed to treat them like this week’s Hollywood blockbuster: catch it on opening night, forget about it by the next morning. As a critic, I see plenty of these disposable games. Vampire Rain. Viking: Battle for Asgard. Bullet Witch. In the crit biz, we call these "rentals."

But let’s look at the other extreme, where a new game isn’t like a movie, but a sport. You can obsess over Rock Band or Warcraft the same way that a golfer keeps hitting the links. Yes, you’re shelling out for the sequels, the expansions, the online fees and other add-ons, but at heart you could play the same game and stick with it for months – all while finding new partners and competitors to challenge and fuel your rise to dominance. Isn't that the mark of a great game?

And what if the industry focused more on one-game players? Instead of jumping on the next big thing and finding out it’s Heavenly Sword, or worshipping the graphics of an E3 demo only to find out you’ve been drooling over Assassin’s Creed, or wasting even an inch of copy on the latest movie tie-in game – what if the biggest factor in how we judge a game was its durability?

We would also need fewer titles. The next gen consoles have brought us a peculiar super-resistant strain of disposable games that sport multi-million dollar budgets, high-def animated cut-scenes, meticulously-rended environments, and at least cursory community and multiplayer support – and still, none of them is good for more than a weekend. Condemned 2 will be filling the resale bins while the kids at my local library are still playing checkers.

There’ll always be room for a quick new fix, but in my dream scenario, it would be faster, cheaper, and out of control – a $10 indie game that more than compensates the half-a-dozen people who made it, or dare I dream, more $20 titles like Portal, and far fewer of the $60 AAA titles whose rapturous previews in the games press lead to a hangover as soon as people get their hands on it.

Meanwhile, there are signs the market already knows what it’s doing: browse the top-selling games of 2007, and you’ll see that titles with legs, like Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, Madden, and both Guitar Hero II and III top the list, while only one full-priced, high-budget quickie cracked the top 10: Assassin’s Creed, a fun game, but not one you would take to a desert island.

Personally, if I didn’t write reviews every week, I know what I would play: an MMOG (maybe Pirates of the Burning Sea - always wanted to check that out); an online shooter (after a bad day); Rock Band (I’d always secretly wanted to play expert drums, too); and sure, some indie titles, just to stay hip with the kids.

I would pour more time into games that increase my skills and keep up with my need to compete. Games that reward your commitment instead of exhausting your attention. I’d be like a kid learning card games for the first time, instead of a jaded adult learning another set of combo moves. And I know what I wouldn’t do: I would never drop $60 on a cinematic eight-hour experience. I’d rather just watch the movie.

[Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for Pitchforkmedia.com, and blogs at savetherobot.wordpress.com. He is currently trying to beat his kid at Puppy Pals Bingo. Contact him at chris at savetherobot dot com.]

GameSetLinks: Air Ball The Magic Kingdom

- Ah yes, a little more GameSetLink-age, and this one has a plethora of neatness, including the United Nations using gaming to help donate malaria nets, and the closing of Virtual Magic Kingdom causing some furore.

Also in there somewhere - NGJ don and admitted Yahtzee inspiration Charlie Brooker talks about games somewhat nattily, and 1UP wanders down some other bonkers feature hallways.

Let's go all Rockwell:

Water Cooler Games - The UN Shoots an Air Ball
'If you play the game and sign up at the end, [the United Nations] will deliver a [malaria-preventing bed net] to Africa on their behalf.' But apparently the game isn't that... resonant? Nice idea, tho.

KimPallister.com: 'Centennial Middle School Talk'
What kids want to hear about from game industry luminaries. Autographs!

The History Of Interactive Fiction: 'Let's Tell a Story Together'
Interesting, hadn't spotted this! Via Waxy.

The Independent Gaming Source: You Found The Grappling Hook, Pro Edition
Heh, as Cactus said in comments: 'I think Business Week hotlinked his game, so he modified it just to mess with them.'

Kotaku: 'EA Versus Take-Two: How The Takeover Works'
Leigh's new gig at Kotaku starts out trend-crunch-tastic!

Worlds In Motion - Disney Closes Gates To Virtual Magic Kingdom
Lots of anguished complaints from VMK fans here.

Edmonton Journal: 'Indie gaming world comes out for festivals and competitions'
'It's been a few weeks since I've covered a big mainstream game.' Some nice praise for CGDC5 in here too.

Top 5 Felonies That Deserve Their Own Games from 1UP.com
Heh, more high quality Sharkey randomness.

Dork Talk: Charlie Brooker | Technology | The Guardian
Charlie Brooker's favorite games of all time, Part 1 - also see Part 2. Via RPS.

koffdrop.com » You reap what you sow
Some Kotaku komplaining... justified? Not sure.

April 17, 2008

COLUMN: Why We Play - 'In the Name of God'

pray.png [ “Why We Play” is a new weekly column by freelance writer and HardCasual blogger Chris Plante that discusses how video games benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back.]

Every Friday I go to a class to discuss games. I enjoy our conversations, because they give me a different perspective on stories I’ve played dozens of times. Their rants are like Rashomon, Akira Kursowa’s classic film about the dangers of perspective. For us, everyone’s killed Bowser, it’s how we killed Bowser that’s unique.

As we spent more time together, we noticed our differences. By label some of us are the stereotypical gamers, but then there are a handful of jocks, a few bubblegum girls (who beat my ass in just about anything), professional students, artists, and young professionals. How do we get along so well, when we’re so different? Is this the power of a shared hobby?

To figure out this puzzle, we considered only the essential aspects of gaming. The player. The game. The controller.

For me, a controller works like a pair of shoes. When I sport my kicks, I no longer literally feel the ground beneath my feet. I feel rubber and crusty socks (see: mysterious foot condition). But when I step on grass, I still know it is grass. I don’t have to see it, or even smell it. I feel it, somehow, through the shoes. They’re a tacit part of me.

To bring this back to controllers, in Call of Duty 4, I don’t feel the rubber or broken glass or even the gun in my hand, but I recognize the environment and how I interact with it via my controls. They’re my game shoes, and after twenty years of play they’re perfectly worn-in. The controller is an understood extension of myself.

Our tacit relationship with games through our controllers offers many advantages in real life. They teach us motor skills and linguistics, organization and management, and even bring us closer to the divine. That’s right, God is in the game, or, better, in our interaction with the game, but, out of modesty and complete fear you’ll never read “Why We Play” again, I won’t unpack such a lofty claim in my 5th paragraph on GameSetWatch.

Motor-Skills and Language

Recently, I wrote a post on my personal blog, HardCasual, about the potential of Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword’s play mechanics as tools for early childhood education. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“I call it the scribble factor. On the normal setting (definitely not on Hard), the player can wildly scribble across the screen, mostly back and forth between enemies, and fair pretty well. Eventually, they must learn to make distinct and correct pen strokes to progress, but by that point they have a move-set so exciting and large it still allows for plenty of creativity. The complexity’s nice for advanced gamers, while the scribble factor’s great for a young player, creating a sense of wonder as the game translates his simple movements into elaborate, elegant attacks.

Pause: I need to be cautious with my previous statement. The biggest problem with selling Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword to children is that it perceivably portrays violence in a positive, beautiful, and glamorous light. Violence, in reality, is none of these things. If a parent were to take my word literally, and give their child a copy of NG: DS, they would be expected to explain this hypocrisy to their child, preferably sharing play time with them to answer questions or help beat difficult tasks. Or, if the game negatively influences the child, the parent should know when to take it away.

OK, back to my hullabaloo.

The scribble factor allows for a young player to experiment, and learn their own way to play the game at their own pace. If they don’t want to commit to intentional moves immediately, they can slash and swing that little stylus to their hearts content, at least, until the game requires the player to take the first big step in any educational setting, learning a language and how to write it.

Ninja Gaiden: DS uses a unique spell system language where the player selects a spell or special move, and must draw a particular character on the touch screen to perform it. The system’s fun, quick, and forgiving. I love it. In an educational setting, I think it teaches children to quickly create complex and foreign characters—they’re in Japanese (I think, apologies, sometimes I’m vastly uneducated). It also guides the player away from scribbling away at enemies, and greatly rewards precise pen strokes.”

Organization and Management

Games’ ability to teach doesn’t end after childhood.

To many, videogames are the universal training device for organization and management. Windows originally shipped with Solitaire as a tool to teach users how to use their mouse for desktop organization. Schools use SimCity ad Populous to visually communicate basic city and society management methods, while The Sims allows teenagers with a tinge of worry about their unknown future to practice their lives after education by running others’ virtual lives.

Yet, organization and management in games reaches far beyond God-sims. The Madden series is possibly the world’s most popular management game. While it appears you play the role of your favorite players, any great Madden fan or even armchair quarterback knows they act not as player, but as coach. They organize a virtual squad, monitor stats, and choose plays that exploit their available resources for maximum efficiency.

During my sophomore year of college, my dorm room was wedged into a floor of business majors. My roommates and I often joked that these yuppies had two pastimes: “Madden Saturdays” and masturbating to their portfolios. I cannot guarantee either hobby made them wealthy members of the work force, but I can presume a lot of their talent, their ability to improvise organization, came from endless virtual scrimmages.

Controlling virtual systems (Zerg Sims, the Kansas City Chiefs) allows players to experiment with the creation of organizational systems and practice managament strategies without consequence. You can go for the onside kick on the kick-off. You learn to try big ideas, knowing you’ll make mistakes. This is an idea not practiced in the American educational system, but one practical to real life. You can’t learn without failure.

As I mentioned earlier, we’re all different; people game for different reasons. It’s the games themselves that bring us together. I don’t play to learn their languages nor do I like to practice work, though those are wonderful perks. Instead, I play for a spiritual reason, one I never noticed until my class discussed an article on Second Life.

I’ve never played Second Life, nor do I have any real intentions to play it in the future. I like goals; until the Second Life experience more resembles a game, and less of, well, a “second life,” I remain apathetic.

