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June 14, 2008

GameSetNetwork: The Weekend Round-Up

Aha, time to round up some of the best original features and interviews this week from big sister site Gamasutra and Game Career Guide, among others, headed by a neat, superlong Randy Pitchford interview - mainly run so we can feature the 'Pitchford covered in games' hilarishot.

Also around here somewhere - a design piece on how Dungeons & Dragon's 4th Edition could influence video games, Silent Hill's Lynch-ian influences, plus designing exergames with deeper stories.

Cha cha cha:

Catching Up With Gearbox's Randy Pitchford
"Texas-based Gearbox both owns the Brothers In Arms WWII franchise, and is diversifying swiftly into areas from Samba De Amigo for Wii to an Aliens FPS - Gamasutra talks in-depth to president Randy Pitchford on challenges, successes."

The Adventurer's Guide to Thievery
"The 4th Edition of the seminal pen & paper RPG Dungeons & Dragons has just debuted - but why should game developers care? THQ veteran Tom Smith explains what video games can learn - or even 'borrow' - from D&D's evolution."

Interview: CCP's Richardsson On The State Of EVE Online
"Space-based PC MMO EVE Online is five, and in this wide-ranging interview with Gamasutra, CCP executive producer Nathan Richardsson looks at the game's progress to date, gameplay comparisons with starkly different market leader World Of Warcraft, the lack of female players in-world, and much more."

A More Accurate Volumetric Particle Rendering Method Using the Pixel Shader
"Many games, even on current "next-gen" hardware, render particles using camera facing quads - veteran coder Krazanowski (Tomb Raider: Anniversary) suggests a neat alternative solution using pixel shaders and a little bit of math."

GCG’s Game Design Challenge Results: Hamlet
"Sister site GameCareerGuide.com has posted the strongest solutions to its recent game design challenge, which tasked readers with designing a game based on Hamlet - limiting in-game character dialogue strictly to words directly from Shakespeare’s text."

Combating Child Obesity: Helping Kids Feel Better by Doing What They Love
"Can you create a deep, story-based title that also functions as an exergame? DeAngelis looks at the history of exercise gaming and explains how his CMU university project Winds Of Orbis tries to twin the RPG and exercising for kids."

Q&A: Konami's Yamaoka on Silent Hill: Homecoming's Western Development Trip
"Konami's seminal Silent Hill horror franchise has shifted to a Western developer with the upcoming Double Helix-created Silent Hill: Homecoming - and Gamasutra talks to longtime series composer and now producer Akira Yamaoka about the shift, creative direction, and Lynch-ian inspiration."

The Impact of Activision Blizzard
"With the giant Activision-Vivendi Games merger, announced in late 2007, still wending its way to completion, Gamasutra talks to lawyer Tom Buscaglia, journalist Michael Zenke and analyst Michael Pachter on soon to be felt ramifications."

Inside Audiosurf - The Indie Adaptive Steam Music Experience?

[This Chris Remo-penned piece actually ran earlier in the week on Gamasutra, but thought it was worth a repost here due to the indie-friendly subject matter - and some of the particularly neat Last.fm/email stat features that Fitterer mentions, yay.]

When Audiosurf creator Dylan Fitterer took the chair at Valve's recent Bellevue, Washington press event attended by Gamasutra, the presence of an actual third-party developer (even one using Steam's tools) confirmed the affair as one of Valve's most expansive - aimed at holistically legitimizing the PC as a game system.

More importantly, however, it spoke to Valve's unique position in the industry. Still an independent studio, the company is blurring the lines between developer and publisher within the context of digital distribution.

Even while it sells its own games, the Half-Life creator maintains what has become one of the de facto online methods for buying other companies' games, especially among the hardcore PC set.

With the release of the Independent Games Festival 'Best Audio'-winning Audiosurf, which he calls an "adaptive music game," Fitterer became something of an indie darling of the gaming world - and that's saying something when it comes to games, which have nothing so pervasive as a Pitchfork Media to knight hipsters weekly.

Rather than speaking about specific development issues, Fitterer's postmortem of Audiosurf decided to address why he stuck with the PC platform rather than try to jump over to a console-based download service, and how Steam helped him make the game financially viable.

No Barrier To Entry

Audiosurf is handily described by Wikipedia as "an IGF Award-winning puzzle/rhythm hybrid game created by Invisible Handlebar. Its track-like stages visually mimic the music the player chooses, while the player races across several lanes collecting colored blocks that appear in sync with the music."

The game was released in February of this year, becoming the most successful Steam title of the month both by units and, more impressively given its $10 price tag, by revenue. The title, which was the first to use Valve's Steamworks community/networking suite, continues to be a strong seller.

"I made it basically by myself, I released it on Steam, and it's changed my life," said Fitterer. "It's been a really big success, way beyond my expectations."

So firstly, why did Fitterer create the title on PC? He stressed his relief at not having to deal with approval or certification once the game was ready to deliver.

"I just kept working on it, and eventually I had Audiosurf," he recounted. "I didn't have to ask anyone to release it, except for Elizabeth, my wife. Nobody could turn it down."

Bringing the game to closed platforms, he said, would have required even more development time, not to mention the issues involved with getting a publishing deal in the first place.

Like many indie developers, part of Fitterer's PC allegiance is out of practicality. "I built this game without any financial backing," he explained, "so, dev kits, that's just not a hurdle I want to be facing."

Post-release, he pointed to the open network architecture available on PC as a strength. "On the consoles, there are limitations," he said. "On the PC, I can do whatever I want."

Fitterer uses that openness to not only host leaderboards for all included Audiosurf tracks, but to automatically create leaderboards for every custom track a user plays.

No Barrier To Customers

Echoing the central theme of Robin Walker's Team Fortress 2 presentation the same day, Fitterer praised the connected nature of the PC platform, which allows developers the most direct route to customers.

"On the PC, I have an open dialogue with the customers, a real direct line," he explained. "On the internet, it's emails, it's chats, forums, and social networks. Consoles, to me, are kind of across the wall from all that. There are over 10,000 YouTube videos of Audiosurf. I love that stuff."

The designer then gave a direct example of how both the direct communication as well as the lack of development restrictions resulted in a major new feature for the game's community.

"One of the things I noticed," Fitterer recalled, "is that a lot of Audiosurf players were into this site called Last.fm. It's a social network for music fans; it tracks what you're playing and correlates it with other people, so you can discover new bands. I just integrated it into Audiosurf, so whenever you play a song there, it updates your stats.

"It didn't take long to roll it out. No certification. Boom, it's out, everybody has it, everybody's happy," he said. "Good stuff."

No Barrier Between Customers

Part of Audiosurf's success was due not just to Fitterer himself having easy access to his customers, but also due to potential customers having open communication between themselves.

The game's design, he argues, lends itself very much to viral marketing, something Steam facilitates. For example, he saw users linking one another to the Audiosurf Steam page, which contains a convenient purchase link. Some evangelists went as far as purchasing the game for their friends with Steam's gift function.

On the development side, he implemented a simple feature that encouraged competition between users, as well as providing automatic, but personal, encouragment keep coming back to the game.

"Dethroned" emails are sent to users when they are knocked off a song's leaderboard, informing them of their defeat.

Unlike most online games, where top leaderboard slots are the domain of only the most hardcore addicts, Audiosurf generates a unique leaderboard for any song a user chooses to play.

Thus, users are far more likely to end up vying for the top of one of their favorite tracks - and, thus, likely to be chastised and reminded by an automated email.

"For example, if I were to take the top slot on a Madonna song, Jason is going to be dethroned," Fitterer concluded cheekily, looking pointedly at Valve business director Jason Holtman and rousing up some laughter amongst the small audience.

Grumbled Holtman in response, "Sure, pick on the business guy."

Making Spore Creatures: Part 1, Fluffyleaf

Well, the folks at Maxis/EA were kind enough to send me an early copy of the full version of the Spore Creature Creator, the $10 pre-release creature maker for Will Wright's magnum opus.

The Creature Creator is officially debuting on the 17th, but since some other folks such as Kotaku's Mr. Crecente and Digg's Kevin Rose are also linking to movies of their delightful creations - and lots of videos are starting to pop up on YouTube after the hands-on Maxis visit earlier this week, I thought I'd document a few different stages of effort in making monsters.

Here's the first creature I knocked together, 'Fluffyleaf', and I describe him as a 'plantarian' in his description. This took me literally no more than five minutes to put together from start to finish, since it's simply a torso, a maw, a couple of pairs of hoiked-up legs, and some leaves where I guess wings should be.

He doesn't have eyes, as a YouTube commenter astutely notes, but that's because I thought he looked more stylish without them. Might lead to some evolution-related issues when the full game is released!

Click on the image above to see a hi-res version of him, or watch the video below for his slick dance moves:

If you want to know more about how the Creature Creator really behaves, Nate Ralph's hands-on explanation at Wired's Game|Life blog is the best description I've seen.

In the meantime, I'm just going to be doodling and noodling at greater length, and presenting you with the results. First, simple impressions? It's a heck of a lot of fun to make timorous beasties, and the social and YouTube upload features are just killer.

[EDIT: Hmm, looks like the Creature Creator free demo version somehow got leaked early. Still, I'll carry on with this, because it's fun, and I'm guessing the demo version has different capabilities to the version I'm using.]

XBLA's Review-Based Delisting? The Developer Perspective

Following Microsoft's announcement that it would be delisting Xbox Live Arcade games with a MetaCritic score lower than 65%, if other conversion rate and age criteria were met, newly launched Gamasutra sister blog Gamerbytes - which deals with all elements of console digital downloads - asked XBLA developers exactly what they thought.

First up was Ilari Kuittinen, CEO of developer Housemarque, recently known for its PlayStation Network Super Stardust HD and currently working on Golf: Tee it Up for Xbox Live Arcade. He advocates an approach that fixes the oversaturation problem with interface improvements rather than delisting:

"It is hard to really fully comment on the issue of removing games from the XBLA service as we don't know how many games are really fulfilling the criteria. Are there really many games that are under the threat of being delisted from the service?

If you think of a game that is selling about 200 copies per week at $10 each, it can still create income of up to $6,000 USD per month. It may seem low, but for a small, independent developer, this is a very welcomed additional income to keep the company floating. As the digital distribution is really allowing to keep an inventory without a significant cost to the service provider, I really think that these games should be still available unless the sales have been close to zero many months.

Rather than removing the games, the marketplace interface should be improved to include innovations from other web stores. There are many ways to improve the service. There should be an equivalent of a bargain bin in the marketplace, recommendations of other similar products available on XBLA, tell people that what other people buying a particular game have also bought or a possibility to do customer's reviews & ratings.

Amazon.com has literally hundreds of thousands of different items available and they are happy to add more items to their lists every day rather than delisting items from their database."

Both Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns, the two members of N+ developer Metanet Software, were more outwardly frustrated by the announcement.

