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May 24, 2008

Opinion: Why EA, The Industry Shouldn't Rely On Metacritic

- [In this in-depth opinion piece, industry veteran and former Eidos president Keith Boesky looks at Electronic Arts' decision to stop giving quarterly guidance and focus on quality in its games, suggesting that the oft-used Metacritic industry benchmark is "indicative of neither quality nor sales".]

It looks like Wall Street wasn't as excited by John Riccitiello's Jerry Maguire moment as I was. EA's stock is down over 10 percent since the announcement [that it would no longer give quarterly guidance, and would instead focus on longer-term product review based around quality benchmarks].

The daily stock price is not the be all end all, and every CEO will tell you they do not let the stock price dictate corporate decisions, but stock hits make access to capital harder, making things like purchases of Take Two relatively more expensive. The decline is probably more attributable to the losses disclosed on last week's earning call, or the expiration of the Take Two tender offer, but the announcement of no quarterly guidance coupled with likely delays did not help.

I say “likely delays” even though Riccitiello was very specific about products slipping from a quarter but staying in the fiscal year. Spore in the first quarter of 2009 would still be a fiscal 2008 release.

The point I highlighted in my earlier weblog post was the commitment to quality against a backstop of the objectively measurable deliverable. Wall Street loves predictability. The game business hardly has any. EA committed to improve quality and endeavored to provide a measure for improvement [with Riccitiello recently promising in a February analyst meeting to raise its average Metacritic score to 80].

At first blush, to me at least, Metacritic made sense. I always knew the numbers were kind of squishy, but it kind of made sense. Higher critical scores mean higher quality, and like I said above, companies are not managed to stock price. Well... they are not managed to daily stock price, but they are managed to maximize shareholder value, or long term stock price.

Before we become the only form of entertainment in history to allow critics to influence the creative process, let's consider the source. A Metacritic score is not a valid measure because it is indicative of neither quality or sales.

On its face, John’s reference to Metacritic seems to make sense. The underlying theory for the site draws upon the wisdom of crowds. A popular anecdote of crowd wisdom is attributed to Sir Francis Galton. In 1906 he held a contest at a county fair to guess the weight of a cow. The guesses of livestock experts varied widely, and none were close. The average of the guesses made by a 1000 people in the crowd came within a single pound. The same experiment has been repeated over and over with jars of jelly beans.

The theory is accurate when all data is given equal weight. When it comes to critics, you should be able to put all critics in, good and bad, and the average should be the right score -- the right score here meaning the best objective indicator of quality and quality means sales. Unfortunately, Metacritic injects subjectivity into the equation.

Some people indicate there is a correlation between Metacritic scores and sales. They go so far as to identify a correlation between scores and market value. From my gut, I call bullshit. The timing is way off. Metacritic scores post on the date of release. Sales forecasts and analyst reports come from channel checks at launch.

Ask Michael Pachter whether it was the Metacritic score or a call to Wal-Mart which gave him better insight into the success of BioShock. Moreover, orders are placed well before Metacritic scores are calculated and are clearly not influenced by the scores.

Orders are influenced by a buyer’s review of the game, the publisher’s marketing commitment to the game and the publisher’s pipeline of future titles. The hundred million dollars in movie marketing money will drive more orders than than a 90 for Psychonauts. If the big marketing budget is coupled with a product from the company about to release Call of Duty 4 - even better.

Large marketing and strong publisher pipeline means large order. If those buyer commitments are big, projected revenue increases, and with it projected marketing, sometimes leading to incremental orders and most of the time leading to stronger consumer awareness and therefore stronger sales. All of these events occur while Metacritic still has an N/A next to the game.

In case it is hard to visualize, think of a John Woo-choreographed gunfight where the buyer and the sales guy each has a gun to the other's head and their free hand on their balls and the camera starts spinning faster, and faster around the scene.

You don't have to believe me though, listen to Metacritic’s founder, from an interview earlier this year:

"Have you heard of specific instances where a Metacritic score has affected the sales of a game - for better or worse?

Not specifically. Of course friends and users of the site have informed me that they haven't purchased games (or seen movies or bought albums) with low Metascores, but I've never been told by a publisher or developer that they've been able to definitively make a causal connection between poor sales and low scores from my site.

However, at least two major publishers have conducted comprehensive statistical surveys through which they've been able to draw a correlation between high Metascores and stronger sales (and vice versa), but with a much tighter correlation in specific genres of games than in others."

One of the publishers he refers to is Activision, the studio was highlighted in Nick Wingfield’s September 2007 article pointing to Metacritic's correlation to sales:

"Activision Chief Executive Robert Kotick says the link was especially notable for games that score above 80% on Game Rankings, which grades games on a 1-to-100 percentage basis, with 100% being a perfect score. For every five percentage points above 80%, Activision found sales of a game roughly doubled. Activision believes game scores, among other factors, can actually influence sales, not just reflect their quality."

Despite its falsity, this meme grew and was embraced by the industry, until Robin Kaminsky, head of Global Brand Management for Activision repeated the quote and corrected the meme in her DICE talk this year. (The whole thing is up online and you should watch it; it is very good.) She provided the context for the quote.

It seems Metacritic scores are one factor in determining sales. She explained that high Metacritic scores -- when coupled with strong marketing and sell in -- mean high sales. The findings were supported by a breakdown of high scoring products in 2006 and 2007. Two-thirds of the 18 products scoring 90 or above sold less than two million units, the break even point for a USD 20 million product. Only two products would sell in excess of seven million. The largest grouping of products, seven, would sell less than a million.

In case this is not persuasive enough, we can look at the other side of the score box: until Call of Duty 3, the highest-selling Call of Duty was Finest Hour with over four million units sold and a Metacritic score of 76.

We can also look to Mario Party 8's score of 62 or Wii Fit's score of 80 for products which retailers cannot keep on the shelf -- did anyone think a pasty, sofa sitting, 24 hour a day controller holding, dark room sitting, Mountain Dew drinking, talking to d3vi1b0y007 through Xbox Live, breaking only to see Iron Man critic was going to give a fitness title a 90?

If Metacritic worked as objectively as Sir Galton’s analysis of every piece of data, we would quite possibly have an indicator of quality, and therefore an accurate measure of our gaming cow. Sadly, it does not. Metacritic does not include the entire data set, only those selected by Doyle:

"This overall score, or METASCORE, is a weighted average of the individual critic scores. Why a weighted average? When selecting our source publications, we noticed that some critics consistently write better (more detailed, more insightful, more articulate) reviews than others. In addition, some critics and/or publications typically have more prestige and weight in the industry than others. To reflect these factors, we have assigned weights to each publication (and, in the case of film, to individual critics as well), thus making some publications count more in the METASCORE calculations than others."

I get why he does it, and he likely had the best intentions, but it doesn’t work. The critical view is subjective. Doyle's determination of the critic's value is also subjective. So we are really getting a third generation facsimile of a subjective view of the quality of a title. If you factor in the uncertainty of the gallant, but flawed effort to convert A to F scales to numerical equivalents, Sir Francis Galton would certainly call foul.

Doyle justifies elimination or moderation to guarantee reviews from the best reviewers. Even this doesn't really make sense. If you really think about it, the most likely consumer of a review is uninformed -- the mainstream buyer. The people who bought GTA4 at midnight knew they were going to buy it and knew it was coming out. The person who buys only one game a year may consider the same factors as the Entertainment Weekly or Variety reviewer in their purchasing decision.

By limiting the reviews to hardcore gamers, we are further restricting accessibility to the market and putting one more lock on the door to our mother’s basement where we all sit and play games. Worse still, once Doyle injects himself, the service becomes an observational study of game scores, and not Galton’s objective measure. It should be noted, Doyle never said it wasn’t, but people who utilize the date must understand that they are seeing his analysis of market data, not an objective measure.

As pointed out by Scott Miller in his book Developmental Research Methods:

"A...general problem [of observational studies] is observer bias. Expectations researchers bring to research can sometimes bias their results, moving outcomes in the direction of what was expected or desired. In observational study the danger is that observers may see and record what they expect to occur, rather than what actually happens.

A study by Kent, O'Leary, Diament and Dietz (1974) provides an example. ...The findings of the Kent et al. study suggests one way to reduce the probability of observer bias: Make the scoring categories as specific and objective as possible. The greater the leeway for interpretation in scoring, the greater the opportunity for the observer to inject their own biases."

Metacritic not only injects its own interpretation for the scoring, it determines the very field from which it will draw. Do you think there is any conscious or unconscious bias prior to a games release? Is the next GTA going to be good? Is the next movie-based game going to bad? If I know GTA is going to sell a billion, do I consider whether a higher Metacritic score will influence Take Two to use it in their ads, thereby elevating my brand? How about if it gets a perfect score and the media - which loves measures and lists - uses my score as a new angle on the game?

I am not saying any of this happened, but we can certainly see the potential. Of course, the scores are kept within a margin by the market. If a bad game scores too highly, the site will lose credibility. But if the 1UP score in the 20s is ignored, a game could earn a few more points and the site maintains credibility. The value of being embraced by the CEO of the number one publisher in the industry as a standard? Priceless.

The observational influence is not limited to the observer. The observed are influenced as well.

"The behaviors recorded in an observational study may be a function of any number of antecedent or contemporary factors. One factor we do not wish to have influence the behavior, however, is the mere presence of the observer. Yet the presence of the observer, and the concomitant knowledge that one is being observed may alter behavior in various ways."

Post-Metacritic reviews seem to have more outliers. Critics know they will get attention if they give a shockingly low review of a game. They also know they will get more clicks if they are the lowest review on Metacritic than one of many in the fat part of the bell curve. There was always influence from the publisher's pipeline, now there is additional influence from Metacritic. Critics may be inclined to appeal to Metacritic - the weaker the pipeline, the stronger the Metacritic influence.

If the publisher has a strong pipeline, the reviewer not only caters to the publisher, but can gain disproportionate influence by appealing to Metacritic. Being a Metacritic reviewer is like being a Nielsen family only better, because the publishers know who you are. Doyle has said Ben Fritz of Variety is not considered for Metacritic scores. Do you think he is going to get any exclusives?

So, back to the Jerry Maguire moment. I guess we really shouldn’t rely on the Metacritic as an indicator of quality or shareholder value. Quality should be measured the old fashioned way: sales. For this thought, I go back to an interview given by a really smart guy last February:

"EA's Riccitiello wants to avoid the trap of just pursuing a good Metacritic score, a mindset he said frequently leads to too much executive meddling.

"The process often gets in the way more than it helps," he said. "That sort of circus has unfortunately sort of defined our company for too long. And it's not a good process."

That's one view, but Riccitiello has another: "You don't cash Metacritic, you cash checks."

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

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

GameSetLinks: A Crop Off The Old Block

- Swinging happily into the long weekend, a look at a typically diverse (yes, OK, random) set of GameSetLinks - headed by Andrew Glassner's special language for describing crop circles (his 'Morphs, Mallards and Montages' book is awesome, by the way, even if Ernest Adams perhaps correctly doesn't rate his book on storytelling.)

Elsewhere in this crop (haha!) of links - JC Barnett on controllers and accessibility, plus Quiet Babylon on the oft-poked games and drugs metaphor and a 'call to arms' for designers from Steve Gaynor at Fullbright.

Here be links:

Crop: Andrew Glassner's Crop Circle Language
I feel like there should be some game-related implementation of this language - Lazyweb request!

Grand Text Auto - Nideffer and Szeto's WTF?!
'I’ve just played my first few minutes of Robert Nideffer and Alex Szeto's new indie/art game, WTF?! ' Whoa - a Flash WoW academipastiche?

Japanmanship: Bar to Entry
'I don't think it was so much the social stigma of geekery that stopped so many 'normal people' from playing games so much as the increasingly disastrously designed control inputs.'

GameOfTheBlog.com: Shirtless and alone In space with only a politically questionable arcade game to keep you occupied...
A Whac-A-Mole game called... '"Bin Laden Basher"'?

Fullbright: Call to Arms 2008
'Fullbright proposes a public thought experiment; a decentralized game design symposium; a call for new takes on interactive expression.'

Lithium Leaf: 'Pixel Gets Presents From Cave Story Fans'
The Cave Story fancommunity awards its idol.

Insert Credit: Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom Screens
Yay, more 3D polygon, 2D plane fighting crossover yumminess.

Richard Cobbett: 'Gaming's Next Big Controversy?'
'Character creation in Age of Conan.' Wuh-oh.

So, the Difference Between Game and Drug Designers is? | Quiet Babylon
'We have a funny relationship with addictiveness in this industry.'

selectparks - Homo Ludens Ludens Follow Up.
Linking to good round-ups of an interesting in-progress Spanish game-art exhibition you might have missed hearing about.

Quiz Me Quik: Editing New Super Mario Bros With Treeki

treeki.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, a thirteen-year-old whiz hacks up New Super Mario Bros for DS.]

“Back when I was 12 or so,” sang New York singer songwriter Jeffrey Lewis in his song Back When I Was 4, “I swear to god, I never felt so low. Everyone but me was making out and eating cookies.” I wasn't making out or eating cookies much myself, though I did play spin the bottle earlier that year at my friend Rob's party, and kissed Julia Mildenhall once on the mouth; no tongue.

But I wasn't feeling terribly low, either: I’d just bought my SNES and was playing my way through Zelda, Donkey Kong Country and Secret of Mana.

I can’t speak for whether or not he was eating cookies and making out at age 12, but hacker and programmer Treeki was already well into development of his New Super Mario Bros. level editor in 2007. Almost a year later, and he's gone through two released versions of the editor, and made progress into a third version, though he notes it's not likely to see release any time soon.