Like much of great journalism, this article gave me a perspective I would otherwise have ignored. It discussed a group of Buddhists that meet weekly in a virtual retreat to meditate. If you’re like me, it's easy to write off this whole thing. Virtual meditation? Didn’t that go out of style with Lawnmower Man?

Consider nurturing the Bonsai tree, another practice of many Buddhist cultures. Every morning the Bonsai keeper stares over her miniature-giant tree, grooming, feeding, and every-so-often, repotting it. She’s like the tree's own special keeper, its god. While a common western perspective of the Bonsai tree is a mode of meditation, I feel the bonsai offers broader reward: perspective.

When you spend hours toiling away at the bonsai crafting it into your perfect image of the perfect tree, considering its day-by-day growth, you will re-examine yourself when you sit under a magnificent Oak. You see that something, or possibly someone shapes the Oak above you, nurturing it from sapling to timber. As you are to the bonsai, something is to the Oak.

Perhaps virtual meditation acts similarly. These Buddhist users craft their avatars into perfect images of their perfect selves. They set them in a large (and virtually infinite) world. Each day they regard the interactions their avatars have with other virtual selves, considering how they will influence the avatar for the best possible outcomes. Then they meditate, building not only a physical and mental bond between them and their avatars' thoughts and actions, but also a spiritual bond.

When the Buddhists logs-out and meditates in real life, he might consider himself like a Bonsai tree. Not only is the force that nurtures the trees present, but it too must share a bond with him, as he does with his avatar. To unpack even further, he might consider if he watches his “second-self,” then “another self” watches him, and a “further self” watches that self. Thus, there must be an infinite number of selves. They are one of many, all bonded together.

Crazy? Maybe, but I think this concept applies beyond Second Life. The next time you play, consider how it makes you look inward. I believe gamers have a strong grasp on how they interact with the world around them, because they have learned, practiced, failed, and relearned life in games without consequence. They also understand that they control many virtual selves, and what is to say they too aren’t under a certain control. Gamers, more than most, understand they may be just one of infinite.

Through this, we have an ability to find the rules of the game or the world, and use them to our advantage. I don’t believe that’s coincidence, not just part of a shared hobby. It comes from the perspective games offer us.

I cannot say I reached many of these conclusions on my own. They came to me from Aram Sinnreich, a games analyst, and his class of games students. We considered ourselves, and how we share our gaming experience. We continue to consider why we care so much about games.

Like with Aram and my friends, I hope to use “Why We Play” as a place of group think. I look forward to offering ideas on what games do for us and how we’re the better for playing them. And I'm eager to see how the GameSetWatch community responds, and helps me and others better understand what make us continue to buy these $60 discs.

[Chris Plante is a freelance writer living the post-collegiate pauper life in New York City. By night, you can find him at HardCasual.net. By day, he produces theatre and television.]

Opinion: The Risky Potential Of WiiWare

- [It's a real delight to have Chris Remo join Gamasutra as Editor-At-Large, and here's one of his first editorials for us - discussing his thoughts on Nintendo's WiiWare digital download service, ahead of its launch.]

Last week, I attended a Nintendo presentation showcasing a small group of upcoming games for the WiiWare downloadable game service. I was impressed by the quality of several of the offerings on hand - moreso than I expected to be - but I was also relieved to see that one of Nintendo's early promises about the format is apparently being borne out.

Getting In Touch With the Indie Side

As it claimed it would, Nintendo does seem to be proactively contacting smaller independent developers, something the company has not traditionally been known to do.

One of its two headline exhibitors last week was Kyle Gabler of the three-man studio 2D Boy, which is developing its IGF Award-winning Erector-set-of-phlegm simulation World of Goo for WiiWare (pictured). According to a Nintendo rep, the company sought out Gabler specifically.

The other showcase studio was Telltale Games with its upcoming series based on the Homestar Runner online Flash movie site. This means WiiWare will have the first stab at real episodic gaming via consoles, despite the significant head start by Xbox Live Arcade and to a lesser extent PlayStation Network.

Both games played well, and neither felt redundant with games currently available on Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. Notably, each is cursor-based and felt suited to the system's interface--I would not prefer an analog stick in either case. Considering how many retail Wii games fail in this regard, it is encouraging to see this level of effort from WiiWare developers.

Same goes for Frontier Developments' LostWinds, a sidescroller which uses the Wii remote pointer to control gusts of wind, and Square Enix's Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King, a cursor-based city building sim that breaks heavily from other Final Fantasy titles, including those in the Crystal Chronicles sub-franchise.

Frontier too was contacted directly by Nintendo--and while the now 160-person studio can hardly be considered a bootstrapping garage developer like 2D Boy, it is an independent company. Studio chairman David Braben, co-creator of the legendary Elite, recently told Gamasutra, "There's quite low risk to produce a game at all. We fully expect the WiiWare service to be a success."

The Open Frontier of Game Development

If Nintendo can keep courting indie developers and their WiiWare exclusives (or semi-exclusives - both Telltale and 2D Boy's efforts are coming to PC as well), it will be able to distinguish itself from Xbox Live Arcade, which relies much more heavily on ports and the repackaging of existing titles.

Nintendo already uses Virtual Console for the reselling of classics. WiiWare can maintain a totally separate library, keeping the focus on what Nintendo last week (perhaps over-ambitiously) called "the most dramatic method of game development ever."

Some developers have strong reactions to the signal-to-noise ratio seen on Xbox Live Arcade, and hope for a better landscape on WiiWare. Said Raigan Burns of N+ developer Metanet, "When we started out...there were 30 games on Live Arcade. If N was one of them, it would stand out. Now there's like a hundred games, and they're all shit."

Metanet's Mare Sheppart bemoaned the increasing predominance of big-name publishers on Live Arcade, calling the service's landscape now "exactly the same" as retail. "There's all these big-budget ones with big publishers making them," he lamented. "The same people who are deciding what retail games get greenlit are deciding what Live Arcade games get greenlit."

Developers are excited about the prospects of WiiWare, even as Wii remains a less pervasively online console than Xbox 360. Telltale told me it contacted Nintendo directly with its pitch, and a number of other promising indie developers have already signed up--Contra 4 developer WayForward's first original game since cult classic Shantae is appearing on WiiWare, Luc Bernard's gorgeous 2D sidescroller Eternity's Child migrated from Xbox Live Arcade, Naughty Dog offshoot Steel Penny Games is on board, and indie middleware provider GarageGames has a license just for WiiWare.

The Quality Problem

Of course, there is a flip side. EGM reported last year a fairly straightforward reason for the conspicuous glut of sub-par Wii titles on retail shelves: a lack of any kind of stringent concept approval.

This does have its benefits when it comes to downloadable games - it opens the door to tiny indie devs who have great ideas but no hope of a retail publishing deal, but it also opens the door to kind of cynical low-cost cash-in attempts that have given us such retail embarrassments as Chicken Shoot.

Nintendo claims there will be some 100 games available for the service at launch - although they will be staggering their release dates a la Virtual Console. Not all of these have been individually announced yet, but many of the ones that have are orders of magnitude less exciting than the standout examples cited above. If Nintendo indeed declines to impose sufficient quality standards on submissions, the service could quickly end up causing WiiWare fatigue among gamers.

We already know Nintendo has no plans to let users try game demoes before buying--if the quality ratio isn't high enough, paying users are more apt to get their fingers burned than if they had some kind of initial screening test. A user review system could help to create a secondhand evaluation, but that too seems unlikely, as Nintendo traditionally has preferred to keep its game promotion a largely one-way street.

Coaxing Out Creativity

One surprising trait of a number of announced WiiWare games is how much they seem to cram into their small size. Surely this is partly due to the system's low resolution, but it also speaks to the potential creative benefits of technical limitations.

"I think the size restriction helped us," said Square Enix programmer Fumiaki Shiraishi to Game Developer Magazine in regards to the upcoming Crystal Chronicles WiiWare game. "I don't think we would've had this game design idea if we didn't have the memory restriction to begin with. You can fit a lot of game in a small size."

Telltale is shooting for about three hours per episode in Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, a figure similar to that of its PC-based Sam & Max series, which consumes a lot more disk space. And Frontier's LostWinds is an attractive 2.5D single-player adventure--it is only a few hours in length, but it feels like a "full game," and includes a robust level-editing tool.

This suggests WiiWare should have a broad library, not simply the pure-abstract-gameplay-and-nothing-else arcade-like titles I had initially expected to see more of.

The size limit also may provide a secondary safeguard against WiiWare getting too many quick ports of games released on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, whose file size limits are much higher. WiiWare is unlikely to be able to compete with XBLA for overall style and volume, so it probably shouldn't try.

Reserved Optimism

Obviously, Nintendo and its development parters are still feeling things out with WiiWare. There are already steps being taken towards microtransactions, with the total amount of fairly inessential Crystal Chronicles downloadable content in Japan almost adding up to the original price of the full game itself, as reported by consumer blog Game|Life. And hopefully once the first wave of games is released, Nintendo takes a look at what works and what doesn't, and starts cracking down on frivolous submissions. Then there's that looming issue of the console's limited internal storage space.

Some estimate the majority of WiiWare games running up absurdly low five-digit budgets. "I am impressed with the egalitarian approach Nintendo has taken toward WiiWare developers," said Steel Penny co-founder Jason Hughes. "It allows the risk burden to shift back onto the creative developers."

WiiWare represents an opportunity for a fresh start. Hopefully, that egalitarian approach doesn't set off an eventual avalanche of mediocrity, but rather allows worthwhile ideas to rise to the surface.

GameSetLinks: The Mysteries Of Xboxing

- Well, Mexico continues to be hot, which is also the state of this vital compilation of GameSetLink-age of course, haw haw.

Among the goodness - a very silly game pitch, Giant Bomb pointing out some funny XBLA chess promotion, and a little look into the surprisingly vibrant world of Phantasy Star Universe - which I am midway into getting tempted towards.

Go go gadget linkage:

Main Page - The PSUPedia
Very impressive complete FAQ for Phantasy Star Universe.

Rising Tides Sink Islands | Gamers With Jobs
'We’re getting good content, but the budgets are still weighed down under the load of paying for fluff reviews, news and previews before we get to the good stuff.'

