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April 26, 2008

Interview: Acquire's Ninja Masters Talk Hiding, Surprising

-[So, this Brandon Sheffield-conducted interview is a couple of things - firstly, it's a really interesting window into the thoughts of a small/midsized Japanese console developer - Tenchu creator Acquire. Secondly, it might be our most-edited interview ever, due to audio and translation issues - but luckily, you can't tell now.]

Formed after a Sony Music Japan PlayStation game design contest that eventually birthed the Tenchu series, Tokyo-based studio Acquire Corp. has over a decade’s worth of history developing ninja and samurai-themed titles.

Acquire recently finished Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaikida, an offbeat RPG released for the PSP December 2007, in which players defend their dungeons against invading heroes.

Manager Kazuhiku Hirose sat with Gamasutra at GDC's 'Game Connection' publisher/developer meetingplace to talk about its ninja games and stealth-based titles from other titles, such as Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid.

He also shares Acquire Corp’s philosophy behind Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaikida and the company’s future plans for casual titles and targeting different audiences for releases on different platforms.

Collaborating with U.S. Publishers

So, first of all, why did you decide to come to this GDC?

Kazuhiku Hirose: Our main objective is to attend Game Connection itself, because now we have development work in Japan, internally. But we would like to take our business worldwide because our most famous title, Tenchu, is very famous worldwide, so we need to create good IP in association with foreign publishers.

In a lot of the content we make with Japanese publishers, the IP is not good for use, worldwide. So we need to considering doing deals with big publishers like EA.

I see. So you're looking to collaborate with U.S. publishers. And do you want to develop games based on their IP, or do you want to give your IP to them?

KH: We always make our own IPs, but when we make our IPs, the IP often still doesn't belong to us [rather to the publisher], because who pays the money? That is our problem. (laughs)

Yeah. As you mentioned, a lot of Acquire's games are very Japanese-oriented; do you think that it gives you more or less appeal in the Western market?

KH: Hmm. It's a difficult question, because some Japanese styles of game, like the ninja or samurai genre, are very unique compared to other games. But on the other hand, those titles are sometimes poorly managed by publishers.

For example, according to some publisher promotions, ninja games tend to be centered around the bloody, slashing aspects.

If we would like to play up the story in our games, we will need to make more unique content, like in the fantasy genre. So I think we will make more unique content if we cooperate with foreign publishers.

Do you think that the fact that it's ninja or samurai is more appealing because it's different.

KH: Yeah, I think ninja and samurai are very attractive - but the most important thing in those games is the action itself. So we can easily use those game components on other titles.

Right. It seems that now there are only two major -- well, I guess three major companies doing like ninja-style games: There's Tecmo, Acquire, and From Software. Yeah?

KH: You're right.

So, by comparison, it seems that Acquire's games are more like actual ninja, whereas Tecmo's games are more like fighting games with ninja. So what are Acquire's rules for making a ninja more ninja?

KH: First we made Tenchu, but that was based on stealth games. I think the difference between Tenchu and Ninja Gaiden is very big. I think we understand foreign people like both games, but we like to make good stealth games.

We made a good, more realistic ninja game... we made our gameplay system so that the user can easily control ninjas, hide, and kill people from behind, and so on.

Well I was also wondering if Acquire has specific rules for what ninja should do in games. Because, yeah, it's much more stealth, and more similar to what a ninja might actually do; whereas in Ninja Gaiden, for instance, he's just basically any kind of warrior, just fighting anybody. So do you have specific kinds of rules at Acquire?

KH: Yes, but sometimes we talk to people who are training ninjas now. So they can teach us the moves that work for real-life ninjas.

In the original Tenchu days, the action was not so realistic, but we're working on that - because I think stealth games are more attractive in U.S. and Europe - there are good stealth games without ninjas, in the form of Splinter Cell and other games.

So those games have really good animation and graphics, so we need to learn from those titles.

So do you consider Splinter Cell, and Metal Gear Solid to be similar to ninja games?

KH: I think those titles are very nice to play, because they're easy to get into, and the animation and action are of a high quality.

But, ninja game have some specific aspects, because users need to play chiefly through hiding. So we try to make a game with a free, open play style.

Splinter Cell makes a stage, and the player can learn how to go to A to B, but with Tenchu, and our PS2 title, Shinobido, we make only a space, and how to play the game is based solely on the user's thoughts.

Deka Voice And The Future For Voice Controls

I see. So, Acquire did work on SCE's Japan-only detective game Deka Voice, right? [Ed. note: "Deka" is Japanese for "detective".] How was this created? I think it was one of only two PS2 titles that used only voice to control the character.

KH: At first the producer at Sony and our director talked about how to use the function. We are trying to create another style of content, because we made Japanese style games for so long.

So we tried to make something in a Western style -- like our game Samurai Western before this. So we thought we'd write a hard-boiled game. And I think Acquire has a mind to challenge new platforms of function, so we made Deka Voice.

Why were there no more voice games after that?

KH: (laughter)

That may be a difficult question.

KH: Yeah. The biggest problem is the game itself. The sales are not so good. Users want to play a game, but if we want to use the newest interfaces, like voice, the UIs need to be more good to control.

So I think it is very hard to use voice - but on the other hand, the controller is very easy to use. But sooner or later, voice control will come back.

Do you think that you could do that kind of game on the DS, with the microphone?

KH: Ah... There are some titles using voice, but I think it is very limited in function. So I think that it's so good to use. If we tried to use voice again, we'd need to do more research on how to use it well for gameplay.

So do you not think the DS microphone is sufficient for voice input? Is that what you mean?

KH: I think occasionally using voice recognition is OK, but I think that recognition needs to be better for using it in complicated games.

So if, for example, on PS3 or Xbox 360 -- if we try those platforms, we can use a more complicated system for the recognition, and then we have a chance to create some interesting gameplay...

Expanding Its Vision Beyond Sony

Acquire seems to have been very Sony-focused for a long time. Will you ever branch out into other platforms?

KH: Yes... of course Tenchu was originally released by Sony Music Entertainment, so we have a very good connection with Sony itself.

But we do not have any binding financial relationship with Sony, so we can work with other platforms. And at this stage we cannot say any other things, but in a few months, we can talk more about this...

I see. And I assume that if a U.S. publisher wanted to work with you on a different platform, that would be OK.

KH: Yeah, so, big publishers are focused on multiplatform gaming, so in order to get work we need to create our title on Xbox 360 and the PS3...

With those platforms, has Acquire had any difficulty working on those new platforms?

KH: We are developing our newest title, Way of the Samurai III, and we used Gamebryo technology, so the middleware supports the Xbox 360 and the Wii.

We have a relationship with that technology, because Gamebryo will be sold and supported by Emergent Technology Japan, in Japan internally, and Emergent Technology Japan is a subsidiary of Acquire.

Oh, I see. Oh! Well that's useful then.

KH: Yeah.

So I guess it should be easier for you to get into next-gen, there's a relationship there. OK. How much does the engine help? I mean, obviously there's a lot more artists needed, because it's a much bigger game...

KH: Middleware helps to develop the game in some notable aspects. For example, in multiplatform development, it's very hard to port to another platform, but Gamebryo will help to port the title between PS3 and Xbox 360.

We can use tools in Gamebryo, like the level designer or something. But if we want to use more complex parts of [the PS3's] Cell function itself, that is more difficult to control in middleware. That is a problem, but by using middleware... we can reduce our risk to develop the title, and development cost itself.

Have you had to hire more people within Acquire, to move to next-gen game stuff?

KH: We will hire more people, but the reason is not to make a big project. We will would like to add more simultaneous projects into our production schedule.

So you want multiple projects pipelined, then.

KH: Yes.

Trying New Things With Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaikida

So, I'm curious to know where the idea for your recent PSP title, Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaikida [an offbeat RPG released for the PSP December 2007, in which players defend their dungeons against invading heroes] came from.

KH: Did you play it?

I have not gotten to play yet; I've seen video, and know what it's about, but I haven't played it yet.

KH: So I am very curious, because how have U.S. or European users seen the title, and what do they think of the title? Because the title is very domestic market-oriented.

Well, it's interesting to people because it's the opposite of a normal dungeon RPG, so people just find that concept very interesting. And as for how they find out about it, well, it's just through websites and things.

KH: So the title was born in a very curious situation, with our director, and the producer - who is the same as on Deka Voice.

I see.

KH: They were thinking of a new concept for a game, to help energize the PSP in Japan. So the project is not so big -- like a next-gen platform title or something -- so we can easily try to do new things.

But in this case, new things do not mean functions. In a typical RPG, the user can use the hero - but in this game, the user can control the enemies and beat up the heroes. So that is a very funny thing, and we encapsulate that in "yuusha".

Yeah, "hero".
[Ed. note "yuusha" means "hero", typically in an epic sense. The title of the game translates to "Brazen, in Spite of Heroes."]

KH: In the game, Yuusha talks to characters... and that text is a parody of other RPGs in Japan.

Like Dragon Quest?

KH: So that is a very attractive point to Japanese gamers. But usually, those elements are not so suitable for the Western market, though.

Where did the idea come from originally?

KH: So, the base idea itself is gardening. So people plant some grass, or make a pond, a little pond, in a very small place.

In Japan, students usually create environments to put ants in, and we put in soil, and put in some ants, and we can see everything from the side.

So the cage looks like a dungeon - so if we put the monsters in the cage, that's very funny. So we make a dungeon game underground with that style.

Do you think this game will ever come to the U.S.?

KH: (laughter) That will depend on Sony, so we cannot say. But they probably think this game is not easy to understand in the U.S. or Europe... it seems a little difficult.

Acquire has started doing some more small games like that, and doing Flash games and stuff, like for Shinobido -- is there any interest in making downloadable games, like for PSN, or WiiWare, or Xbox 360?

KH: Yes, we will try more -- we try to make smaller games, because the market is changing. Big games are still important, but on the other hand, different users have other needs in the market. We will not switch to Flash games, because we need a more significant business model, but we will try to make downloadable titles, and PSP games, and so on.

Entering The Casual Market

How do you think the market has been changing in Japan?

KH: It's very difficult question, but... now, in Japan, next-gen platforms, specifically the PS3 and Xbox 360, are not off to a good start. But Wii is very successful in Japan too, but the popular titles... are only Nintendo.

So third parties have to sell titles in Japan's market, and they go to smaller platforms like DS and PSP. I think it is not good for our industry. So we need to make a good content for each platform, like smaller handheld titles, and big titles for the PS3 and the 360.

Acquire has some content to release on each platform, so at this time we make some experimental titles which will be released on handhelds like PSP.

And we have good know-how to make action adventure and stealth games, so we will make good and larger titles which will be released on Xbox 360 and PS3.

Is good content the answer for selling more of the big consoles? It seems like a very difficult situation now, even here. Here, big consoles sell still, but even so, Wii and DS are the biggest. What do you think is the solution?

KH: (laughter) We need to learn about users. Because users' needs are changing between Wii and DS, sometimes we make good games, but for only the hardcore gaming market. I think that is very dangerous to make that kind of game, because users are changing, and the average age is getting older.

Older players may know Tenchu and those titles, but the teenage players nowadays, they didn't know Tenchu. So we need to devise a new angle to get people to play the newest stealth games.

Will Acquire be making more casual type titles?

KH: It is a difficult question, because casual games are easy to do, but we can't really differentiate between our content and that of other companies. For example, Sudoku is a very good puzzle game, but if we make Sudoku, what is the difference? So that is the problem with casual games.

But one problem is that many people think: OK I'll make a casual game; I'll make Sudoku! They don't think: Oh, I should make a casual game; here's something new.

KH: Yeah, but I think if we make a good idea for a casual game, that is a great thing - but that depends on the game design itself. So our company, now we have 50 staff, so we cannot depend on only those ideas.

So if we make a more casual game than Tenchu, we will try to make good story or good graphics, because designs need to be differentiated compared to other casual titles.

GameSetNetwork: The Week In Gama/GCG Posts

- Though we do cross-post a number of our more 'freeform' interviews from big sister site Gamasutra (and other sites like Game Career Guide) across here, if you just read GSW, and don't wade through all the 'conventional' industry news on Gama, there's a few things you will have missed every week.Thus, this post!

Highlights include a long and intriguing Ken Levine piece, a slightly wacky 'underutilized licenses' list (from whence the Ninja Warrior TV show, logo pictured above, is plucked), and a neat casual game postmortem.

Thus, let's go on a crosslink trip (first couple of link comments by Gama editor Christian Nutt):

Ken Levine on BioShock's Narrative Drive
"BioShock is loved for many things, but the way in which it tells its story is chief among them. Here, Levine discusses exactly the thinking and techniques that lead to that. He’s a good talker – it’s an engaging read. 'It's about damaging not the character, but damaging the player. I think insulting the player is something... to put the knife in his back, not just the character's back. Because every game has the knife go in the character's back.'"

Dungeons & Dragons: The Pen and Paper Video Game
"We’re still mulling over the impact Gary Gygax had on video games. Here, Volition designer Alvan Monje posits that it’s wider than the usual assumption of Final Fantasy and Oblivion. 'In creating Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax and co-creator Dave Arneson didn't just build a blueprint for the digital RPGs to come; they built the progentor of most contemporary video games, irrespective of genre.'"

The Top 20 Underutilized Licenses
"Time for a Gamasutra thought experiment - what books, comics, movies, and dormant game franchises richly deserve to be made into games? The site's editors have banded together, locked horns, and produced this no doubt debatable result."

Student Postmortem: SCAD's Project Loyola Alternate Reality Game
"Can student game developers pull off an alternate reality game? Is there enough information out there for them to coordinate and run such a project? Jeff McNab and students at SCAD thought they might try, and if all else fails, they plan to document their experience and share their findings with the ARG community of developers."

Sponsored Feature: Interoperability and Autodesk FBX Technology
"In this Autodesk-sponsored article, Games for Autodesk senior industry manager Michel Kripalani explains the fundamentals of the company's FBX technology, which allows developers to transfer 3D data types -- motion, cameras, characters, skeletal hierarchies, as well as 2D, audio, and video media -- across a wide range of 2D and 3D applications."

Interview: The State Of GameStop
"How is the pre-eminent U.S. specialty game retailer doing in this bumper year for games? GameStop VP Chris Olivera sat down with Gamasutra during a recent tournament event to talk worldwide expansion and acquisitions, in-store marketing efforts, and the rise of digital distribution."

Postmortem: Kat Games' Dream Chronicles by Miguel Tartaj
"Casual title Dream Chronicles has helped to introduce classic Myst-style adventure gaming to the PC casual market, and in this exclusive Gamasutra postmortem, creator Tartaj explains its genesis."

COLUMN: @Play: Larn, Or, I Hocked The Car To Buy A Lance Of Death

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

We've covered all of the current big-name roguelikes, at least nominally, at this point, so let's look at one of the older games. Released back around 1986, Larn was one of Hack's chief competitors for the title of successor to Rogue.

Hack was known for killing characters with distressing frequency, and dismaying glee, so Larn was popular for being a much a kinder game, although still not a pushover. It was one of the premier roguelikes on the Amiga side of the PC fence.

While it wasn't the first roguelike to use a town level (that was probably Moria), it was the first to give us multiple dungeons in the same game.

The Taxonomy of Larn

Roguelikes may be categorized into those that take after Hack (like Nethack) and those that take after Moria (like Angband), but Larn borrows from both. Like Moria, it uses menu shops, the character's experience growth is more important than the stuff he's carrying, item generation is weighted by dungeon depth, and there's a surface town that must be returned repeatedly.

But like Hack, levels are persistent, the dungeon itself has a kind of character, there are "features" in the dungeon that can be taken advantage of or cause problems, and there is a strong ethic of powergaming: of trying find ways to use the rules in such a way as to gain an overwhelming advantage.

But in other ways Larn takes most after Rogue, and it has several unique ideas all its own. The most Rogueish thing about it, besides its being a roguelike of course, is the game's hard time limit. Rogue starts the player off with a single food ration, and the player must explore fast enough to find more as he descends into the dungeon or he'll starve to death.

This mechanic constantly pushes him downward to find more food, since the only reliable way of generating more is to explore more levels, and prevents him from hanging out on the upper levels, endlessly killing weak monsters to build experience. Larn doesn't have food other than fortune cookies, which aren't of nutritional value but provide hints to the player. It does, however, have a time limit.

At the start of the game, the player is informed that his character's daughter is ill, and will die of "dianthoritis" in 300 "mobuls" of time. It is rumored that somewhere in the dungeon there is a way to cure it, and that is what the player ultimately searches for.

larn1.png Unlike Rogue, the player may travel freely between dungeon levels, and use his time in different ways. In addition to exploring the dungeons, there's a bank in which deposited gold earns interest over time, and there is a university in the town level in which the player can spend mobuls taking courses in fighting, spellcasting, or "contemporary dance."