Oddly, there hasn't been the glut of levelsets you'd expect from a release like this. In fact, aside from an unfinished Super Mario Bros. remake, and a few uncompleted trial levels by unmotivated individuals, there have barely been any. So, hey, if you're reading this: why not give it a go?

I for one would love to see some interesting hacks out there; even with eight worlds, NSMB really felt over and done with much too quickly, and the multitude of cool Super Mario World hacks show there are some really creative minds in the hacking community.

That's not exactly why we decided to talk to Treeki about the editor, though - after all, he admits he “wouldn't recommend” people even bother with it. It's more to do with, well: how many 13 year olds do you know who are putting together projects like that?

GSW: Do you have a history in games hacking?

Treeki: Not really, to be honest. I hadn't done much before I started with NSMB - other than messing with Super Mario Bros. for a while using a graphics editor called YY-CHR, and various game-specific tools, when I was 10. I barely knew what things like assembly hacking and TSAs [tile square assemblies] were.

I had pretty much given up on ROM hacking due to my absolute incompetence in level design and graphics, which were all I could really hack with my knowledge at the time.

GSW: What made you decide to look into NSMB hacking?

T: After having played NSMB and beat it several times, I really wanted to be able to play more of it. Back then, it was my all-time favourite Mario game - now overtaken by Super Mario Galaxy.

I decided to see if I could try and find out how the game worked internally. I tried extracting what looked like level files and opened them in a hex editor. I changed things and eventually managed to find out one of the most basic formats in the game, which was when I got hooked on hacking it. I came in with pretty much no hacking knowledge, and since then I've learned a lot - including being able to learn NES assembly.

GSW: What have you attempted with your NES assembly knowledge?

T: Pretty much nothing - other than an incomplete hack of Super Mario Bros. where I added animation, more tilesets, and some other extras. My lack of level design knowledge is also why I rarely get much into making actual hacks.

GSW: Is NSMB as easy to hack as you'd expected?

T: Yes and no - depends on what part of it you're talking about. Some parts of NSMB are extremely simple: the format for level objects, for example, is just a file containing a list of objects and their positions.

Others are more confusing and almost undecipherable. DS games are usually easier to hack than most other consoles, though, since they use a file system which almost all games organise their data into.

GSW: So does that mean that you could move into hacking other DS games? Or that it's a (relatively) easy task for someone else to pick up?

T: Yes, definitely. Having a file-system makes things a lot easier. I wouldn't have tried hacking NSMB if there hadn't been one to help me along. Most games use it, though in varying levels. I've noticed Nintendo's games tend to be more standardised: everything is organised into neat folders, and use standard formats like NARC (file archives - ironically, using almost the same format as the main filesystem) and NSBMD (for 3D models).

Other games use it rather badly. Yoshi's Island DS, for example, has one folder with around 720 obscurely-named files. I've even seen one - I can't recall the name at the moment - which used a few huge files to store everything in.

GSW: Do you feel like you're still learning things about the game? Are there mysteries you haven't quite worked out yet?

T: Well, I still have a lot to go before I really can seriously edit the game. I haven't hacked it in months, due mostly to my short attention span for projects, lack of motivation, and loads of other projects. So many things are still left to find out - how object display data is loaded, collision data the purpose of several parts of the level data, and various others.

Some day, I should go back to working on the "vapourware" 3rd version of my editor…

GSW: So how would figuring out things like object data aid in making hacked level-sets?

treeki.jpgT: The more data I can figure out, the more things that can be changed. It took several months just to find the one byte in the level data responsible for the music used! It was stuck along with the camera data.

I helped a lot with [discontinued user level-set] New Retro Mario Bros., when it was being developed. I remember some things that had to be done to get around limitations, like swapping levels with ones that had what you wanted.

GSW: Did you have any set plans for the 3rd version?

T: Yes. I was planning features like full graphics support - being able to view your levels exactly as they would appear in the game – as well as editing almost all parts of levels, and graphics editing, among others. Probably some day I'll create an improved editor with these…

It's a shame that I was never able to complete it, but now that I look back, I realise that it was a bit over-ambitious. Pretty much the only one of those that actually had much progress done on it was graphics support.

GSW: Have you found anything really surprising or interesting in the game data? What's the beta level, for example?

T: There's quite a bit of unused data in the game. I found a tileset that seems like it could have been for the bonus games, but was never used. I found five unused levels varying in quality, and managed to get them playable with the final version of the game.

Videos of the three most interesting are on my YouTube channel. If I looked hard, I could probably find more - there's also probably code for unused parts of the game, but I have no idea how to get into DS assembly.

GSW: Do you know of anyone that might be able to make use of that data?

T: Not really, although it'd be quite interesting to learn.

GSW: When did you start work on the editor?

T: I started shortly after I started hacking - back in August 2007, when I was 12 years old. My coding was really messy - the Visual Basic code of the first editor versions could probably pass for a "what not to do" exhibition! Since then, I rewrote the editor two times, the third version still unfinished.

I really haven't done all that much hacking in 2008, other than writing a C# version of Nitro Explorer; my tool for extracting/replacing files in a DS ROM.

Since I started, I learned a lot more about the DS and programming in general - actually having something useful to create helped my coding skills a lot.

GSW: I'm trying to think of a way to say this without being patronising, but maybe just saying it is the best way: it's amazing that you're doing this kind of stuff at your age at all. Any plans for using this as a stepping stone for a future career in development of some sort?

T: I'm planning to become a computer technician, although I might get into development sometime. Of course, my aversion to most C++ APIs like Win32 - ugh! - probably wouldn't help!

GSW: And how did you get into hacking in the first place? Do you have friends who are doing it?

T: I can't remember exactly how I discovered ROM hacking - it was back in 2004-2005. As I mentioned before, my lack of level design skills caused me to get bored of it and eventually leave it alone. I did play some hacks when they were released, but that was about it.

GSW: What has changed as you've worked through different versions of the program?

T: A lot, really. I started with a simple level viewer/editor that let you manipulate extracted level files from the game, and view each level tile as a coloured blob. I went on to adding support for loading ROMs directly, a decent user interface, enemy handling, and very rudimentary support for graphics. I still have an incomplete version 3 of the editor which had improved and faster graphics support, as well as a much improved UI - although that will likely never be continued, as I don't use Visual Basic any more.

GSW: What language are you working in now?

T: After I gave up on VB6, I wasn't sure what to try. I was playing around with WinBinder, a way to use Windows GUIs from PHP, but that wasn't too suited to what I wanted. At the time, DahrkDaiz was talking about creating a Super Mario Bros. 3 editor in C#. That inspired me to try it, and I've been coding in it since. I've also been trying to learn C++ and Qt, which seems to be quite good.

GSW: Did you, or do you, envision it becoming a populist tool like [Super Mario World editor] Lunar Magic, or does the nature of NSMB make this unlikely?

T: I doubt it. Older games like Super Mario World are a lot more flexible in their own way. They've been hacked a lot, all sorts of data has been found for them. It's even possible to code in your own objects and sprites for SMW.

DS emulation is also pretty slow for many computers, and not as advanced as the older consoles. Some advances also make it harder to hack newer games - 3D models, for example, can't be hacked as easily as bland 2D graphics. ARM9 and ARM7 (the DS's two processors) assembly is a lot more complicated to hack than, say, 65816 assembly (the SNES's processor).

Of course, there's also the question of me actually continuing the development of my editor. I haven't touched it since around January, and I have a lot of other projects I'm also working on.

treeki.jpgGSW: Anything exciting?

T: No. Mostly non-ROM hacking related stuff, other than a few things I've messed with like a NARC editing tool and a Super Mario Land 2 map editor.

GSW: Do you think we'll see people moving to NSMB from more traditionally hacked games like Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World?

T: Not now, at least. Perhaps some time in the future.

Really, I doubt DS hacking will become too popular until there are more - and more usable - tools, people know how to hack other games, and DS emulation is more widely available.

People might also find DS hacking more "immoral" than hacking other consoles. While other more commonly hacked games are older and not sold any more, DS games are still available and relatively new. NSMB was first released just over two years ago. While someone might not care as much about downloading a 15 year old game like Super Mario World, they'll probably care more about newer games. The games are also bigger and need more powerful hardware to emulate.

GSW: Have you been working on your own levels at all? Any plans to release them?

T: As I stated earlier, I'm quite incompetent with level design, so no. All my level edits fall into the categories of "testing" or "random arrangements of blocks and enemies". I prefer messing with the technical side of stuff, usually.

GSW: Have you checked out the levels from other people? What's your opinion of them?

T: Aside from some YouTube videos I've seen from people who have played around with the editor and made a level or two – which are usually rather bad - there don't seem to be many hacks. Sonicandtails and Tanks were making a SMB1 remake called New Retro Mario Bros, but it's gone pretty much the same way as the editor, due to lack of tools.

It was quite good for a remake, actually, considering that even basic features like changing around the entry points for levels weren't included in the editor and only possible through hex editing the level files, one thing which I helped them a lot with.

GSW: What has the reaction from users been like?

T: Not many people seem to have used it, to be honest. I'm guessing this is because it hasn't spread to many places, and it's rather outdated and basic; compared to what I discovered about NSMB a while creating it.

GSW: So maybe this is where I step in and make some kind of incredible level-set. You know…or not.

T: With "features" in my editor like moved enemies not saving unless you opened the dialog for them and clicked OK, and random level header corruption, I'm surprised anyone actually managed to make anything. In other words: I wouldn't recommend you tried.

May 23, 2008

Best Of Indie Games: Jetpacks and Thrusters

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

This week on 'Best Of Indie Games', we take a look at some of the top titles released earlier this week - including new games from Flashbang Studios, cactus, the new development team Umlautgames - and one of the highlights from the latest DigiPen student projects made available for download.

Game Pick: 'Jetpack Brontosaurus' (Flashbang Studios, browser)
"A browser game featuring dinosaurs and jetpacks. Currently in alpha testing stage, Jetpack Brontosaurus is a follow-up to the popular Off-Road Velociraptor Safari and Flashbang Studios' third Unity game release."

Game Pick: 'Precision' (cactus, freeware)
"A new week, a new game from cactus. Precision is an action game which involves timing your jumps, collecting green bottles and descending ladders. Expect to spend anything from a minute to half an hour on completing all seven levels."

Game Pick: 'Hollow Point' (Digipen, freeware)
"One of the many Digipen student projects made available for download this week, Hollow Point is a top-down shooter which plays like a combination of Gauntlet and Smash TV. The game sports decent 3D graphics, well-balanced difficulty, a wide selection of weapons and even comes bundled with a level editor."

Game Pick: '6 Differences' (Case, browser)
"A sequel to the Case's spot the difference game 5 Differences, where pictures come alive with all sorts of animation or movement. The objective is to find half a dozen discrepancies in each pair of photos."

Game Pick: 'Thrustburst' (Umlautgames, freeware)
"A remake of an old arcade game which involves navigating treacherous caverns by activating your thrusters in short spurts. A good debut effort from the new development team Umlautgames."

Column: Chewing Pixels: '11th Hour Reviews: PR’s Dirty Little Game'

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time - an intriguing discussion of how limited access to Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV may have affected its initial reception.]

Judgments cast before they'd been adequately weighed; words sold before they’d been properly valued; shallow opinions that should have been presented as the first word in a conversation but were dropped with the clacking gavel pound of a conclusion. Yeah, every writer has regrets.

Four weeks ago in this publication I referred to Grand Theft Auto IV’s depiction of immigrants as being more nuanced and sympathetic than that demonstrated by the exquisite Baltimore-set television drama, The Wire.

The exact words were: “[Niko Bellic’s] portrayal should do more to warm viewers to illegal immigrants than any of the (nevertheless awesome) characters in, say, the culturally-acclaimed TV series, The Wire.”

While it seems like a harmless enough statement it was an idiotic comparison considering the heavyweight dramatic nature of the television series and the shits-and-giggles, tongue-in-cheek parody of the videogame.

But what’s really nagged and irritated over the following weeks is that, with a little distance and perspective, the bold proclamation was so obviously made, like so many from within our industry, with the aim of elevating videogames to the respectability of more established (read: accepted) media via bald association.

The opinion piece was written following a short weekend's playing of the game just prior to its release and, as I’ve played on through the rest of the story, the fault lines in that specific claim have become ever more apparent. While I adore the slow pacing of the first few hours, the way Nico starts off on the straight and narrow and is dragged into the shadows of the American Dream by forces of poverty and necessity, the game soon enough swings into full adolescent-posing-as-adult narrative fizz.

There’s nothing particularly unusual or wrong with that, especially when sat alongside Hollywood’s output, but claiming it has anything particularly meaningful to say about the immigration issue is stretching the game beyond its purpose.

More interesting than this whiny narcissism are the forces that brought about my (and ten thousand other professional) snap judgments of the game.

In the weeks prior to GTA IV’s release, Rockstar made promises that print and online publications would receive early review code so that they might fully ingest and digest Liberty City in order to deliver mature and balanced opinions on its day of launch.

In reality, this was not the case, with precious few publications getting to spend prolonged time with the game ahead of release. The first review of the game came from the UK’s Official Xbox magazine bearing the worrying caveat “based on unfinished code”.

Eurogamer, wise to the fact promises of AAA title retail code ‘a week before release’ are rarely upheld, arranged to play through the game over a period of days in Rockstar’s offices instead (along with a couple of other UK publications). From speaking to other editors and (some of high profile titles) this was not an opportunity offered to all and, when review code failed to turn up the week before release, many were left panicking about how they were going to serve their readers in a timely manner with any integrity.