Giant Bomb » You Must Think First, Before You Move
On the Chessmaster Live XBLA Hiphop Weekend, hah.

Hit Self-Destruct: The Pitch
OMG game pitch insanity awesome alert.

The Cut Scene - Video Game Blog by Variety: Writers, executives, developers discuss whether videogames need writers
Referencing Adam Maxwell's post, again again. But with some good Hollywood types, plus Kellee Santiago, even.

Citizen Game » Lore Sjöberg on Link’s Weapons
Oddly Yahtzee-esque, tho Sjoberg massively predates him.

chewing pixels » Bow Street Runner - Conclusion
A little hagiographic, but the point is well made, and this is emanating from the Alice Taylor/Margaret Robertson Channel 4 nexus, like a number of interesting crossover projects.

Reconciling Serious Games Market Size Different Estimates - Business & Games: The Blog
Serious games is an awfully vague term, anyhow.

The Escapist : Jason Rohrer's Game Design Sketchbook: Idealism
'What happens when your ideals, be they socially-induced or true, stand in the way of one of your goals? Idealism attempts to explore these issues through game mechanics.'

Akihabara Channel » ai sp@ce
Whoa, a Japanese dating game virtual world.

April 16, 2008

World of Warcraft Exposed: The Lore of the Alliance

Group Shot['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 week's column looks at the stories behind five of the game's character races.]

Fantasy settings are darned intimidating, aren't they? As much as I love Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, the originator of the genre is also largely responsible for a lot of its baggage.

While sci-fi's played-out tropes have been rehashed and thinned down somewhat in recent years, we haven't had a truly great genre shake-up for fantasy fans. The result is that even World of Warcraft, as successful and entertaining as it is, bogs down with an endless amount of backstory and genre cliches.

Despite that, the lore of Warcraft is interesting stuff. There are a lot of compelling elements, individual tales that you can follow along through the thousands of years of sketched out storyline.

If you ignore the clap-trap about who specifically did what when or the endless back-and-forth between all-powerful entities, there are interesting characters and situations to focus on. Consider this the first in an ongoing series of articles looking at the backstory of Warcraft, with an eye towards making the material as approachable as possible.

To start with, we'll explore the background behind the heroic races of the Human Alliance.

The Night Elves

nelf.jpgIf you were to write a one sentence synopsis of Warcraft's history, it could go something like: "The Night Elves do stuff." From their earliest days living in huts on the shores of the Well of Eternity through to modern times, the elves have been the central characters on the world's stage.

After the turmoil of gods and demons ends in the early history of the setting, most of the rest of the story sits on the shoulders of the elves. In fact, the elves are the hidden faces behind many of the enemies in Warcraft. The reptilian Naga and the demonic satyrs are both legacies of a long history of the elven fascination with magic. Just after the time of primal forces came to an end, this fascination was arcane forces was all consuming. That addiction would eventually result in a catastrophic confrontation with the demons, and a schism in elvish thinking.

That cataclysm changed the course of the Night Elf culture, re-centering them on nature and druidic magic. That the Night Elves are the only race in the Alliance who can create druid characters is a direct result of this. The events of the Warcraft RTS games further disrupt their place in the world.

A momentous clash between elves, humans, orcs, and demons robs the race of their cherished immortality and the source of their racial magics. A newly-created Night Elf character enters a deep woods gripped in the slow death of autumn. Corruption and rot is eating away at the natural world they've always protected as a result of their failures, and they're well aware of it. Many low-level night elf quests involve healing the corruption, or at least slowing it down.

The Humans

Whereas the Elves have always had a place center stage, the humans weren't even allowed near the stage until very recently. In that short time, the human race has proven itself quite capable of meddling just as well as the elves. They've persistently been on the front lines of wars between the demons and their occasional puppets, the Orcs. Of course, they human race bears some responsibility for the Orcs even being in Azeroth; a human mage named Medivh allied with the demons to bring them through the Dark Portal from the world known as Draenor.

The Orcs, driven by their demon masters, struck several times at the human race in concerted attacks. Though several times the Horde appeared close to victory, the Humans and their allies stemmed the tide again and again. Their most recent conflict was not against the Orcs, but their grim replacements: the Undead. That plagued army was risen by the Demons after they grew tired of their often-failing Orcish pawns. An entire nation fell to the plague in that conflict, and the human race found itself in a desperate fight against unholy forces. Their ultimate success in the conflict was the direct result of their ability to push aside differences with the Orcish Horde; a brief collaboration that explains the state of cold war between the two factions in modern World of Warcraft.

draenei.jpgAs a human character, early quests see them dealing with a civilization beset on all sides. From without the likes of the kobolds and gnolls seek to decimate their lands, while from within gangs of thieves and demon-worshipers hope to benefit from the fractured situation. Human characters start in a lively green forest, but it has very deep shadows.

The Draenei

The blue-skinned Draenei race was just added in last year's Burning Crusade expansion. The Draenei people were the other race of Draenor, the world on which the orcs originated. Hunted almost to extinction by the demon-tainted orcs, and then further assaulted by Blood Elves and the serpentine Naga, the spiritual Draenei were in a bad way. They hadn't even originated on Draenor; they'd been led their by the benignly powerful entities called the Naaru. Even though they'd been taught by the energy beings to worship and use the holy energy known as the Light, the Draenei were no match for Orcish rage.

The Draenei of Azeroth, of World of Warcraft, are almost all that remain of the proud race. They made use of a mystical craft called the Exodar, a legacy of the Naaru, to escape from the ruined world of Dreanor (now called Outlands). Their unfamiliarity with those magics led to a rough landing, a crash that nearly devastated the small island chain on which they found themselves.

Though early draenei quests are interesting, it's not until high level play that characters are exposed to the roots of their true culture. The disrupted Outlands holds the remains of their once-proud legacy, and there are numerous opportunities to put right what the Orcs, demons, and Blood Elves have set wrong.

The Dwarves

dwarfy.jpgWhile most races look to the future, the Dwarves in World of Warcraft are constantly looking to the past. Archeological digging in recent years has revealed the race's ancient connections to powerful beings known as Titans. The Dwarves, in fact, may have been one of the first races on the planet, around the same time as the Night Elves and Trolls. Though their clannish society has come under attack numerous times by various forces, the Dwarves have weathered the storm quite well. In fact, the biggest tragedy in Dwarven history actually came from within. Three siblings, sons of an important clan leader, forever sundered the Dwarvish race into splinter groups after their father's death.

The Dark Iron Dwarves are an evil group, one that adventurers from around the globe will face in dark corners of the world. The Wildhammer clan is known for its love of nature and their special connection to the gryphons of the Hinterlands; they tame the mighty flying beasts that the Alliance uses for transportation. The Ironforge clan of Dwarves is the group that player characters represent; they guard the ancient homeland of their race and spearhead research into ancient mysteries.

The Gnomes

gnomer.jpgEasily the race touched the least by lore in the game, the Gnomes appear out of nowhere around the time the Orcs were causing trouble for humanity. Emerging from the mountains around Dun Morogh, they made fast friends with the Dwarves, who they provide with technical support and design expertise. In return, the Dwarves aided them in building the technology-focused city of Gnomeregan.

By the time the Human/Orcish alliance was facing down the threat of the demons and undead, the Gnomes were nowhere to be found in the Alliance military. An over-ambitious advisor to the Gnomish council of Tinkers had essentially allowed an invasion of the Gnomish city. The advisor hoped to destroy the invading Troggs, a monsterous subhuman race, and gain a position of authority among his race. Instead, the troggs and the radioactive 'solution' the advisor implemented killed something like half of all the gnomes. The advisor survives in the ruined city, the self-styled king of a ruin Gnomeregan.

There are precious few gnome-specific quests, but nearly all of them involve exploring the reasons behind their home city's invasion. Some even send you into the depths of the radioactive halls, seeking an end to the mad king's reign.

Homework

I hope I've made my point that while it can be intimidating, lore isn't automatically beyond understanding. If you've been intrigued by these synopses, the World of Warcraft website and the amazing community at WoWWiki have a lot more on offer for the lore buff. For audio explorations of some of the biggest threads in WoW lore, the (now cancelled) podcast Taverncast had a regular 'Lore of Warcraft' feature.

Q&A: Square Enix's Murata Talks Crystal Tools, Unreal Engine Initiatives

- [We posted this on Gamasutra yesterday, and it's worth printing over here - Brandon Sheffield quizzes Square Enix on its engine tech and how game engines - especially cross-platform ones - are incredibly important in today's market.]

Originally known as the White Engine, Square-Enix's Crystal Tools initiative has taken shape over the past few years as one of its key efforts to standardize cross-platform technology for its forthcoming titles, being used not only for Final Fantasy XIII, but also its forthcoming MMO.

While the company has also licensed Unreal Engine 3 for some future development, Crystal Tools general manager Taku Murata has previously said that its internal engine was designed to cater strongly to the demands of Square Enix's developers.

To learn more about the history of the effort, why Square has licensed Unreal Engine, and whether Japan is being held back by not licensing locally developed technology, Gamasutra talked with Murata, who elaborated on how the work behind Crystal Tools was an amalgamation of all the experiences gained on working on large scale productions like Final Fantasy.

To begin, can you give me some of your history in games?

TM: Since I joined Square, I've done Secret of Mana, and the second in the series of that -- Seiken Densetsu 3 -- I don't know if it's been released here. Also Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story. I was the lead programmer. I was also the director of PlayOnline, and technical supervisor for Final Fantasy XII.

Why did you decide to change the name of Square Enix’s internal engine from White Engine to Crystal Tools?

TM: Actually, the initial name that we used -- White Engine -- we just used it as like a code name. But in September of 2007, version 1.0 was released. At the time, we were trying to figure out the official name for that, and we wanted to come up with something that would reflect the company. "Crystal" is something that we wanted to use, because it many different colors, so we wanted to use that meaning too. That also sounds like our company too, Crystal.

How challenging was it to build this engine? Did you build it completely from scratch? If not, what resources did you have previously? Or was it just completely designed from the ground up?

