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May 10, 2008

Exploring Online Worlds: Mind Candy's 'Moshi Monsters'

[Over at virtual worlds site WorldsInMotion.biz, we've restarted the Worlds In Motion Online Atlas, originally written by the now Kotaku-tastic Leigh Alexander, and now penned by 'Scotsman in Canada' du jour Mathew Kumar. First up - an intriguing overview of Moshi Monsters, a educational, social MMO aimed at "little kids and big kids alike" from Mind Candy - yep, the company who originally did Perplex City.]

2008_05_02_moshil.jpgName: Moshi Monsters

Company: Mind Candy

Established: April 2008

How it Works:
Flash; it runs directly in the browser window with no installation required. All navigation and gameplay is performed through use of a mouse.

Overview: In Moshi Monsters, users "adopt" one monster from a range of six species to care for. Users are placed in charge of ensuring the monster remains happy and fed by purchasing goods from the local town (either food or furniture and items to decorate their monster's home) and raises money to purchase these items by taking part in daily Brain Age style puzzles. Players can also play some games in town for fun, plus interact with other users by visiting their monsters' homes and leaving messages on their pinboards -- specifically those that have been designated as "friends" by players who know each other's usernames.

2008_05_02_monsters.jpgPayment Method: Moshi Monsters is currently free-to-play, however the game is monetized in some small way with Mosh Monster Mopods -- phone charms which can be purchased and include secret codes for special items. There is no cash value attributed to any in-world items, however.

Key Features:
-A cute monster to look after
-Daily educational puzzles
-Safe interaction between users (only friends can post on friends' pinboards)
-Monsters can gain levels and popularity by having a nice room and doing well at puzzles

Moshi Monsters: In-Depth Tour

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The Moshi Monsters experience begins by "adopting" your monster from a selection of six species on the website. Players have a limited number of color schemes with which to personalize their monster (one of eight main colors and one of eight secondary colors) and apart from that (and choosing the monster's name) there are no other options to personalize the "base" monster that you create. But with six monsters on offer there is a nice range to suit different tastes -- from the "ninja kitty" Katsuma to the Yeti-esque Furi -- and Mind Candy have hinted that clothes will soon be available for monsters to purchase.

Each created monster has his own room visible on the web by anyone, though visitors this way have no way of contacting the user (or even interacting with the monster or room) in any way unless they sign in. The pages clearly indicate the user's age and location. You can view Worlds in Motion's Moshi Monster, Shibito (a "Zommer") here!

Shibito already has a personalized room, but when you begin playing Moshi Monsters your room is empty and basic -- plain wallpaper and carpet plus ordinary windows and door.

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With your monster you have only two real forms of interaction directly -- you can either click on it (to "pet" it), which usually results in your monster saying something (generally mildly amusing), or you can tickle it by dragging your mouse across it holding down the mouse button.

After I adopted Shibito (and after briefly tickling and petting him) I began what is arguably the main point of the world -- playing the educational puzzles. These puzzles are selected by pressing the puzzle button in the monster's room, and can be played once a day to receive Rox, which are Moshi Monster's currency, and to raise the monster's level (which has no immediately obvious meaning.)

Players must raise Rox in order to pay for food (to keep up their monster's health) and decorations for the monster's room (to keep up the monster's happiness) which both maintain the monster's mood.

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The puzzles take the format of simple Brain Age tests, such as counting the number of blocks in a cube or finding the missing letter. Though they're initially very easy, they automatically calibrate their difficultly to how well the player is doing, and after only a week of maintain Shibito and playing puzzles each day they're already a real test of my arithmetic and ability to search for letters and numbers.

After my first set of puzzles I instantly set off down the shops, easily reachable just by clicking on the monster's door. There is a selection of three -- the gross-ery store (food), Yukea (furniture) and Bizarre Bazaar (decorations) and I quickly purchased some new wallpaper, a new floor, a dartboard and a cabinet for my monster, before placing them in his room -- much to his approval.

When it comes to the "single-player" game, there's not much more to it than that. In town, there are two games which can be played (Flutterby Field and En-gen) both of which are fun mini-games, but there isn't as much impetus to play them as there could be, as you can't gain Rox from successful play -- though Mind Candy promise that this will soon change.

Yet Moshi Monsters is intended as a social game, and it's here that it's different take on things is obvious. Moshi Monsters has been built as a sort of equivalent, or companion to, social networks such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo. You can, for example, embed a Moshi Monsters widget into your MySpace page, which doesn't offer full functionality but is an easy way for your MySpace friends to find your monster.

2008_05_05_moshi5.jpgThis kind of thing is particularly important as within Moshi Monsters there is no way to interact with other players without already knowing their username. You may notice that poor old Shibito has no friends! Well, if he did, he'd be able to receive messages on his pinboard (from friends) and in turn, leave messages on his friend's pinboards. Any logged in player can view another player's pinboard or room (as long as they know their username) but the only initial interaction with another player is to ask them to be friends.

This limited social interaction is part of Moshi Monster's core philosophy to allow the worlds to be safe and enjoyable for the intended audience of children, and the website has a good deal of information for parents who may worry about the possibilities.

After taking care of Shibito for only a week, I'm already quite attached to him. I'm able to stop by for mere minutes each day to make sure he's happy and play through my daily puzzles, and can't help myself from eyeing the more expensive items for sale in the shops with the aim of decorating his home as well as possible.

Moshi Monsters: Conclusion

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When you first look at Moshi Monsters there should be something that stands out to you above and beyond almost all other youth-orientated social worlds -- the consistently excellent art. Reminiscent of the work of Pete Fowler or designer vinyl toys, it's instantly pleasing and attractive, with clear crossover potential outside of its intended market. After all, I don't think I'd have spent so much time looking after my monster if I wasn't simply captivated by the way he looks.

If you'll have an initial reservation, it's got to be the limited customization of your monster. With only 64 color combinations per monster there isn't a lot of space to be completely unique in the world, but with luck that will be expanded on greatly for the future official launch.

As cute as the monsters and world are, when you get down to it, Moshi Monsters is a very simple experience. It seems entirely geared towards quick daily visits rather than attempting to snare the user into spending a lot of time in the world -- ten minutes or so a day is easily enough to play your daily puzzles, check on your monster and your friends, and purchase any new goods if you're feeling flush.

As a result, as a tool to get me to do daily arithmetic (something I'd never usually bother with!) Moshi Monsters is a great foil. That's not to say I haven't struggled with some aspects of the beta. After 10 days of taking care of my monster, I've run into errors causing my puzzles to stop working mid-way 4 times, and with only one chance each day, it's been frustrating to say the least. The world has been stable otherwise.

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It's also unfortunate that the items that you purchase for your monster's home (such as a dartboard) have no use other than as decoration. Your monster, although he'll wander about his room, will never interact with anything, and spends most of his time standing about staring into space – though they'll occasionally emit a random pithy comment.

Another slight problem is the complete inability to get rid of items that you've purchased but don't want -- I foolishly purchased two sets of the same window, and now I'm running out of Rox to pay for food, I bitterly regret it!

Though the world is geared towards a short play time, I have to admit that currently, that decision just isn't satisfying. Even when I've managed to get my puzzles to work I've noticed that they repeat quickly, and other than posting messages on other player's boards, there just isn't much to do! This kind of complaint would lead me to dismiss the world out of hand usually, but the art style is so interesting (and the monsters so fun) that it's hard not to just wish for more to keep you in the world on each visit, and for more ways to connect with your monster.

2008_05_05_moshi7.jpg

For example, Flutterby Field and En-gen are both fun little mini-games (particularly En-gen, which is a nice twist on the usual "match 3" games) but there isn't much impetus to play them, as your monster doesn't take part. It seems like a missed opportunity.

Of course, a lot of these complaints come from the perspective of an adult player. Looking at the world from the viewpoint of a parent or child, there is a lot to like. The interface is intuitive. The community is as closed as can be -- I expect children will mostly only interact with others that they already know -- and it's easy for parents to keep an eye on, especially if they keep a monster themselves.

Although it's currently in beta, Moshi Monsters is a world which is artistically fully realized, and is therefore very attractive to new players. Sadly, many players will find themselves waiting for the designers to catch up with the artists to gain full enjoyment from it, but as a daily timewaster I can think of few worlds which can compare.

Useful Links:
Moshi Monsters Community Blog
Moshi Monsters Mopods.

Best Of Indie Games: Run, Dino! Run!

[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 browser games, a competition entry, and a little something from the thriving doujin community. Also, a summary of notable commercial indie games released in the past few days.

Game Pick: 'Everyday Shooter' (Queasy Games, commercial indie)
"This multiple award-winning arena shooter has finally arrived on the Windows platform, distributed by the indie-friendly folks at Steam for a very affordable price."

Game Pick: 'Dino Run' (Pixeljam Games, browser)
"In Pixeljam's latest game, players are transported back in time just moments before a giant asteroid crash lands and wipe out the entire dinosaur population on Earth. As a velociraptor seeking sanctuary from the impending doom, your objective is to run towards the end of each level as fast as you can, preferably before the wall of doom envelops you."

Game Pick: 'Mubbly Tower' (Jesse Venbrux and Ferry Spaans, freeware)
"A tower defense game built around the concept of making your structure as tall as you possibly can to please the king's increasing demands. Mubbly Tower also comes with an online high score table, four unlockable modes and a bonus platformer game."

Game Pick: 'Bowja the Ninja on Factory Island' (Robin Vencel, browser)
"Bowja the Ninja (on Factory Island) is a point and click adventure game in the style of The Visitor and Hapland. Your mission involves infiltrating the enemy's island and destroy their secret weapon, achieved by solving one or two simple puzzles in each screen to progress. A sequel is currently in the works."

Game Pick: 'Bootfighter Windom XP SP-2' (Y. Kamada, freeware)
"Common sights in Bootfighter Windom XP SP-2: wanton destruction, giant armed mechs and powerful weapons demolishing city buildings with one shot."

Game Pick: 'Frayed Knights' (Rampant Games, commercial indie - demo available)
"A preview of Jay Barnson's upcoming Dungeon Master-style indie RPG. Other notable commercial indie releases this week include Grubby Games' The Amazing Brain Train, Puppygames' Droid Assault and a new game from the developers of Jets'n'Guns."

COLUMN: Quiz Me Qwik - 'The State Of... Linux Gaming?'

-['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 have a look at the history and state of gaming on the world's most famous free operating system.]

It would be interesting to find out exactly how many people have switched to Linux since the release of Windows Vista. Not a big percentage of PC users, sure, but it’s probably a number worth taking notice of.

Personally, I loaded Ubuntu onto my laptop just a month after buying it – Vista’s sluggish operation got to be a little too irritating. And boy is the difference noticeable, too; Ubuntu might actually be the fastest OS I’ve ever experienced in terms of basic operation.

There are drawbacks, of course. Open Office is a fine counterpoint to Microsoft Office, and The GIMP is a great Photoshop alternative, but the gaming side is predictably lacking. I can play all the fantastic Kenta Cho freeware shooters, but…no Warning Forever? Tragic.

Of course, I’m not putting down the whole scene - I’m far from a Linux gaming authority. That’s why I thought now might be a good time to have a chat with Bob Zimbinksi, who has run the Linux Gaming Tome for around nine years now. He denies being an authority either, unfortunately, as he’s stepped back from the day-to-day workings of the site a little over the past few years. “Answering your questions has made me realize just how removed from Linux gaming I am these days,” he smiles. “Don't mistake me for an authority on modern Linux gaming. I'm a guy with a Macbook Pro and an Xbox 360. Sorry!”

Err, so…maybe that says something about Linux gaming, eh? Not that Zimbinski doesn’t still have some interesting things to say about the history of the site, and where Linux gaming has been in the past, of course. More importantly, he’s got an explanation as to why he’s moved away from Linux, and whether or not commercial gaming has a home on an operating system that thrives on a base of free software.

GSW: When did you first start using Linux, and what attracted you to it?

Bob Zimbinski: I started using Linux in the mid-90's, maybe 1994 or 1995. At the time, the notion of a Unix system on my desktop seemed pretty radical to me. I'd used Unix at work and school, and it was exciting to have free reign over an entire system, especially considering what a hands-on project administering a Linux system was in those days.

Upon getting my first Slackware system up and running, I resolved to use Linux exclusively for my computing environment.

GSW: What were your first experiences with Linux gaming?

BZ: I've always been a video game nerd, so it was important to me to see how much gaming I could do on this new system. I remember how exciting it was to get Doom running fullscreen - [graphics library] svgalib was a monster that I'm sure nobody misses today. I was also quite taken by Maelstrom, a Linux port of a slick Asteroids clone for the Mac.

GSW: What would you say your milestones for Linux gaming are? I assume Doom makes the list.

BZ: Doom, yes. That Linux could run such an - at the time - demanding piece of software was a validation of sorts. And Doom was the greatest game that humans had produced to that point, so that helped.

3Dfx released Linux drivers for their Voodoo 3D cards, allowing us to enjoy the goodness of hardware-accelerated OpenGL games like Quake, and virtually every game released after 1999. Also, the release of Loki Entertainment Software's first port, Civilization: Call To Power.

GSW: When did you first encounter the Linux Game Tome?

-BZ: I don't remember my first actual encounter with the site. There was a project called the Linux Software Map which attempted to be a catalog of software for Linux. It had a games category, but I remember it was incomplete and sometimes out of date.

I suppose I found the Game Tome when I went looking for alternatives to the LSM. I liked that the Linux Game Tome was updated regularly, and that it included ratings and feedback from users.

GSW: At what point did you decide to step in and resume the updating of the
site?

BZ: At some point, the regular Game Tome updates stopped, and I missed the resource. At the same time, I'd been looking around for an appropriate way to contribute to the Linux community, so it occurred to me that maybe I could help continue what the Game Tome had been doing.

I contacted Tessa, who ran the site, and she agreed to hand it off to me. I wrote a bunch of Perl scripts, imported her data, and launched the second version of the Linux Game Tome.

GSW: How much had Linux gaming grown by the time you took over, and how steady was its rate of growth to the time you brought other people in?

BZ: When I took over the site, I didn't have the sense that Linux gaming was growing at all. I don't think there really was such a thing as "Linux gaming" at that point. There was still very much a hobbyist feeling to the entire community at this time, pre-internet boom. The world really hadn't discovered the Internet yet, so "Linux gaming", like most everything else on the net, was still a bunch of nerds sharing their stuff.

-I've just had a look at the database. Here's the number of games added each year since I took over:

1998: 133
1999: 203
2000: 191
2001: 168
2002: 284
2003: 268
2004: 237
2005: 273
2006: 215
2007: 207
2008: 127

GSW: Did you ever feel like the project was overwhelming?

BZ: I've felt overwhelmed when other stuff in my life has kept me from keeping up the site, and there's nobody else around to help. There was a period where I think the site went completely unmanned for a number of months in the early 2000s. Since then, a number of people have stepped up to help.

GSW: At what point did you feel like the scene was really coming into its
own? Do you feel like the site had a part in that?

BZ: I think it's important to recognize that there are really two Linux gaming "scenes": a free software one and a commercial software one. The free software scene is a part of the larger open source movement, and it's been active and self-sustaining as long as Linux has been around.

Commercial games for Linux effectively got their start when Loki Entertainment Software started porting commercial Windows games. Maybe that's when the commercial gaming scene came into its own. Since Loki, Linux Game Publishing has continued to produce native ports for Linux, as have a handful of brave companies - id, Epic, Bioware.

GSW: What is your level of involvement with the site these days?

BZ: My current involvement is pretty minimal. I step in for the occasional technical issue, but daily maintenance of the site is in the extremely capable hands of Niels Weber, Pasi Kalinen, Ingo Ruhnke and Jacek Poplawski. Pasi has also been working heroically on some much-needed updates to the site code that I hope we can roll out soon.

GSW: What kinds of games are you playing these days?

BZ: I just – finally – finished Zelda on the Wii. Before that, Lost Odyssey, Mass Effect, and Blue Dragon on the 360.