The limit isn't as hard as it might seem, as one type of item that can be found or purchased, scrolls of time warp, has as its sole purpose the setting back of the clock a random number of time units. It's never a huge amount, but usually enough to be useful.

The solution to all your monster needs! Easy installment plan: one installment, you pay now.

To get back to Larn and the concept of powergaming.... The tradition of finding ways to game the power curve has its roots in the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons, and is an essential aspect of most roguelikes. But Larn takes things to an entertaining extreme. One of the places in the town level is the DND Store, which helpfully sells nearly every object in the game, from clubs to scrolls of pulverization.

Unlike most roguelikes, many items can only be found in the store, including the most powerful equipment items. Among these is stainless steel plate armor, not only the best armor but it's completely rustproof. It's expensive, but not tremendously so, and it provides sufficient protection that most weaker monsters won't be able to even scratch the player.

Stainless steel plate armor is quite valuable, but there are still better items for sale. Foremost among them is the lance of death, quite possibly the most formidable weapon ever to be put into a roguelike game. This thing has incredible power, enough that it is bound to cause the player, the first time he gets one, to question the judgment of the game designer in including it. For the lance of death lives up to its name: any monster the lance strikes, from the lowliest kobold to the princes of demons, dies in one hit. All the power of a cockatrice corpse, but none of the risk.

Of course the lance costs a wheelbarrow of gold pieces. But its availability in the game's store, while seeming injudicious at first, turns out to be remarkably ingenious. The existence of the lance works because of Larn's unusual structure. You see, after starting out in town, most players descend into the game's ten-level main dungeon to collect the game's big sparkly, the Eye of Larn, building experience and collecting equipment and gold pieces along the way in the traditional D&D manner.

larn2.pngYet it turns out, the player doesn't want the Eye because of any powers it grants, any protection it offers, or because the gods will reward the player in exchange for it. He wants it because it can be sold to the bank for over 160,000 gold pieces, and the lance of death costs 165,000! See the connection?

But the Eye is at the bottom of the main dungeon. Why would the player need the lance if he can already defeat the demon guarding it it? It's because there's a second dungeon to explore, which contains the magic potion that can save your daughter.

While it only has three levels, it is far more difficult than the main one, and is chock full of dragons as well as other high-level opponents. An invisible demon prince stands over the potion you're looking for, which is about the only monster which the lance of death doesn't immediately vanquish, just because it's so hard to hit the darn thing.

Larn Gameplay FAQ

If you should decide to play this game, and I greatly recommend it to first-time roguelike players for its relative lack of keyboard-smashing difficulty, here are answers to a few possible questions:


Where do I get it from?

Playing it from Windows is something of a mess, it's probably better to use a Freenix to play the game. The only acceptably-recent version that didn't bomb out at odd times, or randomly freeze up for ten seconds is Larn 12.4 Alpha 1 DOS, from the current Larn maintainer's webpage, played in DOSBox. (EDITOR'S NOTE: site seems to be down as this article is published, but the Larn page on Rogue Life also seems to have Larn 12.4 Alpha 1 listed.)

Even then, the game will complain about tampering upon loading a saved game and disqualify your game for the scoreboard, so try not to save. Fortunately Larn is one of the shorter roguelikes out there, and can be completed in a single session.

After unzipping it and setting up DOSBox, you'll want to edit larn.opt to customize the game. You'll probably want to uncomment the lines with keypad, bold-objects and highlight-objects. Also, if you want a name other than PLAYER you'll have to uncomment and change one of the name lines.

larn4.pngWhat are the basic keys?

The DOS version has an option to use the numberpad instead of vi keys for movement, activate it by editing the configuration file. Typing a question-mark during the game brings up the help screens, which lead off with a list of commands. After that, it's mostly as in Rogue. Here are the basics, refer to help for the others:

Shift-E - enter a location
Comma - pick up an object
Period - wait a turn without doing anything
I - inventory
D - drop
Q - quaff, that is to say, drink
E - eat
R - read
W - wield (a weapon)
Shift-W - wear (armor or shields)
Shift-T - take off (armor or shields)
C - cast a spell
Shift-O - open a door
Shift-C - close a door
> - go downstairs
< - go upstairs
Shift-S - save the game (but see below)
Shift-Q - quit the game

Some of these commands will automatically prompt you if you're standing on the same space as a relevant item if you want to use it.

Note: The only version of Larn I could get to work satisfactorily on Windows XP was a DOS version of Larn 12.4.0. Yet even this version doesn't work perfectly: saved games work, but the game misidentifies them as having been modified and disqualifies them for the scoreboard.

I started a game and now I'm in a field with a bunch of numbers. What does this mean?

You're in the town level. The numbers are the locations of the various services available here. They are:
1- The player's home
2- The DND Store
3- The trading post
4- LRS Office (Larn Revenue Service)
5- The bank
6- The college
8- The main dungeon
9- The volcanic shaft

While the town is mostly safe, monsters can be generated here, and the clock does advance while walking around town.

How do I enter a store/the dungeon/the bank/whatever?

Press shift-E. While Larn's keypresses mostly take after Rogue, including using < for upstairs and > for downstairs, shift-E must be pressed to enter most numbered locations. The exception to this is 9, which must be entered with >, but you probably don't want to go there just yet.

The messages at the bottom of the screen seem not to make any sense, is there something wrong with them?

It's a weirdness of the game. There's five lines at the bottom of the screen reserved for messages to the player, but they don't scroll. Instead, the game reuses the lines over and over, replacing old messages with new ones in a cyclical manner. When the messages reach the bottom, the next one starts at the top again. There is always a blank line after the most recent message. It's not hard to get used to once you know what's happening.

larn5.pngWhy does my inventory consists of five "a magic scroll"s and four "a magic potion"s?

Larn uses a typical roguelike ID system, but it's implemented a little differently than in most games. Items types are distinct from each other before identification, but the player isn't given any way to tell them apart until then. If you have eight magic potions they could all be the same type, or all different types, or a mixture.

If after drinking one it turns out to be healing, looking at your inventory afterward you might find that some of the other potions are now marked as "magic potion of healing." It's the same system as Rogue, but you don't get item descriptions like "bubbly potion" or "scroll labeled THANX MAUD." The upshot is, you don't have the information of how many of each unknown type of potion you have, a minor but important difference.

I went up/down a circular staircase, but when I came out the other side I wasn't at the stairs from the previous level! How come?

It's weird how many different roguelikes handle staircases in different ways:

- Rogue (and Shiren too for that matter) has only one staircase per level, which goes both up and down, but when you come out the other side you're actually put at a random location on the next level, which could be in the same room as the stairs but probably won't be.
- Nethack and Angband will always put you on a staircase back to the level you came from. Nethack has persistent dungeon levels, and so the staircases lend a kinda-sorta consistency across the levels.
- Larn mixes the two approaches. It has persistent levels, but still puts the player in a random location on the next floor when taking the stairs. Further, each level has separate up and down staircases for going to the next floor.

I've found all these rings and things, but I can't find any way to put them on! Help!

This is one of the nicer idiosyncrasies of Larn. You're already wearing them! You get their effects just by carrying them around in your inventory.

This works well because there are no scrambled ring types in Larn, and generally no "bad" equipment items. All rings are known the moment they are found, none of them will mess you up, and you can wear as many as you can find. The tradeoff is that you can only carry so many items at once in Larn, fewer than even Rogue, so the more rings and such you're holding, the less treasure you can bring back on each trip, and thus the more trips necessary, and thus the more mobuls you end up using.

There are some other items in the game with special functions, like belts of striking, and they also work just by carrying them around. Generally, the only items you have to explicitly equip for use are weapons (command w for wield), and armor and shields (both shift-w for wear).

(Quick trivia: Larn's system of no bad equipment, but unidentified potions and scrolls, is exactly the opposite of the system used in most of Shiren the Wanderer, in which one-shot magic items are known but magic equipment is unknown.)

What are these statues, thrones, mirrors and altars good for?

Various things actually. Gems can be pried off of thrones with a key command (shift-R) and sat in with (s), and one can (p)ray to donate money at altars. Walking over an altar without giving up a proper donation, in fact, often results in summoning a monster. There are other risks involved with altars I'll leave it to you to discover, as well as with looting thrones. Statues can also provide the player with some material benefits, but utilizing them is not as straight-forward in this case. As for mirrors... well, I actually don't know about those. Any ideas?

What is this rectangular region with the door on one edge?

That's a room, a small area typically filled with monsters and treasures. Actually there are normal rooms later on in the dungeon, but it's common to find monster lairs even in the early going. You can open a door by pressing shift-O, which also works on chests. Both doors and chests are often trapped, and some of the traps are quite damaging (near the end level drain traps are common), so care should be taken when opening these.

What do I do with the books and chests?

You (r)ead them or (O)pen them. Books provide spells, and chests spill forth loot. Both disappear when used, and the effects of both vary in awesomeness according to the dungeon level they were found on. Chests are probably trapped. Both can be sold to the trading post unused for large amounts of gold, also varying according to the level they were found at.

How do spells work?

When you read a book you get a three-letter code for a spell. You should probably write this down, as to cast it you'll have to enter it from the spell prompt (shift-C). The prompt provides no indication of which letters you've typed by the way, like a password, so be careful in entering it. If you get the letters wrong, or on a random chance, the spell won't work. Most players will need some kind of distance attack spell to succeed (popular example: fireball), and some of the spells available later on in Larn are extremely powerful. The codes don't change from game to game, but they won't work unless you've gotten them from a book during the current game.

Some versions of the game will print a list of currently-known spells and codes if you press shift-D at the spellcasting prompt.

A scroll of gem perfection? What does that do?

In increases the value of all gems you're carrying when it's read. This is another of Larn's clever bits: exploring while your inventory is full means you can't pick up the stuff that's lying around, but is good if you find a scroll of gem perfection to make all the jewels you've found much more valuable, or if you find a scroll of identify, which affects your whole inventory in Larn.

I've been teleported, but now the dungeon level is listed as "?", what gives?

Pits and teleport traps can send you to different levels of the dungeon. The question-mark represents the uncertainty of your character of which level he might be on. This seems like it's an attempt to replicate that D&D-brand Horror from falling down a shaft and not knowing how bad the monsters around you are.

I've made it to level 10 of the dungeon but I'm being attacked for major damage by something I can't see!

That's the demon who guards the Eye of Larn. He's invisible! You should stockpile as much healing as you can for this fight.

larn6.pngIf I'm just going after it for money to buy the lance of death, do I really have to get the Eye of Larn?

Actually, no.

You need the lance of death to survive in the volcano; if you thought single dragons were bad in the main dungeon, wait until you face an entire densely-packed floor of them. But it's possible to raise the money in other ways. As detailed at Master Gorgon's wonderful site The Larn Blog, there is a good alternate strategy for raising the cash.

Books and chests from the deep levels, if you can do without their contents, sell for huge sums at the trading post, some of them well over 10,000 gold. Even those from the early dungeon are worth surprising amounts of lucre. And money left in the bank accrues interest over time. It is completely possible to get the lance by building up funds this way, then jump straight into the volcano. Whether this is wise or not is left for you to decide, but gaining experience is easy with a lance of death.

Any other tips?

Some of these things may be seen as spoilers....

- There are purposes for many of the things found in the dungeon, but some may require some equipment to make use of.
- Don't step on a Holy Altar, if you can help it, unless you intend on paying some cash as a donation. The gods tend to get irate if their altars are crossed but ignored. Paying enough money can score you a long-lived protection spell.
- Be careful with traps late in the volcano, some pits may be bottomless.
- Potions of healing and fast healing can increase your maximum hit points, as in Rogue, when quaffed while uninjured.
- The game also uses Rogue's stat maximum system, where some monsters can drain stats but they can be instantly restored to maximum status with the right potion, and other potions increase maximums if drunk when that stat is at maximum.
- As is common in roguelikes, the game will let you wield nearly anything in your hands, including items that have little worth in battle. But in Larn, if you read a scroll of enchant weapon when holding such an item, you can increase its plus! In this manner you can raise the plus on rings and miscellaneous items, and armor too, even though there exist scrolls of enchant armor.
- Get the stainless steel plate armor as soon as you can, as rust monsters are common in the middle levels.
- Scrolls of pulverization can destroy a wall, but they can also damage monsters.
- There is a scroll of annihilation in the game that cannot be bought in the DND store.

Hey, I just won, but on the next game I didn't start with any equipment, and I got a message about taxes! What the heck?

Perhaps the most interesting of Larn's features is that, unlike most roguelikes, it has a dynamic difficulty level. There are ten levels of difficulty in the game, and the current game's challenge level is felt in various ways. For example, players at any difficulty greater than 0, the lowest level, don't begin with any equipment, and must make due as they can before they can raise the funds to buy the basic stuff from the store.

The default difficulty of the game starts at 0 on a new installation (or user, on a multiuser machine), but when the player wins, the next game will be one level harder. If you want to explicitly play a given difficulty, you can by invoking the game with the -H command line switch and the digit of the level you want to play, as in, "larn -H9".

In addition, after a player wins the game, the Larn Revenue Service will begin to take notice of him. In subsequent games, the player will be required to pay a tax relative to the money he had upon winning. On Unix systems, the game will even send local email to the user's account informing him of the gold pieces due....

[Some gameplay information taken from The Larn Blog.]

GameSetLinks: Trials Off The Deep End

- Yay for weekend GameSetLinks. Yay for bright sun and opportunity to play missed Xbox Live Arcade titles. Yay. Wait, do I have to be more cogent than that?

Fair enough - highlights in here somewhere include Kyle Orland's somewhat hidden GameSpot redeemo-journo column, Maggie Greene and Margaret Robertson busting out some high-level concepts, and the shiny, shiny teeth of Henk Rogers. And them's the breaks:

The Independent Gaming Source: Trials 2 Second Edition
Oo, Elastomania's spiritual kid for PC, with pretty graphics.

Kotaku: 'Going Off the Deep End: Has Gaming Grown Up?'
Great Maggie Greene article: 'The fact we have "great stories" — great games, great genres, great tropes — is what makes me think it wouldn't take much to bump stories up a notch.'

Hit Self-Destruct: 'Closer'
'Video gaming is exactly like Quantum Leap, by the way.'

GameSpot News: Kyle Orland rounds up April for games press fun
Wow, I hadn't seen the passive-aggressive Cooking Mama 2 note from a Majesco staffer.

The Escapist : Footprints
Gillen on Mucky Foot, who were rather fun for a bit.

Lookspring » Monotony
'Since we have plenty boring-gameplay games already, and plenty boring-story games already, can’t we make more games that are boring to look at?'

Siliconera » Harry Potter and the unlicensed Famicom shmup
Famipotter!

Strange Journeys » Starcraft vs Company of Heroes, WoW vs Every Other MMORPG
'The core of the question is this: if another WoW or Starcraft came out today–and by that I mean a game equally well designed, executed, etc.–would they succeed even one-half as much?'

IGN: Gyrostarr Preview
Oo, High Voltage goes psychedelic for WiiWare - via The2Bears.

Interview with Henk Rogers, video game visionary, on saving the planet » VentureBeat
The Black Onyx/Tetris co-conspirator rocks.

April 25, 2008

Best Of Indie Games: Get Wired Up The Alley

[Every week, IndieGames.com: The Weblog editor Tim W. will be summing up some of the top free-to-download and commercial indie games from the last seven days, as well as any notable features on his sister 'state of indie' weblog.]

This week on 'Best Of Indie Games', we take a look at some of the top titles released earlier this week - a lo-fi mutant take on Tetris, something kickflippin' neat from bi-annual game competition Ludum Dare, a WarioWare-style Japanese freeware game, and an innovative browser MMORPG.

Game Pick: 'Tiny Hawk' (pekuja, freeware)
"This miniaturized, hilariously named skating game was one of the highlights from the recent Ludum Dare competition, where all participants engage in a friendly coding challenge with the objective of developing a game in under forty-eight hours. Also, food."

Game Pick: Stormbaancoureur (nop, freeware)
"A rather fun physics-based game which involves driving your vehicle past a number of obstacles. A free roam area and tutorial is included."

Game Pick: 'Made in Wired' (Junpei Isshiki, freeware)
"Made in Wired is basically the result of mashing basic shmup conventions with WarioWare-style gameplay, in which players are allowed only a few seconds to react and complete the random objective given at the start each stage. A simple concept, but surprisingly fun and comes with a decent selection of music as well."

Game Pick: 'Alleytris' (Joseph Larson, freeware)
"Coming in at less than 100 KB in size, the strategies you've been using in Tetris for over a decade aren't applicable in this version - as the well has been reduced to only four squares in width."

Game Pick: 'After Doomsday' (Kenshiro and Tectec, browser)
"Created by a team of two developers using only PHP and MySQL, After Doomsday is a new browser-based RPG set in the distant future with an emphasis on PvP encounters. Like Kingdom of Loathing, Twilight Heroes and Urban Dead, the game costs nothing to play but members who donate will receive special bonuses reserved only for the privileged few."