They would like to see a user rating system such as the one used for WiiWare, and like Kuittinen, they cited Amazon.com.

Mare Sheppard:

"Wow, that seems so extreme! It seems very unfair that the offending titles would be pulled entirely, regardless of their sales. Sure, they may be rated/reviewed poorly, but isn't that, realistically, entirely subjective? And, a conversion rate of 6% is still admirable, isn't it?"

Raigan Burns:

"It really doesn't make any sense that they wouldn't just bump them to a lower-profile category... deleting them outright is INSANE. Amazon stocks books with single-digit annual sales, and they have to deal with physical inventory! You'd think digital would be even cheaper to manage.

We both believe that a rating system would be a better solution to this problem. The system implemented on the Wii is working very well, for example, especially since it requires players to have played the game for a certain amount of time before they get to rate it. It's fair, and such an important feature. Cutting down the catalog is not an effective way to manage complexity; user ratings are."

Finally, Merscom (Buku Sudoku) co-founder and CEO Lloyd Melnick weighed in with a dissenting opinion in support of Microsoft's changes, arguing that developers who deliver quality games deserve a marketplace free of clutter:

"I support this policy. I think it is important to maintain a consistent level of quality and if a game is not hitting these targets (which are not that rigorous) they aren't giving the gamer a good experience.

"We put almost three years into Buku and it is frustrating that there is so much noise that player's may not realize our game really is good.

"I always believe in quality over quantity and I think the Microsoft policy is a good move in this direction. I understand how some developers feel they might end up wasting their effort, but I think if they make a REAL effort these hurdles should be a piece of cake."

June 13, 2008

Best Of Indie Games: Rose, Camellia, Ziczac & Nameless

[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 - two sequels, a highly-rated tower defense game, one freeware puzzler and finally, a roguelike with no name.

Game Pick: 'GemCraft' (Game in a Bottle, browser)
"A neat tower defense game which has been getting rave reviews from fans of the genre, featuring plenty of skills and achievements to unlock in campaign mode. Expect to spend at least a couple of days to beat all challenges within."

Game Pick: 'Rose and Camellia 2' (Nigoro, browser)
"A sequel to one of Nigoro's more popular releases about female aristocrats dueling via face-slapping, made especially for visitors to the Shockwave web site. Rose and Camellia 2 is a hidden bonus which can only be unlocked by players who are good enough to beat the first game."

Game Pick: 'DayMare Town 2' (Pastel Games, browser)
"A new point and click adventure game from the developer of Submachine and the Covert Front series. Fans of Samorost 1 and 2 should not miss this, but do keep a walkthrough handy as some of the puzzles encountered during your journey can be rather difficult to figure out."

Game Pick: 'Nameless Roguelike' (Hexedian, browser)
"A roguelike game in which enemies are represented by alphabets, while items are shown as special symbols or quotation marks. Gather and use whatever equipment you can find, as the journey to retrieve a secret artifact will be wrought with danger at every turn of a corner."

Game Pick: 'Ziczac' (0rel, freeware)
"A simple scoring-based puzzler where players acquire points by making small squares with four tiles of the same colour, or attempt to create large loops for a special multiplier bonus. Comes with a functional online high score submission feature."

COLUMN: The Z-Axis: 'Extending Pure Moments With G&T'

pacut1.jpg['The Z-Axis' is a bi-weekly column from game writer Michael Zenke, stretching games and gaming trends out planarly to poke, caress, and pinpoint the innards of what makes them great. This first week, he finds out how the folks from Penny Arcade laid their web strip end to end to make a deftly simple episodic game.]

Games are escapism. At their core, games offer the player a way to experience a place or moment in time which would otherwise be unattainable. Whether that moment is impossible (exploring a ruined dome city on the floor of the ocean) or merely highly improbable (living the life of a night vision goggle-wearing super-spy), games take us out of our time and place and put us into a new one.

The written word has done this for centuries, and over the years this has been concretized into the literal virtual worlds we now inhabit every day.

What I find fascinating is how modern gaming, having now turned many thorny design and technology issues into “solved problems”, has returned to the roots of the medium. The popularity of “all you can eat” gaming is ever on the rise, with titles like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Just the same, pure moments are quickly becoming the bread and butter of modern gaming - in the same way they were at the beginning of the pastime’s history.

Pac-Man and Asteroids don’t get much simpler, and games once again seek to once again offer that clarity of experience. Strung-together chunks of directed gameplay offer this up on the moment-to-moment level, while episodic gaming seeks to offer this sort of pure experience over a longer timeframe.

Nowhere is this vision or purity more visible than in last month’s release of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. The new title is the perfect example of an extended moment, a point in time distilled and spread throughout a greater whole.

On A Precipice

OtRSPoD, as it’s being called, is the first venture into gaming from the creators of the Penny Arcade webcomic. To say that Penny Arcade is wildly successful would be a gross understatement. Within the field of web comics, creators Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins are legends. It helps that they’ve proven themselves to be charitable, great guys and (with the help of the equally-mythical Robert Khoo) pretty savvy business-folk.

The first Penny Arcade title brings you inside the comic-world they’ve been creating for the last 9+ years. This strange and sometimes disturbing reality has been, up until now, only visible through the three-panel windows Krahulik and Holkins post every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. These transitory realms are almost always self-contained. There’s no ongoing storyline, no continuity at all except for the appearance of the characters Gabe and Tycho. Even their participation isn’t required to make a Penny Arcade strip.

pacut2.jpgSo the very fact that their first playable offering is as identifiably Penny Arcade is notable. At roughly six hours in length, you’d be right in thinking that the transition from 30-seconds of humor to the equivalent of an epic poem results in some significant changes. The changes, though, are all fundamentally consistent with the comic’s internal reality. What results is an extended strip, three panels stretched and warped out to encompass a full-fledged story.

This extension of a moment in time is accomplished in a number of ways. The ‘padding’ of the gameplay time with combat would seem to be the most obvious method. Interestingly, I found the game’s combat to be very much in keeping with the PA ethos. Bloody, over-the-top violence interspersed with some genuine weirdness - just like your average strip. What could be an immersion-breaking element, drawing you out of the comic world, instead furthers your belief that you’re interacting with their weird little universe. “If things were to go down this way,” you think to yourself, “I’d fully expect to see Tycho attacking people with a book.” And he does.

Like Butter Scraped Across Too Much Bread

The key here is that these elements extend the transitory moment we all experience when reading the weekly strip. Instead of spreading the game’s essence thin across a wad of padding, the game offers regular moments of PA-quality humor. As a result, the game is more like reading a bunch of strips over and over again in a row. There’s the ‘combat’ strip, the searching for hidden objects strip, and then a number of story-focused strips that move the game’s tale along. The game offers one experience over and over again to the player, but the quality of the game is such that it doesn’t get old.

It could be argued that many popular modern games ‘make their bones’ by providing this very service. Repetition without boredom is inordinately rewarding for fans of particular game types. The stalking and creeping of Assassin’s Creed turns the title into an extended hunt, a macrocosm of the individual missions Altair completes. Gears of War seems to be one long, exquisite battle from cover-point to cover-point.

While both of these games (and the PA title as well) have their detractors, the audiences that enjoy these kinds of games have welcomed them with open arms. That would seem to fly in the face of the “everything and the kitchen sink” style of gameplay that’s growing ever more popular. Whether a truly open world as in GTA IV, or just a title with numerous styles of play (as in Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction) ever-more elaborate artifice seems to be the trend.

Simple is Sexy

The obvious question, then, is “what do these seemingly-simple games offer players?” The answer is just as simple: a single perfect moment. Stretched out over the length of an entire game, the endless hunt of Assassin’s Creed becomes a thing of crystalline beauty. The gunfight that permeates every scene in Gears of War isn’t repetitive, just unfettered.

pacut3.jpgIn an era where Xbox Live Arcade games and PopCap candies are becoming just as much a part of the gaming scene as 60+ hour JRPGs or hard-core violence shooters, this should come as no surprise. I personally view it as an epicurean turnaround. Just as many fine dining restaurants seek to emphasize the inherent flavors in their meals, so too do modern games seek to offer a palate-cleansing purity.

Don’t mistake the writing on the wall: there will always be room for Final Fantasy, GTA, and the varied gameplay of a Ratchet and Clank. These “extended moments” are, instead, a chance for gamers to focus their experiences. By paring down to the purest gaming components, the most important storytelling elements, titles like On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness offer an alternative to the all-you-can eat buffet. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

GameSetLinks: The Ogre Says - Trade In Games!

Returning for a near-weekend brush with GameSetLinks, we feature such delights as the (pictured) GameStop trade-in air freshener gimmick, which I am still recovering from opening, nasally, and those awesome Blik Nintendo-themed wall decals.

Also in here - some very game community-applicable Yahoo! community patterns from the Habitat folks, an awesome lecture on game culture, more No More Heroes critiques, and more Nintendo DS oddness, sniffle, *bawl*.

Inside it's shining:

WhatIsBlik.com: Nintendo Wall Decals
Oo, officially licensed surface graphics for walls, totally awesome.

Jeremy's 1UP Blog: MGS4, EGM, NDAs and YOU
Explanations are good!

GameStop Uses Air Fresheners to Promote Trades - Shacknews - PC Games, PlayStation, Xbox 360 and Wii video game news, previews and downloads
We just got one of these, and it stunk up the entiiire office, haha.

NCSX Import Video Games & Toys: 99 No Namida - New Japanese DS Game
'The Namida software throws a few personality questions at the user and creates a sort of emotional profile from the answers. A short story then plays out on the screen which is designed to make the reader cry.'

Dispatches: No More Heroes, Part Three; Or: Raise High the Beam Katana, Carpenters! at Game Design Advance
I swear, there's been more decent thought-pieces about No More Heroes than almost any other recent game. Is it all the pop culture crammed into it?

GP EXCLUSIVE: Read the Transcript as Jack Thompson Storms Out of Court | GamePolitics
A playwright couldn't have playwrote it better.

Sean Malstrom: 'Birdmen and the Casual Fallacy'
Slightly lunatic, extremely fascinating rant on casual gaming, Nintendo, etc - via Dubious Quality.

Three Wishes: Game Genie Grants Developers Their Hearts' Desires from 1UP.com
'If you could, at the wave of a magic wand, overcome some technological hurdle in game development, what would it be?' Neat people reply!

Functional Autonomy » Blog Archive » Under The Mask: Games Culture
Transcript of a phenomenally good lecture on gaming culture by David Hayward. Read it.

Habitat Chronicles: Reputation Patterns for Everyone
'During almost five years working on these tools and ecosystems, I developed several rules-of-thumb about how and when to use devices such as points, ranking, ratings, reviews and especially when not to use them.'

June 12, 2008

Analysis: The Evolution Of Maxis' Spore

[Spore creators Maxis held a near-final preview of Will Wright's eons-in-development 'everything' game Spore at its Emeryville studios the other day, and our very own Chris Remo was present to see presentations and ask: Who's this game for, and why should they care?]