-GSW: Do you think [Windows emulator] WINE is still a necessity for gamers using Linux?

BZ: I don't think there's any way around some kind of Windows emulation layer if one wants to play modern commercial games on Linux. Heroes like Linux Game Publishing continue to produce native ports of a handful of games, but the vast majority of commercial PC games on the market are out of reach to Linux users until they run something like WINE or VMWare. I hate this but, it's true. Of course, there's an awful lot of free stuff out there to have fun with too.

GSW: Do you think commercial games are less likely to succeed on Linux?

BZ: If success equals lots of copies sold, then yes - I think commercial games are less likely to succeed on Linux simply because the market is probably tiny.

How many people run Linux on their desktop? How many of those want to play commercial games and will pay 50 bucks for the privilege of doing so?

GSW: Finally, what motivated your own move away from Linux, to Mac and Xbox 360?

BZ: Just time, I guess. After using Linux as my primary computing platform for nearly ten years, I got restless. MacOS X had arrived, and with its BSD base, it brought many of the technical things I found attractive about Linux, but wrapped in a delicious candy shell. And the laptops are dead sexy! So an iBook became my primary computer, then a Powerbook, and
now a MacBook Pro. I still rely on Linux for moistmaster - my file/web/mail server - but it's not on my desktop any more.

As for the 360, I'm a game nerd. I've always owned consoles. I've got a Wii and PS3 too, but of course the Wii only comes on when friends are over, and the PS3 just sits and cries quietly to itself.

May 9, 2008

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

- Time to round up some of the top posts on big sister site Gamasutra (with a smattering of others from sites we run such as Game Career Guide), and there's actually some interesting stuff hanging out today - headed by Chris Dahlen's interview with Jordan Weisman.

Weisman is probably one of the people slightly adjacent to the game industry who has had the most influence on it, thanks to his pen&paper RPG history (ahem, Shadowrun) and his pioneering of ARGs, so it was excellent to get his views down.

Elsewhere, there's a neat Jenova Chen piece, Ian Bogost on how games can be tactile, a cute Intellivision history, and a host of other smaller pieces.

Anyhow, feel free to peruse at your leisure:

Interview: Jordan Weisman
"Weisman's legendary resume spans FASA (Battletech), 42 Entertainment (I Love Bees) and now Smith & Tinker (game rights to Crimson Skies and Shadowrun) - Gamasutra presents a rare interview with him on design and inspiration." [NOTE: the Gamasutra news story highlighting one particular part of this feature is 'Weisman: Practice 'Planned Parenthood' With Your Game Franchises', an interesting concept!]

A History of Gaming Platforms: Mattel Intellivision
"Following up on their profiles of the Commodore 64, Vectrex, Apple II, and Atari 2600, game historians Loguidice and Barton examine the lifespan of Mattel's cult '80s console the Intellivision, from Astrosmash to AD&D and beyond."

Microsoft's Unangst: 'PC Will Always Be At The Center Of Innovation'
"What's the state of the Games For Windows initiative in 2008? Gamasutra talks to Microsoft's senior GFW director Kevin Unangst about the reception to the program, the PC Gaming Alliance, Games For Windows Live's versus Valve's Steam Community, and why PCs aren't (or shouldn't) end up too much like consoles."

Persuasive Games: Texture
"Author/designer Ian Bogost (Fatworld) looks at 'texture' in games - the art of connecting the virtual to the real via rumble and physical simulation, from Hard Drivin' to Rez and beyond."

GFH: Neils Clark On Moving Beyond 'Game Addiction'
"Following his recent Gamasutra feature on the subject, writer and researcher Neils Clark spoke at the ongoing 2008 Games for Health conference on game addiction -- from KoToR to World Of Warcraft and beyond."

Carry Small, Game Large: Big Shared Screen Multiplayer Gaming
"This technical article presents an intriguing 'shared gaming' concept, using a Java/Flash framework to allow mobile Internet devices to control a big-screen game with participants in the same location - details, source code within."

Finding A New Way: Jenova Chen And Thatgamecompany
"In this in-depth interview, thatgamecompany co-founder and fl0w designer Jenova Chen discusses his philosophy of abstract game design - and why making traditional games is "too easy" to dwell on."

Interview: Gameforge Talks Rise Of Web-Based MMO
"German game developer Gameforge has created the buzzed-about Civilization-like title Ikiriam to run solely in a web browser, and is now expanding operations to North America - we talk to the firm's Lars Koschin about the surprising rise of the browser-based MMO."

Results from James Portnow's Game Design Challenge: Mini Racing Games (GameCareerGuide)
"Design on paper mini games for a car racing game -- that was essentially your game design challenge, though what made it truly challenging were all the additional restrictions. Three fabulous submissions are featured here, along with three honorable mentions. Read on to find out what made the winning ideas stand out to James Portnow, a professional game designer."

Game Developer May Issue Showcases Rock Band, Engine Showdown

- The May 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine, GameSetWatch's big sister print publication, and the leading U.S. trade publication for the video game industry, has shipped to subscribers and is available from the Game Developer Digital service in both subscription and single-issue formats, as well as a single physical issue.

The cover feature for the issue is a postmortem of Harmonix's signature new music game franchise Rock Band, penned by lead designer Rob Kay and offering much insight into the title's development. As is explained in its description:

"Witness Harmonix's transformation from a game developer to a peripheral manufacture hybrid, as the company undertakes its most ambitious game to date—one which comes close to fulfilling the studio's ultimate vision. From controller management to over-stretched leads, this postmortem chronicles the trials and tribulations of this innovative game."

Another major feature in the new issue is 'Engines of Creation,' in which Jon Jordan takes a comprehensive look at an increasingly crucial part of game development, from Epic to Crytek and beyond:

"Third-party licensed game engines are increasingly used in the development of high-profile titles. But which is right for you? Here, we lay the major entries' features side-by-side."

In another signature feature, Paul Hyman describes the ins and outs of the current state of hiring in the rapidly shifting sands of the games industry, explaining:

"The job market is hot right now, especially for developers with experience. This state of the industry report aims to discern what companies are really looking for."

In addition, new design columnist BioWare Austin's Damion Schubert reflects on his trade in 'Design Of The Times: Idea Synthesis,' described as "...ruminations on collaborative design and humility as ways to get ahead as a game designer." Finally, in a new interview, Bungie artist Mike Zak discusses designing art for curious players, Halo's unique look, and Bungie's newfound independence.

As always, the issue also contains the customary in-depth news, code, art, audio, and design columns from Game Developer's veteran correspondents, plus product reviews and editorial columns.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of May 2008's magazine as a single issue.

Interview: Planet Moon's Loeb Talks Original IP, Skeletons Eating Onions

- [This Mathew Kumar-penned interview ran on Gama yesterday, but is worth a reprint here on GSW cos, really, Planet Moon are one of the more intriguing small console developers around - heck, Aaron Loeb even writes plays about game violence - and they have a canny worldview on how to (try to) do things different.]

Developer of the just-released Battle of the Bands for Wii, published by THQ, Planet Moon - founded in 1997 by some of the ex-Shiny veterans who helped created MDK, is one of the more quirkily interesting Bay Area game creators.

In particular, a history of offbeat humor has permeated original IP Planet Moon action titles such as Giants: Citizen Kabuto and Armed And Dangerous.

More recently, the company has worked on titles including Infected and After Burner Black Falcon for PSP - as well as Smarty Pants for Electronic Arts and Battle Of The Bands for THQ - both on the Wii.

In this in-depth interview, Gamasutra talks to Chief Operating Officer Aaron Loeb about Planet Moon's recent titles, and the place it sees for original IP in the industry, which includes a call for an obvious distinction between "blockbuster" games and "art house" games.

You're working on Wii now, having moved away from PSP -- is it the platform you see as being good for original IP?

Aaron Loeb: We will work on any platform where we can explore fun, new ideas. We are currently developing for other platforms in addition to the Wii, but nothing has been announced.

As a company, we’re focusing on a portfolio approach recently. We have a really big game in development (unannounced), medium games (like Battle of the Bands) that takes 16-18 months, and smaller games (like Smarty Pants).

It’s working well for us, as we learn and change our procedures based on lessons from the different game projects. For instance, our company has moved to the SCRUM project management system based on experiments done with it by the After Burner team (a PSP game we made with Sega).

Having multiple teams on multiple platforms enables us to improve or processes, our working conditions, and our games.

What was it that you learned from the After Burner development that led to the move to SCRUM?

AL: We learned that the traditional waterfall schedule doesn't deal with problems with any of the efficiency that SCRUM does. It also doesn't empower the team.

The SCRUM system says that the team will figure out how to solve a problem (and by that, I mean that individual implementers will be responsible for problem-solving, not that it's some kind of group-think).

Rather than having a producer who comes in and says "you will have a jet, and it will have twenty moving parts, and they will look like this, this and this and you will create them in the following way," SCRUM allows for a much more creative process, in which the Project Director might say, "I want the jets to be highly customizable within the following parameters" and the team is responsible for figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B.

I like to think of the SCRUM system as the scene in Apollo 13 when the engineers get the box full of crap that's in the capsule and are told they have to figure out a way to use this stuff to keep the astronauts alive.

The team works in "sprints" in which they have a goal to achieve in a set period of time and they figure out how to achieve it, and the Project Director is responsible for quality -- so he or she can approve or reject the work.

It has a number of rules that are great -- like you can't change the goal in the middle of the sprint, which is hard sometimes to adhere to, but is essential!

At this point, I think we would be hard-pressed to go back to a rigid top-down management system.

What spurned the decision to move away from PSP?

AL: Honestly, developers don’t really get to make decisions like that. Publisher support for the platform waned for a while, so if we’d stubbornly stuck to the PSP we wouldn’t have gotten work doing much beyond ports.

Interest in the PSP is definitely coming back among the publishers, though. That little puppy just keeps on selling!

How do you feel about the titles you made on PSP in retrospect -- Afterburner, Infected?

AL: We’re very proud of them. We wish they’d found a bigger audience, but I think most people who’ve made PSP games wish that in retrospect.

Both projects had really cool, stylized ways of telling their story we hadn’t tried before. Infected was told through what were essentially radio plays, and that actually worked really well. It also had a cut-scene acted out with hand puppets, which I think was a videogame first.

After Burner had some really cool 2D animatic cutscenes, and multiple storylines. It also had a ridiculous array of jet customizations. The games are both quite fun!

If I had one regret about either of them, it’s that Infected’s infrastructure multiplayer was anemic. It was the primary complaint about the game. We had only 1-on-1 multiplayer across the Internet (16-player over ad hoc), and that just wasn’t good enough in the face of SOCOM.

We should have cut the feature entirely rather than taking a stab at something we couldn’t deliver with our budget and schedule.

You're talking about the problems PSP games had at retail. Do you think a major problem of original IP is still distribution?

AL: Original IP is far more risky than licenses or sequels. It’s also potentially more rewarding. Our industry goes through huge swings in its appetite for original IP. Early in a lifecycle, everyone wants it; later on, few will touch it.

Certainly, publishers have problems selling titles the retailers have never heard of. The giant box stores are particularly problematic in that regard; the folks at GameStop, in general, are fantastic and they really get behind stuff they think is good, original, or otherwise.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to money. How much did the game cost and how much goes into marketing it. Someone recently said to me that the biggest way our industry screws itself is by not “opening our books” as Hollywood does.

Because the press and the consumers don’t actually know whether a game cost $50 million or $1 million, games from radically different sources are held to the same standards. Hollywood has the concept of an “art house flick,” but we don’t have art house games.

This creates a problem where all games are reviewed as though they should have the highest budgets (using the Hollywood example, if you expect all movies to have giant transforming robots and explosions, then tiny, English comedies really won’t review well).

One way publishers and developers have dealt with this is to retreat to smaller platforms with original IP in hopes of being held to a less blockbustery standard. There are some highly reviewed original games on the DS, XBLA and PSP, for instance.

I think we would see a lot more interesting, small original IPs if we figured out a way to indicate to the consumers and the press, “this is a small game on a big platform; please don’t compare it to Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s not trying to be like that.”

How is a small developer ever going to make a well-reviewed first person shooter, for instance, if all first person shooters must have as rich a feature set as Halo 3 to be taken seriously?

The problem here is a vicious circle. The GTA IVs and the Halo 3s of the world need the least plaudits from the press and the least PR because they are established and have giant marketing budgets. It’s the small, original games that desperately need those 90% reviews to get people to try them, but they can’t get them because they don’t have level editors or join-anytime-16-player-co-op-multiplayer, etc.

The result is that the publishers make a few big, huge original IP bets (Rock Band, BioShock, Assassin’s Creed) where they invest the same kind of money as they would with a giant sequel, and fewer small bets on original IP. The aggregate effect is that our industry makes fewer and fewer original games.

Do you think some of the problem lies with the end unit pricing, then? An original IP title might be great, but if I know it's only got that limited feature set compared to Halo and Halo is the same price - how can the consumer not be expected to go for what they see as "better value"?

AL: I honestly don't think that's how the consumer is making their decisions -- or, at least, not the only way. The truth is, Halo 3 is more feature-rich than, well, just about anything. It's a freaking onslaught of features.

And yet, the consumer also bought quite a few copies of the other major FPSes last year, which were no slouches in the feature department, but if this all boiled down to "feature check list = VALUE" in the consumer's mind, Halo 3 would win.

The issue for the first-time developer in our scenario is that the big boys won't publish their original game unless they can get 85% or higher, and our industry now seems to have a kind of barrier on smaller games -- no matter how good or creative their ideas -- on the big platforms reaching those kinds of review scores unless they are also super-polished, which only comes with a lot of time and money.

So, you have to spend more money and more time to make an original game successful. And, if you're the publisher, why spend that money, when you can spend the same amount on a license or a sequel and have less risk? It's a negative feedback loop.

All that said, we had more hugely successful original IPs last year than we have in years, so it's not as bad as I'm making it sound! It's only that it is harder now to get a really big, original idea off the ground than it used to be, and it was pretty darn hard already.

So what are the state of affairs at Planet Moon right now?

AL: Well, we just shipped our first game with THQ, called Battle of the Bands, which is an original IP that was pitched by one of our staff members in a company pitchfest.

We made a game with EA last year called Smarty Pants, which did very well for us, and reflected the fastest game we’d ever made -- the concept was discussed at GDC last year, and the game was on store shelves by Black Friday.

In addition, we’re working on a huge, super-secret project with one of the industry’s largest publishers that we are looking forward to announcing.

A company pitchfest? How often do you do that sort of thing?

AL: We do them at least twice a year. Everyone in the company has an opportunity to get up and pitch an idea. Sometimes people pair up and make demos, other times they do simple one-sheets.

These games are sometimes then polished up into fuller pitches and presented to our publishing partners.

In general, we take a "good ideas can come from anywhere" approach. The job of our executive and creative staff is to be able to hear a great idea and figure out how to make it even better. We've found, over the years that the "only designers or producers have ideas worth making into games" model is terribly inefficient and, frankly, wrong.

That said, our designers and project directors (the people who oversee the game from cradle to grave) are the ultimate authorities on the ideas. We aren't big fans of designing by committee.

Battle of the Bands was originally pitched by Ian Slutz, who became senior designer on the title. The original idea was marching bands of robots fighting each other, and it eventually morphed into bands of various musical styles fighting each other musically.

One of the pillars of the game is what we call “music switching,” where the dominant band in the battle is the one whose music you hear. There are five musical styles represented in the game -- rock, latin, country, hip-hop and marching band.

The switches in the music are not authored (as they often are in dynamic music systems). The songs can literally switch on a per-note basis. The game ships with a music player which allows players to experiment with this feature. We felt that for the more casual consumer on the Wii, this was an essential idea -- Battle of the Bands is a fun (and ridiculous) party game, so we focused our attention on quick “get in and get out” features.

Moving backwards, how was the experience working with EA on Smarty Pants?

AL: Excellent - the project itself was difficult because we had 20,000 questions to manage on top of making the game. But it’s not just 20,000 questions, really.