The reason for the withholding of review code was, according to Rockstar, a result to the game’s leaking onto the internet seven days before its release. Speaking to the company at the time it was claimed that this leak came from an unscrupulous journalist.

As a result there was a lock down on all review code: everybody would get their copy just one day before the game’s release, and, despite the wonky logic (after all the game had already leaked to those with the capability to play it so why punish the many for the indiscretion of the few) there were to be “no exceptions, no arguments”.

At best then, by the time the game had been played, copy written and subbed ready for the Tuesday morning, most journalists (both in the UK and the US) had played for only a few hours, experiencing just a fraction of the game’s content, a situation testified to by various admissions in professional reviews.

Time Magazine dubbed their piece Grand Theft Auto IV: The 6.24% Review while the Associated Press reviewer, Lou Kesten, admitted to having spent only spent eight hours with the game.

Slate Magazine’s excellent Chris Baker admitted he only had chance to ‘scratch the surface of the game’ going on to say in a comment on N'Gai Croal’s Level Up blog: "I couldn't even attempt to be definitive…it was kinda liberating”.

The BBC noted the phenomenon saying: "Most reviewers were not sent advance copies of the game, and instead had to attend Rockstar offices or sit in booked hotel rooms to play the game,” where Rockstar could keep an eye and some pressure on them. While these few admitted the partial and necessarily subjective nature of their reviews, how many passed off their impressions as being definitive of the whole?

Rockstar aren't the first ones to handle big title reviews in this way. Nintendo’s recent ploy, in the UK at least, is to require reviewers to visit the ‘Nintendo Flat’ in London, a place where one can book slots to review titles for a period of time (depending on what slots are left over from the prioritised lifestyle mags and newspapers) from the comfort of one of the company’s armchairs.

For the reviewer it’s an inconvenience at best, at worst a pernicious and blatant attempt to colour their opinion in as short an amount of time as possible. Halo 3, Super Mario Galaxy, Mario Kart Wii: all big name titles (in both size and stature) only supplied to many games reviewers a few days before their release.

But what’s the benefit to a PR or publisher in holding back code from non-exclusive reviewers till the eleventh hour, especially if the game is hotly anticipated and good? In part the practise has been fuelled by the internet, where there are simply too many websites about videogames. The competition to be first to ‘print’ with a review, while always a consideration in magazine publishing, is exacerbated through the global competitive nature of the net. In this environment many gaming website publishers are willing to publish a final review even if it’s only based on very tentative impressions of a small portion of the game.

After all, the effectiveness of a ‘buyer’s guide’ review is reduced the closer its publication gets to the game’s release. Any reviews appearing a few days and weeks after a game’s release is almost completely superfluous, thanks to the industry and its consumer’s obsession with the next thing, the next thing, the next thing.

By withholding code until a late stage then (be it through design or ineptitude), a PR can force a journalist to rely on marketing hype and information to fill the gaps in their knowledge of the game when writing copy. In this way, control of the critical reaction is shifted back to the PR in a subtle and (arguably) legitimate way.

Add into this the journalist’s natural inclination to want to say something, anything, that will distinguish his/ her copy and opinion from everybody else and you start to get bold proclamations being made and unlikely comparisons being drawn. The pressure to say something, anything serious and unique to distinguish your piece from ten thousand others that litter the Internet is heavy. There are too many games journalists tussling over too few opinions with too little time to make them and the PRs have learnt to turn that to their advantage.

What’s interesting is the recent rise in a different approach to reviews, one that isn’t dependent on their being published on the day of a game’s launch and that doesn’t doesn’t come with a score attached. The staggering popularity of Ben ‘Yathzee’ Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation videos (which, according to Alexa.com have booted host site The Escapist’s profile up several internet leagues), are almost always focused on games that the viewers have already experienced first hand post-release.

Of course, its popularity has been driven by excellent knob gags but behind the stickman puerile humour there is something more serious and profound going on. People might come for the cock jokes but they stay for the critical chutzpah that props them up (lol). It mightn’t look like it in the classical sense, but Zero Punctuation is one of the first pieces of games criticism (as oppose to reviewing) to hit the mainstream.

A more serious example is Edge magazine’s excellent monthly ‘Time Extend’ feature, which attempts a more orthodox approach to criticism, placing a game in its wider context, drawing out it’s long terms achievements, identifying its aims and its various success and failures in those goals (disclosure: I'm a long time Edge contributor who has penned numerous Time Extends).

Perhaps it’s time for the industry to treat reviews as snapshot buying guides, inconclusive first words in the conversation, and to nurture the more fertile and under-populated ground of for more helpful and insightful long-view criticism in the weeks and month’s following a game’s release.

GameSetLinks: Bring The War, Bring The... What?

- Woo with the GameSetLinks - headed by a new indie title that's all kinds of Jeff Minter-esque - in only the best and silliest ways, naturellement.

Also in this set of link-out goodness, trawled from all over the place for your pleasure - some interesting discussion of how No More Heroes' violence is changed for the Japanese version, affecting its impact, and a look at an awesome retro computer game book - hurrayzor.

Onward to the links:

the2bears.com - War Twat
The Minter movement in sweary psychedelic shooters gets another acolyte!

UK:RESISTANCE: LEXICON ENTERTAINMENT ANNOUNCES IMMINENT SELF-DESTRUCTION OF VIDEO GAMES INDUSTRY
More DS brain games? 'Surely the games world can only take so much of this sort of horrendous onslaught before it mutates and starts eating its own babies?'

Xemu's Long-Winded Game Industry Ramblings :: Reaper Creeper
Another industry dev recommends Square Enix's 'The World Ends With You' - hearing it's one of the most leftfield and interesting 'mainstream' releases in a good while.

Write the Game: Writing a Kick-Ass Script 3: The Meat and Potatoes
Fun series on making good game script.

You Are Lose!: Violence In 'No More Heroes' - Blood-Free Japan
About censorship in the Japanese SKU: 'As the bosses and their deaths grow more outlandish and complex, the Japanese version remains uncertain and, well, a little awkward.'

Anonymity's redeeming quality - schlaghund's playground
'While the diplomatic metagame is an ever-present reality in the analog world (at least among my circle of friends), the digital one possesses a saving grace - anonymity.'

Vintage Computing and Gaming | Archive - Polaroid Instant Video Games
'What you're seeing is not a hallucination. It is neither the result of partial head trauma, nor an accidental intrusion from an alternate dimension.'

mbf tod@y: Usborne Guide To Computer And Video Games
'A glorious exercise in retrofuturism.'

Habitat Chronicles: Lucasfilm's Habitat Promotional Video
'In 1986, the following promotional video for Lucasfilm's Habitat - the first graphical virtual world with the first avatars - was released.'

Phosphor Dot Fossils: The DVD now available | Armchair Arcade
'Phosphor Dot Fossils is an audiovisual celebration of the evolution and innovation of arcade games, home video games and computer games.'

May 22, 2008

Opinion: Why Artificial Scarcity Could Boost Digital Game Downloads

- [In this thought-provoking opinion piece, industry commentator Matt Matthews suggests that artificial scarcity of digital games - only making them available for limited times - could be a way to get the public excited about games.]

The Problem with Infinite Shelf Space

Years ago Qwest produced a memorable television commercial of a bored hotel clerk telling a guest that each room had access to "every movie ever made, in any language, any time, day or night."

As color television was to the radio audience of the 1920s, so was this commercial's promise to the generation of dialup Internet users.

For the record, we still don't have all those movies on demand. However, the video game world is expanding its online offerings every day and we're beginning to get a taste of what it might be like to browse through "every game ever made, in any language, any time day or night".

From Xbox Live Marketplace to GameTap to the PlayStation Store to Steam to the Wii virtual console, a staggering number of video games are available to consumers at the click of a button. (For the sake of a cleaner discussion, let's put aside the seamy world of ROMs and emulators.)

Observers of the on-demand gaming world took note when the creators of N+ colorfully observed that Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade offers "a hundred games, and they're all shit." This isn't just a problem for developers; consumers have to wade through all that "shit" to find a game worth playing.

Prior to those comments, Gamasutra's Simon Carless argued that downloadable game prices cut developer margins too short. Obviously less money is a serious problem for developers (no mystery there) but raising the prices will incur the wrath of consumers who've become conditioned to expect cheaper games.

The problem, in a nutshell is this: An infinitely long tail gluts the market, confounds the consumer, and commoditizes developers. And that's why I'd propose a new strategy for making games available online: artificial scarcity.

Disney Has a Solution

Disney offers a good example of this practice in the physical marketplace. Every so often the company publishes one of its famous animated movies, repackaged in the latest video format - just "for a limited time." For example, "The Lion King" was released on DVD in late 2003 and was discontinued in early 2005.

As of this writing, third-party resellers through Amazon list new copies of "The Lion King" anywhere from $40 to $65. If you want a new copy of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" (published in 2002, discontinued in 2003), Amazon resellers can help you out to the tune of $40 to $125.

Disney even uses clever language to promote this process. A title is brought "out of the vault" and published for a limited time. After that, an ominous "moratorium" is instated. The current moratorium period is 10 years, up from the 7 year standard during the VHS era. Incautious parents can easily learn a painful lesson: when Disney brings your child's favorite movie "out of the vault", you'd buy it sooner rather than later.

By pulling titles in and out of print Disney gains several benefits. Its own extensive library of properties certainly dominates the child movie market, and artificial scarcity reduces the extent to which the company competes with itself. Consumers are kept apprised of an ongoing parade of older and newer movies, making the Disney movie market feel more dynamic and less like a static set of old products.

As consumer demand builds after a movie leaves the market, Disney can gauge when conditions will guarantee a tidy profit on a re-release. Finally, Disney's products resist commoditization: the price of a newly repackaged Disney movie (always referred to as a classic, regardless of age or quality) is $20 or more.

The Obvious Examples

Consider this hypothetical: Microsoft announces that Halo 2 will soon be available as an Xbox Original download on Xbox Live Marketplace, at a price of 1800 Microsoft Points - but only until the end of July 2008. One can easily imagine the scramble, bringing the Xbox Live network to its knees, as Xbox 360 owners everywhere download the more-convenient, discless version of the classic shooter.

Or perhaps Sony publishes the original Metal Gear Solid on its PlayStation Store for the month of June 2008, as a promotion during the launch of Metal Gear Solid 4. Afterward it is pulled from the virtual shelves and returned to the digital vault.

In both examples above, you can easily imagine that the games could be reintroduced to the market again later, at a time of the publisher's choosing. Nintendo might we wise to offer Goldeneye 007 for download on the Wii during the two weeks after Christmas, right when owners will be going online for the first time with their new consoles, ready to download a classic game or two.

Good Games Get to Live Forever

Of course the conceit of the above examples is the use of popular, established franchise games. Would lesser-known titles (especially those from smaller, possibly independent, developers) also benefit? In the sense that the virtual shelves could be a little less crowded, yes. With less competition games of all types could enjoy greater visibility and, presumably, more sales.

In return for the higher visibility, developers will have to accept an artificially shortened period on the market. Instead of being available essentially forever (and lost in a sea of other games) each developer's product will enjoy a make-or-break period, then return to cold storage. To help ameliorate the situation, prices should be ratcheted up to make each purchase more profitable for the developer.

And those new games that are legitimate hits - the PixelJunk Monsters and Pac-Man CEs - can promote the final days of their stint on the market as a carrot (or stick disguised as a carrot), prodding fence-sitters to make the leap before it's too late.

After a negotiable time out of print, a game can be revived - a classic in true Disney fashion - and promoted as yet another limited time offering. If the developer has made modest modifications in the meantime, then all the better to advertise the product as a remastered improvement over the original.

For consumers, there will be some discomfort in adjusting to artificial scarcity. Buyers will either have to purchase games during the availability window, or suffer some regret at letting the deal slip away. Moreover, the higher prices will make impulse buys less likely. In return, consumers will browse a less daunting catalog of wares, increase exposure to lesser-known games and genres.

Undoubtedly some software (the aforementioned "shit") will suffer under this system. After a bad game ends its time in the marketplace, there would be little incentive to bring it back. That's just as well, since the garbage filling up the system now serves little purpose. Artificial scarcity provides a convenient means of purging the system of unwanted games and then keeping them out on the basis that they didn't warrant a second publishing.

A New Secondary Market

Publishers no doubt see digital distribution as a means to rid itself of the used game market, which some contend cuts into publisher profits. Whether this is true or not should be a discussion for another time.

But this new artificial scarcity opens up an opportunity for a publisher-controlled secondary market where the used version of a game need not compete with the new version.

Imagine that a popular game -- say flOw on the PlayStation Store -- is put into the vault. Now Sony opens up a section on the PlayStation Store where existing owners of flOw can sell their license to another user.

The existing owner can set the price (according to demand), prospective buyers can shop around for someone willing to sell at a lower price, and Sony can take a small percentage for providing the means of commerce. When flOw comes back on the market, the used copies on the store are removed, of course.

Existing Scarcity Experiments

I'd love to make a financial argument based on hard data, but that's just not possible. The numbers behind the current digital markets are nebulous, to say the least. All we know are that prices are generally low and the truly high-quality titles get lost among the mediocre-to-poor. The gatekeepers - Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo and Valve and Turner - are in the best position to know whether artificial scarcity might have a positive impact on bottom lines.

However, there are some small experiments with limited availability right now. Nintendo has just started making demos for the Nintendo DS available through the Wii's online service. While some demos may be available permanently, some are already slated to be removed from the service.

For its part, Sony will be offering additional levels for echochrome, its Escher-inspired puzzle game, for only a limited period of time. And GameTap has an advertisement-driven client that offers certain games for free for a period of time, after which those games are available only with the subscription-driven client. Finally, Valve has scheduled weekends during which some games on Steam are free to play.