Opinion: The Rough Road For Independent Console Developers

- [Industry veteran Keith Boesky - who is both a long-standing game agent/attorney and former president of Eidos - was kind enough to contribute this essay to GameSetWatch about why the mid-sized independent developers can get in trouble in today's market - a sentiment that is particularly true given the recent demises of studios including Stormfront and Pseudo Interactive - and how it can be fixed.]

The numbers are killing the independent console (and PC, where they still exist) game developers. But not the numbers in the budgets, rather the numbers in the titles. Take a look at the top selling games for last year - each title ended with a number. This year's most anticipated titles end with 4s and higher. Like the film business, rising costs and expense management mentality moved the game business from one of innovation to one of risk mitigation. The problem is exacerbated by the influx of soda and soap sellers into positions of power.

When presented with a product, the first thing a publisher does is look for a benchmark. What does this product look like? If it looks like something good, we can build a plan around the budget and then give it to the sales guys. The sales guys can go out into the market and ask the buyers if two years from now they would be willing to buy something that looks like the thing that sold really well last Christmas. Sounds pretty efficient. . . . if you are selling a new brand of tampon.

Another model, as articulated by Robin Kaminsky of Activision at DICE, is to identify a hole in the market. For example, they noticed racing is popular, but there weren't enough racing games out there. They could buy Bizarre Creations and enter the category in a meaningful way. This can in fact work out, if you don't want to disturb the status quo.

When Take-Two took over Bioshock, was it because they identified the market need for an Ayn Rand inspired shooter in a distopic future? How about Namco, did they identify an unmet demand for a big sticky thing rolling through piles of garbage? And Activision themselves, they definitely saw the demand for people who were tired of playing air guitar empty handed - after the market spoke and bought a ton of product Harmonix spent 9 years trying to make.

Trip Hawkins did not make Madden Football because there was a "hole in the market" for football simulation. He made it because it was going to be fun to play with his friends. Eidos did not need a focus group to figure out men may like to watch Lara Croft's backside for 30 hours. Sam Houser did not do a marketing study to see whether gamers would want to live on the wild side in an open world. These are some of our biggest franchises and their titles are known today as the thing that comes before the number. They were made when people built on gut.

None would make it through a marketing group today, and each would need some type of running demo, funded by the developer. In case you are not tracking, the developer is the guy without money. I am sure these risk mitigation techniques make sense to the legions of MBAs who are doing their best to commoditize a once creatively driven business, but how long is the consumer going to hang in there?

When I got into the business, the deal cycle between games was a couple of weeks. A developer finished a game, lifted their heads from work and went out for the next deal. Now the cycle can take 6 months or more. If the developer lets the team go after a game, the publishers won't sign because the team is not ready to go. That means burn rate without revenue.

Moreover, publishers want to see working demos, proofs of concept. More burn rate without revenue or commitment. They ask for these further risk mitigating elements because they enter into every negotiation, and every deal like they are committing to build the f*cking pyramids. The reality is, they are not.

First risk mitigator: A developer who has completed one or more hit games, building on the same or largely the same technology is highly likely to finish the game. Additionally, the likelihood of a hit is high. I understand publishers shying away from new technology. They should, and no developer should be stupid enough to walk into a publisher saying they are going to build a new PS3 engine at the same time they are building a game. But if they already built it...

Second risk mitigator: Publishers always put a provision in their agreements allowing termination for convenience. The payments upon termination vary, but generally run from payment of current milestone to payment of a few milestones in the future. They do not need a reason to terminate. They can terminate because they don't like the lead designer's socks - don't laugh, I saw it happen.

So if they sign a $20 million game, they are not signing a $20 million game. They are signing a month to month deal to keep track on the games progress and see if they want to keep building it. If they think it takes a wrong turn, they can cancel it and give it back to the developer. Worst case, they write off development, best case, the developer reimburses them. I have seen both happen.

I am not advocating buying every opportunity or reducing the scope of developer due diligence. I am saying to Mr. Experienced Product Guy, if your gut tells you this game will be fun and the developer has a track record, f*ck the sales dude and go with your gut. Start a long and lean pre production process. For a relatively small amount of money you can see if the game comes together. If it looks good, staff up and build. If it does not, you are not out very much money.

There are many things to avoid from Hollywood. There are, however, some lessons to be learned. Hollywood will pay a nominal amount of money for an option to purchase a lot of properties. They will then invest money into what we would call pre production, they call development, to see if the property goes somewhere. If it does, they invest heavily and build. If it does not, they let it revert or sell it off. Not rocket science, but it is a great response to escalating production costs. There is no reason we cannot apply this model.

If we continue in this stasis and only give lip service to original IP, not only will we make boring games, but we will stifle the industry's growth. The publishers are also unwittingly giving rise to a competitive market. The same market forces that drove the independent film business and related financing are at work in the game business. Independent financing is starting to come together and will create an opportunity for original IP. But it is slow coming.

Once it is established, new franchises will be built, and will cater to the familiar publisher refrain "let someone else be successful and I will buy it at a premium. It is worth the premium to not lose money on development." Sound business practice. . . for tampons.

In the mean time, I am afraid we may see more pairing of press releases like these:

"Iron Lore Entertainment won the award for Best New Studio at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) 2007.

The New Studio award recognizes the outstanding achievement of a "new" game development studio and the obstacles it overcame in releasing its first publicly available game in the year 2006."

...and the second, which came about a year later:

"It is with great regret that we must announce that as of the close of business Tuesday, February 19, 2008 Iron Lore Entertainment has ceased active game development. Several unrelated events occurred which resulted in Iron Lore being unable to secure funding for its next project."

[Keith Boesky has been active in the content and technology communities as an attorney, a senior executive, an agent and now as principal of Boesky & Company. Boesky & Company closed more intellectual property and game development deals, making more money for its clients than any other agency in the world. The Company’s clients include The Robert Ludlum Estate, Clive Barker, Spark Unlimited, Liquid Entertainment, Riot Games and GDH. The company also provided guidance regarding the structure of the game industry to Morgan Stanley and Thomas Weisel Partners.

Mr. Boesky draws upon his experience as an attorney in intellectual property and public and private finance where he represented Qualcomm, Angel Studios, Presto Studios, Rebellion, The Neverhood and The Upper Deck Company; as president of Eidos Interactive where he expanded the Tomb Raider franchise from games to other media; and as an agent with International Creative Management where he worked with talent and properties like Peter Jackson’s King Kong and Jordan Mechner’'s Prince of Persia, to bring value to the company’s clients.]

GameSetLinks: An Eyeful Of French Trouser

- No, really, delighted to be starting off this near-weekend GameSetLinks with one of the finest Continental European game covers ever - at least if you're enamored with This Is Vegas, clover coloring and crotches.

Also in here - a passionate discussion of Rock Band dropouts, the latest Mega64 adorable randomness, and a fake Battletoads trailer for Wii causes Scientology mayhem. No, really. Really really. Here's them links:

Vertigames » Blog Archive » Viva la France!
Whoa, a big WTF on that French 'This Is Vegas' cover image, heh.

PC World - If It's Good Enough for Shatner...
Benj Edwards scans up a storm for PC World, referencing classic celebrity computer endorsements.

Annoying Scientology with Battletoads - The Gameshelf
This gets linked for the article name alone, though the story (about this YouTube video) is plain bonkers.

Newsweek's Level Up: Announcement: With Apologies to Arianna Huffington and Simon Carless, Level Up Starts Rolling Out Its Lineup of Regular Columnists
Heh, that's the first time I've even been paired with Arianna Huffington, for sure. But seriously, it's good to see the 'contributor' approach rubbing off, cos it's a good one.

Shrapnel Games: Digital Eel free games page
All 3 oldest wacky Seattle-styled alt.indie games from Digital Eel (Plasmaworm, Big Box of Blox , Dr. Blob's Organism) - fer free. Is this old? They sent out a new press release about it, anyhoo!

Worlds In Motion - Analysis: Virtual Worlds And Investment, Q1 2008
Oop, was having a grumpy morning when I wrote this! Still true, though.

Results from James Portnow's Game Design Challenge: MMO Class - GameCareerGuide.com
Looks like the challenge went really well on sister site GCG!

Mega64's Street Fighter II Bonus Round video
I'm really hoping Capcom has commissioned them to do a series of these for HD Remix. Maybe? Hopefully?

sardius_: Outsmarting Rock Band's Online Quitters: A Half-Assed Essay (Assay)
'Playing Rock Band online is less about rhythm and more about psychoanalyzing XxDragonWolfxX and wondering if he'd be less willing to quit on you if you dressed your character up in leopard-print pants.'

Play Doeo, a free online game on Kongregate
Delicious Katamari art style clicky clicky in Flash - via RPS.

April 24, 2008

Interview: Capcom's Kujawa On Revisiting Classics, Bullet Hell

- [This Brandon Sheffield-conducted interview with Capcom's Kraig Kujawa discusses Capcom's remake strategy on digital download titles like Commando and 1942, as well as meandering rather wonderfully into classic shmup geekiness - which we heartily approve of.]

Being the lead designer on Midway Chicago's recent Blitz: The League gave Kraig Kujawa some perspective on rebooting a fondly-remembered property.

That experience has carried over to his current role as Capcom's design director for the United States and the UK, where he is overseeing a number of projects that should be familiar to nostalgic gamers.

Kujawa sat down with Gamasutra to discuss Capcom's current third-party development structure, the challenges in revisiting franchises such as Commando and 1942 via PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade, and how the company is trying to straddle the line between accessible shooter and brutal bullet hell.

Keeping Communication Strong at the (Third) Party

Kraig Kujawa: I’m the director of design for the U.S. and UK Capcom CEI. Technically I’m watching over the design and direction of all of our titles. I am heavily involved with [Wolf Of The Battlefield: Commando 3 and 1942: Joint Strike XBLA/PSN updates] right now, working with developer Backbone to just get the direction.

What we have here is an interesting development model. What we have is an internal team who came from development. We have a direction of production (that’s Adam Boyes), a director of design (that’s me), we’re getting a director of art, and what we do is we work with design teams to drive the directions of the Capcom U.S. and UK projects.

Every development team has a lot of strengths, and they have weaknesses, so what we try to do is we try to supplement any weaknesses they might have, and then let them concentrate more on their strengths. That’s kind of our development model.

I’m pretty involved with Commando and 1942 right now. I’m also involved with Dark Void that was announced back in October, and, to a lesser extent, on [piratical strategy title] Plunder, because you’ve got Certain Affinity, with ex-Bungie guys, so they’re going to make a kick-ass product. You almost just stand and watch them work their magic. That’s my involvement on our projects right now.

I actually heard from Christian Svensson about the developer summit you had just before GDC, where you had all the developers in here and played some of the games. It sounds like you’re trying to approach this differently than other publishers with external studios – what is the different mindset, would you say?

KK: Yes, actually that happened in this very room. We feel like, we came from first-party development, everybody in our team has been in development, so we know what it’s like. We also know the advantages of being able to talk to one another in different teams in order to share tech and solve certain problems, so what we wanted to do is different from most third-party development.

We wanted to treat our developers as partners. We want to do multiple games with them. We want them to talk to one another. We want them to show each other what they’re working on. Conceptually, if one developer’s having problems with this, they can talk to other developers and work out problems.

You can imagine what kind of breadth of developers – we have Backbone, we have ex-Bungie guys, we have another really, really good team that we can’t talk about, and we have some guys in Sweden, some guys in Scotland. Really talented development partners, where they can actually talk to one another and try to overcome challenges.

Most of the time in third-party development? Nobody in third-parties talks to one another. They’re out on their own island, and if they have problems they’re kind of just stuck there and they have to work through it. Here at Capcom what we want to do is act as the cohesive glue to keep these guys talking to one another and almost create a third-party family. So far we have a lot of examples where that’s worked really well.

Do you have any examples that you can mention?

KK: We have A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. that developed Rocketman: Axis of Evil for us, they have a lot of PS3 tech, and they also have a lot of experience with the PS3 headset support.

Certain Affinity, of course, have a lot of 360 experience, so when we put together the Plunder deal, what we ended up doing was have A.C.R.O.N.Y.M put together the PS3 SKU, and also do the PS3 headset support, so they’re sort of working together to do these multi-SKUs, and I really don’t think that’s done very often.

Revisiting the Past

The style for Commando 3, the illustrations are pretty cartoony, and the in-game stuff is Team Fortress 2-looking. What was the mindset for the aesthetics?

KK: That’s a good analogy. What we wanted to do was make it more casual and friendly for all players, as it is an Xbox Live game. So I think when you make the graphics a little more cartoony you can get away with more.

You can use flamethrowers to set guys on fire, you can run over guys, hit them with grenades and you won’t get into that weird space where it feels a little more mature. So you can just have fun with the cartoony graphics. We think that because it’s over the top violence it’s sort of a good way to approach it.

A good comparison would be the Rambo movie that just came out, right? The violence is very over the top, but the characters feel very real, so it kind of feels a little uncomfortable. We wanted to take cues from that over the top violence but balance it with the cartoony graphics. We felt [that] was the appropriate way to approach it.

For both of these games, how much was borrowed and how much did you feel needed to be changed? There are a lot – and will continue to be a lot – of instances of Capcom taking older titles and revisiting them. I assume there’s not a methodology and it’s a case-by-case basis, but how do you determine what’s good about a series and what needs to be taken out?

KK: We do a number of things. In some cases the producers from Capcom are still working at Capcom Japan, so we actually throw some ideas back and forth with them and get their sign-off on it so far as, ‘These are the features that we think are cool, what do you think about it?’ And they give some feedback. They don’t drive it, but will give us feedback on what they think.

The cool thing is, I’m a huge arcade fan. The guys at Backbone, they have a huge arcade there, and they know what the essence of these games are. We don’t want to disappoint any fans, so it’s a balance of keeping enough things that are the same, and tweaking it enough, adding enough new things to keep it fresh for everyone.

So with Commando 3, we very much kept the action the same but added co-op play and co-op vehicles. The co-op vehicles add a really cool twist: when you get three guys in that vehicle, and are going over stuff, it adds a really cool piece of depth that wasn’t in the game before.

With 1942, the joint strike attacks completely change the game – the spatial game mechanics we have with the two planes, trying to keep far apart so that you can get the maximum impact with the weapons, that adds a ton of depth. But we still lift a ton of art from the original game.

We still look at 1942, 1943, 194X, we watch the long plays that are all online, where you can actually watch people play through the game. Backbone actually has 1942 and 1943 arcade machines. So you do a ton of research, you do a feedback loop with Capcom Japan, and I think we’ve hit the sweet spot with the games.

There hasn’t been a Western-developed shooter that was a major release for a long time. The last one I can think of that wasn’t on a handheld or something was Project X-2 from Team 17/Ocean. The expertise doesn’t necessarily exist natively, so how did you go about managing that?

KK: That’s a good question. When I was in development, I would never have thought that I’d end up contributing on a shooter. You would think that genre was gone and buried, so thank God it isn’t anymore. I think the first answer lies with Backbone. They have a lot of good arcade DNA. They’ve done a lot of conversions to Xbox Live Arcade. They have their own arcade and Michael, who runs the studio, is a huge arcade fan. These guys just get casual play and pick-up-and-play.

But, honestly, a lot of it is just a learning curve. The best thing about these games is that we got them up and running very early. Once you get things running early you can start playing them, seeing what does work and what doesn’t, and between that and studying the classic games you can see, ‘Oh, that’s why they did that pattern’, ‘Oh, that’s how they got the ebb and flow from moment to moment.’

I think it’s a learning experience, and maybe that’s why we put more time into these games than was originally slated, because we wanted to do the originals justice and we had to nail what a shooter was all about.

Cooling Down Bullet Hell

The 194X series never seemed to be very bullet-oriented, it was always more that the planes were coming to get you. But with the new game, it seems to be more of a combination of the old-school stuff and the more modern, curtain fire, bullet hell approach?

KK: You totally nailed it. The trick is that most people remember the earlier ones, because that’s what they grew up on: 1942 and 1943. And then the hardcore players who really know the history – like yourself – know 194X.

What we wanted to do is make sure that the people who remember it in the beginning still have some things to latch on to, but that the hardcore notice some stuff as well, so we take grab-bag of the best bits, that we think fit together, and that’s the first layer. The second layer is the co-op attacks that fit on top of it. So that’s how we develop it. We want to take the best of each one, and I think there’s a little bit of each game in there.

Because there have been two quite excellent shooting games on Xbox Live Arcade – Triggerheart Exelica and Omega Five.

KK: How good are you at those, by the way?

How good am I?

KK: Yeah, because I get owned a lot.

I’m bad – I like them a lot, but I’m bad.

KK: Yeah, I’m in the same boat as you.

I play Cave shooters a lot like Do Donpachi and Ketsui, which are also coming to 360.