You can’t localize trivia -– especially trivia targeted to children, as they know totally different things in different countries. So, together we had to manage 120,000 questions (20,000 per territory) and all the potential headaches of that much data.

The game itself was built in its most basic form, and playable, within 4 weeks of the project’s beginning. We knew early on it was very fun, and EA gave us the chance to see all of its focus tests. Usually, game focus tests are depressing because you watch as people show you the 5,000 different ways your game is utterly baffling.

The Smarty Pants tests were fantastic: people jumping up and down, laughing, screaming. We knew we had a really fun game early on. From there, the goal was making it as fun and accessible as possible.

It seemed like a very out of character game for Planet Moon to take. Why take it -- and what do you feel Planet Moon gave to the project?

AL: One major factor in the decision was age -- namely, that we’re not getting any younger. Most of the people at Planet Moon have kids now, and making a game for the whole family sounded really refreshing. And boy was it!

It is really rewarding to play a game you made with your 8-year-old child or with your 70-year-old parents. One of the great things about the Wii is that, as a platform, it’s an ambassador to people who don’t usually play games. With Smarty Pants, we enjoyed tapping into that potential.

I think we brought a lot of ingenuity and know-how to the title. The co-op trivia mode is unique and a great bit of design. The way the game incorporates a layered approach to its design - you can ignore many of the features if you want the most basic trivia experience, or embrace them and add complexity if you’re a more core gamer -- was clever and definitely takes the game beyond simple.

We made the game on time for the holidays despite significant data challenges of a trivia game that adjusts its questions based on your age and performance. There’s quite a complex little data model under the hood on Smarty Pants.

Do you see Planet Moon returning to the very "out there" story led games you began your existence with -- like Giants?

AL: Oh, my, yes. Very soon now, all will be revealed. (And before this starts any rumors, I’m not referring to a sequel to Giants.)

Anything else in the future for Planet Moon?

AL: Onions.

Oh, and skeletons.

Skeletons eating onions.

GameSetLinks: The Revolution Will Be Civilized

- Yes, in almost-weekend land there's still time for a brace of GameSetLinks, headed by Keith Boesky taking the Boom Blox co-creator to task for some game condemnation that might (or might not) be a little hypocritical.

Further down the list - some more fun promotion of Civilization Revolution, as well as academics GONE WILD and Jenova Chen's cloud-strewn IMs - all fun stuff.

To cite Prince, let's go crazy:

A Tree Falling in the Forest: C'mon Mr. Spielberg: You Gotta Be Kidding Edition
'With regard to [Jaws], his son is exhibiting the very behavior Mr. Spielberg fears from games.'

RPS Vs. Russians: The Stalin Vs. Martians Interview | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
'Alexander: Putin personally throws funny Russian people into jail. That’s why Russians are mostly dull and their take on computer games is 100% serious like they’re creating a nuclear bomb or something.'

osu! - official homepage
Free PC rhythm game '...based on the gameplay of the popular Nintendo DS series Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! and its overseas counterpart Elite Beat Agents.' With lots of fanmade levels using odd tunes, yay. Via IC!

JENOVA'S BLOG:Chat notes about Video Game, Art and Digital Medium
Some interesting IM scribblings from the Thatgamecompany co-founder.

Play Chronotron, a free online game on Kongregate
Interesting, some Braid-like time travel/storage elements in this Flash puzzle game - via Mzenke.

The Escapist : Quibus Lusoribus Bono? Who is Game Studies Good For?
Heh, taking Douglas Wilson's GameSetWatch article as a starting-point to rag on academikwak a bit.

Ian Bogost - A Response to Roger Travis
Mr. Bogost responds to the above academic-baiting Escapist article - which I agree does seem a little scattershot.

Shirt.Woot : 2K Games and Woot Team Up For Civilization Revolution Derby, Opening May 9
Awesome idea, thumbs up, 2K - that and the Shepard Fairey poster (pictured) are top marketing bonzo.

MTV Multiplayer » ‘Tetris’ License Holders Want You To Win One Million Dollars Playing Competitive ‘Tetris’
Tetris company co-founder Henk Rogers giving away the brim of his money hat, heehee.

insertcredit.com: 'News: Food in press releases'
ION Conference has great clam chowder, heh.

May 8, 2008

Opinion: What Super Mario Galaxy's Rosalina Shows Us About Storytelling

Rosalina1.jpg [In this opinion piece, game researcher and designer Douglas Wilson looks at why "the most surprising gaming moment of 2007" didn't involve game mechanics, plot twists, or sales figures, but rather a Mario Galaxy storybook tale told by a princess.]

EDITOR'S NOTE: Story spoilers contained for those who have not yet completed Super Mario Galaxy.

For me, the most surprising gaming moment of 2007 did not involve a new game mechanic, unexpected sales figures, a major plot twist, or even a maniacal talkative artificial intelligence.

The biggest shocker was a simple storybook tale told by a princess named Rosalina.

See, Super Mario Galaxy deceptively begins like most other Mario games. The hopelessly helpless Princess Peach is once again kidnapped by Bowser, and it is up to Mario (of course) to save her and restore peace and order to the Mushroom Kingdom.

For us serious Mario devotees, this hackneyed opening presents little problem. After all, Mario games aren’t about the “story.” Indeed, an elaborate back story might even detract from the more open-ended 3D platformer experience, right?

At least, that’s what I used to think.

Mario Tackles Tragedy

In Super Mario Galaxy, Mario ends up adrift in space, only to be rescued by the enigmatic Princess Rosalina and her comet spaceship. Joining forces with Rosalina in the fight against Bowser, we are tasked with collecting enough Power Stars to restore full power to her spaceship.

Early on in this quest, we unlock the Library, inside which we can join a gaggle of Lumas to hear Rosalina read a chapter from her colorfully illustrated storybook (presented in the same style as the game intro). Throughout the game, we gradually unlock additional chapters, one by one

In grand fairytale tradition, Rosalina’s story begins “a very, very long time ago with a young girl.” The tale, which starts unassumingly enough, slowly reveals itself as an autobiographical account of Rosalina and the construction of her spaceship.

Our heroine, who voyages into space in search of her mother, befriends a little Luma, builds a home on a turquoise blue comet, and eventually assumes a mothering role herself for a whole family of Lumas.

Then, in Chapter 7, Rosalina’s tale takes an unexpected turn for the tragic. Overcome by nostalgia for her home planet, our heroine finally faces up to the harsh reality that her search has been futile. Her mother, as she reveals in a poignant euphemism for death, is “sleeping under the tree on the hill.”

The story ultimately rebounds, as our heroine accepts this truth and embraces her new family. But this ending is, of course, bittersweet.

It is worth pausing here to reemphasize that Super Mario Galaxy – a Mario game, for chrissake! – tackles the drama of human tragedy.

In other news, Hell is now a chilly 0° C.

Super Mario Galaxy is a brilliant game, for reasons already covered in various reviews. Yet despite the largely positive coverage, I was disappointed that the gaming press so overwhelmingly ignored (or in one case, dismissed) Rosalina’s storybook.

To fill that void, I’d like to make a case that Super Mario Galaxy stands as striking proof that “traditional” stories can not only be successfully integrated into video game worlds, but can also enrich the broader gameplay experience.

All About Rosalina

Rosalina2.jpg Plumber be damned, I would go as far as to argue that Super Mario Galaxy is, at its core, a game about Rosalina – or at least her worldview. One only needs look at the secret ending – debatably the “true” ending – obtained by collecting all 120 stars.

This ending focuses not on Mario, but on Rosalina, as she wistfully departs for the starry beyond. Albeit a far cry from the artfulness and restraint of the storybook, the ending hints at where the developers’ true allegiances lie.

Part Little Prince and part My Neighbor Totoro, Rosalina’s tale uses the guise of a child’s perspective to explore issues of family, childhood, life, and death.

The hand-drawn aesthetic of the illustrations provides a fitting visual expression of the frolicsome gameplay and childlike exuberance of the game world. Indeed, the familiar storybook form, which plays on our own associations and nostalgia, is inseparable from the content.

As such, Super Mario Galaxy challenges conventional “ludological” wisdom that calls for video game stories to be procedurally generated, or somehow woven into gameplay.

Rosalina’s storybook may not formally alter the game system, but it certainly affects our perception of the game world, imbuing it with an additional aura of motivation and meaning. Much more than mere “bonus content,” Rosalina’s storybook anchors an emotional heart of the game world.

Of course, some players won’t care about or connect with Rosalina’s tale. Super Mario Galaxy supports these alternative play expectations by making a clean separation (at least formally) between gameplay and story. Moreover, this separation allows the storybook to maintain some subtlety.

Rather than spoonfeed the tale to us, the game requires us to take an active role in uncovering the trauma that lies within. The storybook avoids intruding, and feels all the more precious for it.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of game mechanics. On the contrary, Rosalina’s storybook works so well precisely because it stands in juxtaposition with the otherwise unadulterated childlike “fun” of the gameplay. Taken by itself, the storybook tale would be far less poignant.

"L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux"

In making these arguments, my intention has not been to stir up old ludology versus narratology debates. Besides, that was always a false dichotomy. My goal has simply been to push back against sweeping claims about how games should or should not tell stories, and also to draw attention to a game that has spurred my own narrative imagination.

Though I’m certainly excited to see how advances in user interface and artificial intelligence technologies open up new design possibilities, I wonder whether we game researchers tend to undervalue the fundamentals.

Super Mario Galaxy serves as a reminder that – with little more than proper timing, placement, and aesthetic synergy – gameplay and story can be used to amplify each another, thereby transcending the sum of their parts.

Phrased differently, I can't help but feel like gameplay purists are much like the "grown-ups" that so bemused Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little prince. So concerned with formal definitions and “unique” qualities of the medium, these purists overlook the more invisible links that bind story, world, and mechanics together, and ultimately make each element richer for one another.

No worries. Those of us who still have a little childhood left in them already know that we only need pick up the controller again to hear our little laughing stars. Well, if not five hundred million of them, at least 120 (and one).

[Further discussion of Rosalina's storybook is available on Wired's consumer weblog Game|Life, in an interview with Galaxy director Yoshiaki Koizumi.]

Column: Why We Play - 'All The World's A Sandbox'

how-to-make-toys-10.jpg [“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer 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 he finds peace in the sandbox.]

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s we must obey the rules of the game. We can pick the game, Niko Bellic, but we cannot change the rules.
-Dimitri Rascalov, GTA IV

With college out of the way and my job search begun, I’ve had a fair amount of time to play GTA IV, and, strangely, return to Crackdown. The more time I spend in Liberty City, the more I miss the opportunity to scale buildings in a single bound. It’s not that I don’t love GTA IV’s narrative, or even that I feel it would be bettered by Crackdown’s superhero’s agilities, rather they are like beer to chips, wine to cheese, or coffee to bagels—they perfectly complement one another.

What I enjoy about these particular games, especially Crackdown, is their willingness to give the player complete freedom to the open world. But what, if anything, does this freedom cost the game’s narrative? And why do I find this freedom, unique to the sandbox genre, so damn appealing?

Applying My Diploma

To dig in, let’s take a brief pit stop in narrative theory. From Aristotle to Arthur Miller, a well-structured narrative should always progress by continually re-applying what the audience learns from previous scenes. Like in a detective story, each scene must act as a clue, a small semblance to a cohesive whole.

At the narrative’s climax, the audience should be able to step-away and feel they have all the pieces before them, but that they alone can’t perfectly put them together; yet, when the pieces congeal, when the climax occurs, the story must also feel inevitable, that these pieces were carefully crafted to fall into their particular places. As Hedda must shoot herself, as Major Kong must ride the bomb, as Brody must give the stink palm—the narrative (or fate) has led them to these decisions.

Generally, games obey this cause-effect method tooth-and-nail. Your completion of each level rewards you the next level, the next puzzle piece, more difficult than the last. On a micro-level, the game gradually increases its difficulty by adding and layering mechanics. The designers carefully pace your introduction to skill-sets, weapons, or abilities to complete the game.

While I won’t explore this concept in non-narrative games, they obey similar rules. Tetris increases speed and pieces. Guitar Hero adds another fret.

Selling Freedom

Yet, sandbox games' recent expansion across the video game landscape has made this cause-effect method difficult to maintain. Since the designer must make the world the player inhabits believable to the player, they usually hand over a few game mechanics typically divvied out over levels in more linear games.

Suddenly, players have a sense of choice never before given. How can designers plan a cause-effect narrative, when the player has unlimited choices—what if he abandons the studio created narrative for his own?

In a traditional linear game, you may learn to use an Uzi in level 1, drive a car in level 2, and lead a drive-by in level 3, but a sandbox game must make all three possibilities available immediately.

While the sandbox games often make an effort to teach these skills in a linear fashion and might make it difficult to accumulate the Uzi or the car, it also cannot prevent you from performing these action prior their instructions without contradicting the game’s open-ended structure. After all, a game that promotes free will should not say, ”No driving until we teach you to pull the right trigger, and no killing until we teach you to switch weapons with the D-Pad.”

Obviously, this isn’t entirely beneficial to the game, and may be the sandbox game’s biggest hurdle. Many casual gamers are quickly intimidated by the plethora of options a expansive environment offers, and though Sam Houser boldly says “F*ck them!” I’m sure he, along with other sandbox developers prefer all gamers (of any gamer creed) buy their studio’s product, especially when it cost $50 million dollars to produce.

So how do sandbox games overcome their own open-endedness? Or, better, how do you provide instructions to players that skip a tutorial? Or should the studios even bother?

With GTA IV and Crackdown’s recent successes, they’re two valuable though different examples. GTA IV has gotten a lot of press, and I’ll get to its particularly special feature in a moment, but first, Crackdown.

Crackdown for Dummies

Of the two, Crackdown has the most open-ended narrative. When you begin the game, you are assigned a handful of dangerous gang leaders to assassinate. These bosses have varying strengths, but while it’s difficult to kill the strongest without boosting your own attributes, the game requires no particular order to your killing spree. If you have the guts, the skills, and somehow stumble upon powerful weapons, you’re welcome to kill the final boss from the get-go. Good luck.

Its simplicity makes the narrative feel so open-ended. Or, in cruder terms, the narrative’s quite empty. Beyond a brief intro, gang leader descriptions, and a bizarre final twist, the game exists as a futuristic dystopian playground. You aren’t expected to obey side-missions or live a normal life while you’re not busy cleaning the mean streets, Just run, gun, and jump like you’ve never done it before.

And while the game does offer basic control instructions, it borrows so heavily from classic games that anyone who’s played Mega Man or Mario 64 should have the necessary entrance skills. While this may not make the game playable by casual players, the protagonist’s super-strength and weak early enemies offer an introductory learning phase.

While rich narrative games like GTA IV pile on narrative and gameplay branches (Taxi for Roman, date Michelle, kill for Vlad, party with Little Jacob) that require the player to quickly understand the controls and also create a sense of guilt when you skips these missions to screw-around, Crackdown tells you to kill this dirty dozen or so bosses. Whenever you want. Just kill them.

What Crackdown lacks in narrative cause-effect, it makes up for in cause-effect exploration. To accomplish this, it uses gility orbs. The agility orbs, like PF Flyers, make you run faster and jump higher. The more you collect the more you want. They build off one another much like linear games’ scenes and acquired skills, but rather than linear, you can collect agility orbs however you prefer, and yet each one seamlessly adds and builds upon the previous orbs you collected.

Cheat Sheet

In my opinion, Crackdown encourages exploration and creating your own narrative unlike any game before it. And if you’re willing to cheat, it takes this a final step further. Shortly after its launch, Crackdown’s developer released downloadable content that employed an in-game debug. By hitting ‘select’ you’re given a small menu that allows you to spawn weapons and vehicles, upgrade your agility, alter your wanted level and the time of the day, and even become invisible. They aptly titled it “the keys to the city.”

I despise the term cheat. I believe, specifically in single player games, when a user buys a videogame they have paid for the full product, including any glitches, cheats, or debugs. If the user paid for the city, why should they not get the keys?