In each of these cases, the companies controlling the platforms are getting data on how limited availability translates into sales. I'm suggesting that at least one company take it one step further: follow Disney's vault/moratorium model and start training your consumers to buy early and often.

Exploring Online Worlds: Rocket Paper Scissors' Dizzywood

[Over at virtual worlds site WorldsInMotion.biz, we've restarted the Worlds In Motion Online Atlas, penned by Mathew Kumar - and an important view into a rapidly burgeoning part of the game biz. This time round - a look at the cutely named kids online world Dizzywood.]

Here's an overview of Dizzywood, a virtual world designed for children between ages 8-12 from Rocket Paper Scissors.

2008_05_12_dizzy.jpgName: Dizzywood

Company: Rocket Paper Scissors

Established: November 2007

How it Works: Flash; it runs directly in the browser window with no installation required. Navigation and gameplay is performed through use of a mouse, and users can talk to each other via keyboard input.

2008_05_12_dizzy1.jpgOverview: In Dizzywood, players can create, customize and name a character to explore an enchanted wood. Players can co-operate with others to solve the mysteries of the wood, and can earn rewards, such as items, achievement badges, e-motes and powers for successful completion of events, or they can just relax and chat with friends, take part in games and explore.

Payment Method: Dizzywood is currently free-to-play, but is to offer paid subscriptions in future as an option to access premium content.

Key Features:
-Safe world intended for children ages 8-12
-Solo games to play, but the mysteries of the wood emphasize co-operation

-Clothes, items, e-motes and powers can be unlocked and purchased, allowing avatar customization

Dizzywood: In-Depth Tour

2008_05_13_dizzy.jpg

Dizzywood starts a little surprisingly -- once you've signed up (making sure you have your parent's permission, as it's your "parent's" e-mail address confirmation is sent to) and selected a server (one of four, and you can choose your server each time you log in) you're immediately sent into the world as a generic avatar.

Landing in "Presto's Grove", the starting point for all new players in Dizzywood, I began by talking to Presto, the anthropomorphic raccoon that the grove is named after. Presto serves as the initial tutorial to the world, advising new players first how to alter their appearance (through Preso's Wagon, but actually just as easily by the massive "change your look" button that makes up part of the interface), then how to customize their clothes (by winning them from the clothing game at the Clothing Wagon, and then purchasing them from locations that sell them). After that, players are largely free to explore the world as they see fit.

Dizzywood isn't a huge world, but it is, like many others, one where you can be at a loss where to begin once the tutorial is over. Presto does give some advice -- to check out the Magic Mystery Wagon; help his "trusty assistant" Chanjo; find a skateboard; and to explore Tanglevine Jungle.

2008_05_13_dizzy1.jpg

The Magic Mystery Wagon gives each player one chance a day to win something, so I immediately headed there and won, quite excellently, a skateboard! I'd already managed to strike off two of his recommendations with only one click! Of course, I was very lucky to win a skateboard on my first try -- in the days since, I've won such (completely useless) wonders as moldy cheese and a used toothbrush.

Chanjo's problem was similarly simple -- to find his missing tools strewn around Presto's Grove, which largely consisted of simply wandering about until I saw them. The rewards for this effort was one of the unique aspects of Dizzywood -- emotes, which in themselves aren't too remarkable, but in Dizzywood you have to earn them through games and exploration. Although my new ability to wink and give high fives wasn't especially thrilling on a personal level, I can see how the effort to find new emotes could be rewarding in itself.

2008_05_13_dizzy2.jpg

I couldn't help but then waste some time playing the game initialized by clicking Chanjo's machine. A version of the Zookeeper match-3 mechanics (try and match 3 of a specific item to win) I used the opportunity to raise enough money to buy a new top from the Clothing Wagon (a striped long sleeve t-shirt) before I headed off to Tanglevine Jungle.

2008_05_13_dizzy3.jpg

Tanglevine Jungle is only one of the many other locations in Dizzywood -- other locations include Presto's Edge, Skytown Skatepark, Farthing's Meadow and more. Each of these locations tend to feature some games to play, but also puzzles to solve using the environment. Tanglevine Jungle is a great example of this. While I could happily have whiled away the time playing the game Force Field with the wandering salamander sprites (a twist on Pong) with a little exploration I found a pair of pillars that granted me the power of levitation -- which I then used to levitate over a nearby river. There, I was able play more games (a game similar old Game & Watch game Fire with a frog, and a variant of hangman with a stone coffer) but also, with further exploration, I found the ability to make myself invisibile and received an opal idol from a ghost!

2008_05_13_dizzy5.jpg

The opal idol is an item which, if I continued to explore, would eventually allow me to unlock the "zap" power, but it's there that I decided to give my exploration of Tanglevine Jungle a rest and see the rest of the world. Dizzywood has many players enjoying the world in a similar fashion -- trying to solve its puzzles, but also taking time to just explore and interact with other players.

There are several locations and events to foster this kind of play. For example, players are currently being asked by Dizzywood's wizards to travel to Wildwood Glen, where they must plant and raise trees to restore it. In order to help trees grow, players have to hover their mouse pointer over the trees, and trees grow much faster when friends work together on this task. The world has featured many other events, such as a winter festival, Valentine's Day, and an egg hunt.

2008_05_13_dizzy4.jpg

Other social aspects of the world work as most do, with a "buddies & blocks" list for friends and players the user doesn't wish to talk to, and a red whistle on screen at all times for players to report anyone they think is acting in an unacceptable manner.

Dizzywood is an interesting experience -- while the world has more structure than many social MMOs, with powers to unlock and quests to embark upon, players are given as much leeway as possible to take part in them or not. It's possible that this could lead to players interested in one format or the other could become disappointed, but I think there are good reasons why Dizzywood should continue to develop in interesting ways for all players, and I'll talk about them in the conclusion.

Dizzywood: Conclusion

2008_05_15_dizzy.jpg

I was primed to be captivated by Dizzywood before I began playing it thanks to the splash screen (which you can see above). The piece of art used is such a fantastic example of storybook art that the game already had me feeling like a kid again.

I'll be honest, though -- the world itself doesn't work quite as well at maintaining that feeling through its art. If we're going to nitpick, the art is inconsistent, with player avatars seeming to exist in a totally different world from the static "paper cut out" characters that supposedly inhabit Dizzywood.

2008_05_15_dizzy2.jpg

Of course, this kind of problem could be considered a limitation of the engine, which, as Dizzywood runs in flash and Javascript, can be a little bit idiosyncratic. I had problems getting it to work successfully in Firefox (it ran, but was glitchy) though it worked acceptably in Explorer.

Dizzywood offers a 3D world to explore, and at times that seems to be a little bit too much for the engine to offer, with animation sometimes flawed, movement occasionally jerky, and a play area window that's (arguably) far too small.

Inconsistent art and an (at times) dodgy engine aren't the limit of my problems with Dizzywood. The world falls into one of the major pitfalls that virtual worlds that feature minigames do, and that is tired and uninspired games. It's nice that every location features games to be found, but match-3 and Pong inspired games just aren't exciting enough to maintain interest.

2008_05_15_dizzy1.jpg

Which, I suppose, makes it all the more of a revelation that Dizzywood is still so worthwhile as an online experience for its intended market. As the Parent's Guide explains, Dizzywood is a safe world for children, but more than that it’s a positive one. Players can while away their time playing the games alone, but it's far more fun to explore in groups, with some aspects, such as trees that grow faster or rocks that are more easily moved by teams of friends, a great example of this. It's incredibly tedious to try and move a pile of rocks alone to retrieve a crystal skull (believe me, I tried) but a snap with friends!

Players don't have to bother with investigating the mysteries, either. I couldn't help but explore the world as if it was a game, but many users are clearly happy (and no worse off than others) for not doing anything other than chatting with friends.

As Dizzywood continues to be developed, too, they're adding more and more aspects to make both types of player happy. Explorers can now wear backpacks, and all players will soon be able to have their own rooms to decorate and hang out with friends in.

All in all, Dizzywood is a bit of a contradiction. The world doesn't look great and the technology behind it isn't particularly special. The games included are (mostly) derivative and boring. But it's brilliant fun to explore, and a great place to meet and collaborate with other players to discover its mysteries. With its continuing improvements, this could be one of the "tween" orientated worlds to watch (heck, it's even been featured in the New York Times!)

Useful Links:
Dizzywood FAQ
Dizzywood Explorer's Journal
Dizzywood Wiki

GameSetLinks: The Ion's New Clothes

- Back from the Twilight Zone Tower Of Terror at Disneyland, among other things, and am amused by how much Ion Storm's old offices (I think - see left!) actually remind me of it in that picture.

Anyhow, that's an oblique link into this set of GameSetLinks, which include some Ion reminiscences alongside Russell Carroll talking about innovation and fear, real cooking from Cookin' Mama 2, and Raph Koster examining the state of online worlds.

This, then, is the news:

Canned Dogs - Blog Archive - spike niconico channel launched
Japanese YouTube-like video sites may be cracking down on gameplay videos? V.unfortunate if so.

How to really make GoW2 more 'girlfriend-friendly' - Veronica Belmont
'I appreciate that Cliffy B. is thinking about making the game 'girlfriend-friendly' but I don't know if that's really at the heart of the matter.'

Classic Gaming Expo - cancelled for 2008, aw.
That's a shame, it's a neat, if superniche show - via Driph.

Video Games Business & Marketing: Rant: Innovation - to love, to fear
'As much as we love to talk about innovation, my experience tells me core gamers are scared to death of it because it doesn't look like what they are used to.'

Help me find an old article about Ion Storm? | Quiet Babylon
And he found it - and it's rather awesome.

Richard Cobbett > Richard's Online Journal - 'Reviewspotting'
Examining 'The Emperor's New Clothes' review, according to Richard: 'This is what you get when a reviewer is having absolutely no fun, but is terrified it might be their fault.'

Thwomp Factory: Thwomp Factory Fryday: Cooking Mama 2
Real cooking from Cooking Mama 2 - v.cute!

Raph's Website - 'The market glut'
'How many kids worlds can actually survive? I actually think the answer is just about all of them.' Hm, I don't think so, given VC dreams for the majority of them, as opposed to subsistence realities.

pushing buttons...: Difficulty Bandwagon
Former God Of War combat lead weighs in: 'In my eyes Challenge vs. Entertainment is the dividing line for difficulty.'

Misplaced Promotional Quotations for Next-gen.biz (Magical Wasteland)
'Only a craven serf would not carefully read this website every morning.' Heehee, we need to get some of those quotes for Gamasutra, everyone else has 'em!

Column: Why We Play – 'Bored Games'

41CWx55zz%2BL._SX182_SH35_.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, following Manveer Heir's wonderful article on Boom Blox's design, he questions the relevance of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln Log-sim and other digital board games .]

My Father Meets Boom Blox

This week, my parents visited New York City to check out my apartment and take a brief vacation. I always look forward to their visits, because they’re a chance for me to show off my new toys and gizmos to my dad.

I blame him for my manic interest in all things technology; when I was a child, he introduced me to all the cutting edge electronic wizardry—the NES, ten-pound portable computers (er, ‘laptops’), and America Online—that both puzzled and astonished me. Always curious what made these devices tick, but without the guts to rip them apart, I would ask my dad for detailed descriptions, which he would lay out carefully in simple phrases.

“The electricity goes in here,” he would say, point at the plug, “and it moves around inside the box. Then it transforms into a game.” I’d nod, knowingly. Fifteen years later, I still prefer those explanations to textbooks and manuals.

When my father arrived, I was eager to show him Boom Blox, a new Wii game created by EA in collaboration with Steven Spielberg. You’ve probably heard of it, but he hadn’t. The game mechanic involves moving, shooting, and collapsing piles of blocks to earn points. You actually complete these tasks via Wii gestures similar to real life: to pull a block you grab and pull with the Wiimote; hurl a ball, flick the Wiimote; shoot, point and click.

It’s extremely intuitive and, in my opinion, the best use of the console’s technology to date—a perfect match for my father who struggles with complicated controls. And since my father is always eager to use the Wii beyond his extensive Virtual Console collection, I assumed Boom Blox was just the title for him. I was wrong.

Game Time

I put in the disc, boot the game, and take a couple throws.

“Where’s Grand Theft Auto,” he says.

This is peculiar for two reasons. One, my Dad’s never seen anyone play a GTA game, and, two, my parents are adamantly against video game violence (As a child, I had to write them a four page essay on why I needed Resident Evil 2).

I say, “GTA’s in the 360. Do you want to try pulling out the blocks?”

He asks me to show him GTA, since he’s heard so much about it. He confesses to reading my columns, which I find both flattering and strange, like how I imagine starlets feel when they realize their parents read tabloids. So, I begrudgingly turn off Boom Blox, and turn on GTA IV.

And he loves it. We play for a while, before my Mom kicks us back out onto the sun kissed NYC streets. As we make our way to lunch, my Dad discusses the games with me a bit, and I piece together why Boom Blox doesn’t appeal to him. It’s too real.

Reality Bytes

I know. The game with anthropomorphic sheep and monkeys that partake in train robberies, if anything, distances itself from realism. Yet, the flourishes on the blocks are minimal, which does little to separate it from table-top games or a Lego set.

Its physics and play mechanics mirror Jenga and Tumbling Tower 2, and though its unfair to say these games are identical, the similarities are noted in nearly every review.

The problem for my father was he couldn’t associate Boom Blox as a videogame, but rather as a videogame of a table-top game. My pop can set up blocks and knock them down, but, as in GTA IV, he cannot decimate a city block with a rocket launcher and a bus.

