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July 5, 2008

GameSetLinks: Weapons For Benny

Ah yes, GameSetLinks returns for the weekend, headed up by some fun and games about Too Human, ahead of its release - seems like issuing a challenge was a bit red rag/bull-ish for Internet crazies.

Also in here and markedly more sensible - weapons being sent to game journalists, game writing surveyed, a Korean steampunk MMO poked at, a Namco micro-game collection to drool in the direction of, and more.

Yakety sax:

YouTube - too human vs. benny hill
Denis Dyack pre-emptively going on GAF has driven the fanboys to distraction, hence this - also see silly GIF mashups.

Infinite Lives » Fact: PR frequently mails weapons to games journalists
Weapons sent to journalists - THE LOWDOWN.

PressSpotting: What reviewers can say and when - GameSpot News Blog - Gaming News and Videos
Excellent media column, still a little lost on GameSpot, but glad it exists.

Kotaku: 'Marker Man Adventures: Majesco's Marker Man Adventures Sounds Crayon Physics-ish'
IGF influences, if not overt licensing - clones are easier, mm?

b3ta.com Photoshop-manglers on Wii Fit, post-chip shop
Not mature, still somewhat funny.

Barnett On: Why I Don’t Go To GDC | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
Actually, there's a lot more 'Vision'-style stuff in GDC than there used to be - and this is interesting, hence linkable.

Gametrailers.com - Bokura no TV Game Kentei - Japanese TV Spot
Hey, nice, a Namco oldskool version of Wario Ware for DS, more or less - via Frank

1UP: 'Has Game Writing Finally Come of Age?'
Ahem, 1UP fast becoming best feature site of major consumer game sites.

AVING USA on Steampunk MMORPG Neo-Steam
Ooooo, steampunk MMO - if very Korean, and with adorably mangled English interview from AVING.

Monster Hunter Toys Take Over Akihabara | Game | Life from Wired.com
Nice round-up of geeky game stuff in Tokyo, innit?

Column: Welcome to the GameSetWatch Comic - 'The State of Things'

['Welcome to the GameSetWatch Comic' is, once again, a weekly comic by (or posted on behalf of!) Jonathan "Persona" Kim about the continuing adventures of our society, cultural postdialectic theory, and video games.

A little note from Persona this week: "I had a friend do a comic for me this week while I was at Anime Expo selling my comic stuffs. It's about the soon to be released Sonic Unleashed and the sorry state of Sonic. If you want to write up a little info about my friend for the entry, his name is Radrappy and he posts on the Visublog (http://visublog.mechafetus.com) along with the rest of my buddies. His hobbies include crying over what the next Sonic game will be like, while simultaneously having hope and great despair in his heart for the state of Sonic Team." Fair enough!

He actually has head cancer

[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.]

Opinion: The Hardcore Niche

[In an impassioned editorial from the June-July 2008 issue of GSW sister publication Game Developer magazine, EIC Brandon Sheffield tackles the realities of the changing video game industry, as online social worlds such as Club Penguin and Habbo Hotel start to surpass traditional gaming in reach.]

The video game market is changing incredibly quickly right now, probably at the fastest rate since the big crash of the mid-1980s.

Not only is the market expanding to include women and casual gamers once again, the definition of what constitutes a game is expanding. I wouldn't say it’s expanding within the minds of game developers, but it is expanding in the context of the mass media and mass consumers, and that’s who drives the market in the first place.

As sick to death as we all are of talking about microtransactions, free-to-play MMOs, and casual online spaces, the advent of these things is changing the game landscape for good, whether we like it or not.

Interactive Media - At Face Value

The lines between an online community portal and an MMO are blurred to the point of being indistinguishable. Consider the numbers — Audition Online has tens of millions of users worldwide, and a dedicated TV show in Vietnam. Kart Rider has tens of millions of users. Ditto Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin.

Traditional games - like most people reading this are developing today - may never be able to reach that large of an audience. Our games are too focused, too hardcore, and bear too much of the stereotype of “gamer.”

Right now, Halo 3, Grand Theft Auto IV, and World of Warcraft are considered our blockbuster titles, and flagships for the industry in popular culture. But when you think about it, it’s still just shooting aliens, playing gang banger, and swinging your sword in the forest.