KK: Ikaruga? Have you played that as well?

Yes, I try to play all the shooters. But when I was in Japan I met with a guy from Milestone whose job at Milestone is just programming bullets. Milestone did a bunch of games, none of which made it here except for Chaos Field. There’s also one called Radirgy. How much attention is being paid to those specific shooter mechanics?

KK: We played Ikaruga quite a bit. I think it’s an awesome game, but it’s really, really hard, and just to interject into the conversation we just had - we love the games but we can’t get through them.

I want to love the game and be able to get through it. And that’s kind of the mindset we’re developing these games with. We want the casual audience, and we want people to be able to enjoy every boss. What’s the point of doing five or six bosses if only ten percent of people are going to see the fifth boss?

So we do have difficulty settings, but the achievements and everything are tied into the normal one and the slightly harder setting. Rey Jimenez, who’s the producer on the project, is the biggest die-hard shooter fan. We were taking screenshots of bullet patterns from Ikaruga, and boss reference art, and saying, “Hey, Rey, what do you think of this?” So we’re very cognitive of everything. We’re diehard.

I downloaded Exelica and Omega Five – it’s kind of weird and quirky. But we’re huge shooter fans. One of the things in 1942 with the tanks is that you can blow of the turrets and they keep rolling, that’s from Tiger Heli.

One of my fondest memories from Tiger Heli is watching the really dumb tanks creep after you blow off their turrets, and I felt really sorry for them. So I said, “We’ve got to do that in ’42.” So we do it in level two. We’re all super diehard shooter fans, so that’s why I think it’s going to come out well, because we’re fans of the genre.

When I was watching Commando, I assumed it was going to be very Cannon Spike oriented, but it reminds me more of Ikari Warriors now. Where Commando 2 was very vertically scrolling, it’s now both directions.

KK: I think a lot of that is that we want to use the whole screen, and that’s a feature thing. It was kind of sad to lose the vertical screen, but there’s a lot of shooters like that on Live Arcade, so we chose to use the whole screen and that gives you more room for the co-op.

It is more like Ikari Warriors meets Commando in the way it’s a four-way shooter, but I think we’re intuitively programmed to expect that now in a way, when you have that sort of perspective, so we want to embrace what you’ve learned already and then layer Commando on top of it. So there is a bit of leeway, which we’ve given ourselves there, for sure.

Moving a fully vertical series to also incorporate a horizontal plane – what are the logistics of that?

KK: I can give you some of the benefits. We have some explorable areas – you can blow up areas and move into them. But logistically you have to accommodate for players being able to dodge more of the projectiles. Because before you had them move up and down, and usually what would stop you from going up is the boss, right? Well now, the boss is still here, but you have this much more room.

So it really comes down to iterating: get a first pass of it. Here at Capcom we try to constantly engage the community, have them come in every two weeks and playtest, so you put down your regular bullet patterns, have the community and focus testers come in and play, and think, okay, there’s too much leeway. Let’s add another bullet pattern here, let’s tone these guys back.

What we’re having to do is different patterns and more different patterns, as they’re able to move around so easily and dodge. Honestly what you’d see a lot is curlicue bullets, which are easier to dodge when you have more horizontal space, and then you’d see a lot of the two-way.

You don’t have enough of those to make you move around normally, so you have to put in more of them. You can do a little relay stuff where you can actually predict where it’s going to go, and then get closer to that rather than just firing where you used to be. So that’s how we accommodate it: iterate, iterate, iterate, and then watch how people react to it.

Do you find that you’re putting more low-level AI in versus straight patterns?

KK: To an extent. AI is difficult because you don’t have much dev time to spend on it. Especially with 2D engines, you don’t have as much out-of-the-box AI as you would working on Unreal [Engine 3]. So we do have some special case AI, for example, if the player does this, do this – very special case – and then layered in between we have some pattern stuff, which is typical of arcade games.

It seems that it’s slightly less pattern-based than before, so it varies up the experience more that rote-memory.

KK: Exactly, it will predict where you’re going and try to intercept.

It seems that both of these games are being made for the middle-range casual who remembers arcades – why focus on that instead of going for the hardcore guys that want to one-credit the whole game?

KK: Spot on. Yes, as I’m sure you know, it’s more a functionable audience on Live Arcade, and some of our own personal biases – we want to make sure that people can play this game.

Casual people want to get in and get out – they don’t want to get frustrated. Some of those classic shooters might do some of that for them, so we just want a shooter that’s really easy to play and enjoy casually. Just hunker down with a couple of beers and your friends and get through it and not get frustrated.

For the people who really like that diehard feeling we have the harder difficulty levels – we have four of them in fact, and we will have some achievements tied to it to show that you’re a badass with shooters. But we don’t want to exclude everyone, because we feel a lot of shooters do that. God bless, there’s a lot of shooters I absolutely love that do that.

It seems with 1942 you could have a hardcore one-credit mode where you couldn’t get those kind of scores elsewhere.

KK: I would love to do that. You’re the second person to mention that, and if we had time we’d love to do something like that.

World of Warcraft Exposed: 'The Players Behind the Scenes'

nihilum.jpgDay after day, hundreds of thousands of people across the globe play Blizzard's ridiculously popular game. It's kind of awe-inspiring to think about, the sheer number of humans all inhabiting the same virtual space.

Most are content to enjoy the experience of leveling up a character, raiding with their friends, or engaging in Player vs. Player combat. Some, simply by their actions or position in life, stand out of the crowd. Their influence has changed the face of the game, and in some cases shaped the game itself.

The word player, of course, can have more than one meaning. In this case, we're talking about the movers and shakers that have made Azeroth what it is today. From literal individuals on the Blizzard development team, to player-run organizations, to other massively multiplayer games entirely many hands have shaped World of Warcraft's success.

The Designers

nihilum.jpgThe group of players that have had the most direct impact on the game are, of course, the people actually running it. Blizzard Entertainment's jump from RTS developer to MMOG powerhouse seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, thanks largely to the people behind the project. Rob Pardo, for example, was a Designer on the Warcraft II, StarCraft, and Diablo II games.

Today he's the lead designer for World of Warcraft, but during the time of EverQuest's genre dominance he was best known in the MMO community as leader of the Legacy of Steel guild. When he left the position of LoS guild leader he passed that torch to Jefferey "Tigole" Kaplan, the man who is now lead world designer for World of Warcraft.

Looking just beyond the game's design and success, it's easy to see that the developers of the game were working from a set of blueprints put together by Verant Interactive/Sony Online Entertainment. Kaplan, Pardo, and the other developers at Blizzard were not working in a vacuum; instead, they were taking the next logical steps along a lengthy path.

Tracing that route back further you can see people like John Smedley, Raph Koster and Richard Garriott, notable designers from the MMO launches of 1998 and 1999. And even beyond those folks stand people like Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw, developers of what is recognized as the first 'proper' MMO: MUD1.

Guilds and Gold Farmers

nihilum.jpgGiven the importance of end-game content, it should come as no surprise that raiding guilds have an enormous impact on World of Warcraft. To a greater or lesser extent much of the most impressive content at the end of the game is geared towards guild play.

The biggest guilds on each server have influence over the culture, traditions, and communication style within that community. Some guilds have an influence that extends even beyond their individual server. Groups like Nihilum, Death and Taxes, or Fires of Heaven have made names for themselves far beyond their individual servers by completing content very quickly after it's released.

These high-profile guilds often make it a point to test content on the Public Test Realms even before it reaches launch status, given them a leg up on the competition. Because of their influence within certain segments of the player community as a whole, Blizzard is inclined to track and consider their opinions on a variety of issues.

Another group Blizzard tracks as carefully as it can, but for different reasons, are gold farmers. World of Warcraft's popularity has made for a booming third-party in-game currency market. As a result, legions of individuals 'farm' gold in the game for resale via currency exchange sites. This is an enormously lucrative business, but wholly against the terms of service for the game.

Despite mass bannings, careful datamining, and adaptive spam filtering techniques applies to in-game mail, gold farming is a persistent nuisance that neither Blizzard nor any other MMO developer has been able to completely stamp out. The impact of gold farming and gold farmers on the game is incalculable to track.

Players regularly quit the game because of negative farming experiences. Others have their accounts hacked when they try to make use of 'power leveling' services. Still others have their accounts banned after purchasing farmed gold. Blizzard customer service spends an inordinate amount of time and money dealing with the aftermath of farmers and their crop, resulting in less time for customers with legitimate concerns.

Though they're seldom taken into account when considering World of Warcraft's player ecology, farmers may be one of the single most influential groups in the game.

Players and Their Pasts

nihilum.jpgThough Blizzard's employees may make the game and groups make shape the game, individual players are ultimately the ones that have to play the game. Singular players rarely have the chance to make an impact on the WoW player population as a whole, of course, but their are exceptions. Many of those notables made their impact through audio or video recordings.

Many gamers have heard of the legendary Leeroy Jenkins, for example, and his fame began with a simple YouTube video. Podcasters like the men and women behind TavernCast, World of Warcast, or WoWcast have all swayed the opinions of players far beyond their circle of guildmates and server-fellows.

Other players become well known for their unique exploits; Gutrot the naked Troll, for example, leveled a character to 70 without wearing a scrap of armor or carrying a weapon. Still others become known to the World of Warcraft player community for their real-life bravery. Ezra Chatterton's visit to Blizzard Entertainment resulted from his passion for the game and his long fight with metastasized cancer.

Less seriously, Hans Olsen's brave attempt to save his sister from a charging moose worked thanks to his experiences in-game.

Another element shaping player experiences, and perhaps the most nebulous of all influences on World of Warcraft, are the past histories of the guilds, gamers, and developers. Though Sony Online Entertainment has made a sequel to the original EverQuest, World of Warcraft is often considered a more 'faithful' successor to the original game.

Thanks largely to the gaming past of the Blizzard development collective, the lessons of the original EQ were close at hand during WoW's design. The first initial wave of players, as well, largely came from other MMOs - EQ, Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars Galaxies, Asheron's Call.

These past games influenced player perceptions of WoW, and allowed the first wave of players to fully appreciate the game's advances. Though the many millions of players that followed that first wave may be completely unaware of any other titles in the genre, it's well worth noting that the many past MUDs and MMOs had enormous importance in World of Warcraft's rise to notoriety.

Though the WoW franchise is making Vivendi millions and Azeroth may have a population larger than some major metropolises, the influence of a few individuals will always reverberate out into the wider world. The next time you're considering the cool grey stone of Ironforge or looking down from your Wyvern at the waters of Zangarmarsh, it's worth taking time to note the influence of the players behind the scenes.

GameSetLinks: Invading Your Space Since 2005

- Gadzooks and Godzuki, it's time for a tad more GameSetLink-age, as the scrappy late week twilight unveils a host of random web goodness.

In there - some limited edition Space Invaders T-shirtiness, discussion on games and addiction from MSNBC, MTV Multiplayer on what games really really mean, and the best record launch party evah. Black hole sun, won't you come?

SPACEINVADERS WORLDWAR.COM
'SPACE INVADERS and the premiere Italian streetwear brand 55DSL join forces on a special collaborative PC game and t-shirt!'

What makes video games 'addictive'? - On the Level - MSNBC.com
Kalning is a v.smart reporter, having been quizzed in excruciating detail by her more than once, heh.

MTV Multiplayer » The Problem With That Line ‘It’s Just A Game’ — Are Our Games Our Fantasies?
I guess this is important? I'm just a bit grumpy about the whole opportunity it's given for a massive peanut gallery attack.

No More Heroes Remix CD Launch Report | Game | Life from Wired.com
Very cool, both from a venue perspective and Jean Snow (Japanese artgeek-er extraordinaire) writing for Game|Life now.

Level Up : The Big Idea: A Brief Look Inside the Mind of the Monogamous Gamer--And a Plea to Developers to Cater to His or Her Needs
Croal riffing on a GSW Chris Dahlen post, as his subject lines get parodically long, heehee.

Watermarks and (lack of) Studio Communication « Desert Hat
'It seems to me that what we need is not only a better system of preserving game assets, but also of sharing those assets to studios that are working on projects involving those games.'

Load This - The Web Page: Let the gaming begin
'Gamasutra is to sites like Gamespot what Harper's is to USA Today.' Activate gloat mode!

Gism Butter » Blog Archive » Most Legendary Haul at the Flea Market
Nice, there are STILL early '80s ROMs turning up at flea markets, like super-rare Cabbage Patch Kids games, crazy.

LinkUp: Invading MoMA | The New Gamer
I'm linking to a linkblog post from my linkblog post!

SnapShot of gamesindustry.biz (rank #53,054), gamasutra.com (#13,036), next-gen.biz (#32,396) - Compete
Gama doing quite well recently, at least in third-party stats, vs. game biz sites, should you consider them them competition.

April 23, 2008

COLUMN: Design Lesson 101 - Condemned: Criminal Origins

- ['Design Lesson 101' is a new regular column by Raven game designer Manveer Heir. The challenge is to play a game from start to completion - and learn something about game design in the process. This week, we look at Monolith's 2005 first-person horror game Condemned: Criminal Origins.]

Design Lesson: Combat in an action game should complement the atmosphere and feel of the game being created.

Combat is the core of an action game. This fact necessitates the need for the combat in an action game to be the most important part of the game. The combat style alone can completely change how a game feels. Imagine Doom, but instead of futuristic shotguns or plasma cannons, you were using old-time muskets and black powder rifles.

It would completely change the complexion of the game, just by the nature of how long it took to reload the weapons and how inaccurate the weapons would become. Not to mention that there would no longer be a rocket launcher! Doom is about fast-paced action, so the weapons support that style of play with their rate of fire, damage, and ability to kill multiple enemies at once.

In Condemned, the player uses melee objects that inhabit the world. You can rip pipes off of walls, pick up wooden boards with nails through them, and even use the back end of a shotgun to kill your opponents. There are pistols, shotguns, and rifles in the game but they have extremely limited ammo.

I would estimate that you spend a good 85% of the time swinging melee weapons at your enemies over shooting guns at them. All of this is done in a first-person perspective, which is very different from most games.

What this does is create a very personal and visceral feel to the combat of the game. You must get close to your enemy to kill him. You must be able to see his eyes, touch his skin, and hear his breathing if you wish to kill him. The game creates a horror atmosphere by playing spooky sounds, putting you in low-lit, tight corridor areas, and having enemies sneak up on you. By making the combat primarily melee, Monolith reinforces that atmosphere by making sure even when you do meet an enemy, you must face him up-close and personal.

Being this close to an enemy has two major effects. First, your field-of-view is obscured more by the enemy, which potentially allows other enemies to sneak up on you to attack without you noticing. The fact that the levels include many tight corridors, make it difficult to maneuver and difficult to escape.

This leads to very tense moments when you suddenly realize there is an enemy behind you. The second thing the close proximity of combat does is magnify mistakes made in combat. There is very little chance an enemy will miss in combat in Condemned if they swing at you and you are standing still. The player must then learn to block and counter attacks reliably, lest they die consistently.

- The result of this is that mis-steps in combat can have greater ramifications. There are many times where I was one-hit killed, with half health left, due to my inability to block the first attack against an enemy with a powerful weapon.

Both of these make for a more tense game. I was constantly afraid of enemies and afraid of dying in the game. I would enter areas slowly, to draw out only a couple enemies at a time if possible, rather than a larger, unmanageable quantity. I would stop and turn at every little sound, fearing it was yet another enemy that sneaked up on me.

The interesting part is that the game isn't that difficult. I didn't die that often, yet I was constantly afraid of dying. This fear of dying is more important to the game than actually dying itself. It's also far less frustrating. Had Monolith gone for traditional FPS combat in the game, it wouldn't have been anywhere near as scary or tense (see F.E.A.R. for an example of that in action).

The fact that the combat was melee made me feel the effects of combat, which were brutal, which helped reinforce that sense of fear within me. It reinforced the horror elements of the game consistently, which led to an enjoyable horror experience (if one can 'enjoy' horror).

Bonus Lesson: Even if you call a key a crowbar, it's still a damn key.

Condemned has many infuriating parts where you must have a certain melee weapon to progress. You will walk up to a door, it will say "fire axe required" and you'll be forced to go find the fire axe in order to progress. This leads to "fetch quests", where you go down some random corridor, because it's the only other way to progress.

Once you fetch the axe from that corridor, you have to drop your current weapon (as there is only one weapon at at time in Condemned), pick the axe up, and go back to the door that requires it. This is the same as "find the blue key" from Doom. Except, now you can use your key to attack enemies.

The reason this isn't very fun is that you end up on a hunt for an obscure item, which must replace your current weapon, in order to progress. It forces back-tracking, which can be difficult with the game's level design at times, and doesn't provide the player with a very interesting goal.

The weapons that unlock areas are also some of the slowest weapons in the game (but strongest), making them very difficult to use. I didn't want to replace my weapon at times, but was forced to, thanks to the mechanic.

