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June 28, 2008

Column: Welcome to the GameSetWatch Comic - 'Welcome to the Persona 3 part 2'

['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 second in a series of two pokes fun at Atlus' cult PS2 RPG Persona 3.]

He actually has head cancer

(SPOILER: Persona explains of this one to me, for those terminally confused - OK, with slight paraphrasing by the GSW editors: "In case you're wondering what this week's comic is about, in Persona 3, one of the main characters, Junpei, is always wearing his hat - even in the hot springs and the beach. This has lead me to assume he has a shiny noggin.")

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

GameSetLinks: The Ikea Game Center

Time for weekend GameSetLinks, innit, and some of the highlights this time include another look at (the pictured!) Game Center CX, as well as Ikea infiltrating The Sims 2 with a new furniture pack.

Also in there somewhere - snaps from Street Fighter: The Movie game, the retailer-exclusive debut of Soul Bubbles, and the Gregorian chant trend that Halo begat - or at least helped to accelerate.

Cha cha chaaaaa:

Japan's Cult Hit Retro Game Show Debuts in English | Game | Life from Wired.com
More Game Center CX write-up goodness.

Simprograms » The Sims 2 Ikea Home Stuff trailer
Amazing how popular virtual furniture can be - and The Sims is an offline franchise that proves that as much as Habbo does online, of course..

'Knights of the Sandbox City' - Develop
Owain Bennallack iscussing his views on '...the inevitable coming of Sir Sam Houser, or Dan Houser OBE.' Gotta love the British honors system!

Heiligenkreuz Journal - Sacred Songs Sell, Drawing Attention to Their Source - NYTimes.com
'More recently, the use of chant on the popular video game Halo has piqued interest [in Gregorian chant]'. Marty O'Donnell quoted!

The Independent Gaming Source: Procedural Generation Competition results
Really impressive titles entered here - check 'em all out, if you have a chance.

Crispy Gamer - Column: I Call Bullshit: User-Created Conflict
On removing the Sporn: 'This bugs me all the more when it comes to Spore. The whole point of Spore is freedom.'

THE MAKING OF… Carmageddon : Edge
A tragically under-rated title, glad to see Edge giving it a retrospective look.

Earth Times: 'Soul Bubbles: Available Exclusively at Your Local Toys 'R' Us Store'
Wow, a Toys R Us exclusive DS game? Wacky, I wonder if this says something about an overheated DS market.

Water Cooler Games - Simulating Torture
'The gruesomeness of The Torture Game pales in comparison to the history and present of real torture.'

A L A N - N O O N: Follow up: Street Fighter The Movie
Awesome pictures of mocap sessions for the slightly terrible game-movie-game thing - via GameLife.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Trade and Piracy

['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. This column looks at gameplay mechanics in PC casual exploration titles.]

Tradewinds Legends is part of the casual tycoon/empire-building genre of games: you have a trading fleet, which also dabbles in a bit of piracy (but always when attacked first, naturally), and you travel from city to city buying low and selling high. You can borrow money, or save some in the bank.

You can upgrade your fleet with bigger, stronger ships (and, eventually, flying ones). You can discover new locations on the map, and new commodities to trade. And you can perform a series of missions for the various governors and sultans in power.

So far it's very similar to the other installments in the Tradewinds series (though earlier editions take place in the Caribbean and allow only one ship at a time). It's a more distant cousin to the Chocolatier games, or to the classic Apple II title Taipan.

As story-telling, though, it's much stronger than Taipan (which didn't really make an effort) or Chocolatier (which made a perfunctory one, in which the missions are all pretty similar and the characters not very distinct).

Tradewinds Legends doesn't take its setting terribly seriously and has no trouble throwing in anachronistic jokes, jibes, and insults, but it does give some of the recurring characters a bit of distinct personality. It also has story arcs that consist of several missions apiece, and which grow longer and more significant as the game goes on.

In fact, as the game goes on, the repetitive procedural parts (buying goods, sailing around, selling goods, incrementally upgrading the fleet) fades more and more into the background, while the story becomes more significant.

That's a good thing, design-wise, because it ameliorates a balance problem Tradewinds Legends shares with other games of its general ilk: when the player is rich and powerful enough, the buying and selling ceases to be interesting. All the upgrades worth having have been bought. The player has a fleet so large, and an arsenal so efficient, that no enemy poses any significant threat.

The amount to be earned by trade is piffling compared to what the player already has in the bank, or earns in interest just by waiting a few weeks. I started to feel as though I was running around on a pleasure cruise, buying and selling things more out of habit and for amusement than because I cared any longer about profit. I didn't have to do much more than look at my enemies cross-eyed to send them all to the bottom of the sea, either.

Note that I'm not complaining about the fact that the player can become powerful. I always find it a bit frustrating when I play a game with really cool upgrades but it turns out that you can never get the best ones -- that in practice the game always ends before they become affordable. It's just that, given that this happens, it's a good thing the game offers something else to be interested in -- a set of threats and concerns that goes beyond pure buying and selling.

Legends adds a further bit of narrative diversity by offering different player characters with different personal histories. This affects not only your initial abilities (what kind of ship you have, how much money or debt) but also some of the missions you're assigned. A character has his or her own arc elements.

This ought to be great for replay value. It does not quite work. While a character comes with some specific missions, the majority of tasks is the same from game to game, which means that most of the humor is recycled and all of the suspense is lost.

Even so, Tradewinds Legends does a better-than-average job at narrative, given its chosen mode of interaction. (That sounds like a mixed compliment. It is. When ranked against the best narrative games -- against Portal and Miss Management, Anchorhead and Planescape: Torment -- well, compared to that company, Tradewinds Legends doesn't tell much of a story. But it does better than most of its genre, and it uses its narrative in good balance with the other elements of the gameplay, and that's worth noting.)

Some of that success is down to the writing. Some of it has to do with judicious foreshadowing. The same could yet be done even better. Legends relies heavily on its humor, but I'd be intrigued to try a game like it that actually took its setting somewhat seriously. Or one that gave the player more significant freedoms.

I'd be more than happy to skip the nominal replay value in exchange for that greater depth.

[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.]

Best Of Indie Games: Zero Point Cubes!

[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 over this last week.

The delights in this latest version include two neat browser games, a loose remake of an old ZX Spectrum classic with new multiplayer features, and a horizontal shooter with decidedly smart graphics..

Game Pick: 'Cubes' (X-0ut, freeware)
"A multiplayer-only game inspired by Nenad Jalsovec's Counterclockwise, which in turn was a remake of an old ZX Spectrum release. Essentially Tron in 3D, this version supports up to eight players simultaneously and contains four maps to choose from in total."

Game Pick: 'Zero Point' (Alaric, freeware)
"An impressive-looking horizontal shooter developed with the Game Maker engine. The current build consists of only one short level, but nonetheless shmup fans will be eagerly anticipating for more once they're through with the first boss."

Game Pick: 'Powder Game ver4.9' (DAN-BALL, browser)
"ha55ii's physics web toy was recently updated with an option to add playable stickman characters to the screen - expect to see plenty of user-created obstacle courses popping up on the site soon."

Game Pick: 'SEEK ver.0' (Eyezmaze, browser)
"A new action game by ON, who is also the developer of the well-received Grow series. Players must find matching tiles to score points and progress through increasingly difficult levels and challenges."

Game Pick: Life is a Race (cactus, freeware)
"Life is a Race! is a one button art game created by cactus for a new game competition - it's described in the comments as 'like a satirical version of Passage'."

June 27, 2008

Gingold Talks Spore's 'Magic Crayon' Approach

- [Ahead of covering the Blizzard Invitational in Paris for us, N. Evan Van Zelfden was kind enough to stop off in Holland to check out the NLGD show, and so he caught ex-Spore designer Chaim Gingold talking about the surprisingly complex, loving thought processes behind building things in the game.]

Shortly following the high profile release of EA's Spore Creature Creator, former lead designer Chaim Gingold gave a keynote titled “Magic Crayons: Spore and Beyond” at the Dutch Festival of Games, where the publisher distributed 500 hard copies of the creator to attendees.

The much anticipated and much delayed game features several editors that players can use throughout – but the Creature Creator represents the most difficult design challenge, Gingold told and audience of developers, professionals, and academics during his speech.

It’s the first editor that players will experience, and, said Gingold, it’s the only editor that players are required to play with.

Amusingly enough, an Electronic Arts employee reported to Gamasutra that the company’s chief executive, John Riccitiello, wants all employees of the world’s largest publisher to spend fifteen minutes of work playing with the Spore Creature Creator.

“I spent the last four years working on the creature editor and other editors in Spore,” said Gingold, who has taken a sabbatical since completing his work on the project. The opening of his talk focused on the preliminary question of “why creativity is fun and why making stuff is fun.”

Magic Crayons And Monkey Art

But there’s a second component that Gingold sees: “Computers can breathe life into things.” Through the talk, he explained his concept of magic crayons – creative tools that are for both fun and play.

He makes the comparison between Adobe’s Photoshop, saying it’s a creative tool to be sure, but a professional grade one that requires some skill and experience. “On the other hand, Sim City is a magic crayon you could give to anyone.”

“Research has found that little monkeys, like little humans, like to make things,” Gingold continued, explaining results showing that primates playing with charcoal on paper derived disproportionate pleasure from both the motion and results.

In fact, says Gingold, “this principle of disproportionate feedback is crucial,” from bouncing a ball, to drawing, to playing Go or the drums. “Slot machines work like that. It’s like a seizure with all this feedback you’re getting.”

“There’s this enjoyment when you make things. When you externalize some part of who you are, you can reflect on it,” he said, recalling early tests of the Spore Creature Creator, and how users reacted. “They would make something, and something would go wrong, but they’d still love what they made.”

Further explaining the principle, a clean-shaven Gingold tells the audience that when he first created a Mii avatar, he had a beard.

When he looked at his Mii, he didn’t like the way his virtual beard made his virtual avatar look, and soon afterward shaved off his physical beard. “It was like this weird mirror – I was really engaging the sense of who I was through the Mii.”

Digital Golems

There’s a theory of soft and hard mastery, he continued, that hard things let you feel joy by achieving mastery over the difficult, while soft mastery lets you feel joy through simple pick-up-and-play ease.

The Sims is definitely more of a squishy thing," said Gingold. "We definitely went more the route of soft mastery with the Spore Creature Creator.”

Gingold then transitioned to talking about tales of things that come to life, from the story of Pinocchio to the legend of the Golem, a creature formed of mud and brought to life by occult incantations. “With computers,” he said, “We can deliver that fantasy, we can make things come to life. Which is totally magical.”

When you think of traditional games, said Gingold, you think of more goals and objectives. But there’s an opposite style, built for “just the pleasure of doing things.”

“In a traditional game you are the Luke Skywalker, you are the hero,” but with the softer games, “you are more like the director.” Gingold tells the story of Will Wright’s first game, how he “had more fun making the levels” for the game, and that eventually the level creation tool was made into SimCity.

Stealing The Cheese

When detailing the design process behind the creature editor, Gingold said, “I think of it as Mission Impossible. You’ve got to get in there and steal the cheese.” In other words, there are difficult parameters, and designers must find ways to get around every obstacle.

And they had goals from the start. “We wanted the output of this editor to look pretty good,” Gingold recalled. Anything you wanted to make, he said, you had to be able to make easily – without frustration. “It had to be exciting and interesting.”

Spore solved a major problem, said Gingold, with its animation system. But it wasn’t easy. “Four years ago, there was a lot of back and forth between the animation and art teams.”

Beside obvious problems with animation and art, there was a question of size. Compression was important because Spore’s creatures had to be small enough to send over networks, and small enough to download as the game is in play. “The data is smaller than the size of the thumbnail,” reported Gingold, saying “The picture is 20k. The creature is 4k -- it’s incredible.”

“The creature editor was the first one people would use in Spore, but also the hardest. So the others were easier,” he said of the development process.

Possibility Spaces And Beans

“There’s this idea I really like,” Gingold continued, "of possibility spaces.” In essence, within a circle of possibilities, there is a smaller circle of probability, and a smaller circle of the optimal. Those two circles don’t intersect unless someone has skill and talent.

The team found that the creatures that had high probability of being created weren’t as good as the creatures that skilled artists could make.

Gingold consulted the art director, Ocean Quigley, on the problem and found out that artists traditionally start creating characters out of bean shapes. Gingold then created a new tool using a 3D bean shape as its basis.

Players wanted more control than he gave them, so he added points that could be pulled – and they looked like vertebrae, which also helped the animation system. “This is like the deep structure of the creatures. It’s very fundamental. You see that spine and you go, ‘oh, it’s a creature.’ You reach out and touch it, and it kind of does what you expect” with the creature’s curved structure.

How Spore Is Like Magnet Poetry

Gingold then talked about “deep structure,” something that might appear to be chaotic, but is, in fact, is quite controlled chaos. His example? Magnetic poetry. “It blows my mind,” he said, that people can take these random words and create deeply meaningful poems.

“It shows that the content is carefully crafted,” pointing out that if they were magnetic letters, it wouldn’t work at all. Forming a complete, meaningful sentence with a bag full of letters would be difficult. But the content system of magnetic poetry has been filtered.

Gingold moved on to discuss subsequent editors in the Spore experience, such as its building creator. “The problem was that there was no apparent structure.” So, the team specified parts: roof, body, window, door, chimney. “If we know it’s a chimney, we can have smoke coming out of it, right?”

“We made sure the new parts were interchangeable,” he continued. “We had a castle set and a sci-fi set. The benchmark we held ourselves to was: you should be able to make something cool in three clicks.”

“Once you have a grammar, you can use it generatively,” Gingold told the audience. “The computer can reason about it.” I can create objects on my own, and it can also create. “You can use that to help them along,” he said of players, citing the example of SimCity’s road editor which automatically suggested what the player might like to do.

One Click Mind

Returning to the topic of the creature creator, Gingold said that the leg manipulation was the last part of the editor to finish—and the hardest. But it also provided some insights into what players want.

“I wrote a bunch of functions that were our fuzzy interpretation of what looks good," he explained. "Most players don’t know what they want. All they know is if it looks good or not, thinking ‘Oh cool, it’s what I wanted,’ – even though they didn’t have anything in mind.”

Gingold also said that the more people switch back and forth, the more lost they can become. “We tried to minimize the modes in Spore,” a principle extended as far as the user interface. “It just looks really simple and obvious.”

The team wanted the interface to grow with the player, to “playfully reveal the features that it has,” and to hold to a one-click structure, as Gingold pointed out that most people are used to the idea with email programs, web browsers, and search engines.

Gingold also explained that one of the things that game director Will Wright insisted on was that the creatures would have symmetry, saying, “It turns out that all living things are symmetrical.”