With that in mind, I began to question a few future releases that combine videogame elements with traditional board games. EA’s deal with Hasbro came to mind, specifically recently released images of Connect Four and Monopoly.

Will more complicated gameplay make these board games better; what about adding mini-games? Would a virtual Mouse Trap game feel as rewarding if you didn’t spend so much time setting up the complex device? Or would it exceed the original, assuming this digital version of Mouse Trap allows the players to design their own Rube Goldberg devices to catch the dastardly blue, red, yellow, and green rats?

Though EA must feel there’s money to be made, for me, those games seem frivolous, like XBLA downloads you regret the next morning (I’m looking at you Mr. Driller Online).

Magnetic Appeal

When I was younger, probably six or seven, my favorite toy was a glass case about ten inches by six inches wide and two inches tall. Inside sat a country landscape with a dirt road weaving between a barn, passed miniature ponds, and over a plastic bridge.

At a starting-line waited a motorcyclist no more than a quarter inch tall, a magnet stuck to the cycle’s bottom. Under the glass case dangled a string with another magnet. To play with this contraption you would place the stringed magnet against the bottom of the case, right below the motorcyclist, and use the magnetism to pull the figurine past the barn, over the bridge, and across the fields, and grass, and plastic dirt. From above the case, it was magic—the free spirit roaming the circular path, or steering off it, trekking his own way.

My other action figures and toy cars needed my hands to bend their legs or roll their wheels, to make them walk or jump or crash against the floor. And for that, they couldn’t keep my interest. I saw how they worked, and after the illusion and my imagination passed over them, I grew bored. But I always returned to that motorcycle man in the glass case. There was something special about the power to control something without seeing the strings.

In Boom Blox, your cursor is either a target or a hand. Like a gun or your own fingers, these icons represent the strings, your involvement in the game. This game accomplishes EA’s goal to feel intuitive, like a real game. The game's perfection doesn’t call attention to the hard labor put into the design.

But in the end, for my Dad, and maybe for others, this perfection cripples the experience. The strings are still there, or at least, EA did such a good job, they appear to be there. Boom Blox seems as simple (and if not for the anthropomorphic sheep, as ordinary) as a real game of blocks.

I bet if my Dad had to explain the game to five-year old me, he would say, “They put the blocks inside the disc and you play with them on the screen.”

And I would say, “Then why not just play with blocks.”

[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.]

May 21, 2008

GameSetNetwork: The Midweek Rush

- Since it's midweek, it's time to check out the major original stories on big sister site Gamasutra and associated subsites - this time headed by our first-ever 'Gamasutra 20' for women in games.

Much kudos to Bonnie Ruberg for working with our panel to put it together - I think this is a model for future 'Gamasutra 20' lists, actually, since it seems so detailed and well-balanced.

Elsewhere so far this week - some fun NPD analysis, China's online game disruption after the tragic quake, and Ray Muzyka on BioWare joining EA, plus a number of other neatnesses.

Here's the links:

Women in Games: The Gamasutra 20
"The video game industry is often described as male-dominated, but many women do hold extremely important roles - in today's feature, Gamasutra presents its list of the 20 most vital women working in games today."

Analyze This: Will The Games Industry Give Hollywood A Run for Its Money This Summer?
"With summer game sales debuting alongside Hollywood summer smashes, Gamasutra asks Wedbush Morgan, EEDAR, and OTX analysts: out of the games being released over the summer, which games will shine, and which will succumb?"

GCG: ‘Game Design Challenge: MMORPG for Kids’
"GameCareerGuide.com has a new game design challenge, and anyone can participate. The challenge: Create a communication system for an MMORPG targeted at children. The safety of the next generation of game players is in your hands."

The China Angle: 'The Week After The Earth Shook'
"In Gamasutra's latest China Angle column, Frank Yu looks at the ramifications the devastating Sichuan earthquake have had on China's games industry, including what the government's three day ban on entertainment media (including online games) might say about future state intervention.."

The Divnich Tapes: The Hardware Race And The 800-Pound Gorilla
"Continuing his Gamasutra-exclusive NPD analysis, EEDAR's director of analytical services Jesse Divnich examines the Wii's dominating market share and why sales data shows that neither the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3 are in need of price cuts." Previously: the implications of April's underperforming software sales and Microsoft and Sony's GTA IV victories.

Q&A: Replay On Velvet Assassin, Market Shifts Toward Consoles
"In this in-depth Q&A, Replay Studios managing director Marc Moehring tells Gamasutra about Velvet Assassin, the studio's so-called "James Bond movie in the Second World War" inspired by a real British agent, as well as why Replay is moving away from internally-developed engines and PC development."

A New Future Under EA: Ray Muzyka Charts BioWare's Future
"What will life be like for BioWare following its EA acquisition? Gamasutra talks with founder and CEO Ray Muzyka on the future for the developer as it strikes out on the DS and PS3, and takes on Blizzard with its forthcoming MMORPG."

Opinion: The Beautiful Mundanity Of GTA IV

- [In this editorial, Gamasutra Editor At Large Chris Remo takes a look at some of the alternatively laidback and frenetic design angles within Grand Theft Auto IV, making a case that it's the slow periods of gameplay that really make the title's longevity as much as the big action sequences.]

Having just played through Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto IV, whose story I completed a few minutes ago, I wanted to comment on the design decisions that the makers of the game successfully balanced in order to make it so surprisingly compelling, even to series veterans.

Everyone has said great things about GTA4 so I’m not going to list them all myself. Rockstar North indeed managed to create a bafflingly well-realized world with an impressive level of fidelity and life. It’s been said, and I agree.

For my part, the thing that impressed me most–and led to me completing the game at all–was how brilliantly Rockstar balanced on the midpoint between overexaggerated absurdity, believable mundanity, and genuine gravitas.

The first of those was established in the original Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto 2, laying the seeds for the crucial third entry; the second trait was most significantly introduced (perhaps moreso than necessary) in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas; and the third has been generally on an upward curve from III to Vice City to San Andreas; but it has not been until GTA4 that all three were so expertly set against one another.

Most appealing to me, perhaps unexpectedly, has been the mundanity.

Things like art design and lighting, graphical fidelity, sound design, character design, and so on, are of course a big part of creating a believable world, but what really sells Liberty City for me are the things that ground it in true reality, not just Hollywood reality–slowing down and paying the toll at the turnpike, chasing after a cab while whistling and flagging it down, calling a buddy to go bowl a few frames, sitting in the apartment watching TV (of which there is some two hours).

Thelma Schoonmaker, longtime editor for the great film director Martin Scorsese, has spoken on Scorsese’s desire to avoid “TV writing” in his films–that is, that kind of condensed, overly-snappy dialogue that tends to strip out the often mundane nuances that comprise real life.

Though it may not be an ironclad analogy, I would draw parallels between the relationship of TV and films to that of films and games, at least with respect to density and volume of narrative. Just as a film gives more time for exposition, nuance, and character-building than does a single television episode, so could a game have more time to create genuinely convincing characters and worlds (not ones that are simply immersive from a sensory perspective).

Most character- and world-driven games, however, essentially seem to try and deliver interactive analogues to the high-octane Hollywood action sequences, but for hours and hours on end. Even roleplaying games or other titles high on exploration and dialogue generally put the player in situations where they are constantly questing or working towards a quest, while largely bypassing most of the simple convincing mundanities somebody in that situation would encounter along the way.

GTA4 succeeds in this arena by making these things available all the time, just about anywhere, but not pressing the issue (like San Andreas arguably did). I recently watched a friend play the game, and all he did was stomp around Liberty City with a rocket launcher, and crash through police barriers while racking up heat. All that GTA mayhem is there, better than ever.

But the game also offers the sensation of really being a part of Liberty City, albeit a relentlessly lawbreaking one. If you want, you can go to restaurants, pay the road tolls, take public transportation (several different kinds, including cabs, cable cars, and the metro), hang out in your pad, surf the internet in a cafe–you can invest yourself into the character and the world.

It’s not all simply a matter of overwhelming development budget either (although that helps); a number of freedoms and options from SA have been removed, such as the extreme character customization and stat-building, and various character needs.

Paradoxically, this increases the realism of the player’s involvement in the world, and the believability of protagonist Niko Bellic, because it strips away both the player’s ability to create an ultimately too-ludicrous character, as well as the need to engage in video gamey tropes such as grinding, which may have real-world parallels to strength training but is more of an immersion breaker than an enhancement.

It is widely known within the industry that most players do not complete most games. Though I can only definitively speak for myself, I would posit that, at least within character-, story-, or world-driven “core” games (do we have a name for those yet?), part of this can be pegged on “action fatigue”–that is, exhaustion or lack of interest that comes with playing hour after hour of fairly similar action-oriented gameplay, or other complex or demanding gameplay regardless of genre.

Very few films actually consist of high physical intensity from the first reel to the last, and for good reason, but games, which take much longer to complete and which demand much more involvement, do so without flinching. One potential ameliorating angle here could be wider variety of accessible gameplay within a given game to break up the core gameplay, and of course there are plenty of successful examples of this.

Another angle is Rockstar North’s–to provide for interactions that may not explicitly work towards the completion of the game, but allow the player downtime on his own terms while remaining invested in the game and its world–if done well, becoming more invested. Obviously, this seems most suited to open-world games, but it also applies to hub-based games or, really, many games that allow players to move freely between areas, even if there are larger linear barriers over the course of the experience.

(A third angle–simply making much shorter, cheaper, highly-tuned experiences–has been demonstrated as well, most obviously and recently with Portal.)

It’s a bit of a design risk, to be sure. The line between convincingly and enjoyably mundane, and gratingly mundane, is a perilous one, and I would argue Rockstar has made efforts ending on both sides of the line over the years.

Though I have been known to bemoan the franchise-driven nature of the industry, I freely admit that such game-by-game tuning is one of the greatest beneficiaries of what is largely a business reality.

As an individual, I didn’t really need three main GTA entries in one generation as well as two portable efforts (by halfway through San Andreas, I was basically overwhelmed), but seeing the culmination in GTA4 and being able to so easily trace the iterative design process through those four main entries, during which the very mechanics I am praising were perfected, makes it more than worth it.

Column: Welcome to the GameSetWatch Comic - 'Welcome to the Street Fighter'

['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.]

Next up following his intensely deconstructed Metal Gear Sold vs. Mega Man opus, Persona takes on everyone's favorite Street Fighter wall-crawler in his brand new 'Welcome To The...' strip. Yay.

His mom was probably Asian

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

May 20, 2008

Game Developer Goes Behind The Scenes Of Rock Band

- [On GameSetWatch we previously revealed the new issue of Game Developer with a developer-written Rock Band postmortem. Well, now here's some choice extracts from the article - and we hear Harmonix is blowing up and framing the cover for their office too, aw.]

The newly debuted May 2008 issue of sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a creator-written postmortem on the making of Harmonix Music Systems' Rock Band.

These extracts reveal how the team faced development obstacles on an ambitious project due to the studio's traditional lack of reliance on design documentation, but how the principle of developing hardware and software in tandem allowed the project to come together.

Harmonix design director Rob Kay crafted the postmortem, with contributions from fellow developers Eran Egozy, Ryan Lesser, Dan Teasdale, Tracy Rosenthal-Newsom, Daniel Sussman, and Greg LoPiccolo. It was introduced in Game Developer as follows:

"Witness Harmonix's transformation from a game developer to a peripheral manufacturer 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."

Not Enough Tech Design

In this first excerpt from the in-depth postmortem, Kay describes how Harmonix had to modify its approach to technical design documentation, after going from years on smaller-scale projects to the most ambitious game it had ever attempted:

"Historically, we’ve managed without much formal technical design documentation. This approach, or rather the lack of lack of one, probably sufficed in the past because our programmers were actually superstar designer-programmer hybrids who considered both technical and design impact as a matter of course.

Expanding our code department for Rock Band meant bringing in new programmers who were very talented but weren’t all designer-programmer hybrids, or if they were didn’t know they were allowed to be. Too often we jumped headlong into implementation of a new system without taking the time to properly examine the implications or test the edge cases of the design. This bit us in a few areas, notably online matchmaking, which had to be redesigned multiple times.

No doubt about it, jumping into development of complex new systems without a technical plan upfront was a flat out mistake. We’ve now formalized our design process to include code review and a technical design document before implementation of a new system begins."

Software And Hardware Hand In Hand

In its previous projects, Harmonix was not responsible for its games' peripherals - but it took that responsibility on for Rock Band. The studio focused first on the drum peripheral, at the time an unknown quantity:

"We began Rock Band as a software developer, but decided to take on the task of designing and manufacturing the hardware ourselves. Designing the controllers from scratch - and starting up a major manufacturing effort in under a year - was an enormous undertaking with a considerable learning curve.

The payoff though was more than worth it. For a game like Rock Band, the hardware is at least as important as the software, if not more. We were able to design and develop the hardware and software together, taking full control over the user experience.

We began hardware development in February 2006, working with an industrial designer and a contract manufacturer. Because it was the least understood controller, we attacked the drums first. The big challenge was delivering the playing experience of a real drum kit, in a video game controller that would cost a fraction of the price. The guitar controller was less blue sky, and development started after we had the basics of the drum controller down.

Hardware was a brave new world to us. Throughout the whole eighteen-month project cycle, we made mistakes (see what went wrong!) but tried to focus on understanding the critical decisions and making the right calls. In April 2007 we began tooling for both drums and guitar (cutting the steel molds that shape the plastic parts). The molds take about eight weeks to complete, and then you have at least another four weeks of pre-production and tuning.