Overall, having locked doors and just calling them something else doesn't solve the problem. They are still locked doors, that require keys. They still have all the same flaws as key cards did in the 90's. It's unfortunate, because they weren't necessary for the game at all.

[Manveer Heir is currently a game designer at Raven Software. He updates his design blog, Design Rampage, regularly. He is interested in continuing thoughtful critique and commentary on the gaming industry.]

Analysis: The State Of Midway In 2008

- [We attended publisher Midway's press event in Las Vegas late last week, and Christian Nutt returns to ask an important question to you beautiful GameSetWatch readers - can this year's Midway break its losing streak and turn into a viable publishing entity?]

Veteran publisher Midway has been struggling of late - even the firm itself would admit - posting losses year after year, with its attempted comeback last year stymied by flops such as BlackSite: Area 51 and only marginal successes such as Stranglehold.

Something drastic is required to raise its fortunes. Was that something on display at its recent Editors' Day, held last week -- chiefly for the benefit of the enthusiast press -- in Las Vegas?

While the company showed a strong lineup of core gamer focused titles to a large contingent of the North American and European press, questions remain about whether any of these games will find significant success in the marketplace.

Most crucially, while many will perform, it seems difficult for some to imagine that the success will be significant enough to turn the fortunes of a company that lost nearly $100 million dollars in 2007. Nonetheless, let's examine how Midway chose to walk tall.

A Big, Loud Event

Taking place at the swanky new Red Rock resort hotel in Las Vegas, the event began with a stage presentation mostly geared towards members of the consumer gaming press -- loud, bold, and unflinchingly young male-targeted, with pro wrestlers on stage and exploding cars on screen.

Two games which fit that segment were announced at the event: Blitz: The League II, and Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. The former is a continuation of the dramatic, NFL-free football lifestyle sim-cum-sports game which debuted in 2005; the latter is an extension of the company's flagship fighting game series, wrapped in a major licensing deal -- to lend key early credibility to the pairing, Batman and Superman were the DC characters announced for this fall title.

Otherwise, the bulk of the presentation -- with one exception we'll get to shortly -- was by way of expanding upon the playable demos awaiting its conclusion -- the usual mix of hyperbole, sizzle, and salient information. The games highlighted include: This Is Vegas, Wheelman, NBA Ballers: Chosen One, TNA Impact!, and the belated Xbox 360 port of last year's Unreal Tournament III.

Matt Booty: Interim CEO, Lifetime Midway Man

The exception to the cavalcade of marketing was Matt Booty, president and interim CEO of the company, who spoke the company's usual message of hope, patience, and optimism for its fall lineup. The difference here is chiefly represented by who Booty is; he's been at Midway since 1991, and worked his way up the ranks -- he began as an audio programmer.

While that doesn't necessarily lend any more credence to his version of the message than we might expect if it were still being delivered by former Midway boss David Zucker, there's more passion behind it.

There is also, potentially, a better understanding of where the company sits (and fits), and the state of its technology, frequently both touted as its biggest advantage (centralized tech = productive studios) while also blamed for Midway's failures (Stranglehold and particularly BlackSite: Area 51.)

Centralizing Tech For Success?

Booty was followed by Epic Games vice president Mark Rein. While he spoke about the Xbox 360 port of Unreal Tournament III, his real purpose and pride seemed to be Midway's fully integrated and expanded Unreal Engine 3 central tech solution.

The engine powers games as disparate as TNA Impact! (wrestling), This Is Vegas (open world), and Wheelman (open world/driving.) Gamasutra's own discussions with developers at the event later revealed that Midway's studios, globally, have fully integrated on the tech-sharing front - to the point that work is split between international teams on functionality for all titles.

Engineers who are ostensibly working on one fall 2008 title have, in fact, made heavy contributions to others. Most importantly, perhaps, the company's next round of games will be planned with an eye very much towards total sharing of resources in his regard.

Still, this comprehensive solution has cost the company a great deal of time and effort to set up -- not counting the stuttering sales of games like Stranglehold and BlackSite that were affected by the issues in the run-up to supporting this tech fully. Will it have been worth it?

Guns Blazing, Wheels Squealing

If there was one central theme to the games Midway had on display, it was that mass-market testosterone-soaked entertainment is the road to success. This is, if anything, a further broadening for the company; Stranglehold was a bullet-filled continuation of Hong Kong action classics.

This hasn't always worked optimally for the firm - think back to recent Midway games like L.A. Rush and Spy Hunter: Nowhere to Run. Those had the flash of Hollywood B-movies -- and, unfortunately, also the substance.

So Midway is faced with at least one obvious problem, then -- this strategy is nothing new for the company, and it's resolutely core-focused so there has to be a major shift to allow that this year's editions will turn its fortunes around.

So, to the titles. We'll skip Mortal Kombat for now, as we know the series has a built-in fan base that can presumably only be expanded by yanking in comic book die-hards, and that the last MK (along with kids movie tie-in Happy Feet) is one of the reasons Midway is still around, according to information provided at a prior event.

Wrestling title TNA Impact! is a clear attempt to compete with THQ -- or coexist peacefully, perhaps, as TNA does with WWE on cable. TNA Impact! could become a yearly franchise, just as SmackDown vs. Raw has for THQ, and that would be a crucial way to help ensure a steady cashflow for the developer. Luckily for Midway, it's looking promising.

Wheelman is another attempt at the market pioneered (and perhaps lost) by the Driver series; the chief difference is that this game stars Vin Diesel. Whether or not it's a success could boil entirely down to quality, because conceptually, it's nothing new. NBA Ballers is about to ship; like MK, its audience seems built-in. And, frankly, the only reason we could be getting Blitz: The League II is that the original performed adequately.

The biggest question mark has to hang over This Is Vegas. It's obviously not a cheap game to produce. Its expansive open world and variety of gameplay styles is majorly diverse -- ranging from driving to fighting to partying, which feels something like The Sims meets a frat boy's sense of humor.

Certainly, as a destination, Las Vegas has done much to raise its cultural currency; but whether or not the game can capitalize on this is difficult to decipher. It doesn't rely on the strong character-driven counterculture slant of the Grand Theft Auto series, and Southwest Airlines can cheaply convey Americans, at least, to Vegas whenever they want.

Instead, it celebrates the Las Vegas experience through humor. TIV is admirably ambitious, but whether its design is clever synthesis or Frankenstein, and whether or not it can be marketed effectively, are big, big questions.

Whence Viacom?

The most confusing thing about Midway may be its fractious relationship with Viacom -- despite being principally owned by the same majority shareholder, Sumner Redstone, the relationship between the companies appears perhaps non-existent. This is a deeply complex situation, because they're separate, public companies -- but there appears to be little, if any, cooperation.

When queried by Gamasutra, Booty was unable to answer to whether or not TNA's placement on Spike TV, a Viacom network, had anything to do with Midway's interest in developing the game product. More worryingly, Viacom's MTV Games, publishers of one of the most successful games of 2007 and 2008 -- Rock Band -- turned to EA Partners for distribution of the product. That's a tremendous missed opportunity for Midway.

Conversely, we don't see any integration on Midway's part -- at least judging from this event -- with Viacom's extremely strong lineup of film and TV properties going untouched.

THQ still has a stranglehold on the lucrative Nickelodeon kids' licenses like SpongeBob. That's not great, and is a major and obvious stumbling block for the company, as it implies that despite the potential closeness of the two organizations, Midway operates like any other potential licensee.

It's Not Just About the Dudes

Breaking the testosterone-soaked line, Booty briefly discussed the company's incipient casual gaming portal, though details were scant -- versions of TouchMaster games will be available in addition to the already-announced classics. There was little new here, however, that hasn't been said before.

Beyond that, there was very little emphasis on titles for the Nintendo DS or the Wii; troublingly little, if you look at the NPD results for the last several months. There's little doubt that the company will put out Cartoon Network games on the system, and it's already found success with targeted casual titles like Game Party.

It's also possibly arguable that the event, aimed at the hardcore press, was better served by concentrating on games that appeal to its audience. Even still, we'd like to see some proof that Midway intends to serve this market effectively before we're satisfied with the company's fall lineup.

Can They Turn It Around?

Even with those reservations, there's little doubt that this fall's Midway lineup is more diverse than last fall's.

We've been assured that the lingering tech problems are finally solved (given the appearance and breadth of the Unreal Engine 3 games on show, and the enthusiasm of the developers in conversation for the solution, that seems very possible.)

There's also not that "putting all of your eggs in one basket" problem that Stranglehold presented last holiday, as other titles either diminished in relevance (BlackSite) or lost SKUs (Unreal Tournament III shuffling off 360.)

So, there are possibilities here. The company's most stalwart series, Mortal Kombat, is back. TNA should prove to be a hit. And This Is Vegas has tremendous potential, but is certainly risky. And overall, there's a long way for this company to go. We'll know more by late Autumn - and the results may portend the future of Midway as an independent company.

GameSetLinks: This One Time At GameCamp...

- There's a moose loose about the hoose! No? Nobody? OK, I'll just do some GameSetLinks instead, in that case. Yay.

Actually, this time there's some decided neatness - especially in terms of a Band Bros sequel making music on your DS in Japan soon, some smart rhetoric on the Lost game, a little beautifully ramshackle Daniel Boutros prose, and a cornucopia of other fun. Link me, baby:

Geek Studies » Blog Archive » Locating Aesthetics Between Various Game Appeals
Rebutting John Rose's recent Gama article.

PlayFirst - PlayFirst Grapevine - 4th Birthday thoughts from our CEO
They did $10 million in revenues in 2007 and are not yet profitable - iiinteresting.

Announcing GameCamp! | Games | Guardian Unlimited
This is v.awesome.

Japanmanship: Emotional Design
'I think the West can learn a lot from the Japanese approach, where much is dictated not by the player experience, but by the player’s emotional reaction...'

NCSX: Band Bros DX for DS Pre-Order
Hey, Band Bros sequel - any chance of a Western release this time?

Idle Thumbs: No Promises
A terribly late but really rather good GDC 2008 meta-musing.

NOOOZ: Daniel Boutros' Xbox 360 Magazine article reprints, Pt.1
Boutros, you are an awesome crazy.

Kieron Gillen’s Workblog » newuniversal: 1959
Hey, Gillen's doing weird '50s Warren Ellis reboot spinoffs for Marvel now, neat.

Forget Developers Burning Out, What About Our Press? (Magical Wasteland)
Some particularly notable/smart commenters.

Lost: Via Domus - Adaptive Perils | The New Gamer
'While I've previously clamored for improved recap in games, I didn't mean for immediate recaps, regurgitating the events I just experienced.'

April 22, 2008

Dobbs Challenge Debuts First Month Challenge Winner, Highlights

2008_04_17_thumb.jpg [Our sister programming mag/website Dr Dobb's Journal has been running the Dr. Dobb's Challenge game competition in association with Microsoft Visual Studio, with $10,000 in prizes. There was an initial $1,000 'First Month Challenge' prize for modding the downloadable Windows game - and here's contest organizer Mathew Kumar outlining the best entries and the 'First Month' winner - all worth checking out for game mod fun, and to see if you can do better for the final June deadline.]

It would be an absolute understatement to say we've been blown away by the quality of the entrants to the Dobbs First Month Challenge. We thought that even with $1,000 on the line to the best entrant with a mere month to develop a serviceable work-in progress it was just going to be too much work.

We were, happily, proven wrong and there's a strong crop of hobbyist games now available up on the Dobbs Challenge Critic's Choice download section for you to check out -- including a one button fighting game from Alexkr; Badly Drawn Robots, which can be best described as "Robotron Meets Castle Wolfenstein Meets Dr. Dobbs" and Dobbs Derby, possibly the most ambitious total conversion we've seen yet, which turns Dr Dobbs Challenge into a racing game!

We've selected five mods from a rich selection to spotlight here -- four runners-up and the $1,000 winner. If your entry wasn't selected, please don't  think that we've lost, missed or ignored it!

Runners Up

Alexkr's Mod

2008_04_17_alexkr.jpg

AlexKr has created a mod which works as a sort of one-button sumo - hold down the enter key to run towards your opponent and mash it to attack! [details]

Rodhyde's Mod

2008_04_17_badlydrawn.jpg

RodHyde has created a fast paced shooter with Badly Drawn Robots. The room layout reminds us of the classic adventure game Castle Wolfenstein, even if the gameplay is most similar to Robotron. [details]

Ethanpack's Mod

2008_04_17_debugging.jpg

Ethanpack's Debugging With Dobbs uses the graphics provided with Dr. Dobbs Challenge to good effect, creating a single screen platform shooter (almost a "run and gun") with Dr. Dobbs firing bugs at the Defy All Challenges enemies that swarm the screen! [details]

Lanza's Mod

2008_04_17_modpower.jpg

Lanza's mod, called Modpower, is one of the most technically remarkable, as it contains scrolling levels, something that the original engine was not set up to do -- making the title to the original Dr Dobbs Challenge what Super Mario Bros. was to the original Mario Bros. [details]

$1,000 Winner

Punkle's Mod

2008_04_17_derby.jpg

Punkle's Dobbs Derby is a total conversion of Dr. Dobbs Challenge, turning the game into a one button slot car racer. [details]

Our judges were impressed by the amount of work that must have gone into the mod after such a short period of time, as it features a completely different game design from the original Dr. Dobbs Challenge game, with new graphics (including a simple particle system), but were most instantly impressed by how fun and playable the game's one button controls were even in the game's incomplete state.

 If you entered but didn't win, please don't lose heart. As we've already stated, the judges were very impressed with the majority of the entries, and found it very hard to choose a winner. With a $9,000 prize pool still on offer, it'd be foolish to give up now!

If you haven't even begun developing your mod, there's plenty of time yet too.  The deadline for The Dobbs Challenge is June 13th, 2008, and you still stand a chance to win: Best Windows Game ($4,000), Best Windows Mobile Game ($2,000) Best One Button Game ($1,000), Best Game Starring Dr Dobbs And The Defy All Challenges Crew ($1,000) and Best Total Conversion ($1,000).

COLUMN: Why We Play - “Today, I’ll Stay Inside”

Virtual%20Magic%20Kingdom.jpg [“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. This time - a look at some harsh criticism of a gamer upset when her favorite site went away]

I’m a fan of gaming blog RockPaperShotgun. I think they write intelligent, rich, expansive criticism and analysis. Naturally, I assumed RPS readers were equally intelligent and thoughtful - guilty by association. So then what caused a small group of RPS commenters to attack the gaming habits of an eleven year old girl with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, forcing RPS to shut down the post's comment section?

A Little Background

I was born with a full cleft-palate and cleft-lip. Like all children with birth defects, I never considered it a blessing, just a cross I willingly bear. For better or worse, I usually forgot about the scars on my mouth unless I spotted another child staring or heard an adult make an irresponsible hare lip joke.

Now, I’m twenty-two, and I live the average life of a post-collegiate freelancer in New York City. I have a cabinet full of ramen, a loving girlfriend, and parents that still pay my cell phone bill. And my rent.

For better and worse, I like to think my birth defect shaped me into this person. Truthfully, I’ve never been happier.

A week ago, a friend and fellow gamer, Paul Arzt, responded on our communal blog to my GameSetWatch column, “In the Name of God.” He noted the power of games as safe environments, places where we can make mistakes, learn new skills, and create. He then mentioned a now popular news story, the closing of Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom.

This story has attracted a vocal response; many commenters have been quick to write it off as the closing of yet another Disney marketing MMO, but Paul showed me the unique response of a young girl named Madison who took the news in a personal way. She wrote this on her online journal:

"My favorite web site, Virtual Magic Kingdom (VMK) is closing May 21st. I’m sad and MAD! I can’t live without my friends on VMK. PLEASE sign my guestbook like a petition to SAVE VMK for me and my friends. Pass my site on to everyone you know so they can help too. I love VMK cause I can WALK, TALK, EAT, DANCE, SHOP and play checkers all by myself.

PLEASE HELP ME!

Love,
Madison
p.s. VMK is GERM FREE too!
p.s.s. and no one stares at me there.

As Paul clarified for me, Madison has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (that likely explains her post-scripts). For her, this game, DVMK, is not just a virtual place she can practice life skills free of consequence, as I mentioned earlier; this is a place where she can live life without fear or shame. It’s a place where she doesn’t need someone’s help to live an ordinary life.

Why Gaming Matters To Madison

This shook me. I have never considered my birth defect in relation to my gaming habits. Obviously, a cleft-palate stands no comparison to the seriousness of SMA. Yet, and I hope Madison doesn’t mind, I empathize with her plight.

Since I cannot speak on her behalf, I’ll explain my own upbringing as a gamer with a birth defect as modestly as possible. In elementary school, I spent a lot of my time at home. I had a group of four friends, which our parents, mothers and fathers of the 90’s, called ‘the Hood.’ We were inseparable, and each of us, outsiders in our own ways, had the others’ backs.