In the end, Gingold says that he believes computers can ease “this anxiety and alienation that we have from doing one thing.” Even though people become experts at their trade, “we can design houses, human beings, pinball sets,” he said.

“I want to be able to make an animated movie like Toy Story," he concluded, "Or a pop song. I want to write a novel and not be particularly good at writing a novel,” encouraging the audience to “invest in that structure and make those toys!”

Game Time With Mister Raroo: ‘Mistaken Identity: The Perception of Gamers’

- [In this article, Mister Raroo takes a look at the assumptions that are not only made about gamers, but that gamers themselves make Along the way he manages to discuss a potential murderer that frequents the library, a "bear" meet-up at Disneyland, discussing games with a UPS delivery driver, and more!]

Never Judge a Book…

While using a phrase like “never judge a book by its cover” to begin an article is fairly corny, I thought maybe it was apt since I work in a public library. When people visit the library, they often make assumptions about me that aren’t necessarily true.

I’ll be asked if I’m a volunteer (no, I’m a paid employee), if I sit around reading books all day (sorry, I wish I had the time to do that!), and why I would pick such a boring job (it’s actually pretty interesting and sometimes even exciting).

-I often make assumptions about library patrons, too, usually based upon their looks, the materials they check out, and the habits they display. One of my favorite patrons is a man I like to call The Killer. He lacks any type of computer literacy, so he’ll ask me to “do a Google” and “download everything” about particular homicides.

I usually just print out four or five news stories, tell him that’s everything I can find, collect the 15 cents per page for the print-outs, and bid him farewell as he wanders off to find an empty seat and study the information.

The Killer is a tall, intimidating older man with a grizzled beard and a booming voice. He looks like he’d have no trouble overpowering his potential victims. Though he’s always pleasant, there is an air of urgency in his requests. I like to assume that he is checking up on the homicides he’s committed, seeing how close the police are to catching him. Most likely, The Killer isn’t actually a murderer, but it’s fun to believe he is. Just in case, I always make sure to be polite to him so that I don’t become his next victim!

Making assumptions about people is something we all do, at least to some extent. The reason it is so important to make a good first impression, for example, is because people will judge and assume things based upon those first few moments. Even though we might make assumptions that aren’t true, that doesn’t stop us from being influenced by them.

During World War II my wife’s grandparents, despite being American citizens, were sent to the Japanese internment camps because the assumption was made that their Japanese ancestry made them a threat (although my wife’s family tree does potentially trace back to a clan of ninjas, so look out, America!).

Mister Raroo Apparently Likes Sports and Guys!

-Making assumptions based on appearance is not only something that we all do, but it is something that we all are subjected to as well. In terms of my physical appearance, I definitely fall into the “guy” category. I’m tall, beefy, have a shaved head, and spout a beard on my chin. I’m the type of person people address as “bro,” “dude,” or “man.”

People always figure I must be a sports junkie and I’m constantly asked questions like, “Hey, who’s gonna win the game tomorrow?” It’s usually easier to just tell people what they want to hear so I normally just fake it, giving a quick response and smile. “I think the Chargers have a good chance of winning.” Really, though, I don’t care much about sports.

Oddly enough, I’ve also been mistaken as being gay from time to time. A couple of my coworkers, both of whom are gay, say that my physical appearance coupled with the fact that I’m a pretty emotionally sensitive person cause me to give off a definite “bear vibe.” Bears, for the uninitiated, are a subculture within the homosexual community of men who are larger, hairier, masculine, and generally look kind of like me! I’ve been hit on and flirted with more than a few times by men who probably assumed I was a bear.

A couple months ago when my niece Autumn and I were at Disneyland, there was some type of official bear meet-up. We saw groups of burly looking guys wearing red t-shirts all throughout the park. At one point when we were in line, there was one particularly big fellow standing behind us. My niece leaned over and whispered, “Don’t look now, but that grizzly is checking you out!” I actually felt pretty attractive at that moment, to be honest!

Games For Bros, Dudes, and Men

Gamers are no stranger to assumptions being made about them. Even though video games have become an increasingly accepted and mainstream form of entertainment in recent years, non-gamers still make assumptions that anyone into video games is most likely a geek with no social skills who sits around all day starting mindlessly at a screen while pushing buttons on a controller.

Though that might describe a small percentage of gamers (and if that’s you, go get some fresh air already!), most of us aren’t like that. We pursue an education, hold down jobs, fall in love, create works of art, raise families, pay taxes, and make positive contributions to the world around us. In short, nobody should assume gamers are any different from other members of society… but they do. And, even within our own subculture, we make assumptions about one another

A few weeks ago when my Xbox 360 was being returned from Microsoft’s Repair Center, I had a conversation with the UPS driver. He knew what was in the box and asked, “So, how many times have you had to send your 360 back?” When I told him it was my second, he laughed and informed me he’d sent his back four times and was afraid his 360 was on the verge of having yet another Red Ring of Death meltdown soon.

-Before the driver left, he inquired to what I thought of Grand Theft Auto IV. “Hey bro, it’s pretty sick, huh?” I actually have very little interest in the game, but for the sake of being polite and to get the driver on his way, I just gave a canned response. “Yeah, it’s pretty impressive.” He gave me a “fist pound” then hopped in his truck and sped off to make his next delivery.

I didn’t lie to the UPS driver. I truthfully do think Grand Theft Auto IV is very remarkable on many levels, but it’s just not really the type of game that appeals to me. Still, from the driver’s viewpoint, it makes sense to assume that I’d be into GTA IV: I’m an adult gamer, I own a 360, everyone seems to be excited about GTA IV, and, as explained earlier, I look like a “guy.”

Of course, it’s stereotypical to assume that looking like a “guy” means I’d like games such as Grand Theft Auto IV, but that’s the reality of it. Gamers come in all shapes and sizes, but there are certain types of individuals who, on the surface at least, look like they spend their gaming time playing “guy” titles like Madden, Call of Duty, or Grand Theft Auto.

I happened to drive through a shopping center during a time when there were people lining up for a midnight release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and let me tell you, most of the line consisted of “guys.”

Usually when people find out I like games, they assume I strictly play “guy” games. But, as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving. When it comes to gaming, my tastes don’t really match my looks. My favorite types of games are often the cute and family-friendly ones with catchy music, bright visuals, and an overall warm, fuzzy presentation. That’s not to say I don’t ever play violent or mature games, but on the whole it’s safe to say I’m in the camp that prefers blue skies in the games they play.

There Are More to Video Games Than Just Video Games

It’s very rare if someone asks me if I like movies, books, or music. Instead, they ask what kind of movies, books, or music I like. Yet, when people find out I like video games, they assume that means I like every all video games. To these types of individuals, a video game is a video game is a video game. Yet, for those of us who are gamers, we know that as with all other forms of media and artistic creation, there exists a multitude of genres available to players.

-In fact, having different tastes in games can sometimes lead to an inability to relate to one another amongst gamers. For example, I have a coworker who likes games, but he pretty much sticks to sports games, which I rarely play.

When I tell him about a lot of the games I like, I can see his eyes gloss over as his interest wanes. If I were to discuss the newest NBA Live he’d most likely be all ears, but when I talk about Geometry Wars Galaxies or Game Center CX: Arino's Challenge it’s like I’m speaking a foreign language to him.

And, as anyone who’s ever visited a video game message board on the Web can attest to, the wide variety of video games can cause arguments and, in some cases, all out wars between posters. Most hardcore gamers have favorite genres, companies, and developers, and message board posters will sometimes go out of their way to prove the supremacy of their beloved tastes as opposed to those of the people not in agreement with them.

Things can get plenty ugly, but it just goes to show how passionate gamers are about their hobby. If all video games were the same to gamers, there would be nothing to argue about. In this sense, these types of arguments are a testament to the diversity that exits in video games.

As video games become more accepted and popular as a mainstream form of entertainment, I am confident that the misassumptions about video games and their players will become less common. There will always be people who just don’t understand and will clump videogames into one big group, but that happens with all forms of entertainment and art.

To some individuals I might just be seen as a sports-loving bear who sits on his sofa all day long playing generic video games. However, I have a feeling that before long people won’t just be asking me if I like games, but instead they’ll be asking me what types of games I’m into and be anxious to discuss how their favorite genres and developers are superior to mine.

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

GameSetLinks: The Bling Gnome Decrees It

- Some more GameSetLinks up your wazoo, happily, starting out with the marvelous concept that is Dungeon Runners' 'bling gnome' (pictured). I'm pretty sure I want one of these in real life, picking up behind me.

Also in here in various different link-type things - the return of the Crystal Castles controversy, Kindle and lessons from digital distribution, silly animated GIFs, and an educative Wii/cooking crossover.

Go go go:

WarCry Network : News : Dungeon Runners: All About the Bling Gnome
'Similar to its cousin, the Garden Gnome, the Bling Gnome is a tricked-up helper gnome with a bit of attitude that will follow your character around and pick up all the gold dropped on the ground.'

Indie Game Review Panel [June Edition] by Game Tunnel
Aha, the return of THE PANEL, awesome

Why journalists must learn the values of the blogging revolution | Greenslade | guardian.co.uk
'Of course, there should be no distinction between [journalists and citizens]. But journalists still wish to see themselves as a class apart.'

GameTap Indies homepage
Now has an IndieGames.com feed on it, that's pretty cool.

Torontoist: People Who Live In Crystal Castles…
Absolutely awesome Mathew Kumar piece about the chiptune sampling controversy.

Hands-On: User-Gen Xbox Games Are Rough but Promising | Game | Life from Wired.com
Interesting - I wonder why the PC indie scene is making much more vibrant stuff right now tho?

:: Blizzplanet :: WWI Teaser - Day Two
Incredibly elaborate teaser things going on here - either from Blizzard or in fans' heads!

...on pampers, programming & pitching manure: Kindle(ing) for Games Industry?
Kim Pallister comparing a post on the Kindle's lack of 'connected content' with "...digital distribution as it pertains to games."

'Kart We Can Believe In' animated gif @ ErrorMacro
Very cute goofy Nintendo ad vs McCain mashup.

Wii Night! : One-handed, energy-charged bites for a marathon session - CHOW
The cooking/Wii crossover strikes again.

June 26, 2008

Opinion: The Value Of Failure

- [In a fun opinion piece, pseudonymous game designer 'Spitfire' references comments by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling to discuss why game creators should aim to "Fail faster... fail sooner" to more quickly reach their ultimate goal.]

I read a fascinating speech by J.K. Rowling (yes, that J.K. Rowling) that she gave for Harvard’s commencement ceremony this past week and couldn’t help but smile and nod my head while reading about her life lesson she relates to the graduates.

The speech is about failure and imagination, two things which, coincidentally, game design is all about. Granted, the imagination part is fairly self-explanatory, so I’m not going to delve into it much (especially since her noble idea of imagination is more John Lennon than it is Jim Henson). Rather, I was especially interested that she learned from her failure:

"I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless."

How does this relate to game design? I can see how many would think I’m stretching things a bit. Obviously, we risk the same situation if we fail as an entire team or company, but what I really want to get at is how failure is valuable on an individual task-by-task basis.

Failure in design is more often more valuable than success, because if we’re willing to listen to it, and analyze it, we can determine exactly where we went wrong, and find success faster than if we just stabbed at it randomly:

"So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged."

"I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

I first learned about the value of failure at the Game Design Workshop during GDC last year, and I feel like a broken record repeating the refrain of the lesson: Fail Faster. Many people don’t understand the concept. In fact, if I didn’t actually experience the phenomenon first hand, I’d chalk it up to cheap business success book lingo like “synergy” or “paradigm.”

We even discussed the phenomenon of fearing failure, and how those who fear failure fail last, which is actually the biggest insult and humiliation in game design, because the teams who failed early almost always had a better concept than the teams who debated too long and waited to test their game ideas - and therefore failed last.

So I smiled when I read J.K. Rowling’s take on “failing last” (the all too common phenomenon of fearing failure so much you take the least amount of risks possible and wait to fail) which she terms “failing by default”:

"You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default."

Who knows if the Harvard grads will be able to learn from this? Failure is a sticky wicket. It’s one of those things you have to experience first hand. Sure, some lessons are self explanatory and don’t require witnessing failure for you to “get” the lesson and learn from it, but that’s where the GDC class really excelled.

They forced us to fail, and presented us with what were almost Kobayashi Maru scenarios, ones where I was almost certain we would not be able to pull a game out of. But the value of failure had already been extolled upon us, and we knew how to learn from it.

As funny as it sounds, we could be heard to say, “We’re not failing fast enough.” I’m shocked that we were able to make games out of the rules we were given in that class. Seriously, a card game based off of one of the seven deadly sins? Making games out of random objects and a Tupperware container? Impossible? Only if you don’t try.

So, if any of you folks reading this are designers, try failing. Fail faster. Fail sooner. Don’t sit there in design meetings arguing all day about where your controller buttons should be laid out. Just map them as fast as you can and try it.

It’s going to suck at first, but accept your failure. Hell, welcome it, and iterate on it as fast as you can. You’ll find the winning solution faster than if you attempted to write it out in a game design doc and debate the virtue of your layout without ever playing it.

[Spitfire is a game designer at a self-publishing development company. Before starting his site game-ism.com, he was a published gaming journalist, and during his career has also worked in television, commercials, and film.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Where is The Future?

piq-jul08-cover-web-md.jpg

A couple weeks back I was laid off from my lavish high-roller job (no, really, I mean it) at PiQ, an entertainment and media magazine I helped found and run for the past four issues.

It wasn't a wholly unexpected closure -- the parent company is more-or-less run by the creditors at the bank, my 401(k) got cut off a couple weeks earlier and health insurance was undoubtedly following soon after, and the office was more empty and barren than most of New Mexico -- and I'm already just as busy with assorted freelance work.

(To get an idea of the state my old company is in, notice how they still haven't taken down our web page, with the final entry from the creative director placing all the blame for the closure on mismanagement up above. Ooooh burn.)

Going through the experience of launching and maintaining a brand-new, nerd-oriented print magazine in this modern era has taught me a great deal about how to survive in that marketplace. To be more exact, you can't.

Forget about the return of GameFan or Next Generation or anything else you may've liked in the past -- the video-game realm will be lucky if it sees any sort of new magazine launch in America at any time in our lives.

Why? The usual suspects:

Advertisers are not interested. Magazines rely primarily on advertising to survive, but advertisers in all fields are rapidly abandoning print media in all fields. Most print-mag ads are targeted towards core users, but even the companies putting out these sorts of core games (like Atlus and NIS) are concentrating more on online these days.

This is the main reason why 100 pages is the normal book size for game mags right now instead of 120. Nearly all the real innovation in print game mags (such as EGM's experimentation with themed issues) is there because editors have to do more with fewer pages, not because things are expanding.

