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May 3, 2008

GameSetLinks: The Magic Of The Brain Train

- Some more GameSetLink-age, then, starting out with GameTap's resurrection of an obscuro modem-only Genesis title, and its subsequent messageboard-based dissection, yay.

Also hanging out in here - the Atlantic City-based Adventure Gaming Expo (very suitable for Al Lowe's guest appearance, glitz-wise!), the inevitable Tetris/arm wrestling crossover, a Polybius-ish military/game crossover, and much more.

Anyhow, here we go:

GameTap : [WTF Wednesday] ROM Raiders Episode 1: Pyramid Magic
Frank continuing to bring an awesome SomethingAwful vibe to the GameTap forums - this interactive group-playing angle is killer.

Martin Ganteföhr - Interview - Adventure Classic Gaming
Some surprisingly complex storytelling discussion from a (relatlvely) obscure adventure game designer.

A Tree Falling in the Forest: The Mighty M: Reboot Edition
'Advocating a balanced portfolio of low risk licenses, medium risk sequels and and high risk original IP' for Midway to kickstart their renaissance.

8bitrocket.com: Did Atari Make A Version Of "Missile Command" For The Military?
'Today these conspiracies seem like little more than quaint fantasies, but in 1980’s, the era of Reagan, the USSR, War Games and Red Dawn, they were dead serious.'

Popfly Team Site: Popfly Introduces Game Creator Alpha
Interesting, Microsoft getting into build-your-own-game territory online.

The Amazing Brain Train - Grubby Games
'Fueled by your mental energy, Professor Fizzwizzle's Brain Train will take you on a brain-boosting adventure!' New casual PC-ness from the Dr. Dobbs game creators and indie stalwarts.

YouTube - A more friendly, tamer Grand Theft Auto game (Conan O'brien)
After his Rock Band skit, seems like Conan and his staff actually play games, woo.

2008 Adventure Gaming Expo in Atlantic City - official website
Al Lowe _and_ Scott Adams? Where do I sign up? Oh, there!

Braid Party! | metablog
More interestingly still: 'N+ reached 100k sales on XBLA!'

Tresling: Tetris + Arm Wrestling
EPIC WIN! Via Waxy.

Bonus Talk: Ex-Capcom Legend Okamoto On Tough Osaka Ladies

- So here's the heads up - we just posted an in-depth interview with Yoshiki Okamoto on Gamasutra yesterday - and it's honestly one of the best and most insightful profiles we've run in a while, especially good because Okamoto was the force behind Capcom for so many years and rarely speaks on the record in this depth.

As we noted in the intro: "Okamoto was a 20-year veteran of Capcom, creating titles such as Time Pilot, 1942, and Street Fighter II, and also ran independent developer Flagship (Zelda, Resident Evil titles), before going on to create Genji and Folklore developer Game Republic in 2004."

Anyhow, the complete piece itself is awesome, and covers a massive gamut of subjects, from Okamoto's dissatisfaction with Game Republic's outlook to date (!) to his concerns over the DS market.

But we have a special, GameSetWatch-exclusive excerpt that you CANNOT READ ANYWHERE ELSE. Mainly because it's silly, but it's adorably silly, so that's why we're printing it.

"Christian Nutt: I heard that the doctor from Brain Age, Dr. Kawashima, doesn't take the money from the game, but donates it to the university he works for, instead.

Yoshiki Okamoto: Yeah, that's a true story. He said he didn't want it. His family was totally furious with him, like "why the hell not?!" But he just said he had no need for the money. He turned out to be this really noble, selfless guy.

Shinichiro Kajitani: He said something like having too much money would only end up spoiling his children.

Yukiko Miyajima Grové: Spoken like a true educator.

YO: Think how devastated his kids must've been after hearing that. I mean, a lot of people my age have gotten plenty of money from their parents since they were kids. I guess we were just lucky.

YMG: But aren't people from Osaka notorious for being stingy?

YO: People from Osaka are stingy? I wouldn't put it that way. It has a history of being a town of merchants, after all. It's not that Osakans are tight with their money, they just get bent out of shape if they can't get a discount on something. You know what I mean, right?

YMG: Actually, I'm from Osaka myself.

YO: Osakans are always saying things like, "Come on, you can cut me a better deal than that." But stores jack up their prices from the beginning to account for this, so you end up getting ripped off if you don't haggle. The salesman will be like, "Okay, okay, you win. Let me see what I can do."

And you're going, "Um, you're just lowering it to what it is everywhere else..." Salesmen are always like, "I don't know... I'd be taking a huge loss here... Okay then, here's your change. Thanks for shopping. Bye." And you're going, "What just happened?!" It's just the way things work in Osaka. You end up doing three or four times the talking when you buy something, but you never get any real bargains.

Of course, this doesn't apply to older women in Osaka. They're ruthless and they never give up. I actually had this brilliant idea lately. It might win me a Nobel prize. People talk about how much power the women of Osaka have, right? If you could harness that somehow, if you could turn all that old lady power into electricity, you'd put the Kansai Electric Company out of business. I mean, these ladies are seriously tough. I haven't worked out the particulars, yet. Converting all that energy into electricity isn't going to be easy.

When I was on a train the other day, there was only this tiny space between me and the person next to me. But this old lady just wedged herself between us. She basically sat down on my lap! I basically had to stand up and give her the seat, and I did. After a while the train empties out, and she says to me "Why not take a seat? There's plenty of room." (laughs) That's what I'm talking about. If you could turn that into raw energy, you could really get some things done.

YMG: It sounds like there might be a game concept in there somewhere.

YO: A game about old ladies from Osaka? It would have to be for the DS. See just how mean and nasty you can be... That actually might work. We'd just call it The Old Ladies of Osaka, and you'd get points for being pushy and stubborn. Yeah, I'm really starting to see it now. It might be a tough sell in the States, though. We'd have to come up with a North American edition..."

[Incidentally, the other folks speaking in this Christian Nutt-conducted interview are the other interviewee - Shinichiro Kajitani, executive vice president of Game Republic, and co-interviewer and translator Yukiko Miyajima Grové. So there.]

Best Of Indie Games: The Hello Panda Edition

[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 - two picks from a game development competition, a shmup playable in your browser window and a 2D freeware platformer. Also, a friendly reminder of our Games of the Month feature.

Game Pick: 'Attack of the Meeplings' (Joshua Smyth, browser)
"A vertical-scrolling 2D shooter which will run on any internet browser with Java runtime applet installed. Check out keim's Arcanacra Black Label, Adam Atomic's Nano and Easy Only! Games' The Last Canopy for more Flash-based shmup action as well."

Game Pick: 'The Sewer Goblet' (Tales of Game's Studios, freeware)
"A simple roguelike consisting of twenty levels to explore, created by the same team which produced the b-ball RPG hit, Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden."

Game Pick: 'Hello Panda' (GPTouch, Inc., freeware)
"A stylish vertical shooter created with Game Maker, featuring three playable characters and five levels interspersed with the occasional boss encounters. We've got pandas!"

Game Pick: 'The Power' (Alexitron, freeware)
"A noteworthy freeware 2D platformer in the style of Lyle in Cube Sector, Alex Adventure and Plasma Warrior. Has been called a bad game, but also comes with cactus' seal of approval."

IndieGames.com Game of the Month: Cortex Command (Data Realms, commercial indie - demo available)
This is the final week for our first IndieGames.com's Game of the Month feature - originally conceived to provide a platform for indie game developers to get their creations seen - and has turned out to be a notable success so far. Still, there are a lot of people who have not experienced Data Realms' pixel-based PC team-based combat game Cortex Command - and buying it via the 'Game Of The Month' page supports both indie developer Data Realms and IndieGames.com, allowing us to keep reporting on great independent titles.

May 2, 2008

Opinion: How Can A Game Be Subversive?

- [In this thought-provoking opinion piece, EALA's Borut Pfeifer examines games from Blacksite: Area 51 through David Jaffe's canceled Heartland and indie oddity You Have To Burn The Rope to ask... can a game every truly be 'subversive'?]

The question of how a game can be subversive has bothered me for a long time. You can try to look for subversive elements in games much like the elements in subversive genres like science fiction, but it's not exactly easy. If being subversive means making the reader (as in a person “reads” a “text” in any medium, to save me the pain of typing reader/viewer/listener/player) question their own assumptions, games seem to start with a handicap.

In order to play a game, you must play by rules set down by someone else. If you are always inherently working within a given rule system, is it ever possible to subvert it?

That problem centers around the mechanics of a game, but not on the topic. Would a satirical game then be subversive? Not a lot of examples here to pull from. Harpooned (the “cetacean reseach simulator”) is perhaps the first proper satirical game in my mind. It uses its exaggerated elements (whale gibs, shooter mechanics, etc.) for both humor and to make a socially valuable point, without taken them so far that they conflict with the game’s message. As satire Harpooned effectively makes a point against an existing institution, but it’s not exactly that my assumptions are brought into question, just that I’m made more aware of a problem.

So there’s a distinction to be made between a game that is subversive with respect to its message, and one that is subversive in its “telling” (still no verb to describe the presentation of a game to another, because let’s face it, design is such a shit-watered down verb). You Have to Burn the Rope is subversive in the context of other games, and what it points out about them, but there much less subversive about the presentation of those points.

If a game uses procedural rhetoric to make a subversive point, like say Food Import Folly from Persuasive Games, the player is meant to question the validity of a system by exploring it. That game is trying to make a subversive point about the issues with the FDA’s food import inspection regulations. Without the ability to change or alter the system simulated by the game, how subversive can the message be? At best you can only point out that there is a problem with such a system, you can’t argue for a solution without being able to see the solution’s effects simulated. Is it less subversive to point out a problem without being able to suggest or allow the exploration of solutions?

Harvey Smith, creative director of Blacksite: Area 51, often claimed the game was subversive for dealing with political elements the way it did. From my own playthrough (on easy), it’s a harder for me to categorize it that way. There are some elements that could be seen as subversive, but with few exceptions they are all on the strict surface of the game.

For instance, while on the first mission in an oil refinery in Iraq, one of the squad members asks, “Who the hell gives refinery workers assault weapons?”, to which another squad member responds, “Umm… We do.” A strong statement you don’t usually see in a game. But the next chunk of dialog involves the squad members quoting Star Wars. The end effect of sequences like this one is that the dialog is very true to life. I can imagine real soldiers talking like that. Does it make me reflect on or change my opinion of those political choices? No, although that may be not only because the game pretty much comes out and says what it thinks, but that I’ve already asked myself those questions.

The chapter titles are typically ironic uses of Bush administration terms (”Mission Accomplished”) or references to their fuck ups (”Somebody call FEMA”). Pretty unapologetic in their criticism, but then when you look at the plot itself the themes are muddled. The main villain was another soldier who had been experimented on and left for dead by the government. Only as part of his revenge he pretty much wants to kill everyone - making it difficult to look at him as a reedemable or empathizable character. And so it’s not “hey the government did something wrong”, but “hey that guy wants to kill everybody”.

The Escapist recently interviewed David Jaffe on his canceled game Heartland, which attempted to deal with similar issues. In part he discusses production problems like deciding to make a left-leaning political game in Utah of all places (wha-huh?), but he also goes into some scenarios for the game:

"Jaffe describes a real-time sequence where the player and squad enter a suburban house after the Chinese invasion has turned the neighborhood into a war zone. It’s the home of a Chinese-American family. The squad rounds up the family, having them kneel in the living room.

The player chases after the teenage son, beating him and dragging him down the stairs, and throwing him into the living room. The commanding officer orders the player to douse the family and the house with gasoline, and set it on fire. “It was meant to be, ‘Oh, my God, this is the worst thing in the world,’” says Jaffe."

The direct choice almost forces the player to question themselves, along the game’s theme. The reason I say almost here is because the presentation of such a choice will have difficulty declaring that it is a choice to the player (unless it’s explicitly defined via interface like the Little Sisters in Bioshock). If they think they have to do exactly what the game character is telling them to in order to continue playing the game, they won’t act differently. But with repeated choices, the chances go up that it will become apparent to everyone.

Portal (which Joe McNeilly of GamesRadar says is the “most subversive game ever“) manages to both explore subversive themes and utilize subversive scenarios in the game itself. It goes against the standard masculine oriented FPS in that it removes all guns as weapons. The portal gun that replaces them takes on feminine characteristics because it, as McNeilly says, “creates connections rather than destroying life.” Bonnie Ruberg equates the portals with vaginas, even.

The single most subversive moment for me in the game was being lead to the furnace towards the end - stuck on the moving platform leading to your supposedly inevitable death. It’s a well crafted moment, because while the flames are incredibly stressing as they move closer, in reality you have probably have several minutes to realize you can use the one single mechanic, which has been taught extensively across the whole game, to escape. GLaDOS tells you that you are effectively powerless against her, while you must realize you are empowered to change your circumstances, all while under duress (which is a tricky thing to accomplish design wise).

However, is that subversive moment is directly tied to the game’s subversive themes of masculinity/femininity? I have problems making that connection, but I can’t completely discount that it might be there (you are using the portal gun to give yourself life in that case, but that’s a bit tenuous). Now, the focus of the themes of Portal are naturally more narrow than a game like Blacksite (taking on gender issues in games vs. the war in Iraq), but that is somewhat separate from analyzing the methods they use to explore those themes.

Is the ”insincere choice” (telling the player they have no choice while they actually do) the best means we have to present a subversive message? If we are locked into a rule system by the nature of the game’s code we can never change the system, what would be the ultimate extent in this regard? Making a game that allows the players to create their own rules, would almost seem to devolve very quickly into art-piece.

The resulting experience might have something profound to say about the abstract notions of games as a subversive medium, but would it lack enough direction/focus to be captivating in the slightest, and therefore possibly unable to be profound or meaningful to an individual? This is in software anyway, an ARG or board/card game might have more potential to explore this area today, with only human (and adaptive) participants.

Maybe this is all just dancing around the definition of subversive. If to subvert is to overthrow or undermine the principles of something, I guess it depends what you’re targeting to undermine. Were you directly attempting to undermine an institution’s policy selections, maybe a game Blacksite would be subversive. If you wanted to change an individual’s perspective on the matter by subtly causing them to question themselves, then it wouldn’t. Can you accomplish something like the former without doing the latter?

Whatever you want to call them, each of the two concepts, conveying a message that goes against the consensus and the delivery of that message to the reader, has a spectrum as to how deep you want to push them. Even if you want to make a point undermining a larger institution, making the reader question their own assumptions on a personal level communicates the point most powerfully. Combining both concepts (using interactive elements such as insincere choice and potentially dynamic systems) is further towards the end of an overall spectrum of how subversively you can explore an issue in a game.