Yet, there’s a stipulation. In both GTA IV and Crackdown, handing complete control to the player requires them to concede they are not honestly pursuing the narrative via their own acquired skills. In Crackdown, you cannot save with this mode selected, and GTA IV penalizes the player by not rewarding the user with achievements while “cheats” are selected. But this benefits the player. It encourages, almost requires him to step away from the game’s narrative, and create their own.

But GTA IV already offers an extensive narrative that branches into many different areas for different types of players. Why encourage players to develop their own unique stories?

On Brucie Kibbutz

Earlier this week I wrote an article on my personal site Hardcasual.net that dissected the role Brucie Kibbutz plays in GTA IV’s universe. Here’s the condensed version to catch you up:

"Brucie Kibbutz is both a breath of fresh air, and, for me, the cherry-on-top of a carefully crafted narrative sundae. Brucie’s a steroid-popping, car-thieving maniac. As a cliché, a stock version of the same character would play a lot like Biff. Instead, he’s highly likable and surprisingly wise, all because of one well-chosen character trait: Brucie’s impenetrable confidence both in his existence and his role in Liberty City. He’s a dude. He’s a ‘roider. He’s a racer. And he’s definitely 'alpha.'

Brucie’s always the first to identify Brucie…He’s aware of his success, and surrounds himself with other successful people like Niko.

But while Niko only sees the first-level of his reality, Brucie pulls back the curtain and reveals the truth not only of his digital scenes, but the truth of the entire game. Niko, the protagonist, is the hero of a videogame, and he will always win (just as heroes do in films, and just as, some of us may hope, heroes do in real life.)

Brucie, too, is a natural winner, but what makes Brucie unique, truly special, is his ability to see the world’s mechanism. He sees how the clock works, and it’s so evident, so clear to him, that everyone can’t comprehend his actions. He’s a moron. A fool.

In this video, Niko completes a death-defying high-speed race and Brucie hollers with excitement. For Brucie, he saw the finish ling coming all along. While Niko, the player, will complete this race–you have to if you want to progress—both he and the player are under the illusion that success may never come.

The game pressures you to succeed in this narrative, but the truth is there’s no real failure in GTA IV. Even if you never complete the narrative, you can always get the codes. You can spawn all the helicopters, weapons, and health you want, and enjoy the city. Yet, when you play this race, you’ve chosen to become the bigger character, the victor rewarded by the game’s built-in praise. It’s the path of Niko.

The path of player receives praise only from herself or those who view her unique twist on the virtual world.

And yet, the curtain’s pulled back. Success can be had at any time. And when I met Brucie, it was suddenly evident: the city’s already mine."

They’ll Find These in Museums

After World War I, Dada was created as a form of anti-war politics, a form that rejected traditional art techniques via anti-art methods. While I do not have the time or resources to fully examine how the recent en flux of sandbox games, games that break away from the traditional videogames’ narratives and structures, may be a response to the United States and the world’s current political and economical dilemma as Dada was a response to its own time of civil unrest, I think the issues worth considering.

These particular games, especially GTA IV, give the player complete control of a world identical to their own. Sandbox games afford them the opportunity to be a hero, a God; they allow the user to create chaos, maintain peace, or just be another passerby—a participant as popularized in GTA machinima where the protagonist plays a Vice or Liberty City tourist.

For me, a young man just out of college, struggling with an enormous debt, seeing a decreasing amount of potential job openings, and living in a possible recession my world doesn’t feel like a linear narrative. I can’t see the finish line. It feels like chaos. Sandbox games let me take control, find sense, or, if I must, create madness. These games offer choice; they offer a chance to create my own life story during a time it feels like circumstance and fate have me by the throat.

Sometimes I wish I saw the world more like Brucie.

[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.]

GameSetLinks: Endless Forests Of Procedural Generation

- Back with a few mote GameSetLinks - starting out with the fact that The Endless Forest community site is now up - neat for fans of wandering around wordless idyllic pastures gesturing at each other and explaining how your stag is "...much too shy to introduce himself to large groups." Inexplicably cool microniche stuff.

Also in this set of links - the new TIGSource procedural generation indie competition, plus RPS at GameCamp and Noitu Love 2 reviewed at The Onion AV Club by GSW's Chris Dahlen, yay.

Onward to insanity:

Tale of Tales - Press Release: Tale of Tales open The Endless Forest Community Website - GamersHell.com
More neat stuff from those Low Countries-bound art-game crazies.

Gleemax Games (Alpha)
The IGF Platinum sponsors this year launching their game portal, with online versions of some fun board games (RoboRally!)

The Independent Gaming Source: Procedural Generation indie game competition
Awesome idea, algorithmically generated indie games FTW!

Curmudgeon Gamer: Giving It Away (or: Why the State of North Carolina now owns a lot more videogames)
Matt Matthews: 'My alma mater, NCSU, has a videogame collection. What they have covers newer systems and mostly popular games. So when they sent out requests for more games recently, I responded.'

Dobbs Code Talk - Hackerteen: Internet Blackout, Volume 1 Review
I see some mentions of this O'Reilly young teen comic (!) demonizing video games a bit, presumably in favor of... hacking? Wacky, has anyone read?

Digital Eel: 'Goblin Slayer'
A freely downloadable digital board game from the Strange Adventures in Infinite Space folks.

Rifftrac: 'I, Tube: PORTAL Edition.'
Mystery Science Theater's Brain Guy links GameSetWatch. My day is made!

The Guardian GameCamp | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
This sounds like it went really well - more unconferences for games, plz.

More Indie AV Club: Noitu Love 2 « Save the Robot - Chris Dahlen
GSW columnist and Onion AV Club reviewer Dahlen has been waving the indie game flag over there, yay.

GamesOnDeck.com - Nom 3 : An Advanced Mobile Game Created with LOVE
Ah, update to the previous Bong Koo Shin interview we ran last year - I forgot we have the Nom 3 postmortem on Games On Deck!

May 7, 2008

Opinion: PlayStation Network & Downloadable Games - The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

- [In this in-depth opinion piece we printed on Gamasutra yesterday, I take a look at Sony's PlayStation Network for the PS3 - and the surprising positive and negatives of how it works for independent and third-party downloadable games.]

Digital game downloads for consoles are in a fascinating position right now. We've previously discussed the state of console downloadable games - as well as a more detailed discussion of royalty rates for Xbox Live Arcade. But the state of PlayStation Network for indie games is significantly less-discussed - actually, for some potentially interesting reasons.

A starting point would be this interview with Sony's Scott Steinberg conducted at GDC, discussing Microsoft's announcement of Xbox Live Community Games. Steinberg's response to that:

"I thought it was interesting in the sense that what they were talking about we've sort of been doing for the last couple of years with PSN and giving smaller, start-up, entrepreneurial developers the chance to get in and make their games available on the PSN."

Well, yes and no. The biggest issue here - and what I find somewhat disingenuous of Sony - is that Microsoft is trying hard and genuinely to open up its platform to everyone (though they do have significant XBLA-related royalty issue and game complexity/submission headaches to work through).

And Sony is trashing them on the basis of PSN - which is actually somewhat of a closed platform right now, save some inspired and to-be-lauded cherrypicking.

The First-Party PSN Advantage

Closed platform? What on Earth am I talking about? Of course, there are some amazing 'indie' downloadable games on PSN - particularly awesome titles such as Fl0w and Everyday Shooter, among others.

But these are, to all intents and purposes, first-party titles. Many of these are produced by the team headed by John Hight at Sony Santa Monica, and have the full power of Sony behind them in terms of funding help, worldwide release aid, and so on.

Though these titles are absolutely indie - and some of the best independent games released so far - they have to be hand-picked by SCEA (quite often with Sony acquiring the IP along the way) to make it onto the service.

As Everyday Shooter's Jon Mak recently noted in an interview, the Sony Santa Monica folks are doing an awesome job of A&R:

"The game maker wins because they get to follow their uncompromising vision. This keeps the game maker happy and motivates them to create the best game possible, which is what the publisher wants: a great game to sell... Anyway, I really hope that Sony Santa Monica, and the rest of Sony will continue this artist-centric approach to publishing."

Constriction Of The Pipeline

But there's a caveat. The pipeline for first-party PSN games is not large at all - even with SCEE (Elefunk) and SCEJ (Echochrome) also producing titles as a first-party which are then published via SCEA in North America. Sure, there are some rarities like the PixelJunk series - which are first-party published in the States but not in Japan, and we'll get to that later. But in general, there's not a lot out there.

The net result for indie-developed titles put out first-party in the States? Do we get one game a week? Certainly not. One a month? Probably not either. In other words, the dream of first-party PSN release will only happen to the best of the best indies - several games per year. And where does that leave everyone else?

(One could argue that this is better for the consumer in terms of quality vs. quantity, mind you, but it places constraints on who can reach the service and makes it much less open.)

Third-Party's Role In PSN

Well, the third-party publishing for PlayStation Network - for everyone else who doesn't get picked up by SCEA directly - is run through a different division of Sony, located in Foster City. I've spoken to them briefly with regard to getting PSN games entered in the Independent Games Festival, as I am IGF Chairman, and they seemed perfectly nice. But what's getting released via this method right now?

Overall, a lot of users are mystified by Sony's relatively sparse release list. Some think it's a tactic, I suspect. Here's a NeoGAF messageboard poster who explains things quite neatly from his perspective:

"That's a big problem with the PSN downloadable games right now. Every Thursday morning, I'm thinking, "Wonder what's going up on PSN this week?" but by evening I'm often disappointed. Since the new year began [up to early March], there have only been seven new games (and one of them, Jet Moto 3, has vanished from the store). That's including the PS1 classics and EyeToy games. That's not even one game a week!...

Where are the downloadable games from the big-name third party publishers? Apart from Sony, the only major third party publishers that have any representation are Capcom, Namco, and...uh...er...well, I suppose Konami might count for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1 classic), although as I understand it Sony "published" the PSN release of that. Oh, and Midway licensed a few classic games to Sony Online Entertainment last year. And that about wraps it up."

He's right - if you go look at a master list of PSN titles, then you'll see (though some indie-style games that aren't out yet are mislabeled as being 'published' by SCE) that really, only Capcom and Namco are getting significant amounts of releases out via the third-party method right now.

Capcom's Battle To Conquer PSN

In particular, it's interesting to track what Capcom has been saying and/or intimating about the process, even as the leaders in cross-platform releasing right now. Commenting on no Beta on PS3 for Street Fighter II HD Remix, the company's Christian Svensson notes:

"We wanted to do a beta to test the new network features but even if it were possible for Sony to do, it would require 3 submissions (US, Europe, Asia/Japan) to reach the same global audience we can with MS in a single test and global submission...

To date, we are still the only third party publisher doing cross platform, simultaneous digital releases (still working on the global simultaneous, but see the issues above on multiple submissions per territory as an issue). Believe it or not, this is not easy and to suggest we aren’t treating the PS3 as important would be ignorant of what we’re doing for it."

I think this hints at some of the issues that are buried regarding PSN. It appears - from both Capcom's evidence and speaking to developers off the record - that there are significant process issues to getting games released worldwide, or even getting games released in the U.S., with slow response times and confused procedure at times.

Apart from territory-specific slowness, having to submit games separately for each territory is potentially a major issue for smaller developers and publishers who don't have, say, an office in each territory.

While you could make a game just to release in one territory, it presumably limits your sales significantly - and there may be different standards in each territory (such as Japan using different 'Accept/Back' buttons) which might mean complex variant submissions. Microsoft has, at least, managed a single worldwide submission process for XBLA titles.

Furthermore, some of the digital download milestones Svensson listed recently for Capcom are borderline mindboggling in their 'should be simple' nature - though congratulations that he and his staff managed them:

"–First Cross-platform Simultaneous Digital Launch from Any Publisher (PSN/XBLA) - Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix

–First Third Party Published Content on the European PSN Store – SCEE tells us it will be Rocketmen

–First PS3 Title to Handle In-game Purchase/Conversion From Within a Demo - Rocketmen

–First Cross-platform Global Simultaneous Launch Maybe* (PSN/XBLA – Europe/NA/Asia) – Rocketmen."

Let's face it, if these are things that a major publisher like Capcom has to struggle at, how is it going to be possible for the average independent developer to do them?

This is one of the reasons why PixelJunk Racers/Monsters are, slightly oddly, submitted and published by the developer itself in Japan (where the Q Games folks even took out a print ad in Famitsu!) But they are published by SCEA in North America - a slightly territory-mangling state of affairs which is only so because of Sony's territory-split structure.

Progress To Open Up PSN?

Obviously, it's not possible to wholly condemn or praise Sony on the basis of some of this anecdotal information. And having said all of this, Sony's GDC 2008 lecture on PlayStation Network seems to present a much rosier possibility for Sony and third-parties. It references the free PhyreEngine and comments of third-party possibilities - again, with a little anti-XBLA rhetoric here:

"[Chris] Eden added that what differentiates PSN from the competition was pricing, as well. "We don't set or recommend prices, or have price slots," he said. "Sony just acts as a digital reseller, you're free to set your own prices."

Unlike competing services, he continued, Sony doesn't slot releases into a schedule. Once a game has passed its final QA check, the content is uploaded to the network the following Thursday."

These and a lot of other promises in the GDC lecture made me hope for the future of the PlayStation Network for indies - and not just via the higher-end, privileged first-party releases. And it's quite possible that some of the fixes are in process.

Conclusion

So overall, I do think Scott Steinberg and the other Sony execs do have a right to say that PSN is doing a good job for independents - especially given the great work done by first-party to pick up indie games and give them the respect they deserve.

But a regular third-party worldwide PSN release schedule - and not just from major publishers who have to strain to accomplish it - would really give "entrepreneurial developers the chance to get in and make their games available on the PSN." So look at your infrastructure, and make it happen, Sony.

COLUMN: 'Save the Robot': Spinning the Radio Dial

nl2_splash.png [Save the Robot is a biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media. This time, he examines the 'everything but the kitchen sink' attitude to visual/conceptual design in games and other media.]

Just a few minutes into PC indie title Noitu Love 2: Devolution, I knew what it was. I knew by the way I'd travelled from high-tech alien shoot-downs to a 19th century music hall and gothic clock towers, and the next minute, to a Japanese mish-mash of blossoming trees and samurai bots. Later settings - a western train chase, a deadly TV set - confirmed what I'd already deduced: Noitu Love 2 was a stylistic pastiche, a conceptual collage, and in other words, a mess. And I knew I was in love.

I’ve been calling Noitu Love 2 my Jets 'N' Guns GOLD of 2008 - referring to another PC indie game with a dysfunctional attention span, another kettle into which some hackers had thrown everything they could on the basis of one principle: "It would be so awesome if ... ."

Zombies, metalheads, mice, pirates, cows, and homicidal beer: it all had a place in Jets 'N' Guns GOLD, making it not just a shoot-em-up action game but - speaking purely of style - the kind of thing you'd otherwise get if you threw your ten pulpiest comics in a shredder and, following your best instincts, taped the strips together. It's not random, but it has a fantastically random energy.

This approach to gamemaking - to throw everything plus the kitchen sink into the visual design - is not new.

Since the '80s and titles like Super Mario Bros., we've understood that you've got the desert level and the underwater level, the sky dungeon and the fire dungeon, and so on. Sometimes there's a rubric behind it – say, the four elements, or a time travel conceit - and sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason at all.

The variety complements the consistent gameplay elements, while making room for new surprises. This is such a common tactic that by now, games that look too samey - for example, first-person shooters that run you through one dark, metallic, enemy-filled corridor after another - bore us pantsless.

But there's more to this than "variety." In other forms of entertainment, chucking so many different environments at the audience would be cause for alarm. A James Bond movie has to set up some excuse for taking its hero from Africa to Latin America to the moon. In music, artists hop genres - but we're still getting used to it.

It still strikes us as odd when rockers try to rap, or rappers use acoustic guitars, or a jazz guitarist sits in with a bluegrass band, or Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood composes for orchestra. And the artists often expect the styles to collide and to surprise the audience. That's part of why they do it.