For all of the understandable excitement about Spore - after all, it is The Next Game From Will Wright, and the concept of guiding a species from cellular birth to spacefaring brilliance lacks not in ambition nor potential - there have consistently remained some fairly fundamental questions.

Just how exactly does the whole thing work, and is there a clearly (or loosely) defined target audience?

Neither of those questions were definitively answered during a presentation yesterday at the Maxis team's Emeryville, California headquarters, mainly because the event was primarily dedicated to only the Creature Creator part of the game.

Still, a number of features demonstrated by the team, as well as some hands-on time, suggest a lot of promise and a necessarily long-term strategy.

Targeting An Indefinite Market

Last May, when asked what it would take for Spore to be profitable, then-EA CCO Bing Gordon said, "It needs to sell in the millions and last a few years to pay back the investment."

When presented with this reaction last night and asked to speculate on Spore's target audience, Maxis designer Soren Johnson (Civilization IV) explained that the game at large doesn't really have an explicit target audience, per se.

In his own specific role on the team, he himself has something of a charter that springs from his development experience: to try and make the game palatable to core gamers who aren't the traditional audience for The Sims.

Spore may well connect more with core gamers than has The Sims, whose impressively diverse audience is massive enough that it need not disproportionately cater to the traditional triple-A gaming set.

As Will Wright has said in past presentations, the structure of Spore is something of a homage to many of own favorite games, with phases of evolution mimicking titles such as Pac-Man, Civilization, Diablo, and Populous, to name a few (Johnson even refers to one of Spore's phases as "Civ," the accepted shorthand for Sid Meier's long-running series).

That kind of multi-genre self-referencing is uncommon, and may well inspire waves of nostalgia amongst lifelong devotees of the medium.

It also sounds potentially overwhelming for those who are not lifelong devotees of the medium, and the team struggled with that issue during development, eventually choosing to err on the side of caution and provide plenty of hand-holding along the way.

Johnson then successfully pushed hard for a three-tier AI difficulty system that defaults to "easy" - not the most elegant solution in a game that is otherwise so heavily procedural, but likely one that will pay off among established gamers looking for something of a challenge and not just a sandbox.

Still, the eventual scale on which EA wants Spore to succeed almost precludes defining amongst whom it will be successful. This makes sense - after all, surely Will Wright was less concerned with deliberately writing a game that would appeal uncommonly well to older women when he first conceived The Sims, a game known to have had detractors amongst EA brass while in development.

But Spore, with its often cute but alien creatures, also lacks the instantly-relatable human factor that arguably has been such a big part of its predecessor's success.

Networking And Blogging

It seems that, to compensate, the team is putting more resources than ever into bolstering the game's potential for genuine human interaction.

Spore.com, which is only partially accessible until the free trial release of Spore Creature Creator next week, will essentially serve as a social networking site where users can share their creatures (which, in true Web 2.0 fashion, are tagged and can then be sorted by users) and interact with one another.

And in a clever move, much of the user-generated data from Spore.com is output in RSS or as embeddable HTML, and can be easily integrated into blogs and other social networking sites such as Facebook.

As a side note, the procedural nature of Spore's creatures mean that data is enormously compressible; creatures are exported directly to PNG image files, which can be viewed in regular image software but which also contain all the information needed to load the creature up in the game. They are only a few dozen kilobytes in size.

EA has also signed partnerships with services such as YouTube and an online comic-creating website. With a couple clicks, Spore will upload a demonstration video of your creature directly to a YouTube account. There is even a button that automatically creates an animated GIF avatar of your creature.

User-driven games like this have always benefitted by being evangelized via forums and email forwards, and the team knows it; now there's just less legwork.

Playing God

It also helps that Creature Creator is so ridiculously easy to use. After creating a few aberrations of nature, one quickly gets a sense of the immense range available.

(When I first sat down with the software, I assumed most creatures would end up looking basically like the goofy, gangly quadrupeds that EA's marketing team has mainly released - until I glanced to my left and saw the journalist next to me creating what appeared to be a four-foot tall living pear. With googly eyes.)

After creating and shaping a body, and adding any number of appendages and organs, the creature can be textured and painted, again in a surprisingly diverse number of ways. Most impressive, however, is the range of automatically-generated animations that is instantly compiled.

As awkward as my tall, absurdly long-legged, multi-jointed creature looked, it walked and galloped, struck poses threatening and threatened, and engaged in mating rituals quite convincingly. It certainly puts most mo-cap to shame.

The creator is the kind of thing that one imagines could easily find a dedicated audience on its own, even without the actual game part of Spore. Obviously, EA imagines this as well; Spore Creature Creator will be released as a standalone product that will be available as a free trial and as a $10 full version starting next week.

It's an insidious but inspired strategy - if you like the free trial, it isn't a particularly big investment to get all the functionality, at only a fraction of the cost of a regular game, and by the time the full-priced game does come out in September, you're stocked up with potentially months of creatures that you're surely itching to see in action.

So while a number of questions about Spore remain unanswered, and the audience may not be fully defined, the team does seem to have a good idea about how to get its hooks into whatever audience ends up surfacing.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Two Thousand And One Lines

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

Retrosabotage has recast a number of classic arcade games with new themes. Some of these are pure one-shot jokes, playing on the collisions between one idea and another -- Tetris crossed with Duck Hunt. Some are clever reworkings of old game mechanics so that you have to play a familiar level in a new way.

But one of them -- called "Twenty Lines" -- takes the mechanic of Tetris and places it against the background of scenes and music from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What's awesome about this version is the way the interaction of the original game has been revised to support the revised theme.

Instead of trying to get rid of lines of blocks, you're now trying to build the black monolith. Completely filled lines sink to the bottom, exposing lines that still have holes in them. Problems rise to the top, so that they're easier to resolve. There are no hard sides to the game space, either: if a block sticks out past the borders of the monolith, the extra squares simply vanish.

Cinematic effects change the way the player perceives the game, as well. At first the monolith is distant from the player, placed in an alien environment, a bit difficult even to see clearly. The first lines of the game vanish into a hole in the ground, only half visible, and surrounded by gibbering primates.

I found this immensely frustrating to start with, especially when I hadn't worked out why some lines seemed to be sinking and some squares vanished into thin air -- which unexpectedly makes a puzzle out of a mechanic that we all think we already understand.

But work out what you're supposed to be doing, and real progress becomes possible. Lines are completed. The music changes. The scene shifts. We see the monolith closer up, but at an angle; then from a distance, but backlit so that the remaining holes are clearly visible; then closer and more clearly...

Each leap takes us forward in time within the pseudo-narrative of the work, but also offers a better understanding of what we're trying to do.

Those modifications change the arc of the interaction from "you inevitably fail (and it's just a question of how soon)" to "you inevitably succeed (and it's just a matter of how quickly you understand what you're trying to do)".

The later parts of the game are substantially easier, more comfortable, more reassuring, than the opening stages, but the activity of placing the blocks has taken on a narrative meaning. The doomed struggle for survival, the pressure of evolution, has been replaced by movement towards a goal, and revolutionary progress for the human race.

When all is said and done, I'm not sure whether it's right to call "Twenty Lines" a game: there's too little challenge, too little danger of losing, too little potential for anybody's playthrough to be better than anyone else's. Nor is it really an interactive toy, a sandbox in which you can do whatever you want and see the results. There's not nearly enough freedom for that.

Very well. So is it a story? And is it in any sense a more effective story for being interactive?

If so, it doesn't fit any of the categories of interactive storytelling I usually think of. The interactive component this time is not about making significant plot decisions or rising to difficult challenges or even (to any serious degree) about exploring and making discoveries.

Nonetheless, the form of "Twenty Lines" offers the player the experience of progress from the
inside: of starting out confused and then coming to understand; of trying to survive, and then realizing that the game isn't about survival. In an odd way, I found it more effective than the movie on which it's based -- though that may just be because I get impatient with the more self-indulgent and slow-moving passages.

Certainly "Twenty Lines" is highly derivative, in that it would make little sense unless the player brought both the imagery of the movie and the preconceptions about Tetris mechanics to the experience. In another sense, it's highly inventive and novel.

The fact remains, though, that it doesn't really tell the story on which it draws. So maybe "interactive story" isn't quite the right name for it either. Maybe it belongs to a slightly different category of art.

For example: the poet Ovid wrote a collection of letters from mythological heroines to their lovers. Those letters don't really retell the myths, either. They assume the reader is already familiar with the plot; what they contribute is a different perspective on familiar characters. Achilles' captured slave Briseis doesn't get much chance to speak her mind in the Iliad -- she just gets traded back and forth between Greek men, treated as nothing more than a marker of prestige and honor. Ovid gives her a voice.

Her letter is not a story that stands up on its own right, but an exploration of an interesting corner of a pre-existing story, looking into emotions and perspectives that the original left unexplored. The Western tradition has produced a great deal of this kind of art, from the ancient world to the modern day, and some of it is very powerful and inventive, for all its functionally dependent nature.

In other words, it's fanfic.

Whatever we decide to call it, "Twenty Lines" endows the familiar mechanic of rotating and dropping little blocks with far more narrative significance than I would have imagined possible. It's an edge case in interactive storytelling -- and a surprisingly cool one.

[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.]

Game Developer Debuts Free Digital Issue

[We hadn't updated our free-to-view issue of Game Developer mag in a while, so Brandon Sheffield reminded me, and hey presto, here's one of our GDC issues from this year, with a neat Ratchet & Clank postmortem and much more besides.]

The editors of Game Developer magazine, the sister market-leading U.S. print publication to Gamasutra, have updated the free sample issue of the magazine to feature February 2008, with the Ratchet & Clank Future postmortem-featuring issue available for free browsing and PDF download.

The February 2008 issue has been picked as a good example of the leading content regularly available in the magazine, which is received by over 35,000 of the top worldwide game developers monthly - and read by over 85,000 in total.

The cover feature for the sample issue is 'Postmortem: Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction' by John Fiorito, and it's explained of the exclusive postmortem:

"Ratchet & Clank Future was Insomniac's second PlayStation 3 game, and indeed one of the first second-generation PS3 titles period. From scope woes to preproduction pitfalls, this postmortem illuminates some of the process behind this "second party" development cycle."

Another major feature for the February 2008 issue is 'Difficulty Is Difficult' by game designer Daniel Boutros, of which it's explained:

"If done well, difficulty can make a game quite addictive. If done poorly, the game can become an abject failure for consumers. This design article dissects various elements of difficulty tuning, and proposes potential solutions."

In addition, the February issue also looks at 'Big Waves' by Adi Bar-Lev, described as follows:

"Game Developer has featured articles on water before, but never massive, interactive waves. Building off a primer for general in-game water creation, this technical piece shows practical techniques for the creation, smoothing, and perfection of big waves in-game, as seen in Ubisoft's Surf's Up."