In September 2007 our first containers left the China warehouse. By January 2008 over two million Rock Band Bundles had shipped."

Approaching The Ultimate Vision

Kay summed up the experience as one to which the studio gave its all, suggesting that Rock Band, out of all of Harmonix's games, has come closest to reaching the studio's ultimate goal:

"Working on a game with so many firsts was incredibly exciting. Our stall was set out early: this was to be the most ambitious music game ever made, and the spirit of confident innovation was rampant. Rock Band is full of features and moments that were born of a team committed to pushing the quality bar as high as possible.

Things like the crowd singing along when you’re performing really well, the Band World Tour’s open ended play, and the Art Maker tool (that allows you to, amongst other things, design your own tattoos) would not have made it into the game if the talented people who made them weren’t so utterly committed to making the game shine.

Seeing the drumming gameplay of Rock Band come to life, and realizing how close it is to real drumming has been a definite highlight of the project. We spent a long time breaking down the skills that absolute beginners learn to become competent drummers, and applying that to our note authoring and difficulty tuning.

Taking people with zero musical experience, and watching them gradually learn how to drum on Rock Band may well be the closest we’ve come yet to realizing the Harmonix mission: to bring the joy of making music to everyone."

GameSetLinks: Artsy Game Overload!

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/castcrash.jpg Yeehah, a pleasant Tuesday brings us a bunch more GameSetLinks, and while I'm wandering around Southern California (watch for a special arcade report soonish), there's plenty of links to hit around the blogosphere.

Among the highlights this time - the 'Artsy Games Incubator' throws up some gems, Castle Crashers (pictured) is in some danger of actually getting released, and Mega64's obnoxious puppet Marcus starts a new game-related chat show for the ages.

Ready, steady, cook:

No Media Kings » Free Artsy Games Released
Jim Munroe: 'The second round of the Artsy Games Incubator went terrific: check out Mouse Police, Bungee Fisher, Cupcake Challenge, Albacross, and my own Baby Runs This Mofo.'

Ars Technica: 'Ars Technica acquired by Condé Nast: the low-down'
Notable cos it adds some pretty decent game coverage to the Conde Nast portfolio, which also includes Wired/Wired.com of course.

TIGSource: 'Castle Crashers Is Complete'
Praise the Lord, finally - hope it doesn't get stuck in a Torpex-style infinite loop, mind you.

Peter Molyneux: My Next Game a 'Significant Scientific Achievement' | Game | Life from Wired.com
"I'm being really careful," he tells me. "I will only talk about real tangible features of the game that I can show." Good for him!

Leading Wolves » Blog Archive » gamertestingground.com
On those ubiquitous game testing scam sites, referencing an earlier GSW post: 'skip giving out your hard-earned money to con-men', indeed.

Tynan Sylvester » Blog Archive » The Idiots of Garry's Mod
I believe this is old, but wow, awesome video - machinima can be incredibly idiotically funny.

Goodbye Surfer Girl « The Space Oddity
Space Oddity busts out something interesting - potentially correct too, I reckon: 'The rumors floating around the internet about Gearbox developing a new Halo game are absolutely true. Expect to see an official announcement very soon!'

Water Cooler Games - Budget Hero
'Budget Hero is the new serious game about balancing the federal budget, from American Public Media.'

Strafe Left: The Formative Years #30 | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
Hey, Roguelike cartoon humor.

Mega64: Marcus' Corner, Episode 1 - 'David Jaffe'
Basically I love anything Mega64 does ever. Thank you!

Design Lesson 101 - Boom Blox

-['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 look at Steven Spielberg's first foray at an original game for the Wii: Boom Blox]

The name Steven Spielberg is synonymous with big Hollywood movies, such as Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Minority Report. When it was revealed that he signed an exclusive contract with EA to produce three games for the next-gen consoles, it was assumed by most that all three games would be like his films: huge blockbusters. So, like many others, I was very surprised to find out that his first title would be a simple physics-based puzzle game on the Wii.

Don't let appearances fool you. Even though the production values aren't epic, Spielberg's Boom Blox manages to produce a very entertaining set of puzzles that can appeal to gamers of all ages. Part of the reason is the fun, kinetic style of play that does a great job of utilizing the Wiimote's motion features. Additionally, Boom Blox does an excellent job of setting regular, small goals for the player, which is the focus of this design lesson.

Design Lesson: Give regular micro-goals during gameplay, so that the player knows what is expected of him and exactly what to do at all times.

This is a fairly basic rule of design, and complements the design lesson from Sam & Max Season Two, where I talked about the player needing to feel constant progress. Playing Boom Blox re-emphasized this point, so I felt the need to expand on the original lesson.

Boom Blox has a number of types of puzzles within it. Some of the puzzles require the player to topple down structures in the fewest amount of throws. Others require the player to remove blocks Jenga-style for point. There are even some shooting gallery puzzles, that focus on quick reflexes in small amounts of time.

No matter what the puzzle, a couple of things are always true. First, the player is always told exactly what conditions must be met to get a bronze, silver, or gold medal for the puzzle. Second, the puzzles usually last under five minutes. In fact, most of the puzzles take about a minute to complete.

The effect of having such short puzzles, with specific goals, is that the player is constantly aware of exactly what to do at all times. If some of the puzzles took fifteen minutes, you may get frustrated at your inability to make progress or even forget exactly what is needed for a gold medal. If you weren't told what was necessary for a gold medal, only that it exists, you may have an even harder time reaching that goal.

Think about action games for a moment. How many times have you progressed through a level in a shooter, not knowing exactly what you are trying to do, only because forward is the only way to go? Eventually, you get to the boss or the level objective, at which point you are reminded of why you were running through this particular graveyard on this particular night shooting these particular zombies.

Boom Blox is a completely different type of game, but to me the lesson is still valid. Let the player know, at all times, exactly what to do for the next few minutes of gameplay. String that together enough times, and you are at engaging the player by giving him constant feedback as to his progress.

Boom Blox's positive feedback results in the unlocking of more puzzles. Completing the first set of puzzles opens the second set, and so-on. One of the more frustrating parts of the game was when I had unlocked all of the single player puzzles, except for one set (“Master Challenges”). The game didn't tell me what I needed to do to unlock this set of puzzles, so I had to guess.

In other words, I was unsure of my micro-goals that needed to be completed in order to reach my macro-goal of unlocking the “master challenges”. The game told me what I needed to do for all the other unlockable puzzles, tools, and characters, so I didn't run into this problem until after playing the game for a long time. When it occurred, I got frustrated and looked up what I needed on the internet. It made me realize what a great job the rest of the game had done at setting small, manageable goals for the player.

Spielberg and EA may not have brought us a blockbuster game, in terms of budget, but they have built it from very sound design fundamentals. Boom Blox does an excellent job of setting player expectations up front, with respect to its goals. If its puzzles were longer or the requirements for getting a gold medal unspecified (I'm looking at you Guitar Hero and your inability to tell me what score I need to get 5-stars on a song), the game would have been less enjoyable.

Luckily, the majority of the game focuses the player on small, obtainable goals for completing puzzles and unlocking new puzzles. This makes sure the player is always aware of exactly what to do next, but not necessarily how to do it. This allows the player to make constant progress, which is important to keep a player engaged, and part of why Boom Blox is so much fun.

Bonus Lesson: Destroying things is fun!

This is the other big (and more important) reason Boom Blox is so much fun. There's not much more to be said about this. Knocking down towers of blocks is just, at its core, enjoyable. It reminds me of being a kid and playing with Lego. More games where I can knock down towers of blocks please!

[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.]

May 19, 2008

Game Time With Mister Raroo: 'Games In The Modern Public Library'

- [Kicking off a more regular column from Mr. Raroo with an offkilter starter - the following text is an excerpt from a longer paper he wrote for the course “Information and Society” in the Masters in Information and Library Science program at San José State University.]

The paper’s intended audience is individuals who know little to nothing about video games and have no idea how or why games can be an important part of any public library’s collection. The bulk of serious gamers will no doubt find information in many parts of the paper that is common knowledge to most game enthusiasts, most notably statistics about the average gamer and a discussion of the popular perception of violence in videogames.

I’ve decided to omit those portions of the paper and instead present two sections in particular: “Circulating Videogames in Public Libraries: Difficulties and Possible Solutions” and “Videogame Use In Library Programming.”

To provide some background context, I work in a public library in the position of library assistant. To describe my job in layman’s terms, I’m the person sitting the Reference Desk whom you might ask help in finding a book.

Currently the library system I work for does not circulate video games to our patrons, which I find disappointing. The benefits of providing video games as part of a library collection is steadily becoming apparent as more and more libraries start offering gaming resources to patrons.

Please view the full document to access the Works Cited list - a link to the paper in its entirety is provided here.

-Circulating Videogames in Public Libraries: Difficulties and Possible Solutions

Libraries have historically owned and circulated materials that have been questioned and challenged by community members. For example, in the San Diego Public Library system, a patron can read the newest issue of Playboy magazine or check out a copy of Mein Kampf (City of San Diego, 2008a). Libraries serve as a forum for all ideas, opinions, and expressions, even those that are disliked or controversial. The first section of the American Library Association’s (2008) Freedom to Read statement reads “It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those which are unorthodox or unpopular with the majority.”

With this in mind, videogames, which contain a vast assortment of views and expressions, seem like a natural fit for library collections. Unfortunately, many factors above and beyond even the sensationalism of game violence have served as obstacles to libraries circulating videogames.

Opposition From Traditionalists

Though typically library employees and administrators are educated and well-informed, that does not mean that they are free from sharing the same public perceptions of videogames as the rest of society. -For instance, members of the generations that grew up before videogames became a major component of the entertainment industry might not have the same connection with gaming that newer generations have. Thus, the misperception about videogames held by some individuals working in libraries may influence decision-making and serve as an obstruction to circulating videogames.

Oakley (2008) describes that when building a collection at the Guilderland Public Library, “there were some initial concerns from library traditionalists who saw gaming as the antithesis to reading” but states that in the year they launched their circulating game collection, the number of books borrowed by teens saw an increase of twenty percent. Still, most non-gamers know nothing of games beyond what they have seen reported in mainstream media and their mental representation of videogames lies in what they read about or see in the news. “Seeing videogames in the same sentence with libraries often raises eyebrows. Much of the information we receive about games from the mainstream media is negative: they are violent, addictive, stereotypical, and do not fairly represent women or minorities” (Galloway & Lauzon, 2006).

However, as previously discussed, the types of videogames highlighted in the news media represent only a small portion of what is truly being purchased and played. Additionally, videogames hold not only recreational value, but can provide artistic and educational benefits as well.

Lack of Videogame Knowledge

Even librarians and administrators who are open to the idea of providing videogame resources may feel intimidated by the abundance of videogames and systems that exist and don’t have any idea where to begin building a collection. “For librarians who are not active gamers, it can be hard to keep up with what the most popular games and systems are in your community” (Saxton, 2007).

While a wealth of information such as review archives and in-depth articles exists in videogame magazines and on game-centric websites, the multitude of data might be overwhelming to a librarian who has little to no experience with videogames. Nevertheless, options to gain information on providing videogame resources are available.

Conducting outreach methods such as contacting library systems that have already begun circulating games provides insight into what methods of building videogame collections have been the most successful. Establishing contact also provides firsthand accounts of what videogames have been the most in-demand by library patrons and what vendors provide the most competitive prices and comprehensive selections for purchasing games.

Another possible solution for librarians with limited videogame knowledge is to go the source and ask for assistance from gamers directly. Oakley (2008) describes using input from a library’s Teen Advisory Committee in order to take direction on starting a videogame collection. Additionally, the New York Public Library System solicited input from patrons as one of its sources of deciding which games to purchase when first building its game collection (J. Martin, personal communication, April 21, 2008).

Ultimately, libraries creating videogame collections are doing so to benefit the patrons they serve, so input and direction from the public is a critical source of information and assistance. Not only does public involvement provide insight and guidance on the types of videogames that have the most demand, but it also provides a possible avenue of support from community members for the new service.

Preventing Theft of Videogames

Libraries take many steps to thwart theft of materials, from magnetic strips in books to elaborate security camera systems. Still, the reality is that items will be stolen, especially those that are popular and in-demand with the public. With most new videogames costing $50 or more-, the concern naturally exists that libraries’ investments in building videogame collections may be compromised by stolen materials. Some library systems, however, have had much success with deterring theft of videogames. Oakley (2008) states that during the initial year of circulating games, with security measures including putting magnetic strips on both the games themselves and their instruction booklets, a total of six games were stolen.

However, other library systems have not fared as well. Jack Martin, the New York Public Library’s Assistant Coordinator of Young Adult Services, describes theft as the largest initial problem in circulating videogames. “We had huge numbers of games stolen from branches nearly as quickly as they hit the shelf. We created a behind-the-desk binder system to prevent this, however, and the loss rate has declined” (personal communication, April 21, 2008).

As with other popular types of library materials, finding an immediate safeguard against theft may be difficult, but once a pattern of use has been established, solutions to the problem of stolen items can be found and implemented.

Justification of Funding

Even if libraries decide to start providing videogame resources for patrons, justifying the procurement of funds to build a game collection may be troublesome. With library budgets across the United States being cut in recent years, services and resources have been sacrificed. For example, the Mission Valley Branch of the San Diego Public Library system went from being open 80.5 hours a week in 2002 to being open 45 hours a week in 2005, a decrease of approximately 45% of operating hours available to the public (City of San Diego, 2008b).

Convincing library administration, staff, and supporters that building a videogame collection during times when funds are so limited is certainly a daunting challenge. Raina Lee, editor-in-chief of 1-Up Megazine, states, “You will have to justify and defend the reasons to include games at the library, since it is taxpayer money, and some cranky people will want some answers! Be prepared to have academic discussions and emphasize the social aspect of gaming” (personal communication, February 28, 2008).