Why Microsoft Loses MMOs (And Why The PS3 Will Win The Genre)

screenshot_200x113shkl.jpg[In this in-depth opinion piece, journalist and MMO commentator Michael Zenke takes a close look at Microsoft's missed opportunities in the MMO space - and how Sony is poised to capitalize.]

The cancellation of Marvel Universe Online was a blow to MMO and comic fans alike. Still, now that the pain has faded somewhat, I think it’s clear that MUO’s death may be a good thing after all.

Given the rumors of confusion on the dev team about what the game was going to be like at a fundamental level, pulling support from the project seems like a no-brainer. That said, I think MUO’s death highlights Microsoft’s sordid history with Massively Multiplayer games.

If you look down the big list of canceled or never-released massively multiplayer games, Microsoft’s name comes up a suspicious number of times. The closure of Asheron's Call 2 is probably the most high-profile of these. Mythica, True Fantasy Online, Vanguard, and now Marvel Universe were all dented by the Redmond giant’s deft touch.

On a fundamental corporate level, I think that the company just doesn’t understand the whole MMO ‘thing’. The Xbox Live service is a known quantity at this point, and it's probably one of the defining elements of this generation of consoles. That said, having the patience to see something like an MMO through to completion is a very different task.

Even more than that, I think Microsoft’s short-sightedness when it comes to this genre has left a huge opening for Sony and the PlayStation 3. Though there are no firm plans in the public eye right now, the tide is rising for MMO experiences on Sony’s console. I think it's possible that Microsoft has ceded this fight without even firing a shot.

Microsoft’s Messups

The piece 'Delay of Game' was originally published in the pages of the late, lamented Games for Windows magazine. That article, which touches on some well-known delayed and cancelled games, contains the most recent discussion of Microsoft’s most tragic MMO closure: Mythica. I mourned the game’s loss back in 2004, and even then it was very clear why Microsoft had cut it free from development:

[Microsoft says] there are too many games already, we don’t think there is a market for our game. Besides Mythica, Microsoft also has an entire gaming platform to support …

Despite the protestations of Microsoft’s PR department, it should be mentioned that Mythic Studios had a lawsuit pending against MS … In all likelihood all of these reasons resulted in Mythica’s cancellation. Two years of development time is not something easily thrown away, even by the likes of Microsoft.


mythica_01x-150x150.jpgIt is somewhat difficult for me to understand what goes on in the company’s corporate mind. It’s almost like their are two mental models at work.

On one hand you have a company willing to put everything on the line for the untested Xbox 360 concept. On the other, you have a corporation that wasn’t willing to even try to put an MMO on the market. The 360 and Xbox Live have been hugely expensive gambles, and in the U.S. and EU they’ve paid off.

So why cut Mythica? Given the marketplace at the time (pre-World of Warcraft) it would have very likely attracted a respectable following, and might have even done very well. It was ahead of its time with the concept of instancing and storytelling in games, and offering a unique themed experience that still hasn’t been adequately tapped by the MMO genre.

Trends that were explored in Gods and Heroes (another canceled game) and are going to be touched on lightly in Age of Conan were given center stage in Mythica: Norse mythology, the gods walking among the adventuring populace, etc.

True Fantasy Live Online’s cancellation makes even less sense to me. It was a gorgeous title that could have not only opened up the Xbox platform for MMOs but also broken down the barrier between Microsoft and the Japanese development culture. That barrier, ultimately, is why TFLO was shut down, at least according to Wikipedia:

img_blanc21-150x150.jpg

Relations between the two companies soon began to spiral out of control as Level-5 struggled to meet the demands required by Microsoft, who in turn grew frustrated at the lack of progress being made on the game …

Level-5 President and CEO Akihiro Hino stated in a Japanese interview that the poor relations between his company and Microsoft, partially due to the latter’s inexperience in dealing with Japanese developers, was one of the major reasons behind True Fantasy Live Online’s cancellation.


As recently as early this year Hino stated his interest in completing work on the project. The CEO of the company is invested enough to restart a several-year-old project, a project that the Redmond giant was too short-sighted to fully explore.

It's also worth pointing out that, given Level 5’s high-profile current-gen console title, White Night Chronicles for PS3, it's a fairly safe bet who they’d end up working with if TFLO ever gets off the ground.

Sony’s Sweet Spot

Two things spell out Sony’s intentions in this space very, very well: the recent reorganization of SOE beneath SCEI (out from under Sony Pictures), and NCsoft’s announced intentions to work with Sony to bring products to the PlayStation 3.

For all the questionable choices Sony has made over the last few years, their instincts when it comes to the MMO genre have been very good. Final Fantasy XI, EverQuest Online Adventures, and recently Phantasy Star Universe … almost every MMO to come out on a console has hit a Sony platform.

1042162720_b1a84202ce-150x150.jpgNCsoft’s stake in this is clear-cut. They want access to the console market and need a partner. Lineage and Arena.net’s Guild Wars would be fantastic additions to the PS3, with a minimum of UI tweaks and adjustments to get them working.

NCsoft also has several in-development MMOs in the works as well, at least one of which I assume to be a purely console game. With their stated intention of working with Sony, I wouldn’t hold my breath to see that game on the Xbox 360 anytime soon.

Sony Online Entertainment CEO John Smedley claims that SOE’s move is purely functional. That may be so, but even if that’s the case the move has a lot of symbolism behind it. SOE has always been the Sony outsider, doing very much its own thing.

Moving the experts in this field closer into the fold makes a great deal of sense. The goal, I believe is to bring the MMO-style of thinking ‘in house’ so that ideas can percolate in the right directions. With a firewall between Sony Online and the rest of the company there was little chance of that kind of business acumen influencing the right people.

SOE, of course, already has two games committed to the PlayStation 3 platform. The Agency and Free Realms will both be bringing some of that new Sony Online thinking to the benighted console - a little glimmer of hope for their online offerings.

The Agency in particular is a serious contender, and many gamers are watching it very closely - far closer than the PS3's Home service.

cagegirls114-150x150.jpgBeyond this corporate reshuffling, Sony has two other things going for it on the MMO front. The PlayStation Store and the Sony service itself is free. That’s a plus for companies wanting to put their games on the PS3 platform: no additional barriers.

If a company like Nexon wanted to bring one of their games into the fold, they could offer a free download from the PlayStation Store and never have to worry about their business model being disrupted.

The other thing going for Sony is simple history; they haven’t made a giant mess of every MMO they’ve previously touched. Microsoft now has a reputation in the industry. They aren't completely out of the fight; Mabinogi may be making its way to the Xbox 360, Huxley is still in-development, and Age of Conan may one day see release on a Microsoft console.

All of these plans, though, have been in the works for some time. There's a distinct feeling that Microsoft just isn't taking these initiatives seriously. Not surprising, given what’s happened in the past.

Without a big shakeup, I don’t see MMOs taking the world by storm on any platform this year or even in 2009. That said, some day there will be a big console MMO.

One of these days we’re going to see a persistent online game world crawl to the top of the charts and take on the big boys with a control pad. I’m laying odds right now that Sony’s going to have the lock on that game.

GameSetLinks: Maaatt Daaaaaaamon

- Sorry, really not picking on Matt Damon, but the lead story is somewhat about him, and was reminded how much Team America is destructively vituperative towards him. Also, this is still the best North Korean dictator-sung ballad ever.

Anyhow, as well as the Damon-ator, you will see some other links, including Leigh Alexander on the real GTA IV, the eyebrow-raisingly named Stalin Vs. Martians, and the slightly fictional Ponsonby Britt making his first-ever game appearance. And links:

QT3: Matt Damon, you big fat jerk!
Oh dear, Tom Chick points out the telephone game that results in silly Matt Damon/Bourne Conspiracy headlines.

Kotaku: New York City On Liberty City: In The "Real" Liberty City, GTA IV Might Be Cathartic
Leigh still doing 'good stuff' over there on the 'Taku.

Stalin Vs. Martians - the official game homepage
'Stalin is our commander and he gives us orders. Closer to the grand finale he will appear on the battlefield as a playable unit - a huge colossus, five times higher than any other creature.' Via someone who saw it on RPS I think?

Microsoft and Yahoo rejected Steam, says Valve // News // GamesIndustry.biz
'Rejected' is an awfully strong word here - they did this with an XBLA/Portal headline too. Isn't Doug just talking about why MS/Yahoo didn't have the right elements in place, so they built Steam instead?

50 Cent: Blood on the Sand Trailer Is Bananas - Shacknews
This. Is. Even. More. Silly.

Ponsonby Britt - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Very cutely also credited as executive producer in the credits for the new Rocky & Bullwinkle XBLA title, I just spotted (which is a not-so-good Wario Ware clone, sigh - nice try tho.)

ASCII by Jason Scott: More-iarty
Jason points out that WPI students "...interviewed Brian Moriarty, he of Infocom, LucasArts, and general amazing guy, one of my favorites."

YouTube - Robochi Gets Flamed
Persona's third-year college project is about a robot, the internet, and messageboards. Quite game-applicable - tho a frowny ending.

Comment Central - Times Online - WBLG: Grand Theft Auto vs. Grand Theft Auto
Oh, tres amusant. (Also of note cos someone representing The Times actually mailed GSW to plug this.)

Spot On: Studios bust as industry booms - PlayStation 3 News at GameSpot
Good analysis of some of the game studio issues right now.

May 1, 2008

Interview: Kongregate's Greer And Sirlin On Metagame Hopes With Kongai

- [Will a Pokemon RPG-inspired card battle metagame break social Flash game site Kongregate into the mainstream? Big sister site Gamasutra's Alistair Wallis chatted to site founder Jim Greer and Street Fighter II HD Remix balance designer and gadabout David Sirlin about the influences and design of Kongai, and how the game will aid the site in the long run.]

Online social Flash game site Kongregate launched in late 2006. Created by brother-sister duo Jim and Emily Greer, the site follows a YouTube-like model, allowing users to upload their own games to the service for play.

Another major difference from other Flash gaming hubs is the inclusion of profiles and reward points. In a similar fashion to Xbox Live’s Achievement system, players earn point for completing certain tasks within certain games. Also being distributed as rewards are collectable cards, for use in a site-wide metagame called Kongai.

Currently in closed beta, Kongai has been designed by renowned game designer and balancer (Street Fighter II HD Remix) David Sirlin, who describes the game as being more about mind-games and strategy than a simple case of which player can collect the most cards. The game is intended to be playable by all users of the site.

We spoke to Sirlin and Greer recently and asked each their visions for the game, and how it aids the site in the long run.

How does the metagame aspect of Kongai help the site as a whole?

Jim Greer: Earning achievements is a huge part of what Kongregate is about. The idea with Kongai is to give people something to collect that gives them gameplay power, not just status.

Do you think this will draw in new users to the site?

JG: It could. I think there's a pretty big portion of gamers that think Flash games can be pretty good but don't really seek them out or pay them much attention. I've found that when you're playing a game with a concrete goal like earning a collectible card, you pay more attention and get more into it. So someone might show up to check out Kongai and then get hooked on playing the other games as well.

Would you consider David a marketable name, and does that aid the site?

JG: Yes, I think it helps us get noticed by the influencers, the kind of people who read game design blogs and Gamasutra. That audience knows him as the only American to ever design a Street Fighter game. If they like it, they'll write about it, tell their friends, etc and that coverage and attention can reach a larger audience.

Of course, the main thing that David brings is serious design talent, in particular a genius for balancing that readers of his articles and blog will be familiar with (not to mention Street Fighter fans).

In regards to the game itself, do you feel that is something likely to appeal to Kongregate users? That is, does "mind-game mastery over brute power or luck" represent the users of the site and their tastes?

JG: If you look at the top rated games on the site, many of them require a lot of strategy. Desktop Tower Defense and Protector are #1 and #2 currently. There's a perception out there that Flash games are kind of mindless fluff. Some of them are, but there's plenty of meat out there. The mind game aspect is unusual since there's not that much multiplayer at all, but I think people will go for it.

Who is working on the art for the game, and what motivated that decision?

JG: I love the art - everything we've released so far was done by Udon Entertainment - they do the Street Fighter comics, among a lot of other stuff. David knew them from the work he's done on Street Figher II: HD Remix, so he brought them in.

Will the addition of new cards and sets to the game be left in David's hands?

JG: The gameplay mechanics and rules are all David. Our internal Director of Games, Chris Pasley, is working with David on the themes, art direction and so on.

Do you see possibilities for licensing coming from the game? Is a physical set a possibility in the future?

JG: Yes, there will be a movie, featuring Jessica Alba as Rumiko the Ninja and Uma Thurman as Helene the Swordstress. I wish!

We'll see how it goes. A physical set would be great as a collectible, but some of the rules would need to be reworked quite a bit to do as tabletop game.

Similarly, would you consider marketing coming into the game, that is, themed decks, and so on?

JG: Maybe, for the right property. Transformers maybe? But not potato chips. More likely would be, ‘This set brought to you by...’

What about the possibility of other metagame type activities within Kongregate, if the game is successful?

JG: That could be very cool - collecting units in an Advance Wars style turn based strategy game, maybe?

How will you measure its success, and what would stop the game from being sustainable in your eyes?

JG: It's a success if our players love it. Hopefully it will go beyond that and bring new players to the site. We grew 50% between January and February - I'd love to do that every month until we rule the web. But honestly I have no idea how it will do. It's an unusual strategy.

Obviously if the game has a big audience we'll work harder to bring out new cards, update it, etc. But we'll maintain it in any case.

David, why do you think Jim and Kongregate had enough faith that you would do the game the right way?

David Sirlin: I heard that Jim asked around for a designer and he heard my name and [Magic: the Gathering creator] Richard Garfield's came up. That's some stiff competition! From my website about game design and my Playing to Win book about playing competitive games, I think he was able to get a fairly good idea about where I stand on various design issues before even talking to me.

Also, I was - and still am! - working on my own card game called Yomi: Fighting Card Game, so it showed that I had some knowledge and interest in the card game genre.

When I first talked to Jim, I told him I thought there were a thousand ways to go wrong with this idea of a customizable card game where you win the cards from playing various other games. He said, ‘Ok, so tell me how to do it right’.

Fair enough. I explained that I thought a traditional 60-card deck game would be too unwieldy because it would require winning too many individual cards before you could modify your deck. I also let Jim know from the start that I'm on the opposite side of the fence of the entire CCG industry in my belief that rare cards in random booster packs and intentionally bad cards hurt the experience of playing a card game.