Readers are not interested. It's easy to rattle off the advantages online has over print -- timeliness, user participation, more quantity -- that I won't dwell on them for long. Circulation is largely down for every game mag.

More to the point, reader interaction is practically zero on a lot of publications. At PiQ we got two kinds of mail: readers bitching at us for the failure of Newtype USA, and readers gloating at us after the failure of PiQ.

Even the publishers don't care anymore. Print media requires a serious investment to succeed. It can take a good year before most magazines start to see a profit (PiQ was nearly there in four months, but the bank couldn't wait any longer), and companies aren't interested in investing that much and waiting that long anymore.

Costs are skyrocketing. To produce a magazine, you need to pay postage, shipping, and distribution costs that an online site doesn't. These costs never ever go down, and recent economy problems have made them go up alarmingly fast.

Do the writers/designers care anymore? A lot of them do, but if I see another boring preview-roundup feature where the only advantage over online is that there are slightly different screenshots of space marines and concept art of machine guns than what I can find online, I'm going to get all huffy and go to bed.

It's a common mantra, but print editors have to constantly remember that they are expecting readers to actively pay for their content, not passively (via advertising and the ISP bill) as with online.

Put all this together, and you can see why nearly all publishers in this and other nerd-oriented fields are in "I hope I can keep my job just a few months longer" mode for the foreseeable future.

I've been subscribing to the local newspaper for the past few months, but not long after I got laid off, I realized that I read the newspaper's website far more often than the paper itself, which (I wish I was making this up) I use mainly for ferret litterbox liner. Why don't I read the print version?

Because it's got a noticeably thinner pagecount, there's nothing being done with it that online can't do, and I can't shake the feeling that I'm doing something which "dates" me whenever I pick it up, like the old lady who still writes out checks at the grocery-store checkout line. It's really the same thing with game magazines, isn't it? What's making me pick them up these days, apart from habit and the collecting bug? I'm not sure.

I still believe that a new game magazine that's perfectly targeted, perfectly distributed, and perfectly written can succeed in the marketplace. (I still think that a game-oriented ripoff of Make, where the print mag is only half the story, would work great.) But it's not going to happen, because the enthusiasm and investment money has now well and truly skipped town for greener online pastures. Hey, that's progress.

GCG's 'One Button Design Challenge': The Results, New Challenge

- Sister web site GameCareerGuide.com has been running a weekly design challenge for a good while now, and I wanted to point it out again and encourage GSW readers to enter it.

The most recent one asked the community of aspiring game-makers to designing a one-button FPS game.

A lively and rather educational discussion ensued on the site’s forum about why one-button games are significant to players with limited mobility. The
best solutions
have been posted on GameCareerGuide.com, alongside a new challenge.

The “One Button” challenge came from Brandon Sheffield, senior editor of Game Developer magazine, who, in conjunction with Jill Duffy, editor of GameCareerGuide.com, determined the winners.

The winning entries included Evgueni Dozov's multiplayer game, in which players have one action, shooting, which has two effects: firing the weapon and moving the player backward. Each time a player shoots, she experiences an exaggerated recoil that's so strong, it propels her backward.

In addition, Connor Hogan takes second place in this week's challenge for Death Crane on a Death Train. Imagine a train flying down a roller-coaster like track with a giant crane that is forever circling above an array of objects just waiting to be picked up and hurled at enemies. Hold the object too long, and the momentum will yank the train right off the track.

The latest challenge has proven to give some aspiring or current designers and artists pause about what it really means to have many good ideas with, not just one or two. The new Design Challenge task is to come up with 10 suggestions for new objects that could stand in for a standard crate in a next-gen game.

GameCareerGuide.com’s Game Design Challenge is posted every Wednesday. Professional game developers are welcome to participate or offer advice to the community via the forum.

GameSetLinks: The Fail Of The Infinite Strafe

- The return of the GameSetLinks is here, with the back catalog of the 'Strafe Left' cartoon over at RockPaperShotgun (see left!) still providing some fine amusement, for starters.

Also hanging out in this particular set of links - the state of game education in the UK, innovation at Tokyo Game Show, the IGDA's memorials wiki, the Yaroze revisited, the U.S. 'bootleg' Game Center, and much more.

Go for broke:

Video games degrees: 95% fail to hit skills target | higher news | EducationGuardian.co.uk
This is presuming that being certified by Skillset is the only arbiter of quality.

Indiantelevision.com's Digital Edge: 'Indiagames launches gaming team Indian Inferno'
Great team name, pro Indian FIFA and Counter-Strike players ftw.

Tokyo Game Show Throws Party for Innovative Games | Game | Life from Wired.com
That's cool, kinda like IGF for TGS!

Indie platformer extravaganza! | MetaFilter
The link to IndieGames.com is broken, nuts, but still a great primer on indie platformers - via Waxy.

FEATURE: The Net Yaroze Class of 2000 : Edge
Interesting because the Yaroze really wasn't that successful - but it still helped some folks get into the biz.

Ludonarrativism - the blog.
An intriguing new game(ish) blog by 'Eileen Smithee'. Whoever that is. Could be anyone.

Memorials - IGDAwiki
'The Memorials project is undertaken by members of the IGDA's Game Preservation SIG to document obituaries and provide a space for memorials of past developers, players and other figures important to the industry.'

Infinite Lives - Jenn Frank's (revitalized) game blog
Hurrah! Good indie/random cool stuff here.

DPad Productions - producers of 'The Game Center'
Wow, a shameless U.S. 'tribute' to Game Center CX, interesting.

Strafe Left: The Formative Years #35 | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
Cyan Worlds-related webcomic gags FTW.

June 25, 2008

Opinion: Working For Big Game Publishers

- [In the wake of Gamasutra's recent quality of life feature, Dynamix and GarageGames co-founder Jeff Tunnell - currently blogging at the Make It Big In Games weblog - revisits a no-holds-barred editorial he wrote on the potential dangers of working for large game publishers.]

Publishers such as Electronic Arts, Activision, Ubisoft, and Microsoft are the largest sources of money and employment in the games industry. They create billions of dollars of revenue, then reinvest it in development, marketing, distribution, and overhead, and what is left over is their profit.

In some cases this profit is huge (Electronic Arts), and in some cases pathetic (Atari). If you are considering working either directly or peripherally for these publishers, it is important to note these profit numbers. Here’s why.

Companies that are on the very edge of existence such as Atari (or Acclaim not too long ago) may very well go out of business before your check is cashed for either direct wages, expenses owed, or developer/contractor milestones.

In addition, this financial condition makes them desperate, with the treatment and well-being of their employees and developers being the last thing on their minds. Quality of products goes out the window as well, further exacerbating the downward spiral.

The lesson here is to make sure to check the financial condition of the company you intend to work for. A simple check on Yahoo! Finance will give you all of the information you need to know. Look at their profits and losses for the last two years. Are they making money? Look at their balance sheet. Do they have any cash?

Finally, just talk to your friends. Have any of you been impressed with any game they have come out with in the last two years? Do they have any products you are looking forward to? Have they dealt away their best franchises to other publishers in an effort to raise cash?

You can take a calculated risk and go to work for a publisher that is on the ropes, but remember this is a business of, “What have you done for me lately?” Working on a game for a year or so that does not ship, and is then held under NDA so you can’t even show your work to prospective employers produces a big hole in your resume and makes it difficult to get another chance. My advice is, no matter how desperate you are to get into the games business, don’t go to work for a company teetering on the brink of collapse.

So, if you should not work for a weak, money losing publisher, what about the powerful, money-making giants? Publishers that make a lot of money have their own set of problems. Now, a lot of these problems described below are the same in any big company, but you should be aware of what goes on before you take the plunge.

Most large companies pay lip service to being a great place to work, but in reality they make so much money that they tend to not care for their employees. Large companies chide their middle managers into exercising a process they call “churn”, using a simple phrase like, “How is your churn coming?”

Churn is a code word which means firing the bottom-performing 10% of your employees every year and replacing them with a new, promising group of wide-eyed recruits who will not have chips on their shoulders, and who are willing to play into the “work them like dogs until they break” business model.

It is easy to see how employees become unmotivated when they are expected to work incredibly long and intense hours for months on end. In the widely-circulated blog post written by an EA employee’s wife four years ago, the pressures of crunch time on employees became a nationwide issue, causing the company to consider its methods.

The blog post detailed how the company pressured employees to work 80-100 hour weeks starting nine months before the completion of the game. Of course, everybody in the games business can expect to crunch four to six, or maybe even ten, weeks prior to the end of development of any game. That is just the way it is, but nine months was an indicator that it is actually in the company’s business plan to overwork and burn out employees.

So you know you will have to work at least 50 hour weeks with a crunch at the end, but everything else will be hunky dory, right? Not exactly. A natural part of working for a big company is politics. In a word, you will be judged on whom you know and where you choose to put your internal allegiances almost more than what your work product looks like.

If you choose to back an ambitious producer or VP who has a falling out with an EVP or other higher executive, guess what happens to your product and your future chances of advancement at the company? Yep, poof!

Or, even better, you befriend one of these ladder climbers and tell him your best ideas for how you think your project’s development could be made better. Imagine how great it feels when, at the next staff meeting, your ideas magically become his! Welcome to the world of big company politics.

For all of this anguish, you will be compensated fairly well. Average programmers at large publishers make decent to good wages. But, when you consider publishers are almost always located in the most expensive areas to live such as Los Angeles or the Bay Area, these wages will not go as far as you think.

In addition, most people get caught up in the stress of the situation and start to give themselves “presents” such as expensive new cars, exotic vacations, and other such baubles as compensation. Add in stretching for an overpriced home, and soon, the need for this steady stream of large income is an addictive process and cannot be easily escaped. If you ever want to go indie or start your own company, you must resist this temptation. You do not want to become a “sharecropper” for the rest of your life.

In the early days of the high technology industry, stock options were widely circulated as the ultimate payoff for employees expected to work as if they were a principal of the company. As companies such as Electronic Arts became publicly traded and grew from several million dollars in sales to hundreds of millions to billions, their market cap grew quickly, so that four or five years on the front lines could often mean a million or so dollars in stock option appreciation, in addition to traditional wages.

These kind of rewards made it worth the effort, but now stock options are only reserved for the select top few and are increasingly coming under the scrutiny of the SEC, and the upside of any game publisher’s stock is no longer as attractive. As a result, wages made today are the only compensation you will get for working harder than you ever have in your life.

But, if the work is hard and the politics are bad, then working on great games will make up for it, right? As anybody who plays games knows, the industry is getting more and more conservative, and good games are getting harder to find.

Sequels litter the landscape. If an idea was good once, won’t it be even better the sixth or eighth time? Licenses from books or movies seem to calm the executives' risk worries, so Harry Potter, Spider-Man, the NFL, The Simpsons, and other big name IPs are used over and over. Even original, game-driven IPs are stretched to the limit. Does anyone doubt, with the recent success of of GTA IV, that game makers will eventually be toiling on Grand Theft Auto IX?

But work on these monstrous, next-generation versions of big licenses and sequels will be interesting, won’t it? If you consider creating algorithms for realistically making sweat roll off the eyebrow of an ultra-realistic football or basketball player interesting work, then the answer is yes.

You will not get to work on the creative design work at the front end of a product. That is reserved for the executive design team of producer and director. Instead, you will be forced into the tiniest of niches, much like a modern age factory worker, dutifully cranking out code snippets or art widgets under the strictest of controls and supervision.

Should you find the work tolerable and the products acceptable, and you decide to commit your life energy to helping bring these products to market, making high-level executives rich, surely the companies will reward you with a secure job considering the amount of profits they make? Not true. One of the biggest mistakes people make when working for one of these huge corporations is thinking they are secure.

The executives at the top of the company care about one thing, and one thing only: profits, and not just profits, but increasing profits on a quarterly basis. Remember, the people at the top are paid in stock and options, so their wages are tied to making the price of the stock go up. As a result, they feel no remorse in laying off an entire team once a product has shipped or it is canceled.

Consider this: two years ago, the entire Digital Illusions Canada team was laid off after completion of the latest Battlefield product. Two weeks later, EA announced its largest quarterly profit in company history. The moral is that even the best teams working on highly successful products for the largest and most profitable game company in the world in the best financial quarter in the company’s history can immediately find themselves out of a job.

Putting in some slave labor at an established publisher can teach you a lot about the game’s industry in a couple of years, and give you a good resume to start you own company. Just remember, if you do choose to work for one of these companies, please follow much of the advice in my Foundational Five blog piece, keep your resume up to date, and always be prepared for the worst. Remember: these people are not your family, in fact, they are not even your friends.

[Jeff Tunnell is a serial gaming entrepreneur, having co-founded Dynamix (sold to Sierra/Vivendi) and GarageGames (sold to IAC, Inc.). He has produced, directed, or designed over 70 games including The Incredible Machine, Starsiege: Tribes, and Trophy Bass.]

COLUMN: Why We Play - "Wanted: World Games"

[“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 elaborates on some adjacent thoughts expressed by GSW's Chris Dahlen earlier this year to suggest a new video game genre: world games.]

The Mess

Remember that big Resident Evil 5 controversy, that one where the gamer community felt serious growing pains in the racial tolerance department?

Wait, wait, wait! Please don’t stop reading! This is not another column about race in video games, so calmly move your mouse away from the back button. This week I just want more games, more free games. RE5’s slip up is an opportunity to discuss a missing game genre: “world games.”

And while the RE5 case has shown many commentators don’t like to dwell on tough subjects--look at GamePolitics.com’s continual coverage—this topic of world games should be universally welcomed. After all, this column is not intended to slap gamers on the wrist, or preserve games as art, or even call for a revolution in how we comment and interact online.

This is a column by a gamer who wants more games, varied games, as many games as he can get from the world over. And I think everyone will agree, more games with unique perspective will not only be great for us as players, but will undoubtedly evolve the industry’s creative backbone.

Look, some of us said things we shouldn’t have said, some of us were quick to reprimand rather than to educate, and some of us just sat helpless on the sideline. But, to our chagrin, most of us (read: me) were quick to congratulate our goofy group.

We’re growing, I thought; we’ll get new views, new perspectives from this debacle. We’ll discuss them. And best of all, we’ll give a voice to those gamers and creators that rarely have one.

Resident Evil 5 takes place in Africa, so who better to comment than Africans? Or who better to make a game about the continent’s economic and agricultural devastation—equally, which better to discuss their own voodoo folklore—than Africans themselves? As Virgil Thompson said of Porgy and Bess, "Folk lore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself.

But these questions never came to fruition in our conversation, which instead devolved into a debate over who’s more racist: those players who shoot black zombies, or those analysts who spread racism like it’s Beetlejuice--simply repeating its name conjures the hateful monster. I can’t say either side has played nicely. And, sadly, this clusterfuck will rage on forums until the game’s release.