And of course, in a game like Noitu Love 2, styles don't just collide: they rush into each other at deadly speed, never staying on the same idea for more than a couple of beats, always striving to leave the player breathless. Same for Jets 'N' Guns GOLD: the designers weren't trying to find a fusion and a harmony between the disparate elements, so much as knock your head back again and again.

john_zorn.jpg I first discovered pastiche through the works of composer and improviser John Zorn. (Though I’m not sure he likes the term.) Zorn came up in the late-'70s/early-'80s downtown New York City scene, improvising on saxophone and writing and directing music that could change from country to funk to death metal skronk in the span of a few measures. To take the most common analogy, it sounds like spinning the dial on a radio back and forth, back and forth. (For example, dig this performance of Naked City’s “Speed Freaks”.)

There are plenty of high-brow reasons to make pastiche. In music, it’s a reaction to an era when the average teenager has thousands of mp3's on his or her hard drive, when early Brazilian music and pre-war gospel 78s can reach you as easily as the new American Idol star. History and context don't seem to matter much in our daily listening lives. In games, you could read it the same way – what does the context matter so long as the beat’s good?

Yet that also makes it a condemnation. Mashing so many styles together with so little rhyme or reason is one way to argue that the content of almost any game is just a pretty wrapper around the action – that it doesn’t matter if Mario’s swimming underwater or drifting through a haunted house, because the kids are just here to jump. So you might as well take your content and put it in hyperdrive, like a three-year-old getting sick of a book he can't read and abruptly tearing the pages out of it.

But that three-year-old is still having a blast, which I think is the real reason so many designers take this approach. When Noitu Love 2 sticks a giant eel, a blue-skinned cyborg and a runaway homicidal steam engine in the same hour-long game, it evokes the restless, immature joy of taking everything that gives us pleasure and chewing through it as quickly as possible.

Zorn had his own artistic agendas, but he's also a guy who owns a gigantor record collection. I suspect the same is true of Noitu Love 2's Joakim Sandberg, or any number of other designers, musicians, writers and filmmakers who at one time or another have had to sit on their hands to keep still. And whether their impulsiveness produces a wry satire or a critical statement or it's just hella fun, I can't get enough of it.

[Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for Pitchforkmedia.com, and blogs at savetherobot.wordpress.com. Contact him at chris at savetherobot dot com.]

GameSetLinks: Conan's Horse Is A Bit Dotty

- Great Gatsby, it's the return of the GameSetLinks - headed this time by the latest GameTunnel indie games countdown (it's April's, but we're linking it a tad tardily) - complete with really silly and not necessarily good presidentially-themed fighting game.

But also in this cacophany of HTTP, there's pictures of the mocap session for the Conan MMO's horse riders, frequently asked questions about Japanese developers, and 1UP on 'when games get personal'.

Have at ye:

What's New in Indie [April Edition] by Game Tunnel
Including the presidential-themed 'Full Contact Debate', heh.

MTV Multiplayer » A Horse Covered in Ping Pong Balls — The ‘Age of Conan’ Mo-Cap Shoot
Uh, is that really cost-effective?

Japanmanship: Frequently Asked Questions
'I often get emails from hopefuls with an eye cocked at the Japanese game industry.' Some answers, then!

Tales of the Rampant Coyote: Frayed Knights Now Available!
'The pilot episode of the indie RPG Frayed Knights is now available for download.'

Siliconera » Shining Dragon brings “battle damage” brawling to the US?
More and more weeeird low-profile PS2 imports arriving - microniche stuff.

The Escapist : Inside Job: It Takes a Method
EA Spouse, on quality of life, sorta: ' Yes, there's progress, and much of it should be celebrated; there's still a long way to go.'

Microsoft’s PopFly makes it easy to create your own arcade games » VentureBeat
Good explanation with screenshots from Dean-o.

Multiple:Option: Game Melody Oratorio Volume Two
Completely awesome DS homebrew game soundtrack music game, pt.2.

Lithium Leaf: 'Freeware Game: Tile Tetri'
Download link broken - it's here - but Lithium Leaf is doing a good job of digging out doujin neatness.

Are We What We Play? Four Essays About What Happens When Games Get Personal from 1UP.com
I feel like 1UP is getting it, featurewise, recently.

May 6, 2008

Column: Welcome to the GameSetWatch Comic - 'Welcome to the Shinra Board Meeting'

['Welcome to the GameSetWatch Comic' is, once again, a weekly comic by Jonathan "Persona" Kim about the continuing adventures of our society, cultural postdialectic theory, and video games. He's back!]

The last of the previous run of Persona's GameSetWatch comics ran in October 2006, before it lapsed into extended and much-missed hiatus.

For those who didn't spot it - or were too miseducated to be reading GSW at that time - you neglected such delicacies as bizarre Pokemon pastiches, the misadventures of Shen Mue's Ryo Hazuki, and, of course, the totally disturbing Mario cartoon that should not be named.

In any case, we're delighted to welcome his return with a weekly comic that promises to dwell on the 'Welcome To The...' theme, with this first one taking aim at the... new world of Final Fantasy's evolving business practices in these Wii-tastic times? Bravo, Sir:

Cherry Bahamut might taste good

[Jonathan "Persona" Kim is a 3rd year character animation student at the California Institute of the Arts. When not working on cute low poly models, he posts stuff on the Mecha Fetus Visublog.]

Design Lesson 101 - Crysis

crysis1.jpg['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 we take a look at Crysis, the most recent PC first-person shooter from German developer Crytek.]

I've always been an advocate of choice in games. Performing the same action over and over in a game can be monotonous and boring. This is probably why I enjoy RPG games so much; by their very nature they often offer the player a multitude of different things to choose from.

Shooters, unlike RPGs, usually offer only one thing to do during the entire game: shoot. Yet, even in this genre there is a growing amount in variety of actions that the player can perform. Halo showed how integrating vehicles into portions of the game could make for even more frantic feeling to the game. Duke Nukem 3D showed how various different, unconventional weapons in a game could radically change the feeling of combat during the game.

Whether choosing what weapons you are using or what strategies you will use to fight the enemies, shooters do offer small amounts of choice. As technology advances, we are seeing more and more meaningful choices being offered in games. It's not enough to just give the player a choice, however.

Design Lesson: Once you give the player the power to choose, you must not take that ability away from the player.

Crysis is the spiritual successor to Far Cry, a game that was heralded for its wide open nature. Crysis continues that tradition, putting the player on an island in the Philippines and allowing him to go almost anywhere.

This is what sets the game apart from other shooters. Players are truly free to approach each combat situation from their own perspective. You can charge into the base from the well-guarded front. You can swim down the river and enter the base from the exposed rear. You can even jump over the high wall that surrounds the base and drop in the middle. The choice is yours.

The choices are vast and this is a large part of why Crysis is so successful as a shooter. It gives options that most shooters are unable to offer. As a result, the game plays out in a very unique fashion.

The game starts out with you fighting against a group of Korean soldiers that have taken a group of archaeologists hostage. As the game progresses, you learn that the Koreans are not the real threat, but rather something more sinister (It shouldn't be hard to figure out what that is if you have watched any of the trailers for the game).

When you start meeting the other enemies in the game, a little after the halfway point of the game, the style of the game shifts. It becomes much more linear and constrained, like a traditional shooter.

There are a couple of levels, including the final level, that are pure linear corridor levels. One would expect levels such as these out of a game such as Quake, but not this game. These become the weakest parts of the game, by far, because they go against all the strengths of Crysis.

The strength of Crysis lies in choice. The choice to enter the situation on your own terms and from your own perspective. The game gives you powers, such as cloaking, speed, and strength, that can be used to turn the tide of battle. This adds more choice to how you handle a given combat situation.

The linear, corridor levels go against that sense of choice that the rest of the game has set up. The problem is that this other style of level does not compliment the more open style the rest of the game has set up. It feels far more restricting, in fact. You have less places to move around, less ways to approach a situation, and less opportunities to use your nanosuit powers.

crysis1.jpg Another thing that changes towards the latter part of the game is the enemy types. You stop fighting humans and start fighting mysterious creatures. This, in an of itself, is actually a good thing.

To me, this is a great way to add variety to a game, especially a shooter where your options are limited. Give the player new enemies to fight that are radically different from all of the other enemies that have been fought against the rest of the game.

Where Crysis fails with respect to the new enemies, however, is the fact that powers the player has becomes nearly useless. I spent the first half of the game using my cloaking capabilities a lot.

It would get me out of dangerous combat situations, let me get the jump on the AI, and allow me to change my style of play from run-and-gun to stealthy, depending on what situation I was in.

This choice virtually went away with the new enemies. They could often see through my cloaking and it became almost useless. I played the rest of the game barely using my special abilities, which changed the way the game felt and played. Couple that in with the more linear levels, and it becomes evident that the end of the game offers far less choice than the beginning.

CryTek would have been better off making the last third of the game more like the first two-thirds, in my opinion. They proved they can do the wide open combat game well, and they had enough variety in enemies and weapons to keep the game interesting.

By removing a lot of the choice towards the end of the game, Crysis loses part of its uniqueness that sets it apart from other shooters. The linear levels minimize the elements of strategic choice available to the player, which is the major strength of the game. The new enemies make the cloaking ability almost useless, which is another choice that then goes away.

Changing the style of the game part-way through isn't inherently a bad idea. I think it's important to understand why changing that style is detrimental to this game, however. By removing the choice that the player is given the rest of the game, the player feels less empowered. Had the game never introduced these choices, it wouldn't be a problem.

It did, however, so it should have allowed the player to continue to make those choices until the credits. If you are going to remove a choice from the game, at least offer the player a different, equally valuable choice to make in its place.

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

GameSetLinks: Visualizing Atari 2600 Games, Helix-Style

- Aha, some more neat trinkets make their way to the surface in this latest GameSetLinks - headed by the (pictured) visualizations of Atari 2600 game code and data structures. Not sure how useful they are, but they sure are pretty!

Also in this set - game makers on death, Street Fighter references in Pulitzer Prize novels, and some really stupidly rare Nintendo cartridges, with prices only in the low five figures. Is the game cart market ever gonna reach the dizzy heights of the modern art market, I wonder?

Large sea creatures in formaldehyde:

Some Thoughts on Meaning and Games at Game Design Advance
'Games, then, are not like war. War is a bad game.'

Holy Grails Today | Proto-dev-grail-interesting auctions | gameSniped.com
Wow, some TOTALLY rare NES/SNES competition carts here - one for $12,000, ouch.

San Diego Republican Party Chairman's "Warez Dood" Past Surfaces | GameCulture
Wow, Strider/Fairlight is very... Conservative!

Phantasy Star Universe: The MAXIMUM ATTACK G Special site
This is cute, group goals of killed monsters unlock rewards for all - and it's up to 62 million in the challenge so far!

Play This Thing!: 'We're All Gamers Now'
A little Costikyan rah-rah: 'Let us break down the artificial barriers that separate us.' Most agreeable.

Orbus Gameworks: 'Great Book On Information Visualization'
Oo, hadn't seen the linked code/asset visualizations of Atari 2600 games before, v.cool.

Game Over: How Different Gamemakers Cope With Death from 1UP.com
'In videogames, there are but two certainties: death and boxes.' Cute.

The Ludologist » Blog Archive » The use of video game metaphors in contemporary fiction
A Pulitzer Prize-winning book using Street Fighter references? Thumbs up.

GameSpot News: 'PressSpotting: Grand Theft Coverage'
'As much as Grand Theft Auto IV is being hailed as a revolution in gaming, its release also seems to herald a revolution in mainstream coverage of gaming itself.'

Todd Alcott - Story structure: it's not just for movies anymore
A screenwriter on FPS story: 'The difference between Doom and Half-Life is that... Doom is a great game, but Half-Life is a great narrative.' Via GameShelf.

May 5, 2008

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 5/4/08

A busy past couple weeks in game mags! Not only is the biggest game of the year out in stores, but in a rather magnanimous gesture on Rockstar's part, nearly all the print mags had enough access to GTA4 to get timely reviews into the issues in readers' hands right now. Of course, seeing this $100 million game project that's been all over the mainstream media for weeks get covered by these dinky little 100-page mags is... well, quite a juxtaposition, but...

Anyway, read on to discover how all the top mags handled their GTA4 coverage this month, and how all the non-Xbox/PS3-related mags prepared their counterprogramming. Ciao for now!

oxmus-0806.jpg   ptom-0806.jpg

PlayStation: The Official Magazine and Official Xbox Magazine have almost the same cover style, PTOM featuring Niko Bellic circa dawn in Liberty City and OXM depicting him in the Matrix behind a big GTA4 logo.

OXM has 13 pages of coverage (which includes everything but the kitchen sink and even has a few pages of strategy added to the end) and the blasphemous score of 9.5 out of 10, while PTOM's "exclusive review" (maybe they were the first ones with access to the PS3 version, I dunno) runs seven and plays it a bit more straight, concentrating on the full experience instead of all the little details. (PS3 owners might be disappointed by its lack of discussion about topics particular to the system, but those sort of hardcore folks are probably reading online reviews anyway.)

Both OXM and PTOM have hot exclusive stories on Shaun White Snowboarding, and both even pitch the pieces on their respective covers. Otherwise, highlights include OXM's "Franchise Re-Animator" (a look at old games that could use a revival), PTOM's exquisitely titled "6 Racing Games That Aren't Gran Turismo 5," and their back page written by John Davison, who discusses the obsession of developers to go "mainstram" with their titles.

egm-0806.jpg   gp-0806.jpg

Electronic Gaming Monthly's GTA4 review runs six pages, with Andrew Pfister's blasphemous "A" score keeping the game from achieving straight A+ perfection. More importantly, though, this is the first EGM "theme" issue in a while -- in addition to a massive preview feature of retro remakes (one that makes Splatterhouse look like a Western horror answer to Ninja Gaiden), there's a bunch of neat pieces comparing peripherals new and old, an OXM-style "revive these games" bit, and Seanbaby spending two pages talking about Captain N.

GamePro spends only four pages on GTAIV, but screw that stuff -- Lego Batman is here, and the seven-page feature (written by Hugh Sterbakov, a comic-book writer in real life) is remarkably witty, done up to look really exciting and featuring a lot amusing (and well-drawn) "Lego games we'd like to see" sidebars. The Spawn Point front-end section includes a lot of nice short pices this month (I liked the "Most diabolical video-game villains" bit, which includes Mike Tyson), even though some of it is printed poorly in my copy.

play-0805.jpg

Play, despite being the only video-game mag this month to get a two-page spread advertisement of GTA4 (all the others get only one page), doesn't review the game this month. Sonic the Hedgehog Unleashed is the cover story, and even though one's first reaction is undoubtedly going to be "Woo, Sonic is a werewolf now,"

Dave Halverson has the wisdom to let the developers do most of the talking in the massive feature that unfolds inside -- they may get picked on a lot (the developers, not Dave), but you have to appreciate the charisma and inspiration they have going. There's also a nice 4-page piece on Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan, which the game reichly deserves. (Death Jr. Root of Evil gets a 9.0 in this issue, too, which I think I'm reasonably safe in saying will be the highest the game will see anywhere.)

np-0806.jpg

Nintendo Power likes cartoon Aerosmith more than the real guys, and who wouldn't, really? Inside is bits on four music games, starting with the DS Guitar Hero and moving on to much nicer-looking things in short order. For the hardcore folks there's an interview with the Takahashi brothers and a look back at all the manga NP's published over its lifetime.

pcgamer-0806.jpg

PC Gamer, now certifiably the only PC mag in the US, celebrates with tons and tons of Warhammer coverage. Damn, there's a lot of Warhammer to choose from if you're a PC user. A valiant effort is made on the editors' part to keep non-fans interested with a wealth of historical and background on the franchise. I like it.

mgsguide.jpg   wowguide.jpg

Finally, two new specials this time around. Metal Gear Solid: The Complete Guide is in the same flavor as Future's Halo 3 special last fall; if it were a little larger in size and had a fancier binding, you could pass it off as an Edge-produced coffee-table production. Tons of Kojima, tons of retrospective, tons of character info, tons of everything related to the series. Just as much worth the money as the Halo 3 one-off, I'd say.