Apparently Jim was willing to buy into my crazy ideas, and the rest is history.

Were you apprehensive about taking on a project of this level of importance for the site? After all, a metagame that wasn't entirely successful would have pretty dire repercussions for the site, right?

DS: I don't think any artist - using that term broadly - in any field worth his or her salt would be apprehensive about taking on a project because it's too important. This never even occurred to me to worry about. At the same time, I was investigating being the head of a $30 million MMO, so Kongregate's game wasn't exactly scary to me.

I was apprehensive about it for another reason though. Every project takes a time commitment and a mindshare commitment. I knew I'd have to spend time clearing my mind of everything else and just focus on this design problem and conjure all the design data from nothing. It's like fighting a dragon to me. Yeah I know I can do it, but do I really have the energy in me to defeat this dragon given that I'm also rebalancing Street Fighter HD Remix?

I was originally going to tell Jim that I didn't have the time, and to his credit, he suggested that I make some changes in my professional life that would allow me to do it. In retrospect, that advice of his was a turning point for me and I can't thank him enough for it.

How long has the project been in the works?

DS: Jim first contacted me in July 2006 and I started thinking about it then. I was officially working on it a month or so after that. We haven't been working on it the whole time though. For a lot of this time, Kongregate focused on improving the main site.

What were your initial aims with the game?

DS: Years ago, a gamer from South America who went by the name Pollo stumbled onto my forums. His English was not good and some of my other forum goers flamed his beliefs. But I came to see he was the real deal. His knowledge of games was so deep that he had been to the highest skill levels of many games and gotten bored with them.

He played competitive games professionally, and a lot of them. He listed several qualities that he wanted in a game, and it was very interesting to see his perspective--to see what types of design elements led to deep games, according to him.

Over the years both he and I had our separate threads where we listed a set of about 10 requirements for a game - we shared many of them. We were each asking if there existed any such game that met all our requirements. Incidentally, I call this activity “pure research” in that I was researching the field of games for its own sake, rather than for the sake of a particular project.

It's unpredictable what such research will yield, but it will yield things you couldn't have specifically looked for in the first place, and that is why it's valuable. And again, any designer worth his salt should be conducting his or her own pure research projects like this.

It turns out very, very few games met our requirements. One game that people suggested unusually many times was Pokemon Netbattle. This is not the Pokemon trading card game, but instead the turn-based battle system that exists inside the Pokemon RPGs. Players liked it so much, they extracted all the data and equations into a PC game. This - of all things - came up frequently as an answer to my list of requirements.

Much later when Jim Greer asked me about a game for Kongregate, I had this Pokemon Netbattle in mind. There had to be some magic brew in that game and maybe we could improve it, simplify it, and bottle it. I considered a couple other radically different designs at first, but soon enough, I settled on capturing essence of and improving upon this relatively unknown gem.

Yes, I know Pokemon is incredibly popular, but the battle system itself is not exactly known to the average internet user.

Why did you decide to use an existing game as the basis for Kongai?

DS: There's always a debate between whether to make something new or make something good. They aren't exclusive of course, but I think it's best to pick one or the other for a project, and call it the highest goal. If you pick good, then you accept that it might or might not be new.

If you pick new then you accept that it might be trailblazing or it might not come together as you'd hoped. Honestly, I didn't spend much time debating this for this project, because the pure research that led me to this battle system was still on my mind, and it seemed like a good fit.

It happened to turn out that an existing game lined up with what I thought Kongregate needed, so I went that route. I should at least point out that there are numerous changes to the design from the Pokemon game though. The character switching system works differently, the energy system governing which moves you do when works differently, I introduced the concept of close and far fighting ranges, I replaced all damage formulas with simple arithmetic, and I got rid of the original game's ridiculous 17x17 chart of resistances. It's a new game for sure, but it's inspired from something existing, yes.

Incidentally, another pure research exercise of mine has led me to create a card game that is very new, and not based on much of anything out there. So maybe it's an accident of history which one ended up being Kongregate's metagame.

Did you go into it with an audience in mind?

DS: Maybe this is bad to admit, but no. As I explained above, the basic idea was already known to be pretty good. I knew I could modify the game to be more accessible, easier to learn, and to emphasize even more the concepts of competitive gaming that I think are important. And I want to be clear that I really fight hard for things to be easy for people.

Even though I'm a competitive tournament player, I'm also on a crusade of eliminating arbitrary difficulty from games so we're left only with the truly interesting decisions. If the game had a solid basis to begin with, if my changes pushed it further toward easy of play and accessibility, then I didn't have to think too hard about the audience.

I thought a mixed audience of expert players and casual players would all be able to find the fun in this game, so I concentrated on how to make it the best design I could, rather than how to fit it specifically to a certain demographic.

How difficult was it to adapt the game for entry level users?

DS: It was just part of the basic design process I follow of making things as easy as I can. The crux of it is that this is a game of outguessing your opponent amidst a web of possible counters. For this to be interesting, there has to be a web of some sort. The original game used a 17x17 chat of resistances to create this system of counters: does Dark beat Psychic? Does Grass beat Ghost?

I think once players internalize this chart, the gameplay becomes very good, but asking them to intuitively understand this system of counters is way too much.

I looked for other ways to create a system of counters. I cut down the 17 damage types to just three: light magic, dark magic, and physical armor. There isn't even a 3x3 chart, by the way. A character is good against dark magic if he has high dark magic resistance. There is no chart.

But I also added the ability to switch ranges from close to far, and made some characters good at close, others good at far, and others good at both; but with other disadvantages. It's very visual to see the characters standing right next to each other or far apart, so you don't need to internalize a big chart to understand this.

Between the 3 damage types, the close/far ranges, the system of switching characters in and out, and the various special abilities of each character, there is enough of a web of counters to make the game interesting. Hopefully even beginners can grasp these concepts quickly.

Why do you feel it's important that rare cards aren't powerful in regards to the game?

DS: I think it's really amazing that the gaming public puts up with rare cards in CCGs. Even though I might rate games like Magic: The Gathering and World of Warcraft TCG amongst the very best designed games in the world, rare cards are simply a rip-off mechanism and a barrier that keeps players at arm's length from the real game.

I have a lot of friends who love competitive games who don't play card games because they just want to play the game without an extra layer of annoyance of getting a bunch of expensive rare cards. A tournament Magic deck costs about $300, which is totally unreasonable. This is a question outside the realm of game balance also, because even Richard Garfield himself acknowledged that you can't balance powerful cards by making them rare. He only did that in the very beginning of Magic: the Gathering because he didn't realize how popular it would be and that people would spend crazy money to get all the rares.

Kongregate's metagame, by its very nature, already has one layer between the players and the game. It's a harmless one though, because all you have to do is play various games on Kongregate.com to earn the cards, and that's fun in itself. I'd even say it ads another layer of fun to all those games.

But adding yet another layer of rarity to the mechanism Kongregate already has would just be too much. It would be too long of a journey to get to the point where you could actually play the metagame the way you want.

That said, I understand that people like to collect things and that card rarity can have good features too. If there are alternate versions of cards that are rare and hard to get, that's fine, and actually really cool, as long as the people who just want to play the game can earn the basic functional version of the card.

I think it would be great to have really difficult challenges that lead to a special version of a card that lets everyone know how hard you had to try to get it, as long as everyone can get the functionally identical card in a reasonable way. So card rarity isn't out of the question, as long as it doesn't affect gameplay.

What about your reasoning for not including bad cards in the mix?

DS: Intentionally bad cards are another crime perpetrated on the gaming public by CCG companies. Mark Rosewater of Wizards of the Coast famously defended bad cards saying that they have lots of good properties such as giving new players the joy of realizing they are bad and not choosing them. He also said even if entire sets full of Magic cards were “good” that some would end up bad anyway because there are simply too many cards in a set to all be viable in a tournament.

I don't want to give the impression I'm against Mark Rosewater in any way. He's an excellent designer, and one of the few that anyone can learn from because he's written so many articles explaining his process. I'd give Magic a letter grade somewhere between A and A+. But on this point of bad cards, I have to disagree.

Players don't need the “fun” of figuring out that bad cards are bad. This is doubly true in our case because no one wants to win a challenge to earn a “bad” card. If we try our best to make all cards good, a few will be bad, sure, and we'll do our best to fix those. But to say that a game can't support all “good” cards means either a) you aren't trying hard enough or more likely in Magic's case, b) you are printing way too many cards.

By offering as many types of cards as we can, all of which have at least some viable use, we're trying to give players a lot of ability to customize their playstyle. Another way to put this that I've learned from fighting game tournaments is that some players just really like certain characters and want to play them no matter what. They feel much better about that if they know that every character is viable if played right, and that they don't have to be hamstrung with some garbage character who has no chance to win.

How successful do you think the game will be in bringing new users to the site? Is it possible for a metagame to have that kind of draw?

DS: I guess that remains to be seen and I also think it will be hard to measure. I think the metagame is going to generally make Kongregate a little more fun overall by giving players a meaningful goal when they play the other games, and by getting people to try out new games they wouldn't otherwise have looked at. If people are generally having more fun on the site, it's more likely that they'll get their friends to join, even if it's not explicitly because of the metagame.

It will certainly draw in some users just for the metagame alone, but I don't know how to guess how many. Hopefully a lot!

How difficult was the balancing between accessibility and the kind of sustainability that comes from nuanced play?

DS: That's always a challenge. My initial concept for the game required players to make only two clicks per turn: 1) choose your range, and 2) choose your attack/switch/intercept. This keeps the game really simple to learn. I second-guessed this choice over and over throughout development. The biggest sacrifice that comes from that 2-click system is that you can never have what's called an “activated ability” in Magic: the Gathering.

For example, a character who has an innate ability you can click on at any time to do something. All our character innate abilities and item abilities are either triggered (automatically, based on various conditions) or passive (always on).

Adding activated abilities would allow for a bigger design space, more variety, and more cards. I considered it many times. In the end, I stuck with my guns and kept it 2-click only. Even though we sacrificed some nuance with that decision, there is still enough left that people are having a lot of fun with the game, and it keeps it as simple as possible to learn.

Is there a risk of experienced players making the game unappealing for newer players a few months down the track in the way that we've seen with, say, certain online FPS games?

DS: Every competitive game has an element of this, where expert players trounce new players. Usually the answer is to implement better matchmaking to help get players of equal skill playing each other. Another easy improvement is to give players a few different rooms based on skill, even if the players use the honor system to choose a room. Magic: The Gathering Online added these types of rooms after their release. For example, a beginners room, and intermediate room, and a hardcore expert room.

The nature of our game helps us out a lot, though. When you are new to a first-person shooter or a fighting game, you are terrible and you know it. Players can run circles around you. But this is a mindgame, an elaborate version of paper, rock, scissors. Even if you're terrible, you'll be able to grasp the fundamentals of attack/intercept/switch pretty quickly. Beginners will be surprised that experts can guess right so incredibly often - they can! - but I think beginners won't get that same feeling of hopelessness you get while being spawn camped and repeatedly headshot in a first-person shooter.

It will feel like guessing right is within your grasp, in a way that bunny-hopping and head-shotting is not within your grasp in a fist-person shooter.

How sustainable would you say the game is, and what plans are there for the long-term?

DS: The game is potentially very long-lasting even without endless new cards. Because it relies so heavily on double-blind guessing, it's not “solvable” like many turn-based games. Ten years from now, it will still be satisfying to intercept people when they try to switch out. And I think it's going to be quite a surprise to most players that some players are able to win 30-0 in a game ostensibly about paper, rock, scissors. I'd actually like to work with some psychologists or brain scientists on studying that.

Seriously, I would.

But you probably meant how many more cards will we make for this game. While we have lots more cards in store, I don't think they can go on forever due to the game's relatively limited design space of possible variations. Rather than repeat ideas, once we reach that point, I think it would be better to launch a new, different metagame.

Chewing Pixels: 'GTA IV: The Immigrant Issue'

Niko.jpg ['Chewing Pixels' is a new GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin in which he explains what you should think about video games and why.]

Niko Bellic is the most likable Grand Theft Auto protagonist we’ve yet seen.

He’s smart, funny, loquacious and you get the feeling that his brushes with (and reluctant employment by) Liberty City’s criminal underworld are born from poverty and necessity rather than an inherent tendency toward violence and viciousness.

He’s seen things.

This much we know from his infrequent moments of soul-bearing wartime recollection (which never feel forced) and so he exudes the kind of scarred, tough maturity that comes from surviving the bleakness of battle rather than the posing immaturity of so much gangsta pastiche.

That Rockstar decided to cast the player as an illegal immigrant for their hero is cause for celebration, not eye-rolling derision. He is an asylum-seeking protagonist with more depth and character than ten thousand lantern-jawed American heroic archetypes.

In fact, his portrayal (at least to those with half an eye open) should do more to warm viewers to illegal immigrants than any of the (nevertheless awesome) characters in, say, the culturally-acclaimed TV series, The Wire.

As a result, the press statement from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants saying that the game’s portrayal of a Balkan in the game plays on untrue stereotypes seems ridiculous.

It’s the kind of accusation that could only be directed at the game from a brief reading of its synopsis (if that) rather than extended time spent in Niko’s shoes. GTA IV’s world is ethically diverse, with law abiding citizens and criminals alike drawn from a wide range of creeds and races and to argue that it promotes racial stereotyping is to disastrously miss the point.

Indeed, my experience of the game has been to find that Niko’s level-headedness, character and sense of justice (a skewed but consistent moral standard that reminds me of that of Anton Chigurh in the Coen Borthers’ latest, No Country For Old Men) has influenced the way I’ve been playing the game.

Whereas in previous iterations I wouldn’t think twice of car-jacking a vehicle to get from A to B as quickly and effectively as possible, in assuming Niko’s role I feel more comfortable hailing a taxi cab and paying a fare for the journey.

Besides the fact that viewing the city from the back of a cab is a lovely way to pass 5 minutes, the game is clever in its use of inconvenience as a deterrent to ‘unnecessary’ crime. Why not take a cab when, in doing so, there’s no risk of a police pursuit or the irritation of having another ‘death’ blighting your stat record?

The increased fidelity of the city and its citizens therein raises the sense of immersion and the sense of virtual responsibility. Previously games would have to rely on asset-based penalties to encourage their players to ‘do right’ in a game world (e.g. by removing some in-game currency or hard-won weapons as a deterrent).