As I promised, let’s leave the flames for the forums, and make lemonade from this sour situation. Here are my big questions: What do we get as gamers by encouraging and purchasing foreign games? Where are the video games from Africa—specifically South Africa and Nigeria, which have developed relatively sizable video game markets? And, most importantly for us, where are “World Games?”

Where are games wholly un-American, un-white, and unprivileged? Because it appears one of our greatest prejudices, as gamers, may not be against other peoples, but their games.

Play American

The RE5 controversy is a chance to discuss what games need: a new, worldly perspective. Netflix delivers a variety of subtitled films, and iTunes will gladly fill your hard drive with World Music, but where do gamers go for culture—well, besides Japan?

While I hope potential world games would be welcome, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. co-creator Oleg Yavorsky argues a different opinion. In a recent interview he had this to say about the icy American welcome to his game’s more European narrative:

“It's always our intention to make games for as broad an audience as possible, but we've never had problems with getting Europeans to understand our games, and we have had problems with North America and Asia. It's just a different cultural mindset that makes our local topics less interesting. I hear it discussed a lot that European games struggle to find an appeal in North America, for example, just because they're based on different settings and characters, with different stories being told.”

Though Yavorsky clearly has more first hand experience than this writer (and I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him out) he has simplified the issue. Sure, games with foreign stories have struggled to connect with American audiences thus far, but two barriers have interfered: financial security and a cultural foundation.

Many American publishers are afraid to give a game that abandons a traditional (American) narrative the promotion it requires. To win a market unfamiliar with a product more promotion is often required, but titles like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. usually receive less than their American counterparts. Even with the necessary promotion, these new stories may intimidate American gamers.

Portals, the World Foundation:

Regarding a cultural foundation, Yavorsky goes on:

“Most of our successful games were based on big historical elements, such as with Cossacks. Cossacks were pretty well known in Europe, so ultimately that game was more appealing to a European audience than to other audiences. I hear it discussed a lot that European games struggle to find an appeal in North America, for example, just because they're based on different settings and characters, with different stories being told.”

Americans have a unique historical and pop culture knowledge, which has been spread to foreign nations via Hollywood, the Internet, and, most importantly, previous games. If Americans have developed an understanding of Japanese culture through a Squaresoft lens, then many gamers across the world experience Americana through the eyes of Activision Blizzard, Atari, and EA. We lack this pre-history, this cultural understanding to immediately understand, let alone enjoy “world games.”

Expensive production costs, complicated programming, and global promotion are the unfortunate side effects of next-gen gaming that prevent competition from small companies in smaller countries. Therefore, indie games might be the ideal medium, then, to lay the foundation with little financial ramification. YouTube has made it possible for children in Iowa to get their news from BBC1, their sports from torrents, and their entertainment from fan-dubbed Japanese game shows.

Just as independent theaters welcome foreign films with arms wide open, internet portals like Kongregate could offer a space for foreign games that can feed us funny, emotional, or shocking snippets, each so brief that the good may be aggregated to the top and the bad, quickly experiences, and painlessly ignored.

Also, portals like like The Sims Carnival offer free, simple to use tools. These programs are ideal for cultures that lack money or places to train aspiring game auteur. A combination of these two resources, a site where players are not simply divided aggregated by category, but on both a national and global level, allowing players to search the best games by country. On top of these wants, this portal needs to be cheap, accessible by cheaper computers, and easy to learn, but extremely malleable.

What’s this dream cost? A whole lot of money.

All About the Euros

That’s a big demand to make. Many aspiring game auteurs simply lack the money, hardware, or training to create games. Some readers may find it illogical to argue for charities used to promote game craftsmanship in poverty stricken areas, and, well, they’re right. Many more people across Africa need clean water and medical relief than they need games or the privilege to create them.

Yet, art has been used throughout history as a vessel for controversial, political revolutionary, and, just possibly, world changing messages. Painters, poets, and documentarians have brought change with their works, and with videogames as many Americans, Japanese, and Europeans main mode of entertainment, games with a message may be the best way to raise awareness for major causes.

Would you be more inspired to provide help to child soldiers if we felt their plight through a virtual first hand replication? Or would these games devolve into trashy FPS exploitation. Though I fear the later, I can’t help, but believe even the most crudely created game by those who experience these atrocities will speak volumes more than the Darfur projects for an MTV contest. And that’s not to knock MTV for pursuing the right thing.

In fact, please allow me to backpedal and return briefly to Virgil Thompson. There are definitely places and situations where people lack the ability to communicate their plight in certain ways. It’s ludicrous and ignorant for me to assume children in Darfur are equipped or should even be expected to design a video game. This is a case where MTV's work deserves the praise it gets.

Rather, I’m discussing a middle ground, not just for poverty stricken countries, but for nations that simply have trouble getting their mainstream entertainment to viewers across the globe. I’ve gotten worked up over the social change these games might bring, but on a smaller scale, world games will allow for our culture to experience other cultures vis-à-vis how they entertain themselves. For example, when was the last time you played a game from Yugoslavia or even Greece?

Gamers often do amazing things together. We solve petty crimes, we help one another in times of need, and we (read: Cheapy D) foster truly awesome causes, like Cheapy D.’s and Kevin Stewart’s campaign to donate games to soldiers in Iraq. Why not make this world game portal work?

Help Wanted

So, please take this column as a help wanted ad. I want to raise money, find the appropriate tools, and, eventually, promote the content created by users across the world. Sponsorships from major sites like Kotaku, 1UP, and even MTV (come on Totilo, who doesn’t loves tax write offs?!) offer the promotion and funding necessary for a project like this. Partnerships with EA/Maxis and Kongregate could make the portal reasonably affordable as a graft upon their already extensive networks.

With "staycations" at an all time high, many American gamers won’t have an opportunity to check out the world first hand. Instead, they’ll resort to escapism and spend summer break locked in an air-conditioned den, eyes glued to their HDTVs. They’ll surely visit many strange cultures. Maybe they’ll tour NYC with their friend Niko, or study modern American warfare with Snake. Perhaps they’ll line up early for this year’s Madden football (the American kind) or dig through their catalogue of tough talking, earth saving, democracy spreading space marines.

Hopefully though, some of us can take the time to nurture voices the world over. And maybe then we’ll know more about the Cossacks, about Africa (not just the continent as a whole, but each nation), and we’ll know more about ourselves. Maybe we'll set a foundation for the next videogame blockbuster from India, or Thailand, or Brazil.

Anybody game?

[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.]

GameSetNetwork: The Paris GDC Edition

- So, this year's European iteration of Game Developers Conference - co-created by my colleagues here at Think Services alongside the nice French folks at Connection Events - just finished up in Paris.

The Paris GDC show encompassed a bunch of interesting talks from leading European (and non-European!) developers, and luckily, Gamasutra and Game Developer's Brandon Sheffield was there to write a lot of it down and pass it along to us, yay.

Here are the highlights from the show, from Blizzard to Baer and... beyond:

Blizzard's Pardo: World Of Warcraft Originally Planned As Free-To-Play
"Talking as part of a keynote Q&A at the Paris Game Developers Conference, Blizzard SVP Rob Pardo has been discussing the history of world-leading MMO World Of Warcraft, revealing the game was originally planned as a free-to-play title."

Paris GDC: 2K's Kline On Why BioShock Should Have Failed
""BioShock should’ve failed," said lead programmer Chris Kline at his Paris GDC session, from its beginnings as a direct System Shock followup to its initial Little Sister designs featuring a dog in a wheelchair -- a full look at how the 2K team iterated to success within."

Paris GDC: The Rob Pardo Experience
"As one of the final lectures of this year's Paris GDC, Blizzard SVP of game design Rob Pardo sat down for a detailed Q&A on World Of Warcraft, StarCraft II, the Activision/Vivendi merger, and the future of online games - quotes galore inside."

Paris GDC: McCarthy On Bringing EA Sports To The Wii
"Speaking at Paris GDC, Electronic Arts vice president and executive producer David McCarthy discussed how EA Sports intends to evolve EA Sports based on what its learned from Wii Sports and current video game trends."

Paris GDC: McCarthy Teases EA Sports Peripherals
"As part of his Paris GDC lecture, Electronic Arts' David McCarthy has been discussing EA Sports' move to new platforms such as the Wii, revealing that consumers will see EA Sports titles using bundled peripherals within the next 12 months."

Paris GDC: DICE's Cousins Talks Battlefield Variety
"In his Paris GDC keynote, EA DICE executive producer Ben Cousins revealed that the studio is currently developing five titles for the Battlefield series, also discussing development methodology and web games' eventual dominance."

Paris GDC: PlayFirst On The Casual Gaming Revolution
"In a Paris GDC lecture on the casual games revolution, publisher PlayFirst’s (Diner Dash) CEO and president, John Welch, noted that, even with bigger publishers now entering the casual gaming field, smaller studios will continue to dominate the market."

Paris GDC: Quantic Dream Considering Second Next-Gen Title
"Speaking at the Paris Game Developers Conference, Quantic Dream’s Guillaume de Fondaumière revealed that the developer is considering developing two titles with two studios, including its PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain."

Paris GDC: Acclaim Bringing For-Pay Item Trade To Facebook
"At his session in the ongoing Paris GDC, Howard Marks, head of the revived Acclaim brand, explained the reasons why he has taken the brand down the path of free-to-play games, also revealing plans for a new Facebook game with for-pay in-game item downloads -- full coverage within."

Paris GDC: Media Molecule On Making LittleBigPlanet
"Talking at their opening Paris GDC keynote, Media Molecule's Mark Healy and Alex Evans have been discussing the creation of upcoming LittleBigPlanet and the advantages of player tool constraint - tongue in cheek welcoming 'questionable' user-generated content for the upcoming PS3 title."

Paris GDC: Baer On The Industry’s Birth, Preserving History
"Game pioneer and Odyssey console creator Ralph Baer delivered a lecture at the Paris Game Developers Conference covering everything from building the video game industry with limited technology to the importance of preserving history."

June 24, 2008

Postmortem: Inside Final Fantasy's WiiWare Debut

-[This is reprinted from big sister site Gamasutra, and I thought it was worth highlighting here because you very rarely get Japanese developers talking openly about technical underpinnings of their games, for whatever odd reason - especially interesting since it's WiiWare.]

The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a creator-written postmortem on the making of Square Enix's Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life As a King, the company's first WiiWare effort.

These extracts reveal how the team faced development obstacles on a project of smaller scale than its typical RPG epics, due to the tight size and budget limits, but how those restrictions and some early development choices ended up streamlining the process and encouraging creativity.

Team lead programmer Fumiaki Shiraishi crafted the postmortem, which was introduced in Game Developer as follows:

"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 technically-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."

Using A Lightweight Language...Heavily

Starting out the in-depth postmortem, Shiraishi describes how the team settled on the Squirrel language to code its game, an unusual decision for a Square Enix project, but one which paid off in its flexibility:

"At Square Enix, we usually allow planners (which are similar to game designers in North America) to use lightweight languages or scripts to implement cutscenes, which we usually refer to as events. Programmers at Square Enix only use assembly, or C, or maybe C++.

"We knew that My Life as a King was going to be a different kind of game compared to our usual titles. So for our development process, we wanted to have flexibility above all else, and we hoped to gain that by relying on a script language. After a little bit of testing, we decided to use Squirrel.

"In My Life as a King, all the engine aspects are implemented in C++. This includes graphics, sound, collision detection, camera, and data IO. Everything else, such as AI, user interface, game play, and cutscenes are implemented in Squirrel. The actual main loop and all the transition control is also written in Squirrel.

In bytes of code, approximately 89 percent of the code is in Squirrel and 11 percent in C++. In terms of CPU time, our C++ took about 85 to 95 percent. This is reasonable, considering this included matrix calculations, sound, and collision detection.

"All of our programmers agree that this game would have been completely different if it were not for Squirrel. The programming of My Life as a King required a lot of rewrites and a lot of throwing away. One of the benefits of scripts is that rewriting them is faster and easier. There is also less of a psychological barrier in throwing away code.

This actually makes a big difference. I know from experience that Squirrel code feels a lot easier to throw away than C++ code. The result is that I am a lot more open to game design changes when they are needed, and for this game, the small design changes made all the difference."

Not Seeing The Forest For The Trees

Moving on, Shiraishi comments on how, at points throughout the development process, the team focused on certain design components at the exclusion of the project as a whole, before realizing larger-scale iteration was necessary:

"One of the buzz words in the industry is 'iteration,' and we definitely tried to iterate parts of our game. However, we spent too much time iterating small parts of the game before we knew exactly what the whole should look like.

"Very early in the development cycle, for example, we invested a lot of time iterating our battle system and the battle report design. We thought at the time that the game would be fun if the battle reports were interesting. We focused on trying to make the battle reports as short as possible while also fun to read.

"Two or three months after we thought we were done with the battle system, we finally had the rest of the game in place. That was when we realized that anyone playing this game was not going to read the battle reports.

From our play testing, we saw that players read the reports only when they really had to, and even then only very briefly. Rather than needing to be fun, we realized that the reports needed to be easy to read at a glance. We ended up having to redo the battle system from scratch.

"What we learned the hard way was the importance of being aware of the 'big picture.' We wrongly assumed that if the battle reports were fun, then the whole game would be fun. We learned only afterwards that the battle system was only a small part of the player’s experience, and much of the iterating that we did turned out to be wasted.

"We were fortunate enough to have ample time to iterate some more once we did see the big picture, so iteration did prove to be important. The lesson learned was to not iterate a small piece of the game too early and just for the sake of iterating."

A New Development Model

In the end, Shiraishi was pleased with the experience of working on a small WiiWare title, whose constraints opened up new types of development and design that would not have been obvious choices with a larger, triple-AAA budget. He summed it up as follows:

"WiiWare, like many other download platforms, offers a market for medium-sized games—not as large as boxed games, but not as small as cell phone games or some of the simpler casual games. As the industry moves forward, the lines separating all these types of games will blur.

"As game developers, our challenge is to create the right game for the right platform for the right market, but in order to do that we need the skills, the infrastructure, and a development process flexible enough to adapt quickly. I am hoping that our project was a small step in the right direction."

Additional Info

The full postmortem, including a great deal more insight into Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life As a King's development with "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" reasoning, is now available in the June/July 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes an analytical study of 3D brawlers, an examination of the free-to-play MMO market, and an interview with acclaimed Grasshopper Manufacture composer Masafumi Takada (Killer7, No More Heroes) - plus tool reviews, special career sections, and columns from Bungie's Steve Theodore, Lucasarts' Jesse Harlin, and Maxis's Soren Johnson.