TM: Actually, we didn't use any resources. We started from scratch. It's basically all based on our experiences. We kind of picked what we found was effective or useful, so we basically put all these good things in this one engine together.

What were the most important considerations for Square Enix, in terms of developing an engine? How did you make the engine versatile for the type of games that Square Enix wants to make going forward?

TM: Actually, we didn't consider making a base that can work for all titles. Not to cover everything, but to cover the base. Then we have the ability to use plug-ins that can accommodate other tools. Depending on the title, you can always just add something else that doesn't exist in this one.

It's always a challenge to do multiplatform -- how did you address the multiplatform issue for contemporary systems?

TM: Actually, there's SPUs for PS3, and multicore for 360 already [optimized]. What really matters is the size of VRAM. But the VRAM size can be handled by adjusting texture sizing, so that can be taken care of. In that sense, I don't think it's that big of a deal that you have to start with the PS3, technically. The PS3 is a very powerful machine, and it's very expansive. So as long as the converting process can be handled correctly, it shouldn't be a problem.

A lot of companies in Japan have mentioned that they feel that the Japanese game market is falling behind in terms of technology, partially because PC development and advances in that sort of technology have been happening mostly in Western markets, and support is in English. This engine, though, seems quite high-end. It's very unusual within the Japanese industry right now. Do you agree with that?

TM: Until the PS3 was launched, regarding the 360 and PS3, it is true. I agree that maybe Japanese game technology is behind because there were no previous experiences, or a base in that PC market in Japan back then. Since then, things have changed. Now, I think it has come to a point when the PC architecture and technologies have advanced, particularly in terms of the Japanese way of expression, such as, "In this game, we feel very strongly that we are very capable."

I do think that in terms of the language barrier, yes, it still is a challenge. We do face those challenges in terms of communication, but in terms of technology, I don't think we're behind. We probably have conquered that problem...or probably we have gone across that point and advanced.

Why did the company also license Unreal Engine 3?

TM: We used the Unreal Engine for The Last Remnant because we had a particular Western -- European and American -- market in mind. I believe that the game engine reflected the culture and philosophy of the market, and the creator.

Actually, I wouldn't say that we would use Crystal Tools for everything. To create Final Fantasy, yes, Crystal Tools is ideal and it's good. But for other titles, we could use other engines as well. In that sense, it's always an option to use another method. Also, I don't mean that the Crystal Tools can only create Final Fantasy.

Could you elaborate more on how you say this engine is particular to the Japanese mindset? Is that in terms of the pipeline and workflow?

TM: Maybe I shouldn't say it's very Japanese-like. That's probably too vague. I'll say it's very Square-like. All the experiences that we've gained from large-scale production of Final Fantasy is being input into this engine.

Considering that Japan's developers have complained about Western engines being primarily in English, would you ever consider licensing out the Crystal Tools to other developers, like Epic does in America?

TM: We have considered that option, but at this point, considering preparing the documentation and the support costs, even if we don't think it's impossible...at this point, we are not doing that.

In terms of in the future, if you were to license the tech, you'd probably be the first company to license an engine in Japan. Do you think that this kind of thing would be accepted at this point? Because I know in the past it was very difficult to share technology in a public way over there.

TM: Things have changed compared to before. Koei actually licensed the Dynasty Warriors engine for Dynasty Warriors: Gundam. Capcom's MT Framework, I think they're licensing that too. Things have changed, so we're not the first one.

Why do you think this change has come about? It's all quite recent, within the last couple of years, I think.

TM: It's only my personal point of view, but before, they used to just own their own technology without sharing, and that's how they kept their play safe. But recently, they have probably realized the importance of sharing information on technology between developers, particularly for the next-generation consoles. It used to be that the European and American markets have strong PC backgrounds, so they're much stronger in that sense. So probably Japanese developers have realized that as well.

What do you see as the benefits of licensing an engine, versus building your own in-house? There's a lot of debate about that, even in the western market right now.

TM: It's much quicker to buy something, to purchase something that's already existing. That's easy, and it's probably less expensive than to create your own. The benefit behind having an internally designed tool is basically... the Crystal Tools we have developed because we wanted to use all the know-how that we have gained from experience in the past with the Final Fantasy series. We wanted to get all of the good experiences put into these tools. That's the benefit of this tool.

For existing licenses, do you feel it’s worth the trouble when you have to actually learn how to use it and fit it into your pipeline? It may be quicker to get, but it's harder to make it work right for you.

TM: That's why the Crystal Tools are much more familiar for Square Enix people.

GameSetLinks: Geometry Wars: Los Cabos Edition

- So, uhh, there seems to have been some mistake, and I've found myself 'on holiday' in 'Mexico'. I'm not quite sure how this occurred, but rest assured I'll be looking into it over the next few days.

In the meantime, amidst the relaxation, a reasonably steady (if relaxed!) set of GameSetLinks will continue to bombard you, like so many UV rays upon pasty Western European skin, starting with this set - from sealed, graded classic games through Geometry Wars' (pictured!) influence on XBLA, and much more.

Commence low-grade tanning... now:

mbf tod@y: Mario Morandi's GameMusic Tracks
'Mario Morandi is the RadioGame's resident DJ, an Italian website dedicated to retrogaming culture and gaming obsessions.' Good tracks within.

YouTube - Animated Amiga Tribute by Eric Schwartz
An adorable 'Still Alive'-soundtracked tribute to the Amiga - via Waxy.

NCSX Video Games and Toys: 'Kachou Shima Kousaku: Dekiru Otoko no Love & Success' for DS
'Join the ranks of Japanese white-collar workers in what's probably the first ever business-oriented visual novel and educational software.'

Obscured View » Did Geometry Wars hurt LIVE as much as it helped it?
'I think it would be safe to say that GW caused the industry to collectively say “ooh! Retro can be profitable!”'

Only a Game: Top Ten Videogame Emotions
'What are the most popular emotions of play in videogames?' We find out!

Pocket Gamer: 'The Wright Stuff: Why mobile games are failing'
'The problem is that mobile games are simply not appealing enough to get most people to play them.'

Stephen King on videogames | Entertainment Weekly
The horror novelist defends games against legislation, despite, uhh, not really liking them much, it appears.

First VGA Graded Games Hit eBay | gameSniped.com
Interesting, they're trying to grade games like comics.

Siliconera » Let’s look at LOL with Agetec
V.v.odd multiplayer-only comedy DS game: 'To be honest, yes it’s going to be hard to find. We’re not even sure yet if it will be carried by any retailers.'

Gillen Wants Me To Quote Buzzcocks But I Won’t | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
'Here’s the latest trailer for Tension, Ice-Pick’s intriguing next game... The hook is battle via painting, rather than gunplay, using a gesture system apparently similar to Black & White.'

April 15, 2008

COLUMN: 'Jump Button': Pixels That Love Dogs — Video Game Icon Julie Strain

-[Jump Button is a weekly column by Drew Taylor, written specially for GameSetWatch, that focuses on the art and substance of video game culture. This week - Julie Strain talks about her life, the making of Ritual's game Heavy Metal: FAKK 2, why there should be a sequel, and things that matter.]

It's been two years since I phoned her, but the pain that's in her voice when she answers, it stays with me still.

'My puppy died yesterday,' says the voluptuous, six-foot-one PC gaming icon. 'In my arms. My puppy got pneumonia. It came from the pet store really sick, and I nursed it, and I did everything. I took it in the shower twice a day, and I gave it medicine. And it died of a heart attack, and it died in my hands.

'I've been crying for 24 hours,' she says. 'She was so cute. Now... she's gone.'

That girl whisky voice in my ear, full of hurt, it belongs to Julie Strain—B-movie queen, adult dot com identity, and the face, name, voice and sass of the lead character in Ritual Entertainment's third-person shooter, Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K.2.

Forget Tomb Raider. As a game character, this black-haired battle raven's boobs are bigger. Her weapon-based acrobatics, more deadly. Her attire—or lack of it—far more capable of poking out an eye.

-These pixels are a dual-wielding, uzi and flame-sword toting hero of the multi-verse. FAKK to the second level. And in this instance, the real was the inspiration for the fantasy; for the fictitious. Julie for Julie.

'I'm not sure what the character was like before,' says Julie. 'But when I came along, it added the 6'1” height, the athleticism. And, you know, I can give a mean snarl that no-one else can do, so they added that to it.'

The 'they' Julie's referring to, is Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Editor in Chief of Heavy Metal magazine. Writer of the animated movie Heavy Metal 2000 on which the game F.A.K.K.2 is based. Now Julie's husband.

'Just the fact that I fought off a killer in my real life with my bare hands,' says Julie, 'it kind of makes me the character.'

Explaining, 'A man jumped on my bed with a knife to my throat, and I thought, “I can't die, I need to be Penthouse Pet of the Year”. So I fought him tooth and nail, screaming for help until he ran away.'

The line between game character and person blurring now, with, 'She's a real-life superhero. It's a girl you can believe is a bad-ass, kick-ass mutha-fucker. I mean Barbarella was cute in her little boots and stuff, but I don't think she could go a couple of rounds in a ring with me.'

-This is Julie, sitting in the living room of her house, three pet animals looking up at her, reflecting with, 'I think the most enjoyable part of working on [the Heavy METAL: FAKK 2 game] was walking around game stores and seeing the game on the shelves. Acquiring that whole new element of fans. Games fans. And the people that were like, “Oh, Julie Strain, she's a real-life character.”

'You know, the fans are so hungry for anything they can see that is real. Give them something close enough and they're like, “Alright! I'm on it!”'

Adding, 'For sure I would do a sequel. So long as I don't have to travel. I've got a bad back now, but if I could do everything from home, I'd spin around, kick ass, jump up and down three times and stab the bad guy. All from my living room couch.'

The voice has changed now. When it's excited, it's young and fast, filled with the American dream. But slower—like when Julie says, 'bad back now' and 'died in my hands'—it deepens, becomes honeyed. It's the hint of someone who loves you; a voice of pain and world weariness.