Beckett Massive Online Gamer Presents Ultimate Guide to World of Warcraft is repacked reprint material from Beckett MOG. At least it's perfect-bound and has decent page quality...

[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.]

Interview: CD Projekt's Ohle On The Witcher, PR's Place In The Blogosphere

- [This Mathew Kumar-conducted interview ran late last week on Gamasutra, and while one might argue we only wanted to crosspost it on GameSetWatch because Tom says nice things _about_ GSW in one of his answers - we actually did it because there's some real insight into the changing state of PR and the game biz in here.]

Despite being based on a series of Polish novels and coming from an unknown and untested Polish developer, CD Projekt's epic PC RPG The Witcher has been a notable and perhaps surprising hit in the worldwide PC market.

Therefore, Gamasutra sat down with CD Projekt's VP of PR & Marketing, Tom Ohle, to talk in-depth about the challenges of publicizing such a theoretically hard sell, and the future of CD Projekt and the PC market.

Also discussed in-depth later in the interview - the place of traditional PR agencies in the current age of instant information dissemination through blogs and news aggregators.

What's your background, and how did you come to work at CD Projekt?

I recently took on the newly created position of Vice President of PR & Marketing, North America & UK for CD Projekt RED. It's a hefty title, I know. Most recently I ran Evolve PR, where I handled community management and PR campaigns for a handful of companies, including Atari, 2K Games and Stardock. Prior to that I was Account Manager at Arbuthnot Entertainment Group, where I did work for NVIDIA and Microsoft Game Studios. I got my start in the industry at BioWare, where I was in charge of PC titles.

Some of the games on my resume include The Witcher (obviously), Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Sins of a Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations II and who knows what else. I'm told that you start forgetting things when you get old. I've also done some work promoting bands and managing their online communities. Music's definitely one of my passions, but gaming is a hard enough industry to break into. I'm comfortable now.

The move to CD Projekt was really the end result of a lot of things happening at the same time. Being in the agency biz is great, and it's nice to be your own boss, but it's not all rosy. Especially as a relatively small agency that generally focused on getting niche titles to a wider audience (and thus didn't charge tens of thousands of dollars a month for work), you have to constantly be hunting for new business.

If you're focused on games, you're limited to a fairly small client base; there are only so many developers and publishers who can afford to bring in external help on a project. After three years of cold calls and trying to sell myself every minute of the day, I got tired of it. In an agency capacity you also never really get close to the projects; the years I spent at BioWare really spoiled me in that regard. It's nice to feel like you're actually part of the team, instead of some dude on the outside who's just waiting for a paycheck.

I'd known the CD Projekt guys for several years, dating back to when they originally licensed the Aurora Engine and we shoved them behind a curtain in the BioWare booth at E3 to show off early builds of the game. I've always gotten along with them and admired their passion.

When I got a chance to work on The Witcher's online PR for Atari last year, I was thrilled; I was excited about the game and its potential to be a really influential RPG. Right around the time I was burning out on the constant business pitches for Evolve, I tossed an email over to Michal Kicinski and Marcin Iwinski (CEOs) and asked if they might want some in-house help. A few months later, here I am.

How was working on The Witcher? It seems like a hard sell, but has been well received. How much of that do you put down to the PR campaign?

I think The Witcher was one of the hardest projects I've ever worked on, but all of the challenges we faced in getting the game in front of fans were challenges that we knew we would have to deal with from the beginning. We had a license that was largely unknown outside of certain parts of Europe, a brand new development studio and a unique aesthetic that was, I think, a bit of a shock to most Western journalists and gamers.

Two or three years ago I think the game may not have actually done as well; gamers' tastes seem to have shifted a bit in the last year or two, and people are a bit more willing to pick up something quirky or different. Hell, two years ago a lot of people were wondering how some strange underwater game called BioShock could possibly be a success. There's just more of an emphasis on originality now.

There was always a decent number of games writers who were optimistic about The Witcher, and it garnered a good amount of buzz at shows like E3. But even so, we came into last year facing an uphill battle. We were going to launch within a day of Hellgate: London, which had a huge following and a much larger marketing and PR budget, and with the team so busy working on the game it was difficult to get much in the way of promotional assets.

In the last three or four months of the PR campaign, though, everything turned around. The team pulled together a ton of amazing artwork, screenshots and videos, and we were able to really flood the market with assets and info. When October finally hit, we were finally getting a lot of really positive buzz and I think it really helped get the game in front of players. In the end, though, the quality of the game was the biggest factor in the game's sales; if we'd been getting crummy reviews I don't think I'd be in the position I'm in right now. RPG fans loved it, they told their friends, they told everyone on their favorite forums and so on. Word of mouth helped us out tremendously.

What is coming in the future for CD Project Red?

First up for the team is The Witcher: Enhanced Edition. For anyone who doesn't know, we're basically going back and improving on every aspect of the game that was criticized at launch: we're reducing load times by about 80%, rewriting some of the English dialogue that didn't quite sound right, re-recording voice-overs where needed, adding lots of new NPC models, putting in new animations to make dialogue look better and a bunch more. We'll be replacing the existing box at retail with the new version and packing it with soundtrack CDs and other goodies, and we'll release it all online as a mega-patch for anyone who already bought the game.

CD Projekt recently announced that it had claimed a majority stake in Metropolis Software. We'll be working closely with the team there to make sure their sci-fi first-person shooter, THEY, is an amazing game when it hits the market next year.

We also announced The Witcher: DuelMail, which is a fun little browser game that's a touch addictive. I suggest people check it out for a fun lunchtime diversion... that ends up making you late for your afternoon meetings.

The Witcher is really our core brand right now, and we want to keep it relevant for a long time. That doesn't mean The Witcher 2009 with new roster updates or a Geralt plush toy (though that would be cool), but inevitably we'll look to continue the series. We have a lot of opportunities -- expansions, sequels, console versions -- and now it's just a matter of deciding what's best for The Witcher and for gamers.

What do you think the future for the PC market is?

I just wrapped up my work with Stardock, and one of the things I admire most about Brad and his team is that they’ve fully embraced the fact that piracy doesn’t have to be as big a deal as it’s made out to be. Yes, games will get pirated. This is purely speculative, but I don’t think that most people who pirate games are potential consumers anyway; if they couldn’t download your game for free, they’d just go pirate someone else’s.

Now, I’m not saying piracy isn’t an issue at all; it’s just that if you make games for a PC audience, you can still be successful. Look at Sins of a Solar Empire as a great example of that; The Witcher and Crysis are two other examples. Yes, the games were pirated, but they still sold well. If piracy didn’t exist, do we really believe that Crysis could have sold 5 million copies or something? Would Witcher be a 3-million-seller? I’m not sure about that.

The bigger issue in my mind is the ridiculous range of hardware configurations and the general chaos that make up the PC market. Games like Sins of a Solar Empire, The Sims and World of Warcraft– aside from being great titles – can do well because they work on such a huge range of hardware. If everyone developing PC games catered to such a broad user base, it would be much easier to gain mainstream acceptance.

We make demos to entice people to buy our games, but if I sent a demo of The Witcher to my wife’s brother -- a devout console gamer who owns a fairly new PC that he bought for $800 at Best Buy -- there’s no way he could play it. How do I show him how good a PC game can be? Everyone works on PCs (well, except for Mac folk), everyone has played Solitaire or some other casual game at one point or another. Their eyes could be opened to the amazing “hardcore” titles out there if there was some minimum standard for hardware and software compatibility.

Things are looking up in that regard, as companies like Dell, NVIDIA and Intel are all looking to improve the conditions for gaming in PCs. There’s the PC Gaming Alliance, which hopes to showcase the PC as a platform for gaming and address the challenges we face as PC developers. Too bad you have to pay to be a member. Anyway, I think the situation will improve in the coming years. As long as larger developers and publishers don’t abandon the PC or move exclusively to casual games or MMOs in the meantime, we’ll ride out the storm and everyone will just have to accept that PC gaming isn’t d00med at all.

What do you think are the unique aspects of working in PR for the video games industry? How does it differ from other entertainment industries?

The biggest difference, which completely changes the way we have to promote things, is that we release little bite-size pieces of info for months or years, always with products that aren't done. Planning is so important. Announce too early and you'll run out of stuff to talk about by launch. Announce too late and there's just not enough time to let people know about the game. Demo too early and you can spend months trying to recover your fanbase.

You need to have a good idea of how many screenshots, videos, dev diaries, etc. you'll need, when best to release them, where to push them out... do you try to score an exclusive in hopes of one big hit, or do you blast it out to everyone in a shotgun approach? And that's just the stuff you can control; you might be a month from release after a great PR campaign, and then your game gets delayed. The job is constantly changing, and that's part of what makes it so exciting.

But do you think this is an acceptable way for things to go? Should the industry be build on a constant stream of bite size information?

I don't know if there are too many viable alternatives. As a gamer I really like seeing new screenshots and videos of games I'm excited about. Well, actually, that's not always true; there's definitely a limit, and I stop checking out every single update about a game once I've gotten my fill. Take GTA IV, for instance: I don't remember the last game I was this excited about, but I stopped looking at trailers and screenshots a few months ago. I get it -- I want the game, and I guess the early PR efforts did the trick.

The only real issue I see with the current model is that companies start showing games too early. I think that, in most cases, we could save the game announcements until about six months before it's ready for release. Sure, it might slip a bit, but six months out you tend to have a pretty good idea of the condition of a game. At that point there should be large portions of the game that are done, so you'd be able to effectively demo it to media, and you wouldn't have to touch up screenshots or videos.

Instead of spreading all of your info reveals and assets over a two-year campaign, you condense the best info into a six-month blitz. I think media would appreciate the opportunity for larger stories with more new info, and fans would appreciate the fact that they're not getting spoonfed the same info and screenshots from different angles all the time.

Who is to blame?

It's hard to lay the blame in this situation... when I got into the industry nearly ten years ago, this is how things already worked. Was it ever different? If anything, I think there's just a general perception that you need as much time as possible to get the game in front of as many potential consumers as possible. Retailers determine their order quantities based on pre-orders, and it's basically assumed that you need to build up a ton of hype over a long period of time to convince people to put down their money before release.

Is there still a place for PR agencies now news is so rapidly blogged and disseminated?

I think that PR agencies still hold the same value as before: if you're hiring one, you expect them to be able to just execute the plan better than you can; they're supposed to have the best contacts and they should be able to devote themselves fully to just getting you coverage. In-house folks have to deal with a lot of stuff that gets in the way of just promoting the games.

Things have gotten a lot more complicated because of how easy it is to start a website, though. It's just that much harder to keep an updated database of contacts and to be able to cater to each individual without making yourself look like an ass when you pitch something they don't cover.

While it's not a viewpoint that's shared by all of my contemporaries, I've always been of the opinion that every site and every "journalist" (yeah, it's a loose term sometimes) is worth working with. Even if that site only gets one reader, it's worth it; if that one person is convinced to buy your game because of that coverage, you've spent your time well.

But haven't you found that most sites just reword press releases? How hard is it to get valuable content in this kind of space?

This has been true for as long as I can remember, though; we've always had news sites that basically cover the same stuff without changing it up much.

As time goes on, sites that don't offer any unique perspective will probably watch their readership dwindle. There are a lot of great sites out there that are worth visiting just for the quality of writing; so while they might not provide a lot of in-depth editorials, it's just entertaining to read their takes on the day's news. As someone who has predominantly worked on PC games in recent years, I have a different gripe: most of the major blogs just don't really cover the platform very much.

If you've got a mass market title or you're attached to a huge publisher you've got a chance, but for the most part you're stuck trying to pitch odd angles that get coverage just because they're way out there. I think I'd have a good chance of getting widespread coverage for a cool pair of Witcher-branded underwear, but I'd be met with less enthusiasm if I talked about a cool feature in some hypothetical sequel. I love reading sites like GameSetWatch or Rock, Paper, Shotgun because they tend to cover stuff the other big blogs don't touch.

But isn't that a factor of the problem with the larger game sites and blogs posting links to "quirky" games related nonsense rather than content? How can you get your message across?

If that's what people want to read, it'll get posted. Getting your message across is definitely a challenge in the blogosphere, but I think that's where official blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. can be valuable. We can have our own somewhat informal outlets to get info out there; and for some reason it's easier to get coverage of an informal blog post than it is to get coverage of a formal press release.

It's more of an inside scoop or something, who knows. In the end, though, I still do my best to work with blogs and pitch stories that might be interesting to them, but given the types of stories that usually get posted and the fact that I don’t represent a major publisher or a hardware manufacturer, it’s just really difficult to get traditional corporate messages across.

GameSetLinks: City Of Extraordinary Heroes

- Yes, starting the week with a little more GameSetLink-age, initially with the news that NCSoft's City Of Heroes is upping the user-generated content that everyone can play - kinda neat for an MMO, I fear.

Of course, this will probably also end in tears, as the post notes - there's an uneasy harmony for superhero-based games at the best of times, let alone when users are unleashed to create scenario concepts. But hey!

Elsewhere in this list - IGN's exclusive GTA IV review poked at a bit more, and fun with the Web 2.0 Summit. And hey nonny nonny:

City of Heroes User-Created Content « Double Buffered
'This should satisfy most of the desire to create interesting story and narrative, and I fully expect users to fill out the fiction of the CoH universe, as well as create their own crazy parralel narrative spaces.'

Clickable Culture: 'Policing Role-Play In ‘Age of Conan’'
'Consistent enforcement is sure to be a joke--I can't even go to a bank and get the same answer about the same question from 5 different tellers.' Don't other MMOs run into this? :)

The Best XBLA Games You’re Not Playing | OXM ONLINE
A little old, but just noticed the OXM Online ramp-up has some neat online-only articles, nowadays.

GameDaily: 'Media Coverage: IGN Says Variety May Have 'Grudge''
'That's how we get exclusives of any kind. We have real estate which is the placement of a story and that's what we negotiate with.'

Jess Nevin's annotations for League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier
Linking mainly because there are more Easter Eggs in Moore's work than any game, ever. Yay.

DESIGNER NOTES » Blog Archive » Design of the Times
Yep, Civ IV designer/Spore staffer Soren Johnson is Game Developer's new design columnist, alongside BioWare Austin's Damion Schubert.

An exclusive look inside Sony's London games studio | Technology | guardian.co.uk
'The London Studio is one of the biggest development studios in the UK, with a king-sized reputation to match.' It is quite good, actually!

auntie pixelante › from the summit
Dessgeega's intriguing Oblivion mod: 'I find oblivion’s quest dialogues abrasive, so i tried to create a quest that was entirely driven by landmarks and visual cues.'

Greater Good Magazine - Spring 2008 issue
'This issue of Greater Good explores why play is so important—for kids and adults— and how we can bring it back.' More than one video game-referencing article, too.

random($foo): Web 2.0 Expo Presentation Rundown
Incredibly useful for game creators who want to know about the social web - via the evergreen Waxiness.

May 4, 2008

GameSetPlaying: Back Once Again With The Ill Behavior

- Once upon a time, we did a little thing on Sundays here, whereby I talked about some of the games I've been playing this week and what I thought of them - and then asked you folks to do the same.

I guess that fell by the wayside, a little, but I think it's good to get GSW readers inter-relating, commentwise, so a brief restart is needed, perhaps?

In which case, here's what I've been chewing on this week:

- Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar North, Xbox 360)
Oh, come on - who hasn't? Though so far, I've mainly been tooling around the initial game area, 'borrowing' cars and listening to The Journey on the radio, complete with Jean-Michel Jarre (pictured!) and Global Communication goodness. It's almost a self-indulgent, Nathan Barley-esque station choice (for me and the creators, I fear) - and as MTV Multiplayer noted, it came together when the game's music supervisor "...tried to out-obscure his boss." But as referenced: "the almost beatless sounds of Philip Glass [give] the city a magical feel" at night. And when I don't really want to kill people (most of the time), I can park by the water and listen serenely, instead.