But as the realism of open game worlds increases they are more able to rely on a player’s real-life sense of justice and fairness to temper their behaviour.

GTA IV, ironically - when considering the media backlash it has already generated - is very effective at this pressing of responsibility back into the player’s hands – hence now you get to keep your weapons after you get sent to the hospital.

There are, of course, scripted moral decisions to be made in the game (do you step on your enemy’s fingers and let him drop to his death from the roof top or hoist him up to safety).

But more important than these are the thousands of incidental moral and ethical decisions that must be made through the natural course of play. There is an excellent blog site to be written by somebody who tries a victimless play-through of the game.

There is much that needs to be written about the issues GTA IV’s realism raises for gaming. Gamers are, of course, already on the back foot in defending their hobby and, specifically, this game from the blind onslaught of the mainstream, faux-outraged media.

But the deeper, more real and true issues the game raises deserve proper appraisal and criticism – especially from those who understand their implications. However, Niko’s status as an illegal immigrant is certainly not one of them.

GameSetLinks: Enter The Busey, Sensei

- This very special GameSetLinks is headlined by Gary Busey's semi-intentionally deranged endorsement of Saints Row 2, but don't let that trouble you - no, seriously, come out from under the bed?

Elsewhere, we have a crazy Taiko Drum Master claymation short, more exploration of the '1000 True Fans' concept of niche stardom, and the scary truth behind Obsidian's design meetings nowadays. Let's hit eeet:

Richard Bartle: Gamers have won the battle against the censors | Technology | guardian.co.uk
'Gamers vote. Gamers buy newspapers. They won't vote for you, or buy your newspapers, if you trash their entertainment with your ignorant ravings'

The US SingStar launch line-up - PS3 Fanboy
Lots of Britpop-tastic stuff here, nice!

GameTap : GameTap Indies Discussion Thread ...
Frank Cifaldi compiled all the GameTap Indies stuff together in one lovable bunch, v.neat.

Gary Busey Returns With Saints Row 2 Footage - Shacknews
Very silly indeed, THQ.

Kevin Kelly -- 'The Case Against 1000 True Fans'
More follow-up on this truly interesting - but flawed - concept - as commenter GSW Krawall says, of interest to indie game fans.

taiko.drum.master.clay.anime. - Vox
Totally trippy.

Sega’s Rambo on location test in Japan « Arcade Heroes
Whoa, a new Rambo light gun game? Wacky.

For All You Do, Bud, This Blog Is About You - WSJ.com
A Miller-sponsored 'independent' blog - showing how marketing and editorial lines are getting confusing in all industries, nowadays - via Waxy.

For a Pinball Survivor, the Game Isn’t Over - New York Times
Yay, Stern - via Arcade Heroes.

Paranoid changes at work. - Chris Avellone's MySpace Blog
Obsidian's announcement of Alpha Protocol has 'livened up' design meetings, apparently.

April 30, 2008

Q&A: Gamevil's Bong Koo Shin On Art, Addiction, And Eating Your Game

- [This Brandon Sheffield-conducted interview catches up with what it might be easy to brand the Keita Takahashi of Korea, insane interview style-wise - Gamevil's Bong Koo Shin.

It's a shame that Shin's excellent Nom mobile game series - which is a major seller in Korea - has limited exposure on certain cellphone carriers in North America. Still, we're happy to point at him and grin happily.]

Though not entirely well known in the West, Gamevil's Bong Koo Shin has for years been creating some of the most aesthetically and mechanically striking mobile games in the industry.

What little recognition this innovative South Korean designer has received in the West recently came with Nom 3 being a finalist in the IGF Mobile 2008 Best Game and Innovation in Mobile Game Design.

But what started with a simple gameplay device of turning a cell phone in different directions in Nom 1 (video) soon turned to more intergalactic pursuits, as Nom 2 (for which a postmortem is available on Gamasutra) allowed users to transmit messages into the universe via the Ukraine's space telescopes.

In addition, Nom 3 mused on post-Valentines loneliness with, in Shin's own words, the "sweetness of chocolates and the bitterness of solitude." Gamasutra recently sat down with Shin to discuss the creator's history with blending cell phone gameplay with more creative endeavors.

What followed was a wide ranging and whimsical discussion on Shin's motivation for creating his games and the mechanics of blending art and gameplay, and thoughts on exploiting and taking the addictive properties of games to their (il)logical extremes.

What was your background before games?

Bong Koo Shin: I studied design, and started my career with arcade games. I actually made whole PCBs.

So does that mean the board itself, or the games that were made?

BKS: Based on the PCBs.

So you mean the entirety of sound and graphic design and art?

BKS: Right.

What games were those?

BKS: I've only made domestic games, like puzzle and strategy - all sorts of games, like battles, too.

What company?

BKS: The name of the company was SemiCom. After I left the company, I started my own business. It was a very unique business. It's similar to those sticker photos, but you can take a picture of yourself, and print it out as an instant tattoo, the kind you put on your skin. That was in the year 2000 -- I ran that for about two years.

The reason I closed the business was because I needed special paper, and there weren't many companies who produced that kind of papers. We had some trouble finding a partner, so I quit and joined Gamevil in the year 2002. It was my first time producing a full game, which was Nom 1.

What made you decide to go to Gamevil?

BKS: After I closed my business, my college friends were all in the game business. I was looking for a mid-sized company that was not famous, so I could have time for my own, like getting away time.

I was searching the Internet, and I found a company called Gamevil, and I loved the passion and stuff on their homepage. That's why I chose them. I decided to join Gamevil because Gamevil was looking for a very creative game designer. I liked the phrase "creative designer."

Was there any particular reason you chose mobile, or was that just because of the company size and position? Or was mobile a conscious choice?

BKS: When I first joined Gamevil in 2002, it was doing both mobile and online games. I was actually trying out for the online games, but our CEO recommended I try mobile development. I found it interesting, so now here I am.

So Gamevil doesn't do online?

BKS: Not anymore.

How do you draw inspiration for the games you design?

BKS: I've never played a game to get inspired. I go to department stores and malls, traditional marketplaces, and advanced culture like pop-art. I'm trying to get inspirations from there, not from game playing.

Nom does have a few examples of that, like the chocolates. It's kind of a simple game, but it seems like the thought process behind it is not simple. How much consideration do you put into these before you create them?

BKS: I don't actually set a time for inspiration and the thinking process. The thinking process itself starts from somewhere else, like my world view -- respect toward the world and everything. I also focus on very detailed stuff in our everyday trivial life.

For example, in the case of Nom 2, patterns like you see in the background were very popular in Korea, so I decided to make similar patterns for the game. Inspiration like that is more real-time-based. I get inspired by something, and there it is -- I apply it to the game right away.

So it's not like trying to search for inspiration. It's just when the inspiration strikes?

BKS: Right.

You called Nom 3 the first true art game -- what did you mean by that?

BKS: For years I've been trying to combine games and art. Games have a score, something that can be represented with numbers, right? But art itself can't be shown in numbers or a score or anything. So I've been trying to compromise, a buffer zone, maybe, between those two very big, different, opposite categories.

For example, in Nom 3, I was trying to put very philosophical issues in that rectangle, such as love...you know, values. Philosophical values. You never know what that rectangle will change into. Nom 3 changes the shape of the background constantly.

I think Nom 3 might be a hybrid of art and games. It might look very awkward, very unfamiliar, and very strange, but I'm the creator of those two hybrids, so it looks very adorable, cute, and lovely to me, in the way a father might see it.

In fact, there are a lot of other games that people have called art. There have been specific games that are art installations, but also games like, say Okami, or more conceptual games. It's hard to see that on a small screen when there are those two things. It's a very big statement.

BKS: Right, it is.

Another example is the game Rez, which was Tetsuya Mizuguchi's tribute to Kandinsky. He actually went through the opposite cycle that Kandinsky went through, so that it evolved from more geometric shapes to more realistic shapes. That was the opposite path the art took.

BKS: I agree that's a very big statement, that games and art are going together. I'm spending most of my time thinking about it, but I also think it shouldn't be too intentional. It should be natural. It's like putting games and art in one melting pot. It melts together, and what comes out is completely different from either.

If you meld the two together too much people won't be able to understand what it is, you know? So it should still exist within a framework that the public can understand, something the public is familiar with.

Do people that play Nom 3 understand that it's melding games and art, or do they just think it's a fun game?

BKS: I've never said it was an art game.

You just did!

BKS: Right, but when we were promoting it. When I'm given the chance to explain it more deeply, it's different. I simply hope the audience will understand that the game is very unique and very advanced, but I don't expect them to think catch any similarities to pop-art.

Are you trying to make any kind of statement with your games?

BKS: In terms of the business, I just hope games themselves gain more respect, in social terms, to the point where they're treated as a form of art. Ultimately, I'm trying to achieve something beyond games, by pushing art and games together.

Like I said, I think the games themselves are more like numerical terms. Game have scores, numbers -- I want to try and create something more intangible -- something that does not have fixed form. Maybe in the very far future, there'll be another word or terminology to refer to something I've created.

Have you played flOw?

BKS: I just know the name. I haven't played it.

In that game, there is no score or anything. You are a creature, and you can eat smaller things, and as you eat smaller things, you get bigger. There are red things you can eat that make you go down a level, where things are bigger, or blue things you can eat where you go up and they're smaller. It's based on concepts -- there's no score and no end, really. You just play.

BKS: I think for as much as we are inventing new business models, new games or art, I think we could invent some emotions, too -- the feelings you get from playing certain games.

You mean, make people have emotions, or invent new emotions?

BKS: Invent new emotions, but not emotions you can explain in words, because they've never been experienced it before. Scores would have no meaning at all, because it's more about that new feeling -- a kind of joy from playing the game.

If you take the brain images of a game addict and a drug addict, those two brainwaves are very similar. There is a point where you get addicted to a game, and after all, games themselves can be cut down to really simple components -- just some objects, just some sound, just some like colors.

It could end up being more like a digital drug -- something used to brainwash someone, by implanting some images and stuff, but it could also be used in positive, constructive ways -- like psychological therapy with games.

People are trying psychological therapy with games now. Some people are trying to help people with post-traumatic stress, like soldiers and things like that. It sounds kind of like you're talking about virtual reality-type stuff?

BKS: Not really virtual reality. Have you heard of this mind controlling device -- it's a device with some sort of amplifier, and you have to wear special glasses. It gives you repetitive colors -- constantly changing, it kind of controls and soothes your brainwaves.

Then, when you hear sounds, you see something visual, amongst the color changes and stuff. It controls your brainwaves. It's all very preliminary stuff, but it's like the infant level of this digital drug.

After all, eventually I would say we don't need game characters -- no saving the princess or saving the world or fighting against evil and stuff. That's not related to the core. That's boundary stuff. Just like I said about those addictive points of a game -- I could pull out those very little points, so that if you could hit all those points in at once, it would make someone addicted right away. That's the digital drug that I would expect to see in the future.

It seems like it would be very difficult to create something like that, because addictive points in games are dependent on non-addictive points. People get addicted to MMOs because they are grinding, and they want to get a higher level, and they want to get whatever. That's not exactly fun, really. It's just a thing that they feel compelled to do. If you kept the grinding but took it away from the interpersonal relationships, you'd end up with some very abrasive stuff. A lot of the stuff that's addictive is not necessarily completely positive.

BKS: I agree that it's kind of tough to make. I use this metaphor -- look at medicine. You take a core of all of these various chemicals and atoms and stuff and put in one little capsule.

If you could make a mixture of all those things, in terms of games, in the very far future -- like a long time after this, as if right now what we know as games are just the very beginning of games -- we could expect to see some games that like pills, so we could just swallow the pill to play the game. We're not going to be using the term "play the game," but "eat the game," in a sense.

Do you think that you are moving toward that, somehow, with the games that you are making?

BKS: Right now, I just have to make popular, commercial games. I can't do all of that right away, but I always try to put some factor or independent variable in the game, that makes it sort of experimental. I'm still analyzing the results of my experiments.

What are your results so far?

BKS: For example, one of my games only has very simple melodies, but also repetitive rhythms and beats. So I used the BPM from the human heart. When the human body is excited just a little, they're a t a certain BPM -- let's say like twenty. I use that BPM and apply it to the beat of Nom 2, in terms of rhythm. I do the same with the sounds -- use high and low pitches, but repeat it continuously.

The reason I have kept the rhythms simple is to get people addicted faster. The capacity of the human brain is very limited, so I need to control the flow of information that flows into the human brain. That's why I tried to simplify everything. Users say that they're playing the game, but they don't know why they're playing. I'm trying to bring out more of the addictive state in users.

Have you researched addiction, yourself?

BKS: I have done some research on the addictive self, but it's hard to find studies it that aren't based on addiction to drugs or chemicals. I couldn't find enough material to back up my theory. I just added up the ideas. But I think that every industry is doing research on addiction. For example, like the Pringles slogan -- "Once you pop, you can't stop." There could be some secret stuff underneath that.

Or maybe it's just a silly ad slogan they made up. It's more something they hope is true, than something they know is true. They're like, "You can't stop. It's so great!" They're just trying to sell it.

BKS: Oh, okay. It's similar to what game developers do. If you go to a Korean restaurant and eat spicy food, you have a craving for something sweet. But if you have something sweet, then you get on the other side. You get a craving for spicy. Just like that. This kind of stuff is repeating constantly. I'm using that same mechanism of being addicted to a game by sound and visual stuff. Once you hear the sound, you have this craving for it. Repetition is the core of being addicted.

Moving on to something different, how did you get in touch with the Ukrainian space program?

BKS: I wanted to try something beyond international, in a way. Something extraterrestrial, in outer space. I thought I'd send out messages to outer space, and if I got a response from them, everyone would say Nom 2 was the first game to interact with outer space creatures! That's how I got with that. After we started sending out the messages to outer space, it was reported that there was a UFO in downtown Seoul.

Downtown?

BKS: When we sent out the messages, we inserted this kind of map that shows the signal carriers. The message consists of a head and tail. The tail contains content from users, and the head contains the carrier-specific data. The map is the head of the message.

I was going to ask how they would know where it was coming from, but they know it's from Seoul.

BKS: Gamevil's head of business development went to the Ukraine to talk to the media, and waited two or three days there. After that we were allowed to meet with the Ukrainian space guys.

The space center guys had black-and-white mobile phones -- not even color backgrounds -- but they thought the project itself was very interesting, and they were thrilled to help out.

And how did you choose the Ukraine, instead of someone else?