Boiled down to their essentials those things appeal to a very limited group of people, and the complexity of game controls prevents even blockbuster movie attendees, whom we should be attracting, from playing these things.

At least, that’s the common line. But is that really the case? Do aliens, wizards, and soldiers really make a piece of entertainment inaccessible? Many millions of people went to see the Iron Man movie over the past two months, and a large percentage of them have probably never picked up a comic book in their lives.

Why is it that people will go see The Lord of the Rings' movies, but many of them will not play the games?

The Real Mass Market

It’s common knowledge that game controllers are intimidating, that consoles have a certain stigma to them, and that most mass market consumers consider games to be either a waste of time, or actively detrimental.

These can all be debated until the end of time, but the perception exists, and either that has to change (Nintendo is doing good work there), or we have to change. Otherwise we’ll end up with a comparatively small fraction of a growing market.

Will it be possible to make a game like Assassin’s Creed or BioShock in 2015? It’s already becoming difficult to justify large budgets for single-player experiences, and it stands to reason that it will get more difficult as time goes on. What does that mean for developers of these games? What happens to the concept of a game auteur?

One possibility is for these hardcore games to essentially become the art-house cinema of the video game world, which would be odd, as that’s a role currently filled by indie titles.

Interestingly, never has the film/game analogy worked less well than it does currently. In the PS2 era, you could correlate Grand Theft Auto III with a movie blockbuster, and Ico with an art-house film.

But now, in terms of scope, money, and global social impact, Kart Rider or Club Penguin would be that blockbuster, and Call of Duty 4 would be the art-house equivalent, though content- and budget-wise Call of Duty 4 is much more your traditional blockbuster material. Something seems awry there.

The fact is, these simple-to-play social experiences are here. They’re growing in popularity, they’re dwarfing our multi-million dollar projects that sell through to 5 million people at max, and they cost a fraction of the price to make.

With the market expanding as it is, and the dollars going where they’re going, the $20 million budget bestselling console title of today is going to be the hardcore niche title of tomorrow, art-house or not. Unless development costs get significantly lower, it seems we have an online future to look forward to.

New Things Are Stupid

To wit: online games are taking over, and I, curmudgeon that I am, don’t really like it.

Certainly there will always be the hardcore players that will want that deeper experience. There’s no doubt about that. But the question is: in an industry where we’re getting our asses kicked financially by web developers, of all people, who will pay us to make it?

July 4, 2008

Best Of Indie Games: Those Independent Brain Benders

[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 goodies in this latest version include three cool browser games, a freeware adventure game and an action game with distinctively unique puzzles - and all games mentioned in this edition are guaranteed to give your brain cells a thorough workout.

Game Pick: Nanobots (Erin Robinson, freeware)
"A very neat looking freeware graphic adventure, from a female developer and contributor to Dave Gilbert's Blackwell series. The game was also scripted by Resonance developer Vince Wesselmann."

Game Pick: 'Boat House' (GUMP, browser)
"A new escape the room game by the developer of Rental House and Guest House. The story pretty much starts off from where your last adventure ended, and once again you'll be presented with a number of cryptic puzzles in a traditionally fiendish adventure game style."

Game Pick: 'Bingo Area' (Yoshio Ishii, browser)
"A small web game by the developer of Cursor 10 and the Hoshi Saga series, in which players will be required to select one or more cities from the map of Japan to match the level quota. Sounds complicated, but it only takes a couple of clicks to figure out the pattern."

Game Pick: 'Bowja the Ninja 2' (Robin Vencel, browser)
"Bowja the Ninja 2 (in Bigman's Compound) is the sequel to the similarly titled puzzle game from Pencilkids. Your mission objective is basically to infiltrate the enemy's hideout, disable their satellite system and find a way to escape, armed with only a bow and a quiver of arrows."

Game Pick: Virtual Silence (Virtanen, freeware)
"An action game where the player takes control of a young boy named Jason, who has to sit through a series of experimental tests in a virtual world, under the watchful eyes of his caring mother and an unnamed doctor."

COLUMN: Chewing Pixels: 'The Gamer’s Confession'

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This latest instalment gets right to the heart of ecumenical matters.]

Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been longer than I can remember since my last confession. These are my sins:

I killed a man. No, too modest. On every continent and in all countries, across centuries, worlds and dimensions, in times of war and times of peace, my trail of dead is one frag short of endless.

I masterminded the genocide of countless Civilizations and annihilated every city on Earth each time I booted up Defcon.

I’ve committed patricide in Lego Star Wars, matricide in Final Fantasy VII, sororicide in Bioshock (little sister had it coming) and pesticide in Viva Piñata.

I colonised America in Anno 1701 and killed all of the Indians (but hey, if it works in my favour, I did help put an end to World War II around 73 million times).

I blew up a sheep in Worms. Come to think of it, I blew up a worm in Worms. I wiped out all of the ants in EDF2017, all of the bats in Symphony of the Night, all of the mice in Chu Chu Rocket and all of the light in The Darkness.

My Nintendog ran away.

I vandalised Shinjuku in Jet Set Radio, jaywalked in Frogger, tore down the Empire State Building in Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and, last week, I rolled up London in a Katamari. I’ve let Sim Cities run to ruin and left the weeds to choke town Animal Crossing. I couldn’t be bothered to tidy up Tetris.

I’m a Thief. I've stolen gil from every NPC house I ever walked into, plundered every treasure chest I stumbled across, took coins from the bodies of every foe I ever felled, but still I never gave to Assassin’s Creed’s poor. I stole from Oblivion’s beggars.

I coveted my neighbour’s World of Warcraft account, then bid on ebay for it.

- I made Lara crawl when she needn’t. I solicited sailors in Shenmue, ran off with my neighbour’s wife in Fable and kissed an underage boy in Bully. I rode a horse in G1 Jockey.

I punched all of the girls in Tekken, kicked them in the tits in Virtua Fighter and felt them up in Leisure Suit Larry. I never touched Princess Peach, honest, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't heroism on a promise. Um, that probably goes for Zelda too (although, somehow less so).

I’m a Spornographer.

I've driven DUI in Liberty City, scratched the paintwork off a Ferrari F355. I fired a purple shell; I bought Driv3r.

Rock Band: guilty rhythm; Dance Dance Revolution: two left feet; my crimes against the fashion police are numbered exactly as the games in Square-Enix’s portfolio.

It’s been 185 days since I turned on WiiFit. As Solid Snake I smoke 60-a-day. I worked briefly as a surgeon: they dubbed my practice, ‘Trauma Center’.

I didn’t cry when Aerith died; I walked the Lemmings off the cliff.

I’m sorry: I dropped Yorda ☹

I tried ever so hard to love my neighbours as myself in The Sims. Then there was this party and they said they were leaving but their path-finding routines meant they couldn’t and they all ended up dead on my living room carpet. I’m not sure what happened there. It was weird. Sorry.

I've sinned virtual sins too numerous, elaborate and convoluted to imagine; my Xbox achievement points are less a measure of accomplishment than a public litany of wrongdoing. I'd be going to hell if I hadn't just got back from a killing spree there. Three times over. (Doom, Diablo and Disgaea).

So forgive me Father. I am truly sorry for these sins and all the sins I can’t remember (that’s my bad: I’ve been skipping Brain Training).

GameSetLinks: Plush Donkey Stalks Valve

Ah yesh, a delicious three-day weekend for those of us in the United States.

But of course, GSW will be with you throughout, thanks to the power of queuing well in advance and then letting auto-posting do its job.

Wandering around the GameSetLinks mix this time - stalking Valve at closing Starbucks, a Gridrunner+++ XBLA video I didn't notice previously, Wall-E in Arabic, Jon Mak's TOJam game, more iPod games of some interest, and lots more.

Doh reh mi:

YouTube - Plush Donkey plays Grid Runner+++
Totally missed this from Feb, a typically weird Minter-esque preview of his next XBLA title - via Rlan.

Kotaku Stalku: The Shocking Coffee-Drinking Habits Of Valve EXPOSED
We need more journalism like this!

MangaGamer.com - localized Japanese hentai games.
A new source of digital download, localized Japanese PC gaming (NSFW when you enter site) smut, I see.

Marketwire: GamesRadar Releases a Free Videogame Data API
'GamesRadar, Future US, Inc.'s online gaming information site, has released a free and publicly available games data API' - very interesting idea, not sure on monetization, but nonetheless...