Another major piece for the issue is 'Community Roundtable' by a host of MMO and online game community managers, including April Burba, Christian Schuett, Jonathan Hanna, Richard Weil, Sean Dahlberg, and Victor Wachter.

The freely available issue is rounded out by an interview on Halo 3's 'Legendary' difficulty level, as well as the customary in-depth news, code, art, audio, and design columns from Game Developer's veteran correspondents, plus product reviews and editorial columns.

If you're interested in receiving more digital or print copies of Game Developer, the official magazine website includes six months' and a year's digital subscriptions - including access to back issues to 2004 and PDF downloads of all issues - alongside yearly print subscriptions for the magazine.

GameSetLinks: Bruce Bloxx Tom, Hilarity Ensues

Bonjour toujours, and welcome to another delightful install of GameSetLinks, this time started off by JayIsGames checking out the PC version of delicious puzzler Tower Bloxx.

(Actually, I forgot until Googling that Gamasutra actually has a postmortem of the cellphone version, FWIW!)

Also wandering around here - a bloody Bourne Conspiracy pen, more Mega64 ridiculousness than you can shake a stick at, a look at German politics vs. games, and color palette choices in the biz of late. Yes, palettes. Stop looking at me funny.

Beige it up:

Tower Bloxx Deluxe mini-review: Jay is Games
The mobile version of this title (yay Finns!) was pretty neat, also interesting to see mobile => casual on original IP.

Who Stole All the Colours? | Quiet Babylon
On gaming palettes, and the reason for drabness: 'I think that publishers have convinced developers that the game buying public is composed almost entirely of teenage boys.'

Tom vs. Bruce #13: Star Chamber from 1UP.com
Enormously entertaining CGW/GFW vs. columns (duo pictured!), still gradually being posted on 1UP.

Project Origins « The Space Oddity
Surfer Girl's spiritual offspring on pre-announcement names for games: 'Destroy All Humans was originally called Grand Theft Human.'

Intelligent Artifice » German Ministry of Foreign Affairs + Computer Games = ?
It appears that "...the political establishment in Germany is not much more enlightened than in the U.K", doh.

The Cut Scene - Video Game Blog by Variety: Creepiest schwag ever
'Along with my copy of "The Bourne Conspiracy" came this faux-bloody pen.' Ew.

Mega64: new Assassin's Creed skit
Awesome. Wait, and I also missed the new Alien Hominid HD ad, plus Marcus' Corner Episode 3, with Jessica Chobot and Becky Young. Sorry, Mega64, I've failed you.

sardius_: PRYZM: CHAPTER ONE: THE DARK UNICORN
Danny Cowan finds, shreds the tie-in comic to the TDK horror.

The Second "New Book Being Published" Announcement! | Armchair Arcade
Congrats to Loguidice and Barton - I didn't even know about Hiive's other books, either - The Commodore 64 Book - 1982 to 199x and The ZX Spectrum Book - 1982 to 199x.

Pioneer KURO Lofts - Matt Morgan (Naughty Dog) interview
Not including these Pioneer things to hype them, just pointing out that it's cool a big electronics company is getting game developers to talk about their visual work - shows prestige of biz nowadays.

June 11, 2008

Opinion: Is The iPhone A Major Opportunity For Game Innovation?

[Following Apple's newest iPhone announcements, industry veteran and former Eidos president Keith Boesky has been analyzing why game publishers may be slow to adopt the platform, suggesting Apple's device may be bringing openness and innovation back to handhelds.]

As the 3G iPhone launches and Apple's application store readies for launch, I was thinking about who is making games for the platform. The installed base for iPhones is expected to reach about 10 million by the end of this year, 20 million by 2009, and 30 million by 2010, and this does not include iPod Touch, which can run the same applications.

The subject came up a few times in the past few weeks, and it sounds like some significant players may choose to pass on the opportunity.

I sat in the audience of the LA Games Conference listening to Cindy Cook, chief strategy officer for Vivendi Games, talk about the future of the industry. One of the more interesting insights came out when a member of the audience asked about the iPhone and whether the company would be making games for the platform. Cindy said the installed base was not large enough to justify production yet, but if it grows, they would consider it.

Then, a couple days ago, I was in a meeting with an executive from one of the top mobile publishers in the world who explained there are 2.5 billion handsets in the world, and the iPhone was was not even on the radar yet. It will certainly not be a focus in the near future. (I included Cindy's name and not the other guy because Cindy's statement was made in a public forum and the other guy was speaking privately in a meeting.) Both are sadly wrong, and both are missing out on significant revenue, it doesn't mean we should, too.

Let's take a look at Vivendi first. Cindy says the platform does not have a large enough installed base, but it is actually larger than some of the platforms they develop for today, and considering investment per installed unit, the opportunity is exponentially larger than any other platform today.

Vivendi was willing to invest tens of millions of dollars into PS3 and 360 titles while those platforms had an aggregate installed based in the single digit millions of units. They launched into an installed base in the high six figures. They were investing based on promise of future platform growth.

The iPhone installed base is growing faster. Today, the industry average investment per console titles is equal to about USD .50 per installed unit (the top sellers are closer to a USD 1) worldwide and about USD 1 per user in the United States.

I understand the corporate position of not wanting to be a mercenary, and waiting for the market to figure something out, but we are only talking about a five or six figure investment, on the order USD .01 or less per installed unit.

Money is money, and they may not want to spend it, but one more data point makes it a bit odd. We are talking about a five or six-figure investment for the world's largest music platform from the sister company of the world's largest music label. Cindy explained the relationship as a strong one, but both companies stood on the sidelines as Activision and EA created a whole new category of music driven games.

We have seen the two work together with 50 Cent, and despite reports of tension between Apple and UMG, we know people are downloading more music into their iPhones and iPods than any other digital player. I may be flaunting my brilliant grasp of the obvious here, but it kind of feels like opportunity is knocking on the door and no one is opening it.

Looking at Mr. Mobile Executive, he too says the base is too small to make sense to him. There are 2.5 billion mobile not iPhones out there, and of them, about 2% of the people actually download applications. So, his installed base is about 50 million people.

One could argue iPhone is 20% of his market. This would be true on a pure platform basis. However, his investment per title per user is about .002 per installed user on the high end. Sure there are some licenses which add cost, but for the most part, the investment is minimal. Moreover, he develops to the lowest common denominator, to make those applications portable across hundreds of different device types.

If he makes an application for the iPhone, one of the most advanced phones on the market, he has an application for the iPhone, and nothing else. True, but does it matter? His applications must be portable because there is no single, robust platform with a homogeneous installed base of 10 million units.

By creating applications to the lowest common denominator, they are just not good or compelling, and they don't cater to any unique attributes of any phone. If he took the same effort and put it into a focused platform, he would be selling into a smaller installed base, but one with a much higher tie ratio.

Some publishers are playing with the model and looking at how to port arcade or old titles to the platform. It's a nice thought, but they should really be looking at how to make iPhone's Tetris. When we propose original development, it is just not something they are willing to do. There are no games out there for them to benchmark, so they can't forecast performance. Building on gut does not fit into Excel.

All of these publishers are looking at iPhone as an extension of the mobile business. I guess the word "phone" in the name of the platform throws them off. The iPhone is not the mobile business, it is a handheld without Nintendo or Sony. Mobile applications are sold into disparate platforms through intermediaries who operate best in monopoly or oligopoly positions.

Most applications in the States are distributed via the carrier or through agreements with the carrier. Meaning, you can get the application which is offered by your carrier and works on your phone type. Kind of like walking into Blockbuster and only being able to rent a Sony movie for your Sony DVD player.

iPhone allows the publisher to develop for a single platform and reach customers directly. Through the iTunes store, and perhaps directly to the phone, the publisher can reach the consumer directly, without involvement from AT&T or any other carrier around the world. This is when mobile applications will really break out.

The platform also signals a return to the old days. When a lot of us started in the business game schedules were measured in months and budgets only had as many zeros as they do today if they were paid in pesos. Publishing decisions were made by gut and risks were taken.

People said these days were coming back with mobile and then Xbox Live and PSN, but they really haven't yet. Those applications are less expensive to make, success is menu driven, menus are dictated by the carriers or platforms, and no one is really paying for them yet. Things may be changing soon, but not yet.

iPhone games can be built in the garage, the platform has enough features to allocate USPs even to the smallest games, and developers can get them out to the world easily. The difference today is other people are paying for those games to be developed.

When Jordan Mechner made Karateka for the Apple II he sold 500,000 units, a very big number. Those numbers will be exciting and profitable on the iPhone and perhaps, then, everyone can relax and have fun making games again. So Cindy, Mr. Mobile Executive, you are right, maybe you should sit this one out for a while.

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

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

COLUMN: Why We Play - "Honorable Fights - Analyzing Bushido Blade"

83476191_31d178594c.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 week, he tackles the Bushido Blade series’ most abstract mechanics: honor and choice.]

Metal Gear Solid, the lovechild of GI Joe and Aristotle, may be PSOne’s poster boy, but I’ll always remember another PS classic that brought realism to console games unlike any game before it: Bushido Blade.

And while each MGS installment inspires criticism detailing its culturally relevant storyline, picture perfect art design, and expansive gameplay, the Bushido Blade series - first debuting in 1997 in Japan - has since gone mostly unnoticed (Light Weight, Bushido Blade’s developer, and Squaresoft’s, its publisher, relationship halted future sequels after Bushido Blade 2). So this week, I ask, when not pursuing Liquid Ocelot, you stop by the nearest game re-seller, pick up a copy of the series, and begin the Bushido Blade road to self-improvement.

Apply Generously

Part of Bushido Blade’s appeal lies in the title. The Bushido code, a 12th century Japanese samurai conduct code commonly unspoken and unwritten, emphasizes honor, a honing of physical skills, and frugality. And while frugality may be the game’s most important trait, Bushido Blade reveals itself best through liberal play. It may appear simple, mechanical, and average your first few bouts, but dozens of play-throughs, especially ones with humility, where you take risks rather than rush to defeat your opponent, will lead to a relaxed enjoyment uncommon with frenetic, button-masher fighting games.

Bushido Blade finds richness in reduction. The game offers three stances—high, neutral, and low—each with three one-button attacks. You have the ability to throw dirt or use a projectile (but only once). Then you get three speed attacks: an aerial hindrance attack, along with a low swoop attack, and a lunge. Depending on your contact with the other player, you may swing from one move to the next via the “Motion Shift System.” That’s it.

No time limits. No health bars. No lengthy combos. No move breakers. No specials. No parrying, or air blocks, or even Super Art systems.

You get a limited move-set and a sharp sword that kills with one, precise stroke.

Simplicity is Never Simple

Bushido Blade encourages competitive players to study the fight’s natural rhythm. As a rival lunges, back away and counter her with an attack from above. Or, if a player raises his stance high, switch to mid-range attacks—when his body arcs downwards with a chop, impale his head.

