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May 31, 2008

COLUMN: Quiz Me Qwik: 'A Russian Literature Primer With Akella'

god.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 Russian literary game adaptation is probed.]

Unfortunately, what I know about Russian literature could fit on the back of a business card. It could, in fact, fit on the back of a business card even if you were using really, really big writing and a big thick permanent marker to write it, and then had to cross out a bit and rewrite it because you'd misspelled a few of the words. I could name maybe three or four authors, but that’s about it.

I know enough to divine, though, that the Strugatsky brothers – Arkady and Boris – are pretty damned popular in the former Soviet territories. They're like, say, Noel and Liam Gallagher, if they wrote science fiction books. Oh, and if they hadn't released complete crap after their first two albums and were still regarded as masters of their craft.

Actually, the Eddings brothers would probably be a more apt comparison, come to think of it. Yeah. Maybe ignore that bit about Oasis, if you could.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Lazily using Wikipedia to fill in the gaps: "The Strugatsky brothers (Бра́тья Струга́цкие), as they are usually called, became the best-known Soviet science fiction writers with a well developed fan base. Their early work was influenced by Ivan Yefremov. Their most famous novel Piknik na obochine has been translated into English as Roadside Picnic in 1977 and was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky under the title Stalker."]

The brothers' 1963 book Hard to be a God, dealing with "an alien humanoid world passing the phase of Middle-Ages", is one of their most popular – it's been filmed twice, once in 1989 and again this year. It's also now been made into a PC “hack 'n' slash RPG” by developer Akella.

The Strugatsky brothers, as Wikipedia notes, "...became the best-known Soviet science fiction writers with a well developed fan base... Their most famous novel Piknik na obochine has been translated into English as Roadside Picnic in 1977 and was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky under the title Stalker."

The brothers' 1963 book Hard to be a God, dealing with "an alien humanoid world passing the phase of Middle-Ages," is one of their most popular – it's been filmed twice, once in 1989 and again this year. It's also now been made into a PC hack 'n' slash RPG by developer Akella.

Akella formed in 1993, and claims to have released an astonishing 800 titles by late 2007. It owns the biggest localization studio in the region, working to bring titles like Neverwinter Nights 2, EverQuest II, Painkiller, Sacred, Fahrenheit, Test Drive Unlimited, Armed Assault, Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia to the Russian market.

It's also working on Postal III for Running With Scissors, intriguingly, and is known for its piratical titles such as Sea Dogs and Age Of Pirates, the sequel to one of which was morphed into a Pirates Of The Caribbean game.

Unlike most adaptations, the game makes the interesting move of setting the action after the events of its source text. “The Kingdom of Arkanar has been torn apart by internal wars, and the nobles have entrenched themselves in their castles,” notes Hard to be a God's press release. “Anarchy rules the world as an agent of the imperial intelligence organization is dispatched to the rebellious kingdom with an order to kill the leader of the insurgents.”

We used the game's North American release as an opportunity to talk to Denis Epifanov, the game's producer, Stepan “GKill” Vakhtin, its lead designer, about the challenges of bringing a book to an interactive medium, and whether or not there are people who are knowledgeable enough about the region's literature to have actually heard of of the source.

How did you go about getting the rights for the book?

Denis Epifanov: Books written by the Strugatsky brothers are very popular in the post-Soviet territories. When dev teams and publishing companies started purchasing well-known book licenses, Akella also embarked on these initiatives. We had to decide which licenses could be a good “pusher” for our games.

That’s when we got it – the Strugatsky brothers! We contacted Boris Strugatsky with the idea to transfer his and his brother’s universes to games. They agreed, and we acquired game publishing rights to such well-renowned novels as Hard to be a God, Inhabited Island, Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel, etc.

Are you planning on working on other Strugatsky books?

DE: Of course, we were very interested in working with the novels of the Strugatsky brothers - and that's why we have purchased several licenses at once. Besides Hard to be a God we have already released the Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel and the Prisoner of Power trilogy, which included the quest Prisoner of Power: The Earthling, the 3D shooter Prisoner of Power and the turn-based strategy Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power.

Presently we are working on the quest based on another novel written by the Strugatsky brothers – Monday Begins on Saturday.

Was that before or after the announcement of the movie?

god2.jpgSV: We acquired rights to the book after Alexey German announced the same-name movie. Actually, no one remembers what influenced our desire to create the Hard to be a God game – our love for the Strugatsky brothers’ works or announcement of a new movie based on the novel.

Do you think the name is marketable in English speaking countries as much as it is in Russia?

Stepan Vakhtin: Well, if talking about Hard to be a God as a book, I’m sure it’s quite marketable in English speaking countries, as well. The Strugatsky brothers are classic sci-fi writers. A lot of people are familiar with their books.

I myself went across quite a few posts - after the game demo was released - and comments in various first look or hands-on previews for Hard to be a God. Many of these feedback posts make quite a comprehensive dig into the Strugatsky universe as a whole and Hard to be a God, in particular. It all makes me believe that the game based on such an esteemed novel will be a compelling experience for gamers across the world.

Why did you decide not to follow the narrative of the book directly?

SV: Frankly speaking, that’s a bundle of reasons that drove us. Firstly, we felt it could be quite boring and trivial to follow the narrative of the book just word-for-word. Secondly, we at our dev team are true fans of the Strugatsky brothers’ written heritage. We were always so much enthusiastic about following up on what they created, you know, what could happen afterwards, may be some time after the events described in the novel.

So when we finally embarked on the challenge, it became totally clear – our time had come to feature our own variant of what might have happened later. Incidentally, we received a great support in composing the storyline and dialogs, making the overall setting from one of the authors of the table edition of the Hard to be a God game.

What's the table edition?

DE: This is the tabletop RPG Hard to be a God. It is based on a non-commercial Russian roleplaying system The World of the Great Dragon, which, in turn, is based on classic Dungeons & Dragons. The game was created under the supervision of Dmitriy Knyazev - we had been working together on the computer-based version of the game as well.

The rules of this role-playing system cover the character creation, skills, weapons and equipment, typical NPCs and the bestiary.

How difficult was it to develop the storyline for the game, given the book's reputation? Was there an element of pressure involved?

SV: Yes, that was quite a challenge – adapting and adjusting the universe and book’s story to the rules relevant in computer games. We’ve re-designed the storyline three times.

Our main target was to keep the book’s atmosphere. First of all, we took all those characters we got used to while plunging into the novel from the book world to the game realm. We’ve re-created a great host of book-themed features: locations, traditions, etc.

Arkanar, the Drunken Den, Gnilovrazh'e, and so on – they are all included in the game. We did our best to combine the rich and vibrant scenery of this medieval planet, its people, and their relations with dynamic viewpoints the game will be fraught with.

Our script-writers and game-designers are sci-fi fans. And, of course, we are very well aware of every feature of the novel. So I must admit, we felt a great deal of responsibility, that’s why we were very sensitive to the story, dialog options and the overall setting.

If you mean some pressure from the part of the book author, we didn’t feel any at all – on the contrary, we always received Boris Strugatsky’s support. Unfortunately, Arkadiy Strugatsky died in 1991.

god3.jpgHow much involvement, all up, has Boris Strugatsky had with the project?

DE: We had a very nice experience in working with Boris Strugatsky. Alas - he seems to keep his distance from the development of the video games. In one of his interviews he did mention that long ago, when his brother, Arkadiy Strugatsky, was still alive, they both tried to participate in the development of a game based on one of their works.

After two months of fruitless trials they did realize that game development is simply not their calling, and so they decided not to interfere with this industry anymore.

Does he seem interested in games as a medium for storytelling?

DE: As for his actual interest in the development of games on the basis of his books, I cannot be sure. But one thing is for certain - if Boris Strugatsky in fact disliked the whole idea, we would never be able to obtain a single license!

As a result, we received an exciting and comprehensive world of Hard to be a God.

Was there inspiration for the story taken from other places? It seems that a lot of fan-fiction associated with the book also sees Arkanar descend into anarchy.

SV: I’m not sure whether I can list fan-fiction among inspiration sources. I can definitely say that we fell under great influence of the Strugatsky universe. Some of its features were taken from the original novel; some were drawn from other books by the same authors.

Also, we derived a lot from the same-name table game. We developed the game’s storyline ourselves, though. Thus we can also be called fan-fiction writers.

Do you think that expanding on a book's fiction is the most effective way of developing novels into games? Do you think we'll see more developers working in this fashion?

god4.jpgDE: I think it is a good way to develop licensed games - in fact, we are surely not the pioneers in this area. Remember the Matrix series of games, based on the famous cinematic trilogy? As a player I, for, one, would prefer to relive some new episodes, watch the events from another point of view, something that is often different from the one presented in the novel or a movie.

Repeating what has already been done seems boring to me - not to mention that the creativity is severely restricted when one is tied by the bonds of the "classical" masterpiece.

And concerning other developers - I'm quite positive that many of them will use this approach to the use of creative works both in literature and motion-picture art in their future games. In fact, many already do so.

How interested do you think gamers in general are in expansive stories? Do you think they care about subtexts relating to Nazism, fascism and so on?

SV: No, actually I believe that’s not something that interests casual gamers. That’s the gameplay that drives them as they go through all the game challenges. And, you know, I can agree with their point. If you want to get deeper into the novel concept, refer to some special literature, documentary films, etc.

Was it difficult to decide which genre to work within for the game?

SV: We studied all the book peculiarities and thought that the most marketable genre would be a hack 'n' slash RPG. On the one hand, our setting is a medieval world; on the other hand, that’s a far off future.

Besides, despite being very extensive the universe still lacks a very thorough and detailed description. That delivers a great room for dreaming, inventing, developing in aspect of both story and game design.

Why do you think other book adaptations have been less than successful, for the most part?

SV: If you mean book adaptations in other game genres, we believe they could be fine, as well. We were just dreaming about creating a game in the ambience of both medieval world and hi-tech future. Well, RPGs are a great choice for featuring the scenery, people’s attitudes and relations, individual characters. That’s what we did.

Will gamers unfamiliar with the book still be able to follow the storyline?

SV: Through the storyline, we gradually introduce a gamer into what is actually going on. By completing missions, reading dialogs, delving into books and watching other characters’ behaviour, the character receives an immersive experience finding out something new every time. And he needs to use these new skills and knowledge.

We applied every effort to avoid gamers’ lack of info. That’s why it’s not necessary to read the book to play the game. However, if the player has read the novel he will still find a lot of compelling things to do in the game: he will meet familiar characters, locations and learn what’s next!

IndieGames.com Interview: Dan Tabar (Cortex Command)

[Thanks to sister site IndieGames.com and its editor Tim W., we catch up with Dan Tabar, creator of wacky 2D team-based combat game which has neeto pixel graphics - and physics used to simulate every character, particle, and explosion in extreme detail. He's making an interesting living off selling his work in progress, too - more info within!]

An interview with Dan Tabar, the developer of Cortex Command. Data Realms' debut release has been called awesome, astounding, heaps of fun, and even proclaimed as the greatest physics game ever.

Hi Dan, how about we begin with a small introduction?

Howdy, I'm Dan "Data" Tabar. I'm the 'Development Director' at Data Realms, which is the fancy title meaning I simply run the game dev here.

I was born and grew up in Sweden, but now live and work in Phoenix, AZ. Mostly work from home, but a few days out of the week I work out of the offices of the good friends and fellow indie developers Flashbang Studios. Just to get out of the house and be a little social.. also helps boost my productivity to get into the office environment from time to time.

Have you released anything else in the past, besides Cortex Command? Anything that we can download?

Nope! I've worked professionally on several software projects before though, from a lab at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, to stints at Rainbow Studios and 2XL Games here in Phoenix.

Oh.. the spacecraft docking simulation app I worked on at NASA might still be on the lab's site... but it's not really worth checking out.

How did the name Cortex Command come about?

I've had this vision, or extrapolation for a long time, about what's going to happen to us and technology in the future. And it just seems like everything points to that as computer simulations and integration with our brains improve, a lot of people are going to eventually be spending more time in simulated environments than in real life.

I mean, look at MMO addictions already. A lot of people choose to spend more time and effort in these still crude simulations, through still crude human-machine interfaces, than in their real lives. I bet when both the games and the interfaces (monitors, mice, keyboards) improve radically, some will actually opt to amputate their entire bodies, in order to live their lives entirely in simulated worlds.

So, out of this crazy sci-fi premise, comes the story of Cortex Command, where a lot of people have done just this, and it's enabled them to easily travel through space, since they don't need elaborate life support systems to maintain their obsolete natural bodies, but only their brains.

Also, if you can remote control and remote sense through disposable bodies, wouldn't you make sure your brain was as physically safe as possible? Hence the bunkers prevalent in the game.

A lot of the story and details we have planned are only hinted at currently, so there's going to be a lot more to reveal in the campaign.

How long has the game been in development?

Cortex Command has been a kind of super long-going project for me. Like seven years and counting. I started working on the engine in high school in Sweden with the intention of learning 'real' game development, and it's been put on the backburner for long periods several times while I was working different full-time jobs or trying to do college here in the US.

Early on, though, I vowed to really, actually, FINISH the project and make a full game out of it. That commitment to myself has pulled the project out of the back burner time and again.

Is it officially the longest indie game in development then? Since Cave Story took Pixel five years to make.

Well, I wouldn't be surprised if he (Pixel) has put more actual man hours into CS than I have into CC so far, considering those long gaps in active development for me...

I'm quite sure that fans are dying to know the answer to this question. When will Cortex Command be completed?

I'm really interested to know that myself!

Estimates?

About mid-2006, I decided to give independence a shot and quit my last job in the 'big' games industry to really pursue and make a living off Data Realms and Cortex Command. So I've been working 'full time' on it since.

While I don't expect it to take another 7 years to complete the damn thing, it's certainly got another year of development to go, considering all the stuff we've got planned for it.

When I say 'we', I mean me and Arne Niklas Jansson, the other guy I've been collaborating with heavily on the project for the last four years. He's done almost all the art, contributed much of the design, and even programmed some of the art pipeline tools.

Can you mention briefly some of the big features that we can expect in the coming build releases?

Regarding new features, I've got a series going now on our Dev Log with just that, each post talking about a new completed item for the next build.

The biggest thing I'm really excited about right now is the integration of Lua scripting into the engine. With the help of an excellent helper library called LuaBind, I've managed to expose an incredible amount of control of the engine to script writers. Modders will be able to literally make entire new games with the engine (through scripting) if they wanted to.

The real thing that's left to do in the game is the whole campaign mode, which will have a sort of turn-based, strategic meta-game going on top of it, with a series of story missions loosely and not entirely linearly linked together.

But there will also be a lot of dynamically generated missions mixed in, like 'establish a mining base here', or 'defend your base from sudden attack here!" If you fail to protect your bases, you will lose the regular income you gain from them each round.