Rolando by Handcircus - coming soon for iPhone and iPod touch
Just sliiightly LocoRoco, art-style wise, but different gameplay control techniques, so hey.

Games 2008 | Toronto Game Jam | TOJam
Mustn't forget to post this - another great local game jam, and a crapload of neat games, including a Jon Mak doodle, even.

PWN or DIE - Gaming Videos, Cheats, and Reviews
New game site from FunnyOrDie folks (Will Ferrell and friends). Hmmm.

GSW Column - No More « Save the Robot - Chris Dahlen
Sorry to see Chris go - I think he was hitting the sweet spot, but subtlety doesn't always lead to comments, I guess.

Wall-E Is the First Arabic Language Next-Gen Game | GameCulture
Interesting catch.

Choose Your Own Adventure from 1UP.com
'The past, present, and future of interactive fiction' - obvious to complete GSW geeks, but still v.neat!

July 3, 2008

Japanese Game Schools: Two Points Of View?

Earlier this week, sister GSW site GameCareerGuide.com posted a second story about life at a Japanese game school, as written by Andrea Rubenstein, who "...had two recent goals in life: to become a fluent Japanese speaker and to find a game development school that would accept her somewhere in Japan."

The first GCG story on the subject tackled her successful attempts to get into HAL, and this new one discusses day to day life at the Osaka-based game academy.

In any case, the piece itself is pretty darn interesting in terms of educating about what goes on at one of these Japanese game schools - it seems pretty different to many North American game courses, at least. But even more interesting is a comment on the Gamasutra story precis from an anonymous game industry professional.

Sure, it's cutting stuff, especially given the advantage of anonymity, but it seems to have some relevant information in it, and it's nice to see behind the scenes intel from Japanese publishers - here's the full post:

"Japanese game schools are notorious for turning out useless otakus who wouldn't "cut it" in conventional colleges or trade schools. There have been numerous exposés on game schools in the 90's that lambaste these game schools as nothing more than profit centers for their proprietors.

Hopefully, the situation has changed since then, but I seriously doubt it.

When I worked at a major Japanese publisher (ironically, at one of the companies responsible for producing a game mentioned by Rubenstein in part I of her article), we basically found ourselves almost automatically rejecting game school graduates because we found that the skills taught in those schools were wholly inadequate for our needs. We prioritized our recruiting process on candidates with degrees from traditional colleges and electronics/computer trade schools.

Unlike Western game companies that tend to hire only experienced developers, our company's internal process was to invest in the time necessary to educate our new recruits in our work flow and development culture through what essentially is an apprenticeship system. In addition to seasoned vets, we basically hired people with zero game development experience. The last thing we needed was a newly minted game school graduate who was taught based on a specific curriculum that didn't fit our needs.

Our new recruits would require at least 2 years before they became full-fledged members in a production team. During that "probationary period" of sorts, our experienced production staff (company "lifers" with ~5+ years of experience) would teach, mentor, and monitor the new employees to determine their natural skill sets and eventually placed the employee based on their ability to perform at the best of their abilities.

For example, if we discovered that someone with a computer science degree was brilliant at game design, we would encourage the individual to become a game designer. If that designer eventually demonstrated strong leadership skills, we would eventually promote that employee to become either a director or producer. There was a colleague of mine who went through that exact career path.

As another example, I also worked with a music director with a degree in music who also wound up programming part-time in our internal middleware team since he enjoyed programming.

In short, our approach to game development was based on the principle that making games is an art, and not necessarily a vocation. We fostered diversity in our ranks through a recruiting system that placed a higher priority on the natural aptitudes of a prospective recruit instead of someone with a cookie-cutter game school educational background.

I'm morbidly interested in future installments from Rubenstein, especially articles discussing her attempts at finding employment at a major publisher/developer, especially in Osaka."

Interview: ARG Designer Skarped On Games Learning From Theatre

[One of the spoils of Evan Van Zelfden's wander around Europe game festivals on our behalf, this chat is about The Truth About Marika, a neat and weird Swedish TV show ARG - there's some good English-language explanation on the site of the creators, for those whow ant some context.]