Yearly print and digital subscriptions to Game Developer are now available, and all digital subscriptions now include web-browsable and downloadable PDF versions of the magazine back to May 2004, as well as the digital version of the Game Career Guide special issue.

In addition, the June/July 2008 issue of Game Developer is available in digital form (viewable in a web browser, and with an associated downloadable PDF).

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': The Last Boost

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers the brilliantly anomalous by-product of Team Andromeda and Polyphony Digital.]

omega_boost_front.jpgIn 1999 a developer renowned for its pedigree in creating driving simulators ventured into pastures where high speed mecha roam. The developer was Polyphony Digital, the game: Omega Boost for the original PlayStation.

It was possibly the most accomplished implementation of mecha themed space combat yet achieved.

The player had control over the titular mecha, the Omega Boost, and were able to acquire targets in spherical 3D at incredible speed. Considering the aesthetic influences from anime such as Macross, it was unsurprising that Shoji Kawamori helmed the mecha design with his regular finesse.

Many assumed that the game was an offshoot from Team Andromeda's seminal Panzer Dragoon series, as the beautifully insane homing lasers were in similar effect. It became an almost apocryphal tale, that was supposedly wholly without credence.

Well, Yuji Yasuhara would probably disagree...

From dragons to mecha...

panzer_dragoon_cover1.jpgThe first Panzer Dragoon was an iconic on-rails shoot-em-up, which had the player mount a dragon that could fire homing beams from its mouth. The aim of the game was to sweep your cursor over as much of the screen as possible, snagging as many enemies as possible. It sounds simple enough but in actuality, it was quite a challenge. Games like Rez owe a lot to the original Panzer Dragoon, as they distill this focused approach even further.

The second game in the series is more interesting though. Sure, the first Panzer Dragoon got the ball rolling but Zwei, its sequel, is actually more influential and also a far more accomplished game.

It's difficult to encapsulate the sheer focused pacing seen in Zwei, to this day it probably remains the most important of all the Panzer Dragoon games (even more so than Azel, or Saga as it's known in the West, and definitely leagues ahead of Orta). Zwei also had a rather notable programmer on its team; Yuji Yasuhara.

panzer_dragoon_zwei_cover1.jpgAdmittedly, he wasn't an official member of the posse known as Team Andromeda but he did help code the game. It wasn't long after Zwei was released that Yasuhara jumped ship to more fiscally stable waters in the shape of Polyphony Digital.

It wasn't long after that when Omega Boost would have started. Obviously, Yasuhara made enough of an impression to get the green light on a Panzer Dragoon-esque shoot-em-up with him at the design and coding helm.

That would have been quite a feat to land something like that back in 1999, doubly so considering that it was at a Japanese developer which eschews the nexus of ego that you normally see in the West.

In any case, the effects of Panzer Dragoon Zwei had a tangible creative outcome. Chanelled through one man to make something that, to this day, isn't truly appreciated for its unfettered brilliance.

The Mechanical Circus

yf21_macross_plus.jpgWhy all the fuss then? What makes Omega Boost so different from the slew of mecha mediocrity out there?

Well, let me explain how mecha combat has been portrayed for the last 25 years. Specifically, since 1982 Macross beamed across Japanese televisions showing beautifully balletic aerial dogfights with planes that could transform into mecha. The series then evolved very quickly into space based battles were acquiring targets without the paltry limitations of gravity came into full effect. Couple all this with swarms of missiles chasing their targets with an iconic demented glee and you have a very potent aesthetic mix.

So potent in fact, that no-one had been able to accurately reproduce that in game form. When I say no-one, I really mean it as well. Bandai tried to many Macross games over the years and they all tanked horribly, not only fiscally but also functionally. The first real attempt at 3D space combat was with Macross Digital Mission VF-X, though the less we talk about that the better.

Even Virtual On turned a blind eye to the likes of Macross and had its combat occur in a suitably planar fashion. No-one wanted to the poison chalice that was the holy grail of mecha gaming; a full blown spaced based mecha battle. No-one, except Yuji Yasuhara it seems.

omega_boost_screen2.jpgOmega Boost approached the premise in a simple but uncompromising way; have the player acquire targets spherically at their own discretion and give them a simple lock-on that can be re-acquired instantly. With the latter, the game offered almost no HUD based elements to indicate what had been targeted but instead focused the camera on that point, or the nearest target that was within that area when the lock-on button was pressed. Releasing the button would then allow the player to fly freely and manually track targets if they so wanted.

One of the few HUD elements was a very conservative yellow targeting cursor that showed which way Omega Boost was effectively pointing, meaning that to fire its vulcan cannon you had to place the reticule on the target. If the player held down the firing button though, then the functionality changed and as you sweeped the reticule over an enemy it produced multiple lock-ons. Releasing the button would result in the familiar swarm of homing lasers.

omega_boost_screen1.jpgWhilst these lasers were the crux of the Panzer Dragoon lineage, their true origin was squarely a result of Ichiro Itano's work on Macross (something that has already been covered at great length in this column). So having Kawamori on the mecha design helm only cemented Omega Boost's functional roots even further.

However, Omega Boost had one more anime reference up its sleeve. It wouldn't be a high speed mecha game without at least one nod to Layzner. Something this game had quite blatantly in fact, as after the first few levels the player unlocked an attack called the Viper Boost. This had the Omega Boost glow blue and enter into a spherical energy shield as it homed in on targets and blithely rammed them. The sixth level, where the player faces a fleet of battleships in orbit around a planet, is an ideal example of this attack. For those familiar with Layzner, and it's similarly potent V-MAX attack, then the Viper Boost's resemblance is uncanny. Even more so when you realise that the Beta Boost, your mechanical nemesis, has a similar attack but instead glowed yellow. Again, mirroring the V-MAX attack of the Zakarl from Layzner.

omega_boost_screen3.jpgTo make matters even more implicit, the mecha would always been boosting in whatever direction it was facing. This could be turned off admittedly but it gave a momentum to the gameplay and help with the player's evasion of enemy weapons fire.

What threw some people, and by some people I mean provincial American journalists, was that the enemies came in waves of attack. This simple and obvious design choice had the game lumped in as an "old school shoot-em-up" like R-Type and Gradius. Despite the mind boggling idiocy in regards to such a major simplification and almost forced ignorance to the remainder of the game, the game did utilise waves of attack but the implementation up to that point was wholly different from the shooters of old. Omega Boost removed the functional allegory of Gradius and re-created, almost perfectly, a fully formed spaced based battle that allowed the player to go almost wherever they wanted.

However, this is where Panzer Dragoon Zwei's heritage comes into play. Whilst the game did allow tracking of targets all around the player you were funneled through environments. Not in an overt on-rails manner but enough to notice a sense of progression that felt similar. Though the stages where you zoomed through a tunnel were obviously more straightforward in that regard.

Expensive Production Values

SVWC-7032_front.jpgDespite the functional finesse of Omega Boost, the real eye opener back in 1999 was it's FMV and aural production values. As the FMV's throughout the game feature live actors blended with CG, all directed by Kawamori. Even the pilot of the Omega Boost, played with a fervent apathy by the brilliantly named Greg Funk, had his space suit designed by Kawamori.

Even the music to accompany the opening eye candy was specifically catered for each region of release. With Japan having Feeder's "Shade" from it's Swim EP (no doubt due to Taka Hirose's gaming passion), the UK having Cast's "Dreamer" from their last album and the US receiving Loudmouth's "Fly". Naturally, the Japanese release used Shade more in time with visuals but that's hardly a surprise considering the game was released there first.

The original game soundtrack is another matter entirely though, as it's incredibly rare these days. Though this is more to do with Omega Boost's rather lackluster sales in Japan and the soundtrack consequently had a very limited run.

The cover art as well, which many mistook to be a Kawamori work, was done none other by Yoshiyuki Takani. A veteran painter who worked throughout the anime industry and making a name for himself by doing the cover art for mecha model kit boxes, which is a wonderful parallel considering the game's subject matter.

A forgotten renaissance...

Despite Omega Boost hitting all the right beats from start to finish, it was ultimately several steps too far for the gaming populace to keep up with. It sold initially quite well in Japan but reports of motion sickness were quite common and the game was tarnished as a consequence. Whereas abroad it was more of a sleeper hit and had a few toys released along with it (don't bother trying to buy them though, as they were pretty awful).

It also confused people that a renowned car game developer managed to put out a very polished space based shoot-em-up, as many of the press didn't really approve of the creative tangent. Polyphony Digital responded almost silently and now the game is no longer listed on their official site.

It's an incalculable shame that Yasuhara's vision wasn't appreciated for its sheer all encompassing brilliance. It pushed the genre of mecha gaming into areas that it should have always resided within and made that leap to almost giving the player the chance to sit inside the cockpit of a mecha blasting through a frenetic battle in outer space. Looking back on the decade since is almost heartbreaking, as mecha games have taken several steps back functionally.

Of all the mecha games that deserved numerous sequels and its team to be universally praised, it would be Omega Boost. Unfortunately, Yasuhara and his talented ilk now have the unenviable task of buffing the pedestrian irrelevance that is a Toyota Yaris to a cold, dead and uninspired shine.

[Kurokishi is a humble servant of the Drake forces and his interests include crushing inferior opponents, combing his mane of long silvery hair and dicking around with cheap voice synthesisers. When he's not raining down tyrannical firepower upon unsuspecting peasants in his Galava aura fighter he likes to take long moonlight walks and read books about cheese.]

GameSetLinks: A Topspin Smash For Alt.Distribution?

- A little more GameSetLink-age as the week continues, then, and I'm heading things out with the announcement of Topspin, a company in the music space which looks to help independent artists do digital (and bonus physical) distribution bundles and loyalty-related 'clubs' easily - they already helped out Nine Inch Nails and are working with The Dandy Warhols and a bunch of other independent artists now.

As I note in the link description below, this is worth looking at closely because I don't really see anyone in the game biz doing similar loyalty-based deals - possibly because games take a lot longer to make, mind you, but I think there's some kind of angle in users signing up for a year, or two years of your output as a game design (especially if you're doing shortform games), and getting other perks too. Think about it, hmm?

Time for change:

Topspin » Unveiling Topspin
Absolutely a big deal that should be CAREFULLY looked at by the indie/mainstream game biz - Ian Rogers' new company is not just albums, it's artist-centric subscriptions with physical extras too. (Via Waxy)

The Independent Gaming Source on 'The Sims Carnival'
Mentioned this before briefly, but Rod Humble is trying to do a DIY indie game tool (open to all) within EA, which is v.interesting - a lot of plagiarized content so far, but you never know.

Pitchfork: Crystal Castles Respond to Chip Music Controversy
'Time to call off the witch-hunt?'

IGN: 8 Bit Weapon/ Reset Generation Soundtrack Album Download
The returned N-Gage (inside smartphones, this time, not the taco) has a chiptune soundtrack to its highest profile game - for free download, too.

Trends in Japan » 5 Second Stadium teaches you to count to five
Bizarre stopwatch game: 'After a while, deep down you’ll know instantly whether it’s been five seconds or not. Probably.'

Consolized AtomisWave System - JAMMA Neo Geo MVS Sammy - eBay
Interesting concept - console-ized versions of arcade boards with TV outputs wired into them, don't see that too often separately from SuperGuns.

Consolized PGM System by IGS • JAMMA Arcade Neo Geo MVS - eBay
Wow, OK, far more obscuro-cool! (The IGS PGM has been a minor obsession of mine thanks to its obscureness.)

Rooster Teeth · 'Supreme Surrender Episode 1'
New from Red Vs. Blue, helping to promote Supreme Commander on Xbox 360 - interesting. Via Wired News.

the-inbetween.com [ Inside ‘Puzzle Farter’ ]
An important franchise deconstructed.

Ben Boos: SWORDS: An Artist's Devotion
Just got sent a copy of this - a lavish hardback children's book about swords from an-ex Blizzard staffer (a fact they're using in the publicity, interestingly) who worked on Diablo II.

June 23, 2008

COLUMN: The Amateur: 'Spore: The New Cambrian'

-[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand who spent the last 5 and a half years working in the United Kingdom. He's just emigrated to Sydney, Australia, and spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He writes an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]

The release of the Spore Creature Creator has resulted in a Cambrian explosion of content creation where amateur creature designers have populated the Sporepedia with hundreds of thousand of different creature designs - at least 754,495 to date (at the time of writing) at a rate of more than 100,000 every 24 hours.

This is a tidal wave of new virtual life, sweeping up the gamer community in creationist controversy as would-be-gods evolve from the puerile (or should I say penile) to mimicry (of game controllers, Star Wars space ships, gaming icons and pop art) to highly original creations. What challenges beyond the obvious problems of a procedural Hot Coffee mod every minute does this tsunami of content create?

The Spore designers cleverly used PNG chunk types to embed the total content of a single creature into the picture data for that creature - allowing quick and ready transfer of the Spore creatures by dragging and dropping images from the Sporepedia into the creator. They've also incorporated ready sharing of existing content as well as 3rd party media integration with YouTube, and user tagging of creature types. But the huge amount of content has clearly exceeded the ability of the Sporepedia website to deliver it effectively.

At the moment, the Sporepedia interface allows 24 creatures to be displayed per page, and an editorial component of the site has offered up a selection of 'featured' creatures - 40 to date. Rated creatures, that is creatures where second user has provided some rating information on the quality of the creature design, number some 154,000 or so. Searching by tag doesn't appear to be supported - and there is very little other criteria to slice up such a huge database of information, except by individual author.

In order to download Spore creatures, the interface restricts me at best to 24 per page, a microscopic drop in the bucket of the total content out there. Where are the tools to let me download the most popular 10,000 creatures - or to have an RSS feed of the top 100 creature creators so that I can see their new work - or to dedicate 10 GB of my hard disk to automatically fill up with new creature types? How do I define an 'ecology' of creatures, with predators and prey, or a phylum so that I can have a consistent series of creatures evolved from a single antecedent?

How else can users organise, sort and select data from a database of this magnitude in an effective manner? Clearly editorial control is failing to address these issues, as can be seen by the ratio of editorial selection to user content. I suspect EA and Maxis have their hands full just removing inappropriate content in this regard.

These issues of information management are at least manageable. Consider another statistic - to date, the Spore Creature Creator tools has populated one virtual game with approximately twice as many different creatures as all beetle species discovered to date. From wikipedia: 'The Coleoptera (beetle) contains more described species than in any other order in the animal kingdom, constituting about 25% of all known life-forms'. In other words, Man (actually avid gamers) has virtually created life at approximately a quarter of the rate that the Bible describes God achieving.