This is the frailty of a real-life video game icon. The cancer of age; skin wearing thin over a body that hurts more and smiles less; a mind that rages against the injustice of ozone depletion and traffic lights that take forever to change.

-But, on the flip side is this: pixels made of flesh are able to transcend the screen.

This is the strength of a real-life video game icon. The ability to be human, accessible, fallible, know what gamers go through. Lara Croft remains almost mammary perfect. Kratos is locked in a misogynistic, pec-pumped mythology. But this F.A.K.K.2/Julie mix is both fantasy and mother. Fantasy and friend; acquaintance, sister, mistress.

This is real Julie/character Julie: circle-strafing, with a personal history.

Julie saying, 'I had a horse-riding accident years ago and I hit my head, causing amnesia, so it kind of erased any brainwashing I might have had. People were saying, “You're too old to go and model. Who do you think you are? You're 28 years old with a bad hair-do. And no-one wants to see you in a movie or a magazine.” And then after the accident I'm like, “I have to chase this dream. And never give it up.”'

This is Julie/Julie: powerful combo moves and gem stone upgrades, with added spirituality.

Julie confiding to me with, 'I believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.'

-Adding, 'I grew up as a Christian and went to a Christian school. I mean, I got “swats” every day for cussing and being bad. But as long as you keep it in your basic thought process, you always have that safe place to go to. I thought the other day, “What if there was no God or Jesus?” How empty a feeling would that be just to have this globe floating around in space, with no-one to look up to or save us or help us or pray to. It'd be scary. Almost like being with no parents.'

Adding further, in relation to her nude work, 'Nobody's perfect. And if this is the way that I got my fans and I can lead them to Jesus, then hopefully that's okay with God.'

This is real Julie/pixel Julie: huge flesh-eating plants and hellspawn, with assorted soup-making.

Admitting, 'Away from the cameras, I'm not the person you would think. I'm a big pyjama mama. I wear pyjamas every day and I'm at my house and I don't have make-up on and I cook a lot. All kinds of soup, like squash soup and asparagus soup. I go to the gym. I save spiders and crickets. And you know I just love my dogs. My little Doberman baby goes for a ride with me in the morning and I go and get my coffee and she takes the first sip. We both got coffee and then we go for a walk by the Playboy mansion.'

-And, once more Julie/Julie: end boss battles against Gith, with brutal self-assessment.

Julie, closing out with, 'I think most people might look at the pictures of me [dressed up as the video game character] and think that they'd like to fuck me, but perhaps by the end of this, they'd probably more like to have dinner with me, and sit on the couch with me and watch TV.'

[Drew Taylor works in the games industry in Australia and writes video game culture articles for various magazines. He likes dinner with friends and remembers (as a kid) when Logan's Run was one of the best shows on TV.]

IndieGames.com Interview: You Have To Burn The Rope's Kian Bashiri

[This interview with Kian Bashiri (Mazapán), developer of the comical, abstract and recently acclaimed Flash game You Have To Burn The Rope, was conducted by Tim W. and ran on our sister IndieGames.com Blog. And now you get to check it out!]

Hi Kian, kindly tell us a little about yourself and your newly-gained internet fame.

Well, I'm 21. I'm half-Persian, half-Finnish/Swede, but I was born and raised here in Sweden. I'm currently studying computer game development, and I love playing indie games. Yeah... I don't really know what else is interesting.

Oh, about my newly gained-internet fame... it's crazy. I'm so in the middle of it all, I'm still not sure how big it is. Some people have called You Have To Burn The Rope (YHTBTR) their game of the year, but I'm still not sure whether it's something that will be forgotten next week.

I'm googling "You Have to Burn the Rope" all the time, checking my referrals on my web statistics and wading through the mail.

Can you explain YHTBTR in your own words?

Well, it is a joke. And I don't want to say too much about it, because dissecting a joke always makes it unfunny. Part of it is this really silly idea, and part of it is this statement about how games are too hard and complicated. It's also a subtle reference to how some games are kind of patronizing toward the player, like too easy.

But I never set out to make it this way, it kind of turned into this with time. It started out as an attempt to make a game that spoiled the whole experience for you before you played it. Funnily enough, people really don't read instructions...

A lot of people that I saw playing the game live actually went through the tunnel without reading the instructions or thinking about the name of the game and realized that you have to burn the rope first when they saw it themselves. I think this is what has happened when I read comments like "it wuz so easy.", these people went right through it and didn't realize that the joke was on them.

Tell us more about Henrik, the musician who wrote "Now You're a Hero" (credits song for YHTBTR).

Sure.. he's in my class, so I met him two years ago. We're close friends and I think he makes great music. He just got his new site, www.reachground.se. He started out with hiphop, a loooong time ago (he's REALLY old. Like 30+) but now he's doing video game music, which I think is great. He's really found his spot.

I get a lot of e-mails from people asking for the music from YHTBTR. :( It's all available on Henrik's site! I don't think the game would have gotten so big without it.

Funnily enough the credit song was just something he made in a burst of inspiration. I didn't ask him to. If he hadn't, we probably wouldn't have been so successful.

What inspired you to create YHTBTR?

I can't really remember, it wasn't anything special. I just had this silly idea of a joke and I decided to do it.

I thought I could pull it off in a few hours, all I had to do was modify my platform engine and voilà... well, theoretically, things always take way longer then you think.

Was Valve's Portal an influence to the creation of YHTBTR?

No, Portal was not an inspiration. I've seen a lot of people compare the two games, but I really can't see any resemblance. Henrik's song was indeed inspired by Jonathan Coulton's Still Alive, but that's it.

Did anyone from Valve contact you about YHTBTR?

No, haven't heard anything from the Portal crew. Do you think YHTBTR and Portal bears any resemblance?

The song, like you've mentioned.

Ok, yeah. We actually sent a beta version to Jonathan (Henrik did) and he was kind enough to respond.. about one line or so.

"Nice work! That game is even shorter than portal. ;)
-j"
so.. he didn't get it ;D

Have you played Portal?

Yes, I've played Portal and I think it's great!

Is there only one way to beat the game? Were there any easter eggs or secrets that most players did not know about?

Nope, no real easter eggs.. there's the context-menu (right-click) but I think most people know about that.

You can't kill the boss with the axes, although there is a GREAT video on YouTube who does just that. I'm not sure if he hacked the swf or just edited the movie together, but it looks really good. But it's completely impossible.

Did the release of YHTBTR caused excessive bandwidth usage to your site? It's a surprise that the page is still up, actually.

Yeah, I just got a new host, so I'm hotlinking my .swfs to that site while the domain is being changed. The site was actually down, but only for a few hours before I could get the new one.

No. of hits?

400,000 total view so far.

This is my mochibot stats (the swf's own stats) and they are public. I'll probably link to it on my site too, it's kind of interesting to poke around with.

According to the stats, YHTBTR has been out for two months.

I started the counter two months back, but I've just recently submitted YHTBTR.

We started this project a long time ago.. it took so much longer then I'd think. This is normal when developing stuff... even big companies does it all the time, right? Of course I did a lot of other stuff in between, like working on other games and university courses.

Henrik (my friend who makes the music) and I have done some other stuff together before (like boring, work stuff... web campaigns, ugh) and we have this mantra from gapingvoid (which is a great site about creativty and stuff) "things are made slowly and in pain"... I've found it to be so true. Everything takes a lot of time. Probably longer then you'd first expect..

I mean, I don't think there's any geniuses who just comes up with this great stuff.. I don't think it works that way.. Everything is made slowly and in pain :) Maybe not constant pain, but everything takes work, and I'm sure it wasn't funny all the time.

Tell us about some of your favorite YHTBTR mentions on the internet, and also the best comments or emails you've received for the game.

I've been reading so many comments.. I like reading those from people that really get it, although you can do that on many different levels. My favorite mention was probably the one on gaygamer. They said the main character looked like a testicle.

Oh, and there was this really great one on a Swedish site that assumed that I must be really handsome. And intelligent. And funny. I had to sign up just to let them know it's all true.

I think the game got a lot further because of the song (and the song got a lot further together with the game), so most comments that really talk about the game is great to me.

There's so many mentions, but I couldn't possibly tell you about it all.

What's next for you? sequels? any release dates?

No sequels. :) People have asked for more levels, but they don't get it... right now I'm working on a mobile game for Swedish Game Awards.

Does that mean you're not going to do anything related to YHTBTR in the future? (besides working with the same musician again)

Yeah, we might do some sequels ... "You Have To Burn The Bridge", "You Have To Burn The Ship".. it's really a franchise now ;)

Nah, we want to do other stuff.

Any previous work of yours you'd like others to know about and try out, once they're done with YHTBTR?

No, not really. I don't like my other games for different reasons. Most of them were made to learn. Like Adrenaline Challenge is a terrible Elasto Mania clone, but I learnt a lot about 2D physics.

Games you're playing now?

I just got an Xbox360, so I'm playing a lot of N+ (I used to play a lot of N too. I love reading their blog, what they did for the Flash community with their articles on 2D physics was great!).. also Rez HD.. it's nice.

Oh, and I'm really really looking forward to playing Braid.

How good are you at N+?

My gamertag is "MazapanSe" and I'd love to play against, well anyone. I think Metanet is great. Their blog is great to read. It's exactly what you'd want to read on a development blog. Oh, and I'm doing my best to promote their game (and indie games over all) at my University.

Your favorite indie games?

Favorite games are probably N, Flywrench, Psychosomnium and Muon.

What is it that makes Swedish game developers so awesome?

Sweden is awesome! Konjak, Cactus, Nifflas, Erik Svedäng etc etc... (many more) we MUST be doing something good. :)

Some players have reported that the game skips towards the end the moment it loads. Have you found the solution for this?

The reason for this is (I think, at least that's what I read from a reddit comment) some issues with their Flash player (it only happens on computers with more than one processor). I haven't seen it in any other games, so that's weird. But then, it's really nothing that one could do by programming weird in Flash. It must be related to the Flash player.. So, really, just update your Flash player to the newest version.