How has the response for Cortex Command been so far?

The response to the game has grown slowly through word of mouth over the years. I made a point of having a forum and releasing builds very very early on.

What has also helped spread the word is that I've submitted the game to IGF for... I think 5 years in a row now, which has gotten our website link onto the entries list page there each year. We haven't made it into the finals yet, but that linking alone has driven a lot of our traffic and slowly built our fanbase. The compounded exposure we've gotten over the years absolutely built our fanbase, which are now paying customers.

Also, the IGF deadline each year was a great motivator for me to get my ass in gear and hit some milestones. If it wasn't for IGF, the game would not be in a state that we could be selling it at this point.

Are you entering any other competitions then?

Yeah! This year there's at least five big indie-specific game competitions: IGF, PAX10, Indie Game Showcase, IndieCade, Slamdance. Actually three of them are new for this year. I just have the deadlines in my calendar, with a two-week alarm set.

It's really great and worth it to enter all of them for the same reasons mentioned for IGF. Well, the difference is that imposed deadline... a background din of 'please finish the game' from the fans isn't as effective as a real deadline to shoot for.

Since Cortex Command is only for Windows, any plans on getting it on other platforms?

Actually, yes. We have found someone reliable and competent to do the Mac port, and he'll start working on it in a week or two. He should be able to do the port in a couple of weeks, no problem. I'm going to announce details about that later.

How about consoles?

Not yet; we're focusing on finishing the game first. The Mac port is such low-hanging fruit that we're doing it early. Any other ports will probably come later when the game is more complete.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced during the seven years you've spent on developing Cortex Command?

Mostly with personal discipline to sit down and actually do real work during the day, when there's a lot of distracting errands to run, and other tasks to get done, or just lazily surfing the web. The classic problems of working from home, basically.

Do you still play your own game after seven years of working on it? (besides specifically for the purpose of testing)

On the rare occasion, we have a few guys over to do the splitscreen games. And it's always a pleasant surprise for me how much I enjoy and rediscover the game again.

Played any good indie games lately?

Yeah, been enjoying that Cactus Arcade collection. And Noitu Love 2, of course.

Oh, and Voxelstein 3D recently blew me away... there's something really appealing about being able to manipulate every single one of the smallest building blocks of the simulation: Pixels in CC vs. Voxels in V3D.

Any advice for budding game developers?

Yep: Just set up a modest goal/project and learn what you need to learn to finish it. Keep doing that, always shooting higher. Learn by doing.

Anything you'd like to say to all of the Cortex Command fans out there?

Stay tuned, you haven't seen anything yet!

GameSetLinks: Naija Circa Aquaria, Tremendosa

Eureka! Ulrikaa! It's totally the weekend, which means the GameSetLinks shenanigans can continue unabated into the non-work week - starting with Derek Yu's concept art evolution for Aquaria's (pictured) lead character.

In other top linkage action, we have some kind of scary Donkey Kong Country-worshiping webisode, Variety on whether Activision and SAG are smooching, some kind of Penny Arcade/Marx Bros comparison, and what game piracy means to your kids, dammit.

Gotta getta linked-up:

Bit-Blot Forums: 'Character Development - Naija'
Showing how the lead character for IGF winner Aquaria was developed, with lots of neat sketches.

The Brainy Gamer: Hail Freedonia!
Comparing Gabe & Tycho to Groucho & Harpo, sorta!

Team Genius - 'Boyfriends' - Donkey Kong (Country)
Wha some kind of insane webisode geek R&B ode to the SNES game - via XAmount

The rebirth of grue - Feature - Adventure Classic Gaming
Possibly written as a school paper, but good overview anyhow: 'Interactive fiction is constantly evolving, further and further away from the simplistic adventure game concept of its roots.'

A Tree Falling in the Forest: It Was Time for "The Talk": Parenting Anti Piracy Edition
'When it comes to games, we address piracy issues at a macro level, but not at home.'

The Cut Scene - Video Game Blog by Variety: Screen Actors Guild thanks videogames that use its contract, almost all Activision
'Is Activision the only publisher that's using the SAG contract on a regular basis?'

Automated Super Mario World Orchestra « Desert Hat
'A self-playing Super Mario World level that produces sound effects in time with a massive medley!'

Crap artist can't get job, whines about it - Polycount
Interesting discussion thread (with borderline unfair title) on a recent Game Career Guide article about getting into the biz, from a frustrated newbie.

GamOvr - Pix for game geeks
A new site and a '...collaborative effort to share video game pictures we find interesting' - a neat visual collage concept.

Negative Space (1.0) - beyondDS
'Negative Space is a homebrew puzzle/platform game for the NDS, based on the concept of negative space' - very avant DS homebrew, based on Squidi-concepted Flash game.

May 30, 2008

Column: The Game Anthropologist: Defense of the Ancients: An Underground Revolution

Dota%20heroes.jpg [The Game Anthropologist chronicles Michael Walbridge's ventures into gaming communities as he reports on their inhabitants and culture.]

If you've played Warcraft III on Battle.net lately you'd feel like more people were playing Defense of the Ancients, popularly called DOTA, than the actual Blizzard game it’s based on. In fact, DOTA is likely the most popular and most-discussed free, non-supported game mod in the world, judging by the numbers. (It's also been a notable inspiration for the plethora of Tower Defense Flash games in recent years.)

Over at the “official” DOTA Allstars forums as I write this, there are 800 people logged in and over 100,000 total topics and over 23,000 topics in the general forum in the last month. By comparison, Warcraft III, the game it is modded from, only has a few thousand topics at most over on the Battle.net website.

Competitive RPG Action the Way We Want It

The game itself is technically played in RTS format but is often described as “RPG combat.” Many players were disappointed by Warcraft III; some were disappointed it wasn’t more like Starcraft, and many found that the heroes system watered the game down into an experiment that was interesting enough to play, but not fun enough to worship.

Warcraft III match strategies are centered around the selection, leveling, and gearing of heroes, with all units simply being support for the hero. Turning points, victories, and defeats are hero-centered. DOTA turns Warcraft III’s hero system on its head—instead of playing an army with an important leader, you simply play the important leader while the computer takes care of the army.

Like any brilliant game, the concept is simple and the strategy is complex: each side has an Ancient and the object of the game is to destroy that ancient. There are three paths from base to base with three defensive towers on the way to that base. At precise and frequent intervals, each base sends a set of computer-controlled creeps towards the enemy base. Players control heroes who receive earn money as time passes and for killing enemy creeps and enemy heroes.

The maximum level is 25 (instead of Warcraft III’s 10) and each team gets 5 heroes. There are over 70 heroes to choose from. At level 1, a hero can barely take on two creeps by himself. At level 25 and with the right items, a hero can wade through a dozen creeps with little to no consequences.

The strategy focuses on leveling, getting hero kills, pushing the enemy’s base with your allied creeps and defending against the same. There are also a large number of items for purchase, some coming from “recipes” that mix multiple items to make single powerful items, a necessity since each hero has only 6 slots. If a player dies, he loses money and valuable time to be leveling while providing a lot of experience to the other player. If he dies frequently, he’s called a “feeder” and his team will usually become venomous.

DOTA is no small mod; only Counter-Strike can compare for depth, fun, fan-base, and community depth. DOTA Allstars is frequently updated, tested, and changed. The changelog has a professional quality to it; DOTA is well-balanced to the point that it had its own tournament at Blizzcon in 2005 and it is represented in numerous Esports leagues and other cash prize tournaments.

A Mod Made by Legends and the People

The only thing about DOTA that is as fascinating as its gameplay and success is its history and evolution. Its designers and programmers are largely anonymous. The original designer is only known as Eul; he released DOTA even before the expansion Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne came out. After its release, Guinsoo, another anonymous modder, took over and converted it for the expansion.

Dota%20heroes.jpg He later stopped developing for it; the also-anonymous Icefrog took his place. Icefrog responded to an interview request with “I usually prefer to not do interviews” (he hasn’t done one anywhere yet). Players debate the validity of reports of his even being seen playing the game; what little information that is offered about him is only offered by people who claim to know him.

There is no verifiable or documented information about him—the only proof we have that someone named Icefrog is even involved is by his email on getdota.com, his name in the load screen, and the few people who have truly, if unverifiably, interacted with him.

Over at the DOTA Allstars community, the highly loyal players suggest many, many changes and ideas. “Eul, Guinsoo or IceFrog alone did not make the map. The DOTA community…makes the map”, one player said. Loadscreen art is drawn by fans. Some bugs are found and some items and heroes are made, erased, and changed almost entirely because of community outreach. Seven mirrors on getdota.com are responsible for its dissemination. Once a new hero, the fairie dragon, was found by the community to be too powerful. Icefrog must have agreed—the fairie dragon was changed in less than two weeks.

But despite all of the community’s help, it is still Icefrog, a man who may be named Jeremy, who may be from Boston and who may study at UCLA, which makes the final changes. The masses may be the power of the movement, but the figurehead and initiator of all that changes is still focused on a mysterious, almost spiritual figurehead.

As curious a figure as Icefrog is, his identity ultimately doesn’t matter to the game’s progress. The community has faith that if one leader leaves, another will take his place. Previous modders Eul and Guinsoo did much for DOTA; they have in-game items named after them. If Icefrog steps down, doubtless another will take his place as the Zorro of Battle.net.

Give Us the Tools and We’ll Make the Rules

DOTA is played using custom map settings on Battle.net, which is a setting that anyone would have said couldn’t be governed by anyone other than Blizzard. Warcraft III matches are made randomly by Battle.net to prevent abuse of the stats system, which is a way of measuring player skill for practice or clan acceptance.

It also ensures that players are close enough geographically so that disconnecting doesn’t interfere with stats or matches. In a custom map, none of this is available. Anyone can join any game no matter how poor or distant the connections, and there are no stats. A round of DOTA is usually at least half an hour long, and if someone leaves the teams become imbalanced.

It seems impossible to get ten people to stick in an online game for approximately an hour, but the DOTA community has found ways to do this with consistency. One program allows the host to check the country from which all users originate. Some games that are hosted now say something like “DOTA 6.48 –apem BR!”, which means that it’s DOTA, it’s the 6.48 version, it’s the –apem game modes, and it’s only for players in Brazil. Even if you speak Portuguese, you’ll likely be booted. Personal banlists ensure that if someone doesn’t like you or if you leave within 5 minutes, you will be kicked the next time you join that person’s matches.

Team Dota Allstars is a committee dedicated to mature and complete games. TDA has rules, its own forum, channel, certification process (getting on the “safelist”) and banlist. The process to be safelisted, which proves your willingness to not start games you know you can’t finish and to work as a team in what can only be a team game, is highly inconvenient, necessary, and effective.

The Underground in Public

DOTA is a delight to all who play it: it’s surprisingly addictive and even pastiche, mixing the highs and lows of gaming and gaming culture. DOTA’s quirks, governments, outlaws, and innovation show us that it’s much easier to renovate for the masses when the masses are involved. The vision of one leader alone is required, but never sufficient.

[Interested parties can contact Michael Walbridge at kiddycone at yahoo.com if you want him to report on your community.]

Austin GDC Reveals BioWare, Disney, Cryptic Speakers

[Though Austin GDC is going to be announcing a whole bunch of neat keynotes over the next couple of months, we thought we'd start rounding up some of the good lectures that have already been 'stealth announced' for our September conference in good ol' Texas.]

The organizers of the 2008 Austin Game Developers Conference have revealed a number of key lectures for the event, with speakers from companies including Nexon America, BioWare Austin, and Disney Interactive scheduled to deliver a diverse set of sessions for professionals working in all aspects of the online, social game, and MMO field.

Sessions from the Online Games Track, which cover topics on Business & Marketing, Design, Social Networking & Community, and Technology & Services, will include the following:

- Nexon America's director of game operations, Min Kim, will share his experience from working with immensely popular MMO MapleStory and other games in a session titled From Development to Launch: the Keys to Building a Successful Free-to-Play MMO. The 101 discussion will cover everything from useful tips on making games to how to work with publishers - professionals working in the free-to-play MMO environment shouldn't miss this one.

- BioWare Austin lead combat designer Damion Schubert is inviting mid and high-level designers to attend his session on "elder gameplay," Endgame: How to Build High-End Gameplay for Your Most Devoted Players. This informative session will focus not only on the importance of "elder gaming mechanics," but also on the subtleties that should be considered when designing them and the dangers of overthinking them - hopefully with some tangential references to BioWare Austin's yet-to-be revealed MMO.

- Cryptic Studios director of publishing Grant Wei plans to evaluate the customer’s relationship with creators in Engaging Customer Service – an MMO perspective, a session on the many channels through which customers interact with MMOG developers - and how companies can take each interaction as an "opportunity to provide a flawless and enjoyable customer experience." With experience from the relatively successful City Of Heroes, and looking forward to Champions Online, this should be an intriguing perspective.

- Flying Lab's director of development Joe Ludwig will be presenting 'Pirates of the Burning Sea: A Post-Partum': "Well, it took five years, but Flying Lab Software has finally launched its Age of Sail MMO! Come hear the ups and downs of the project and all the things the team learned along the way."

- Internet marketing research company comScore's Edward Hunter will be speaking on 'Measuring & Metrics: The Online Gaming Audience', an advanced Business & Marketing session covering the shift in the online gaming audience demographic and where those audiences are headed, complete with relevant statistics!

- Disney Interactive senior designer Patricia Pizer is debuting 'Everything I Need To Know About Virtual Worlds, I learned at Disneyland', in which she juxtaposes Disney's DGamer project, an online world accessible through Disney's Nintendo DS games, with a relevant real-world comparison point: "Walt Disney and his team built Disneyland on a foundation of thoughtful, deep and careful design choices, each made to deliberately address issues such as quality of experience, narrative flow, party-dynamics, crowd control and user retention."

For more information on the 2008 Austin Game Developers Conference, including other key lectures already planned for the September 15th - 17th event, please refer to the official Austin GDC 2008 website.

Opinion: Aggregation Vs Portals: Where Microsoft Is Going Wrong With Xbox Live

[In this impassioned opinion piece, Lionhead and Climax veteran Tadhg Kelly examines the recent Xbox 360 Live game de-listing changes, suggesting three major problems and six notable solutions that would silence the 'death knell' for Microsoft's digital download service.]

In perhaps the most interesting news of recent weeks, Microsoft have announced that they are going to start de-listing games from Xbox Live Arcade based on two criteria: Sales and review scores.

In their view this means that they are trying to bring some overall quality back to the product line, probably because they've had consumer feedback that says they are tired of wading through lots of mush in order to get to the good games. In my view it's likely the death knell for Xbox Live Arcade as somewhere to go for great games and is leaving the door open for Sony or Nintendo (or someone else, Apple perhaps) to take their crown.