BKS: We were trying to do it in Seoul, but we couldn't get approval from the government. In the year 2000, there was a promotion from the Ukrainian space camp sending out messages to outer space -- the camp there had the second-largest scope for sending messages to outer space. It was the perfect spot, and there were fewer legal issues about sending out messages.

I assume, then, you believe in life on other planets?

BKS: Of course I believe in life on other planets. But when I was doing Nom 2, I had the chance to talk to professors and engineers who were working at the space center. They were referring to aliens -- like, life on other planets -- as "they." It wasn't a matter of whether they existed or not. They firmly believed in life on other planets, and they're referring to life on other planets as "those guys over there." They're very certain that they exist. I was very shocked.

If you could make a large game now, what would be the theme and idea for it?

BKS: You mean, something not mobile?

Yeah, not mobile, and not all the way to the addiction games yet.

BKS: The title will be like "Yes or No?" I want everybody on Earth to participate in the game. They'd all answer a question yes or no, and if more answered yes, the situation changes to a certain output.

So is the game only the questions and the answers, or is there more?

BKS: It'd be like a large survey. Let's say that there's a building or something object that everyone on earth knew about. I'd give a survey, like, "Should we explode it?" Then people would answer the question. But since we need participation from all earthlings, I think we'd need to keep it simple.

Once they know about this building or the object, the question would say, "Do you want to get rid of it?" If more than a majority of a popular nation wants to eliminate it, we would actually eliminate it. It's more like a science fiction game.

For instance, if you gave out the survey for the first time, they'd think it was meaningless. They would carelessly answer the question. But if something's really gone after they answer it -- if they find their answer has some responsibility, and if it actually happens -- people will feel that responsibility, and be reluctant to answer the questions.

It seems like you could do it on a much smaller scale now, probably, even on a mobile platform. Not for exploding buildings, but smaller-scale things that don't have to do with making the government mad and stuff. But it seems kind of like a social experiment.

BKS: If we could make it happen, we could be in the Guinness Book!

COLUMN: 'Jump Button': Dirt In The Music — 8-bit musician Tyson Hopprich aka DJ Tr!p

-[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 – the first in a series of interviews that explores Australia's emerging 8-bit music scene.]

Even before I've asked my first question, 30-year-old Tyson Hopprich—aka DJ Tr!p—is squirming around on the outdoor cafe bench seat like he's jacked up on four cans of energy drink; his mind and body tapping into a full-blown DJ set no-one else can see or hear.

On the outside he's all black Nintendo tee, nose ring, short hair, dark jeans, arthritic limp in his leg when he walks. A mad energy—shooting out through hands and fingers that play and tweak thin air—just waiting for me to work through my introductions and segue into Tyson's place in the rise of the 8-bit music scene in Australia.

Not quite there yet, words about his new 6-track EP Sid Vicious still spilling from my lips, I imagine this is how he prepares for a gig: eyes closed, muscle memory kicking in, rehearsed katas of DJ-fu rippling outwards.

Enthusiastic 'Yeah-yeah's hurry me along, but I'm there now, and Tyson opens his mouth to answer my first question.

It's an awesome pause.

-Barely 20 minutes later and music flows out over the audience in thick, meaty, 8-bit waves. It's sad and heavy in parts; the opening of a murder mystery adventure. David Cage's Fahrenheit, it's electronic pulse fading with each loop; Tyson easing the rhythm into a body bag, only to suddenly jab it back to life with a nightclub adrenaline shot to it's digital heart.

He starts buzzing then, feeding off the beat as Prodigy-style riffs mix together with a Matrix soundscape. Spins, tweaks and flicks of the deck come deftly, with no hint of the pre-performance twitchiness. A master of electronica.

Seated somewhere in the middle, I think to myself, this is how all premiere screenings of Marcin Ramocki's 8-bit documentary should begin.

The auditorium fills rapidly, like Tyson's sending out some pied piper effect, until people are having to be turned away. Not that Tyson would know. He's in the moment, suspended in distortion, grooving; fully into his beats and riffs so intimately that he can poke and punch the air at all the emphasis points.

Mouth still open, back at the cafe, Tyson making a different point.

Saying, 'I've been making music for about 10 years with my Amiga; using the Commodore 64, and bits and pieces with my PC and Game Boy. For that period, I treated the music I was making with that old technology as just music. That was my medium. They were my instruments. Just like some people use Moogs, and other people use just laptops. But finally seeing there's an 8-bit community beyond Australia that's active, I thought I'd recognize it and make it a bit more literal. With all of my previous stuff, even though it was 8-bit, I was trying to make music which didn't sound 8-bit, even though it had the edge.'

Tyson, trying to explain himself more clearly, adding, 'There are all these lovers of the demo scene, of the Commodore 64, sid tunes, chip tunes, that stuff. But they keep it to themselves in the bedroom, and there's no celebration.

'I wanted to do the sid stuff a long time ago, and there was some other friends who were making that stuff back in high school with me, but it just didn't feel like it was music you could release. It felt too weird.

'Now it feels right.'

-'There's that nostalgic thing,' adds Tyson, 'of being adults, wanting that childhood experience and that innocence; feeling free and playful, because that's what games were about back then. For me, though, I wanted to release this kind of stuff to pay homage to what I love, and the gear I use—which I respect. Even though it's old, I still use it and I don't think its out of date because it still does the job.

Following up with, 'There was an article I read recently about retro gaming and it said other forms—like books and movies—when you watch an old film, it's not a retro viewing of the film, its just a viewing of a film. In some ways gaming should be like that, where it's not retro but it's just playing stuff from another date. That's how i was thinking about my gear. I love it and I love the limitations. That helps me and forces me to find the essence and there's a focus, a tighter focus, which helps create more original stuff.'

Digging deep into the mental images now, with, 'I wanted to make, like... robot... electro... dark... I wanted to get the dirt out of these sound chips. I wanted to get gutsy stuff which visits gaming sounds, but isn't all about them. Not all chippy. There's a handshake or a nod to it. But more like listening to vinyl [records] where there's crackle, and it makes it feel authentic and it feels like a document.'

An epiphany now.

'Yeah, a dirty document. And there's texture to it. Texture is important as much as bass and treble and rhythm and melody. And sound-wise, I really wanted to visit the 90s and touches of rave sounds and early breakdance and electro. Probably the golden era of gaming. That's what the music was when gaming was being pushed into the masses.'

-What I'm hearing, this is Tyson's take on the scene. Music for ears, theatre, film, dance and events, channeling in 8-bits through a DJ's mindset. This is Tyson being likened to Trent Reznor and Aphex Twin; his work declared as a 'manifest stepping stone in post-modern electronica history', 'the souls of lost computer consoles'.

But for the Zelda fan, for Tyson who moans with pleasure at the words Katamari Damacy, Castlevania, Okami, Colecovision and Vectrex, 'As much as loving playing the games, I love the sounds,' he says. 'I used to record them to cassette when I was young; I didn't think it would turn into something where I could DJ it out.

'I want to be an entertainer,' adds Tyson. 'I want to engage with the audience. I don't keep my head down [as many 8-bit artists do]. I'd rather take three steps back technically and put on a show. Because I work as a DJ in a club setting, I just want people to dance and go crazy, and want them to listen to something a bit different, as well. You want to push the envelope—the drunk envelope—a bit, but not too far.

'Even though there's repetition in a song structure down to beat, the kick drums, or the hi-hat or the melody, my aim with each song is to start somewhere and finish somewhere different. Stringing those songs into a set, you also start somewhere and end somewhere different. So it's all about zooming in and out, and a journey. A Polaroid photo narrative. You put all those photos together, you interpret it as something. What that is, I like to let the audience trust their instincts and let them think what they want to.

-'The stuff I perform live is very different to the soundtrack stuff I do, the theatre, dance and film stuff,' says Tyson, calmer now, more introspective. 'And my DJ-ing is different again.

'I like responding to people. I like composing for directors, choreographers. I like being given the task to respond to something and the challenge of that. By releasing stuff like Sid Vicious, by deliberately capturing that 8-bit sound, I'm trying to respond to an audience, but more in the live scene.

'For me, I think that's what it's all about; it's about bouncing off people. Even when you're DJ-ing—which is pre-recorded music—you're reacting by selection.

'It should be about being live and a one-off energy somehow. An interaction.'

Photos of Tyson courtesy www.silvertrace.com; EP artwork by Roy Ananda.

[Drew Taylor works in the games industry in Australia and writes video game culture articles for various magazines. His mobile phone ring tone is currently TiuTiu by Paza.]

GameSetLinks: Into The Cabbage Patch...

- Hurray for more GameSetLinks! This time round, we've grabbed and gazoinked all kinds of fun stuff, including Alex Handy's look at his flea-market dumped ColecoVision ROMs (pictured!)

In addition, there's a discussion on 'making gaming better' (no small conversation there!), as well as a discussion of a competitive strategy game about 'picking up chicks' - or so it says here on this cue card. Oh dear, did we just make gaming worse again? Onward:

chewing pixels » Witness the Fitness: Nintendo’s Leap from Abstraction
'Eyetoy and the Wii’s obvious potential lies not in endless mini-game compilations, but in interactive realism whereby games monitor, test, measure and appraise non-abstracted tasks and movements.'

bit-tech.net | Making Gaming Better
The Kudos/Democracy creator: "...here is my personal list of things we can all do to make gaming a better experience."

The Cut Scene - Video Game Blog by Variety: Exclusive reviews are ethically troubling
This man is correct.

Moogle.net » Blog Archive » Single Player Economist
'Here are three key points to consider when building your single-player [game] economy.'

WarioWorld.com: 'Software Development Support Group - Apply - Wii'
Hey, that's a cute URL for the Nintendo software support website.

Gism Butter » Blog Archive » ROMs Dumped and Confirmed
Update on those flea market ROMs.

Insomnia | Commentary | Non-games are for non-gamers
'I've yet to find a single [game magazine/website] that treats non-games the way they should be treated -- i.e. not at all.'

GameSpot News: PressSpotting: Play Magazine EIC Brady Fiechter
Didn't know they were ditching review scores - interesting.

VGChartz.com | Xbox Live Arcade Sales Top 100 - 4/26/08
'Of the European-Themed card games, Lost Cities seems to debut the weakest, as Carcassonne and Catan both debuted with an estimated 8,000-10,000 units their first week.'

Tynan Sylvester » Blog Archive » Designing 'The Player League' Part 1: Why It's Hard
'For a while now, I’ve wanted to make a competitive strategy game about picking up chicks.'

April 29, 2008

Column: Why We Play - 'Yours Truly, Friendly Mob'

3_gta_cops.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 – serving time for Grand Theft Auto IV.]

Last night, I joined a large group at the Astor Place Gamestop in New York City to grab my reserved copy of Grand Theft Auto IV. At midnight, their doors opened, we calmly shouted a brief hooray, entered, flashed our pre-paid receipts, took our copies, and made our separate ways into the Liberty City, er, New York City night. After a few blocks, I thought “why did we join together in the first place?” Yet, I wanted to be there along with a couple friends, a few acquaintances, and a whole slew of gamers from across the city.

Originally, I returned and wrote an “intellectual” take on the subject. It sucked. Who wants to read an over-thorough account of a launch party? So, here’s last night's events as they happened, and how they revealed why we all joined together for GTA IV.

The Clock Starts:


9:00 PM - I Pass

The line’s too short. I decide not to skip class. I also grab a bagel.

9:45 PM - I Join Up

I return. The line’s a little longer, so I take my place. It’s quiet. A few people talk amongst themselves. Immediately, I notice the absence of cliché game launch survival kits: no DSes, no Chipotle, no extreme sodas. In fact, the group’s quite the demographic smorgasbord. I ask different people why they chose this GameStop.

“It’s safer at midnight.”
“It’s closest.”
“The hot NYU girls.”

10 PM - The Man Arrives
The PR team (and crowd control) roll down Broadway in a black SUV. They stop a few feet away. A group of late-twenty-somethings hop out decked in GTA IV hoodies and various gear. They toss around t-shirts, pass out foam hands giving the international sign for “shocker,” and distribute Rockstar Social Club stickers like the men in china town promoting strip clubs.

For the next two hours, one of them is constantly strolling up and down the line promoting the Rockstar brand, answering questions, and carefully keeping people both enthused and sedated. It’s an impressive technique in crowd control: “Who’s ready for GTA?” “WE ARE!” They reward us with stickers, and move down the line. Every so often, someone near the front or the back yelps a vulgarity, and we all laugh; otherwise, I continue to wait in relative silence. For a moment, I realize I fulfill the friendless loner stereotype.

10:45 PM - We Talk the Talk
The group around me grows bored. We start to talk. One’s a bike courier. He collects money, and heads off to grab us snacks. We talk shop, and I’m surprised to see how much gory industry details everyone knows, even cares about.

They tell me their opinions on EA and Take-Two; the pluses and minuses to the no-longer Head Coach exclusivity with this year’s Madden. Eventually, we get on the topic of our first Grand Theft Auto experience. Turns out we are all fans of the original top-down GTAs, and for the same reason. It was a game that didn’t tell us “no.”

The courier returns and joins the conversation. He says his friends were divided between the original GTA and the Tomb Raider series.

In a way, Tomb Raider was the anti-GTA. It holds the illusion of an open world, but in reality you must continually push forward. It holds the illusion of free-movement, but in reality you’re stuck to a grid. GTA hands you the keys and you go any direction you want. The only grid is the city’s layout, the only authority the police and death.

11:00 PM - GTA 4 Life

A navy blue Cadillac, custom painted with a large beige stripe, stops at the nearby intersection. At a green light. Various cars behind it honk and slam their brakes. The horns make more noise than the crowd by far. Taxis zip around the car. We all stare. The car’s passenger window rolls down, and a man leans out.

“Hey, you want that game so much, grab a brick and throw it through the window. That’s real GTA. Start a riot, steal that shit!”

The car speeds off through the now red light.

We laugh and joke about it, but none of us move. We’re still under society’s spell. We’ll start trouble tonight, but it’ll be on our 360s or PS3s. I consider whether that man would label me a “total Narc.” Then I realize that man would never say “total Narc.”

11:30 PM - Why We Play
My group discusses why they came to this launch. Most of them, courier excluded, had never been to a game launch. At least, they wouldn’t confess to it. A few of them want to start playing immediately, but most admit it will be a while before they fit in some serious game play—work, finals, girlfriends who demand they stay off the TV when they’re spending time together (a popular answer).

So why did they come out?