Involving library staff and community members through means such as soliciting input from a Teen Advisory Council as well as making presentations about the benefits of videogames to library administration or at events like Community Council meetings may have a positive impact on gaining internal and external support for purchasing videogame resources. For instance, before the gaming initiative began in the New York Public Library system, a formal proposal to library administration was drawn up detailing the overall vision, background, benefits, potential costs, and plans for staff training (J. Martin, personal communication, April 21, 2008).

Educating library staff members, administration, community members, and patrons about the reasons for libraries to provide videogames resources will surely endow more widespread support and understanding for justifying the funding of such a venture.

Finding Funds to Build Collections

Considering funding is so limited in many library systems across the United States, libraries granted permission to build a videogame collection will still face problems if there is not ample money to pay for the initiative. Saxton (2007) offers a possible solution to the problem of finding funds with the example of how the Martin Luther King Jr. Branch of the Cleveland Public Library system obtained gaming equipment for their library’s collection and programs:

"There are several ways to procure equipment depending on your library and community. Several libraries have purchased the equipment, either out of their budgets or with grant funds, as part of plans for ongoing videogame programming. If this is not an option, then you may be able to solicit help from your local videogame store by asking them to cosponsor an event and loan the equipment."

Beyond library budget and grant funds, approaching a library’s Friends group may provide another resource for funding the creation of a videogame collection in a library. The Ann Arbor District Library, for example, received substantial donations from the Friends of the Library group in order to purchase videogames as well as prizes for participants at gaming tournaments (Helmrich & Neiburger, 2005). In addition, rerouting some or all of the money spent on low-circulating or unpopular portions of the collection provides another source of funding.

Historically libraries have always built their collections in large part upon the demands and needs of the public, and funding has shifted throughout past decades to account for the procurement of media such as vinyl records, laserdiscs, audiocassettes, and microfilm. Since demand for various formats has decreased or been completely eliminated in recent times, funding should shift to emerging popular formats, of which videogames have been demonstrated to hold a significant place.

Approaching game companies directly is another method by which libraries -can find assistance in building a videogame collection. Lee (personal communication, February 28, 2008) suggests that libraries provide an excellent method of publicity and marketing for videogame publishers:

"It’s free marketing for game developers and publishers. Making games available at the library won’t hinder sales. Developers and publishers will love it since putting their games into the library makes them part of the intellectual canon. Only then is gaming taken seriously. It’s the same as putting games at the Smithsonian or any other museum. It’s good public relations for game companies, and it also legitimizes their work as cultural and relevant."

As circulating videogames in libraries becomes more common, it will be to the benefit of public library systems to form relationships with game publishers. Already, some game companies seem to be taking note of possibilities circulating videogames in public libraries offer.

For example, in February 2008 Nintendo donated 21 Wii consoles to five different library systems as well as the American Library Association with the goal of encouraging library gaming (Library Journal, 2008). Libraries have always enjoyed donations of a wide assortment of materials from both publishers and members of public, and videogames have the potential to be no different.

Even with sales of videogames on the increase at a significant rate, having videogames in libraries may actually help boost sales even higher by exposing more people to the artistic, entertainment, and educational value gaming offers players. In that sense, it is within the best interest of game creators and publishers to work with libraries in building collections.

Videogame Use In Library Programming

Beyond gaining public support and finding funding for building a videogame collection, libraries face the problem that many users may not own the hardware needed to play the games checked out. While some libraries may provide listening or viewing rooms for library materials, this is not a constant amongst public libraries across the United States. In most cases, users are expected to use the materials they check out on their home equipment.

For instance, if a patron checks out a DVD, the lending library usually does not provide the DVD player needed to watch it. However, unlike formats such as DVDs, videocassettes, and CDs, videogames are released for specific systems. A game released for the Sony Playstation 3, for example, will not run on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 or Nintendo’s Wii. Considering that game systems often cost hundreds of dollars, the audience of potential users becomes very limited.

Still, library systems that have begun circulating games have seen amazing demand for the resource. The San Diego County Library system, for example, began circulating games in late 2007 and many titles quickly had reserve lists of 50 or more patrons (County of San Diego, 2008). It goes without saying, then, that even with the necessity for patrons to own the hardware needed to use the videogames they borrow, there is certainly a high demand and use.

All the same, there will always be a portion of the patron base that is not able to check out videogames because they lack the necessary hardware. - Libraries still have the option of bringing videogames to such type of patrons, though, by hosting gaming programs such as tournaments.

The most common target audience of library videogame programs thus far is the historically reluctant Young Adult demographic. “Libraries realize that we need to take steps to get this generation in the door before they become jaded blog-reading, Netflix-subscribing, Google-fu masters who can’t imagine why someone would bother actually going to the library” (Helmrich & Neiburger, 2005).

Videogames are being used as a lure to attract more Young Adults into the library than what would otherwise be the case. The results show that such a strategy is indeed working and teens initially coming to the library solely for the purpose of attending gaming programs or checking out videogames expand their use of the library by exploring other available resources. Oakley (2008) notes that normally “the circulation of teen fiction and nonfiction at the library increased about four percent annually, but the year we launched the circulating game collection, there was a 20 percent increase in the number of books being borrowed by teens.”

Additionally, Saxton (2007) states “many teens who initially became involved in the library through gaming events have gone on to attend other library programs as well.” Though videogames may be the reason that some patrons first begin using a library, there is definite evidence to suggest that an increase in use amongst other library resources rises by simply increasing the number of patrons coming through the library’s doors.

Despite the initial aiming of gaming programs at the Young Adult patron audience, many libraries are starting to recognize that videogames are very popular with older audiences as well. In January of 2008, the Milford Library in Massachusetts held an all-ages gaming event on their Patron Appreciation Day in which library fines were waived if library users could beat circulation assistant Katie Spofford in a game of Dance Dance Revolution (Bernstein, 2008). Some library systems are even hosting gaming programs limited exclusively to adult participants.

According to Amanda Schukle, Collection Development Librarian for the County of San Diego, from the time when the San Diego County Library system began circulating games and hosting gaming events in 2007, adult interest in videogames was so high that a Nintendo Wii was purchased to be used specifically at events held solely for adult patrons. Since this first step, the County of San Diego has purchased a Nintendo Wii for each library branch in the system to promote both juvenile and adult gaming programs (personal communication, March 13, 2008 and May 6, 2008).

Considering the figures previously stated describing the typical gamer—namely that the average age of a gamer is 33 and 70% of all gamers are over the age of 18—it’s no surprise that libraries circulating videogames and holding gaming events were quick to learn that the patron base for utilizing gaming resources goes far beyond the youth demographic. Even so, the fact that many library systems still do not even circulate games in the first place suggests that it will take a considerable amount of time before videogames become ubiquitous within libraries.

[Mister Raroo is a happy husband, proud father, full-time public library employee, and active gamer. He currently lives in El Cajon, CA with his family and many pets. You may reach Mister Raroo at mister.raroo@gmail.com.]

GameSetLinks: I Am A Robot, I Am A Robot

- Hurray, some marvellous and complementary GameSetLinks, starting out with the N creators talking about their from-scratch re-engineering on the 'mythical' next Metanet game, Robotology.

Also in here - discussion on the Sony-commissioned PS3 demo, as well as 'the 8 online design commandments' from HDRLying and Stephen Colbert battling Asian idols on Dance Dance Revolution.

Cha cha URL:

Robotology: Back to the Drawing Board | metablog
'As with physics, we’re developing our own animation technology from scratch.' Invented tech custom fun!

Music Bounce: walkthrough, review, discussion, hints and tips at Jay is Games
An odd but v.interesting music-oriented bouncing puzzler - via The New Gamer.

GameSpite: 'Metal Gear Solid 4-play'
Parish gets a little doomy, aww. 'Seriously, guys, do something better with your life than write about video games. Let me your living cautionary tale.' Also see next post.

Make It Big In Games » Blog Archive » An Itch That Can’t Be Scratched"Make It Big In Games"
Interesting, GarageGames's Jeff Tunnell is leaving - wondering if InstantAction's lack of buzz (not saying lack of success yet, just buzz) has played a factor.

[UPDATE: Jeff Tunnell responds in our comments: "Your speculation about why I left GarageGames could not be further from the truth. Instant Action has hundreds of thousands of users already in its early Beta state. I am leaving to MAKE games for IA among other things." Fair enough, then!]

SCEA Pre-E3 Judge's Day: Linger In Shadows Impressions
Yep, the Sony-funded PS3 demo, with some 'playable' bits, oddly!

YouTube - Dance Battle: Rain VS Stephen Colbert
Yes, they play Dance Dance Revolution. Yes, I am disturbed.

The 8 Online Design Commandments « High Dynamic Range Lying
'Gameplay is not the only death sentence an online competitive game can contract.'

Level Up : 180 Degrees: How Vic Davis Forged a Template For Indie Success With Armageddon Empires, Part I
Previously skipped this because I thought it was an interview, but it actually has some of the best sales data on indie games and online notoriety that I've seen - you can compare outlet comments and sales spikes.

Art and Entertainment: Exclusively and Mutually Inexclusive « Desert Hat
'So the perceived barrier between art and entertainment is something that some would say is a result of our Puritan culture.'

damned vulpine » Helix
J. tested a new WiiWare game which is another example of the intriguing but honestly slightly iffy-looking Wii downloadable output - a lot of the upcoming games look like oldskool PC shareware, and I have no idea why. Might play great tho!

May 18, 2008

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 5/17/08

It's another exciting installment of my biweekly look into the beguiling world of video-game magazines! Huzzah! Except -- hang on -- there are only three mags to cover this time around. Curse Future Publishing for putting out all four of their mags at once and wrecking any sense of balance I had with these updates!

Still, this update is still remarkably interesting for one important reason: Edge and Game Informer both have the hot world exclusive etc. scoop on the new Prince of Persia, and since each mag wrote their coverage off largely the same access, it's the perfect opportunity for me to compare how the USA's top-circ game mag's approach to game features differs from the world's smuggest most dedicated game publication.

Edge June 2008

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Cover: A new Prince of Persia

Out of all the Edges I've read in the past few years, this is probably the cover story with the least amount of meat to it -- a far cry from the GTA feature of two months ago, which had enough content to write an entire coffee-table book with. Meanwhile, this eight-page feature is illustrated with six screenshots, a couple pieces of concept art, and some glamour shots of the development team.

Besides the visuals, you can summarize the factual content of the game in a few short phrases: The world is threatened by Corruption, the game's got an open-world structure, combat is one-on-one, and (most famously if the weblogs are any indication) a Wii version will "never, ever happen."

There! I just saved you from having to buy the issue. Or did I? Without any hands-on time or other factual experiences to report (the author blithely admits in the end that one of the fundamental gameplay concepts of this POP is still under wraps), Edge instead lets the developers talk their heads off about the game, their inspirations, and nearly everything else under the sun. The result reads almost like a "pre-mortem", as compared with Game Developer's postmortems, and the tone of the piece is much more techie/developer oriented than GI's features.

The rest of the mag is much more full-featured, chiefly thanks to features on Alone in the Dark, the new N-Gage, GarageGames, and the quest for convincingly "stupid" AI in games -- all aggressively dev-oriented pieces, all running for many pages. There's also a making-of bit on Kung Fu Chaos, which proves that Edge, for all its high points, has a pair of ridiculously rose-colored glasses that it polishes off whenever covering a British developer's work.

Glossing over the fact that the game is horrible and the personification of how uneven Microsoft was at first-party publishing outside of Halo for much of the Xbox 1's life, the article (and its interview subject, designer Tameem Antoniades) tries to blame KFC's sales failure on ultra-politically-correct EGM reviewers. Seriously. EGM wishes it was that influential. (The Edge writer also seems unaware that EGM uses a three-score reviewing system, which is a bit of an impressive oversight.)

Game Informer June 2008

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Cover: Guitar Hero 4

Unlike Edge's POP story or EGM's Guitar Hero 2 cover piece of once-upon-a-time, this is one seriously dense article backing up GI's cover. It goes over all of GH4's new customization and editing features in exhaustive detail and outlining exactly what the new drum set will be like and so forth.

More interesting to me, however, is their POP piece. Compared to Edge's article (they both work with pretty much the exact same amount of dev access and level of assets), GI's piece tries to stick to the facts -- how the fighting mechanic will work, what the world and story line is like, how the narrative will likely unfold.

There is a bit of dev commentary, but while the makers took center stage in Edge's piece, here producer Ben Mattes's quotes are window dressing for the author to decorate his descriptions of the hero's glove or what the Corruption looks like. Here lies the main difference between a GI game feature and its Edge equivalent. GI covers the game; Edge covers the game's role in the genre, the industry, and the developer/publisher working on it.

To put it in website terms, it's the difference between, say, going to IGN or going to The Escapist for coverage on this or that game -- both sites will tell you when the game's coming out and how many players can have at it online at once, but one's going to go a lot more intelligently in-depth than the other because they are writing for an audience better prepared to appreciate that.

The news section is usually GI's best part, but this time around I feel like I'm getting only part of the story with the main pieces. There's a piece on low-quality Wii shovelware (not a new subject), an interview with the Madden manager that is remarkably softball for how much the game gets picked on by hardcore fans, and a piece on Stardock that features Brad Wardell warbling on and on about how he's right and every other PC publisher is wrong when it comes to copy protection.

There's also a piece on the top 10 video game books that has Masters of Doom at number one (I can dig that), Phoenix at number two (I can't dig that; have you actually tried reading it? It's denser than my grad-level computer engineering textbooks), and Snow Crash as number three (oh come on).