This ‘rock, scissors, paper’ mechanic minimizes complexity and makes Bushido Blade victim to the cliché “easy to learn, but challenging to master.” But the game’s not that simple. As mentioned, Bushido Blade’s gameplay clearly contrasts with traditional fighting games, which often require players to study elaborate move-lists and discover each games’ specific “gaminess.”

I recently took a gamer pilgrimage to the Chinatown Arcade, where my arcade fighter skills mattered little at the hands of expert players showing off their muscle-memorized combos and hit breakers. For me, traditional fighting games are like college courses, and versus matches like exams. These bouts put the gamer in a vacuum with right and wrong answers that you must learn, memorize, and apply to succeed.

In Bushido Blade, none of the answers matter; only your quick, correct reaction determines your future. If Virtua Fighter players are like college students cramming for exams, Bushido Blade players are thirty-year strong businessmen, successful not from facts, but from years of practice with life’s spontaneity and split-second decisions.

Use the World to Your Advantage

But this tension, this sense that twitch decisions win fights meshes poorly with the traditional 2 ½ D arena fighting that made the Playstation’s other 3D fighters, Tekken and Battle Arena Toshinden. These flat arena force conflict, rather than allowing the player to position himself properly to create conflict. They lack evasion beyond a simple pivot. To solve this problem, Bushido Blade became one of the first console games to drop the traditional 2 ½ D arena format and allow fighters to freely explore their 3D environments, a mechanic later mashed onto Ehrgeiz and mastered by Power Stones 1 & 2.

The digital world’s your oyster: bamboo thickets may be cut short by stray cuts, cliff ledges may be climbed, and even the dirt may be tossed into your opponents eyes (but, come on, that’s not the Bushido way).

This true 3D freedom tapped an unconscious gamer urge to do more than pivot-evade enemies on these beautiful 3D environments. Bushido’s environments push back; thus, players take part in their digital worlds as they do in our real world. With such deadly attacks available to you and your opponent, Bushido Blade asks you to react appropriately—react not as an avatar, but as a person. The game doesn’t force the player to fight, but allows them to run. And with rivals launching katanas at your chest, running is often the most realistic and wise option available.

Real Life and Digital Death

Yet, the most shocking choice Bushido Blade provides is a seppuku-like option. To ensure an honorable death, many condemned or fatally wounded Bushido samurai performed seppuku, a form of ritual suicide (most commonly via hari-kari, or “stomach cutting”). Unsurprisingly, Bushido Blade prevents in-game suicide, but if you press select during a match your player will drop to his knees and prompt an uncontrollable cut-scene where your fighter allows the opponent to deal a fatal blow.

Both avatars always agree this will be an honorable death, though most real-life sources believe the honor seppuku provided came from murder by your own hands, you as the commander of your fate. In this game, the rival plays a role similar to the kaishaku, the assistant to the person performing seppuku and often his closest friend, who must remove the victim’s head after death. Oddly, Bushido Blade requires its own deathly participation. With the cut scene unplayable by you or your fellow player, it shares responsibility with your choice. You order your suicide, but the game engine performs it. The game takes responsibility for the honor code it sets for players.

Bushido Blades uses small rules and attack methods to subtly express the designer’s morality. While its take on suicide may be the most obvious moral commentary, some are smaller, less noticeable. In Bushido Blade 1, a kill from behind causes Game Over, a penalty for fighting dishonorably and breaking Bushido code. Tossing dirt may stun your opponent, but opens yourself to attacks from any stance.

Some opponents are even given firearms, but they’re easy to evade, lack precision, and offer little defense. These rules express an understanding between your and the game about how a skilled fighter must attack, both physically and spiritually. Gameplay, player, and the Bushido code are intertwined.

With this relationship between gamer and game clarified, the assisted suicide’s motive becomes more reasonable. The game sets the morality and rules by which you must abide. If you choose in-game suicide, the game is equally accountable for creating an environment that allows (and vaguely encourages) the seppuku.

Defining One’s Self

The game, however, does not define you; rather it offers an environment and mechanics that promote minimalism, making it easier for you to define yourself. Bushido Blade’s structure makes every choice a litmus test of taste, style, and personality. You throw dirt, stab from behind—you’re a cheater, a dishonorable fighter. You fight fast with small blades, you’re reckless and relish the fight. Slow and large blades, you battle to win.

These small decisions represent precise character traits, and are extremely customizable by the player. While most fighting game are notorious for their flamboyant characters, they leave you with options like “busty slow fighter” and “crudely stereotyped capoeira master.” These bombastic personalities leave little room for the player to associate himself with the avatar. They disconnect the player from the game’s emotional core.

I know, I’m talking about a fighting game’s emotional core, but Bushido Blade begs the player to make an emotional connection. The brief expositional cut-scenes mirror Greek Tragedy with mistaken identities, hopeless warring, and inter-family murder. On a grand scale, the battle systems flows from one bout to the next as you cut down handfuls of faceless enemies, but on a small scale, the Motion Shift System carries between slashes as you struggle with the challenging bosses.

It’s a game that asks you to make choices, ones only available from experience, sizing up your enemy, and applying yourself, applying your personal style to the fight. And while this may be available to the most hardcore fighter fans in Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter, Bushido Blade makes this relationship between player and avatar available to the average gamer, the one that gets in a virtual fight and wants the option to run away.

[Chris Plante is a freelance writer living the post-collegiate pauper life in New York City. By night, you can find him at HardCasual.net. By day, he produces theatre and television.]

GameSetLinks: The Kung Fu R-Type Monochrome Experience

Ah yeah, midweek maelstroms, and this time we have a gigantic range of neatness - starting off with a new retro game bar opening in Tokyo, and going progressively off/on the rails from there.

Other things to be highlighted - a new book about professional gaming, some fascinating free-to-play MMO stats in terms of revenue, ARG mistress Jane McGonigal at the New Yorker Conference, and, uhhh, 'America's Best Game Designer'.

Tweaking, graphics, level Z:

Canned Dogs » Blog Archive » Video Game Bar “A-Button” to open in Akihabara
'Game Bar A-button will be the first game bar to start in Akihabara opening on the 10th of July.'

Vintage Computing and Gaming | Archive » [ Retro Scan of the Week ] Hand-to-Handheld Combat
'This richly illustrated advertisement for Irem’s R-Type and Kung-Fu Master on the Game Boy made me bristle with excitement as a kid.'

Amazon.com: Game Boys: Professional Videogaming's Rise from the Basement to the Big Time: Michael Kane: Books
'The author follows two video-gaming teams, Team 3D and CompLexity, as they battle for supremacy in the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL)'

Successful MMOGs can see $1-2 in monthly ARPU « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog
Really interesting post on free-to-play online game revenues - Daniel James confirms $1.50 per Puzzle Pirates user ($350k total!) per month in comments, for starters.

Shoot The Core: Who's up for some Bugsrider?
Yep, English-language version (pictured) of a shmup-based MMO.

The Ghost of Print Media | OXM ONLINE
'You can disbelieve in print magazines, but it doesn't actually invalidate them or make them go away.'

MMOG Nation » Why Beckett’s Top 20 List is a Complete Load
In which we find out SirBruce, one of the wackiest guys in the MMO landscape (MMOGChart creator/disappearer, then re-appearer), was the primary author.

Avant Game: VIDEO: Saving the real world through game design
'Here's a video of the entire 20 minute quickfire talk/interview [ARG creator Jane McGonigal] gave at the 2008 New Yorker Conference: Stories from the Near Future.'

Determined to foment a rebellion - Well, they've done it - America's Next Best Game Designer
'Lamont Pete Entertainment and Dick Clark Productions, the producers of "American Bandstand" and "Dick Clark's New Years Rockin' Christmas Eve" are casting "America's Next Best Game Designer."'

Game-Ism: 'One More Notch Into the Mainstream'
Discussing Street Fighter IV sponsoring the CBS MMA fights.

June 10, 2008

Column: Welcome to the GameSetWatch Comic - 'Welcome to the Castlevania'

['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.]

This latest GameSetWatch Comic deals with the classic, slightly mangled speechifying of Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night - and presumably what happened in the version we didn't see onscreen. Ouch.

Don't worry, once you go offscreen he should be okay.

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

Round-Up: TIGSource's Procedural Generation Competition

[You'll also find this on IndieGames.com: The Weblog, but it's so neat that it deserves a quick crosspost - kudos to Derek and the TIGSourcies.]

Over the last few days on sister site IndieGames.com, a few of the notable entries from indie community TIGSource's latest Procedural Generation Competition have been mentioned in brief.

This latest indie challenge is one where participating developers were tasked with making unique games using some element of procedural and algorithmically generated content in the code - whether it be level design or even larger parts of gameplay.

Some of the highlights from the innovative competition are linked below:

Rescue: The Beagles
A platformer by Nenad where the objective is to save the required number of dogs from the hands of evil researchers in each stage to progress.

Ziczac
A simple scoring-based puzzler where players acquire points by making small squares with four tiles of the same colour, or attempt to create large loops for a special multiplier bonus.

Dyson
A colonization game where you take a set of self-replicating mining machines and attempt to gain control of an entire asteroid belt.

Self Destruct
A bullet hell shooter with randomly generated enemy patterns.

Artificial Nature
An arena shooter in which players must acquire stars from fallen enemies and channel a hundred of these to the base located at the center of the map.

Laser Bunny
A short action game consisting of ten levels, in which players must make their way past hordes of enemies to reach the exit placed at the north end of each map.

Evolution Shmup
Petri Purho's experimental attempt at creating the perfect vertical shooter by tracking the amount of time that a player spends on each random iteration of a new game.

A complete list of TIGSource Procedural Generation Competition entries can be found in this post. Voting and subsequent winners will debut on TIGSource very soon.

[UPDATE: Imagine my delight when I noted that Ludus Novus has also posted on the competition, and has highlighted almost completely different picks. So lots of neat stuff to check out here too!]

Analysis: Why Aren't There More Console MMOs?

[In a pointed analysis piece, Joe Ludwig, producer at Pirates Of The Burning Sea developer Flying Lab Software, examines the barriers that make creating console MMOs more difficult than PC MMOs, from platform holders through certification and control devices and beyond.]

A few weeks ago, Dan Rubenfield posted this (as part of a larger rant putting all MMO developers on notice):

"If you continue to refuse to acknowledge consoles as the de-facto standard for AAA gaming, you will go out of business.

Quit making PC games. It’s a waste of time and money."

(NPD respectfully disagrees with the waste of money part.)

I for one would love to build a console MMO. It's not that MMO developers don't acknowledge consoles as dominant, it's that there are many barriers to building a console MMO that don't exist on the PC. I mentioned a couple of those in my comment to the post above, but wanted to expand on them here.