What's the craziest YHTBTR-related thing you've seen on the internet?

Craziest thing.. hm, I got to know that the president of a swedish gaming company that I'm about to apply to (for the summer as a Flash programmer) loved my game. Also the spanish wikipedia site. It's hilarious. :D

Oh, any I was approached by Clint Hocking (Ubisoft game designer), that was crazy. Then there's the text version of YHTBTR by Michael Cook. It's great and by far the best tribute. :)

Anything you'd like to say to YHTBTR fans?

Well, thanks for playing the game, I'm really glad people are enjoying it. Henrik isn't here right now, but I'm sure he'd tell people to go watch a video or something. Also, if anyone has trouble playing the game. There's plenty of walkthroughs and a game manual on my site!

COLUMN: 'Play Evolution': The Evolution of the Modern RTS

It's a plane![“Play Evolution” is a column by James Lantz that happens sometimes and discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: evolution in the RTS genre]

After the huge success of Starcraft and the large success of Warcraft 3, Blizzard stepped off the RTS stage and let THQ nudge their way into the spotlight with Dawn of War and Company of Heroes. But, despite their commercial and critical successes, neither franchise could hold a flame to Starcraft’s ability to produce and maintain competitive play at a high level.

Right now, Blizzard is probably asking the same question we’re about to investigate: what made Starcraft a huge competitive success while Dawn of War and Company of Heroes have a comparatively piddling competitive fan base? And are Dawn of War and Company of Heroes really an example of where the RTS genre is headed?

The first, and largely underestimated, strength of Starcraft is its visual clarity. In Starcraft, you can glance at the minimap and understand almost immediately where your forces are concentrated, or look at the screen and quickly understand the flow of the battle. In Company of Heroes, however, the visual clarity gets lost amongst all the majestic effects that make the game so beautiful.

At first, this seems like a trivial difference. However, visual clarity is crucial when making the split second decisions that can steal victory from looming defeat. There are easily half a dozen times in any given Company of Heroes game where you must make a quick decision, usually about retreating, amidst huge clouds of smoke and severed limbs. Looking back on the replay, you’ll often have made the wrong decision when, if the circumstances were clear, the decision would have been much easier.

I have absolutley no idea what's going on here. It's pretty, though.

Starcraft’s second strength is the precise level of control it gives the player. Many casual RTS players see the gradual curtailment of micromanagement as a boon to the genre. However, the more complex AI comes at the cost of precise control at a higher level of play. As Starcraft evolved, competitive players tried to balance micromanagement with overall strategy and unit production, allowing them to hone a skill as well as push strategic innovations.

In Company of Heroes, however, the unit AI is complex and difficult to control manually. When you try to run a unit back, or micromanage it around to flank, you’ll often find it moving slowly because it insists on running from cover to cover. In buildings, even anti-armor units will often choose the wrong windows to fire from and get slaughtered by circling vehicles, which they could easily have killed if the player could simply tell them where to fire their rockets.

It’s also rather popular to praise Company of Heroes and Dawn of War for removing the micromanagement involved in resource gathering. In Starcraft, however, one of the most interesting choices that defines the course of a game is when to expand and when not to expand, a choice that Company of Heroes and Dawn of war simply remove. With the same stroke, Company of Heroes and Dawn of War also remove another layer of micromanagement (worker micromanagement plays a large role in Starcraft) and, consequently, another layer of skill.

Some might say, “Isn’t that just purely physical skill?” Well, yes, but the balance between physical skill and strategic skill is part of any RTS – just as the balance between how quickly you can target someone’s head and tactical knowledge is part of any FPS. If there were no micromanagement in real time strategy games then they’d just be turn based strategy games, and we already have a genre for those.

But Company of Heroes’ largest weakness is its randomness. Starcraft has very little randomness, and so the same ambush in the same place will almost always kill the same amount of units with the same amount of shots. In Company of Heroes, sometimes it takes two rockets to take out a tank, sometimes the first four miss and it gets off unscathed. Sometimes a grenade takes out an entire MG squad, sometimes it doesn’t kill anyone.

To most competitive players, this is unacceptable. If the entire course of the game can be changed by a bad roll of the dice, there is no point in learning the subtleties of the game that competitive players use to get slight edges over each other.

In Starcraft, whether or not your dragoons are positioned in such a way that they get the optimal number of shots off is largely inconsequential in a game between low level players, but it’s crucial at the pro level. However, almost everything in Company of Heroes has a random number generator attached to it. This lends it a sense of realism and tension (you never know what’s going to happen!) but severely limits high level play.

This game is so pretty.

Among random number generators and confusing visual effects, the twin evolutions Company of Heroes and Dawn of War have proved another interesting, subtle point: there is such thing as AI that is too intelligent. The more intelligent AI is, the less control the player has: when your units scatter and take cover at the sight of an artillery blast, they’ll scatter in unpredictable directions, and sometimes in ways you didn’t mean for them to go at all (like into a tank).

Moreover, the less control the player has over individual units, the less player skill factors into a result. When an AI is dumb and predictable, the player knows exactly what will happen in any given situation and can use this knowledge to pull off difficult and impressive stunts.

However, when the AI becomes unpredictable and intelligent, the player loses that level of precise control over the game, making it a frustrating, slippery and often unintuitive mess, ironically the very thing that intelligent AI was supposed to safeguard against.

So where does THQ go from here? Both Company of Heroes and Dawn of War are innovative, intelligent RTSes. Yet, as both games have evolved, it’s become clear that the elements that make them so cinematic – randomness, visual confusion, lack of precise control – are the same elements that make them unsuitable for high-level play. The basic mechanics of reinforcement and capturing strategic points are interesting, but ultimately these RTSes need to turn their focus from cinema to gameplay if they want to become competitively successful.

In the long run, Company of Heroes and Dawn of War don’t support high level play in the same way that Starcraft does, even though they are often hailed as the pioneers in the RTS genre and true examples of a “modern RTS.” Both Company of Heroes and Dawn of War are brilliant cinematic experiences and excellent single player games, but it’s going to take innovation in a completely different direction to compete with Starcraft’s competitive multiplayer juggernaut.

[James Lantz is a starving writer who spends every other day pretending he is Jorge Luis Borges. He also writes a blog, of course.]

April 14, 2008

GameSetLinks: On Bikini Zombie Language Learning

- Well, back to the GameSetLink-age once again, it seems that there's plenty more textual material in the WWW sea - including some more tidbits from the inevitable Surfer Girl, of course.

Also in here - a chat with ThatGameCompany's Jenova Chen, as well as the very odd trailer for the DS version of English Of The Dead, the latest XBLA charts, and a This Is Vegas developer blog explaining the 'attitude', as it were.

Here comes the drums:

Sega Nerds: 'English of the Dead [trailer] featuring zombies in bikinis'
Nuff said, really.

Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars: You hear the thunder of stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers
'Beicouver (or Vanjing, whichever one prefers) developer Next Level Games' next title is a downloadable affair for 360.' Plus more, of course.

Tale of Tales » Interview with Jenova Chen (ThatGameCompany)
Didn't know his English name is indeed a Final Fantasy reference. Wacky.

The Independent Gaming Source: 'Hideki Kubo's Music Games'
The Japanese seem to love synaesthesia - also see Space Invaders Extreme.

IGN Developer Blogs: 'This Is Vegas - Welcome to Vegas'
Awesome Drakan vs. This Is Vegas gag screenshot, and some interesting design comments.

VGChartz.com | Xbox Live Arcade Sales Top 100 - 4/12/08 (Ikaruga ~22.3k)
'N+ continues to creep up toward Rez HD's LTD total.'

Video Games Business & Marketing: Casual Games & Manifestos
'The middlemen are middlemen because they are good at it. I encourage everyone to take on the market to the best of their abilities of course, but I wouldn't under-estimate the task.'

Water Cooler Games - Chris Crawford's Nine Breakthroughs
'Our focus needs to be on social not physical interaction.'

Welcome to Special Round: "You will F(L)aiL"
'Matt Thorson's Flail is the best game ever made on the subject of leaping repeatedly into walls full of spikes, possibly at high speed.'

It Fit When I Was A Kid « Hardcasual
'[Some] indie games tend much more towards a referentiality that relies entirely on fair use and parody.'

Game Developer Magazine Debuts 2007 Salary Survey

- [The April 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine is now in the hands of our subscribers, so we've debuted this release on salary specifics for game creators, as surveyed. Interesting to see this laid out in black and white, I think.]

Editors at Game Developer magazine, the leading video game industry publication, have released the results of its seventh annual Game Developer Salary Survey, calculating an average American game industry salary in 2007 of $73,600, slightly up from 2006’s figure of $73,316.

Highlights of specific findings per category for the survey, which is the only major publicly released analysis of salaries in the worldwide video game industry, and is available in further detail in the newly published April 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine, include:

Programming: programmers are the highest paid talent next to high-end businesspeople, with an average annual salary of $83,383. They are also among the highest educated group; 50% hold bachelor’s degrees and about 26% have some graduate work.

Art & Animation: artists – averaging a $66,594 salary - are also a well trained group, with 66% reporting at least a bachelor’s degree. The percentage of artists with six or more years of experience increased to 40%, up 5% over last year, as industry workers matured.

Game Design: Averaging $63,649, design positions sprouted an average $2,111 over last year, with writers new to the industry up by $6,000 to an average of $51,731. In addition, Game Developer surveyed community managers for the first time, with an average salary of $50,294 for the increasingly important job function.

Production: of all the game development disciplines, production – with an salary average overall of $78,716 - seems to be one of the most welcoming to women, with 18% of the workforce made up of females. The discipline as a whole saw an above-average, though somewhat marginal $1,585 bump from last year.

Quality Assurance: testers with less than three years experience make up the largest percentage of this segment. Quality assurance is the lowest paid of the game development disciplines, averaging $39,063, and also receives the least in additional compensation – although Q/A leads with more than 6 years of experience average a salary of $70,658.