It's also a move that's been a long time coming. If anyone has spent any time browsing through the interface of Live in the last few months, it's becoming an increasingly sodden experience. There are long, poorly maintained lists of product in there. There are a few notable remakes making the headlines (such as Rez HD) but also a lot of really very bad product (such as the Battlestar Galactica game, or the port of Marathon) and the service has lacked focus for quite some time.

But why is proposing to remove the crap a death knell move? On the surface it sounds like a sensible plan because it means that the consumer experience would be improved. Indeed. But the problems are threefold:

1. Any such system is going to be wide open to collusion, politicking and will reward only those companies who are more sales-driven and ruthless about getting good review scores.
2. It reduces consumer choice.
3. It doesn't solve the main problems.

Let's tackle these in turn:

1. Collusion.

The unfortunate truth of the retail games industry is that it relies on a lot of wheel-greasing, which is why it tends to favour higher-end publishers and developers with deep pockets. It's no great secret that review scores can often be bought indirectly through the means of exclusive interviews, junket goodies and even potential job opportunities for reviewers to become game developers. It's also no great secret that reviewers tend, as a group, to have certain in-built prejudices against certain types of game, and they tend to think and award scores like a community.

This behavior is arguably necessary in a retail environment where the buying power of the retail chain is largely concerned with what bulk orders for volume they can place. With only limited shelf space up for grabs, a publisher looking to maximise its shareholder returns has to take the view that they need their product in prime position.

Indeed it would be irresponsible of them as a company not to do that, and so the only questions become whether what they're doing is legal, and whether they have genuine ethical concerns about some of the tactics that might be deployed. In most cases the answer to that second question is "maybe, but not enough to make them stop doing it". Publishers are not evil, but they operate in a difficult environment.

So this behavior model will clearly also translate across into Xbox Live Arcade. XBLA is already a constrained retail model (see point 3 below) and the threat of de-listing only intensifies that pressure. So what will happen is that sales-oriented developers will behave like retail publishers and start taking steps to get those high review scores. They will also continue to establish their personal relationships with members of the Xbox team so that they can have a champion inside the platform itself, because it's easier to de-list a game from someone anonymous rather than from your friend at developer X who'll phone you hurt and angry.

Lastly, and far more seriously, it means that the developers will increasingly pitch for products that they think Microsoft will like, or products that Microsoft themselves might think should be on the service, and so XBLA will become a much more for-hire service. While this is a valid model for a smaller digital service like interactive TV (and is basically what I do for a living), I'm not convinced that it's a model that should be applied to a console gaming audience.

2. Consumer Choice

Clearly this move affects consumer choice. Less games available for sale means less games available for browsing, which means more of a hit-driven mentality in an online space. This will mean less sales. I don't want to bore my readers too much with talk of the now-cliché Long Tail effect, but the fact remains that Amazon, Itunes and Netflix all consistently report that they see more sales as whole from their long tail aggregate than they do from their hits.

The problem here is not that channelling consumer choice is a bad thing, it's that channelling choice should only be engaged in where it is necessary. In retail it is necessary because of the physical costs of distributing product and maintaining stores with high rent. In television it was necessary because the physical constraints of the technology meant that all interests simply could not be served (though this is now slowly changing).

In the online space it is not necessary. The cost of distribution is negligible and there are no technical constraints of broadcast technology. Ultimately an XBLA game as a product is just another small portion of data on a disk space on a RAID rack somewhere in Redmond that gets called up and downloaded as required. Delisting such product saves practically nothing and gains the consumer nothing. (And it doesn't answer the question of what happens to the consumer who bought a game which was subsequently delisted, only to have their Xbox hard drive fail at a later date: How do they get their game back?)

Which leads me nicely into:

3. The Main Problems

The real problems that Microsoft have (which de-listing is not going to solve) are all to do with key choices that they have made in the construction of XBLA for Xbox 360, and how those decisions are driven by portal-based thinking rather than aggregator-based thinking.

Portal-based thinking is basically the headset that tries to take the retail and magazine-based view into the internet. Portals try and push selected content out to their readers in a managed fashion. It inherently is driven by the assumption that consumers need to be sold to, and consumer-experience needs to be guided with studies of "journeys" and so forth. Portals worry a lot about managing the user expectations. Yahoo is a good example of portal-based thinking.

Aggregator-based thinking is the reverse. It's the headset that tries to provide the best tools for the readers to find what they want. In the aggregator model, the consumer and his friends are the sales people and the "journey" is unimportant. What's important is that there is enough content to be found, and that it can be accessed easily. Digg is an example of aggregator-based thinking.

Microsoft clearly have always thought of Xbox Live as a portal. This has led them to a number of decisions:

1. They have always throttled releases. This is a leaf taken out of Nintendo's old playbook with the NES, wherein you manage the release pattern of games so that every one gets the chance to shine. This results in a lot of developers clamouring to get in the door, and a lot of collusion-driven behaviour as a result. It also results in Microsoft starting to try and direct traffic in order to raise quality, which results in a highly managed catalog full box-checking (as in they fulfil perceived genre or other criteria) bad games. In short, the throttled release decision is largely responsible for the poor quality of XBLA content.

2. They have focused the whole experience on the Xbox itself. You buy Live games from the Xbox 360, you find them through it and use it as your gateway into the wider world. This was an understandable but incredibly stupid decision made a time when they were trying to sell the new console.

At that time it probably seemed to them that they really had to get people to look at their dashboard to get into the brand, but the problem is that using a console joypad as a primary means of finding and sorting large quantities of content simply sucks as an experience. It leads to short, stubby menus, long tedious scrolling lists and a general touchy-feely air to the design (remember, portals think "journeys" are paramount). It is simply not suited, nor will it ever be, to presenting large volumes of content.

Imagine if Apple had created the iPod platform without iTunes and insisted that we all bought our music through the click-wheel interface and small screen of the iPod itself. That's largely what Microsoft have done with insisting on tying games purchasing to the Xbox itself.

3. The points system. XBLA points are a good idea, not dissimilar to pay-as-you-go phones and other similar models, and they allow gamers under the age of 18 (and therefore sans credit cards) to participate in the network, buy games that they want with their pocket money and so forth. The problem is that points are compulsory. In trying to manage the customer journey again (thinking like a portal) they have created a barrier for consumers who simply don't want the hassle. Also the fact that the Gold subscription for online play does work with credit cards but the purchasing of games does not probably creates consumer confusion and therefore aversion. It should be as easy as one-click to buy a game on XBLA.

It should be noted here that I don't think Microsoft are trying to be evil or mean about who gets to make games for Live. There is, after all, the example of XNA that shows that they are at least trying to embrace with the content in some shape or form. I just think that they can't seem to get the portal model out of their heads, and that's what's killing them.

So Is It Too Late?

Is it too late for XBLA? Well I hope not, but I suspect it is. Microsoft increasingly have competition from Sony (whose online play is free after all) and now Nintendo - who have announced a very interesting scheme for WiiWare that is squarely aimed at the sorts of innovative small developers that Microsoft wanted to attract but ultimately repelled with their portal structure.

Microsoft had an early-market advantage with XBLA 3 years ago, but their competitors have now matched (and may supercede) their offering. And with sales of the 360 console itself being caught by PS3 and out-classed by Wii, I would imagine there isn't much of an appetite in Redmond for large-scale changes to the system.

Ultimately it comes down to whether Microsoft as a culture really has the ability to think in an aggregator mindset, and whether they have a continued appetite to be in the console business at all.

Solutions

If I were to propose some solutions, they would be these:

1. Build a web portal that allows consumers to find, buy and recommend games to each other. Change the Xbox 360 Dashboard to allow syncing of web activity and Live activity such that if I buy a game via the web portal, my 360 will download that game automatically the next time I log on. Decoupling game purchases from the console dashboard is the one problem that they really need to solve.

2. Allow consumers to buy games via their credit card directly. This ties into the web portal idea, with the overall approach being to allow easy purchases with as few clicks as possible.

3. Don't de-list content. Instead provide better filtering tools on the Xbox's portal.

4. Provide a simple means for users to rate games directly rather than relying on professional reviewers. Tie this in with the filtering tools in suggestion #3.

5. Stop throttling releases. It is likely that throttling has built up a regular enough audience who now check back every week for the new game, but that is small potatoes compared to the damage that throttling causes.

6. Simplify the distinctions. At the moment there at least two strands of Live's online games proposition (Xbox Classics and XBLA) and soon XNA will be a third. These are pointless distinctions that make lots of sense to a marketeer or someone who works for Microsoft (again: it's "journey" based thinking) but make no sense to consumers.

To a consumer it's all just "games" and it's better for them if Halo and Hexic are sitting beside each other in the list than having to understand Microsoft's logic in order to be able to overcome their own aversion. This especially applies for XNA, which, going on the current model, is likely to only ever be of interest to XNA members owing to the levels of aversion that it will cause.

7. Fix the developer deal. Royalty-changes were an accounting-based manoeuvre but they have proved horrendously unpopular with the development community. Now that Microsoft has real competition from Nintendo and Sony, developers are looking elsewhere to see which network offers the best deal. And that doesn't even begin the cover the possibilities if developers look even further afield to iPhone, Facebook and many other markets that offer a much better cut of the action.

Conclusion

As you can see, Microsoft have effectively hoisted themselves by their own petard when it comes to XBLA. In trying to manage consumers and overcome what they believed was an image issue, they have created a network that organisationally can't actually sell a lot of games. Their solution is to reduce the catalogue, but this is essentially an admission of failure on their part.

With the 360 probably having peaked in terms of overall appeal and other console providers and technology companies now delivering credible alternatives, it is up to Microsoft to rethink their whole strategy and decide whether this is a sector of the business that they really want to be in any more.

[Tadhg is the senior game development manager for an interactive TV platform based in the UK. He has previous worked as a lead designer at Climax and scene designer at Lionhead. Tadhg also writes irregular articles for his industry blog.]

Best Of Indie Games: Son Of Every Portal Extend

[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 independent PC Flash/downloadable titles released earlier this week - including a puzzle game inspired by Portal, two arena shooters and a platformer by O-MEGA, the developer of Every Extend.

Game Pick: 'Epsilon' (EON, browser)
"A challenging Flash-based puzzler based around solving tasks using various fictional technologies such as wormhole manipulation, gravity shift, and even time reversals."

Game Pick: 'Robokill' (Rock Solid Arcade, browser)
"Robokill is a top-down shooter where players can configure their robots using weapons and upgrades acquired from defeated enemies, crates or even friendly shopkeepers. The demo for this commercial release allows players to sample four missions in total, which equates to more than one third of the entire game."

Game Pick: 'inno vation' (O-MEGA, freeware)
"A black and white platformer created by the developer of Every Extend. The game has been out for a while now but was only recently translated for western audiences. In the game, players are given control of a wild boar on a search for treasure and rare items."

Game Pick: 'Paperblast' (Jesse Venbrux, freeware)
"The second arena shooter to be featured this week, Paperblast is a new game from the developer of the slightly avant Execution and the Karoshi series. Fight enemies made out of paper, score points and avoid the bullets."

May 29, 2008

In-Depth: 'Quality of Life In The Game Biz: The Response'

lostwinds.jpg Big sister site Gamasutra's recent feature on game industry quality of life, which featured comments from quality of life whistleblower Erin Hoffman (EA_Spouse) and International Game Developers Association executive director Jason Della Rocca, generated a considerable number of responses from the development community.

Commenters on the Gamasutra article spoke on a variety of topics connected to quality of life, including the prospect of industry unions, management issues, developer/publisher relations, conditions in related fields such as serious games, and, of course, crunching.

Interestingly, there were both comments criticizing crunch time as an exhausting result of poor planning, as well as those defending it as an inevitable component of a creative industry.

In addition to those comments criticizing the practices of studios and publishers, there were also those frustrated with members of the industry who do not stand up for quality of life issues - although most commenters were sympathetic to the dangers of doing so.

Because we felt this discussion was worth preserving and distilling, we have compiled excerpts from some of the most interesting responses. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of respondents to the original article, still available for reading, elected to remain anonymous, as many were critical of common industry practices.

Crunch Time

"I think maybe we should work toward the elimination of ridiculous crunch time from the other end of the problem - from what I can see, the game business needs, more than anything, professional project management and professional creative management.

In my experience, so much time is wasted during the first 2/3 of a project's schedule just figuring out what the game is going to be and working up the tech to handle it, that the game is really only being actually produced during the last 1/3 of the schedule.

There's a lot of schedule myopia too - only paying attention to the current milestone and its attendant tasks and assets, on a month-to-month basis, as opposed to effectively managing long-term tasks over multiple milestones.

I'd love to hear how many of us (I know it's a lot) have had to pretty much take their whole game apart and rebuild a lot of it from scratch between Milestone 13 of 18 and Gold Master, because at the last minute it was learned that the tools or engine wasn't going to handle some key function, or that art tasks that were left to pile up couldn't possibly be completed in time.

There's a lot of leaving things up in the air because 'we're only gonna change our minds about it in a few months anyway,' which needs to STOP. The companies I've seen who make the best games all have decisive creative, art and tech directors (or direction) that is able to 'build the game in their heads' and on paper first, and communicate requirements to each other effectively.

I bet it's a hell of a lot cheaper to hire, or train, a truly effective production management team than it is to pay 50 people overtime - or to burn out all your best people.

I'm anonymous because I'm at a place exactly like I just described - hopefully not for much longer, it's killing me."

-Anonymous


"There is simply no 'getting rid' of crunch time, unless you want to just make product. Every seasoned professional in the games industry knows that the fun in a game comes out in the last few months, when everyone is crunching and working hard and playing the game and looking for the fun. This is a necessary part of any project about which you care.

People are confusing this with mandatory overtime for a project on which you are just another salaried employee.

If you're just a cog in a big wheel working on a game you don't really care about, or in which your concerns are only a small part of the whole, it can be managed like any other professional project with minimal overtime. Note MINIMAL overtime. In reality, some overtime will be necessary because it is still a creative endeavor.

People don't revolt against overtime when they are working on something they care about. They revolt about it when they see what they do as a job, and the overtime as a burdensome chore."

-Anonymous

Forming Unions

"No one would take legal action out of fear really. It's a small world in video games and no company wants to hire someone who's been splattered over the news papers for taking legal action against a developer for doing exactly what everyone else is already doing; overworking their staff. It's a huge scarlet letter on your forehead and for lack of a better phrase, 'you'll never work in this town again' comes to mind =).

The only way to take legal action is as a conglomerate entity, not an individual, and unions are often required to organize something like that. Even still; a union has it's own evils and I would not hope to see them infest the game industry like they have in the air-travel and car manufacturing industries.