Divine hubris aside, if the current creation rate actually continues at the same pace, within a year Spore will have approximately 30 million creature types. Forget the problems of trying to organize this information within Sporepedia - it is unlikely that the human brain is equipped to distinguish this many different creatures. In one sweep, Will Wright and co have created a tool capable of matching or exceeding the Earth's ability to generate new species since it's inception.

It is likely Spore only supports so many types of different creature morphology, and the specific creature characteristics are well defined within the editor. This may mean that the brain is able to filter on less specific criteria than the individual creature, and give the player a chance to recognize the important features of any in-game encounter, without having to refer to Sporepedia every minute of the game.

The game design seems to have planned to an extent for these kinds of numbers: the Spore galaxy supports at least 4 billion planets, which suggests after a year of playing, you will only encounter a unique species every hundred planets or so.

The total number of creatures may not be an issue, as much as the player's ability to consume new content. For argument's sake, let's pretend that a new creature is encountered every game minute (likely very high, since not all the gameplay involves other creatures). Over a typical ten hour a week playing pattern, this means the player could potentially encounter 6,000 new creatures - in reality, far less than this.

Every year, this is 300,000 creatures, and an adult human lifespan of 50 years of continuously playing Spore, a total of 15 million creatures could be encountered. Therefore, within six months, Spore will have enough creature content to exceed anyone's ability to encounter it all in game in their lifetime.

Spore has created an unexpected set of design problems: the reverse of virtually any other game. There is literally too much content for any gamer to experience; and the tools to manage and select wholesale from this content don't yet appear to be in place. This is an ideal position to be in, and a reason that more and more games are moving to procedural content generation as a part of expanding the overall gaming experience.

Q&A: Getting Nude With Nude Maker's Hifumi Kouno

- [Known best for ambitious Xbox mech title Steel Battalion and its similarly expansive PlatinumGames DS RPG Infinite Line, developer Nude Maker's flipside is as an adult game creator. Designer Hifumi Kouno explained to our Brandon Sheffield why he thinks the industry is still afraid to tackle sexuality.]

Nude Maker designer Hifumi Kouno has earnestly described his company's name as an entreaty for developers to shed their pretensions to fame and lay their feelings bare.

Of course, his company has also spent a few years making adult PC games for the Japanese market, so he has a different take than most.

Kouno himself has worked on a broad variety of games, in and out of the gaming mainstream. He directed the first two installments of the Clock Tower survival horror series, which began on Super Nintendo and moved to PlayStation. With Nude Maker and Capcom he developed 2002's mech action title Steel Battalion, which famously shipped with an intricate $200 controller that included foot pedals.

Most recently, Nude Maker has been announced as working with the ex-Capcom all star team at PlatinumGames, developing an ambitious sci-fi RPG for Nintendo DS. Entitled Infinite Line, the game is said to draw heavily from classic works of science fiction, notably 2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clark's 1953 novel Childhood End.

During a recent PlatinumGames event, Kouno sat down with Gamasutra to discuss his recent activities, his attitudes towards developing adult titles, and why people are afraid of the adult game market.

What has Nude Maker been up to, between Steel Battalion and Infinite Line?

Hifumi Kouno: You may know this, but we've been making adult titles in Japan on the PC.

I didn't see them on your site when I looked, some time ago.

HK: There's a title called AV King.

And you were previously a part of [defunct Japanese publisher] Human Entertainment, is that correct?

HK: Yes.

Are you still using [Grasshopper Manufacture composer and frequent Human-splinter company collaborator] Masafumi Takada for music on your game?

HK: He's my best friend! Him and Suda51. But anyway, yes. He is also doing the sound on Infinite Line. We asked him to.

How many people are working at Nude Maker now?

HK: 9 people.

Yeah, I thought it was a smaller team. Is that the entire team making Infinite Line, or are there more people from Capcom helping?

HK: This is the same as what we did with Steel Battalion. The main programming is all done by people inside Nude Maker - all core members are Nude Maker. However, we are working with some external developers that are helping.

How does that outsourcing work? Do you create the initial assets and then ask them to create similar ones, or do you give them specific tasks to do?

HK: Yes, it's exactly as you said. At Nude Maker, we make early assets for everything: character designs, space ship designs, and then we show that to the external companies that are working with us and ask them to work along those lines.

Can you name some of the mech designers that you're working with?

HK: The first one's Junji Okabo, who worked on Steel Battalion and who's also working on Infinite Line. He's making one design every ten days.

Impressive! What made you decide to return to standard consumer-facing games, as opposed to the hentai titles and whatnot?

HK: I will answer this very seriously. I won't take this lightly. I do not feel that there's a big difference in my thinking between standard adult titles and consumer titles. We don't have the idea that we're really shifting gears as such.

Generally, people looked down on adult titles just because they're adult titles. But this is just one genre that I want to experiment in as a game designer -- just one avenue for my creativity. There may be other avenues for my creativity. I don't want to limit what I can explore as a designer, based on expectations.

What kind of things do you think you can achieve in the adult game market? What do you want the player to feel?

HK: First, I want to say that I'm not just the game director, but I'm also the scenario writer for my titles. As part of writing scenarios, it's very important to understand human behavior. You have to address the basics of human feeling and motivation. The sexual urge and sexual motives are absolutely a core part of human behavior and a really primal urge. I think we can't forget that. I don't want us to forget that part of ourselves.

Why do you think so many people are afraid of it?

HK: If you take any given game designer, I think most of them are concerned - perhaps too concerned - with appearances and how they're perceived in the outside market, and by other game creators, even. They don't want to be seen as too unique.

I think that's also the background of the main company Nude Maker. I think that we need to be more honest with ourselves, and people should not worry about how they're perceived and do whatever their creative drive is. It really comes back to appearances, with many people.

I don't need to hide anything about adult games, and I really appreciate an interviewer who'll ask these kinds of straightforward questions and understand where I'm coming from.

What do you think of the state of the adult market right now? There have been a lot of closures this year.

HK: The budget on adult games is very small. On one hand, it's possible to really experiment and implement new and creative ideas, but on the other hand, I think people have gotten too conservative and just go in one direction and do the same patterns over and over again.

People seem to be targeting specific fetishes. Like the moe [cute anime girl fetishism] market, or the lolicon [more sexualized underage animated fetishism] stuff, all targeting very specific things.

HK: I agree with you there. I think there's a lot of those titles with moe or lolicon. My titles are definitely games first. I'm not just trying to sell them due to moe factor.

These are real games, and they happen to also contain things about sex or hentai. In a way, I think that unfortunately the effort we put into those types of things sometimes isn't rewarded, and if you just make it an easy-to-sell moe-type game, it'll sell much easier.

Do you think that you could create feelings of love within a player in a traditional game as well?

HK: I definitely think that's possible, but I think people get love and sex mixed up a lot of the time, of course. Just straightforward sex in games, I don't think that represents love.

Analysis: What VGChartz Does (And Doesn't) Do For The Game Biz

- Recently, there's been a significantly greater profile for the video game chart compilation site, VGChartz.

As well as beginning to contact major news sites on a regular basis to disseminate its news, the site was also the subject of a positive article on O'Reilly Radar from Robert Passarella, comparing its open data dissemination method favorably with The NPD Group, the generally agreed 'canonical' source for North American game charts.

Indeeed, as the Wikipedia page for VGChartz notes, Forbes, Fortune, The New York Post, and The New York Times have all referenced the site. And since it's been more aggressively marketed by the site's creators - especially regarding the 'holy grail' of global sales figure comparisons, its references in the news are rapidly increasing in frequency.

But how is the site actually compiled, and is it a good source for reasonably reputable news websites such as Gamasutra to be citing? Thus far, we have referenced VGChartz data twice - once with regard to Xbox Live Arcade game sales, and more recently because Michael Pachter has started to cite the data in his NPD game sales previews.

The second citation provoked a number of reader queries about the veracity of the data, so we embarked on some detailed analysis of VGChartz, and followed it up with a long series of emails with the site's creator, Brett Walton.

How Charts Are Compiled

So, let's start with the basics. Most worldwide game charts (of which NPD in North America, Media Create and Enterbrain in Japan, and Chart-Track in England are the most prominent) are compiled by extrapolation from sales figures provided by retailers. Thus, there's no third-party that uses regular access to publisher data on sales to make the charts - all of them take in data from major retailers, and then calculate sales from there.

This service is sold to major publishers and financial firms for a monthly or yearly subscription, allowing publishers to see how well their competitors are doing. Limited amounts of the data is made available to the public, generally in terms of a top 10, 20, or 50 either weekly or monthly, depending on the territory. Obviously, if the pay service was sufficiently 'off' from the internal numbers the publisher was getting, they would not want to pay for it.

But what VGChartz claims to do is a weekly estimate of every game published in every territory - including Japan, North America, and the particularly difficult to estimate Europe (there's no subscription-based pan-European chart right now, due to the fragmented nature of the market) - and offer all of that data for free. Which is extremely impressive, let's face it, because it enables them to provide real-time updated information for the entire market.

But how accurate is it? If I was, say, writing a story for the New York Times, what proof do I have that the 'correct' numbers are displayed on the site? Obviously, as mentioned above, all sales figures are by necessity estimates, and that's the crux of the issue - we'll get back to that later. But I asked Brett Walton his methodology, and he gave me the following, quite impressive answer:

"The methodology we use for all of our charts in all regions is the same and our data is arrived at by a combination of the following:

- Sampled direct sell-through data
- Industry knowledge and experience - applying past trends in terms of marketshares, regional breakdowns, casual vs hardcore and so on
- plenty of statistical analysis, regression calculations, market projections
- Contact with industry figures - buy-side analysts (such as Pachter / Divnich), sell-side analysts who work with us on specific products / projects, manufacturers who work with us to project sales of their key titles
- Retail checks - we have a team who talk to stores and estimate shipment figures for low-stock and hard to find items which we struggle to track with our normal data samples.

Exactly how we get from these various sources of data to final figures differs from game to game and console to console and our exact methodologies are confidential for obvious reasons."

Essentially, Walton is saying that he uses a number of high quality factors to produce his estimates, but can't mention any of the retail sources, or companies that VGChartz works with. Well, fair enough. But did you realize that VGChartz estimates can retroactively change by 100% or more based on 'official' chart results?

Iron Man & Retrofitting

One of the most unexpected results in the recent NPD charts for May was the appearance of the poorly reviewed Iron Man game for PlayStation 2 in the Top 10 of the charts, with 130,000 copies sold.

Thinking about it carefully, with the movie rocketing to unexpected success during the month, it would make sense that the game would sell well. But it's not the kind of game that you're likely to estimate in the Top 10 - and indeed VGChartz did not, estimating 53,000 units in sales, according to VGChartz staffers.

But what's surprising is that Iron Man for PlayStation 2 has been adjusted in its official VGChartz page so that its first four weeks of sales (encompassing May) add up to 111,000 units.

Clearly, these numbers have been changed after NPD debuted, showing a couple of things. Firstly, if you were a journalist, you could have cited VGChartz as saying Iron Man was a flop on PS2, selling half as many units - when NPD vibrantly disagrees. In addition, and more interestingly, it shows that VGChartz trusts NPD over their own prediction data by retroactively changing things to better match.

Apparently, this has happened before, because in a FAQ about North American VGChartz numbers, Brett Walton addresses this precise subject:

"Do we adjust our data? Not as such. Do we adjust our methods then? Yes - which will of course alter some data. On what basis? If we believe that a particular data set differs significantly from other sources of data (data released into the public domain by tracking firms, manufacturers, analysts) then we do re-check our data and make adjustments to the methods / scaling factors used.

This happens on a fairly infrequent basis - less often than we adjust due to internal data changes - and is something that every tracking firm and analyst does. I personally have no issues with "benchmarking" our data from time to time against other sources of data - as long as it has been made public."

In other words, if they are sufficiently out, then VGChartz will retrofit their results - either weekly or monthly - to conform to the more 'official' data. But they won't credit those firms as the source of the retrofitting - they'll just bump their numbers around without saying why on the site.

As a result, we get to what VGChartz actually is - a strange mixture of a prediction market (as consensus prediction site TheSimExchange is) and a retroactive, but non-credited reflection of charts that have historically been known for having more concrete data.

Where's The Beef?

OK, so you might say - and a lot of VGChartz' forumgoers do - what's the problem with that? If VGChartz gets close enough, and can adjust if it's too far off when top-end data comes out, then why would there be a problem?

Well, because you then have a moving target for checking/reporting purposes, and particularly because there's a high probability that VGChartz figures will be significantly wrong for those titles on the lower end of sales - those that lurk outside the top of the charts.

In other words, for those high-selling titles, VGChartz is checking against public data, and they will change their estimates if they are majorly off. Most of the time, they are quite close compared to the worldwide charts. That's because VGChartz is - like services such as The SimExchange - using common sense, Internet buzz, real-time data such as Amazon.com and analyst commentary to synthesize a sensible estimate.

But in covering all games, they are doing readers a disservice, because it's clear from the Iron Man example that they simply do not have the direct sale retail contacts to extrapolate unexpected but nonetheless true results. And if a title spikes but is outside public data, VGChartz will never catch it.

And the amount of concrete data available to VGChartz is low - as is freely admitted in a recent interview, VGChartz had 2-3% of the North American market as a sample at the time, whereas by estimate, NPD might have 60-65%. If this 2-3% was clean and canonical, this might not matter - but how do you explain the big Iron Man discrepancy, if so? Wouldn't VGChartz' retail sources have picked it up too?

So, let's take a step back and concentrate on some games that have sold in significant numbers, but have never made it into the Top 20 in North America for a significant time.

One good example is the Ben 10 series of games from D3 Publisher. VGChartz has the series listed at 590,000 sold worldwide to date. But when Gamasutra interviewed D3's Yoji Takenaka last week, he specifically said: "Ben 10 is selling well over a million units right now, since last Christmas."

So sure, Takenaka could be conflating shipped with sold - making the number closer to the estimate. But that's an awfully large discrepancy - one that most people won't care about because it's not a prominent or critically acclaimed game, and there's no way to refute VGChartz on it, but a discrepancy nonetheless.

Unfortunately, we don't have lifetime NPD data for this set of titles - but in researching this story, we spoke to a third party who had access to NPD lifetime to date sales that are not normally disclosed to the public.

We picked two titles released for one of the next-gen consoles over the previous year, neither of which had been in the public NPD charts for more than a month, leaving VGChartz to make estimates based on their own sources on their selling curve over time.

Well, somewhat spectacularly, in both cases, NPD and VGChartz disagreed by about 100%. In one case, VGChartz was citing 300,000 sales, whereas NPD had the game at 150,000 units. And in the other case, it was inversed - NPD had the game at around 200,000, but VGChartz had it at 100,000.