But like all kids, there were certain things we never understood about each other. Better, we never understood what made people stare at us. People looked at me because I was physically different; people looked at them because they were mentally different. In times when I felt my friends and family couldn’t understand my differences I resorted to a creative outlet, and, in retrospect, nine times out of ten, that outlet was a video game.

At first, my parents didn’t buy me many NES carts. I had Super Mario Bros. and, being from Kansas City, Bo Jackson Baseball. I played these two passionately, completing them dozens of times. I remember the first time I beat Super Mario Bros. Like a good book, I rebooted, and played through it again.

Is this sad and pathetic? I don’t think so. I think it is part of being a kid. For most (read: all) people, there were hard parts in youth, and as much as we want to believe we were “the cool kid,” hindsight reveals no kid was the cool kid - we all smelt funny, had our distinct insecurities, and lacked refined motor skills. And since you’re reading GSW, I’ll assume we all spent our fair share of nights with nothing but ourselves, our console of choice, and a sixer of Cherry Coke.

Therefore, I assumed we, as gamers, must all empathize with these kids’ traumas. And that’s why I was shocked, and a bit disgusted, by the general gamer reaction to the closure of DVMK. Before Madison even wrote her passionate response, commenters across various gaming blogospheres were quick to criticize eleven year-olds for mourning the death of their favorite game and, for many, their only mode of digital communication.

Perspectives: Ponder On This?

In case you still find this closure a bit silly, here are two thought-experiments to help you better understand the dilemma.

1.) Imagine your favorite game as a child. Got it? Now imagine your parent throwing it away. Now imagine them destroying every copy of that game. That’s the experience of an MMO closure for an eleven year old.

2.) Imagine your life without chat clients. That means no AIM, Gchat, or MSNMessenger - nothing. For many parents DVMK is a safe place for their children to communicate, explore, and make friends online.

It utilizes a “safe chat system” which allows players to only uses words in the game’s dictionary - so no foul language, and no kids giving away their phone number or address. There are not a lot of back-ups to this system, and those that exist require the impossible: an eleven year-old manually transferring an entire online social network. I’m twenty-two and I couldn’t fully switch from Facebook to MySpace with a gun to my head.

The RPS Perspective

Enter RockPaperShotgun. They covered the story in brief. They mentioned the closure, and linked to a few personal stories, including Madison’s. It was a well-measured and heartfelt post. And then the users commented.

At first, the comments were varied. Some shared memories of DVMK. Some went tangential with a “damn the man” attitude, attacking Disney. Then a series of comments suggested that no child, healthy or unhealthy, should have such a reliance on a videogame. The argument was cruel, thoughtless, and, above all, erroneous.

Again, Madison replied:

Hi!

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/?p=1537

These comments HURT! They don't understand!
I can't do ANYTHING by myself. In VMK I can.
I lOVE life and I LOVE my friends. My friends and I play in VMK as if we were out on a playground. Which is IMPOSSIBLE in the real world. I can be just like everyone else in VMK. I don't LIVE in a virtual world. My mom does lots of stuff with me and I go lots of places when i can. But I can't go out much in the winter time because of the chance i could pick up germs and get sick…

Immediately, RPS closed their comment section. In its place, they left this message:

"Update - Thread’s now closed to deter further bad eggs. As a general rule - if you can’t say something nice about an eleven year old who’s upset, you probably shouldn’t say anything."

What made these readers speak out against the gaming habits of Madison and other DVMK players? After all, these are readers who dedicate their fair share of time to a gaming hobby, commenting on a site like RockPaperShotgun, which I associate with both hardcore and intelligent PC game enthusiasts.

Before I go further, I’d like to point give a disclaimer about this group from RockPaperShotgun’s Kieron Gillen:

"[It’s] Worth stressing that RPS commenters are a bunch of adorable pussycats compared to the vast majority of gaming sites, and I think characterizing the thread solely as a hate-mob would be deeply unfair. There's some intelligent comments there, mixed with some off-colour gags and some people really not quite getting the girl's situation."

I wholeheartedly agree.

Internet Wild West Frustrations

There’s no exact way for me to reason a group’s action, and in reality, I have no place to say whether they’re right or wrong. The Internet’s still like the Wild West, and unless a comments section is closed, people are free to express themselves. But why did these commenters choose to express their displeasure with an eleven year-old’s gaming habits? What disgusted them, scared them, or frustrated them? Why did they feel emboldened to speak up?

I think they felt a subconscious fear, a stigma from those Cherry Coke nights. As gamers, we work as a group to protect ourselves tooth and nail from certain stereotypes: loners, losers, dorks, perverts, social miscreants, and recluses.

When someone insinuates these stereotypes might apply to a game, like in the case of the recent Resident Evil 5 racism mess at Kotaku, or a group of gamers, as with DVMK players, we try to distance ourselves from the problem. Rather than discuss the problem at hand, we tend to say, “Well, that isn’t me!” Gamers aren’t racist. Gamers don’t squander their life in a virtual world. But it’s never so black and white.

Yes, there is racism in games, there’s racism in all mediums. The problem with our discussions isn’t whether or not the game is racist or we are racist. The problem is how we react to it. What’s our responsibility to and for the games?

Yes, there are reclusive gamers. So what? People do not relate one gamer to all gamers. The problem is how do we protect these games for either social or medical reasons need these virtual society lead day-to-day lives. The questions should be, “What can we do for them?” Not, “How can we further distance them?”

Or maybe I’m making too many assumptions. Maybe we all didn’t spend parts of our childhood feeling different. And perhaps most of us always felt welcome by our family and friends. It’s possible most of us looked at gaming merely as a pastime and can’t associate with it as a sanctuary, a place away from it all.

Then I guess it’s just Madison and me. But if all that’s true, that most gamers and commenters never felt that type of loneliness, and that they attacked a young girl simply because they felt privileged to judge her inadequacies and insecurities in an anonymous setting, then I feel I’m in the right group. I’d rather stay inside where it’s safe than go out with people like that.

[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.]

Interview: PillowFort's Tommy Refenes Talks Goo!

[Some more high-quality interview stylings from sister site IndieGames.com and editor Tim W. - this time with the creator of IGF 2008 finalist Goo! - and additionally, the best damn Rocky IGF montage pastiche ever - see bottom of interview!]

We're proud to feature an interview with Tommy Refenes, founder of the company PillowFort which is based in Hendersonville, North Carolina. One might also recognize his name credited as the developer of Goo!, a finalist for IGF's Technical Excellence award this year. (download the demo)

Hi Tommy, can you introduce yourself for the benefit of our readers? And do you prefer to be addressed as Tom or Tommy?

I'm Tommy Refenes. Programmer, designer... uhh, everything-er of PillowFort, creator of Goo!. Tommy works (Tom's my dad). I'll stick with Tommy forever until I eventually change my name to a symbol.

I literally spend all my time either programming, or reading up on programming or just thinking about programming. I think I've built an immunity to sitting and staring at the computer. I've been doing it professionally since I was 18, and for fun since I was 11. I worked out of my house for this company and had like 4 servers in the house, 4 monitors looking at different computers, and terminal services all over the place. I sold that house to do games.

I had a great house in Charlotte NC. Had a bad ass sports car, living it up... and one day was like "I wanna do games", then this company offered me a job and I sold it all, put it in storage and moved out to that company. I'd say what company it was, but they were total dicks and I don't want to be associated with them in any way. So they can just be "a game company".

Can you explain to us what Goo! is all about?

Goo! is basically a fast-paced action game where you control a big glob of Goo. Goos can represent anything from crowds of bees to Siafu ants to mercury reflecting your image from a webcam... goos are basically anything. There are two modes right now, with at least one more to come before launch. In Survival Mode you control a glob of Goo that is constantly decaying and you fight against a Paint Goo that is constantly growing.

It's basically a very pointless battle as the Paint Goo will eventually eat you but you feel better about yourself because you have tons of points. In Versus Mode you can fight against the AI (well... not NOW, but at launch) or you can play against your friends. In Versus mode when you consume your opponent you get bigger and they get smaller.

The new game modes, I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to do. I'm probably going to do a capture the flag mode with some obstacles in the stage for you to avoid, etc... but that's still kinda up in the air.

In another interview, you've mentioned that Goo! will have online multiplayer features.

Ah yes. The plan is cooperative Survival Mode and Versus Mode. Super Smash Bros. dipped in barbeque sauce is what I'm aiming for with Versus Mode. Cooperative Survival Mode should be a fun one... basically you and probably only one other person will control separate Goos and fight off the Paint Goo.

Versus Mode will support up to 4 players. More than four and it gets stupidly hectic. Four is pretty nuts, we were playing it in the Hotel room at GDC. I hooked it up two nights before the IGF Pavilion... I hadn't had versus mode working since right around July before that. That's why GDC was the first time I ever... EVER played four player. The multiplayer is in the current build, it'll support up to 4 players in versus mode. Survival Mode is still one player.

How long have you worked on Goo!, and how many hours do you work it on everyday?

I average probably 14 hours a day on it, and I've been developing it since May of 06, coming up on 2 years now. It's gone through TONS of revisions and code redos. This last engine will be the final break down start over for the game.

I assume development progress on the game is going smoothly then. How much of Goo! would you say is completed? And is there a reason why there hasn't been any updates in regards to the game on the official site?

Well I'm in the process of redoing the entire engine. The first engine was basically a sort of proof of concept engine. The new engine is much faster and supports OpenGL and DirectX. Right now my energy is focused on that, I've been pretty heavy on it ever since I got back from GDC. Once it's ported to the new engine, which should be by the end of this month I'll go back to completing the game modes. I'd probably say that the overall gameplay is probably 60 to 70% complete. I am going to be adding networking support and add particle effects and polish to finish it up.

The reason there's been no updates is I've been working on the new engine and have been somewhat distracted by other dealings going on with the future of Goo!. Basically I've been buried in lots and lots of work. :)

Are talks on the publishing deal still ongoing? Or have you found a publisher?

I have found one that I want to go with, and they seem very interested, but I'm still working out the details. As far as the publishing goes, nothing is ever a sure thing until you sign the papers so HOPEFULLY I'll be able to announce something here real soon.

Does that technically mean you're not supposed to reveal too much about the project then?

At this time, I can reveal whatever I want about the project and the direction, but as far as the publisher specifics I probably shouldn't just yet. Both for professional and jinx reasons.

Let's say that you're under a publishing deal right now, and can't reveal too much information about the project. What platforms do you envision seeing Goo! on?

I'd always aimed for Xbox 360 because I have prior experience with 360 programming but... due to the kinda change in climate over in XBLA land, I'm sorta shying away from that and leaning towards PSN and PC distribution. I'd love to put it on the Wii, but I don't have an office so I can't get a Wii devkit.

The PS3 can definitely handle the work load, and PC + Steam = Good. Plus with the new threading model the game will run on a single core machine... not quickly, but it will still run.

Any specifics on your negative feelings towards having Goo! on the Xbox 360 console?

Well... if I'm being honest, Microsoft doesn't return my emails after over a year of talking with them, and I'm kinda tired of sending emails and not getting any response. It's almost like when their royalty rates changed they stopped returning emails.

If Goo! is to be published for the PC, will it support anything other than an Xbox 360 controller? A combination of keyboard and mouse perhaps.

If it were to come out on PC, I'd support the mouse in some way though I'd push people to using a joystick. Right now you can use the 360 Joystick or any DirectInput compatible controller.

Is the latest build available for download the new engine or the old one?

Actually when I got back from GDC I redid the threading model in anticipation of the Intel Threaded Game contest. So that's really the only thing different, the new threading model runs the game much faster, but I haven't released it yet because I'm focused on getting the new engine ready to go. The demo up on the website is what I showed at GDC with a few improvements to the controls.

Will we see another build uploaded before the game gets published?

I think so. Depending on how fast the publisher moves. I dunno if they'll make me take it down or not, but I'll squeeze something out there for everyone. The response is great from people and I feel I owe it to them to give them at least something before they have to purchase the game.

Goo! was previously a team effort, and now you're working on it single-handed. Will this remain the same until the game launches, or are you planning to get some help on the project?

It'll definitely stay solo for programming and design mainly with some help in the art and sound department. I'm actually relying on user feedback to help tweak and design the game. I found that a ton of problems presented itself just while watching people play the game at GDC and the ideas and way people want to play the game seems to carry from person to person. I'm so used to playing the game that I don't see these little problems. Having said that I have a HUGE list of changes and tweaks from watching people play at the IGF pavilion.

Do you have a schedule for the development of Goo!? A specific month in which you plan to complete the project?

Well it's mainly dependent on the publisher and that schedule at this point. I'd love to have it out for Christmas and I'll probably kill myself to get it there but we'll just have to see.

Will Goo! be PillowFort's first published game then?

Yea, first but by far not the last. The next is cooking. I WANT to submit the next one for IGF 09...buuuuttttt we'll see.

The next game will greatly depend on how the publishing deal works out and how I feel and how much I can get done. The new engine is perfect for powerful rapid prototyping. And I'm a tech guy, so whatever game I do will push the tech limit.

Was it your first time at GDC?

Yes it was. I've always wanted to go to E3, but GDC was absolutely amazing. By far the best week of my life in the last five years.

What were some of the best feedbacks or comments you've received for Goo! at GDC?

There were sooo many at GDC. The most flattering was when I wasn't at my booth really.

Some guys from the Intel booth came up, saw Goo! and said to Adam (Saltsman, artist on Owl Country - he was watching my booth) "Did you make this", he goes "no... Tommy did but he's not here." And they go "Does he know about the Intel Threaded Game contest...cause he should enter it, this will win."

I had a bunch of Sony guys come up and bombard me and complement the game, that was really cool. Jenova Chen said the game looked cool and we talked a little bit about Sun Tzu and RTS games.

Did you prepare an acceptance speech for the awards ceremony? And what was it?

Haha actually I did. And I was sooooo hurt when I didn't win. Basically I was going to thank mom and dad and tell Brandon McCartin that he owed me one night of hot sex. There probably would have been a "Holy fucking shit I won" in there. But alas... I was robbed.

Any ill feelings towards Kyle and Ron from 2D Boy then?

Nah those guys are awesome. Kyle and Ron are good guys and I told them that World of Goo looks like a Nintendo game... which I think is an awesome compliment. Nintendo is like the holy grail of game development and they're on it.

What do you think of the coincidence in the name of 2D Boy's and Pillowfort's debut games?

Haha 2D Boy ripped me off!

Best games you've seen at GDC?

World of Goo was awesome and that's actually the only one I really played and saw for the first time at GDC. I didn't see too much of anything else.

Did Edmund comment about the Gish skin you've made for Goo!?

Yes, a long time ago I had a site called Tommunism.com and Edmund and I were affiliates. we just linked each others' sites really. We talk every once in a while about stuff, wanted to collaborate on a game eventually... stuff like that.

What other skins do you plan to add to Goo!?

I'm basically going to improve on the skins that are there, do a final art pass on them to make them look really nice. I'm going to add a lava one, a nicer looking oil one, improve the camera / liquid metal one, and I'm going to release the skin compiler with the game so people can make and use their own skins.

Will the Gish skin be included?

I think so, depends on the publisher really. Edmund seems cool with it. I mean, Edmund is cool with it being in there, I hit him up before I made it. Asked if I could show it at GDC, etc. But publishers are funny about stuff like that.

Let's just say you could have any skins you like in the game, what would be your picks?

I'd definitely do the camera one, and a much better liquid one that refracts the background. I've always wanted to do one where it was like space ships over a cool space scene.

Played any good indie games lately?

The best indie game I played recently was Noitu Love 2. It just came out today and I've been meaning to buy it.

Since your next project is still some ways from a publishing deal, is there any info on it that you can share with us?

My favorite types of games are games with a bad ass story that sucks you in (like Final Fantasy) and fast-paced skill games like Geometry Wars. Obviously, being a one man show outsourcing art, I can't do my epic story game (which I've already written the script for... that game is a LONG ways off), so I'm going to do a fast-paced skill game. I love racing games also and I love going FAST.

Nakazato: Is PC Developers' Move To Consoles Key East/West Difference?

- [This would normally come up in GameSetNetwork links at the end of the week, but it's worth a cross-post to discuss the interesting question raised - has the (partial) death of the hardcore Western PC market led to the vibrant life of the next-gen console market? Or is it a bit more complex than that? Answers in comments, plz!]

Talking as part of an in-depth interview on big sister site Gamasutra, feelplus' Ray Nakazato (Lost Odyssey) has been discussing Japanese publishers' 'struggle', suggesting that any Western lead on next-gen console may be down to great PC developers migrating to console - something Japan lacks.

Feelplus, which developed the Microsoft-published Xbox 360 exclusive Lost Odyssey in association with Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, is part of new Japanese publisher/developer conglomerate AQI Interactive.