Everyone wanted to see the crowd. They wanted to experience it. My group’s made up of different cultures, races, and classes. I’d say if you saw us together in any other situation we’d be quite the motley crew. Yet, we share a common hobby, and for most of us, it’s a hobby we don’t share with our friends.

12:00 PM - Takeoff

“5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GTA IV” Until now, I’ve never counted down to shoot virtual cops. The doors open. Things move quickly. We flash our pre-paid receipts, grab our copies of the game, and disperse. I don’t see my group again. They’re lost in the mob. I head south on Broadway, call my girlfriend to brag I got a game she doesn’t care about, and head home.

Aftermath:

Like I said, it’s silly to over-analyze why a bunch of men and a handful of women waited in the rain outside a GameStop last night. We wanted to play a game immediately? We were part of the hype machine? I don’t know. Yet, in a way, and forgive me if I dig too deep, I think we all stood up to the many groups that wants to cubbyhole gamers.

When people passed by and patronizingly asked, “What the hell are you waiting for?” and chuckled at our response, we smiled. We didn’t throw any bricks through any windows, but we did form a mob—a peaceful mob with our foam “shockers” raised to the sky. We made ourselves visible. We bought the game that will surely be attacked for the next few months with a sense of pride. We said it’s OK to play games. We did all of that, and people took notice.

Or did they? Eh, a guy can hope.

[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.]

COLUMN: Design Lesson 101 - Grand Theft Auto III

- ['Design Lesson 101' is a 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, with the release of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV imminent, we look back at its predecessor, Grand Theft Auto III.]

Design Lesson: The ability for landmarks to sufficiently guide the player around the game world dramatically decreases as the size of the world increases.

Grand Theft Auto III is considered by most to be a landmark in video gaming history. It was one of the first, and certainly the most successful, 3D open-world action game at the time of its release in 2001. By moving away from the 2D world of the previous games and moving to full 3D, Grand Theft Auto III ushered in sets of new interactions that could not have occurred in a 2D setting. It also ushered in a complexity in navigation, which would not exist in a 2D setting.

The game world of Liberty City spans three large islands, with each island having multiple districts, such as Chinatown and the Red Light District. Each district has a number of distinct visual landmarks to help navigate you. Seeing a familiar, distinct landmark in-game (such as a casino or airport) is a fantastic way to orient the player to their surroundings and help navigate them, all the while sensually immersing them in the game. In fact, landmarks are a large part of how we navigate in real life (at least for those of us without fancy GPS navigation systems in our cars).

When you consider that the three main islands of Liberty City connect to each other at one point each, it becomes even more important to know one's location when trying to get to a new area in the game. Getting lost can be frustrating and take up valuable time. So the landmarks should fix the problem, right? They should help orient the player and get their bearings straight when they are lost, no?

Not quite, unfortunately. The landmarks help to an extent, especially the ones near high traffic areas such as your safehouse and main mission givers, but the world is just far too large to navigate just from landmarks. Think about driving around a new city. It's usually not hard to figure out the major highways and how to get to and from your house. Everything else, however, takes a while to learn. In games, we don't have time for the player to take a while to learn. If we frustrate players early, they may never come back and play the game.

There are many reasons for it being easy to get lost, but the one as it applies to Grand Theft Auto III is information overload. The game slowly introduces you to all of its areas, which is an ideal way to teach the player of new areas. However, it's far too much information to process at once. It's easy to forget about landmarks or confuse exactly where a landmark means you are spatially.

I would forget exactly what street the gun store was on repeatedly, thereby ensuring I would spend five to ten minutes trying to locate the store that was a block away from my starting point. I would remind myself to remember where the gun store was for next time, take a mental note of where I am, and then the next time I was to return I would remember. Except, I usually ended up forgetting. Damn my stupid brain!

The game offers solutions. One is a mini-map, which tells you where your current objective is. This helps for navigating general direction and help pointing you to new areas of the game. The problem is, if the objective is far away, it only appears at the edge of the mini-map. Also, the objective is only for the current mission. If you are looking for a certain area in game that isn't specifically your goal for the current mission, too bad.

Another problem with the mini-map is that it doesn't tell you where things are relative to one another. I know that the baseball stadium is by the shoreline, but where is the gun store in relation to the baseball stadium? That is far more difficult to grasp spatially, and by the time you figure it out, you're probably close to being done playing the game.

Enter the second solution: the names of districts appears on the screen as you pass into them. This, in theory, should teach the player what districts connect to each other. While it succeeds at that, to an extent, it's still not enough. While I may know that Chinatown connects to Red Light District right away, it took far longer to understand that it connected by traveling north.

So, up comes a third solution: a map of the entire city, top-down, with all of the key locations identified. If you can at least look at an entire map at any time, then it should be a lot faster to learn the layout of the city. This should solve all the problems.

Except, the full map comes as an insert in the game manual and on the back of a poster inside the case of the game; it does not exist in the game. Relying on out-of-game materials to play a game effectively is a poor choice. You can't be sure the player knows about them or hasn't lost them. By using an out-of-game map, I cannot know exactly where I am in the game world at any time. Instead I must look at the mini-map and extrapolate enough data to pin-point my position.

There is no reason that the game could not have at least had a full map of Liberty City in one of its menus. This would allow the player to see their current position, figure out where they are trying to go, and make a mental map. It would relate things spatially that are distant, making macro navigation far easier. The best part is, it's simple to implement.

Liberty City is full of identifiable landmarks that help guide the player, but the city is just too large to navigate without some support. Had the game been the size of one island, this wouldn't be an issue. Within five hours of gameplay, you would know where everything was and not have any trouble navigating at all.

However, the game itself would suffer from a smaller city, so the decision was made to have a large, expansive city. The game needs to support that expansive city with the tools to the player to be able to explore that city without major problems. It's okay to include mini-maps and full maps in your game if it will empower the player to be more successful at the game and alleviate some of the frustrations. As game worlds grow, this navigation complexity will grow and become more and more important to solve.

Bonus Lesson: Just because it's the last mission in the game, doesn't mean you have to make it ten times harder than any other mission in the game.

Seriously, Rockstar, you are killing me. I spend all weekend working up to the finish of the main story missions and then you drop that final level on me. I really wish games wouldn't do this.

The end of a game doesn't have to be a push-over, but levels that take hours and hours to complete are just annoying. The end of the game should appropriately scale with the rest of the game. The second hardest level in the game should be close to the hardest (last) level in the game. It didn't feel like this was the case in Grand Theft Auto III. The final mission felt substantially more difficult than any other mission.

[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.]

GameSetLinks: Pimp My... Spectrum?

- Yay, back to the working week, and it's time to check out some notable GameSetLinks - headed by my brief trip into the demo-scene to discover a fascinating souped-up Spectrum emulator.

Actually, I'm trying to find someone to write a regular demo-scene column for GSW, realizing that there's still some neat stuff going on there (if you know anyone, ping us at the address in the sidebar!)

But in the meantime, there's also some Surfer Girl attack and a little gaming in libraries neatness in the rest of these links:

Welcome to Special Round: Pinball Week Part 2 - Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection
I've been playing this more on PSP, and it really is worth checking out.

Are you in to robotics? - Xbox Live's Major Nelson
New Silverlight-powered Microsoft AI/robotics webgame competition. Interesting.

Cartoon Brew: Leading the Animation Conversation » The Art of Pixar’s Short Films
References the excellent Droidmaker book, which has a bunch of LucasArts crossover things in it. Also, the evolution of CG animation is vital to the evolution of 3D gaming, one suspects.

TF2 Karaoke: My Heart Will Go On on Vimeo » Brad Sucks
Delicious ironic counterpoint, sweep me over the bow!

Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars: Why Games Journalism is Frowned Upon 101: Lesson One: McIGN
Some complaints here, some fair - IGN not mentioning/linking where the Retro reports came from is a bit meh, for starters.

The Shifted Librarian » Does Gaming Promote Reading?
'Librarians are well-positioned to provide the environment, expertise, and scaffolding necessary for literacy, and gaming enhances that environment.'

Gaming History « Broken Toys
On 'Play The News': 'I think what bothers me the most about all this is that the game maker essentially has abdicated any responsibility for making a decision.'

Company Profile… Lovedelic « Lovedelic Life
Celebrating the more avantgarde Japanese dev obscurities, on a new blog.

Pouet.net: 'Pimp My Spectrum' 64k intro by ate bit
Completely awesome demo-scene creation - Xzibit vs. Sir Clive Sinclair, using a souped and hacked-up Spectrum emulator - check the YouTube version if you can't run it.

scene.org - BreakPoint 08 videos
Full video of the Scene.org demo-scene awards - did nobody upload this to YouTube? Hmm.

April 28, 2008

Opinion: Why More Games Need Subtext

- [In this in-depth Gamasutra editorial, Editor-At-Large Chris Remo looks at what games - from Ico to No More Heroes - mean to us, suggesting that good gameplay is a great start, but that many game titles may be missing a chance to "amplify or even largely deliver meaningful subtext" along the way.]

I recently attended a publisher-held press event at which a number of upcoming titles were shown, one of which was a third-person action game based on existing license.

During a hands-off demonstration, my colleagues murmured positively about the smoothness of the game's animations and movements, the relentless pacing of its action, and its general apparently successful mechanical and presentational principles.

After the presentation, I started thinking about what a "good" game is. It's not something that can be pinned down very precisely, of course, but it usually has a lot to do with playability, polish, and appropriate depth of gameplay.

To be well-received, a character-driven game is expected to provide a thrilling experience, one that takes a player to another world or puts a player in an exciting role. Why shouldn't they have more than that, though? Perhaps great games could be expected not only to deliver a compelling experience, but to deliver a compelling subtext--a meaning underneath the surface.

I'm certainly not claiming myself as an exception here. Except in the most obvious cases, we don't generally delve into whether our games say anything. But maybe we should - and there are numerous examples of games that do.

"Games Are Fun"

The most frequently-stated requirement in making games is that they must be fun. This has been decreed by gamers, critics, and vaunted demigods of development alike. Is that a sufficient requirement, and does it even mean anything at all?

Saying "your game must be fun" is like saying "your entertainment product must be entertaining," - it is more often than not used as an indiscriminate shield of vagueness against suggestions that games can also be something more specific.

For years, some developers have been trying to formalize and define in useful terms ambiguous concepts like "fun." Marc LeBlanc's well-known design framework delineates eight kinds of fun, such as narrative, discovery, and expression.

During this year's GDC, Clint Hocking attempted to do a similar thing for the slightly more concrete but still largely intangible concept of immersion, aiming more to nail down a useful way of discussing it than to provide a tutorial of how to create it. (Materials from Hocking's presentation are available at his blog.)

It is a given that games should generally be fun; everybody knows this implicitly, and people like LeBlanc and Hocking are working to codify what fun and immersion really mean. What is particularly exciting - and probably beneficial to the overall success of the medium - to use fun and immersion to convey other statements.

Under the Surface

I don't mean to suggest games must have a social conscience - that's a separate topic, one Leigh Alexander recently considered. But maybe more games should try to give the player something to consider, beyond "This is how it feels to be a space marine/ general/ wizard/ criminal/ popular Hollywood character."

That's not to say those two goals are mutually exclusive. Sometimes, playing on the familiar can be fertile ground for presenting less commonly-presented concepts. And good, solid gameplay, rather than simply justifying itself, can be used in tandem to amplify (or, in some cases, almost solely provide) further meaning. Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about, using different approaches.

Grand Theft Auto 3+ (Rockstar North)

The game world, characters, and situations of the recent Grand Theft Auto titles are, if obviously unlikely, highly grounded in common urban experiences and popular realistic fiction.

The gameplay is fairly arcadey in its straightforwardness and capacity for wanton destruction, which makes the games accessible and doesn't put up barrier for the game's secondary content.

Since its commentary is ingrained in the world itself, it allows the subtext to come through largely independent of the narrative - appropriate for an open-world game. Grand Theft Auto's subtext is light modern-day social commentary, poking at American consumer culture and attraction to violence - while reveling in it.

BioShock (2K Boston/2K Australia, nee Irrational Games)

An obvious choice, but why not? The dismal, failed world of Rapture is fantastical but grounded in familiarity - it exaggerates realistic human traits and schools of thought in its larger-than-life antagonists in order to speculate and comment.

Themes of choice and free will are explored in the fiction and real-time narrative and can be seen to be echoed through the gameplay (in the months since the game's release, there has been a lot of discussion as to how fully that goal was reached, but it's certainly there to discuss). BioShock's subtext is philosophical in nature, exploring traditionally literary themes and probing the player's role in them.

Full Throttle (LucasArts)

Like similar graphical point-and-click adventures, the gameplay itself in Tim Schafer's 1995 effort is minimal. Here, the tiers are the surface-level narrative and the meta-narrative, rather than the gameplay layer and the presentation layer.

On the surface, Full Throttle game is a badass neo-noir biker murder thriller with hard rock music (on that level alone it is already more novel than most game premises), but underneath it is a melancholy reflection on the American frontier and the inevitability of invasive industrialization.

If you have any interest in a dialogue- and puzzle-driven game, Full Throttle isn't overbearing or preachy in the least, but there's a lot to chew on. Its subtext is essentially literary, hinging on classic themes of American fiction.

Ico (Team Ico/Sony)

I don't want my point to be misunderstood as "games must have deep stories," because I do not hold that to be the case. Ico demonstrates that a game can be genuinely affecting, holding emotional substance at the core of its style with only the most threadbare of plots. Ico's gameplay is a direct expression of game's theme - there is no deep literary premise, but rather a profound character connection.

When you suddenly push the analog stick too hard and protagonist Ico harshly jerks companion Yorda around, there is a tangible relationship between the physical input, the game mechanics, and the on-screen relationship that itself says a lot about the power of games. Gameplay and emotion go hand in hand.

Though this dialogue-light game is on the other end of the scale from the much more verbose Full Throttle, both games have the power to leave the player with a sense of reflection. Ico's subtext is emotional, delving into the relationship between player and character, and quietly exploring the potential therein.

Half-Life (Valve)

While the landmark 1998 shooter makes neither a literary point nor a particularly strong emotional connection (although it is often rightfully credited with making strides in character interaction in a segment that had been relegated to pure run-and-gun action), it does make a strong statement internal to the gaming medium.

Half-Life's uncompromising dedication to the first-person perspective even during cutscene-like cinematic events, coupled with a pseudo-levelless structure, introduced a new and exciting brand of immersion. Its subtext is mechanical, almost delivering a contextual thesis on what traditional elements of a strongly-defined genre (and, more largely, a medium) are required to communicate a narrative, and which should be discarded.