Audio: sound designers as a group earned more than they did in 2006, up $3,474 on average over last year to $73,409. Interestingly, 40% of those in the game audio industry have been working there for 6 years or more – more than the 36% for game design, but less than the 51% for production.

Business & Marketing: the business field as a whole remains the highest compensated group in game development - with an average salary of $101,848 - and also receives the highest amount of additional compensation. However, salaries vary significantly between individual job titles in this section, with experienced executives making the most of any individual section in the entire survey – at $132,305 average for more than 6 years experience.

“Our Salary Survey continues to provide canonical information on the state of game pay,” Simon Carless, publisher of Game Developer magazine, said. “We hope the data presented by Game Developer magazine will serve to both encourage aspiring developers, as well as focus the attention of increasingly important new industry positions such as community managers.”

An extended version of the “Game Developer Salary Survey,” including much more detailed U.S. regional and growth data for year-over-year results from 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007, plus international information from Canada and Europe, is now available for purchase through Game Developer Research – more information is available at http://www.gamedevresearch.com.

Opinion: On Scaffolding And Masonry

[In this opinion piece, professional level designer Tynan Sylvester examines discussions with his father over the realism in Crytek's Crysis to discover what the average person actually looks at when playing a game - and it may not entirely be what you expect.]

I built a new PC this Christmas. One of the first games I tried on it was Crysis. As expected, the graphics were incredible. Beautiful, lush jungles, fully animated grass and leaves, dynamic shadows and time-of-day, strong HDR. Anyone who is familiar with my older levels will know that I love this stuff.

I showed it to my father one day. “Check it out!” I said gleefully, certain that his jaw would drop at this incredible display of computational and artistic awesomeness.

Naturally, the first thing he noticed was that there were plants popping into existence as I moved around and the LOD system recalculated their detail relevance.

Naturally, I was aghast. Doesn’t he see? Look at the technological and artistic beauty of it all! Possibly the most beautiful real-time graphical simulation ever created was sitting in front of him, and all he noticed was the very minor LOD popping. I’m trained to deconstruct digital images and even I wasn’t registering those little plants swooping in and out of existence.

Obviously there was something different about how my father, a non-gamer, was perceiving the scene and how I was. I realized what it was some days later when playing Assassin’s Creed.

I was walking out of Maysaf. I got on the horse and turned it around so we could start down the path. I thought I heard something special and interesting… was Al’tair clucking at the horse? I think he was! That’s so cool!

Me noticing this clucking and getting an emotion out of it was my experience with the same phenomenon my father was feeling when he criticized the LOD popping. I call it the scaffolding phenomenon.

It is this: players perceive a game-space as a real space, and get emotions from it based on that criteria. Most game development is just scaffolding that allows a basic game-space to be created. The masonry - the stuff that matters and that people see - is that stuff which would be interesting if it were in a real-space.

To my father, the view of Crysis was not a computer-generated image. In his mind, there is no such thing as HDR, normal maps, or physics simulations. To him, the picture of Crysis is a picture of a real place. Looking at it this way, we can get a whole new perspective on our games.

Just ask yourself - if this were real, what would stand out? What would improve it? All that technological and artistic awesomeness was, for the most part, just scaffolding that allowed the program to build a basic environment.

He wasn’t amazed by the jungle because in real life, jungles are common. They appear all over the place. Seeing a jungle is nothing special. Seeing plants pop in and out of existence as they change distance to you is special.

This applies to many games, and explains a lot of puzzling successes and failures in the gaming industry. Consider GTA: San Andreas. The game’s scaffolding is pretty austere. The characters are low-poly and the textures are blurry. The environments are quite empty. On a modern PC platform, the game is not technologically interesting.

But if you think of them as real places, it’s obvious that GTA: San Andreas is more interesting than Crysis. The places and characters are more familiar, varied, and meaningful. The things you can do are more fun and relevant.

Compare the Crysis shot above with this shot of the hood in GTA: San Andreas. The Crysis shot is a generic jungle. The i>GTA: San Andreas shot shows a group of human beings in a recognizable environment. It suggests a certain cultural context (West Coast gangsta) and a certain type of relationship between these characters. It suggests things you can do in this environment, and what they mean in the established cultural context. It suggests fantasies you can fulfill.

GTA: San Andreas did well because the developers focused on creating lots of good masonry and didn’t spend all their time building scaffolding. Consider the much talked-about having-sex-with-hookers game mechanic. Technologically, there’s almost nothing there. You stop near the girl, she does a distance check, and runs her get-in-car animation.

You drive somewhere secluded, the game does another distance check, then it periodically nudges the velocity of your car for a few seconds as you gain health. Then the hooker gets out and returns to her standard AI routines. No special animations, not much sound, minimal interaction.

But if this were real - that’s a pretty cool event! It’s a story that the player can feel. “I picked up a hooker, had sex with her, then killer her and took my money back” is a lot more relevant and interesting than “I drove through a jungle and killed some soldiers”.

Players don’t notice scaffolding, they only notice masonry. They’re a lot more forgiving of simple or crappy scaffolding than they are of simple or crappy masonry.

So stop fretting about how perfect your scaffolding is. Normal people don’t care. They don’t even see it. To normal people, the stuff in the game is real, and will be judged as though it were real.

[Tynan Sylvester is a Canadian level designer and game theorist. He got his start in 1999, working on the popular Tactical Ops mod for Unreal Tournament. Since then, he has worked on levels for Groove Games, Digital Extremes, and Epic Games.]

April 13, 2008

GameSetGallery: Darwinia's U.S. Retail Box, Poked At

So, I happened to be wandering around U.S. discount store Big Lots! the other day, and what should I find, but a U.S. retail copy of Introversion's IGF Grand Prize winner Darwinia, as published by 'boutique indie' publishing label Cinemaware Marquee?

So I thought I'd take a few pictures of the game's packaging (including a mini-poster and a Darwinian keychain!), and talk about its valiant - but ultimately failed - attempt to do the indie thing at retail in the States.

So here's the box - particularly fun/interesting because it brings together the logos of the classic Defender Of The Crown creator with 'last of the bedroom programmers' Introversion.

We originally reported on this back in April 2006 - when Cinemaware Marquee, which is an eGames publishing label, announced they were picking up the game - which is also available digitally on Steam, of course.

eGames bought Cinemaware after the 'relaunched from bankruptcy court' developer faltered with its attempts to relaunch its franchises on console - see Robin Hood: Defender Of The Crown, for example.

It has to be said that Cinemaware Marquee - which tried to add 'feelies' and special edition-like add-ons to the PC indie titles it published - was trying to do something genuinely different, also signing titles like Space Rangers 2 for North American distribution.

Unfortunately, major outlets in the ilk of Wal-Mart and Target are chief targets for PC retail nowadays, and these titles just weren't 'casual' or accessible enough to compete, despite the nicely designed packaging (complete with IGF logo!) and added 'feelies'.

Therefore, the first set of Cinemaware Marquee titles - largely released in 2006 - appear to have been the last. Nowadays, according to recent financial results, eGames is still using some Cinemaware IP like the evergreen 'Defender Of The Crown', it seems to be doing just as well or better with casual PC titles - often digitally distributed - like 'Burger Island' and 'Puzzle City'.

So there you go - proof positive that indie games, while relatively flourishing in digital form, just don't seem to work financially in mass-market physical form in the States, at least on PC.

Which is a shame, because physical product - especially with cute things like Darwinian keychains - are kinda awesome. Still, roll on Darwinia+/Multiwinia on XBLA, eh?

GameSetLinks: The Rise Of The Masocore

- Weekends are for sushi and air con, I have discovered, but they are also for GameSetLinks, which is why this particular set have made an appearance.

Notable this time - silly-looking Bape Nintendo DS queuing, a new Archive.org virtual worlds video collection, as well as Dessgeega defining the curious genre of 'masocore games' (Mighty Jill Off pictured).

Anyhow, bravo for the self-flagellation, and onward to the links:

Twitch - BEN X Screening and Video Game Giveaway!
A Belgian movie that features (sleeper Xbox 360 title) Archlord prominently in the plot? Interesting... trailer is included.

JEANSNOW.NET — Bape Nintendo DS Sells Big
Hyperfashion Nigo fun meets Nintendo portable.

MALLORY by Leonard Richardson | Fiction | Futurismic
A short story referencing '...geek hackers and classic arcade games, electronic Darwinism and domestic espionage, venture capital and Valley-esque start-ups.' Some weirdass gamegeekiness embedded.

Internet Archive: Archiving Virtual Worlds
'The Virtual Worlds video archive is dedicated to the academic investigation and historical preservation of documentation of virtual worlds.'

Fanboy Supercuts, Obsessive Video Montages - Waxy.org
A couple of game-related ones in there - NES title screens and G-man appearances!

Crispy Gamer: 'On the Bright Side: Better Living Through Videogames'
'Blake Snow examines gaming benevolence and creative development twice monthly.' Cute column concept.

The Independent Gaming Source: Derek Yu's comments on Whirled
Three Rings' new online world construction thingie needs a closer look before you find out the neatness - but neatness there is, esp. in online infrastructure/payment!

MTV Multiplayer » Pixar Character Designer Talks ‘Assassin’s Creed’, ‘BioShock,’ And Games As Art
I feel like his Creed, BioShock immersion comments are totally valid from the 'average member of society who is not a gamer' perspective. Which is scary.

It Fit When I Was A Kid « Hardcasual
'[Some] indie games tend much more towards a referentiality that relies entirely on fair use and parody.'

auntie pixelante › masocore games
'in an age where game over is seen as undesirable, masocore games approach player death as a narrative technique.'

COLUMN: 'Cinema Pixeldiso' – Tilt: The Battle To Save Pinball

['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a semi-regular column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s selection is another documentary, but one that takes a look at pinball, and examines what once was, and what could have been.]

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/tiltdvd.jpg

Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball [whose director, Greg Maletic, we interviewed earlier in the week] is a loving look at the those machines that filled smokey arcades with loud lights and bright sounds, but sans computer monitor, at least back in the day. Yet the documentary establishes early on that pinball was not directly killed off by video games as many would assume.