AQI Interactive, which currently publishes games in Japan under that name, includes feelplus alongside Blue Dragon and Blinx developer Artoon, Drakengard creator Cavia, and recently acquired U.S. publisher/marketing firm XSeed.

In discussing the DS' and therefore first-party dominance in the Japanese market of late, Nakazato honestly states of his company's reliance on the domestic market:

"Yeah, I think Japanese publishers still struggle. I don't know how struggling they are, but AQI is struggling, so we need to look at the overseas market more seriously."

Going into more detail on why the higher-end, most technically advanced games are no longer coming out of the Japanese market, Nakazato proffers the following theory:

"I think one big factor is that in Western gaming market there is a long history of PC games. A long and big market with the PC games, so I think there are a lot of great developers and creators who kept making PC games.

I think [for] this generation of consoles, finally those people started showing up in the console game arena... that's one big reason that Japan also seems to be a little behind in that arena."

Finally, discussing the casual market for DS and Wii, both in Japan and outside, Nakazato notes that most of the titles AQI is working on are story-based and slightly bigger-budget, commenting:

"I personally haven't studied that much for that market, but it seems like there's a lot of titles that don't sell at all, and there are a few titles that sell like a million, or two million units. Although the development cost is very small, I personally think it's a high-risk market."

You can read more about Nakazato's opinions on the Japanese and Western markets in the full Gamasutra interview, which also discusses upcoming Sakaguchi games from AQI including Away and Blue Dragon Plus.

April 21, 2008

COLUMN: 'Jump Button': Men That Build Pixels That Love Dogs — Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K.2 developer Robert Atkins

-[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 - following on from the interview with Julie Strain, Robert Atkins talks about the making of Ritual's game Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K.2, working with Julie, and things that matter.]

Human body parts.

Scratch the surface of game development, of the team responsible for Ritual Entertainment's third-person shooter, Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K.2, and it's hard not to be reminded of human body parts.

There, beneath the lines of code, the polygons and environmental shaders; beneath the AI path-finding, the gibs, the optimization algorithms, the user interface and multi-level database of localized text. There, beneath it all, are the individuals, the developers and creatives: desk-bound, human-sized, body parts, coming together to create new life.

Claw into the development of of F.A.K.K.2, and some found there will be livers, spleens, ocular cavities. Veins and ventricles.

Previously interviewed actress Julie Strain—the voice and inspiration for the game's lead character—she's the flesh and blood. The estrogen.

Scratch deeper, and others will be calves, vertebrae, toes, urinary tracts. Thumbs and tear ducts. All contributing something. A metaphorical and physical testament to the Biblical passage of 1 Corinthians chapter 12, verses 12-20. A fragile physiological ecosystem of talent, psyche and technological wizardry, melding to form a PC game, released in 2000, that would deliver entertaining, dual-wielding fantasy action.

But scratch deepest, scratch to the very center of it all, and there will be Robert Atkins—then art director and co-founder of Ritual Entertainment. Robert: the heart of Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K.2.

The proud, still-beating heart, ripped out.

-'Heavy Metal magazine has stood the test of time as an adult “cult phenomenon”,' Robert says to me.

'For over 20 years the magazine has been the ultimate illustrated fantasy publication in the world; the mind-twisting, provocative stories and sexy, stylized art being what every teenage boy's wet dreams are made of.'

'Even still, a third-party property was never the first choice for the Ritual's second major title,' says Robert. 'Or, so we thought. But when Kevin Eastman (co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and madman Simon Bisley came a calling, and wanted us to create a game from the pages of Heavy Metal, well that's a special once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

'Throw Julie Strain (Queen of all media) into the mix and you've just super-sized the combo meal.

'At first, fear ran through my bones at the thought of making a Heavy Metal product. Brilliant visuals are something the fans have grown to expect, but it's the twisted stories that keep them coming back for more.

-'The expectations for the game were no different. Given the history of Heavy Metal and its rabid fans, we knew we couldn't create anything that was less than spectacular.

'As a result, somewhere along the way, F.A.K.K.2 became my baby,' says Robert, 'and I did whatever it took to make sure it was as good as the IP (intellectual property) deserved. I took on way more than most people in this industry normally do within a single project.

'During the dev cycle, my daily tasks and roles included art director, 2D art (creating most of the world textures), co-lead design, creative director, web designer, video producer, in-house marketing, graphic designer for all print materials, PR monkey, game tester and office clown.

Adding, 'Before Ritual, I worked as the art director at 3d Realms, working on some cool titles such as Duke Nukem 3D. I created a ton of print materials, including most of their products' box and advertising designs, and on F.A.K.K.2 I got to flex some of those same design muscles.

-'Plus,' says Robert coolly, 'I got to be the point of contact for Kevin and Julie co-ordinating their efforts on the game as well.'

Mutual respect bubbles now in his words.

'As fellow artists, they understand how other artists think and work through the creative process. Without tying our hands, they allowed us to sculpt the product into a fun game within the franchise.'

Robert adding, 'Within a vast fantasy-driven universe like Heavy Metal, the creative field is totally wide open. So we didn't limit those creative boundaries by just rehashing the animated film (Heavy Metal 2000, on which the game was based). With great foresight, Eastman gave us total control to make content which worked in the gaming media. and we took full advantage of this unprecedented opportunity by simply coming up with the coolest stuff possible!

-'It was a real pleasure to work with people who understand the importance of “freedom” as a fundamental element to the creative process. Julie, Kevin and the entire Heavy Metal family are one of the most supportive groups I've met in my career. There was simply nothing that they wouldn't help with during the development process.

'I'd ask and two days later my request was sitting in a FedEx box, waiting on my desk.'

A brief pause now. A recollection.

Robert continuing with, 'One of the best memories was Julie coming to E3; to meet with fans, talk to the press and hang out with the design team. It was also the first time she saw herself as the game character, running around doing her thing. Sitting in a dark room on the “Gathering of Developers” lot, I'll never forget how Julie's face glowed as she watched the game. Totally moved by what we'd created, she began to cry and Eastman put his arms around me and gave me a hug.

-'As developers we just don't expect that kind of raw reaction, but when it comes, all of the hard work feels completely worthwhile.'

Human body parts. Feeling, nurturing.

Technically, too, says Robert, moving on, the game produced some rewarding results.

'It was the focus on combat that set the game apart from the “Tomb Raiders” of the world. Our original “Multi-Target Combat System”, with simultaneous defensive and offensive capabilities, giving players control over both the right and left hand independently, was just one example of the technology and gaming systems that caused F.A.K.K.2 to stand out and is what made the biggest impact on the industry. We sold our gaming systems—which were then bolted into id Software's Quake 3 engine—and the tech helped drive a wide number of award winning titles; Alice, Allied Assualt: Medal of Honour, and Bond: Agent Under Fire to name a few.'

More soberly now. Robert summing up with, 'In the end, though, F.A.K.K.2 stands as a great example for two reasons.

-'First, how fun a game can be when the designers are given control of the content and direction of a third-party IP. But secondly, it's also a prime example of how, without a focused marketing campaign, publisher support, and wide distribution, even the best titles can fall short of commercial success.

'When we created F.A.K.K.2, we made the initial push towards console development with the short-lived Sega Dreamcast in mind. During that time, like a number of other developers, we lost our funding prematurely when the Dreamcast lost favor in the marketplace. Our fall-back was to release a PC version of F.A.K.K.2.

'The interferences outside of the development process were also numerous and very distracting for most on the team. Many of the guys were broken from pouring their hearts into SiN, only to see it not succeed in the market. For the studio, then, we had two great titles back-to-back fall short of deserved market success, but not from the lack of efforts of the development team.'

This is Robert as a body part again. The aching heart, filled with paternal pride for a team and a project that gave so much of themselves. A pumping, aortic symbol of all game development that isn't Valve or Bungie. A studio attempting to pioneer episodic content with SiN Episodes; a studio now brought into the fold of casual game development. Heart-shaped dotted line indicating where to cut.

-Robert: the heart of Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K.2.

Ripped out, but proud, still beating.

'As far as the end result,' proclaims Robert, 'F.A.K.K.2 was everything that millions of fans have come to expect from Heavy Metal: a mature fantasy that was entertaining, colorful, wacky, ultra-violent, sexy and super fun.

'It was one of the best creative experiences for those who took part in the development process. A handful of us lived the game and everyday we came up with something cool to add,' he says.

'We simply loved the work.'

[Drew Taylor works in the games industry in Australia and writes video game culture articles for various magazines. He has, and is, an enlarged pupil.]

GameSetLinks: The Students Overwhelm The DS

- Chalking up another ten notches on the GameSetLinks GameSetLink-ometer, which very clearly exists, so stop looking at me funny, we lead off with some metrics fun on that ocean that's... burning!

Also in there somewhere - more reaction to the Milliwayton, the first of the Nintendo-distributed DS student games are made available, and chiptune Enigma vs. Super Mario Bros? Good gravy. And links:

Orbus Gameworks on Pirates Of The Burning Sea's data API
Neat that they have one, shame that not tonnes of people care, I suspect.

'Z-list' - DeflaterMouse's Vox
Following up on that Andy Baio 'Milliways' post, with some pretty raw opinions on journalism vs. blogging vs. factchecking - via someoneilost, sorry.

Come One Come All Kongregate: First Impressions Review - Super Crazy Guitar Maniac Deluxe 3!
Yes, this is an increasingly advanced Flash Guitar Hero clone.

chewing pixels » User Generated Videogames
Finding a Dezaemon-winning user-generated level by Cave Story creator Pixel. V.v.geeky-neat.

Siliconera » Nintendo Game Seminar 2007 and the first day of Wakerai no Heya Tsuzuki
Nintendo-distributed student DS games (pictured) hands-on - at least in Japan. V.neat.

Zarathustran Analytics in Video Games, Part 2: The Role of Depth | Moving Pixels | PopMatters
Rubbish title, decent essay: 'In the end, deep game design should not be considered an inherently good attribute of a game in a proper critical assessment.'

auntie pixelante › enigmario
'enigmario is a rad hack of super mario bros. that replaces koji kondo’s melodies with smart chip remixes of tracks from enigma’s mcmxc a.d.' Mind... blown.

Ascii Dreams: Unangband Dungeon Generation - Part Eight (Persistence)
On Roguelikes and remembering things: 'Persistence requires memory, a precious resource in computer science that for a long time was heavily restricted.'

Pandora Open Source Handheld Game System: A GP2X Killer? | Armchair Arcade
'GP2X killer' is a pretty funny phrase in itself, of course - but then, I own a GP32 so I can't talk, hah.

ARGNet: RUMOR: An ARG for Resistance 2?
Iintereesting if true.

Q&A: Red Fly's Borth On The Indie World Of Mushroom Men

- [The Austin-based reprobates at Gamecock, despite being unnecessarily rowdy at times, are funding some genuinely interesting 'high-end indie' products. This Brandon Sheffield-conducted interview details just one of them, the somewhat Abe's Oddysee-inspired original IP Wii/DS project Mushroom Men.]

After years of developing games for large publishers, artist Dan Borth decided to bite the bullet and step into the riskier but rewarding world of independent developers.

He is founder, CEO, and creative director of Austin-based Red Fly Studio, which is hard at work on its first original game, Mushroom Men.

The GameCock-published title is a third-person action game (on Wii) and side-scrolling action title (on DS) which takes place after a comet irradiates the Earth with green dust, and three-inch high fungi come to life to attack each other.

Borth sat down with us to discuss his development past, learning how to be a CEO, and developing for Wii and DS.

Can you say your name and title for the record?

Dan Borth: My name is Dan Borth, and I’m founder, CEO, and creative director of Red Fly Studio.

Checking out the game it seems it’s got a really, really distinctive visual style – what’s the aim there, besides just making a cool game? Is there a line to straddle between distinctive so that people get it and too distinctive where people just get freaked out?

Dan Borth: Traditionally I’m an artist, so I’m always going to look for the visual. Mushroom Men’s an homage to Abe’s Odyssee and the Oddworld games, so that’s trying to bring that back.

You’ve seen the demo of our game; it’s a really, really, really rich world all on the Wii, and we just wanted to push the Wii as far as we could visually, you know what I mean? Red Fly was founded by artists, so we’re always going to stress art as much as is possible.

Obviously design is important and programming is important, but as an artist, I’m always going to be more inclined to say, visually, we need to go after a game like this, or think about things like this. We didn’t really set out to design a weird world, it just sort of happened when you talk about mushrooms that have life and are running around. So the style just evolved, if that makes any sense.

Does the company operate any differently being so artist-driven, compared to other situations, like a programming-driven studio?

DB: I don’t know. I can only comment on what I know. There are challenges that artists have with business, programming, design that programmers and designers might not have, or business savvy people might not have.

The founders, Kris [Taylor] and I, who are really strong artists in my opinion, we took a bath on Business 101, and that was difficult. It’s sort of hard for artists like us to wrap our heads around certain things, but I think we’ve done a good job up to a certain point, and we’ve learned a lot over the last year and a half, and we feel really comfortable with the studio, really comfortable with the games and how we do things.

We do things a little differently. We don’t subscribe to that traditional business-driven studio where people like a producer or a QA person can rise to the top and make art calls or programming calls or design calls.

With us it’s like every position that we have in the studio has been paid for in blood – these guys have earned it. We started with nothing, really, and we worked contract, and we’re just really fortunate that we have like-minded people that pretty much get the risk, get the game, they get what we want to do. If you want to go make $120,000 a year, then go work for Microsoft. This is the good fight, and this is sort of what we’re into.

It seems like in an ideal world people should be able to make $120,000 a year doing the good stuff?

DB: Well, in an ideal world, but it’s not an ideal world, so you have to sacrifice for your art, and how much are you willing to sacrifice? I used to work at Microsoft. I worked at all major developers: Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, all first-party.

I made a good living. I was miserable, I had no control, it was a huge corporate machine, and we just had to get out and try our own thing and get with a publisher like Gamecock, who basically says, “Okay, go for it. Do it. You’ve been talking about it – let’s see what you’ve got.”

What was the money bath you were talking about before?

DB: Money bath? Business bath? I’m CEO of the company. Like I said, I’m an artist, I was trained as a traditional artist, there are probably things about business that I approach differently from most business-savvy people, so I had to get a real fast education on how to do things properly.

But I also bring a different perspective where I’m not totally business-driven; I’m not going to make a business decision like a CEO of another company who can’t see. He can’t see, “Oh, this guy’s a great artist, it takes time to cultivate this person.” Does that make sense? He’s just, “Oh, I’ll just get rid of him.”

So I think I can bring a different perspective, and over the last two years I’ve sort of become, fortunately and unfortunately, a business-savvy artist, if there is such a thing.

Having CEO duties, are you able to actually get your hands on doing art?

DB: That’s my dream. [Laughs.] I really, really, try to do that. That’s what makes me happy. Sometimes I just have to shut my door and say, “You know what? Don’t bother me.”

The good thing about being a CEO is that you can influence how things are done. The really bad part about being a CEO is that you rarely hear about things unless they’re bad. Everybody comes to you and says, “Oh this is it, it’s messed up.” So you have to put out fires everyday.

But I always welcome it, and enjoy it, and want to get back to doing art. I do it as much as possible, but sometimes it’s just not possible.

I was going to ask why you decide to go for a new IP, but I think I can pretty much gather that.

DB: We were a start-up, there was no way we could have an established IP. No-one would take a risk on us – except for Gamecock, I mean. They came about when we started before, and it’s all a risk.

Every publisher does risk assessment - who’s going to give two artists some money to do anything? I wouldn’t. I mean, I would now. People can see, oh, these guys are proving themselves now. But in the beginning we were just two guys with dreams and a small office.

We’re artists, we’re really good at what we do, and we have an idea. We’ve always been convinced of our idea – it’s just convincing others of our idea that’s been the issue. But now that’s starting to change.

How did you go about maximizing the Wii, graphically?

DB: It’s a good question. I think the industry as a whole doesn’t consider the Wii a graphically-powerful console, and it isn’t. But it’s a lot better than a lot of developers... A lot of developers don’t give it enough credit because they have this established IP, or they’ve got a movie tie-in, or it’s Balls of Fury or something – some crap – and they don’t care. They just want product out on the Wii and they’re saturating the market with garbage.

The only good Wii games out there are some very few third-party games and then the first-party stuff, and you’ve just got this mountain of junk. I don’t think people invest enough time and craftsmanship into the game to realise, oh, wow, the Wii has some actual punch. If you use it effectively, you can maximise it.

You’ve seen our game – our game’s beautiful. People think it’s a 360 game sometimes. We’re using it to the full extent because we are artists and we’ve invested the time, and we’re not going to make garbage. We want everyone to see we want to be the premier third-party Wii developer in the world. The only way to do that is quality – that’s it.

Do you think with the large number of shovelware products on Wii and DS – does that make it more difficult or easier for you to sell this game?

DB: I think it’s a double-edged sword. We have the ability to stand out from the pack, but then again, you’re talking about pure numbers so maybe we get lost in the shuffle or people don’t understand our game, so I don’t know. That’s really up to the consumer.