In truth, it would take a massive joint effort which (in these days) could easily be done virally online. Though most developers would sooner just replace you with the next hungry sucker than listen to what you have to say."

-Anonymous


"I'm a fan of irony. This is simplistic, the industry is much more complex now, but it seems the situation is a continuous loop ... who will step up and force the train to jump the track?

Activision 1979 - Formed by Levy, Crane, Kaplan, Miller, Whitehead. Talented designers/coders fed up with the corporate shaft job they were getting. First major 3rd party developer - changed the industry forever. They wanted and achieved developer credit, fair compensation, etc.

Activision 2008 - Have they become Atari of 1979 ?? Is the next rebellious batch of Crane, Whitehead, Kaplan, Miller working in an Activision studio right now? I agree with several folks on this - I think a Guild-like force will be necessary. :)"

-Steve Watkins


Publisher/Developer Relations

"It sounds like one of the core issues here is publishers. In regards to everyones comments on designers, producers, and managers; they don't' have the time they need to do their job right because of pressure from publishers. We all just need to face the fact; the current business model is ass backwards, and needs a complete makeover! A makeover where the studio has more control over the creative process and the IP they create.

Have some f*cking backbone and vision for christ sake! If you don't take matters into your own hands, who will! And on top of that: by excepting these conditions; your doing a great injustice to your selves and to those yet to come.

I mean.. really people... find a f*cking spine and have some gumption or suffer!

Until this is done, I don't think much will change. Any changes made will be in vain, and serve only as a band-aid remedy. Needs a complete makeover from the ground up, like most things, and industries."

-Robert Zamber


"'It sounds like one of the core issues here is publishers.'

I have never crunched because of publisher pressure. I've always crunched because either the team's plans were unrealistic, weren't paid attention to or followed, or because the team considered that thanks to crunching we could add more stuff to the game that would make it a bit (or a lot) better.

Always self-inflicted ('self' as in the team, although obviously the leads are responsible for it, and many team members didn't exactly like it).

'We would see less of the garbage that is ALWAYS, on behalf of the publishers, and pushed on both the studios and consumers alike'

In all the games I've worked on, you can attribute 100% of the mistakes and questionable decisions to the developers (including myself).

To say that QoL issues in general are caused by publishers is the same as saying bad sales are due to piracy, i.e. an easy cop out that only kids and PR people should use."

-Javier Arevalo

Leaving Commercial Games For Serious Games

"I left the commercial games industry because of the many issues detailed in the EA Spouse letter as well as others stated in this article. I have moved into a Serious Games field where the hours are much more regulated due to the nature of govt contracting.

Employees often work EXACTLY 40 hours a week; no more, no less. This is to maximize what they charge to the contract since overtime is unpaid by the govt unless explicitly approved.

Though it does not have the 'rock star' feel of making games that are hyped on TV, and the work at times is not as challenging since you are not always pushing the graphics envelope, it's a solid and sane day's work. The office is typically dead by 6-7pm and everyone heads home to their families and friends.

It certainly isn't the final solution by any stretch as the production quality of many serious games tend to feel 'old-school' but it's hard to argue with a fair pay check and a 40 hour work week. If game developers took a better look at this and focused more on QoL and less on the bottom line they might still be able to make great games (even IF they are not busting at the seams with production quality).

Working overtime in video games seems to have gone from a labor of love to just plain labor. A mandatory rite-of-passage for anyone in this industry. I think that everyone should go through it once and witness just how bad their life could be; it puts your life into perspective. I would not however make a habit of it or even put up with it for long."

-Anonymous


"There was a lawsuit, several in fact, against EA. There were class action lawsuits. I was part of the class for the programmer lawsuit (with the lead plaintiff being Erin's hubby).

EA settled (they also settled their artist lawsuit earlier). So it doesn't change their behavior just costs them more. Although, it did reclassify a lot of programmers as non-exempt.

Also, I had done the same as [the anonymous commenter immediately above]. I went to work at a serious game company. I've been there over three years now, and it's regular hours 99% of the time."

-Joe Straitiff

Design Lesson 101 - Frontier's LostWinds

lostwinds.jpg['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by Raven game designer Manveer Heir. The challenge is to play a game from start to completion - and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at one of the first titles available on Nintendo's WiiWare service, LostWinds, created by the David Braben-helmed UK developer Frontier Developments]

Original IP is always a tough sell in this industry. According to the NPD, in 2007 the only original IP to break the top ten in sales in the United States were Wii Play and Assassin's Creed. It's debatable whether or not Wii Play even classifies as original IP. The launch of services such as Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and WiiWare have been heralded as the impetus for the gaming revolution, with lower budgets allowing for more experimentation in gameplay.

While this may not be the great revolution many predicted or would like, it is hard to ignore that there are some genuinely unique titles available on these services. One such title is LostWinds, for the Nintendo Wii. By utilizing the Wiimote's motion capabilities to move the player character, Frontier Developments is able to offer a unique gameplay experience in the familiar setting of a 2D platformer.

Design Lesson: Changing the method of input can make a familiar genre feel like a unique experience

LostWinds strength is in its usage of the Wiimote. The game places you as a young boy named Toku. Early in the game, you gain an ally Enril; oh, and Enril is the disembodied Wind Spirit. That's right, Enril (and the player) can control the wind, which become the major mechanic of the game. Toku may be the main character of the game, but the star is the wind.

Instead of just pressing a button to jump, LostWinds has you make a motion with the Wiimote to create a gust of wind. This gust will push the player, objects, and enemies in the world in any direction. Gusts will often affect even the backgrounds of the world. While there is no gameplay behind making bushes and trees sway and rustle from gusts of wind, it makes the player feel in control and like he is directly affecting the world.

I've never felt like I'm really directly affecting the world in Super Mario Bros. Instead, I directly affect the other inhabitants of the world, but not the world itself (Only some of the bricks are breakable in the game and never the critical path, so that doesn't feel like affecting the world enough to me).

In LostWinds this changes the entire way of traversing and interacting with the world. No longer is checking out the entire village as simple as just pressing a button to jump every now and again. Instead, the player constantly is physically moving to make Toku jump on screen. Every gust affects trees, enemies, fire, water, and even NPCs. The player truly feels as if he is directly affecting the world around him, something that is isn't found in the standard 2D platform game.

This motion input also creates mechanics that defy genre conventions. There is no way to directly attack enemies. Jumping on their heads, a wildly accepted convention, will lead to death. Rather, the player must use gusts of wind to slam the enemies into the ground.

This means you can defeat enemies as long as they are on screen, even if Toku isn't near them. This creates a puzzle-centric game, over a combat-centric game, which isn't always found in platformers. It reminded me of the original Prince of Persia where the environment was your real enemy, not the guards. Combat is always secondary in the game.

lostwinds.jpg (Side design note: I do question the need for any combat in the game, but maybe we need some opportunity for failure to truly feel success. Or maybe I've just been trained to think that way from genre conventions and life. I have a feeling this warrants deeper pondering and discussion, but I'd love to hear any thoughts if you have them).

Later in the game, you get the power to channel other elements to solve puzzles. By using the Wiimote to draw on the screen, you can make fire, water, and wind follow the path you've drawn. This allows you to burn down barriers that would be otherwise impassable, by connecting the barrier with the source of fire.

Again, the game is making a more direct correlation with the player's physical movement with the Wiimote and the movement of fire and water on the screen. This interface could be replicated with a mouse, so it's not some major innovation. However, it's still so different than how most platformers behave that it helps the game feel more novel and unique than it may actually be (I promise that's a compliment).

These simple changes in the input method of LostWinds help the game standout as something that feels unique and different. The player experience is altered just by wagging around a Wiimote in the air, instead of holding an Xbox 360 controller in their hands.

Had the game had you jump by pressing a button, solve puzzles by maneuvering your in-game character to push items around, it wouldn't have the same charm and feel.

The game is defined by its input, something that is usually avoided by designers. Usually designers try to make the player forget that they have to use a controller for input, concentrating on immersing the player through graphics, sound, and gameplay.

This isn't the case with LostWinds. The developers are all too happy to remind you that you are playing a game by forcing physical movement to progress.

LostWinds is not necessarily innovative, but it's different thanks to its usage of the Wiimote. Sometimes, that's all it takes to get noticed. I only hope more developers are able to take a chance on “something different” on the WiiWare in the future.

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

GameSetLinks: Cahier Meets Drugstore

- Ah yes, a little GameSetLink-age for your palate, starting out with the New York Times discussing Miyamoto and throwing out a little (perhaps justified) mini-dig at us in the insular game biz.

Also in here - Yahoo! Games on the WiiWare phenomenon, Nabeel Hyatt on what makes gaming social, and the inevitable and wonderful return of Mega64 star Marcus, berating The Behemoth's Paladin (pictured!) and Baez.

Please sample our delights:

Video Games - Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo Expands His Empire - NYTimes.com
'Eighteen months ago, just when video games were in danger of disappearing into the niche world of fetishists' - is a phrase that has NeoGAF shaking fists, heehee.

press the ACTION BUTTON!!: Tim Rogers reviews BioShock
Golden if only for the brief discussion of why Kohler should be disregarded because he likes Fleetwood Mac. Obviously.

Driven - Super Mario is in my ears and in my eyes
Showing some Koji Kondo/Beatles melodic similarity hilarity - via Bneely!

AI Game Dev: 'Paris Game AI Workshop'
Day after Paris GDC, neat specialized free conf thing.

Wii Ware: Is This Nintendo's First Blunder? - Yahoo! Video Games
This was front-page at Yahoo's homepage the other day, showing how influential the relatively overlooked Yahoo! Video Games page might be sometimes.

Les Cahiers Vidéoludiques
This looks like a great art-game site, if you read French. I do not!

XBLAH!: Rant Mode: Microsoft to start delisting Xbox Live Arcade Titles
More interesting, upset feedback from an XBLA fan.

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Video: Drugstore (Earthbound)
No idea what this has to do with Indie Games, Tim, but it's awesome!

What Makes Gaming Social? - GigaOM
'While social networking is focused on connecting people together, we should expect the best of social gaming to be about creating and building relationships with those friends.'

Mega64: Marcus' Corner
This time interviewing Dan Paladin + John Baez from The Behemoth (Castle Crashers), yaaay.

May 28, 2008

Interview: XNA's Boyd Multerer Talks Xbox 360 Community Games

- [This interview, conducted by Brandon Sheffield, ran on big sis site Gamasutra earlier today, and I'm bonus posting it over here because the Xbox 360 Community Games concept is intriguingly 'open' for Microsoft - especially the peer review concept for ratings - so it'll be fascinating to see how it plays out, both in game quality and submission reality.]

At GDC, Microsoft revealed the Xbox Live Community Games project, using the XNA platform and its Game Studio Express software to allow the publishing of Xbox 360 games from the amateur community.

The company has been seeking to create what is often hopefully (and elusively) painted as a "YouTube of gaming" - an environment where amateur and independent developers can freely share their creations in an accessible way.

In the longer term, Microsoft is looking to familiarize the next generation of game developers with knowledge of its own development environments, which has obvious benefits for the company down the line if they can pull it off.

According to the firm, Microsoft plans to announce more regarding its XNA initiatives and the Creators Club Online/Community Games project (which is a peer-based publishing system and currently in Beta) at its annual Gamefest technology conference in July.

In the meantime, XNA game platform general manager Boyd Multerer sat down with Gamasutra to discuss the specifics of the complex system, how it's intended to work, and some of the possible issues and solutions inherent in the new system.

The YouTube Of Gaming

Many people are looking for the whole "YouTube of gaming" thing - how exactly is the process going to be working now, in terms of differentiating content that a consumer would pay for, and free content?

BM: Well that's a good question, and it's an area that is specifically an area that we're still trying to close the details on. And the plan is that we'll have a completed story around "What is the difference between those kinds of content and how do you differentiate between them?" at Gamefest this summer.

So that's just specifically an area that I can't talk about at the moment, just because we haven't closed on it yet. We haven't finished figuring that part out yet.

OK. You're still going to have Xbox Live Arcade, correct? And so Community Games will be differentiated, right?

BM: That is right. Well, the first differentiator to think about, right now - that's a different differentiator - there's a differentiator of professional content versus community content. That one I can talk better about.

In the professional world - and when you think about XBLA in particular - that is content that has had serious budgets put into it. I mean, to make those games, and to make a high quality game that's worthy of getting big marketing money behind it, and all that, it costs money. Budgets for those games, with multiple people involved, about three hundred thousand dollars, half-million dollars, even a million dollars these days is not unheard of to develop these kinds of games.

The people I'm targeting with the community side of XNA, their budget is... can they eat? Right? Some of these people are in college, some of these people are not even in the software industry, this is what they do for hobby, and it's about giving them a channel where they can still be creative.

No one's expecting that - and of course there will be exceptions to this, but overall - no one's expecting that their games are going to compete with the professional titles, simply because they don't have the art budget for it. There will occasionally be someone who's really, really good at it, and is going to stand out, but for the vast majority of the content, you'll be able to tell the difference as soon as you see it, simply because it just takes a lot to make a professional game.

Right. It is similar tools, though, so someone from, you know, a rogue Bungee employee could make something in their spare time.

BM: Yeah, that's totally true. And I expect that kind of stuff. There will be standout items that come; there will be the brilliant kid from art school who is making great artwork; there's going to be the rogue person from a professional studio; all of that kind of stuff will be there. The vast majority of the content, overall... You'll probably be able to tell the difference. That doesn't mean it won't be fun.

Have you figured out the ranking systems yet, in terms of how things will be searchable? Will there be top, you know, top played and top rated situations?

BM: Yeah. In general, the place where these games meet the consumer side? That's the part that's being closed. So I can talk more definitively about 'What does it look like from the developers' side?' Because even I don't know exactly what the UI's going to look like. We've got lots of ideas! And we're trying to close it down as fast as we can, but GameFest is probably the right time.

How did you decide to approach for the initial games that were put up? Did you seek people out, or did people -

BM: They more sought us out. So we had the Dream, Build, Play contest last summer, and ever since then, we've got people who've been making really interesting stuff and sending them our way.

But it's more that those games kind-of found us. Maybe not in every single case - I didn't personally make all the choices as to what they were, but in general we're seeing a stronger response from the community, and more creativity, and higher level games than we expected, so it's pretty easy to find good things to show.

Content Ratings Sans ESRB

What is the publishing process? What do you have to go through?

BM: It's pretty straightforward. So you write your game, and then you go to a place on the Creators Club website - there's a Beta now out - where you'll be able to go up, and if you're a member of the club, you'll go to a page, and you'll be able to fill a form out.

There's a spot for you to put a screenshot and some text describing your game, and then there's a bunch of sliders - basically a "sex, violence, language" section, and you choose how much of each one of those, and there's a couple of sub-categories - and pretty much anything in those sliders is OK.