In fact, in the early nineties, despite the fact that the hearts and minds of video gamers across the land were being fought over by Nintendo and Sega via their 16-bit devices, the pinball industry managed to earn record sales. There was much promise for the future, but all of a sudden, very sudden actually, it all came crashing down. But a shining white knight on the horse came to the rescue, one that many felt would save them all. And... it didn't.

Pinball Wizards

Tilt kicks off with a brief history of pinball, starting with Harry Williams, who completely changed the already established landscape; not only did he create the very first electric powered pinball game, as well as introduce the concept of tilt, but also created the flipper. Previously, balls were launched to the top of the field and then simply dropped into one of numerous holes on the way down.

Pinball was all about luck, until flippers came along, and all of a sudden the game was about skill. But due to the stigma that pinball machines supported organized crime because some awarded players' skills with a cash payout, and were therefore gambling machines, they were run out of most major cities in the 50s and only made a comeback twenty years later.

Though it was somewhat stunted by the appearance of video games, which may not have killed off pinball, but surely did not help it whatsoever, with their ability to accommodate simultaneous players, meaning more $$$ for arcade operators, as well their ability to crank up the difficulty, which also translated to larger profit margins. Plus video games were a lot less fragile than pinball machines, with all those moving parts, any of which could break down and needed costly servicing. Pinball managed to hang in there, but just barely.

Enter Larry DeMar, an MIT graduate who joined Willams in 1980, joining the company to create pinball machines but was immediately enlisted to make games instead. Which he was able to do quite well; DeMar was a key force, along with Eugene Jarvis, behind such early arcade classics such as Defender and Robotron 2084. But he eventually went back to what he really loved, and helped to lead Williams as the number one pinball company in the industry throughout the 80s and 90s with design innovations such as double level play-fields and multi-ball.

Along with along with the sweeping changes came a greater one to the game itself, almost a change in the core philosophy; instead of just providing the player with a series of challenges, all for the purpose to score points, pinball evolved to the point that, as fellow Williams pinball designer Pat Lawlor says in the documentary, it could tell a story.

As the industry entered the 90s, the machines became more and more complicated and advanced, on both a technological and gameplay level, the latter of which did not alienate players as one also might expect, but actually helped to attract them. Just as the arcades were having their last true time in the spotlight, thanks to the rise of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, and before the advanced 32-bit machines finally stole arcade video games' thunder (at least here in the United States), pinball was entering its greatest era.

Unfortunately, success is only relative. 1992 saw the most successful pinball machine of all time, based on the Addams Family motion picture, and designed by DeMar and Lawlor. It sold over 21,000 units. Now, if a console game moved those kind of numbers, even back then, it would be considered a bomb. But for pinball, that number was good. Very good. Note that at this point, even 5,000 units shipped was considered successful in the pinball world.

Also, Williams became the place to be. Back then, their designers were practically rock stars within the industry, and had total control over their work. Today, in the year 2008, with video games being as big as it is, designers still seem to have relatively very little respect in their companies, even big name outfits - whereas Williams treated their creative minds with the utmost respect and gratitude. It's no wonder the folks from that world speak of that era in the movie with such fondness. They just weren't making entertainment or products, they were creating magic.

Williams began to grab more and more market-share, by gobbling up the competition. And soon the inevitable happened; the numbers plummeted. From 1993 to just 1996, sales took a sharp dive, mostly because there was too much of a good thing out on the streets, though the general public could no longer discern significant differences between one game and another as well. Case in point: Addams Family won pinball game of the year for four years in a row.

Reinventing The Wheel

For the designers and innovators at Williams, the writing was on the wall by the late 90s. Either think of something quick or head directly to the unemployment line. CEO Neil Nicastro came up with an initiative called Pinball 2000 to help re-invent the form... though more importantly, to make the machines out there seem all of a sudden obsolete. The seven different teams within Williams were brought together. And to work as a single unit, which was a tall order; each unit as designer George Gomez put it was "a gang.”

Because there was no longer any competition in the streets (as time went on, Williams simply gobbled up the competition), they had to pick battle among themselves, such as over bragging rights over whose machines had the best sales. As a result, everyone had their own idea to do every little tiny thing, which in turn lead to inefficiency and further turmoil.

There was also the issue of there seemingly being no new ideas out there. Williams had literally tried everything (and the viewer even gets to oh so briefly see some of the more wackier ideas in motion). Along came a very radical idea to add video games to pinball, by replacing the back-glass with a computer monitor that displayed animation, film clips, as well as sprites that would compliment the balls in motion.

This would become Pinball 2000, though not everyone was convinced. Aside from the fact that it was rather sacrilegious to taint the purity of pinball with video game elements, it had been done before (such as Baby Pac Man, which had the player playing both a pinball game and a traditional Pac Man game simultaneously) with zero success.

The idea was presented to the man in charge, who was somewhat "meh" about it, and he asked all that assembled if they truly believed if this was really the direction to go forward with. A few folks, such as Lawlor and Gomez raised their hands, much to the annoyance of the others, who wished not to rock the boat. Nicastro then simply laid it all out: either get with the program, come up with something better, or get the hell out. And option two is precisely what happened, but accident of course.

While going out for beer and pizza, software architect Tom Uban and Gomez came across an old Asteroid Deluxe machine. For those not familiar with that particular cabinet, and those like it, the game's screen is actually at the bottom, facing up, with the image bounced off reflective glass, over a cardboard backdrop, adding additional details and depth to what the player is seeing. And Uban and Gomez figured that the same could be applied towards pinball, with the video game elements overlaid the "real" action, therefore solving the problem of having the player trying to figure out what to look at, and when.

The idea was presented to the rest of the Pinball 2000 guys, but most were not convinced, so the two spent their evenings and weekends creating a mock-up, and after three or four months, they had a working prototype. It was presented to upper management, and they all loved it. Nicastro was convinced that it was indeed the future of pinball, and the rest of the team were also finally won over, ready to realize the dream. All seemed well...

The Alpha And The Omega

Eventually the Pinball 2000 team were off; to change the landscape that they had already forged and established. And is often the case, there was precious little time to do so. With so many new variables to consider, as well to create for the first time, when it came to the game itself, it was determined that the safest route would be the best, and to create a sequel to prestablished hit, Escape From Mars.

So the first Pinball 2000 game would be Revenge From Mars, and what was once conveyed via a four color dot matrix display just above the play-field was finally alive with aliens running all over the place and space saucers exploding in one's face. It’s at this point, while hearing about the all the business concerns the creators had to face (this new fangled machine had to the deliver 21st century pinball at 20th century prices), that Tilt actually presents, albeit briefly, how a pinball game is composed, as well as all the underlining philosophy behind design choices, and its all pretty fascinating stuff.

Anyhow, eighteen months later, Pinball 2000 and Revenge From Mars was at last complete. And everyone was happy, at least industry-type folks. Fast forward to the public unveiling, along with a cheesy video intro heralding the new world order with MLK saying "I have a dream" (it would seem that every corporate entity is guilty of parlaying the greatest civil rights defender of the 20th century to sell whatever item, whether it be pinball or cell phones or soft drinks... oh well).

Again, everyone who saw it, in this case arcade operators, loved it. They all lined up and threw their money on the table for the machine. All that was left was to sell the game to the actual players, and their reaction, primarily online was somewhat not surprising: rather negative. Hardcore pinball players are not unlike hardcore video game players; they don't like anything messing with the purity of their game. But as once they finally played the damn thing, Revenge From Mars found its fans, and Williams was finally making money from pinball once again. And happy days were here again.

Then then all of a sudden, they weren't. I won't divulge the rest of the story, though I will mention that the next and only other Pinball 2000 game was based on Star Wars Episode 1, a license that everyone thought would be absolute gangbusters, but ended up being somewhat the kiss of death for numerous folks.

In the end, the story of Tilt is a classic tale we hear all the time, and even experience first-hand; everything's looking good and golden, one's ass has just been saved from the chopping block, but slowly and surely, fortunes reverse. Those who felt so committed to the future throws their hands up in the air to say whatever. And the people who were once so revered are then looked down upon. Yet those same folks, when all is said and done, are actually relieved that it's all over. Despite the fact that, once the road has been travelled, there's very little else to go towards.

The story of Tilt is a fascinating one, as well as a depressing one. Plus an important one. A video gamer might be inclined, after watching Tilt, to ask if what they engage in might ever face a similar fate. And the answer is, yes it could. After-all, why not? When it comes to fun and games, nothing is forever. Most depressing is when it happens to them... if it happens, of course... there will be no clear cut answer, as is the case with pinball.

But one thing which is clear (and while film isn't the first to illustrate it, it still does so quite well) is how business is often for business types, simply stated, those who are creative will only give themselves headaches if they try to figure out the whats and whys behind dollars and cents.

Final Score

Will video game aficionados enjoy Tilt? More than likely, as will anyone. The movie takes the viewer on a very relaxed, yet focused, and most importantly, loving stroll down the history and evolution of a form of play, which is sadly becoming increasingly forgotten. More than a few diehard video gamers out there will be more than able to sympathize.

On a technical level, Tilt is a top-notch production, with just the right mix of interviews and hard info, but without ever getting boring. The music is appropriately melancholy, and the on-screen graphics in the vein of pinball machine marquees are a nice touch. Also commendable is the integration of personal home movies, all of which helps to paint a fuller picture. It would have been nice to go deeper in the minds of those that created the games, but more than enough is provided for the subject at hand....

... Actually, all that and more is presented, outside of the film that is. Tilt comes as a double DVD disc set that is absolutely bursting with extras, such as expanded interviews (in the documentary proper, we only get a minute or two of how a pinball playfield is created, but on the second disc, we get a whole 17 minutes of the explanation) and videos created for arcade operators (including one that explains how to assemble and repair a Pinball 2000 unit that clocks in at 20 minutes at length).

Those who are video gamers and documentary fans in general should seriously take a look at Tilt, but for pinball enthusiasts, Tilt is an essential part of the collection, period. And to purchase your copy, simply head on over to the official site.

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]



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

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