Game Developer May 2008

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Cover: Rock Band

The devs at Neversoft spend a lot of their GI piece obliquely railing on the deficiencies of "our competitor's game," but Harmonix design director Rob Kay writes a killer piece on Rock Band's development, from figuring out how to make the game useful in multiplayer to getting all the Chinese manufacturing wrinkles sorted out.

[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.]

GameSetNetwork: The Weekend Edition

- Sorta a selfish version of RPS' 'The Sunday Papers', time to round up the remainder of the original articles we've published this week on sister sites like Gamasutra and Game Career Guide, yay.

Some of the highlights - WildTangent's Alex St. John is still grumpy as all get-out, we analyze Konami's epic Gamer's Day presentation, and a wannabe developer rages against the game industry machine for not letting him play, or similar.

Ready, steady, cook:

Interview: High Impact's Lesley Matheson On New Studios, Tech, And More
"Los Angeles-based High Impact Games are behind Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters and the upcoming Secret Agent Clank - and Gamasutra chats in-depth to design director Lesley Matheson on the PSP, game engines, and the LA dev scene."

ION: WildTangent's St. John Declares Consoles Dead, Claims PC Renaissance
"Console gaming is dead, declared typically brazen WildTangent CEO Alex St. John at his ION conference closing keynote, telling his audience how to harness what he claims is online PC gaming's renaissance with statistics and advice on maximizing ad-supported play."

Op-ed: From the Outside Looking In
"Brian Nathanson attended a game school and feels it left him underprepared to apply for jobs in the game industry ... or is he not getting interviews for jobs because game studios won't take a chance on an inexperienced candidate? In this op-ed, he airs the conflict as he sees it."

Analysis: Konami Gamer's Night - Business As Usual?
"As recently reported, Konami has unveiled its lineup for the remainder of 2008, including new peripheral-based rhythm title Rock Revolution, and Gamasutra was at its pre-E3 Gamer's Nights to evaluate the company's line-up - from Iga to Kojima and beyond."

Building a Mindset for Rapid Iteration Part 2: Some Patterns to Follow and Pitfalls to Avoid
"Following his initial take, EA veteran and Emergent VP Gregory completes his look at rapid iteration by examining methods for seeing asset change swiftly in your games."

Games For Health: Casual Gaming's Effects on Mood, Stress
"Surveys have suggested that gamers play certain casual games to reduce stress and improve mood, and a PopCap-funded East Carolina University research team presented research results at the 2008 Games For Health conference - Gamasutra has full specifics."

Q&A: Pogo's Kerpelman On The State Of Casual Gaming
"How can casual developers stand out in a crowded field? Todd Kerpelman, creative director for the EA-owned Pogo.com, talks in-depth to Gamasutra, giving his thoughts on casual business models, Facebook gaming, and the swift cloning of game concepts in the casual industry."

Educational Feature: Three Novice Mistakes In Game Design
"Inexperienced game designers are prone to making certain mistakes, says DeVry University instructor David Sushil, and in the latest feature for educational site GameCareerGuide, Sushil compiles three favorite repeat offenders of fledgling designers."

ION: BlackStar Designer Reinhart On Design Doc Alternatives
"Particularly for large scale projects like MMOs, design documents can be an ineffective way to convey vision, said Spacetime lead designer Brandon Reinhart at his ION conference session, suggesting, in addition, new tools to focus both development teams and players."

Q&A: FlowPlay's Morton Talks ourWorld Online Environment
"FlowPlay recently launched its youngster-targeted online world ourWorld in an open beta, and the company claims ourWorld differs from competing virtual environments, with players not only able to build customized avatars, but take in-game jobs, play games from "leading online game developers" and even view YouTube videos in an in-world theatre - we talked to FlowPlay co-founder Derrick Morton about what it is that sets ourWorld apart."

Interview: Crackpot's Ahern Sprays You With Insecticide

- [Crackpot Entertainment's Curse Of Monkey Island alumnus Larry Ahern has just debuted DS detective action-adventure Insecticide as part of an intriguingly decentralized and outsourced development effort - and our very own Brandon Sheffield has been chatting to him about how he pulled it off.]

Like many other members of the decade-long LucasArts adventure game veteran diaspora, Larry Ahern has been involved in a number of freelance projects since leaving LucasArts.

But he recently served as creative director on Insecticide, a Gamecock-published action/adventure detective title that shipped for Nintendo DS in March and is planned for downloadable release on PC.

During his ten years at LucasArts, Ahern worked on numerous games including Sam & Max Hit the Road and Day of the Tentacle as an artist and animator, and is probably best known as the co-designer of 1997's fondly-remembered Curse of Monkey Island before leaving in 2000.

Insecticide was developed by Crackpot Entertainment, an outsourcing-heavy studio that reunited several former Lucas adventure developers including concept artist Peter Chan, technical artist Mike Levine, and, briefly, designer Dave Grossman (now at Telltale Games with numerous other Lucas vets).

Ahern sat down with us to discuss Insecticide's odd platform pairing, how Crackpot and its decentralized structure work, and why the studio probably won't have another project for a while.

You recently released Insecticide. Hooray! It's an unusual target, PC downloadable and DS. What made you go that route?

LA: It's interesting, we hear that a bit. But for us, given that we are doing some puzzle-y adventure-style stuff in the detective sections, it actually makes a lot of sense on the DS.

The stuff that you can do with the mouse makes sense with the touchscreen and the stylus, so I think it's a good combo. It definitely seems that DS the market has taken a liking to a lot of the adventure-style products recently anyway.

How do you think the DS market is for original IPs? It strikes me it's a little bit difficult in some ways.

LA: I don't know, that's probably more of a Gamecock question as to how they're positioning it and marketing it. I can just speak to what we wanted to make and what made sense on the platform.

The DS wasn't initially part of the plan, we just came with a general pitch, and then we talked about what platforms made sense and Gamecock was helping us figure that out, and so…

Oh, I see. That makes sense. It was an interesting decision to have the DS game have the whole extent of the narrative, and then the PC version be broken up into two spots.

LA: Yeah, like I said, it's mostly based on trying to keep the size of the download pretty small. I know some of the downloadable games can be pretty big and you sit there for hours, but the feeling was, we're not a next-gen title, we're not some big licence that everybody knows, if we're going to him them and catch their interests, it probably makes sense to make the price point low enough so that it's intriguing, and make the download quick enough that they'll go, "Oh, yeah, let me try that out."

And, obviously the cart on the DS, you can get it all on there. The PC side, there's a heck of a lot more visual detail and a little bit more interactivity that's not critical path stuff on the PC side, so we wanted to have all that extra stuff in there and we didn't want a huge download for it, whereas with the DS you pretty much have to say, this is the product: what is it, start to finish?

Were you able to share any resources over the two?

LA: In terms of reusing models or geometry or any of that kind of thing, no, that didn't happen. But the basic design, yes. The storyline that got put together, the basic gameplay structure, how the level designs were working – essentially we put together the PC versions of those levels and then handed those off to our team who's our co-developer which is actually Creat Studios.

They're a Boston-based American company, but they have a studio – the ones we worked with were in St. Petersburg, Russia, so the team we were collaborating with were over there. They had the DS engine technology, so they were taking a lot of our levels, a lot of the design lead, and fitting it onto the DS there.

How has outsourcing some of that stuff been working for you?

LA: You know, it has its challenges, but I'd say at the end of the day, it's one of those things where, how we did this and what we did, we couldn't have done this if we'd done it any other way. There were specific people that we'd worked with that aren't going to want to be hired as employees.

Peter Chan, our concept designer, he works exclusively in film except for a couple of people he worked with at Lucasarts who he'll do some game work for, kind of the old crowd. And a bunch of people who are like that, there'll be people who we used to work with, like the music guy – some of those things are more contract work anyway – but a bunch of that stuff is: these people are out there doing freelance, that's how they want to do it, they have their own service company, and you just plug them in.

Whereas if you're going to bring staff on, you've got more overhead, more stuff to worry about – what's my next game the minute this is done? – so we liked that structure and we think it worked well. The downside is that you're a virtual company and there are some communications issues long distance.

Working with Creat there's a little bit of those issues, but it's balanced out by: they're a separate group, they can pull on more staff to meet a milestone, because they've got a bigger studio, and they can go, "Oh my gosh, we're not going to make this milestone unless we steal some people from some other project that's not in crunch and put them on here to meet that milestone."

Or, we're working on something and it's late at night here, and you can say, "Hey," because the workday's about to start for them in Russia. The flipside of course is that, "Oh, I really need to talk to the guy in Russia" and it's the middle of the night. It's back and forth.

Did you find there was more asset management you had to do, making sure deliverables were alright?

LA: Yes, it's a combination of more headaches with that and there's a little bit more of – I just had to let go of things. [Laughs.] I think I said this in some interview elsewhere recently. This is more like, I tried to put together this train and design, what is the train? Here it is.

And now I'm running along behind it, trying to catch up. It's still my train, I still came up with where it's going, but sometimes things are happening and I'm not totally in control of it.

Eventually, by the end of the project I jump on and I'm driving again, but before that there's a little bit where you have to let go and say, "That wasn't how I wanted to do that, but it's still good, so it's good enough I guess." You sort of deal with it that way, and that's the trade-off.

You said before about the LucasArts thing, it does seem to have, to me, a bit of LucasArtsy – more like Lucas-related – stuff. More like Psychonauts

LA: We've heard that before and it's interesting. It's "Did you try to do that? Where did that come from?" Honestly, the best answer is I worked with Tim Schafer as his animation lead and designed characters for most of his games, except for Grim Fandango, so if my stuff looks like his game…

And Peter Chan – the art director who did a lot of the environments and he did some of our character stuff too – worked on Psychonauts. So we have similar tastes, I think. That's where it comes from. We like a lot of the same stuff.

Makes sense. Where are you guys going to go from here?

LA: The bad answer that I'm not supposed to give is that we don't have something lined up next, but, again, that sort of folds back in to the whole virtual studio thing. We like how we put this project together – it's more like the film model where it's project by project and that's how it goes.

And it turns out that my partner Mike Levine, he has another company and does a lot of web development, a lot of online casual MMO-type stuff, and he's swamped, he's got a bunch of projects there.

And I already committed to a freelance project that's going to keep me busy through the end of summer, so you look at that and it made sense to set up this company to do this project the way we did, and the great thing is then we can do those projects and we're not freaking out on how to hire somebody to step in because we've got to do something else.

We can bounce back and forth, we can do the freelance stuff and then say, what do we want to do next as Crackpot?

How big is your core team?

LA: The core team, right now we're down to five or six guys as we're finishing up – we're almost done, so nobody was officially an employee. Essentially Mike is the only guy that's Crackpot because the company's in his name and we co-own the IP, so even I'm a contractor in terms of getting paid for it, until royalties kick in or something like that.

But we had staff that we brought on – we had four or five level designers that were working for us for a while. We subcontracted out animation with the FMVs, we subcontracted out the character models, so a lot of it was subcontracted out.

The people who were officially managed by me as individuals was maybe fifteen guys, but then there's also subcontracting groups where it's like the animation studio doing the FMVs, which I would do primarily with one person – the guy who was the production manager there and I'd talk mostly to him about, "This is what I need", and then he has to put his team on it. And that works a lot better I think.

That's the good thing, it leaves us to be pretty flexible – the people that we're working with: you don't have employees that you have to lay off if you don't have another project, so you can kind of plug them in if you want to do it again.

Like I was saying, the animation company that we worked with, they do a lot of subcontracting for stuff like that, so if we do another project like that next year, we can plug them in again, because that's what they do. They're a service company that does animation. So it's a good set-up.

The fact that there's enough infrastructure that you can work as a virtual studio, it's like the Hollywood model. The reason the Hollywood model works is that there's a workforce that's around Hollywood, and they know there's jobs they can get on.

But because of the versatility of being able to work virtually from wherever, we're starting to be able to do that, because a lot of game developers are spread out, but if you can handle it all through phone and email and instant message and Skype, that's what we did.

The guys doing our character models were over in Europe, we got the development partner in Russia, so it's nice having that ability, because these are people that you're not going to hire and have them come work for you, you'd have to find someone else, because they're not going to move.

So there's no home office for you guys?

LA: No. I have an office in my house, Mike has an office in his house, he runs another company out of it. Some of the people we work with have their own studios – like the animation company we work with has its own facility.

I found definitely that working with subgroups, people set up that way - that was the easiest, because you talk to one key guy at the animation group, he's got everybody there with him, and then he can disseminate that info and they can focus on that and really get the details right.

Whereas some of the people we work with, we worked with level designers – three or four guys in a bunch of different locations – and it was harder to pull all of that together than if it was our level design team all together somewhere. So I would probably do that a little differently in the future. Some of them work, some of them don't.

Our concept designer lives up in the San Juan islands up near Seattle – he can be wherever because he's doing an isolated one-man job and he just has to work with us, whereas the other thing is you have to work more closely with the people in production. The production work gets trickier that way.

So it will be probably be a while before we see another game that is technically from you guys – from the name anyway?

LA: I don't want to make it seem like, "Well, we're done!" but we don't have something that's currently in the works or we've signed a deal on, so I'm guessing it would be later in the year before something got put together. Like I said, we've got some freelance stuff keeping us busy through the summer.

It's definitely an interesting way to go about it – to come together for a single project.

LA: Yes, and what I like about it too is because people are working on other stuff, you get the ability for people to bring in other influences. Even myself going out to do other freelance stuff, you get a different perspective and then you can roll that into your next project.



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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