But what we want is we want you to say how much of each of those is in the game. You could have all the way in all the columns and we'll still pass it through, as long as you're prudent, and pretty accurate in describing what the game is.

Then you submit the game, and it goes through a peer review process, where a certain number of your peers will then download the game, play it, and then either agree or disagree with how you rated it. If you said it's a three on language, and they say it's a zero and there's none, that's not as important as if you say there's zero and they say there's three. Then it'll certainly get kicked back.

And part of the reason we're running the beta is because we have to figure out these heuristics, and how exactly should they work. It's new territory, so we're trying to figure it out.

Right. When it does get kicked back, does someone on the Microsoft side have to look at it then?

BM: No, no, no. Specifically it will get kicked back to the person to the person who made the game, with an F, and with an explanation for why it got kicked back. If it's just in the rating system, then please re-rate it, and re-submit.

There are certain things, a small set of things, that are just outright banned, and if it got kicked back with one of those, it will be explained, and you'll have to change your game and try it again.

What are those things, if you can say?

BM: Excessive nudity, explicit scenes, threats against another person. That kind of stuff.

OK. And it seems like it's possibly gray areas, like... Are you at all concerned that people will specifically - consumers like parents, or people like that - will hold Microsoft accountable for content that's created by users? I mean, I know they shouldn't, but are you worried that it's going to happen?

BM: Well first off, I guess there are a couple ways of thinking about it. Number one, we've tried to set it up so that if your game wouldn't get an M rating, then it's not going to make it through the system. So we're trying to -

You mean if it's over an M rating?

BM: If it's over an M rating, then it wouldn't make it through the system anyway. Beyond that, any of this content, when we launch, is going to be officially 'unrated', which is the highest restriction level, so if you set any parental controls on your box whatsoever, then this stuff won't play.

The third piece is, you know, our job is just to make sure that it's a decision the parent gets to make. We're trying to be better than anyone else at explaining, 'this is what you're going to get into if you download this' and you can see those ratings, and you can say, "OK, this doesn't have a lot of language, it's got a whole lot of violence," and blah-blah-blah, and let the parent make their own choices.

Right.

BM: If they don't like it, they shouldn't download it.

That's true. Though, most of them tend to just put the console in their kid's room, and then forget about it. But that's not your problem, really; that's not your fault. There's not much you can do about that.

BM: But, I want to emphasize that it's something that we care a lot about, and I want to make sure that if the parent has any interest, they can make informed decisions. It's important to us, as we're going into this space. I know it's rife with opportunities for bad things, and we're trying to be really good about letting people make their own decisions, and make good decisions.

Paying The Bills

Is the cost nailed down for this yet? Last time I spoke with someone, it wasn't, for the Creators Club and getting the XNA and all that.

BM: Well, I guess I'd say there's two different costs: One is, to make a game at all - to download the tools, to download the APIs, to download everything you need to make an XNA game - is free. Visual Studio Express is free, our APIs are free, the tools are free on Windows. So you can build your game, you can do all your creative stuff, you can get your point across without spending a penny.

Now, tools from other companies obviously aren't free - you'll need a 3D editing package and all of that kind of stuff - but to make the essence of your game on Windows is free. To get it running on your Xbox, to do the debugging and get it to the point where it runs on that device is $99 a year.

To be able to submit your game to the publishing system, you will need that subscription. So that will be $99 a year. And for that, I don't really care how many games you've made, but there is a barrier to get in in the first place.

And that barrier is in place to make sure that people are serious, right. And also to mitigate some costs.

BM: Well, I'd say there are really three goals to that barrier. One is to make sure that if you're communicating with someone who's in the Creators Club, who also is in the Creators Club, and you're talking about game development, you know for pretty sure that they're serious. So the level of the discussion is raised up a notch.

Two, a little bit of cost recovery, but really it doesn't even come close to covering the cost of the program we're running. The more interesting one is, if there are people trying to grief the system, right? $99 for someone who's really interested in making a game is really nothing, but $99 a hundred times over for someone who's trying to grief and keeps getting their account banned, that actually starts to add up.

Is it to the point where there is something in place where people can make money off of their games?

BM: We understand that there are all kinds of motivations that people have for making a game, and we're certainly exploring all the possibilities, and we'll have a better story for you around GameFest time.

Attracting The Next Wave Of Developers

You mentioned that the $99 a year is not going to cover the cost by a long shot; do you have a plan to eventually bring this to profitability, or is this mostly a community-building kind of thing?

BM: There are different aspects to the program that need to be considered, and we get different things out of them. One of the fundamental things we've always been trying to do with it is to teach people how to make games. And this is an easily-overlooked goal on our part, but it's actually really serious.

One of the problems we've got, and in fact every technical company has got, and the game companies have got, is that we can't hire enough people who know how to write games. There just aren't enough of them out there.

So one of the biggest drivers of the whole program is getting into universities, get people being taught how to write games, get Xboxes in there, and actually get more people into CompSci. Period. So I'm really happy, we're in over four hundred universities right now - which just kind of blows me away.

Yeah, that's a lot.

BM: And it's kind of a sideways way of answering your question, but my point here is that there are more things that we get out of it than just having our cost recovered, and that's actually really important to us.

Yeah. Well, in a forward-thinking kind of way, if you put this out there for them, people are learning on Microsoft tools, and then they become Microsoft tool users; so that seems like a potential benefit.

BM: That benefit isn't lost on us. (laughter) Yeah, we noticed that.

Yeah, of course you noticed. It was the plan. Or, I assume it was the plan. Microsoft is, in many ways, leading the online charge in many fronts on the console space. In some ways, Microsoft is getting ahead, but in other ways Microsoft is also spending all the money to figure out things that work, and then other people can learn from that without spending the money.

BM: That's always the risk. I mean, you always have a choice of, are you going to be a follower and try to catch up, or are you going to lead into a space, get the first-mover advantage?

Any time you do a first-mover in any kind of a subject area, you have to figure out all of the hard spots, you might take a couple of knocks, and there's always a chance that someone's going to pass you by. So you have to choose which one you're going to be in. It's a difficult for any person or any company, in, really, any technical field what-so-ever.

Do you have any kind of mechanism through which these XNA Creator creative people can seek out jobs, or anything like that? I don't know if that's too high level integration, but -

BM: No, that's a great question. One of the dreams that we have for the Creator Club website is to have a place where people in it can advertise their services, get hooked up with other people who are maybe looking for a programmer, or an artist - and I don't care if it's small teams coming together, or people trying to get into the professional companies - that is totally a goal that we have.

Every once in a while we just troll around on the internet and just look to see if anyone's posted jobs where they're looking for someone who has XNA experience, and that's like totally a validation that we're doing something interesting.

Do you foresee something where people can create teams as they would create friends lists, or something like that?

BM: Yeah, we've talked about such things. Right now we're pretty focused on just getting this publishing thing out the door. And we've got a long list of things that we've talked about building, and teams, virtual teams, and geographically dispersed teams, and all those things are on the list, it's just that we've got to get this publishing thing done first.

So is it going to be built up somewhat iteratively, in terms of -

BM: Yeah.

OK. Is there any project management software that's included, or -

BM: Ah, not really. Not really. On the list of things that we're looking at, because we plug in Visual Studio, the good news is that there's all sorts of project management that exists for Visual Studio anyway. So if we can just take advantage of all that stuff, then I don't have to reinvent it all.

OK, that makes sense.

BM: I just want to focus on the game development piece of it, and let the project management people do the project management. As long as we hook in and it all works together, it's good.

Yeah. Well, I mean, it's just in thinking about geographically dispersed teams, and stuff like that -

BM: Yeah. Yeah, totally. And I know that there are whole teams at Microsoft, and even other companies, that do nothing but worry about that. And the best way for me to get the most value out of that is to make sure that I work with their stuff, and then I'll go focus on games.

Thinking Globally

Is there much of an initiative in Japan for this stuff, do you know? I don't know if you're globally-minded with -

BM: Yeah. Japan's interesting, because there are so many great developers in Japan. Maybe it's not a strong consumer presence for our stuff, but wow there are a lot of smart developers and engineers out there.

And they just held a - the Japanese group that we work with at Microsoft, they just held the Japan version of the Dream, Build, Play contest, and there was some great stuff that came out of it, so I'm hopeful that we're going to get some really good content out of Japan.

Yeah, there is a huge, huge, huge amateur game development community there. Bigger than here by far, and if you could convince like a quarter of those people, you'd be in a good position, but it seems that it's difficult in some ways.

BM: There are a lot of difficulties. I would say that, when it comes to talking to the developers, we're - it's actually not too... The people who are in Japan who are helping us with this are pretty good at it, and they're starting to get the message out there, and I'm really hopeful that we're going to get some great content out of Japan.

Will people be able to publish globally? Can you say that, or no?

BM: Um, that would be one of those ones where you say "yes" with an asterisk on it. It's most likely going to be a regional roll-out, and we don't know the full set that we'll be supporting when we start, but it'll be an expanding list as we go.

It turns out that there are all kinds of regulatory and legal issues involved, and it just takes time to sort through those things. Long term, the goal is, yeah, we want to be able to provide developers as large an audience as we possibly can.

They don't have to all publish in English, do they? Or do they?

BM: I don't see why they would have to. That's one where we're not going to have a real large hand in declaring, "This is how you write your game." Some of that is just content. If you want to write your game in French, go ahead and write it in French.

That's good, because a lot of the console delivery stuff is very much, you know - it's not like "the internet," because on the internet you can go wherever, regardless of where you're from, but on a lot of the console stuff it's, "No, you're in America. You take the American games right now. Do it." So that would be good if it were -

BM: Yeah. Like I said, I don't know the exact order in which we're going to roll things out, but we're sure trying.

Column: Welcome to the GameSetWatch Comic - 'Welcome to the Love and Berry'

['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.]

Aha, this time Persona brings us an adorable little tale based on Love & Berry, "... a cross between an arcade game and collectible card game from Sega, targeted toward girls usually between ages six and twelve years." Make them 'dress up & dance', folks. (Also Sega, parody is permissible under one of those Amendments, so please Hammer, don't hurt us!)

I think I put over $40 into this game already...

[Jonathan "Persona" Kim is a character animation student at the California Institute of the Arts. When not playing horribly addictive card games where you dress up little girls, he continues the Mecha Fetus revolution on the Mecha Fetus Visublog.]

COLUMN: Why We Play - 'Why We Write About Games'

fp-typewriter.jpg [“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer Chris Plante that discusses how videogames benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This time he makes a call for more game bloggers .]

Two blogs are created each second, but how often does a blog - or more specifically a game blog - die?


If a Tree Falls in the Woods:

Everyone’s a writer. We all see movies, hear songs, and read articles and cannot help, but think to ourselves “I could do that.” “I could create the lyrics to ‘Nevermind;’ I could pen ‘Garden State;’ and I could definitely blog for Kotaku.” It’s a human nature to misunderstand when others make hard work look easy. We could call it the Guitar Hero Effect. The joys of guitar with one hundredth of the skill.

Truthfully, few of us are as talented as Kurt Cobain, Zach Braff, or even Brian Crecente. In January, my ex-roommate and I planned a videogame blog to help us develop our writing, promote our ideas, and make ourselves visible in the ever-crowded gamer community. Blogging looked so easy.

We dubbed our new digital home Hardcasual, a term coined by N’Gai Croal, “to represent the gamer who wants the hardcore experience - the graphics, story, and production values which go almost entirely into gore-heavy epics - to be married with the new casual paradigm - where we can throw a game in for half an hour and get an entirely satisfying experience.”

That’s our About section.

Genesis:

We quickly learned our first lesson: while anyone may create a blog, with no money for promotion or to finance the production of both quantity and quality content, few writers will attract readers. So, to hit the ground running, I pimped Hardcasual.net to every game writer or journalist with an e-mail address. N’Gai, flattered by our title, gave us our first hit count spike, and Leigh Alexander’s linkage gave us the next. Then Simon Carless. Then Maggie Greene.

To further expedite the process I took Leigh Alexander’s advice and I developed a weekly digest, chronicling the Hardcasual’s best posts from the previous week. Knowing most blogs slack off on the weekends (natch), I mailed the digest out Friday, hoping our blog would be cross-posted or linked on major sites on Saturday or Sunday. The advice worked.

Eventually, Hardcasual received the first sign of blogger success: comments. And like many bloggers, I began to check my Wordpress account religiously: Moderating comments, refreshing the hit count, trying to calculate the number of RSS subscribers. The readers had arrived.

Keep One Eye on the Road:

Yet, all this work promoting Hardcasual distracted me from creating actual content. After a few hours creating a digest or contacting journalists, I was burnt out. That’s when I began to commit a blogger sin; I posted for post’s sake. In these rushed posts, I would make big, broad statements that I did not have the time or energy to support. The promotion, which took me hours, went to waste on posts I wrote in minutes.

Blogger burn out had struck. But at least I wasn’t dead.

The Men in the Cafes:

Throughout history, great ideas have come from café communities. Groups of young people responding to restrictive societies and universities met at cafes to discuss art, politics, and science without restraint. They birthed movements like Nouvelle Vague, Absurdism, and, in many ways, the French Revolution.

These activists reacted to the happenings around them—stagnant creativity, domineering societies, war—by discussing and demanding change. They sought to secure and legitimize new ways to experience life, either through art or politics.

It should be no surprise that blog culture has taken shape during a similar period in American culture, one of intense political divide. And as publishers used journals to promote the best café activists’ ideas, super blogs like Kotaku and the Gamasutra network aggregate the best game theory, opinion, and news.

But that sounds so serious. Remember, the café activists were folks like you and me, and, like us, they weren’t afraid to make an ass of themselves. They were quick to fight and quicker to joke. Absurdists dealt with the grim world around them by finding a way to laugh. Today, as the blog community grows dreadfully serious, searching for legitimacy and critics to recognize our ‘art,’ we have the Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s and Owen Good’s to keep us grounded.

Even this site, GameSetWatch, offers a lighter, more human, less traditional scholarly look at games. As Simon said to me when I asked for this column, “ludology and narratology are phrases that can make me break out in hives.”

The Community:

My point in this unintentional love-letter to game journalists and bloggers is that we’ve found success in quantity over quality in a similar manner as these café activists. These super blogs, though we may disagree with them occasionally, offer promotion and readers for our opinions. Whether you want to write column or comment, they’re the modern day café and journals, changing the old videogame community into a new, fresh and determined mob, promoting, nay demanding change.

We demand to be recognized and heard; we want our art to be understood. We are game activists, and we excel via this group democracy where the opinions and topics that most interest readers find success, while the rest does not wholly disappear, rather it finds a smaller audience on personal blogs. It’s hard, almost impossible to be heard alone, but working together and under generous promoters solves many problems we face as one.