- Echochrome (Sony Japan Studio, PlayStation Network)
This Escher-adoring puzzler is actually extremely clever, and I really enjoy the stark graphical stylings and the general concept. The camera rotation is a little fiddly at times, however - but that's made up for by the deep level editor that's already providing downloadable content, thanks to Asian territories getting the game ahead of the West. Overall, it's a deeply clever piece of art - and certainly a steal at $9.99, another example of Sony's odd underpricing for PSN games.

- The Simpsons Game (EA Redwood Shores, Xbox 360)
Looks like there's been a semi-official price drop to $29.99 for this title, so I picked it up at Target. Why? Well, I loved what I'd seen of the cut-scenes, and wanted to see if I could endure the spotty gameplay to check out the awesome humor. The verdict so far - yeah I can, just about, but boy, the camera/jump puzzle melange is obnoxious in some places. But it may, in fact, be the funniest game ever about games - a lot of the humor is insider-tuned - and I do think it got a little bit buried in the Xmas rush last year. Don't expect too much, and you'll be surprised!

- Flash Focus: Vision Training in Minutes a Day (Namco Bandai/Nintendo, DS)
One of the Touch Generations titles in the West that is (relatively) less famous. Having given it a quick rental from GameFly, I'm slightly underwhelmed. One issue is that I already seem to have a rating in 'the 20s' from my spot test, meaning I'm not that motivated to play more and improve. But it's beautifully split up for commute-style mini-game sessions every day, as a lot of Touch Generations titles - almost as if they are getting the users into the habit of gaming. Clever, Nintendo, clever.

Other than that, a quick trip through Carcassone on XBLA reminded me of what a great game it was, and I'm still buying content on Rock Band like there's no tomorrow (do I like Boston? I do now!) So, fair GameSetWatch readers, what games have been filling your beauteous spare time, and why?

Quiz Me Qwik: Card Fighting With Flavor

cfc2.jpg['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 talk to the translator of a classic handheld card battler.]

I’m really quite atrociously bad at competitive card games. I missed the whole Magic explosion growing up, and while I admit that I did get into the Pokemon cartoon to a degree that could be considered mildly inappropriate for someone at university, I didn’t even touch the collectable card thing. So, yes, part of it is simply that I have very little interest in it, but it doesn’t excuse how mind-blowingly bad I’ve appeared to be the few times I’ve tried video game based card games.

I was, for example, invited to the Kongregate Kongai card game beta to go along with the interview I did with Jim Greer and David Sirlin which appeared a couple of days back. I had to admit to Jim that I really can’t say whether or not the game is any good, because I suck so viciously at it. Mildly embarrassing stuff.

But enough about my shortcomings. It’s obvious that there is a real interest in card games, especially when they happen to revolve around a premise as blatantly awesome as SNK Vs. Capcom: Card Fighter’s Clash. Characters from the most beloved fighting games series around in super deformed appearance, with cards! Even I can recognise the appeal in that.

There are currently three games in the series – two for the Neo Geo Pocket Color, and a more recent one for the DS. The first game proved reasonably popular as far as niche titles go, but the second was never released outside of Japan. And the less said about the DS effort the better. So, a translation project, helmed by one Flavor, was started in late 2001, and finally – after a number of roadblocks and pauses – completed in March.

To celebrate what is a pretty mammoth effort, we talked with Flavor about all the goings-on regarding the project, and received some astoundingly in-depth answers about topics such as his Card Fighter’s Clash fandom, why it’s all taken so long, and why the Lost Church is now a Rooster Church.

GSW: When did you first encounter CFC2?

Flavor: I had been kinda watching the Neo Geo Pocket Color a little just because I'm interested in handheld stuff. I was into Game Boy development at the time. I went to a local shop and they had a used copy of Card Fighter’s Clash there. I bought it without even owning a Neo Geo Pocket Color. Then I had to get myself an actual NGPC of course. I really liked that game.

Anyway, fast forward a bit to when CFC2 came out: one of the other developers called Fuz talked to me about it, and he ended up ordering it directly from SNK, as I recall. I've never been into trying to play Japanese games. I just figure it's a bit too much work for me, and with a text intensive game like CFC, it just wasn't worth it. I didn't buy it.

I suppose, at the time, I figured that the previous one came out in English, so this one would, too. Obviously, SNK crashed and took down all the NGPC development with it, so there never was an official English version.

GSW: So you decided to translate it simply because the game has never been released in English?

F: Once SNK died, I knew that there was no chance of the game coming out in English. A lot of people - including myself of course - liked CFC1, so I thought that it would be nice to make the game playable at least. I didn't intend on making a full translation.

GSW: Do you consider it a vast improvement over the previous game?

F: I didn't - nor do I now - consider it a real improvement over CFC1. CFC1 has a different feel to the "story mode" parts. It's more like playing Pokemon where you walk around and talk to NPCs. You battle them and, when you win, get cards from them so that you can make your deck better. You're pretty much free to wander and talk and figure out things on your own.

cfc2-1.gifCFC2 is, at the core, very similar in gameplay, but it has a rather different feel as far as the story mode. Now, I didn't know some of this until I really got into translating the story, but it's very linear.

It's more like a "story" that you help tell. The story doesn't progress until you beat the next opponent. You can always go back and challenge any of the opponents you've previously beaten, and that's important for building up your deck. Though, re-playing previous opponents won't give you any new information, it will just help make your deck better so that you can beat the next guy to progress the story.

Both are well done, so I don't think either is better. They're just different. I do, however, think that the game mode of CFC2 is slightly better because it features new cards.

Notably, it includes a new type of card called the REACTION card. CFC1 had ACTION cards that could be used during your turn to affect things in the game. REACTION cards are like ACTION cards, but they can be used in response to the opponents attack. I like the new complexity and possibilities that the extra cards add. Though, I can completely understand someone that prefers the slightly more simple gameplay of CFC1.

GSW: Are you a fan of Card Fighters DS?

F: No, in fact, that's the main reason I re-started this translation project.

GSW: When did you begin translation, and how many other people did you work with?

F: Somewhere around October of 2001, we started working on translating the cards of CFC2. Originally, I thought it would be cool if we could just translate the card names and some of the menus. I don't recall exactly how it all came together, but I recruited about two other guys.

Let's just get this out of the way now: I don't know a lick of Japanese. To me, looking through Japanese characters is like searching for meaning in Rorschach inkblot tests. Sure, in a pinch, I can try to match a character up with something I found elsewhere, but even that takes a lot of time for me. My brain just isn't trained for that sort of recognition.

Anyway, as I recall, I had a guy helping me with graphics and a guy helping me with some translations. I think we used some Babelfish for help sometimes, but mainly we used the excellent FAQs from GameFAQs.com.

That way, we didn't really have to translate much. We would just find the card, look it up on the FAQ, and then convert it to the English name. This worked fine for the card names and their ability names. One of the nice things was that CFC2 already had English characters built in. Well, it had capital letters built in, anyway. So, we did the card/ability names. We were just starting out.

At the time, and still to this day, one of the best NGPC hackers was a guy called Judge. If I ever had a technical NGPC question, he would be the guy I could ask. At some point, probably via IRC, I started talking to him about my CFC2 translation project. Imagine my amazement when he told me that he also had his own CFC2 translation project. So, we decided that the best way to move forward was to merge the two projects.

Our project had been mostly a hack. Judge's approach turned out to be fairly intelligent. I hadn't really intended to take it as far as Judge had, but I'm glad we worked together because I learned a lot from him and the code he wrote for this project. It really is, now, the basis for the whole translation project.

So, pretty much, that left me managing the project and working on hacks. Judge continued to edit his tools and I asked the other guys for help when we needed it. It was going great, and we released a Work-In-Progress version of the translation project on December 14th of 2001 and promptly moved on to other things - halting all work that may have been in progress.

I don't think any of the rest of the team worked in it after that. For a little while, I worked on some ideas that I had to make the translation portion of the project more accessible to anyone on the outside that might offer some translation help. I converted all the game text (both the original Japanese and our English versions) to HTML and tried to get some people interested. Though, I didn't really know who to ask, and nobody really wants to translate a whole game script just for fun.

cfc2-2.jpgSo, fast forward again from early 2002 to 2007: I was fairly excited. SNK - well, SNK Playmore anyway - was going to release a new CFC game. Wow, after all these years, they finally realized that people liked CFC enough to make a new game. This was awesome news. Sure, the reviews based on the Japanese release of Card Fighters DS weren't so hot, but come on, this game was awesome. Even a sub-par version of a great game like CFC would have to be good. Right?

So, if the reviews based on the Japanese version weren't glowing, how do you think a very poorly translated English version of the game would be received? Oh, and be sure to calculate that many of the people excited about this game were interested in it because of their experience with CFC1 on the NGPC, and that the game played mostly nothing like the original CFC1.

Was it a bad game? Well, I'd like to say no, but it was very disappointing.

So, I figured I'd do something about it. There were people out there that were expecting a sequel to CFC1, and they were disappointed when they got something else. I know that there were people like that out there, because I was one of them. I could deliver a proper sequel to CFC1, and I could even make it play on the DS, with some emulation required.

I decided to resurrect my project, and I started talking to one of the guys that was running the Jump Ultimate Stars translation project. They had a cool idea to convert all the game text into HTML so that outsiders could help translating the game.

Well, even though it doesn't sound much different than the idea I had in 2002, it was very much more accessible to these would-be outsiders because they had an actual interface where a translator could read the Japanese version of a string, and then type in the English translation. Get enough translators - or one highly-motivated translator - and it'll just work itself out.

So, I set out trying to fix up my text extraction tool so that it would be more accessible to translators. I also talked to the guy running the JUSTP website and discussed how I might get my text into an interface like the JUSTP. He was even somewhat willing to try to help host it for me, but I needed to get it in a proper format and then he'd have to figure out how to host it alongside his current project.

Well, it started sounding to me like it would be a hassle to get my stuff on his website. I decided to come up with another way to work on it. I fixed up the text extraction tool even more, and I started working on a new text insertion tool. This way, I could extract all the Japanese text into a file. Then, a translator could translate the strings in the file and give them back to me. These translated strings could then be re-inserted into the ROM using my insertion tool. It sounds easy, but there were obviously bumps along the road. The system ended up working out very nicely though, because I stumbled upon Calden.

Calden is the reason that we have a translated CFC2 storyline. I really had no idea how to find a translator. I figured that there were two types of people in this world: those that can translate Japanese and those that can't. The people that want CFC2 in English are probably among those that can't. That leaves us with the rest of the population that really has no motivation to work on CFC2 English.

So, one day I just decided to look around a lot of places on the web to see about translators in general. I even got curious how much these guys make for smallish projects. Perhaps it was divine intervention, because at one classified ads for translators seeking work sort of site, there was an ad for a guy that wanted some small projects that he was offering to do for free.

He wanted to build up his portfolio. Perhaps he also just liked translating Japanese for fun. Well, I contacted him, and the rest is history.

Calden is a busy guy. Calden is a smart guy. Calden amazes me. He stuck with the project when I think most people would have just ignored it and worked on real life. Going into the project, he knew nothing about SNK, Capcom, CFC, NGPC, etc. He also had to deal with the oddities of translating stuff ripped from a game ROM and meant to re-insert. I mean, my text will include things like {0x0B], which means to me that a new line is going to start.

Why would Calden want to deal with weird little stuff like that? That's out of the realm of a small project one would want to donate some time for, right? Anyway, I don't know. All I can say is thanks, Calden. You amaze me. If anyone wants to donate back - even just your thanks - to the guy that donated a lot of his time for virtually no reward, leave a comment on the CFC2English blog.

So, essentially my new extraction/insertion tools combined with Calden equals CFC2 English storyline.

GSW: What are the challenges in translating a Pocket Color game?

F: I had never worked on a project like this before, but I am pretty proficient with hacking tools; hex editor and whatnot. Previous to my work with Judge's code for this project I had never really given much thought to how the strings in a ROM file would be stored. I mean, if I thought about how it would work from a programming/machine-code perspective, I could have figured it out, but I never needed to before.

Anyway, so I hadn't really considered that there would be a pointer table with pointers to a whole bunch of static strings. Each string would be NULL (0x00) terminated and the following string would be directly after it. This is how it's laid out in the ROM file. It's actually rather simple. The real issue is to figure out and understand all the control codes. As a quick example, you may encounter a 0x00 in the middle of a string.

If you were just parsing a bunch of strings, you might take that as a NULL character and assume that it ends the string. Though, if it is part of a control sequence - like maybe 0x80,0x00 - then the character in front of the 0x00 might mean that the following character controls something in the game; like which character to draw on the screen. So, perhaps "0x80,0x00,H,e,l,l,o,!,0x00" might mean to draw Haruna on the screen and print "Hello!" at the bottom.

While we're on the topic of strings, let's get to the big challenge of many Japanese to English translation projects: character width. The Japanese character set can say a lot in a space of 8-pixels x 8-pixels. If you convert all the Japanese tiles into the English alphabet, you can then - easily in our case - say any English word that you want to.

cfc2-3.jpgcfc2-4.jpgThe problem is that each English letter will be an 8x8 tile. That's not all bad, because a fixed-width font is easy to read on a small screen. The real problem here is that you may need a lot of English characters to say something that a single 8x8 Japanese character could say, so you run out of room on the screen very quickly when printing English.

A nice solution is to make a variable-width font so that a skinny letter like "l" or "i" doesn't take up a whole 8x8 tile. It might only take up 2x8. Then, you can fit more on the screen. However, this is rather difficult, because it means that you now must hack the game code to figure out how wide a tile is and then place it on the screen. Furthermore, the NGPC only operates in full tiles, so what you really have to do is dynamically put letters together until they make a full tile and print only full tiles at a time.

There are all sorts of problems that arise from this because the original game didn't intend for some things to be smaller than 8x8. One of the main things that I worked on was getting the name entry screen to work in a usable manner. The code that lets the user move around the screen and select a letter assumes that each letter is 8-pixels wide. When some aren't, and you want to select the "j" that's next to the "i", it gets tricky. The approach that I used was to put spacing between each letter.

It doesn't look pretty, but it works.

Another challenge I faced was emulation. I know that there are very few people that can play CFC2 on the actual NGPC hardware. I've worked with guys to try to get actual flash writable carts made. I actually know what needs to be done to create such hardware, but I don't have the proper tools and skills to design and produce the hardware.

Well, since people don't have the hardware, then most people will use emulators. I actually am an "author" of one of the NGPC emulators called "RACE! (As In Koyote-Land)." Actually, Judge wrote the emulation core for it. I did a lot of work to bring it to the GP2X and recently it's been ported, by myself and others, to other systems. I want this to be playable on the go, and an emulator that will run on other handheld platforms is the main way people will do it.

GSW: So were there many lines of text that you had to drastically rethink in order to fit?

F: No, I wouldn't say drastically. Some took some time, but it wasn't that bad. I always have it in the back of my mind that the player won't really care about a poor translation here or there when they're getting a fully playable game. Also, I knew that no matter what, I couldn't be worse than Card Fighters DS.

The most difficult ones were probably the card names and ability names. They have a pretty small window – in terms of the space on the card - that they need to fit into. I had to creatively re-name some cards. For example, a guy just asked on the blog comments:

”Isn't the card ‘Angel Wings’ supposed to be ‘Seraphic Wings’?”

Well, "Seraphic Wings" is just too long to fit on there.

GSW: What's the deal with the whole Lost Church/Rooster Church thing?

F: It's the whole L and R thing in the conversion from Japanese to English and vice-versa. I think Judge, or whoever, originally translated it as "Rosta Church". Then he had to decide what English word that was closest to.

Think of a Japanese guy saying "Rosta" to you. Then think how he would say "Lost". Sounds pretty similar, eh? Calden translated it as "Rooster" and then a big conversation ensued. I found more and more clues to support Calden's claim. Ultimately, I found that the original CFC2 official website listed it as "Rooster" and that was that.