If VGChartz knew of this discrepancy, would they have retroactively changed their data? Probably so, given the Iron Man example. And this is essentially the problem - that with very limited access to retail numbers, especially over time, the downward curve of a game's sales becomes essentially a guessing game for VGChartz, whereas services like Media Create and NPD merge in greater real sales data to calculate their curve at much higher levels.

[Here's one more public datapoint, this time referencing NPD, but uncorrected by VGChartz, since I presume they didn't notice it or consider it important enough. Variety recently revealed that Brash's Alvin & The Chipmunks game had sold 286,000 copies since launch, according to NPD. VGChartz has the combined SKUs listed at just 110,000 units.]

Conclusion

Let's be clear. I think the concept behind VGChartz is a wonderful one - freely available data to let everyone see how well games are selling. And it's absolutely true that all data is an estimate - not even major services such as Media Create and NPD get it exactly right.

But VGChartz is staffed by amateurs working in their spare time to estimate sales, and while they are perfectly smart, they are much closer to the SimExchange model of estimation than the Media Create method.

What I'd like to see is some clear labeling of what is estimated data, and what is extrapolated or changed from companies that have greater access to retail sales. And not only does VGChartz have no intention of doing this, it is starting to claim major scoops based on data which, in some cases, estimates entire territories without any real data.

In particular, the site widely and loudly disseminated to the media its worldwide Day 1 Metal Gear Solid 4 sales, explaining:

"VGChartz can exclusively reveal that first day sales of Metal Gear Solid 4, released on June 12th 2008 in most major markets worldwide, were an impressive 1.3 million units."

The headline actually originally read 1.5 million, but was changed by a not insignificant 200,000 units after publication. Even more surprisingly, the figure debuted just 48 hours after the launch of the game - not a lot of time to compile data from retail sources.

I asked Brett Walton about the change, and why this figure was not advertised a little more prominently as an estimate, given the short amount of time to get real data, and he explained:

"It was based on first day Japan sales, first day America sales, and from that projecting for Europe / others which we didn't get direct day 1 for. We projected Europe would be ~20% higher than America given the larger install base and based on previous game releases, but it turned out at 430k for the week vs 510k for America - whereas we estimated it at more like 600k given America and Japan figures."

Firstly, Walton freely admits the numbers were based on zero actual data for the entire European market, just pure extrapolation. It's also very unclear how far the estimates for launch were based on real retail data for Japan and North America.

It's a reasonable figure, of course, because the VGChartz folks are smart people. But it's not a real figure. It's a educated guesstimate, and it's much more of an estimate than the subsequent Chart Track data for the UK, for example. Walton clarified due to my complaints:

"So yes, maybe we should be clearer with the word estimate, especially in early PR and this has been reflected in comments back to the guy who wrote the story. From now on we will label day 1 sales as preliminary for that very reason."

But that doesn't really change the main problem with the site. There's a place for a resource like VGChartz, but it'd be a site that clearly labels the source of its estimates (whether it be Chart-Track, NPD, Media Create - even if some of those sources have poor data dissemination and a fractious relationship with the media) and then labels which are its own estimates based on its own industry knowledge and whatever channel checks it has.

But if I was a writer or analyst trying to extrapolate significant information from the resource, especially regarding those titles which don't chart regularly, given the major discrepancies with other figures shown here, I would not recommend it.

[UPDATE: Someone has just pointed out to me that Brett Walton has accused me of reprinting a 'confidential email conversation' for this article. In the course of my discussion with Brett, I specifically asked him if our emails were on the record. He replied: "I have no issues reproducing the discussion - needs a tidy up of course." As far as I'm concerned, issues like this are symptomatic of why VGChartz cannot be trusted.]

GameSetLinks: A Goodfellow For Dungeons

- Having, once again, scoured 600+ RSS feeds to bring you interesting GameSetLinks to you don't have to do the legwork, here's the latest set - headed by Troy Goodfellow looking at the new AK Peters book from sometime Gamasutra contributor and serious video game historian Matt Barton.

Also wandering around in here - another look at the controversy regarding Guy Debord's 'Game Of War', David Edery on game difficulty, the very silly 'Escape From Konami' Flash game, reviewing, uhh, backpacking, and lots more.

La la la:

Crispy Gamer - Column: Print Screen: "Dungeons & Desktops" and Writing Gaming History
Troy Goodfellow longform book reviews Matt Barton's latest, to interesting effect.

China's National Art Museum Plays Host to Some Strange Games With Synthetic Times Exhibit | GameCulture
Art game attack!

1UP says Konami "made it clear we wouldn't be leaving until we signed" NDA (Now with "Escape from Konami" Flash game!) - Boing Boing Gadgets
This is... typically BoingBoing-esque. Make of that what you will. But I hadn't seen the 'Escape From Konami' Flash game, hee. Via Fidgit.

Game Tycoon» Blog Archive » Debating Difficulty
'A game can incorporate interesting (even gut-wrenching) consequences without being difficult, or it can be extremely difficult without consequence.'

Mystery on Fifth Avenue - NYTimes.com
Just in case you haven't seen this. You've seen this?

Why GTA IV Was the Beginning of the End - GigaOM
'I think it’s safe to say that the era of next-gen gaming as a driving force is over.' The Au we know is back, yay!

Insult Swordfighting: Backpacking: The Official Game
'My computer couldn't meet the minimum specs to run Crysis, but somehow, without any computer at all, I was treated to visuals that blew even Crytek's best away.' Been done before, but still fun.

Rhizome: 'Game(s) of War'
About the online version of Guy Debord's 'Game Of War' and subsequent rights weirdness - abstract artkwak that's nonetheless interesting.

New 'Sugar Rush' forums - Sleepywood.net MapleStory Forum
Aha, Klei Entertainment (Eets) and Nexon's new free to play PC game, looks very interesting indeed.

Richard Cobbett's Online Journal: 'Limbo of the Lost'
'There’s also the irony that despite the amateurish stuff and ripped graphics, the game’s really not that lazy'.

June 22, 2008

COLUMN: 'Cinema Pixeldiso' – New York Asian Film Festival Part 1

['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a semi-regular column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s entry takes a special look at the just started New York Asian Film Festival]

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The New York Asian Film Festival, 2008 edition, kicked off this past Friday, and not surprisingly it's already running on all cylinders. Why the first weekend alone has seen a sci-fi tinged, Howard Hawks-esque noir mystery involving dismembered girls and religious nuts, an old fashioned buddy flick featuring a college kid with no luck or money and a hard boiled gangster who owns the kid's ass, and that's not all.

Also on show - a trio at a all girl Catholic school with super powers, and a look at the life of some schlep whose personal life is in utter shambles, nor is he exactly beloved by his country men, due to the fact that he's so lackluster at his job, which happens to be fighting off whatever big bad monsters threaten Japan.

Another thing the fest is chock full of this year is video game-related goodness. In fact, it was their screening of the Resurrection Of The Little Match Girl some years ago that inspired me to start this column in the first place.

Well this year there are two game-related movies to check out: one based upon D3's budget sensation The Onechanbara, and other, the Takashi Miike helmed adaptation of Sega's Ryū ga Gotoku, aka Yakuza. Plus, the NYAFF plays host to the US debut of Retro Game Master, aka Game Center CX! Let's take a look at the first flick, as well as one of the two debut episodes of RCM...

Beauty Chanbara

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Based on The Onechanbara, one of D3 Publisher's surprise break away hits from the Simple 2000 line of budget games (the other being Earth Defense Force, which itself is heavily influences by Starship Troopers, so I'm not holding my breathe for a big screen adaptation of that one, especially since its star is not as "marketable" as the one on-hand).

The movie tells a tale eternally told: some big company, for whatever reason (in this case, the D3 Corporation, which is cute to say the least) has begun raising the dead, and next thing you know, the whole word is upside down. Emerging from the darkness (and I do mean darkness) comes a mysterious woman to the rescue, with the skills to slice and dice the undead! Even if her attire is somewhat questionable... decked out in nothing more than a cowboy hat, a bikini, and a feather boa, though unfortunately she's wearing a poncho largely throughout, which covers the goods for the most part. Why mention the T&A so early on in this review? It's not as if it's one of the few things that the movie has going for it... well it is... but that's also the point of the whole thing, I guess.

When I mentioned to various colleagues that I was seeing the Onechanbara flick, those who had seen it was kind enough to inform me "you know, it's not very good." Like A) that comes as any sort of shock, and B) like that's supposed to deter me. Is the movie good? Even by video game movie standards? Well, define "good."

If you think a movie where you have hot chicks with shapely bodies and swords and guns decimating zombies left and right is good, never-mind the small stuff like the plot, good acting, or even being able to see anything (more on this in a bit), then there you go! As a buddy of mine noted right as the credits rolled: "I give that movie four boners!"

Back to story: the countryside is overrun by zombies, with only a few pockets of survivors just scraping by here and there. One such person is Aya, the next to the last member of a clan gifted in the ways of the sword (of course), who thusly handles the undead with relative ease, though she has her sights on her younger sister, Saki, for the murder of their father.

By Aya's side is some fat dude (didn't get his name, sorry... tried to take notes, but it was too dark, even for a movie... again, more on this in just a sec) who has had similar hardships; his kid sister has been kidnapped by the evil D3 corporation and the zombie it's created, and he too is out for revenge.

In the middle of the movie's almost impossible to make out at times first fight scene, against a bunch of zombie punks (no undead dudes in suits here!), another ass-kicking lady shows up, Reiko, who wages war with a sawed off shot-gun, one that never needs reloading (naturally). After the zombies are done away with, they immediately set their sights on each other. But Aya's cowardly and bumbling, yet lovable assistant manages to convince each other that they're all fighting for the same thing, and a truce is formed.

It is discovered that Reiko's daughter was killed by the once again evil D3 corp, so... cut to, the offices of a one mad Dr. Sugita, the brains behind the evil. We of course we never find out what his deal is, other than he's crazy and wants to become God, with the power to create life from death and all.

Plus he aims to mold the perfect solider by splicing genes, and his next test subject is, naturally, fat guy's kid sister! What a coincidence! Though he ultimately wants to get his hands on the lovely and dangerous Aya, due to her linage (despite the fact that he also has Saki in his employment, who shares the same blood, but let's not worry about the plot-holes).

Back to the gang: after setting up camp for the night, they run into a young couple that warns them to watch their backs. And of course, they fail to heed their own advice as they take a break to have sex, which brings forth some exposed breasts, another nice throwback to the zombie movies of old.

Soon, the heroic trio, after dealing with another undead crisis in the middle of the night.... It really needs to be mentioned how, up till this point, most of the action takes place in the dead of night, and while one does understand that in this future, society has ground to a halt, meaning no electricity, also meaning no streets lights or the such to help illuminate the action, it's still rather ridiculous, watching vague shapes swish around the absolute black, a lot.

One also understands that the dark not only adds to the creepy atmosphere (well, I'm guessing there's supposed to be one), as well as hides the less than big budget special effects, but still, there was several points where one doesn't know what the heck is happening on the big screen, leading to a headache of sorts. Anyway, daylight comes thankfully, and Reiko encounters a young orphan girl, her parents no doubt dead from you know what. She immediately bonds with her who seems oblivious to her surroundings (either the girl's been traumatized or is just, you know, "slow").

Meanwhile, fat dude is confronted with a zombie schoolgirl using the metal ball on a chain gimmick, very similar to Go Go Yubari from Kill Bill (this would not be the only one from the entire fest, even thus far, btw). Horrified, fat dude has to do what he has to do. Meanwhile, Saki shows up and holds Reiko's surrogate daughter hostage, them immediately stabs her in the back, which got easily one of the best laughs of the entire screening.

Along the way, we see plenty of flashbacks of when Aya and her sis were kids, with their father training them how to fight, with Aya being the clearly favored daughter, leading to an encounter with Sugita, who offers to take care of things, and then calls the shots for her, like taking down papa. The funny thing here is, one totally begins to sympathize with Saki for her actions, since daddy clearly didn't like her!

The three take the hurt child to a hospital, where the inevitable scene in which Aya suggests killing the girl before she turns, infuriating Reiko, takes place. And with zombies beating down the doors, Aya and her partner run off, leaving Reiko to be by the dying girl's side and become the masses' latest late night snack. With blood lust on their pallets, the remaining two decide to finally do the deed and storm Sugita's castle, where Aya mows down row after row after row of zombie storm troopers...

But there's too many of them! And it seems like Aya's number is up when, surprise! Guess who shows up because she's not dead? Sorry for the spoilers, but really, anyone who was five blocks away from the movie theater, enjoying dinner at that new Italian place down 6th Ave that I've heard rave reviews about, saw it coming a mile away. Anyhow, fast forwarding towards the end, the sister have their long-awaited showdown. It's all, not shockingly, all very video game-y...

Even for a video game flick, none of it is hardly groundbreaking or incredible, but the Beauty Chanbara does have its merit, and a certain degree of charm. The players do their jobs well enough; not to be sexist, but the female leads are designed to appeal to a mostly male audience, which is more than accomplished (even if Aya doesn't show as much as skin as one would hope, there is Reiko, whose outfits presents her breasts, front and center).

The zombie make up is more than serviceable, and the CGI effects aren't offensive, on a low-budget scale that is. The most annoying had to be Aya's tattoo on her arm, which is clearly a piece of plastic, just looking to get peeled off. Otherwise, once again: zombies, swordplay, cute Japanese girls. The choice is yours.

Retro Game Master Episode 1: The Mystery of Atlantis

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As some might already know, Retro Game Master is the translated Game Center CX, a super popular show in Japan in which viewers simply watch an ordinary fellow try and beat old video games in one sitting, no matter how long it takes.

The opening video explains how this person, referred to as "the Kacho" (real name Shinya Arino, a Japanese comic), has managed to thrill viewing audiences and become somewhat of an icon, leading to tons of DVDs, toys, even a dedicated video game being sold, as well as public appearances in which the Kacho tried to best classic games in front of a packed live audience.

Stylejam, the series' representatives abroad hopes to bring the show to America, and since they also distribute films, many of which are playing at the festival, I'm guessing it simply made sense to present two test episodes to gauge audience reactions.

Again, on a purely personal note, when I went to Japan last year, I saw one of the DVD box sets for sale at Super Potato, perhaps the most well known classic gaming store in the heart of electric town, Akihabara, accompanied by a TV set with the show running. I watched a bit as some man who clearly looked fatigued did his best to get through the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros (and despite constantly falling in the same tricky pit, he was quite good.... better than myself at least). I had no idea what I was watching, and lo and behold, here we are!

Anyway, the first of the two episodes presented was the first episode from the second season, or so I was told, centering on an old Sunsoft game for the Famicom called the Mystery of Atlantis, which is apparently legendary for its insane degree of difficulty.