Why Bother?

Certainly, the audience at large doesn't seem to be crying out for more attention paid to this area. But simply adhering to the maxim "give them what they want" (or, as it follows, "don't bother giving them what they aren't already asking for") is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many cases throughout the history of the creative arts, people don't know what they want until somebody thinks to give it to them.

We know there is an audience out there demanding entertainment that is a bit more thoughtful, otherwise Hollywood wouldn't bankroll it - whatever your thoughts on the bulk of Hollywood output, big studios don't survive purely on explosionfests and broad comedies. Surely that audience (and many of them are already gamers!) could be attended to a bit more fully.

Don't Let That Scare You

Of course, all of the above cited games are critical titans - and most of them are commercial ones as well. It would be unfair to hold them up as the bar. Rather, their visibility just makes them useful and particularly demonstrative pointers. Games need not be seemingly-untouchable classics to have something worthwhile under the surface.

Take No More Heroes, recently developed by Grasshopper Manufacture (Killer7) for Wii and designed by studio founder Goichi Suda (a.k.a. Suda51). No More Heroes does not make a grand statement, nor does it push gameplay forward in any significant way.

But its aggressively irreverent - and violent - attitude, punk aesthetic (which goes so far as to declare Grasshopper a "Video Game Band" in the splash screen), deft but not overbearing self-references to classic gaming, and tongue-in-cheek poking at gamer culture all combine to create a light-on-its-feet statement (both critical and celebratory) on nerdy, violent game culture.

When a game has this much style put into service as part of a coherent theme, that style itself can become ersatz substance. Even its strongest supporters would agree that No More Heroes has some technical issues, and aspects of its gameplay could have been better thought through, but the goals and ideals behind the game along with its requisite playability have proven enough to give it resonance (and commercial success) in North America and Europe.

No More Heroes' subtext, like Half-Life's, is almost entirely meaningful to people who are longtime gamers, with years of gaming experience and memories, both of mechanics and moments. In this regard, No More Heroes' resonance falls more on the cultural side and Half-Life's more on the gameplay side. (As a bit of a detour, peruse this excellent blog for the travails of a Half-Life player without such experience and memories.)

This strikes me as an underexplored but fertile area: rewarding players who know the medium well, without resorting to simple puns on past game names or catch-phrases. Certainly film is full of homages to that medium's rich history without having characters wink at the camera and mention "Rosebud."

Conclusion

A game giving players something of substance to take away need not be heavy-handed or overbearing, and it doesn't need to be a medium-altering statement.

Good, solid gameplay can always be its own justification, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise - many of my favorite games of all time wouldn't slot into the principles I've outlined in this article, and I expect that to be true for many more titles to come.

But gameplay is a powerful tool, able to immerse and engage the player in a way that is unique among entertainment forms. Compelling gameplay does stand alone, but it can also be used to amplify or even largely deliver meaningful subtext that can enrich or enlighten a player - or just provide a different kind of fun.

Quiz Me Qwik: [Insert Joke About Fishing For Overfishing Activism]

-['Quiz Me Quik' is a new weekly GameSetWatch column by journalist Alistair Wallis, in which he picks offbeat subjects in the game business and interviews them about their business, their perspective, and their unique view of life. This time, we examine an activist Flash game cautioning against overfishing.]

Aside from Ecco the Dolphin, it’s kind of hard to think of any other games that have you playing as a sea creature. EVO: Search for Eden? Did you play as a fish in that? I really can’t remember. In fact, it’s entirely possible that I never played it, and only know about it because I saw an ad in GamePro.

Anyway, we can add another game to that list now: Pew Environment Group’s Flash title Ocean Survivor. It’s a little more on the serious side than Ecco, however, with about 100% less Vortex Queen and more of a focus on the actual realities of the sea. “Pollution, habitat destruction, mismanagement and overfishing have impoverished our ocean resources,” says the game’s website, “and have caused more than 90% of the world's large fish, including tuna, swordfish and marlin to disappear from our oceans.”

It’s overfishing that’s the game’s real concern, though. Your bluefin tuna swims through a 2D ocean, avoiding nets and hooks of various kinds – the game details the destructive impact of each if you manage to hook or net yourself.

Of course, to hook the public in, there’s the high score table, which currently sits around the 300,000 mark. I’ve only managed about 80,000 so far, which makes me feel like a complete failure of a fish, but I guess that’s life.

We had a chat to project lead Joseph Gordon about the game, and – more importantly – about whether the high score grabbing public will actually learn from the game and take the chance to sign the petition.

GSW: How did the project begin to come together?

Joseph Gordon: For years, we’ve been working on a campaign to end overfishing. A crucial element was to get the public to give comments to the US Fisheries Service demanding conservation for all of ocean life. My colleague Tara, who manages our MySpace and YouTube pages, sent me the link to a great game: Whale’s Revenge. I decided to create an overfishing game of our own.

My mother is a computer science professor, so I asked her advice. One of her students with gaming experience suggested I add a post on Gamedev.net. I received an amazing response from many talented volunteers from around the world. The rest was a very fast learning curve of recruitment and discovering what it takes to build a team and make an online game.

GSW: Where did you take inspiration for the project from?

JG: The game Whale's Revenge was approaching 1 million signatures opposing international whaling.

-GSW: How many people worked on the project?

JG: We had a seven person team - eight if you count our first programmer who disappeared after the demo was complete. The game’s credits page gives their names and websites. I hope this game highlights their fantastic work and helps build their careers. I would give them all the highest recommendations. Bernat [Pina] also programmed Whale's Revenge and he did an amazing job of putting it all together in the end.

GSW: How long did the game take to complete?

JG: It took seven months to complete the game, from the day we came up with the idea.

GSW: How did you decide on the gameplay for Ocean Survivor? Were there other ideas that were considered?

JG: Erlend [S. Heggen], our team leader, came up with the first sketch of a concept based on a very simple helicopter game. There was a lot of discussion about adding fish that the tuna would eat for points, having the fish get bigger over time, making the music and play speed up, etc.

But I felt it was important to keep the game simple and beautiful, to get it done quickly, and to not distract the player from the end overfishing message. What I like most about the final gameplay is that it gets you to think about what life’s like from the fish’s perspective in an ocean facing more and more nets and hooks, and then you have a chance to do something about it!

GSW: What were the aims of the game in terms of actual play mechanics? That is, was it important to have something score based so that people would continue to play it?

JG: The team all believed that a "top score" competitive component was essential to success, and so it was really just a question of Bernat writing a script to make that happen.

GSW: How much of a concern was the level of complexity?

JG: This was a central concern from the start. Colin, our webmaster at that time, advised me that what was great about the whale game, and fails in most online games, is that it was simple, fun, and addictive. The key was to raise awareness and get people to take action but not be preachy or boring. I hope we've achieved that goal.

GSW: What challenges did you face in trying to include facts that would be read by more casual players?

JG: Our website and many of our publications are geared toward the general public, for example the Ocean Legacy slideshow that we present to scientists as well as first graders, and so we had experience with this kind of writing. I thought the surrounding images would be important.

The biggest challenge for us was the petition; writing a sample letter that was not too technical but did respond to two complex rulemakings and sounded like something a real person would write.

- GSW: What hopes do you have in regards to visibility and user figures for the game?

JG: During the first day after the game release, thousands of people visited the site and we had 3,000 petition signatures. "Ocean Survivor" was also featured in blogs and websites around the world including India, China, and Portugal. Our immediate goal is 10,000 signatures, but of course it would be great to gain momentum and generate 100,000 or more!

I hope that GameSetWatch can help spread the word.

GSW: What sort of figures are you aiming for in regards to the ratio of players signing the petition?

JG: I have no experience as a basis for an estimate. The rule of thumb for alerts to activist networks in the non-profit world is a 5% return. Of course, I hope people will play again and again so that would skew this statistic. I'm starting with 5% as a prediction, but I'd love for this to be an underestimate.

GSW: How much of a difference do you believe the game will make?

JG: That is the ultimate question! If we are successful in all of our many outreach efforts, and I’m confident we will be, we will deliver more than 300,000 comments to the US Fisheries Service. This would be the most comments on any ocean issue in U.S. history. We believe that will have a major impact on the rules and the effort that’s made to reach the new legal requirement to end overfishing in U.S. oceans by 2011. These new Fisheries Service rules for overfishing and environmental review may govern U.S. ocean territory for more than a decade and set a precedent around the world.

One further note: it will be very easy in the future to change the lead fish and the petition in the game so it can be useful for years to come. In this way, the game can continue to contribute to our campaigns to protect our ocean legacy.

GameSetLinks: Dismounting The Stairs Adeptly

- There aren't many things more amusing than people falling over, and Secret Exit are rather experts at that - thanks to games like Stair Dismount and Truck Dismount.

There's some danger that Stair Dismount 2 may be coming soon, as you can see from this set of GameSetLinks, which also includes a rather amusing Guitar Hero cartoon, Aleksi Eeben's latest VIC-20 game, a neat 1UP feature on forum denizens, and more.

Go go gogo go:

YouTube - Stair Dismount 2 - Technology Test Extended
Oh ragdoll physics, how I love you.

The Cut Scene - Video Game Blog by Variety: Dan Houser's very extended interview about everything "Grand Theft Auto IV" and Rockstar
Very rare to get to see the Wizard Of Oz behind the curtain with Rockstar.

Chairman of the Boards: How Online Forums Influence Game Makers and Marketers from 1UP.com
This is a really nice piece - more Robert Ashley on 1UP now there's less Ziff mags, perhaps?

MediaShift . Gawking at Numbers::Why Paying People by Page Views is Wrong | PBS
'I believe that a blog with 50,000 loyal, repeat visitors is much more valuable to... everyone on the business side — than a blog that has sensational posts that bring in 100,000 one-time visitors for entertainment snacks...' Via Simon Waldman.

Jimi Hendrix chopped this cartoon down with the edge of his hand. « the rut.
Yay, Guitar Hero sarcasm in cartoon form.

Braid: More Fun Than Calculus! « Save the Robot - Chris Dahlen
'When Blow sent me an updated patch, I paid him a kind of left-handed compliment by telling him it’s stretched my mind more than anything since Calculus class.'

Aleksi Eeben: Tuntematon Sotilas
Aleksi just released a new EP on my net.label Monotonik - here's his latest VIC-20 game (!), "Loosely based on... Empire game played on mainframe computers in the late 70's and... Finnish movie... Tuntematon Sotilas - The Unknown Soldier'

Crummy: Here's the kind of unrelenting journalism we need to...
In Crummy's comments following up on Alistair Wallis' story, an awesome story about forgery and Space Quest IV.

Extenuating Circumstances – Draft-but-published: BAFTA! Tough Love
Having labored long and hard to puzzle out the Game Developers Choice Awards categories for this year, I've realized - awards are hard. But fun.

The Bowery Boys | New York City History: The history of New York City in video games
Awesome - via Waxy.

April 27, 2008

The China Angle: 'China's Forgotten Gamers'

- [Though developers and publishers like Blizzard are reporting record numbers of online players in China, in a new China Angle column, Frank Yu says the actual number of game players is drastically under-reported, and investigates the populations going unaccounted for.]

Blizzard recently reported that its World of Warcraft reached one million concurrent users in China. Every month we see data from China showing the growing population of game players that continue to go online to play games. We see Chinese game companies reporting rising revenue and plans for expansion both in and out of China.

However, as I tell friends and colleagues outside China, the true number of game players in China are actually underreported. Only a small number of the actual game players in China ever get mentioned in a report. How is that possible, you ask? The numbers are already large.

In China, we track game players by subscriber or registration numbers, or by the amount of money they spend giving companies revenue.

If they don’t register or pay money, they are somewhat invisible to the industry or, from the business viewpoint, irrelevant. I have listed some of these black holes of gaming that are quite large but have yet to be tracked in an accurate manner.

Game Play LANs

These are games played by the many of the hardcore gamers in net cafes, schools and offices after hours. They are essentially free and are hosted and administered locally, so no data or tracking goes back to the developers. In fact, only a local LAN is needed, with no actual outside internet connection needed.

I have seen many of these Gaming LANS which exist to play games like Counter-Strike, Starcraft, and Age of Empires only on the LAN. One of the most popular LAN game is DOTA (Defense of the Ancients) which is a mod-based alteration of WarCraft 3 into a Hero based action game.

I would guess that LAN games in China comprise a big chunk of actual net café use but few people outside of China realize that many players in Net Cafes are playing LAN Games and are not actually online – and also do not require an authorization key for each copy since it’s a LAN.

Speaking of which, in the past and perhaps in the present, Shanda’s Haofeng game portal, which is one of the most popular game matching services in China basically allows online players to log onto the service as if they were on a LAN. No authorization key needed either since the game thinks its on a LAN as well.

Game Play Women

Women gamers on the record comprise perhaps up to 35 percent or more of China’s gaming population, based on MMORPGs and Casual Game portal data. However, I suspect that female video gamers may comprise 60 percent or more of actual game players at any particular time.

These women don’t play MMORPGs or Counterstrike, they play Solitaire, Minesweeper, Tetris or the thousands of single player games available on the net, their mobile phones or on their PCs.

Go to shops in China and you will find Solitaire on computer screens, waiting to be attended to as soon as you have left the store. Some female favorites in China like Lian Lian Kan or Bubble Bobble clones do not require internet, just a lot of time to kill.

Game Play Young Children

Yes, young children play games too. However, many Chinese parents are quite wary of having their middle school or younger children go online alone. Aside from the usual dangers and stuff like porn exposure of going online on the wild and crazy internet, parents fear internet game addiction at an early age for their kids

This is due to all the negative press that the government releases on the danger of out of control gamers dying in a net cafés or stealing from their parents to buy virtual items.

Yes, young children do have access to PCs but usually their parents get them loads of awful edutainment products to get them started right. Anyway, many children at least of middle class families in top tier cities have their own Nintendo DS or Game Boy Advance to play with.

No one knows just how many of these very popular handhelds are in China, (I doubt Nintendo knows either) but they are the ONLY legal game console that can be sold in China right now (as far as I know) due to a JV relationship between Nintendo and a local game distributor.

Many of these young children are just waiting to be able to go to a net café (net cafes are supposed to have age limits) or get their own laptop so they can join the online gaming masses as soon as they can ditch the family PC (and parental eyes).

Game Play Old People

Yes, old people play games here. In fact, old people are more socially active in China than in the U.S. They love to play games such as hacky sack, but kicking around a feathered weight as opposed to a small beanbag. What kind of games do the seniors play? They play cards on the streets, homes, tea houses, in the park and just about anywhere they gather which means if its mostly offline.