If you get a Wii and DS consumer that likes first-party games like Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime, and like Mushroom Men and can see, wow, this is a lot different than a lot of the other stuff on this console – that’s the audience we’re going after. Are we going after the person who picks up – I hate to bag on Balls of Fury, but that’s a Wii game – are we going after that person? Absolutely not. That’s not our audience.

Our audience are gamers, are people who think that the Wii is a great console, which it is, they’re people who love the control system, guys that remember the old days when Abe’s Odyssee ruled. That’s what we’re trying to bring back is some new, fresh, third-party development that nobody’s ever seen before. It’s hard, but we’re trying.

In terms of being very art-driven, it’s surprising to choose the Wii.

DB: It was sort of a business decision in that, hey this is the most popular console. The DS is huge, so when you’re looking at numbers, you’re looking at, what do we have to sell to make our money back. Obviously you want to go for the two top consoles, and other than the PS2 where out there there’s 130 million or something like that, the Wii and the DS are the winners.

I always thought that Nintendo had a leg-up on everybody as far as gameplay and games and iconic characters like Mario, it just seemed like we need to do it for that. And also budget comes into play. When you’re a new studio and you’re asking someone for four million, that’s a lot easier sell than asking them for twelve. It just comes down to numbers and risk assessment. So that’s the reason we chose that console.

Is that how much the game cost?

DB: I won’t tell you the cost of the games, I’m just giving you ballpark numbers. Wii development is easily one fourth, one fifth, even one sixth of some 360, PS3 projects, and those projects are easier to sell to developers, and they’re also a shorter timeframe to get the game out. I mean, our development on Mushroom Men is eighteen months.

More on the art-oriented console aspect. DS especially is not strong in that regard, especially in 3D.

DB: No, and we went 3D. Well, we call it two-and-a-half-D, so it’s sort of a sidescroller. At the time and now there’s been a big push for 3D on the DS. People seem to be into it. So we could have gone entirely sprite-base, entirely 2D, but it just doesn’t have the depth and the mood that we wanted. And when you work in 3D on the DS, you have to make sacrifices. It’s just not there, hardware-wise.

But as you can see, the game looks really beautiful. DS games sell because of their design, not because of how they look. I think there are probably some examples of actual sprite-based games on the DS that look gorgeous. We strategically chose to do 3D on the DS because people wanted it and we really researched it and decided that this for us is the way to go: make a 3D world on the DS and players will appreciate it.

I noticed that there’s a whole lot of customisation for combining weapons and it seems to yield a whole bunch of different weapons, but how do you differentiate that because there’s no stats as far as the player’s concerned?

DB: Well there isn’t now, but that’s all planned: what weapons do X amount of damage, what weapons do this. Our scavenging system is massive. I mean, for a Wii game for you to be able to choose between fifty weapons is just unheard of.

It’s incomplete, so it’s not a role-playing game, so you won’t be able to go, oh, this flame-thrower does +10 damage, but what we do is come up with a linear system that gives players, for example: just because you can fashion a melee weapon out of a couple of things you can find, doesn’t mean you can melt ice and release another mushroom man.

You have to make that flamethrower. You have to grab the matches, you have to grab the gas. Our weapons are crafted in a totally different way: it’s not so much damage, it’s gameplay-related. In order to solve this environmental puzzle you need this weapon. In order to kill this boss, it’s not about how much damage this does – although we do have weapons like that: bigger, heavier club weapons that deal more damage – it’s more like the weapon fits exactly what you need to do to navigate the environment.

They’re like gated keys in a way.

DB: That’s probably a good way to put it – they’re like a key to unlocking either the death of a boss or some sort of navigation or some sort of collection or something like that. That’s the way we approach things because obviously we’re not making a role-playing game here. It has to be accessible, it has to be fun, it also has to be easy because with the Wii, people want to get in.

You can’t have a cumbersome game on the Wii. You can’t be overly complex. You have to have simplistic solutions to some problems where, say, a big club – I know the big club’s going to do more damage. Do I have to tell you that? I don’t think that’s really necessary because that just becomes irritating for the player, and it also becomes irritating for us. Because if you don’t know that this big weapon does more damage, then maybe you shouldn’t be playing our game – does that make sense?

It strikes me that fifty is still a lot.

DB: Well, that’s just what we have right now. We’ll probably end up cutting those. We don’t want to overload players, to have them go, “Oh, my god, how can I do this?” What we have now is we have about fifty combinations. Some of those are copies of others that need to go away. Some of them need to be refined more.

Don’t quote me that we’re going to ship with fifty weapons, I’m saying that’s what we have now, that’s what we’re looking at whittling down. I think, ultimately, me giving out a number of weapons is just kind of silly, because once we define all our levels and all our characters and all the gameplay, the weapons will just make themselves.

What other games that have come out recently would you say have art directions to be admired?

DB: For me personally? I think the art direction of BioShock obviously is wonderful. Those guys put a lot of craftsmanship into their levels and their work – it’s a beautiful game. Obviously Mario Galaxy is pretty much the standard on the Wii, it’s just gorgeous.

But then, I’m pretty much an old school guy: Abe’s Odyssee, a totally iconic character art-driven, where a game is driven around the art. They didn’t make the game and then make Abe. They made Abe, an artist made him, and then it’s, wow! We need to make a game for this guy.

So I’d think Bioshock, Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime, Call of Duty 4 is excellent. You never know, but I think those are good examples of guys who have just hit the bar with the art and done a really good job.

That’s pretty much it for now unless there’s anything else you want to get across.

DB: Not really, we’re trying to do it and we’ll just see how it goes. It’s all a big risk, right?

April 20, 2008

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 4/19/08

Well, it's been a very hectic past couple weeks for game mags, hasn't it? While I was out cavorting in Japan (and, of course, buying all the local mags so I could write a survey for GameSetWatch -- but that'll be next week), Dan Hsu left Ziff Davis and Games for Windows closed its doors, meaning that ZD has gone from publishing six regular game magazines (plus specials) in 2003 to only one in the space of five years. And also filed for Chapter 11. (The biggest surprise here is that Chapter 11 happened after all that downsizing, not before.)

Not even Simon Cox, the man behind what ZD's print mags were like in the early '00s, thinks print mags have much of a future with the company, if his comments to Kyle Orland are any measure. I would agree with them -- for a company like Ziff Davis, which (even after all the downsizing it's done) has a great deal of debt, a great deal of overhead, and has been put the brunt of its attention on an online strategy for the past three or so years, print mags aren't the way to the future.

The lack of advertising in the PC game marketplace is no doubt one reason why the marketplace couldn't support both GFW and PC Gamer at once, but I wonder if being published by an outfit as large as ZD -- and not, say, a much smaller company like the ones behind Play or Beckett MOG -- meant that it had to be a lot more profitable to stay alive than what would otherwise be the case.

(I also wonder if taking a magazine aimed mainly at hardcore gamer fans and naming it after after a Microsoft-driven initiative that most of the audience sees as half-baked was such a hot idear, but hindsight is always 20/20 with these things.)

Hsu's departure is also momentous because he, along with John Davison, was the main force behind the transformation of Sendai's old and (let's face it) amateurish rags into seriously well-writen and well-designed publications, stuff actually worth reading if you were over the age of 18.

One could argue that out of all the people in U.S. game print media, he had the most influence over what we have today, both in print and online, looks like and reads like. I first worked with him during that fleeting dream known as Gamers.com back in 2000 and later did a bunch of EGM freelance for him, and never had I had a boss more friendly and even-handed, even though I'm sure I made him want to choke me to death on more than one occasion. I'll be interested in what he does next, and I'll be even more interested in how this affects the hierarchy of things at ZD once April 25 (his last day) passes.

Anyway, read on to get my take on all the game mags of the past couple weeks. Frankly, with GFW gone, and as pretentious as it must sound, it's almost getting to the point where even I have to admit that Edge is the best there is in print-land...

Game Informer May 2008

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Cover: Gears of War 2

The summer of print game mags' discontent must come even to Game Informer, which (though still number one in America in terms of size) is lookin' a little anemic at 112 pages. However, that's not about to stop the bad dudes from Minnesota from dropping the GI Spy page, where they print pictures of themselves posing with PR chicks and playing Guitar Hero with random NFL players. It's their pride and joy, and you won't be taking it away from them that easily, thanks.

Cut down pages or no, GI's cover piece is the highlight of print-dom this month, although it's pretty much what you figure -- a bunch of so-obviously-not-in-game-it-hurts screenshots, some pictures of characters, and a lot of Cliffy bein' Cliffy. The only other big highlight in this issue is a feature that takes some devs and asks them what they'd do if they were charged with making the next FF, or Tomb Raider, or whatnot. I'm pretty sure (though not completely so; I'll have to check the archives) that EGM did this same feature a few years back, but it's still a neat idea -- Todd "Fallout 3" Howard's pitch to essentially turn Final Fantasy into Dragon's Lair is particularly hilarious.

Edge May 2008

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Cover: Metal Gear Solid 4

Despite what the cover would suggest, the theme of this issue appears to be casual gaming, with features commemorating the Sims studio and the folks behind the Buzz! series in addition to Kojima and his work. There's one of those traditionally Edge-y pieces on how end-of-level bosses aren't all that special anymore, and [the JP version of] Mario Kart Wii gets a 6 in the reviews well, which I am all for.

New this time around is Region Specific, an irregular feature that takes some region of the world and profiles all the game devs located there -- a natural evolution of some of the supplements they created for specific regions a while back. This month focus on Vancouver, home of Relic and Radical and an EA studio and a few others I haven't heard of. The Codeshop back-of-the-book section also has a surprisingly interesting piece on the ten-year anniversary of middleware giant Havok's founding.

Electronic Gaming Monthly May 2008 (Podcast)

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Cover: SOCOM: Confrontation

Sorry, GI/Edge/Beckett Massive Online Gamer: EGM is my favorite magazine now and forever, because talented 1UP gentleman and fellow ferret owner James Mielke is officially "EIC" of the magazine now. We need to stick up for each other, all of us weaselmaniacs do.

GI may've had the big hot-sclusive this month, but EGM makes up for it in quantity, with ten able but kinda pedestrian pages on the new SOCOM and smaller previews of Motorstorm 2 and 50 Cent II (written by Shane "I couldn't be more white if I tried" Bettenhausen, no less). The front-of-the-book news section is a little more interesting than GI's this month, too, thanks to a couple of neat Robert Ashley pieces on the repetition of ideas in game backdrops and the WorldGaming.com bet-on-games site.

Nintendo Power May 2008

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Cover: Final Fantasy IV

Wow, this is a really long piece on Final Fantasy IV DS they've got in here. Very long, and very Play-style, too, with a huge-arse interview segment and all sorts of nice art complimenting everything. I think they chose the wrong art for the cover, but the inside feature is quite neat. A 3-page feature on Boom Blox followed up immediately by interviews with Masahiro Sakurai and Masaya Matsuura demonstrates the sort of crazy super-casual, super-hardcore feel the magazine has these days.

Overall, still my favorite Future mag, though I still got a place in my heart for PC Gamer.

PlayStation: The Official Magazine May 2008

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Cover: Mafia II

Big bit in the middle about "crime"-type games, sort of like what GamePro did this month. Mafia II's feature is surprisingly rad, as are other bits on the latest GTA4 and Saints Row 2 stuff. Not so rad is the 2008 PSP Game Planner, another simple release spruced up a bit to take up more pages. Stop doing those, PTOM!

Official Xbox Magazine May 2008 (Podcast)

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Cover: GTA4

Although all the other mags did bits this month on GTA4's multiplayer, OXM is the only title to make a really big deal of it on the cover -- and on the disc, where GTA4's lollipop girl adorns the case cover even though the actual content is nothing but art. The bit inside on Infinite Undiscovery is a lot more interesting, as is the strategy guide on mastery of Guitar Hero (I should've known Dan Amrich would be a-writing something like that) and the feature on "house rules" approaches to old games, like playing WWII Olympics in Call of Duty 3 or a rudimentary form of baseball in Halo 3.

Game Developer April 2008

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Cover: Uncharted

Aw sweet, it's the annual salary survey where I learn yet again how much more I could've been making if I actually used my computer-science degree and got a job as a game-industry programmer! Wow, $83,383 on the average, huh? Cripes, if I made that much and worked at an Austin dev to keep living expenses low, I'd have my own Uncle Scrooge money bin to swim around in!

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also executive editor at PiQ magazine.]

GameSetLinks: Coolest Blog In School

- A new cornucopia of GameSetLinks, then, headed by 1UP reviewing odd Australian cellphone game 'Coolest Girl In School' - and it's nice to see people still giving heed to mobile gaming.

Also in there somewhere - the awesome (but controversial) Infocom data dumpster-diving of Andy Baio, as well as Duke Nukem 3D in the Speed Demos Archive and a host of other fun and games. As per normal, I (have fun) scouring the feeds so you don't have to - and here's the fruits:

Andrew's 1UP Blog: CGIS vs. DAH:CDV
Discussing an intriguing (and oddly manufactured-controversial) mobile game: 'Somehow, without trying too hard, Coolest Girl in School manages to make Leisure Suit Larry look woefully behind the times.'

Akihabara Channel » Type-Moon’s New Release x 3
More great micro-niche genre stuff from Japan - Type Moon are a key visual novel (and 2D fighter!) developer.

ACTION BUTTON: Tim Rogers reviews Mario Kart Wii
A hideously entertaining (and naturally far too long) rant: 'Mario Kart Wii turns any weeknight into Christmas Eve.' Bravo, Sir.

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Freeware Game Pick: Crumble (Gary Penn)
Penn runs excellent Scottish developer Denki, btw - so this is another industry/indie free time crossover.

Internet Archive: Details: Self-Preservation Mode: Lessons Learned Archiving Multimedia Artforms
Awesome talk given at BlockParty: 'For half a decade, Hornet has been working on the Mindcandy series, a collection of DVDs reproducing demos to the best of their ability' - he discusses how to archive them.

The Making of: Trackmania | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
'Particularly interesting, they reject the idea of overt planning and even the concept of postmortems.'

Milliways: Infocom's Unreleased Sequel to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Waxy.org
Wow, this is insane amounts of research - it's personal emails tho, which is a little icky, but it's vital stuff.

Speed Demos Archive - Duke Nukem 3D
Newly posted, entire game in 20 minutes, they '...represent years worth of cooperative effort and critique between myself and Fernito, as well as nearly a decade of practice on Fernito's behalf.'

You Are Lose!: Ikariam - The Joys of Civilization Contained in Your Browser
Good little profile of a game that shows that increasingly, people are making _anything_ browser-based.

Write the Game » How to Break into the Gaming Industry: Case Study
'Studios are usually only interested in successful writers - people who have published novels or created blockbuster film scripts.'

Best Of Indie Games: Week Of April 14th, 2008

[Every week, IndieGames.com: The Weblog editor Tim W. will be summing up some of the top free-to-download and commercial indie games from the last seven days, as well as any notable features on his sister 'state of indie' weblog.]

This week on 'Best Of Indie Games', we take a look at some of the top titles released earlier this week - including two sequels, an abandoned project, several game development competitions and a new release from cactus.

Game Pick: 'Ad Nauseam 2' (cactus, freeware)
"Fresh from releasing Vicious Cycle last week, cactus is back again with a new vertical shooter entitled Ad Nauseam 2. There's some mature content in the game, though players should really be worried about the seizure warnings instead. Mark Overmars would be proud."

Game Pick: 'Karoshi 2' (Jesse Venbrux, freeware)
"A suicide platformer in which players have to figure out ways to kill the protagonist to complete each level. Partly inspired by cactus' Psychosomnium, this sequel features updated graphics, over fifty stages and even a few easter eggs to discover."

Game Pick: 'Noitu Love 2' (konjak, commercial indie - demo available)
"Joakim's first commercial 2D action game is due out today. A sequel to his similarly-titled platformer released last year, this IGF Grand Prize finalist features more levels, better graphics, an innovative control system, and even has some of the most memorable boss encounters seen this side of the 21st century."

Game Pick: 'Facewound' (Facepunch Studios, freeware)
"Created by a team consisting of members Garry Newman (lead developer of the popular Garry's Mod) and Arthur Lee (The Underside), this 2D action game sports plenty of zombies, a wide selection of weapons, ragdoll physics and exploding barrels - all ingredients for a stellar commercial release. Therefore, it does come as a bit of a surprise to see the project released as a free download. Still, one can't complain much with a freebie of this quality."

Article: 'Competitions with Cash Prizes'
"We've analyzed and summarized a handful of competitions with cash prizes which are open to developers around the world. Also included, Alistair Wallis' fantastic list of ten indie and student game competitions. And while we're on the subject, TOJam 2008 is scheduled to take place from the 9th to 11th of May, 2008 at Innovation Toronto."



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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