Barrier #1: Platform Holders Demand a Share

Assuming a moderate success, MMOs are almost unique in their ability to give game developers a revenue stream. Most studios live from milestone payment to milestone payment and rarely see royalties off the game after it ships. If they're smart, they make a little extra on each milestone and can build a buffer to help them tough it out between projects, but often failing to sign with a publisher for the next project drives the developer out of business. With a few very successful exceptions, just about all studios live on this edge.

Ongoing revenues from subscriptions or micro-transactions change all of that. These revenue streams require constant updates to keep going. That means that the publisher needs the developer to stay in business so they can keep working on the game.

Assuming modest success, it also means that eventually the developer is going to pay back their advance and start earning royalties. This seems to have worked out pretty well for Cryptic who are developing Champions Online without a publisher.

When you introduce a platform holder to the mix, the economics change. Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo is going to demand their cut of all ongoing revenue, and that cut is rumored to be between 25% and 35%. With one more player getting a piece, the revenues shrink for both the publisher and the developer, and it becomes harder to turn a profit from a "modest success."

Barrier #2: Certification

Absolutely everything released on any console goes through an extensive testing phase called certification. This is a slow, expensive process that is imposed by the platform holder to keep a consistent level of quality and a consistent user experience for all titles on their platform. It works, too, so certification isn't likely to go anywhere any time soon.

How does certification interact with the need to put out patches on a regular basis that add new features to the game? It's bound to slow things down (and make patches more expensive).

Barrier #3: No Keyboard

Voice chat is great for small groups. It even works pretty well for short messages from one player to another. It really doesn't work so well for chat groups of 100. All the current consoles can take some kind of keyboard, but requiring one is something your users are going to object to. The game console is in their living room, after all, and they are probably running out of room after the drum set and all those extra Rock Band guitars.

Even if you could guarantee that the players have keyboards, text chat is still problematic. People sit pretty far back from their televisions, and even HD displays really aren't very high-res compared to PC screens.

Barrier #4: Long Development Times

MMOs take four to five years to build. People keep trying to convince themselves that they can do it in three years, but they're wrong. They are going to schedule everything for three years and then end up slipping by a year or two.

The Xbox launched in November of 2001. The Xbox 360 launched in November of 2005. PlayStation 2 launched in November of 2000, and PlayStation 3 launched in November of 2006. The last major generation change on the PC was Windows 95, and it's had a pretty smooth ramp since then. It's really hard to spend four to five years building one title when your platform is only going to be current for five to six years.

Barrier #5: Consoles Have a Smaller Installed Base

Yes, I said smaller. There are 189 million NVIDIA GPUs installed in PCs, a number which doesn't count any of the ATI cards out there or any NVIDIA cards older than the 5 series. There are 120 million PlayStation 2s, 25 million Xbox 360s, 25 million Wiis, and 20 million PlayStation 3s. That's a total of 190 million consoles. Whatever ATI brings in installed base pushes the PC way over the top.

This entirely discounts the fact that every single game console was purchased to play games and every PC was not. It also discounts all those GeForce 2s and 4s that a PC developer really should use as their min spec.

Barrier #6: Duo Play

Many, many people play MMOs (and other games for that matter) in pairs. I've played 6 different MMOs with my wife. Lots of people play with their spouses, siblings, or kids.

As long as you have an appropriate min spec, your game is likely to run on the second-tier PCs in the house. But how many people have a second Xbox 360 in their house? Some do, to be sure, but that number is tiny compared to the number of two-computer households.

Console MMOs really need to support split-screen play on a single machine, which adds to the development complexity. On the other hand, split-screen duo play would be fantastic for people who live in the same house and is actually a feature that consoles can offer over PCs.

So We're Doomed Then?

In the short run, yes. None of these are insurmountable obstacles, but they do make a console MMO more difficult than a PC MMO. There is enough money to be made in console games that future MMO releases there are inevitable. It's just a question of when they arrive.

Several console MMOs have already launched. The most successful of these by far is Final Fantasy XI on the PlayStation 2. Everquest Online Adventures and Phantasy Star Universe (and Phantasy Star Online before it) are two more examples. There are probably more that I'm not coming up with. All of these games have seen some modest success, but none of them are either major console hits or major MMO hits.

To add to those, some new console MMOs are in the works. SOE is working on three PC/PlayStation 3 titles, with Free Realms being the first one to come out. PS3 is the loser so far this generation, though, so that may not make much difference to most console gamers.

UK magazine Edge has rumored that Nintendo was working on an Animal Crossing MMO, but it's just a rumor at this point. Microsoft obviously doesn't have the institutional fortitude to build MMOs; they have canceled Marvel twice. NCsoft also announced a partnership with Sony to bring an NCsoft game out on the PS3, though they aren't saying what game yet.

Eventually MMOs are going to come to consoles. It's just going to take them a while to get there, and they will probably never emerge in the same numbers as they do on PCs. Buck up, Dan. We'll get there some day.

[Joe Ludwig is the producer of Flying Lab Software's Pirates of the Burning Sea. His ten years in the industry put him somewhere between Clueless Newbie and Bitter Veteran. Joe is a frequent speaker and occasional writer on MMOs and their issues. His blog can be found at http://programmerjoe.com.]

GameSetLinks: From Execution To Reflection

Time to spool out the GameSetLinks again, this time headed by the macabre little indie title Execution, and what Ludus Novus thinks it tells us about games as an artform.

Elsewhere in this majestic mess, mind you, there's an MSNBC article on rapid indie game prototyping, Watercooler Games on art-game reflect, feedback from an excellent recent 1UP dinnercast, and much more.

Reddy, steddy, teddy:

Ludus Novus :: Execution: Changing Games Forever
Further discussion (and spoilers, be careful) on the odd experimental game.

LinkUp: Wii Boxing the Arts | The New Gamer
All these are good (McSweeney's on Guitar Hero, a cello-playing Flash game), so I'm linking the linklog again.

Great games created on insane deadlines - Citizen Gamer- msnbc.com
More indie-centric goodness from MSNBC, this time about Purho, Gabler and the 'prototype quickly' ilk.

PressSpotting: Bias or no bias? - Video News Spots - GameSpot
Some interesting quotes, I would have liked to see a bigger subject split between comments on news and game reviews, as hinted at in the intro.

Tynan Sylvester » Blog Archive » Player League - Release!
Aha, Tynan releases his experimental game about 'picking up chicks'.

such things that never was: Oh, wow...
Really odd TV-related tale from Surfer's Girl 'unreleased media' blog, so maybe she's still lurking somewhere, eh?

WoS: 'The Wonderful World of Bruce Everiss'
Of interest to people who know Stuart, J. Nash, and Bruce Everiss and have any idea what is going on here. So just the RPS editors then!

Water Cooler Games - Reflect, an Art Game
...in which "the player first observes movement from the creature's perspective, then attempts to mimic."

Single Auteur vs Collaboration « Double Buffered
Discussing a recent 1UP Show w/Wolpaw, Cuthbert, Mak, and the resulting discussion: 'I think there are VERY few real auteurs, and many more false auteurs who will take you down the road to ruin.'

chewing pixels » Single Format Gaming Future #2
'The makers of the ‘Alternavita’ platform have managed to create a large scale 3D environment for use in browser windows that’s somewhere in between PSOne and PlayStation 2 texture quality and polygon count.'

June 9, 2008

Think Services Launches Console Digital Download Blog GamerBytes

Think Services has announced the launch of GamerBytes, a new weblog specifically providing information, interviews and analysis for digital downloaded console games - from Xbox Live Arcade through PlayStation Network to WiiWare.

Why? With the swift rise of digital downloaded content for the major consoles, there's a major hole in centrally located information for shortplay, innovative independently-developed titles - such as Penny Arcade Adventures, N+ and LostWinds. GamerBytes plans to offer daily updated news on the state of gaming for the three major console services - each of which has its own section on the site.

Editor Ryan Langley has folded his popular XBLAH.net site into GamerBytes, and will now collate breaking news, rating information, low-profile publicity on all three consoles. He will also ramp up the exclusive content - such as his recent quizzing of XBLA developers on the delisting changes.

GamerBytes will also include the latest jobs from the market-leading Gamasutra Jobs network, with a site-specific feed available soon, and will cross-pollinate information with relevant sister sites such as Think Services' IndieGames.com blog, as well as related events such as the Independent Games Summit at GDC.

The GamerBytes site is now officially open, and there's a full-feed RSS available for those interested in subscribing to the news feed.

Will Wright - Video Games Close To 'Cambrian Explosion' Of Possibilities

[Thanks to a tip from ex-GCG editor Beth Dillon, we were lucky enough to get a write-up of Will Wright's recent Vancouver talk - with notes from James Huck and article formation from Chris Remo. It's particularly neat because it appears to be a largely custom lecture for the event. And here it is!]

"Spore is anticipated as much as James Joyce's Ulysses was in the 1900's."

With that introduction, quoting The New Yorker, Gerry Sinclair of Vancouver's Emily Carr University of Art and Design introduced Maxis founder and The Sims creator Will Wright before the designer's recent address at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The talk was part of the gallery's exhibition "Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art" - for which Wright serves as a co-curator alongside comics luminaries such as Art Spiegelman and Seth.

That Old Question

When Wright took the podium, he spoke on his involvement with Krazy! and the Vancouver Art Gallery, and noted that, surprisingly, it was the first time he had seen video games presented in an art show alongside other more established art mediums.

That observation inevitably led to the question that, as Wright pointed out, has been considered at least once by all gamers, designers, critics, and fans: "Are video games an art form?"

Apparently, one unnamed fellow co-curator had his mind made up on that matter. Recalled Wright, "When comic book people are looking down on you as cultural refuse, you know you're at the bottom of the barrel."

For his part, Wright is more optimistic. "I do believe that games can be a form of artistic expression," he said, "a co-collaboration between player and designer. We have yet to prove we can do meaningful things with this form of expression, but I believe we are at the cusp of a Cambrian explosion of possibilities [referencing the geological era in which complex life flourished]. We are a couple years away from being respected as a form of expression, but it's not a battle we need to fight. We'll win anyway."

Humble Beginnings

As Wright pointed out, gaming is a new medium relative to comics, but both came from humble beginnings. A medium's newness tends to impart upon it derision -- those engaged in the medium are seen not as artists in their own right, but rather as "drug dealers" peddling toxic forms of corrupting entertainment.

The designer described a scene of a person totally and completely engaged by a new form of media, so completely drawn in that the witness expressed concern for the man's sanity and self-control. Though reminiscent of any number of mainstream press articles on video games, Wright's anecdote in fact describes the reaction of a man who saw a monk reading a book in a monastery a millennium ago.

The Spore creator then spoke about the humble beginnings of numerous forms of expression and communication, whose eventual potential far outweighed their original intent. For example, Alexander Graham Bell excitedly speculated that every town in the United States might one day have a phone. Early television enthusiasts spoke about the possibility of having three channels to choose from. Writing was pioneered for the quotidian purpose of keeping inventory records.