So, I ask more readers to plug in their keyboard and write. Often I see poignant or funny opinions in the comment sections on GameSetWatch, Kotaku, or LevelUp, only to be disappointed by no link to the author’s personal blog. The more we participate in the gaming community the stronger it will become. No opinion will hurt the community. And while it may be hard to promote a personal blog by yourself, it’s never too hard to send a fellow blogger an e-mail asking for a link or some support. Speak up. We’re all writers.

[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.]

Preventing Teen Dating Violence - The Game Competition Results

- [A few weeks ago, Brian Crecente's brother Drew was kind enough to ask me to judge his Flash game competition that presented a worthy and interesting challenge - how do you create a game which urges against violence in teen relationships? The results are out and top entries are now playable - press release is below.]

"Jennifer Ann’s Group, sponsor of an innovative contest to promote education about Teen Dating Violence, announced the winners of its “2008 Life. Love. Game Design Contest” today. The contest received worldwide attention with the provocative question, “can you design a game about Teen Dating Violence without using violence itself?” with coverage by Kotaku, Newsweek, Jay Is Games and more.

Winners:

Jorge Goyco, 1st place, $1000
Jared Sain, Runner Up, $100
Mark Kakareka, Runner Up, $100
Patrick Dugan, door prize, $100

Quotes:

“I’m very pleased with the response that our contest has received from both the gaming and education communities. Jennifer Ann’s Group is always investigating novel approaches to educate our teens about the very real dangers of Teen Dating Violence.” – Drew Crecente, Director of Jennifer Ann’s Group

“Properly identifies many warning signs of a potentially abusive relationship – very nicely done!” – Dr. Elizabeth L. Richeson, Advisory Board Member, Jennifer Ann’s Group on Jorge Goyco’s first place entry.

"Feels real ... and gets the message across supremely well." – Simon Carless, Chairman, Independent Games Festival on Jared Sain’s runner-up entry.

“This was my favorite game. It's cheesy, it's not really worth re-playing except for laughs, but it's memorable. It benefits from being incredibly simple to play. I could imagine anyone being able to make it work and to get the message here. Is it over-the-top? Sure. But it creates an indelible image and gives even the amateur player the chance to role-play a cartoonish but safe version of a dangerous situation that every teenager should be aware of.” - Stephen Totilo, MTV News on Jared Sain’s runner-up entry.

[About Jennifer Ann’s Group: Jennifer Ann’s Group is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity dedicated to the prevention of Teen Dating Violence. The group is named for Jennifer Ann Crecente, a high school senior that was murdered by her ex-boyfriend on February 15, 2006. For further information about Jennifer Ann’s Group please visit http://www.JenniferAnn.org.]

May 27, 2008

Exploring Online Worlds: Nexon's Mabinogi

[Over at virtual worlds site WorldsInMotion.biz, we've restarted the Worlds In Motion Online Atlas, penned by Mathew Kumar - looking at the rapidly advancing free-to-play online game biz. This time round - we check out Nexon's free social online MMO Mabinogi, an oddly Korean melange of MMO and borderline-cute socialization elements.]

Here's an overview of Mabinogi, Nexon's "Fantasy Life" MMORPG, which promising users the chance to not only hit monsters in the face until they die but also enjoy a social world including fishing, cooking, trading -- even just hanging out round a campfire chatting and playing instruments.

2008_05_19_mabinogi.jpgName: Mabinogi

Company: Nexon

Established: June 2004 (Korea); March 2008 (North America)

How it Works: Mabinogi requires download and installation of its own client, plus Direct X, and runs as an application. Navigation and gameplay are accomplished via mouse and keyboard input.

2008_05_19_mabinogi2.jpgOverview: Mabinogi is (for the most part) a classic MMORPG, with players exploring dungeons, defeating monsters and purchasing weapons and armor. However, the title is also advertised as a way to "live your fantasy life" and diverges from many other MMORPGs by not featuring a class system. Players can level up in any skills, which include "life skills" such as fishing, cooking and playing instruments, and also age. Players are encouraged to go to school/take jobs, and to socialize by hanging out with other players around campfires.

Payment Method: Mabinogi is free to play, and earns revenue through microtransactions (prepaid Nexon Game Cards are available at retailers such as Target) and licensing.

Key Features:
- "Fantasy life" allows players to play Mabinogi non-violently
- Classless leveling system; characters age
- Large play area with multiple areas; continually updated through patches (referred to as "Generations" and "Chapters")

Mabinogi: In-Depth Tour

2008_05_21_mabi3.jpg

Mabinogi is a hugely successful Korean MMO -- hugely. Despite being named after the Mabinogion (the collective name of several stories from medieval Wales) the first thing that's going to strike you about Mabinogi, particularly if you're more familiar with western MMOs, is just how "Asian" it feels – featuring everything from a Final Fantasy-esque score to anime styled character portraits and "super-deformed" avatars. It's about as far away from the likes of Second Life you can get (or even World of Warcraft) offering a very consistent, polished experience within its pseudo-medieval world.

There's good reason for the level of polish: Mabinogi has been on release in Korea since 2004. If you're interested in experiencing a world unlike most others about the only thing that is going to put you off is the huge 850 mb download that's required to begin playing. Surprisingly, though, the download was incredibly quick even on my often slow connection, and the title didn't require any extensive patching before I could begin. I did have to sign up for a Nexon passport, however, which includes some pretty bizarre questions (including asking my ethnicity, which is quite unusual. You can opt out of that one, though.)

2008_05_21_mabi4.jpg

Character creation is performed using "character cards". There are two kinds, basic and premium, and you get only one basic card unless you choose to purchase more – purchasing cards is one of the main revenue streams of Mabinogi, along with a monthly pass that offers a lot of extras. There aren't any item sales.

If you only have a basic card (like me) you're stuck with a limited selection of haircuts and facial features -- not that a premium card expands your selection massively – and once you've chosen yours, you're given a short introduction from Mabinogi's poster girl, Nao, and dropped into the "newbie town" Tir Chonaill (named after a medieval lordship in Ireland, where the county of Donegal stands now; which is not in Wales.)

2008_05_21_mabi1.jpg

The initial experience of playing Mabinogi is very similar to most MMORPGs. Players take part in a succession of tutorial missions intending to get them familiar with first the use of the interface and then the game itself. If you're used to MMORPGS Mabinogi still has its own quirks; in a way it plays similarly to Diablo (clicking with the mouse performs most actions in the world, including movement and combat) but it has its quirks with its interface, including the unusual way skills are organized.

Within a couple of hours in Mabinogi's first town I'd managed to explore quite a lot of different aspects of the title just by doing the quests which are (for some reason or another) dropped on your avatar by birds. I'd investigated a dungeon to rescue a villager from a giant spider (dungeons are instanced, like in many MMORPGS) taken a few part time jobs (which seemed thankless --chopping wood was difficult and low paying, and sheep shearing little better) and had a chance to do a little shopping (many players run shops which almost always out-pace the NPC shops for value.)

2008_05_21_mabi2.jpg

So far, so MMORPG, it might seem. And if we're being completely honest, to new players Mabinogi is disappointingly heavy on the traditional RPG aspects, with even part time jobs and other skills (such as cooking) all feeling like a grind to "level up" rather than an enjoyable part of a "fantasy life".

Mabinogi: Conclusion

2008_05_22_mabi3.jpg

Nexon's Mabinogi isn't the first MMORPG that's claimed to offer players the chance to live a "fantasy life" -- arguably this promise has existed almost as long as the MMO has, with one of the first mainstream MMORPGs, Ultima Online, promising a similar experience. However, that's a long time ago now, so how does Mabinogi stack up against its current competitors, not only RPGs but social worlds and other alternative experiences?

The initial promise of Mabinogi is high -- after all, it's got many instantly obvious benefits for new users. It's free with no monthy fee. There's a strong anime aesthetic, several years of continued development in Korea before it reached here, and a wide variety of possible ways to live in the world.

Yet when you enter the world, it's hard not to be very disappointed if you're looking for more than an average MMORPG experience. The first several hours set you on a list of errands and monster bashing quests that are absolutely bog standard, and along with a bewildering amount of information on different statistics and skills, it'll quite quickly become too much for anyone who isn't interested in playing it like a game. It's possible to ignore most of these tutorial missions, but in many cases you'll miss out on important skills that (as far as I know) could cripple your character completely.

2008_05_22_mabi1.jpg

So, sure, I definitely wasn't happy with the opening experience -- particularly a section which required me to murder baby foxes, the big softy that I am – but that does seem to be somewhat a requirement for an RPG. There are some nice touches, though, particularly the fact that there are no set classes (at least in the early stages, anyway). You can, if you wish, spend time learning to be the best monster basher there is, and then give that up for a life as a weaver, without any particular difficulty.

There are some other aspects, though, which are maybe less well thought out (or just dealt with in too foreign a way for my liking). In Mabinogi, characters can age naturally (about 1 year a week) but this is complicated by a "rebirth" system which allows you to rebirth your character at a younger age pretty much whenever you like. As characters are at their best in their late teens/early twenties, almost all other players you'll see in the world fill a narrow demographic, somewhat removing the chance for a really interesting player populace.

Players are generally a pleasant and sociable bunch, however. Although it might seem just advertising blurb from the game makers when they talk about players gathering around campfires to hang out and play instruments, it actually does seem to be something players in the world like to do -- they're warm to newcomers and chatting sociably can happen often if it's what you're interested in. Too, many players have taken on the task of learning Mabinogi's instruments and even composing music; though they have a slightly naff MIDI sound, it's still a cute aspect of the social world.

2008_05_22_mabi2.jpg

Players are also most likely who you'll do the most trading with, but it's here that one of the main problems makes itself clear -- it seems far, far easier to make enough money to buy things through adventuring and monster hunting than it does from part-time jobs, foraging, fishing, or any other non-violent pastime. This is particularly problematic when even the cheapest clothes cost thousands of coins; the rewards and general economy seem far out of whack. It's here that I actually found myself wishing that microtransactions could be used to purchase new items and clothes, as my character's peasant clothes were depressingly dull, and I was thousands of coins away from anything else worth wearing.

And one final issue: the interface is clumsy and dated. Mabinogi has been around since 2004, admittedly, but this is one part that could do with a serious overhaul; the otherwise simplistic graphics are actually quite pleasant and fitting.

To conclude my conclusion, Mabinogi is a mixed bag. I think that players have to be prepared to put up with perhaps too many traditional MMORPG conventions to enjoy an otherwise quite vibrant world with a healthy social aspect, but those that do want to enjoy a (slightly) lighter-than-average RPG could find a lot to enjoy here. I'll admit, however, I don't have much urge to continue in the world -- the level of grinding required to afford new items is just too much.

Useful Links:
Mabinogi World (fan site)
Mabinogi Player (fan site)

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Why Time-Management Games Ought To Be Great At Story-Telling (And Why They Mostly Aren't)

miss_management_screen_1.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a new biweekly GameSetWatch column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist.]

There is a line of argument I've seen in quite a few places, which goes like this.

1. Games would be better if they had better stories.
2. Stories are about characters.
3. Characters are hard because good interactive dialogue is hard. (Or: characters are impossible because good interactive dialogue is impossible.)
4. Rats.

There are lots of approaches to solving this problem, ranging from Chris Crawford's attempts to render conversation in a computer-friendly pseudo-language to the extensive reliance on not-actually-human characters or characters who are present only in cut-scenes and journal entries. Don't get me wrong: this is a difficult problem, and it doesn't have an easy solution.

All of these approaches assume, though, that the interaction has to happen at this micro level: that the game-play has to be about what the protagonist does and says from moment to moment, that it has to go by at the same general speed and granularity as real life. They assume that the plot is going to be made up of the big events, by arguments and interrogations and important confidences and love scenes.

Life is like that occasionally, but a lot of the time the shape of a relationship develops more slowly. It's not as much about what the protagonists say on a given occasion as it is about the long-term allocation of resources -- time, attention, affection, and sometimes (depending on the nature of the relationship) material goods.

A fight with a friend or significant other is sometimes about a clear, dramatic issue like a broken confidence or unfaithfulness, but it's much more often about a vaguer, more muddled sense that, over time, the other person has let us down. Someone is doing fewer chores, or putting work over time together, or ditching someone for other friends. It's the pattern that matters.

While life goes by at a standard rate of one minute per minute, there are times when we are paying intense attention to a relationship and times when we're focused something else; the development of that relationship goes at different speeds, even though life itself doesn't.

How to present this in games, though? Novels have passages that summarize weeks or months in a page or two; movies have montages; comic books have their own language for passing time. Blending long-term and short-term types of interaction is challenging, though. Players often find it jarring if the fundamental style of play is too fragmented.

It's tempting to ask whether we need the summary passages at all. But it is the routine part of a relationship that gives us the emotional investment to care about big dramatic scenes. That's true in stories as well as in life. A plot made of nothing but crises isn't exciting. It's ridiculous.

As it happens, there is a game genre that is precisely about allocating time and attention, and about giving priority to one thing over another. The time management genre so far has mostly been used to simulate a dizzyingly mundane selection of tasks, from waiting tables to grooming dogs.

Some of them are highly polished, but the chief measure of quality is how smooth the mechanics are and whether it's possible to achieve a zen-like state of engagement while playing. Stylish art and music come next, story a distant last. Usually there's an extremely basic career-progress narrative pinned on, but it never branches, offers little in the way of interesting character action, and is often extremely perfunctory indeed.

This would seem to be the opposite of promising, but the narrative and the interaction could be more happily married.

mm3.jpgMy poster child is Gamelab's brilliant Miss Management. The player takes the role of office manager, and has to distribute tasks and treats in such a way that each day's work gets done. Unfortunately, the things that calm one character often annoy another, so it is constantly a challenge to keep everyone happy at once.

The result is a casual game with surprisingly nuanced and interesting characters, with whom the player begins to feel she has a real relationship -- even though all the dialogue occurs in cut scenes which we have no ability to alter. It doesn't hurt that Miss Management features expressive art and vivacious writing, but what makes it a standout is the way characterization is directly reinforced through interaction.

I gather that it was originally intended for the game story to branch, depending on which goals the player gives priority to. (Since each level has some optional goals as well as the required ones, and these often have to do with helping different characters, it's easy to see how this might have worked.) In practice, the game doesn't do that, because it proved to be too large an investment of work and time.

But the potential is palpably there. Miss Management is an excellent piece of storytelling for a casual game -- and richer in characterization than many a more ambitious work -- but I would love to see what a similar game could do if it tried for a different shape, shorter and branchier, possibly with choices during the dialogue at the beginning and end of each level.