As a side note, and a testament to how bad the Card Fighters DS translation is, there is a character in CFC2 named "Lip." She is the principal. Now, if we were just translating it without any "official" help, Calden would have translated her name as "Rippu Sensei".

However, we know from the official CFC2 website that her name is "Lip." We decided to call her "Principal Lip," because we think she's the headmaster of the school. Anyway, a guy wrote a message to me and mentioned that in Card Fighters DS they call the same character "CEO Rip”. SNK called her "Lip" while SNK Playmore calls her "Rip." Nice effort there.

GSW: How much of the art needed to be redone? How did you go about that?

F: Well, first off, I wouldn't call the stuff that needed to be redone "art." I'd call it graphics, though. Some of the menus use buttons that include text instead of just plain text. Those needed to be translated, but it's not part of the game text, so it's not included in my export/import process. We used a program called Tile Layer Pro to edit the ROM graphics. I found most of the graphics needing translation with TLP, and a guy called Comic-Kaze did most of the TLP graphical editing.

cfc2-3.jpgActually, the current release still has some graphics of minor importance left in Japanese. I've been working on getting them translated. I'm almost done with them. That's not to say that the game will be Japanese-free when I'm done. Even the main CFC2 splash screen still has Japanese in it. Some of those screens are just too difficult to bother editing.

The NGPC, as with many handheld systems, uses tiles to make up the screen. In many cases, all the tiles to make a graphic are found in order in the ROM file. Using TLP, one could just browse the ROM and find interesting graphics. The problem is that the tiles don't have to be in any particular order.

Now, most graphic editing tools would put the tile in order. What the editing tools will also do is to optimize out redundant tiles. For example, if you had a graphic that went "1,2,3,4", in the ROM you would probably find tiles 1, 2, 3, and 4 in order one after another. Though, if you had a graphic that went "1,1,1,2,1,3,4", in the ROM, in the ROM you would probably find tiles 1, 2, 3, and 4 in order one after another.

That's because it only needs to store the 1 tile once. There's a map that would reference the tiles somewhat like a paint-by-number picture. The problem comes when translating "1,1,1,2,1,3,4", because if you edit the 1 tile, you're actually editing 4 of the tiles that make up the whole picture. Hopefully I explained that somewhat clearly.

GSW: Why did you need to make a decision in regards to the system? Wouldn't it always be a patched ROM?

F: Yeah, but there was the emulation issue. I would have loved to make a Nintendo DS executable that just played CFC2 on the DS - assuming that you could run homebrew on your DS. I mean, it could have been like a prequel to the current Card Fighters DS game. But, now, it's an emulator that runs a ROM that must first be IPS patched. It's a lot of steps that up the cost of entry for many players.

I would prefer just anyone to be able to download the game and try it out on their favorite piece of hardware. It pains me a bit to know that there are people out there that will download the IPS file and realize that there are a few more steps that need to be taken before playing the game. Some will even go as far as figuring out what the steps are, but ultimately there is some number of people that will just not play it at all only because it wasn't all automatically set up for them.

During the project, I noticed that people wanted to play on the PSP. It really is the best option now, in my opinion. Anyway, my main motivation for fixing up RACE-PSP was for people to play CFC2. I'd love for people to play it on an actual NGPC, and I'm still working that angle, but the reality is that hardly anyone has the flash cart that will allow them to play a patched ROM on their NGPC hardware.

I don't think most people really want to play handheld games on their PC/Xbox/Dreamcast/etc., so that leaves the handhelds. As far as I know, as of now, CFC2 English should run on PSP, Nintendo DS, GP2X, GP32, and Gizmondo.

GSW: How much of an audience do you think the game has? Was that a factor in deciding to translate it?

F: Small. It wasn't a factor at all. I keep trying to come up with a way to find a larger audience. It's not that I care to get more players. It's just that I feel that part of my job now it to find all those CFC1 players, like myself, that thought they'd never get to play CFC2 because it was never officially released in English. If they know about our translation and they choose not to play it, that's totally fine, but if they live out the rest of their life always wishing that CFC2 was released in English, that's just tragic.

Just as a note, a bit after I restarted this project, I put up the blog site. I added a poll just to see what kind of responses I'd get. As of now, there have been 393 votes. I know that not everyone that comes to the site will vote, but I also know that there have been people that only came to vote, because they wanted me to port the emulator to a specific system.

I don't know if they even out or not. I suppose that it's fair to assume that there are less than 1000 people that know/care about the project. That's a small amount, whether it's 999 or only 99.

Of course I'd rather have it be 999.

GSW: Are you planning on working on anything else?

F: I've always got something else to work on. Though, I don't often plan what will be the next project. I don't know. I was fixing up the Dreamcast version of RACE the other day. That's pretty much done now, though. I've got some other ideas, but my main upcoming project is raising a - to be in about a month - newborn daughter.

GameSetNetwork: This Week In Posts

- After the fun Okamoto out-take, time to wander around Gamasutra's other major original stories for the week - actually, we're planning to start labeling 'Gamasutra Originals' on the site itself so they're easier to find among the more general news.

In any case, this line-up has some pretty neat stuff, with Juan Gril's 'State Of Indie Games' article, the Sins Of A Solar Empire postmortem, and the Genius Products interview some of the highlights for discerning GameSetWatch readers, perhaps.

Anyhow, here's those linkses:

The State of Indie Gaming
"In this in-depth Gamasutra analysis, casual game veteran Gril looks at the state of, and opportunities in, independent gaming, from PC to console, from Desktop Tower Defense to fl0w (pictured) and beyond..."

What Gamers Want: Family Gamers
"How should game creators build titles to appeal to wider audiences? Gamasutra held a kid-infested focus group and came away with 10 key points that will help games better reach the mainstream."

Q&A: THQ's Aniello On Diversity, Marketing Wii, Competing In Open Worlds
"This generation of consoles has brought with it the widest variety of potential gamers, and Gamasutra talked with THQ senior VP Bob Aniello and communications VP Julie MacMedan to find out how the publisher's strategy of expansion, and its approach to Wii development and marketing, will address precisely those concerns."

Postmortem: Ironclad/Stardock's Sins of a Solar Empire
"The Ironclad-developed, Stardock-published PC RTS title Sins Of A Solar Empire has been the surprise 'hardcore' PC game hit of the year so far - and Gamasutra has an in-depth postmortem into its creation."

Platinum's Kamiya Voices Concern Over Missing Okami Credits
"Capcom has omitted the original development team credits from the Wii conversion of Clover Studio's Okami, and original game designer Hideki Kamiya has written an open letter expressing his disappointment."

Sponsored Feature: Games for Zune with XNA Game Studio 3.0
"Microsoft's Frank Savage, development manager for the XNA Game Studio Express team, summarizes the capabilities of running XNA Framework games on its Zune portable music player."

In-Depth: Rubinelli On Genius Products' Move Into Games
"Mike Rubinelli heads up game acquisitions for Weinstein Company-controlled media distributor Genius Products (Line Rider), and in this in-depth Gamasutra interview, he discusses chasing the Katamari aesthetic, getting involved with development, and avoiding too many film adaptations."

Building a Mindset for Rapid Iteration Part 1: The Problem
"In this analytical article, EA veteran and Emergent VP Gregory looks at the problems of iterating game concepts and assets with a large team, suggesting possible roadblocks and solutions."

Exclusive: Behind The Scenes Of Uncharted
"The latest issue of Game Developer magazine includes a creator-written postmortem of Naughty Dog's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, and Gamasutra has extracts that reveal how the team wrestled with realism and auto-lock on concepts - before focusing on core mechanics to make the game truly effective."

Q&A: Bethesda's Hines Talks The State Of Fallout 3
"With the first Fallout franchise entry in a decade only months away, Bethesda marketing VP Pete Hines talks in-depth to Gamasutra about development on the post-apocalyptic title is 'way ahead' of Oblivion, why Bethesda paid for the entire Fallout license, and how to interpret fan expectations."

World of Warcraft Exposed: Making the Grind Work For You

['World of Warcraft Exposed' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about the culture and experience of the globe's biggest online game phenomenon, the ten million subscriber-strong World of Warcraft. This week's column is a straight-up how-to on getting to higher levels as fast as possible.]

heads_wowexposed.jpgWorld of Warcraft's success stems from a number of different sources, as we discussed in this series' very first article. One of the strong pillars of that success, without a doubt, is the ability to treat WoW like a single-player game. You can make it to max level quite effectively without the help of a single other person. That's not to say soloing to 70 is enjoyable, merely that's it's possible.

Even with the help of other players, making it to the top is long road. That journey is one to be enjoyed, as leveling a character in WoW is (for many people) the real game. That said, once you have your first character at max level, retaking those same steps to the top can be frustrating. Going over the same content for the second, third, fourth time is just never quite the same.

Today we have on offer a few simple tools to help you make it through 'the grind' in a reasonable amount of time with minimal hair-pulling. Some of these are technical in nature, some are simple techniques, and some are simple platitudes that we've found helpful in the past. Read on, and make sure to grasp the handrail tightly up the escalator.

Tool 1 - Technology Will Set You Free

Let's face it - there are lots of 'how to grind' guides out there. The one thing I want to make clear upfront, as a differentiator, is that I see addons as essential to the leveling process. The first time I played a character up to max-level, I did it with no UI mods and minimal assistance from 'cheat' websites. Now that I'm just playing for the fun of higher level characters, I see addons as a requirement, not an option. Here are the addons I highly recommend you install in order to get the most out of your leveling experience:

  • Quest Helper: Without a doubt the most important addon for anyone making a repeat trip through WoW, it's so good it almost feels like cheating. Quest Helper analyzes your quest log and then puts waypoints on your maps indicating where you can get your goals accomplished. Not only that, but it prioritizes your quests based on your current location. It directs you to nearby quests with a helpful pointing arrow and a dotted line on your map; simply follow the line and eventually you'll have your entire journal cleared out. Then you can start all over.
  • Titan Panel: A simple, clean, effective addition to the basic interface. Titan Panel has a number of additions you can install as well, but the core package is useful enough to merit must-add status. Among other things, Titan shows your equipment's durability, your current map coordinates, how much money you have, your movement speed, and how much room is left in your bags. All great stats that you can learn with just a flick of the eyes.
  • LightHeaded: Combined with Quest Helper, Lightheaded turns quest grinding into a breeze. This addon essentially expands your quest journal into the website "WoWHead". An additional (closeable) window adds player comments from the website into your journal's interface. Besides often being pretty funny these comments will inform you of coordinates for monsters, 'what not to do' tips, and lots of hints for frustrated players on the run.
  • Auctioneer: A pure and simple moneymaking addon, Auctioneer lets you play the Auction House game more effectively. By allowing it to scan existing auctions, Auctioneer develops a sense of your server's economy. When you go to post an item for sale, Auctioneer will suggest a price that's competitive with other auctions it's seen in the past. Once a decent database of information is built up, you can freely toss things up for auction using the addons prices and not think twice about it.

Tool 2 - I Need Money, Lots and Lots of Money

That brings us neatly to the concept of cash. Many players that are going after the grind will already have a higher-level character on their chosen server. Just the same, endlessly supplying gold to your lowbie is a pain. It detracts from your higher-level character's wealth, and makes leveling up feel that much more painful. The solution is simple: choose effective tradeskills.

I suggest grinding characters train in Enchanting and Skinning. These skills have several benefits. First and foremost, they require no 'node searching', as mining and herbalism do. Second, actual crafting tradeskills are liabilities while leveling - they cost more than they earn. Finally, they're both very lucrative. Skinning is effortless to do, and a stack of 20 leathers is something always in demand on the Auction House.

Enchanting is extremely lucrative, but they key is never to actually enchant anything. Only use the skill to disenchant quest rewards, random drops, and low-priced magical items from the auction house. Enchanting supplies are incredibly valuable, even at low levels, and can provide a constant source of income for your character.

Tool 3 - Tune Your Expectations


heads_wowexposed.jpgDon't expect to hit 70 in three days. Despite what you may have seen claimed in boasts on Forums or pitches for products, it does take some time to level a World of Warcraft character. Remember that this is supposed to be about having fun, at the end of the day. Set realistic goals for yourself and then try to stick to them. "I'm going to make two or three levels this weekend" is a rational goal, especially if you're 40 or below. "I'm going to jump ten levels" is probably out of the question once you're past 20. It's all relative - move at the pace that's best for you.

Tool 4 - Class Acts

It's simple math: some classes are easier to grind solo that others. The catch, of course, is that some of the hardest classes to grind are also the ones most in demand. Priest and Warriors are the two most commonly sought-after classes, and they're also two of the most challenging. Just keep in mind that if you're stepping up to either of those character types you're going to have a longer road ahead of you. On the other end of the spectrum Rogues, Hunters, and Druids are leveling machines. Hunters, in my experience, are almost auto-levelers. At lower levels especially, the DPS from a pet and your ranged weapon is so great that you can easily cut through a whole swath of xp-rich critters in no time.

As an additional note, be aware that your talents will determine how easily you level as well. Keep in mind that you can respec your class later in its lifetime. While you may anticipate healing on raids when your priest reaches 60 or 70, don't try to grind levels with a Holy spec'd priest. Instead, go for the highest damage output via the Shadow tree.

Tool 5 - Dress For Success

Going hand in hand with the need for cash, equipment is important as well. You may be tempted to slack off on getting your grind character better gear, and that's understandable. The one thing I would stress, is that slacking in this area can actually make your job harder. The higher your DPS, the faster you'll level. Making sure your weapons, wands, bows, or guns are up to snuff is a constant battle, but it's one worth fighting. Spells and class abilities are obviously in this mix as well. If you want to hold off on training up certain abilities to save money that's fine, but don't skimp on the fireball, shadow word: pain, wrath, or whatever your primary damage-dealing ability is.

Tool 6 - Variety is the Spice


heads_wowexposed.jpgWhile the grind can be an awful chore, this really is still supposed to be about having fun. If you can, make your new leveling experience as different as possible from your last one. This is another area where addons come in incredibly handy - they ensure that you're not wandering around lost even in unfamiliar territory. While the factional shift is obviously the biggest jump you can make, at least make sure you hit some different zones this time around. Try to avoid the most common areas (Stranglethorn, for example), and walk a few roads untraveled.

Tool 7 - We've Got Your Back

As much as a loathe the idea of saying "go get in a group" in a guide ostensibly aimed at the solo grinder, occasionally dealing with other humans is a useful expenditure of time. When you're in the field, observe your fellow players. If they're obviously working on a similar or the same quest, it might be worthwhile to team up to get the job done faster. This is especially true with kill quests, which just require a certain number of critters to die before you've completed your work. "I need 5 bear skin" quests are much better done solo ... or not at all. There are so many quests in WoW that these tedious drop rate-dependent tasks can be avoided.

Tool 8 - On Your Left, A Dragon

If you're trying everything else on this list - you're using addons while playing a hunter and occasionally grouping - and still can't stand the grind, there is a final solution. No, not a powerleveling service. That's a great way to get your account stolen. The final solution is a grinding guide, usually called something like "JoeBob's Guide on how to get to 70 in 3 days 2 minutes." There are a couple of varieties around, each with their own quirks. There are several free options around. I've used one called Jame's guide on the WoW Pro site, and it does the job pretty well. It's essentially a bullet point list of how to hit max level as efficiently as possible. "Go here, get quest x, y, z, go here, do them, go here, etc." Combined with Lightheaded and Quest Helper this type of guide is guaranteed grind success.


heads_wowexposed.jpgThere are also a few for-pay varieties out there that you can easily find with a bit of googling. I can't vouch for the veracity of any of them, so I won't link to any in specific. They're of varying levels of sophistication. Some are simple text files mailed to you by their creators, others are full-color PDFs with charts and bookmarks and graphs. Still others incorporate additional addons in the vein of Quest Helper, guiding you through the game with on-screen prompts. There are a number of sites that will vouch for one or the other, helping you to make an informed choice if this is something you want to try.

Following these signposts, my hope is that you'll work your way through World of Warcraft with less pain, and more fun. If you have additional suggestions for up-and-coming grinders, please feel free to leave them in the comments.



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