Doudizhu (fight the landlord) is supposedly the number one card game in China, or at least in Chengdu, but few non-Chinese know this. The game does not have an exact match in the U.S. but it pits 2 players (the workers) versus the evil capitalist land owning landlord.

MahJong is a national favorite as well as Chinese Chess and Chinese Checkers (here called The Jumping Game). In China, the rules vary according to region and even by city, so it’s a matter of home pride to play by your home rules and speak in the local dialect.

With retirement and a role of babysitter for young children, many old people are being dragged into the video gaming world by their adult children, grandchildren and Wii Sports. Since many grandparents live with their children and grand children, they find that gaming, both computer and offline, as a good way to connect with the younger generation on something both can be passionate about.

Game Play Offline

Young Chinese people love playing online games because there is already a culture of game playing in Chinese culture to begin with. The concept of single player games is a bit of an anomaly that came about with card games like solitaire and early video games.

However, with online and mobile gaming, games are once again becoming the multiplayer social devices that they have always been for centuries. Whether it is something to do with old friends, ways to interact with new friends or a sly method of meeting girls (or boys), games have always been a rich part of Chinese culture from the emperors to the peasants from the educated to the farmer.

Go into most bars or KTVs in China and you will see all forms of games being played on tables and in rooms. The movie Pirates of the Caribbean actually highlighted one of the most popular games in Asia played by most young adults. Although new to many Americans, Liar’s Dice is played almost everywhere where alcohol is served.

What is strange is that China has seemed to have skipped having their own board game industry due not only to the popularity of the classics, but the sudden transition of video game technology hitting the mainland just as China began to open up.

The next time you hear about how large China’s online game population is, take note that represents only the number of people that can be tracked. China has always had the world’s largest gaming population not in the millions but in the hundreds of millions. Now they are just emerging out of the dark and going online and some of the smarter casual gaming companies are learning how to make them into customers.

[Frank Yu is a director of strategy at eCitySky Beijing. Prior to his current position, Frank started and led the first China game team for Microsoft Casual Games. He has also served as the first Regional Business Manager in Asia for the Xbox and Home Entertainment Division. He can be reached by email at capital@gmail.com.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Japan Mag Roundup 2008

As promised, I bought every (well, ok, most) game mag in Japan while traveling there on holiday, and I thought I'd tell you a bit about what I've found.

A quick history of J-mags

From the late 1970s, video games received coverage in Japan's PC mags and kids' manga anthologies. The first mags entirely devoted to games popped up in 1982, starting with ASCII's LOGiN and Kadokawa Shoten's Comptiq and continuing with Softbank's Beep, the first mag to also cover arcade and home console games.

In 1985 Tokuma Shoten opened Family Computer Magazine, the first fully console (i.e. Famicom)-oriented magazine in Japan. With a design that shares a lot in common with early-era Nintendo Power, it was a massive success and spawned all manner of imitators, including ASCII's Famicom Tsushin (originally a column in LOGiN), Kadokawa's Marukatsu Famicom, and JICC's Famicom Hisshoubon. This situation remained largely the same throughout the Famicom/Super Famicom's reign, with these multiplatform mags dominating the marketplace and maybe one or two mags covering the Mega Drive and PC Engine.

Things changed in the mid-90s when the PlayStation and Saturn became serious forces in the game marketplace. Along with their "flagship" multiplatform mag, every existing game-mag publisher in Japan also launched an arrage of single-platform mags -- which, when thrown in with all the new multiplatform mags hitting stores, made for an extremely crowded marketplace. The saturation point was reached pretty quickly, and closures began in the late 90s and extended all through this decade, with the rise of the Internet only serving to hurry things along.

These days, the game-mag scene in Japan is in a state of near-monopoly, thanks to Kadokawa's purchase/merger/whatever-you-wanna-call-it with Enterbrain bringing production of the Famitsu and Dengeki stables under the same umbrella.

For the purposes of my survey, I bought every video-game magazine on regular rotation, ignoring any one-offs or specials (zoukan in Japanese), PC game mags (LOGiN is the only one left that is not "adult"), mags devoted entirely to MMO's (there's around five these days), and mags devoted entirely to girl or BL games (of which there are about fifty million).

The Famitsu stable

famitsu1009.jpg

Weekly Famitsu is the most popular game mag in Japan; although its stated circulation figure of 500,000 is almost certainly inflated, it's still the most widely recognized title and the only one you're likely to find in railway kiosks and other heavily-frequented newsstands. It was the first weekly game mag in Japan, with two separate editorial departments alternating between each issue. (Generally, the issues that come out on even-numbered weeks have an actor or idol-singer or something on the cover, while the odd-numbered issues feature Necky the fox inside the world of whatever game's currently hot -- Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G, in this case.

Although it was originally just one of many Famicom mags, Famitsu made a name for itself with its detailed strategies, its bountiful industry-news pieces (unique at a time when all the mags were kid-oriented) and, later, its four-man Cross Review system and Top 30 sales lists. Famitsu's reviews have a reputation for being the toughest in Japan, but by and large this stopped being true toward the late 1990s, when Famitsu undeniably became the dominant mag and the relationship between it and publishers really got incestuous. Like most US game mags, there are a few dubious reviews in Famitsu's past -- rating games without mentioning bugs that the retail product wound up shipping with, that sort of thing. Still, Weekly Famitsu's reviews are nearly the only print-mag ones that Japanese gamers pay very close attention to.

While the magazine changes visual designs at least once a year, the structure has changed surprisingly little since 1986. The majority of color pages is still given to strategy guides, of the sort that would put most Brady/Prima books to shame designwise. There's a fair bit of regular columns and features, however, including a special this month on new limited editions of games and a column by Goichi Suda all about US-made games. In this fashion, Famitsu fulfills a number of posts -- strategy mag, review guide to new games, and industry news source, complete with tons of dev interviews and such. It's still probably the most influential enthusiast press for games in Japan, and while part of that is because game websites in Japan suck (though they're getting better), the consistency of quality they put out every week is still pretty astounding.

famitsups-0805.jpg   famitsuxbox-0805.jpg

Famitsu PlayStation+ is a monthly mag launched in 1996 in response to rival publishers' Sony titles and, as you'd expect, it's devoted fully to Sony's systems. It was released twice a month from 1996 to June of 2007, when it went back to monthly (a better fate than most other PS mags, a couple of which folded around this time). It has a tendency to cover "girl games" a fair bit more often than other console mags in Japan, a bit of a surprise since girl-games were practically the exclusive territory of the Dengeki series all through the 90s.

Famitsu Xbox 360 has a claimed circulation of 80,000, which is a lie but at least not as boldfaced as when Enterbrain claimed it was 100,000 a year after the original Xbox was released in Japan. As you'd expect, this is the most "mature" of the Enterbrain mags; it's the only Famitsu publication to not use furigana on top of the Chinese characters in the text, and the focus is less on strategy and more on columns and industry news (including the only Game Developers Conference report I've seen in Japanese print mag-dom). Most of the staff came from Famitsu DC, the Dreamcast mag Enterbrain published until late 2001.

famitsuds-0805.jpg   arcadia-0805.jpg

Famitsu DS + Wii is the complete opposite -- it's completely for the kids, and like many kids' mags in Japan, the cover devotes more space to all the cool bonuses inside the polybag than any individual game. This issue includes a booklet of Smash Brothers Brawl strategy, another booklet of manga based on Wii games, and a three-piece Pokemon stationery set (eraser, ruler, and mechanical pencil). Strategy and previews dominate the innards.

Finally, Arcadia is a monthly launched in 1999 devoted entirely to arcade games. Its original staff was mostly taken from Gamest and Neo Geo Freak, two mags that died at roughly the same time in 1998. Despite this pedigree, the book isn't nearly as hardcore-oriented as either of those two titles -- it tries to appeal to a general gaming audience, including the ladies and casual gamers who mostly stick to the music, trading-card, or prize games. Arcadia has never been a super-successful magazine, and it's had to deal with internet rumors of its imminent demise as early as 2006. It's still around, but it's not like arcades in Japan are doing so wonderful these days, either.

The Dengeki stable

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Dengeki PlayStation is the oldest Sony-only mag, launching right alongside the birth of the system in late 1994. From the beginning, the title's been way hardcore oriented -- while most other PS mags kicked off their coverage by putting Ridge Racer on the cover, Den-Pure decided that the PS version of Princess Maker would be a better cover subject. While being hardcore back then meant lots of strategy pages, these days the mag has shifted to become heavier on reader participation, manga, US-style feature articles, and so forth. The formula seems to be working, because Den-Pure is the only magazine in Japan that gives Famitsu a run for its money saleswise, even outselling it on rare occasions.

Dengeki Nintendo DS, like Famitsu DS + Wii, is totally kiddie, although this is a fairly recent invention -- until around 2004, it was very much an all-ages mag, similar to Famitsu. (Media Works also publishes Dengeki DS&Wii Style, a mature audience-oriented Nintendo mag, on a bimonthly-ish basis.) It gets points for being the only Japanese game mag that's full color from start to finish and for having a ferret run its reader-contribution section. It also has even more bonus crap than Famitsu's Nintendo mag -- in this issue, a Brawl guide, a Pokemon TCG guide, a Mario Kart Wii guide, a Pokemon Ranger guide, a book of Mario-themed pencil puzzles, and a large Pokemon movie poster. All this for 630 yen! To put this on US newsstands and make a profit, you'd have to charge at least $15 or so.

The others

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Nintendo Dream (Nindori) is the last game mag Mainichi Communications publishes (they once had around 10-ish). It was originally called The 64 Dream when it launched in 1996. It's difficult to make direct comparisons between Japanese and US mags, but Nindori is almost exactly like modern Nintendo Power in style -- immensely popular among Nintendo fanboys, written largely for a mature audience, featuring a lot of exclusive previews, and concentrating more and more on industry topics as time goes on (it's the only Nintendo mag in Japan to do any sort of industry coverage, including dev interviews). If I were living in Japan, Weekly Famitsu, Dengeki PlayStation and Nindori would probably be the three game mags I'd buy regularly.

Ge-maga (short for "game magazine") is the oldest Japanese game mag currently in existence. It launched as Beep in December 1984, then switched names over the years to Beep! Megadrive, Sega Saturn Magazine, Dreamcast Magazine, Dorimaga (after Sega dropped hardware in 2001), and finally Ge-maga in June 2006. Sega may not be what it once was, but old habits die hard at Ge-maga, and they still devote lots of space to girl games and reader submissions (I'm talking page after page of postcard fanart here). I liked this mag a lot in the Dorimaga era, but my impression after reading through this issue of Ge-maga is that the magic's largely gone -- perhaps because the girl-game audience has moved to the net far more quickly than the rest of game fandom.

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Wahey, here's a couple of bimonthly game-mag mooks. Game Side is quite a bit like a Japanese take on the UK's Retro Gamer, although it came first by a mile, originally launching as Used Games in 1996. While it occasionally throws a bone at modern games, the vast majority of pages is devoted to roundup features on old hardware and game genres. It's a great resource and I read it cover to cover whenever I'm able to nab new issues.

Continue is another favorite of mine, featuring long essays, even longer interviews, and an extremely thoughtful approach to covering the game industry worldwide. It's also the only Japanese mag to interview Kevin Gifford (which happened in 2004), but I won't hold that against it. On this trip I was a little disappointed to find that Continue's devoting a lot of pages to anime coverage these days, something I'm not sure most of its readers care about.

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And finally there's V-Jump. I'm not sure how to classify V-Jump, so I just saved it for last. Launched in 1993, Shueisha's only game mag mostly concentrated on console games, in particular RPG series like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, as well as anything based off Shonen Jump properties. Whenever new info on DQ/FF games leaks out, it's often found in V-Jump first, a reminder of the days when Yuji Horii was a writer for Shonen Jump. As you may be able to surmise from the cover, though, trading card games have become V-Jump's bread and butter -- there are five bonus cards inserted into the magazine, and it's also where the Yu-Gi-Oh manga has run since 2004. It's an odd mix of manga rag, game journal, and outright advertising vehicle for Jump-brand stuff, and the only thing I can say for sure about it is that I'm way too old to be reading it.

[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: The Yetisburg Address

- A little RSS-hunting has produced this new set of GameSetLinks, including what is almost certainly one of the best names for a game (video or paper-based) in the form of card game Yetisburg. Let's quote from the description, for fits and giggles:

"On the bloody fields of Pennsylvania in 1863, two great armies collided to decide the fate of a nation. The South rose, and the North responded with fervent mettle. At the forefront of the battle stood the mighty Yetis, white-furred giants imported from the wilds of Canada to shred the opposing front lines. The great generals strode through the battle lines, engineering the destruction of the opposing forces while powerful mastodons hurled bombs into the fray."

Awesome. Anyhow, here's that, plus some other just-as-good links:

Giant Bomb » Family Values in Video Games
On Korn's Haze-themed music single. Sigh.

'Rebel Alliance' | Fast Company
David Kushner piece on the transmedia Hollywood geeks, including Jesse Alexander (Lost/Heroes, but a big gamegeek). V.neat.

Sex, violence and video games - Rec Room - The Phoenix
'If we allow our critics to define us, then we will deserve whatever they give us.'

Game-Ism: 'Mo Money or Mo Cap'
'I’ve seen mocap save a project when used properly, and I’ve seen quite a few animator purist conversions to mocap since I’ve been working in the games industry for the past seven years.'

Only a Game: Malone on Curiosity
'One of the more interesting emotional behaviours associated with videogames is curiosity – that powerful drive to seek out new and interesting information.'

NCSX Video Games and Toys: 'Lets' Brass' for DS
Play the trumpet, tuba, etc '...by blowing into the Nintendo DS' microphone and fiddling around on the touch screen with stylus-based motion.'

paizo.com - Yetisburg: Titanic Battles in History, Volume 1
More Civil War vs. Bigfoot card game crossovers, plz! Via OgreCave.

Psychochild’s Blog » The Long Tail and Indie Game Devs
An excellent point on the '1000 true fans' concept - it's a lot harder than you think.

RPS Exclusive: Dinner With Rod Humble | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
Rod Humble: 'Can I steal some of your fries? I don’t know how to do this elegantly.' And he talks about indie games too!

Sexy Videogameland: Ain't No Holiday
Heh, NeoGAF accused Leigh of plagiarism when it was just Aaron Greenberg regurgitating the same comments. Amusing (and tragic simultaneously.)



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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