At the same time, Miss Management has -- and I suggest future games following this road would need to retain -- a certain fundamental shape. Each major section of the game involves specific conflicts, with rising action and resolution. It's that shape that keeps it from being a sandbox game like the Sims, where many kinds of relationship are possible but where the plot rarely achieves the crispness and specificity of good narrative.

[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

GameSetLinks: All Aboard The Magical Ship Wasteland

- Ah yes - a few more GameSetLinks, started off by the ScottishGames interview with the intriguing Scotsmen at Outerlight - The Ship is a surprisingly under-rated title, incidentally.

Also in here - the latest extrapolated XBLA stats, browser based ASCII Rogue-likes, GDC T-shirts as nappies, and a bunch of other pieces of neatness.

Ah yes, the cha cha cha:

ScottishGames.biz: The Ship 2: Electric Boogaloo - An Interview With Outerlight
Good interview: 'Edinburgh-based developer Outerlight caused quite a stir with their first title, The Ship, a game based around assassination and murder, set on an art deco steamer.'

VGChartz.com | 'Xbox Live Arcade Sales Top 100 - 5/24/08 (PAA ~16.5k!!!)'
'Penny Arcade Adventures broke a year-long stranglehold on the highest-grossing debut, beating 'Worms HD' out by $50,000 in the 3 day opening.'

You Can’t Fake Quality, But That Never Stops Them from Trying (Magical Wasteland)
On quality, review scores, and credibility, from the inside.

'A Dorito Called Quest' at Lepus Lepidus
Mysterious ARGs, mysterious chips - yummy.

Moogle.net » Blog Archive » Advice for the Aspiring Games Creator
'Here are five simple rules…and a qualifier in case you think any of it is as easy as it looks.'

Wonderland: Old conference tee nappies
Yay, GDC nappies - am showing the people who designed the tee, they will be tickled.

:: Temple of the Roguelike :: » Blog Archive » A couple of simple applet roguelikes
Really interesting web applet-based ASCII Roguelikes, including one with "..directional FOV for both players and monsters, as well as hearing and running."

Results from James Portnow's Game Design Challenge: WWII - GameCareerGuide.com
This continues to be a very entertaining weekly competition on sister site GCG - nice going, guys.

Emily Gould - 'Exposed' - NYTimes.com
On blogging, Gawker, and oversharing - something all bloggers (even game bloggers) struggle with.

'Picturehouse, WIP to close shop' - Variety
Only just heard about this, but interesting cos a) Picturehouse put out 'King Of Kong' and b) there's some interesting indie film/indie game comparisons to be made.

May 26, 2008

GFH: The 'Overheated' State Of DS Learning Games In Japan

- [We're going to be posting these Games For Health write-ups for a little while, because Kyle Orland kindly took a full set of notes for us, and there's some genuinely interesting stuff in there. This time (with transcription help by Mathew Kumar, ta!), a look at the frantic Nintendo DS 'serious games' market in Japan.]

In this session from the Games For Health Conference, Toru Fujimoto from Serious Games Japan gave a comprehensive report on the state of serious games development in the Japanese market.

He noted that while developers including Namco are producing unique titles for patient rehabilitation, the majority of the market is obsessed with producing a glut of titles for the Nintendo DS, without rhyme or reason.

Fujumoto opened with an introduction to Serious Games Japan. Started in May 2004, two books on serious games were published in Japan in 2007: "Don't Bother Me Mom, I'm Learning" and a research report by Digital Contents Association of Japan.

Researchers and developers involved in the creation of the report, which was written to introduce Games For Health projects to Japanese audience -- such as the Games Prescription project, which was developed in collaboration with Namco and Waseda University.

Games Prescription

The four goals of Games Prescription project, according to Fujimoto, were to:

* Research psychological/physiological effects of games,
* Evaluate videogame interaction,
* Examine effects on children with developmental disorders,
* Examine literacy learning using multi-layer display for dyslexic students.

Fujumoto revealed that the effect of games depends on type of game -- more skilled and concentration-based games had more active effects.

Namco produced 99 Tears for Nintendo DS based on this research, a digital novel that is intended to allow players to "weep and heal" with a personality test that determines which story they get.

Fujimoto also revealed that Namco are also making "rehabilitainment games" using modified arcade units, such as Prop Cycle and Taiko Drum Master for the elderly. They are currently used at 122 hospitals, and a new game, Doki Doki Snake Beater, is a "Whack-a-mole" game that uses the feet, intended to train leg muscles to prevent falling in elders.

SG Lab is another Serious Games initiative, performed by Square Enix and Gakken, with a focus on advergames and serious games. It produces Flash-based content for Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health in Tokyo, and has video instruction and mini-games to protect children from "dangerous household things."

Nintendo DS Explosion

Next, Fujimoto took a look at the Nintendo DS "explosion", noting some specific facts of interest. For example, he stated that Brain Age 2 sold almost as much as New Super Mario Bros., (4.7 million copies to 5 million) and the first Brain Age is fourth in total sales of DS software with 3.7M.

English Training is eighth with 2.1M in sales, and Brain Age has sold 17.1 million copies worldwide as of last October.

As a result of the success of Nintendo's Touch Generations games, many imitators have been created, and 220 of 810 DS titles released are learning/practical/non-game titles in Japan.

Over 40-50 are explicitly brain training/puzzle titles, but there are many new types of non-games for DS in Japan, including travel guides, gardening, wine selection, household bookkeeping, stock trading, school subjects, entrepreneurship, magic tricks, guitar playing, digital books, classical music and driver's license training.

There are even titles for diet and medical support, with titles including DS Calorie Navi (IE Institute); beauty care for women,including Facial Training (Nintendo) and Dream Skincare (Konami); Relaxation and mental care with Dokodemo Yoga (Konami); eye and hand coordination with Flash Focus (Nintendo); and fitness, including connectivity with Hudson's Pedometer device Teku-teku Angel Pocket.

Fujimoto noted that with so many titles on sale in the Japanese DS market, one of the main lessons to be taken is that selling in the DS market is "very tough."

"It looks attractive because of Brain Age sales," he said, "but if you're not Nintendo, it doesn't sell. Nintendo has the top 7, 8 sellers in the top 10. You need a good game, a good customer base and a marketing budget."

As an example, he claimed that while the average DS title sales are over 100,000, the median sales are only 9,000. "The huge Nintendo sales skew the average -- most games sell very badly. Nintendo's marketing advantage is very large in Japan."

"Just producing a game is not the goal," Fujimoto argued, "There needs to be a lot of effort after that."

As part of his conclusion, Fujimoto placed part of the blame on game companies "shoveling out" health/brain games without researcher collaboration.

"The market is overheated," he stated, and quoted Brain Age's Dr. Kawashima, who warned: "There are potential liability problems in the serious games market. Game companies should make a good use of researchers' help."

Game Time With Mister Raroo: 'Super In-Law Bros.'

- [In this GameSetWatch opinion piece, Mister Raroo returns to take a look at how videogames have helped to break down barriers and bring him closer to his in-laws... and manages to discuss his favorite part of the chicken in relation to his wife's anatomy, spying on someone's late-night cartoon watching, helping to relieve bladder and hunger problems for a hopeful Wii camper, and much more!]

Welcome to the Family

When all things are considered, I was very lucky to end up with the in-laws I did. It’s never easy to adjust to gaining a new family when you get married because, put simply, they’re not your family. I’m most comfortable with the family I grew up a part of, and though my wife Akemi’s family is very accepting and inviting, there are times I feel uncomfortable and out of place. Sharing common experiences and building bonds by discussing shared interests have helped break down some of the barriers that stood between my in-laws and me, but there are times things still get strange.

One time during lunch with Akemi’s family my father in-law posed a question to me out of the blue: “So, is the breast your favorite part of the chicken?” I happened to be eating a chicken breast at the time, so there was context for his question, but it still seemed really eccentric. After a quick moment of confusion, I gave a short reply. “Uh… yes, it is.” He proceeded to ask another question. “What is your second favorite part of the chicken?” Was this some type of metaphor? Was he asking, “So, what part of my daughter do you like the best? Her breasts?!”

- But it turns out that there was no hidden meaning in his questions. He just wanted to know if I liked chicken breast the best and what my second favorite part of the chicken happened to be. My father-in-law is truly transparent and says what he means. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and there’s never any question to how he’s feeling. (And yet he still manages to win big at poker!) Naturally, I learned this through though spending time and forming a bond with him.

However, for some reason it’s often difficult to build those connections with in-laws. Perhaps some part of me feels I’m constantly being judged as to the worthiness of being married to Akemi. Or maybe it’s just because I didn’t grow up as a part of Akemi’s family. Whatever the reason, it took years before I could understand that questions from my father-in-law have no hidden context, but rather they are only as deep was what is on the surface. If he really wanted to know what the favorite part of Akemi’s body was, he’d just ask. And, for the record, my favorite part of Akemi’s body is her heart. Corny, I know, but true.

Beginnings of Brotherhood

Akemi’s brother Thomas is definitely the type of person that one would call a stereotypical “guy.” He works as a mechanic, watches sports on a regular basis, and eats meat almost every night. I, on the other hand, don’t really fall into that category. I work at a public library, would rather go on a family picnic than watch sports, and rarely eat red meat. On the surface, Thomas and I don’t have much in common, but the more I got to know him, the more I realized we were pretty similar in terms of our core values. Neither of us smoke or drink, we’re both proud fathers, and we both value family above all else. Nevertheless, even though we always got along well, it was tough to form a strong bond because we didn’t share many interests, or so I thought until one fateful night.

- The event occurred a few years ago at Thanksgiving when we all ventured Akemi’s aunt and uncle’s home for a weekend of family togetherness. All of the kids (that is, anyone under 40 years old) brought sleeping bags and set up camp in the largest room. I always have trouble sleeping when I’m anywhere but home, and Thanksgiving night was no exception. As I lay there staring at the ceiling, I heard some shuffling and peered through the darkness to see what it was. Suddenly my eyes were met with a blinding light as the television powered on. After a few moments of adjustment, I was able to make out the form of Thomas sitting in front of the TV, flipping through the channels. He stopped on the Disney Channel, took a quick peek around to make sure nobody was watching, then hunkered down to enjoy an episode of Kim Possible. It was at that moment I realized Thomas was a dork, and it made me happy.

However, knowing Thomas was into nerdy stuff like Kim Possible didn’t immediately allow us to become the best of friends. There was still distance between us because even though he was watching Kim Possible that night, it wasn’t something I was necessarily into. Recently, though, things have changed. It feels like a wall has been knocked down and a true bond of brotherhood has been forming. When we talk or spend time with one another, the awkwardness of being in-laws has all but disappeared, and it’s more like we’re good friends. I credit one thing in particular for helping to bring Thomas and I together: videogames.

The Family That Games Together…

Thomas was in no way, shape, or form a gamer when Akemi and I first started seeing one another. In fact, Akemi told me that the only time she and her brother played videogames was as children when they’d spend every Sunday afternoon at her Grandma’s house. Her cousin Blair would bring his NES and the three of them would play games like Super Mario Bros., Contra, and Ice Climber. It wasn’t until Akemi started dating me, in fact, that she became reacquainted with games. She’s no hardcore gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but she has played through Shenmue, Chrono Trigger, and Dragon Quest VIII. Thomas, on the other hand, had left his game-playing days back on those Sunday afternoons at Grandma’s house. That is, until his son discovered videogames.

Gaming with your kids is a great way to spend time together. For example, when my niece Autumn was younger she’d come spend every weekend with Akemi and me and we had great times playing the Mario Party games, battling it out to see who would be the Party Star. As with any shared activity, playing games together is a great way to strengthen a relationship. Just don’t be like my friend Asa who made his wife cry when, after she let a goal slip past during a game of Sega Soccer Slam, he commented that the reason the buttons were on the controller was to press them!

When Thomas’s son Mario got into games, it was like he was living up to his name. Mario became infatuated with anything Nintendo and soon the boy was a master of almost any game with Mario in the title. Nobody can speed through Rainbow Road in the Mario Kart games like that kid! Thomas and Mario spent a lot of time playing videogames together, though at larger family gatherings Thomas usually refrained from gaming. Maybe he just wanted to use the time to enjoy being with his relatives, or perhaps he was embarrassed about playing games. Whatever the case, I ended up playing videogames with Mario the most.

- Mario doesn’t open up very much to people, but videogames turned out to be the best way to get through him. He splits his time between staying at his mom’s house and staying with Thomas, so like many children whose parents aren’t together, he has to juggle between two different spheres of existence. Perhaps because of this, he he’s often very introverted and having a conversation with him can be tough. One time while we were playing games, however, I jokingly started talking to him in a “Super Mario voice” and he responded immediately. It was like the floodgates opened and suddenly we were having meaningful discussions, though it was through the filter of wacky voices.

You Can’t Be a “Bro” By Yourself

The turning point in building my bond with Thomas came last year when he and Mario decided to stand out in front of a Best Buy one Sunday morning in hopes of scoring a Nintendo Wii. As anyone who has done so can attest to, waiting in line for hours can be really boring, so Thomas called our home to chat and pass the time. Akemi and I decided to go visit Thomas and Mario, so we drove over and found them parked on their bottoms near the front of the massive line.

Poor Mario needed a bathroom break and was complaining about being hungry, so Thomas held down their position in line while Akemi and I took Mario to a Carl’s Jr. to hit the restroom and get some breakfast. When we brought Mario back with an empty bladder and a full tummy, Thomas was extremely grateful. We hung out with them until they got inside and successfully nabbed a Wii and a few choice games, then bid them adieu as they drove off home to enjoy their new system.

Soon thereafter, we began sending Wii messages back and forth. At first the messages were coming on only on the days Thomas and Mario were at home together, but before long Thomas started sending messages on his own. Our correspondence ranged from simple “Hello!” greetings to more elaborate messages in which we discussed plans about family gatherings or asked about bringing our cars in the auto shop he worked at so we could get our oil changed. Thomas never seemed to be into e-mail, but he sure liked to Wii-mail.

We also dabbled in playing games together online. We pitted our Pokémon against one another in Pokémon Battle Revolution, went for the winning goal in Mario Strikers Charged, smacked each other silly in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and tried to reach the finish line first in Mario Kart Wii. Thomas and I are both very busy with our family and work obligations, but the few moments we find every now and then to play online are some of my favorite gaming memories. Somehow the time we’ve spent playing games online, even though it’s been fairly limited, has paved the way for us to become better friends.

Going from “In-Laws” to “Relatives”

- Since Thomas and I have begun sharing game time together, it’s made a significant impact on our personal relationship. Before we were gaming pals, we were very polite with one another, but I felt like I always felt like we weren’t able to be totally comfortable and unguarded when we were together. When I’d talk, I’d always try to watch what I’d say so as not to be offensive or blurt out with something that’d be taken the wrong way. He, too, seemed to be careful with what he said and our conversations never went past the superficial level. But nowadays when we talk it’s just like two friends yakking away. Our conversations might not go past videogames and the few other subjects we’re mutually interested in, but any tension or restraint that previously existed is gone. For the record, Kim Possible has yet to come up during our conversations, though I’d gladly like to hear what makes the program so appealing!