And right off the back, it's less than steady treading for the Kacho, has he immediately has to come to grips with the tricky jumping physics, punishing enemies, and the bizarro warp system. The game has 100 levels in all, and the Kacho bites it pretty early on. But, he immediately gets back on that horse, hits the start button, and tries yet again!

The reason why the show is so beloved becomes almost immediately apparent; the Kacho is just a loveable, everyday kind of guy, who is just as good, and most importantly bad at video games like you. It's not just his choice of games, that being classics from yesterday, but his attitude towards them that makes it all so enjoyable; its not some young kind dealing with the more than peculiar logic of old games without question as we all did, the Kacho is an older dude who wonders why the hell things are the way they are, like we all do when we play something as an adult, with now all this confusion and reasoning.

I know that many have tried to put the act of video gaming on TV here in the states, such as the channel G4, but they've always gotten it wrong, since they assume that people want to witness diehard, expert gamers at play. Sorry, but I'd rather take the humble and goofy, as well as completely relatable Kacho over some snot-nosed cocky teenager calling himself Hadoken316, the same kid I want to slap every time I go inside a game store, or why I don't bother with the arcades anymore.

Back to the Kacho: the aforementioned wonky warp system comes into play early on as he stumbles across stage 9 by accident (and his reaction of total confusion and laughter is quite priceless), which then leads him to stage 8, and then onto stage 10!

Which is where he finds himself stuck for quite some time due to the how the entire stage requires the player to jump from treetop to treetop, with very little footing available, and once again, the less than stellar controls. The Kacho dies and goes back to stage 1, and manages to make it back to stage 10, and again, game over. Over and over.

As the clock ticks, the Kacho gives it another shot, but along the way falls down a hole in one the level, which reveals yet another warp! Eventually he's back at stage 10, but along the way he managed to acquire special boots that allows him to hop on the clouds dotted along the level, making progression much easier!

Yet he still manages to slip and fall, and that's when the assistant is brought in. Known as "Assistant T", he's apparently the dude that the Kacho refers to when he's simply stuck somewhere, and T does a decent enough job of getting Kacho's character back to where he left off... but also dying at the same spot. So after a bit of rest, the controls go back.

But this next time around, the Kacho does much better, and makes a curious discovery; a star item, acquired on stage 10, and a tricky one to get, thus all the dying, grants invisibility! So then it's smooth sailing... till the Kacho stumbles across the stage that is completely black. His character keeps falling down pits that cannot be seen, and yet again, the game is over.

With 100 stages to conquer, and a handful of hours already passed, it would seem completion is all but impossible. At various points between games, the Kacho refers to the instruction manual for some help, and comes across the notes section in the back, in which the previous owner of the game noted that he or she was not able to make it past the 16th stage. Not a good omen indeed.

Yet hope is introduced back into the picture when the assistant comes back from an excursion with a guidebook. And true to fashion for many games of that era, after a quick cursory glance and one immediately begins to wonder, along with the Kacho, how a person is supposed to beat the game without such a thing?

Now is it smooth sailing, at last? Of course not. The guide points towards the shortest route possible utilizing warps, most of which are "suicide warps" in which the player kills himself at a specific spot in a level to jump forward. Again, how one is supposed to know all this is beyond anyone's comprehension.

But at the moment of glory, the Kacho finds himself stuck due to the fact that no invisibility star has been acquired, and the last stage's firepower is just too much to handle. One more time: back to level one! And we sit and watch as the Kacho tried to come up with a different strategy and attempt to further deal with both the wacky ways things are and the innocent mistakes made all along the trip.

Watching the Kacho struggle is like watching a friend of yours right next to you trying to play some game; you can't help but anticipate what moves should be done next, and when things go awry, your frustration is mixture "oh man, that sucks!" and "come on, how could you do that?"

One also shares in the joy of discovery or when a practiced technique finally comes together (such as when the Kacho has to master the art of falling down and also dropping a bomb right before hand to reveal a door, but not blow himself up). Not to reveal yet another spoiler, but after many hours later... around eight I believe... Kacho manages to defeat the game and discover the mystery of Atlantis! And also true to form of so many games of that era, the ending is a total "gee, that was it?" moment!

The show was quite simply a joy to watch. And thankfully, even though I am not exactly familiar with the source material, it seems to have completely retained its voice even after translation. When comparing it to screenshots of the original (like those used in the original... I obviously do not have access to the translated version), it all feels the same, the same use of type all over the place, like they tend to do in Japan.

Everything is subtitled, with zero dubbing; only the host's voice is American, and there's none of that Most Extreme Elimination Challenge needlessly over the top, made up nonsense here. Though there is apparently quite a bit missing; from what I understand, the original episode has the Kacho also going to an arcade and conducting an interview.

It's hard to tell what the future has in store for Retro Game Master, at least here in the US. Style Jam is currently in talks with various domestic distributors about possibly releasing the DVDs, or putting them on our airwaves. And as charming as heck as the show is, and its host, I have to admit that it's going to be a tough sell for mainstream American audiences.

Again, selection is key, that being games we all know and love and remember not so clearly, all of which harkens back to a simpler time... a stark contrast to the overcomplicated fare that's offered on today's systems. Though as we all know, nostalgia is not for everyone... which is why everyone, if they can, should make it out to the Retro Game Master screening, which are free after-all! And then stick around for anything else the NYAFF has to offer, video game-wise or not.

For more information, such as showtimes, as well as to purchase tickets, please check out the NYAFF website. And next week I'll have a recap of the second Retro Game Master episode, as well as my overview of Like A Dragon!

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]

GameSetNetwork: The Wiles Of The Weekend

- Woop, time to finish off the GameSetNetwork links for the week, highlighting some of the best original posts from big sister site Gamasutra, plus educational site GameCareerGuide and various other neatnesses.

Highlights from the second half of the week - a genuinely funny/entertaining chat with the casual folks at PopCap (Peggle Peggle Peggle!), the state of Nintendo DS piracy in Korea, plus some further write-ups from sundry neat Dutch and Dallas-based conferences. So there.

Inky, Blinky, Clyde:

PopCap: The Complexity Of Being Casual
"PopCap's titles like Bejeweled and Peggle make them the top casual brand - here, Gamasutra talks co-founder John Vechey and CEO David Roberts about XBLA, iPhone, and an upcoming "cool collaboration" with a top console developer."

Lecture: What The PC Gaming Alliance Can Do For You
"At the recent Game Education Summit, Dell's gaming CTO Rick Carini, chairperson of the new PC Gaming Alliance, told his audience why players are fed up with buying PC games - and just how the PCGA is planning to help players and developers alike."

Piracy in Korea: R4 Triumphant
"Game piracy may be somewhat stymied in the West, but not so worldwide - in this case study, Seoul-based Nick Rumas examines the cultural and practical issues behind Nintendo DS piracy in Korea."

Robertson: Does The Industry Need More Self-Awareness?
"Odyssey creator Ralph Baer opened the ongoing Dutch Festival of Games, but it was former Edge editor and consultant Margaret Robertson who took a critical look at forty years of games, asking just why the game biz is "an industry that’s amazingly ignorant about itself"."

Panel: Why User-Generated Content Matters For Games
"A panel at the recent Social Gaming Summit, including Daniel James (Puzzle Pirates) and Cary Rosenzweig (IMVU) looked at the idea that that the games industry should understand user generated content before it's too late, with the intriguing proposition that game developers should think virtual "spaces" - not virtual "worlds.""

Focus On: The State Of Gaming In Europe
"GameVision Europe research head Sean Dromgoole delivered a keynote at the NLGD Festival on the European game market, revealing up to a 390% increase in adults playing games between 2005 and 2008, "mainly based on what Nintendo's been doing" - stats galore within."

Student Postmortem: ETC's The Winds of Orbis
"The Winds of Orbis: An Active-Adventure is an physically challenging game for children ages 7 to 12, developed by students at the Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center - here's a detailed postmortem of the Wiimote and dance mat-utilizing title."

NLGD: TriplePoint's Kauppinen Predicts Downloadable Game Glut
"At the ongoing Dutch Festival of Games in Utrecht, Holland, TriplePoint PR firm VP Sean Kauppinen warned developers of an upcoming glut of console downloadable games, as independent developers are increasingly unable find publishing deals for big-budget titles -- particularly where they can own their own IP."

[Want to get RSSed-up with all Think Services' game sites? Quick list goes like this: GameSetWatch's RSS (editor.blog), IndieGames' RSS (indie.games), WorldsInMotion's RSS (online.worlds), GamerBytes' RSS (console.downloads), GamesOnDeck's RSS (mobile.games), Gamasutra's RSS (main.site), and GameCareerGuide's RSS (edu.news).]

COLUMN: Quiz Me Qwik - 'Talking 'Bout Saito's Translation Generation'

trans1.jpg['Quiz Me Quik' is a weekly GameSetWatch column by journalist Alistair Wallis, in which he picks offbeat subjects in the game business and interviews them about their business, their perspective, and their unique view of life. This time, an eclectic Japanese game translator gets quizzed.]

If there's one thing you can take away from the previous week's column, it's that I have absolutely no idea about programming. Forgetting the fact that I also have zero knowledge of other languages aside from what I've learnt from Serge Gainsbourg, the technical implications of translating even a NES game scares the living hell out of me. Translating a PlayStation 2 game? Fergeddaboutit.

But hey, at least there are people out there who have an idea of how to work with computers beyond, you know, writing words on them and making them say “Hello World”. People like TransGen founder and webmaster Saito. He's only been translating games since February of last year, but he's already worked his way through NES dodge-ball title Honoo no Doukyuuji: Dodge Danpei and its sequel on his own, and Kakuge Yaro Fighting Game Creator along with the rest of the team.

And now TransGen is working on Namco X Capcom. And Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories remake Re:Chain of Memories. They're both PS2 games. Oh, and Saito is Spanish, so English isn't even his first language.

Some people really are overachievers, you know?

But how could I not talk to him, and ask about what TransGen does? Oh yeah, and there's also the matter of enquiring exactly how much confusion comes from the fact that the group shares a name with a (seemingly abandoned) transgendered support website. That's gotta be worth a query of two.

GSW: When did you first start translating?

Saito: I started to translate games around February 2007 or so.

GSW: What got you interested in translating?

S: Well, I always liked the SNES fan translations that were released by translation groups like Dejap or AGTP, so after playing some of them I started to wonder how they could release such great translations.

Also, I was a little "irated" because a great number of excellent games were left in Japan without any hope to get them to the occidental world.

GSW: Have you always been interested in import games?

S: Yes, many people tried to persuade me to translate some already localised English games into my own language, but I didn't like the idea. I really wanted to translate Japanese games.

GSW: When was TransGen first formed?

trans1.jpgS: It was officially formed on May 1, 2007. But before that, elnegro492003 and I were planning some projects.

GSW: How many people are generally involved with the projects?

S: If we talk about Honoo no Doukyuuji: Dodge Danpei, I did it alone. But a great number of people are involved in Namco X Capcom: around ten romhackers, programmers and translators, and more than thirty beta testers.

GSW: Was the idea always to work with more recent consoles?

S: Yes, that was the general idea at first, but at some point I decided to hack some old system games, that experience helped me to understand some technical aspects that I didn't understand well before.

GSW: Are you aware that you've used the same name as an online transgendered support group? Ever any confusion there?

S: Nope, actually it is TransGen, a composed word - Translation Generation. But yes, I recall that some time ago a genius romhacker called Gemini joked about the name a bit.

GSW: How hard was it to decide what to work on with TransGen?

S: It could look from the outside that picking a game to start a translation isn't very difficult, but a great amount of work is done before a translation project is even started. First, we have to realize what we can do, how difficult it is to hack the game, and lastly if the game is worth the effort.

GSW: How do you select projects?

S: Sometimes we select them using our personal tastes and criteria, and some other we pick requests that people posted in our board.

trans1.jpgGSW: How many do you normally have going at one time?

S: No more than two at a time. If we had more manpower maybe that number would be increased up to three or four.

GSW: When you select projects, do you typically choose games that you've played before?

S: No, actually I only play them a bit before starting a project.

GSW: Why translate Zill O'll Infinite? It's a fairly obscure game, isn't it?

S: Yes, but it's great. It reminds me of Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song [which is also a PS2 remake of a PlayStation game]. The gameplay differs each time you play, there's a great number of playable characters, the music is charming and the graphics are beautiful.

It's a great - yet relatively unknown - game.

GSW: Are you planning on finishing the project at any point?

S: I don't really know the answer. I just decided to drop that project at the moment, because we lack manpower and skill. Maybe we will resume that project in the future if someone else has not started a translation project by then.

trans1.jpgGSW: On a similar note: why translate Honoo no Doukyuuji: Dodge Danpei and its sequel?

S: Well, I wanted to get as much experience as I could from hacking a NES game. I came across some images of that game, played a bit and I liked it. About the sequel: almost the same. I liked it and realized that I could port some code from the first game to the sequel, so I did it.

GSW: What challenges are thrown out by working with more recent games?

S: Mostly that there are almost no tools or information around for the new systems. So, you have to learn through trial and error by your own.

GSW: How much of a stroke of luck is finding a text extraction tool for Kingdom Hearts: Re:Chain of Memories?

S: Well, actually it's not a stroke of luck to find one. A gentleman by the nickname of Rhys started to code a tool to deal with all the compression. He sent me the extractor some months ago and I started to collect some technical data and feeback for him.

He is, right now, coding an inserter, but I don't know how much time it will take to code a stable tool.

GSW: Is it a good game?

S: Yes, it's a great game. Better than the Game Boy Advance release, in my opinion.

GSW: Are you anticipating a high amount of downloads for that?

S: Yes, the beta patch was very famous when it was released. Three translation teams contacted me because they wanted to translate the beta patch to other languages: Italian, Portuguese and Spanish.

GSW: How many downloads do your projects normally reach?

S: I don't have an answer for this question, because the file is hosted in several websites, I just can say that we did run out of bandwidth once, and we were force to move on to another server.

GSW: What's Namco X Capcom like? I heard it's got its share of flaws.

trans1.jpgS: Well, the game's just like a Super Robot Wars title, with the exception that the battle phase is in a pseudo action mode using the pad and buttons.

It can be sometimes boring, due to the amount of text and the lack of a challenge. In other hand, the game has an amazing soundtrack, charismatic characters and an entertaining story.

GSW: Do you think you'll be hosting more projects done by others in the future, like you have with aishsha's translation of Columbus: Golden Dawn?

S: Sure, it's not a bother for us to host the work of other authors.

GSW: Any other future plans you can let slip?

S: Well, what we want at the moment is to finish a stable patch for Namco X Capcom. After that, we can rest a little and resurrect some secret projects, like our Rent-A-Hero translation for the Genesis, or the Monster Hunter 2 translation for the PS2.



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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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