All mediums begin with "relatively specific, functional purposes", explained Wright, but through consumption of output comes deeper understanding of production, and a medium evolves away from its functional beginnings to a more abstracted role - with "myriad applications of communication and expression."

The Abstraction Of Gaming

Wright discussed gaming as a new innovation on the longstanding and essential tools of story and play, tools that we use to explore our "possibility space, build models of experiences, and collect reference knowledge called 'schema' that better enable us to successfully navigate through our reality." Wright often touches on schema during discussions of game design.

Returning to the idea of emerging media forms, he made reference to early ideas about television, that it would "completely revolutionize education."

"Art forms started to solve specific, very narrow problems, but they slowly evolved into entertainment forms and then spiraled upwards as artistic expression," he said. "My industry -- my art form -- is in the early stages of this process." Video games are clearly entertainment, he said, and on the verge of breaking the barrier into artistic expression.

"As a game designer, our senses allow us to build models," he said. "With our imagination we run little simulations," allowing players to gain experiences without the associated risk those actions would carry in real life -- play and storytelling enable our imaginations to build experiences relevant to coping with our realities.

"Evolution has allowed us to form more elaborate requirements for our imaginations," he continued. "Social structures did a large part to spark the development of our imaginations, to build a model of our realities."

"We are amazingly good at finding patterns," noted the designer, defining schema as "expectations built upon the pattern and casualnes of repeated experiences," or "toy experiences."

"Toy worlds -- games -- are a model, an abstraction of reality," Wright went on. "The way something is presented can elicit a human response different from what they usually would." For example, he noted, the television show Gilligan's Island represents the seven deadly sins.

Film Envy

"Game designers suffer from film envy," postulated Wright, "and many of them want to be film directors." (More than a few prominent designers have explicitly indicated as such.)

The designer pointed out that the film director knows the future, and can show a relevant causal chain. Games do not tell linear stories in the same way films can, because of the player's involvement.

"Groundhog Day is one of the most game-like movies I've seen," he said. "It features a glimpse of infinity, and the ability to restart reality." Drawing a contrast to games, he pointed to an example of how schema can be manipulated in movies: "For example, all the gunfire in the new Indiana Jones movie, but no one was hit."

Expectations of schema can have surprising implications; Wright recounted the thought process of a Pentagon strategist attempting to track Osama bin Laden. The team assumed the terrorist leader was hunkered down in a secret cave complex, "because he was a supervillain," and the schema surrounding the image of a supervillain demanded that he be living in a massive lair.

"The Best Stories Are Player Stories"

Moving more explicitly to game design topics, Wright noted how linear game design evolved to branching systems, which were essentially gated and still limited player possibilities.

"The trend [now] is to go into open-ended worlds, gameplay landscapes," he said. "Possibility is a metric that we can now measure." He emphasized the importance of possibility spaces in open world or sandbox designs, discussing the ability to now measure and quantify the generative aspect of such designs.

"Games have a language that we learn through playing. We develop a literacy that for many remains subconscious," he said. "In game design we conceive of rules we can develop that emerge into the widest variety of experience." This is in contrast to other forms of media in which we create rules for the opposite reason, to limit and force an outcome.

"Players tell stories," Wright summarized. "We, designers, provide a platform for player expression." As examples of player expression layered over game platforms, he mentioned machinima such as "My Trip to Liberty City" and players using The Sims' album feature to create their own narratives.

Alluding to the conflict between player experiences and designer-scripted experience, he described his own reactions in Grand Theft Auto IV to killing civilians. "I do feel a bit of remorse if it's my choice," he said, "but if it's to progress the story, then 'God told me to do it.'"

He raised the importance on the part of the designer of compelling the player to explore the depths of broad experiences like The Sims or GTA4, saying such games need "clear alternate goal structures that motivate the player to achieve in a variety of ways. Make players aware of the possibility space."

Gaming's perceived emotional weaknesses relative to film are "misguided", he said. Games do not have an inferior emotional palate, but "rather a different one" - feelings such as pride, guilt, and accomplishment, which are commonly felt when playing games, are not felt in the viewers of films whose characters might experience those feelings.

"The best experiences are generative experiences," argued Wright, concluding his well-received lecture at Krazy! "The best stories are player stories."

Game Developer June/July Issue Showcases Final Fantasy's WiiWare Debut

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

The cover feature for the issue is an exclusive postmortem of Square Enix's first WiiWare effort, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life As A King, offering much insight into the title's development. As is explained in its description:

"Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life As A King was a WiiWare launch title in Japan, and sits somewhere between a strategy game and a god game. In this technical-oriented postmortem, lead programmer Fumiaki Shiraishi shares the ups and downs of implementing scripting for designers, the benefits of small file sizes, and the trouble with overblown AI."

Another major feature in the new issue is "Intelligent Brawling," in which THQ creative manager Tom Smith examines a design overview and comparison document that he compiled to help Nihilistic's Conan creators:

"Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and with that in mind, Tom Smith dissected the enemy AI of several competing 3D brawlers in order to discern what makes for intelligent looking enemies. The results are intriguing, at the least, and show what there is to gain by putting a magnifying glass to the work of others."

In another notable feature, Michael Zenke examines free-to-play MMOs such as Nexon's MapleStory, and why they might be more important than many subscription-based MMO developers might think:

"Smaller, non-subscription MMOs have been slowly but surely making their way into the hearts and minds of the game community. But now, they're getting too big to ignore. Are tiny MMOs eating away at your subscribers?"

In addition, code columnist Noel Llopis offers part 2 of his highly technical analysis of implementing deterministic playback systems in development, and art columnist Steve Theodore invokes the world of art history to provide important perspective for video game artists.

Plus, design co-columnist Soren Johnson takes a look at the merits of 2D and 3D design, and audio columnist Jesse Harlin calls for fewer games and trailers relying on the old crutch of generic Latin-language choral soundtracks.

Finally, in a new interview, Grasshopper Manufacture's accomplished sound director Masafumi Takada (Killer7, No More Heroes, God Hand, Earth Defense Force) discusses the creative process he uses both for Grasshopper's own titles and his external projects.

As always, the issue also contains product reviews and other notable editorial columns, as well as the latest game development news and industry perspectives.

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

GameSetLinks: Monday? Absolutely A Funday

Apart from wandering around the super nouveau riche Blackhawk Automotive Museum this weekend - yay, 'Big Daddy' Roth cars - we've been preparing a new sister blog for GameSetWatch, which'll be launching in the next couple of days to fill a Lazyweb-style niche - something it was bugging me that the web didn't have.

So we have that to look forward to - in the meantime, here's a raft of links, including some WiiWare high harshing, some general media evolution mini-quakes I figured the GSW audience should care about, and THQ's Lock's Quest (pictured) showing that Western DS titles aren't all High School Musical and Chipmunks, or what have you.

Cha cha charming:

Xiotex Studios » WiiWare is a lie
Complaint from a relatively experienced one-man programming shop who was rejected for WiiWare - makes me wonder if they are starting to get inundated.

Chris' Survival Horror Quest: 'Nanashi No Geemu'
Iinteresting, Square-related DS horror game weirdness: 'You're playing a game, a NES-era RPG by the look of it, that seems to be affecting, or perhaps reflecting, your real life.'

Big Download Blog - BigDownload.com
New PC/download-related blog from the Joystiq folks, looks quite indie friendly, excellent.

Trials 2 Interview and Compo | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
Steam were smart to pick this up, and RPS are correctly on the 'cool PC game' bandwagon again. Tastemakers!

Not The Newspaper As You Know It: Tribune Plans Vast Changes, Cutting Pages, Jobs | paidContent.org
Shows the massive issues traditional journalism still has when fighting against the Internet's near-infinite page views, monetization.

Indie Games - Players Only - Digital Trends Videos
Bit of a mishmash of interviews, but some good stuff in here on the rise of indie.

Wandering Goblin: 'The WoW-Playing Congressional Candidate'
'I have three characters, all Horde and in Alexstrasza: a 70 Orc hunter...' Not bad!

Jolie confidants: 'ET' knew twins source fake - CNN.com
Interesting from a media veracity perspective - I think the Associated Press are pretty pissed off, having picked up a report Entertainment Tonight maybe have known to be false.

Kotaku: 'Impressions: Lock's Quest Mixes Old-School With Innovative Ideas'
Myself and Sheffield both correctly guessed this title (pictured) is from 5th Cell, the Drawn To Life developers - neat, some alt.DS action for a change.

The Machine That Changed the World: Great Brains - Waxy.org
Former GSW guestblogger Andy Baio still digging out vital early-computing documentaries, posting online.

June 8, 2008

Exploring Online Worlds: WeeWorld

[Our sister site on virtual/online worlds, WorldsInMotion.biz, is still blasting it - and seems to have secured the Dunder Mifflin Infinity website creators for its Austin GDC Summit in September, haw. It's also continuing to profile free-to-play sites/worlds, and this time, Mathew Kumar pokes at the avatar-tastic WeeWorld.]

Here's an overview of WeeWorld, a social network built upon the WeeMee avatars that were originally created for use as avatars across chat programs - including AIM and Skype. As a result, WeeWorld is heavily based around the idea of self expression through dressing your WeeMee and their environment.

2008_05_27_weeworld.jpgName: WeeWorld
Company:
WeeWorld
Established:
May 2008

How it Works: WeeWorld is experienced on the web through a combination of html and Flash. It requires no installation. Navigation and gameplay are accomplished via mouse and keyboard input.

2008_05_27_weeworld2.jpgOverview: WeeWorld has elements of both social worlds and social networks, with the player's homepage similar to MySpace or Facebook, but also featuring a room for the player's avatar, which the player can decorate with objects. Players can take their WeeMee into the WeeWorld and visit locations (largely for chatting with other users) or interact with other users socially via other methods (forums, messaging, etc.) and can also play a variety of games -- most of which star the player's WeeMee.

Payment Method: WeeWorld is free to play, and earns revenue through microtransactions (points are purchased to update the player's look with new items) and licensing.

Key Features:

- Unique avatar with a huge variety of dress-up options
- Full social network (friends, messaging, blogging, etc.)
- Live chat in WeeWorld with avatars and locations
- Games

WeeWorld: In-Depth Tour

2008_05_28_weeworld3.jpg

WeeMees have existed since 2005 as a purely avatar orientated experience, so it's no surprise to say that WeeWorld's avatar customization is beyond compare. Once you've selected your sex, skin color (6 options) head shape (3 options) and eye color (6 options) the possible number of combinations has to number in the billions, with 120 hair styles; 51 possible facial hair options… and the clothes! Goodness, the clothes. You really can't argue with 218 different possible tops, can you? And for practically every option you can choose the color scheme.

2008_05_28_weeworld4.jpg

The avatars have an intentionally South Parky-ness about them (indeed, you could duplicate many South Park characters using the system) but are full of character thanks to the number of possible options at hand, and you'll eventually stumble upon a combination that looks like you (or looks like you wish you looked) -- and more amazingly, there are even more options to select from once you've completed your initial character in the shop.