Akemi told me that Thomas has also opened up to her more as a result of the bond he and I have formed. She says he seems happier when he sees us, like he’s glad he can just be himself. He’ll also call her for advice and input on various subjects or sometimes even just to talk—something he rarely did in the past. I’m thrilled that our bond as “bros” has become stronger, and I’m sure Thomas is, too. As silly as it sounds, if it weren’t for videogames, there might still be more of a wall between us. Videogames served as the hammer that shattered the wall and allowed us to be more comfortable with each other.

The stresses and challenges that come with in-laws are not easy to handle. For anyone learning to fit in with their spouse’s relatives, there will be plenty of awkward and bizarre moments, such as being asked what your second favorite part of a chicken is. Finding things you have in common and sharing experiences with one another go a long way to making your relationship with your in-laws much more manageable and enjoyable. Though videogames are what helped me bond with my brother-in-law, for other people it may be activities such as crochet, golf, reading, or cooking. These days when I’m spending time with my in-laws, I truly feel like part of the family. They’ve become more to me than just “in-laws”—instead, I now consider my wife’s family to be my relatives.

[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: Holiday Randomness Edition

- Wandering into Memorial Day in the States, this is a particularly random trawl through GameSetLinks, since a lot of them are from my non-game RSS feeds - but just happen to be game-related anyhow.

Nonetheless, neat things in here include first confirmation of a new Chronicle Books tome about LucasArts, as well as some B3ta image shenanigans and smart commentary by Chris Kohler on the XBLA changes announced this week.

Get ready for speed:

¤ Super Mario Brothers as Hunter S. Thompson - PixelGen ¤
Two of my favorite tastes (pictured!) - via Wil Wheaton.

Igor.com on naming EA Sports Freestyle
Yep, there are professional naming agencies, which is pretty interesting.

Charlie Brooker on reviewing videogames | Comment is free | The Guardian
Calling the profession a 'curate's egg' is cute - via Dan Hon.

Cartoon Brew: Leading the Animation Conversation » Upcoming Chronicle Books
'Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts by Rob Smith is the first history of Lucas’s videogame division.' Nice!

Cartoon Brew: Leading the Animation Conversation » Nina Paley Talks Sita
Format problems with movies like this echo some of the console/PC format problems, I claim.

Wired: 'Meet Hiroyuki Nishimura, the Bad Boy of the Japanese Internet'
Not strictly game related, but a fascinating piece on the 2ch founder - and God knows 2ch, like SomethingAwful, have strayed into game-related shenanigans from time to time.

b3ta.com board: 'He finally got a break...'
b3ta takes on Frogger!

b3ta.com board: 'And now, live from Wimbledon, the interactive Pong championships 2008'
Looks like B3ta had a video game week!

Kotaku: 'Vc Update: G4, Gamespy, Gamestats Reporting Imaginary VC Soul Blazer'
Woooops, more posting before checking.

Microsoft: Don't Cut Off the Long Tail | Game | Life from Wired.com
Excellent Kohler editorial - he's the best mainstream commentator on digital download matters right now.

May 25, 2008

GameSetPics: Arcade Infinity, The Most Japanese Arcade In America

So, as mentioned, I took a brief sojourn to Los Angeles earlier this week, and one of the things that I managed to do whilst there was make it out to Rowland Heights' Arcade Infinity. It's a small video game arcade that's way out to the East of the city in the sprawling suburbs, but was nonetheless worth the pilgrimage for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, Arcade Infinity was actually the company that I bought my Sega Aero City Japanese arcade cabinet from on eBay a good few years ago. Here's a picture of a slightly busted-up one, if you're not sure what they're like.

Basically, half-height sitdown Japanese cabinets are much more home and JAMMA board-swapping friendly (and have surprisingly large monitors!) compared to the normal Western paradigm - though the normal U.S. cabinets have a little more nostalgia attached, perhaps.

Anyhow, I digress! I believe that Arcade Infinity don't sell cabinets any more - or perhaps not in such numbers - but I'd heard from my co-worker and Insert Credit supremo Brandon Sheffield that the arcade was possibly the best in the U.S. for import-only music and fighting games. So I wandered over there to see, and was rewarded with a couple of happy firsts.

So here's the outside of the arcade - it's up a floor in what must be the most Japanese-specific shopping mall I've ever been to on U.S. soil, complete with Japanese language neon signs and delicious European-Japanese style pastries (always one of my favorite parts of going to Tokyo!)

As you can (just about) see inside, music games - and more specifically Konami's music games - are ruling the roost when you first enter. In fact, there's a mammoth Bemanistyle.com post which has a good rundown of info about Arcade Infinity with a 90% correct machine list, showing how (relatively) up-to-date it is in getting music titles.

There are recent and well maintained Japanese-sourced Beatmania, Guitar Freaks, and DrumMania machines there - as well as KeyboardMania and Para Para Paradise, if you're into the more obscure.

The din of all the music games firing off simultaneously is _very_ reminiscent of genuine Japanese arcades I've been to in Tokyo and Osaka - which is very cool when a lot of U.S. arcades have everything at slightly more polite volumes and higher lighting levels, heh.

Arcade Infinity also has the newest Pop 'N Music arcade machine I've seen in the States, and more interestingly for me, a couple of experimental/less successful music-based arcade machines.

This, my friends, is Sega's Flash Beats, a totally bizarre kind of shufflepuck vs. music game melange which I'd seen just once before - at the ATEI arcade show in London in 1999, where I presume they were showing it to Western distributors before selling about four copies.

Basically, as I understand it, Flash Beats' tubes have colored pulses traveling up and down them. Your job in single player mode is to play against the CPU, pressing the button when the pulse arrives at your end of the tube to send it back to the other end - there's five buttons in all, and it turns into quite a multitasking job.

Interestingly, this is all done to an ace licensed European techno soundtrack, including Junkie XL and Coldcut, which makes the whole thing in some ways feel like a bizarre massive sister project to Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez, synesthesia to the fore.

Of course, it's not perhaps as interesting or good as the visuals imply, but boy, if I had too much money/space, I'd pick one up for a conversation piece straight away.

The other machine (not pictured in situ, but here's the System-16 profile of the cabinet/game) is Sega's 'Crackin' DJ', which I'd never seen or had a chance to play. As many of you probably know, Konami's Beatmania has a turntable attached, but it doesn't really use it to its full effect - you just scratch it in any direction at one particular time, so it's effectively just a button.

However, Crackin' DJ - which has neat visual design too - has both turntables and a crossfader, and the 'records' on the turntables are actually spinning while you play, so its gameplay goals are very different. Anyhow, I found a recently posted YouTube video, originally recorded by Sega back in 2002, which shows how Crackin' DJ plays excellently.

Basically, you have scratch, a la Beatmania, but you also have to backspin the records and use the crossfader at the correct times. Also, there are actually two different sound sources that are mixed between in real-time as you use the crossfader, so it really is a lot closer to DJ-ing that Beatmania ever was.

The game came out in 2000 (and the sequel, Pt. 2, which Arcade Infinity has, in 2001), and was actually created on the Dreamcast semi-compatible Naomi, but the add-on hardware would have been far too complex, most likely - and the arcade machine was never a big hit - so we were denied a home version.

Of course, now Activision has trademarked DJ Hero, could they be thinking about similar gameplay? European (or transplanted Europeans, like me) would certainly go for a little virtual DJ-ing outside the arcade with crossfader action and reeewinds. So make it so, folks!

As for fighting games, looks like Arcade Infinity just got in Japanese 2D fighters Battle Fantasia (from the Guilty Gear creators) and Sengoku Basara X, both of which I'm guessing have somewhere between one and slightly more than one publically playable locations in North America.

In addition to this, they had the first Melty Blood I've ever seen on U.S. shores - and of course, they have a lot of the obvious Capcom fighters and entries in the King Of Fighters series, even with vs. mode on two different system-linked sitdown cabinets, I noticed, which is a nice touch you don't see much in the West. Plus plenty of shooters - Raiden 4 just arrived!

In any case, for a further look at the arcade, GameTap's Jared Rea has done a neat video tour of the place which is for an upcoming (or past, but I couldn't find it?) entry in his 'No Country For Old Arcades' series. That gives a much better flavor for the arcade than my three or four pictures do - though his guide says Crackin DJ' is 'terrible' and OMG... OK maybe it is a bit.

It's a shame that the Japanese companies (particularly Konami) never got the cultural experience right on these music games for the West, even in the localized versions, too - it might have helped perk the scene up. With all these style of games widely available in the home now, the arcade is even more hyperniche.

But overall - Arcade Infinity is clearly a labor of love and a great way to experience social gaming (yes, social gaming!) outside of your own home, so if you're in LA, get out there and give it a try sometime.

(And if you can't get all the way out there, also try the Japan Arcade in the Mitsuwa plaza downtown - it's a bit more rundown, and it has a Gals Panic machine prominently displayed - which my wife was only barely OK with me playing in public, heh - but it's certainly got some machines you don't see everywhere, including an arcade Typing Of The Dead.)

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Brit-Pops

Well, it's summertime once again -- great for barbecuing and replacing air conditioning units, but never very good for US game mags, especially now that the advertising market has bottomed out across the board for dead-tree publications.

Still, that doesn't mean the newsstand can be completely avoided until October. There's always England to the rescue.

cvggta.jpg

Two new Brit-mags on the stands right now caught my attention this week. The first is CVG Presents, a new project that, if I'm not mistaken, marks the first time the Computer & Video Games name has seen print since CVG's original closing in 2004.

This special 178-page history of the Grand Theft Auto series kicks off what's set to be a bimonthly series of CVG Presents mags, each devoted to a single subject much like Future US's recent newsstand-only mags devoted to Halo and Metal Gear Solid.

This mag isn't quite as impressively printed as the specials published on the Edge label between '06 and '07 (lacking the coffee-table qualities of that stuff), but it's still a great piece of work.

Pages of textless art are not what you'll find here -- it's utterly packed with top moments from the games, top pop-culture references, soundtrack retrospectives, reviews from old Future magazines, interviews from old Future magazines (including one with a positively cherubic Dan Houser from 1999), and boundless amounts of trivia from the series' decade-long history. It's huge, clever, and totally worth the $12.

retrogamer50.jpg

Speaking of things that are $12, the fiftieth issue of Retro Gamer fits the bill nicely, too. To celebrate their 50th cumulative issue, the editors have done the expected thing and turned their regular "making of" spotlight to the early years of the magazine, when it started as a 2004 one-off and managed to survive low sales, nonexistent freelancer wages and the bankruptcy of its original publisher to be the robust monthly it is today.

Between physical issues and the classy DVD set Imagine Publishing sells on their website, I have every issue of Retro Gamer and buy it every month off the newsstand. I frankly thought their first couple years were positively atrocious and a waste of a great opportunity, but since the publisher shift it's been a wholly new magazine, one that treats its beat with more professionalism, dazzle, and pure enthusiasm than any previous English-language effort.

Where they used to just talk about games much like any old schmo with a blog could, now they get seriously in-depth with every feature they publish, interviewing old devs and illustrating each page profusely.

It's consistently wonderful, and the only complaint I have is that there's no point in any American publisher doing a similar magazine -- given current magazine economics, there's simply no way we could do better than this and make it solvent.

[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 Jaunt

- Time to finish rounding up some of the original stories on big sister site Gamasutra and related sites during the week, for your delectation - headed by David Sirlin's entertaining deconstruction of the Kongai CCG he designed for Kongregate.com.

Also in here - Atari's Phil Harrison being exceedingly on-topic, some really fun historical stuff towards the end of the Roger Hector chat, World Of Warcraft's 'corrupted blood' research, and much more.

Ready, steady, cook:

An Achievement-Centered Online CCG? Designing Kongai
"In this in-depth design article, game designer and balancer (Street Fighter II HD Remix) David Sirlin explains his methodology in designing intriguing achievement-based 'metagame' CCG Kongai for Flash game site Kongregate."

Q&A: Phil Harrison On Why Atari Is Softening Its Hardcore Focus
"During a recent Alone in the Dark event, Gamasutra sat down with recently-appointed Infogrames president Phil Harrison to discuss what the game means for the company - and why it may be one of the last hardcore, single-player titles publisher Atari releases."

Q&A: Kuju America's Kavanagh Talks Launch, Wii Debut
"UK-based Kuju Entertainment (Battalion Wars) recently opened a new San Francisco studio - Gamasutra talks to studio head John Kavanagh about the expansion, his biz history, and Kuju America's first title, a mysterious Wii conversion of an arcade title."

EA, WildTangent, uWink Talk Lessons From Asia, New Revenue Streams
"At a recent panel at Wedbush Morgan's Management Access Conference, panelists including EA's Kathy Vrabeck and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell tackled wide-ranging industry issues, from lessons learned from Asian mobile successes, to targeting and monetizing games in ways other than being asked to "pay $60 or go to hell.""

A Veteran With Character: Roger Hector Speaks
"Namco VP of development Roger Hector is overseeing the new U.S. development teams for the veteran Japanese publisher, and discusses Afro Samurai, original IP, and his fascinating industry history in this Gamasutra interview."

Q&A: CDV's Kroll On 'Games For Windows' Effectiveness
"Just how valuable is the Games For Windows initiative to publishers? Gamasutra talks with Mario Kroll, marketing director for publisher CDV (Sacred 2: Fallen Angel), who says that while the branding is an important consumer tool, its effectiveness at ensuring compatibility is still in question."

GFH: The Real Life Lessons Of WoW's Corrupted Blood
"What can WoW's 'Corrupted Blood' pandemic teach researchers about real world disease control? In a fascinating session at the recent Games For Health conference, Tufts' Nina Fefferman, Ph.D compared in-game behavior to real-life counterparts and said she'd like to use more virtual world players as her 'guinea pigs.'"

Q&A: Creating Intrigue In Prototype's Open Worlds
"In this in-depth Q&A, Gamasutra talks with Radical senior producer Tim Bennison to see what the developer hopes to contribute to the open-world genre and storytelling with its forthcoming Prototype, the challenges in creating sandbox games, and why pitching such a project is nearly as hard as developing it."

Microsoft's Kim: 'Our Competitors Don’t Recognize The Importance Of Relationships'
"As part of a wide-ranging opening keynote at the ongoing Vancouver International Games Summit, Microsoft Game Studios head Shane Kim contended that the company had an advantage with third parties because "our competitors don’t recognize the importance of relationships" - plus, more on working with Rare, Bungie and Japanese developers."



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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