For example, one area that is slightly lacking in character creation is in shoe selection -- no Converse! -- so I was pleased to see a suitable facsimile for sale in the shop for 250 points. 250 points is a mere 50 cents, but you do have to purchase points in $5 blocks. So I passed.

Though I've been playing for a while, I'm not sure if there's much you can do with points except buy more clothes and items for your WeeMee. For many users this will be perfectly acceptable, as redressing their WeeMee regularly is part of the experience. You can earn points a few other ways than by spending money -- by taking part in competitions, for example – but you can't earn any by playing the flash games attached to WeeWorld.

2008_05_28_weeworld5.jpg

The games are kind of cute timewasters, anyway. There, are, of course, the usual match 3 rip-offs and the like, but some are pretty unique, and most of them use your WeeMee as the character you control, which is a nice touch.

Anyway. The second area to show your uniqueness is your WeeMee's room. Much like the WeeMee itself this is incredibly customizable, with hundreds of different objects to arrange, and currently, they're all free. I spent far longer than I meant to arranging my ideal kind of "bachelor pad" (arcade and pinball machines, flatscreen TVs and game consoles) than I meant to.

2008_05_28_weeworld2.jpg

Your WeeMee and his room in a way act as your MySpace or Facebook "homepage" -- pages that other users can visit and leave messages on – and this forms the kind of "shell" to the WeeWorld experience – probably the part that you would interact with most day to day.

However, there's also the section that puts the "World" into WeeWorld – the, er, world. Currently in beta, it's probably the most unique way I could imagine putting otherwise static avatars into a 2D world you simply select a location (currently, there are only locations available in "New Dome City" and once you're there, you can stand still and chat with the other players who are nearby, or you can use your mouse to select your character, and as if using a slingshot "fling" your player across the screen to interact with other characters.

2008_05_28_weeworld.jpg

Not to say that so far I've seen much in the way of meaningful conversation. In fact, it does seem to work currently more like a random IRC chatroom than a social world, with characters simply bouncing around to scream "DO YOU WANT TO GO OUT WITH ME" at each other.

WeeWorld: Conclusion

2008_05_30_weeworld.jpg

WeeMees have had a long and successful life already as avatars in chat programs such as AIM and Skype, so the question is if the upgrade to having their own WeeWorld, a social site that uses aspects of Facebook and MySpace and MMOs has been worth it. My feelings?

I'm not so sure. WeeWorld is interesting to us because it’s the aspects that were already firmly in place that are the most successful by far.

The creation and modification of your avatar is, frankly, absolutely beyond compare. Even with a small and basic base figure (the WeeMees themselves are a little plain) there's so much you can do to them, with tons of hairstyles, clothes options and other general attachments that they're just really fun to mess around with.

And creating your room, part of your WeeMee's online presence, is just as fun, being a natural extension of dressing up your WeeMee. If we had any complaints it would simply be to have some more flexibility in placing objects on your WeeMee and in their room -- more ability to rotate or otherwise layer, for example. But it's a small quibble.

The social network aspects that work the best are similarly those with a proven track record (as it were) -- your WeeMee's page, with other users able to leave you messages (and you on theirs) a friends list and even being able to blog.

2008_05_30_weeworld1.jpg

It's really (and rather sadly) the most touted new feature, the WeeWorld itself that falls down flat on its face. Now, it's still in beta, so we should be fair to it and say that it could improve greatly, but in general it's not the functional aspects that are the problem -- it's the community.

Functionally, WeeWorld works fine -- the idea of using a slingshot to ping your WeeMee around the levels is cute, and if the beta progresses as I imagine it should, small troubles like the ability for WeeMees to layer (and block each other otherwise) should be easily fixed, and the areas, currently limited to a small number of sprawling clubs, should open up and (hopefully) be more interesting to explore.

2008_05_30_weeworld2.jpg

The problem is that right now, even with changes, I can't imagine why I'd want to hang around in such an odorous community. As I said in the previous post, the world seems to mostly consist of characters bouncing around screaming date requests at each other. Not to go all "Daily Mail" on WeeWorld, but with a fair amount of users teens and tweens, and the chat unfettered, it made me feel pretty uncomfortable, as it's not always obvious how old someone is that you're talking to. Especially when you're worlds away from the polite and collaborative chat in a world such as Dizzywood.

So that leaves WeeWorld in kind of an odd position. As social networks go, it's got its benefits -- great avatar/room customization, for one -- but as an MMO (of sorts) it's nothing more than a IRC chatroom that makes me feel terribly uncomfortable. Perhaps it'll improve, but I'll be honest and say I don't hold out much hope.

Useful Links:
WeeWorld - About

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': My Second Birthday

To celebrate the two-year anniversary of Game Mag Weaseling, I thought I'd attempt something that I haven't had the stomach to try in at least 16 years: type in a game from a computer magazine.

ahoy1.jpg   ahoy2.jpg

For those of you who lack the benefit of being my age or older, some explanation might be useful. Throughout the 1980s and early 90s, program listings in BASIC or machine code were a regular staple of many home computer magazines. Bearly all home machines back then ran BASIC as a sort of "operating system" and were much simpler in design than modern PCs, so it was easier for even average users to learn a computer's innards, produce a decent game, and send it off to magazines for fame (sort of) and fortune (around $100 if they were lucky).

I was browsing through the November 1987 issue of Ahoy!, a whimsically-named magazine devoted to the Commodore 64 and 128, when I came across Paper Route, the description of which you can read above. What a jolly-looking game, huh? Sprite animation, smooth scrolling, and a musical score! Why should I spend $24.99 on a game at Kmart or Games'n Gadgets or Kiddie City when I can just type this program in and get one for free?! Damn, this mag's the best $2.95 I ever spent! (Ahoy! also sold a diskette with the month's programs ready to load for $8.95 a pop, but if I had that kind of money I'd go buy McD.L.T.s for all my friends and have money left over for a Hi-C Ecto-Cooler!)

ahoy3.jpg   ahoy4.jpg

Thing is, though, you can't just go typing stuff willy-nilly. First off, as the Paper Article article implies, I'll need a program called Flankspeed to type in this 100% machine-language program. You can't program the Commodore 64 in assembler right out the box -- only BASIC, which is easy to learn as programming languages go but arse-slow compared to machine language. So that's where Flankspeed (and programs like it in other magazines) come in; it's a BASIC program you use to enter machine code listings.

Of course, you've got to type Flankspeed in before you can use it...and here's where the Achilles' heel of all magazine type-in programs suddenly becomes obvious. Simply put, you make typos when you're typing program code into a computer, especially one like the C64 which isn't quite fast enough for speedy touch typing. That is where Bug Repellent (and, again, programs like it in other mags) comes in -- it's a resident program that provides checksums for BASIC lines as you type them into the computer, letting you know immediately when you've mistyped a command. So before I can type in the game, I gotta type in Flankspeed...and before I type in Flankspeed, I should really type in Bug Repellent to make life a little easier for myself.

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So let's boot up the C64 and use these archaic commands to make the screen black instead of the eye-stressing shades of blue it defaults to. (I have trouble remembering whether I've fed the ferrets yet all the time, yet I remember how to do this by heart.)

The colors to my liking, it's time to type in Bug Repellent. Man, typing in a BASIC program is hard work...especially because the C64's keyboard layout doesn't match a modern PC's exactly, so I have to do a bit of searching around the keys to find things like - and +. And then that little machine-language bit at the end encapsulated in DATA statements...ugh. It only took an hour-ish to type this in and I'm already getting bored.

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Bug Repellent is typed in and saved to virtual diskette, and amazingly it runs flawlessly the first time. I am some kind of video whiz. This makes Flankspeed a little easier to deal with, even though it's a far longer piece of BASIC code -- as seen above, I get checksums after every line to compare with what's printed on the magazine page.

So after another hour of data entry, I have my machine language entry program saved and ready to run. It's time to type in the game itself! Woo!

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Arrrgh!

Paper Route is a little under 4K of pure machine code, which means I have to type in about three pages' worth of hexadecimal numbers. These listings are also checksummed, so if I screw up a line, I get prompted to retype it by the program and we're all good to go.

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Which is good, because I screw up. A lot. The C64 didn't have a numeric keypad, so I'm forced to invent a strange alternate form of touch-typing where I have one hand on the row of number keys and another on the left side of the keyboard, where the A-F letters are. This is cumbersome, but you get into a groove eventually, especially once the program section of the code ends and the more patterned and repetitive graphic and sound data section comes along.

An hour and a half later, I have Paper Route on diskette. Whew. With bated breath, I reset, load the sucker up, and...well, see below:

I hearby pronounce this musical score the official theme song to Game Mag Weaseling.

Thanks for your support over the last two years! I hope for many more!

[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 Roundup

Actually, looks like a slightly quieter second half of the week for the GameSetNetwork posts from our sister sites. Nonetheless, there's some neat stuff in here - particularly the Gamasutra interview with Owen O'Brien on DICE's Mirror's Edge - one of the most intriguing-looking first-person games in quite some time, thanks to the control method.

There's also a nice multi-interview piece on microtransaction vs. subscription MMOs, with Mythic's Mark Jacobs looking askance at the non-subscription weenies, apparently. Also, that Kudo Tsunoda interview now that he's at MGS - boy, much shameless non-answering on display there, sorry Kudo.

Ready steady massive:

Living On The Edge: DICE's Owen O'Brien Speaks
"EA DICE's Mirror's Edge is a notable departure for the Battlefield developer - a non-combat heavy, first-person dystopian title inspired by parkour. But how did the team prototype and iterate it? Senior producer Owen O'Brien explains."

A Templated C++ Attribute Library for Object Persistence and Export
"In this in-depth technical piece, coding veteran McNickle explains how experience on the Deer Hunter series led him to create a library for managing and exporting important variables."

In-Depth: Justice O'Connor On How Games Can Address Corrupt Courts
"Following its initial report, Gamasutra has full details of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor's speech on her Our Courts game, intriguingly planned to educate students on government and civic involvement, as well as the role of the judiciary."

MMOG Business Models: Cancel That Subscription!
"The online game market has a battle raging between subscription-based and alternative microtransaction-related business models - Gamasutra examines the matchup with SOE's John Smedley, Three Rings' Daniel James and EA Mythic's Mark Jacobs."

Game Design Challenge: Rename Katamari Damacy
"GameCareerGuide.com's Game Design Challenge this week asks you to think partly like a designer, partly like a localization staff member, and partly like a business and marketing person. Your task is to rename Katamari Damacy in English."

Q&A: Microsoft Game Studios' Tsunoda Talks Gears Of War Franchise
"Former EA Chicago head Kudo Tsunoda is now at Microsoft Game Studios, helping to produce Gears Of War 2 from a first-party perspective, and Gamasutra catches up with him to discuss the game, MGS' heritage, and his boundless enthusiasm for his new role."



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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