At the Dutch Festival of Games in Utrecht, The Netherlands, alternate reality game designer Adriana Skarped gave a lecture discussing her work on the International Emmy Award-winning alternate reality game The Truth About Marika, which was commissioned by Swedish television, and produced by The company P.

Skarped talked about not only being the game master, but truly becoming a living character in the game. As the starring actress, there was even a moment when players were supposed to rescue Skarped from a van where she was actually bound and gagged.

The designer spoke on the nature of ARGs, their ethos of questioning society, and changes in perspective, saying, “If you want to, you can look at this game as a spell.”

Afterwards, Gamasutra sat down with Skarped for an exclusive chat in which she talked about living the game, business models for the ARG, why the genre is shunned by the game industry, and why games are like theater.

Tell me about winning an Emmy.

Adriana Skarped: I think that part felt more like fiction than the fiction that we made.

Do they normally give games an Emmy? Which category was this?

AS: This was the category of interactive television series. Basically we compete against Dr. Who and the other BBC productions, I think.

What are you going to do next?

AS: Well, if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you. [laughs] Actually, I have been talking today with the Dutch television companies. I’m meeting with both the commercial television channel and the public service television channel within the next week.

So you’re interested in similar work involving television and interactivity.

AS: It would actually be very interesting. Somebody asked me if I’d be willing to do a sequel. Usually I’m pretty much against sequels when it comes to movies and stuff like that -- both you and I probably know are never as good as the original -- but I think that people should actually be aware that this is the third game in a series of games we’ve made.

So “The Truth About Marika” is not a sequel, but the third chapter, and I don’t think there will be anything wrong with that. We had built on previous experiences, with every game that we have made, and doing this other game would not be the same. It would be something that would evolve from the experience that we all have.

It’s one thing to be an actress. It’s another to be a game designer, or a game master. What’s it like combining the two, and becoming an actual character in your own game?

AS: [laughs] It is truly bizarre, I would say. It’s not like anything else that I’ve tried. I don’t know even if there is anyone else who tried it, except for me.

Sometimes game developers will record their own in-game voices.

AS: This is a bit more than voice work because basically, I had to I had to respond to everything the players were doing, both as an actor – or interactor – but also as a game master. So you have to be really alert all the time, really on your toes.

What about the connection between theater and games? A lot of developers talk about movies and games, because they watch a lot of movies, but do you think there might be more relation to theater?

AS: Yeah, absolutely. I think that is an underdeveloped area to explore. I think it’s amazingly interesting. What gaming has in common with theater is not the relationship between the audience and actors on stage, but rather the relationship between the actors.

It is evolving, it is engaging, and the action actually takes place between the players themselves, rather than between the audience and the players. So I think that games, and especially ARGs, can learn a lot from theater.

Have you worked on games that weren’t ARGs before? Would you be interested, or is there something about the meta-game that’s too appealing?

AS: I like the meta game, I love the meta game, but basically, I got into this by being a story writer. I think the whole idea of telling a story to make characters come to life, that is one of the things I’m passionate about. I also love to play games, and I have a pretty good grip on what that’s about.

What do you like to play?

AS: Basically, I’m an RPG person. I like stuff that involves me, that takes me out of myself.

What’s the next big thing?

AS: During this conference, I really realized that in the gaming industry right now, everyone’s looking for the new thing, and I really believe that people should keep their eyes peeled on the ARG scene, because there is a lot of interesting stuff happening.

I think it’s sort of a genre that’s developing on its own, very much the way the gaming industry is a genre in itself, something that is still very new. But we need to be alert, we need to keep our eyes peeled.

In her keynote, Margaret Robertson said that the game industry seems to look down on ARGs, neither liking nor understanding them.

AS: Well, the movie industry used to do that with gamers. Everything that is new is going to be frowned upon.

Do you think the ARG could replace traditional games as we know them?

AS: I don’t think they will replace them, because, as you see, the gaming industry hasn’t replaced movies. I think they will exist in parallel. They can definitely learn from each other.

Do you see the ARG as separate?

AS: Slightly, yeah. Whenever I talk to people who are just into console gaming, or computer gaming, I realize that, yes, there is a difference. To me, there is not a big difference, but to most people, there still is.

How much would traditional game design ideas apply to an ARG?

AS: Well, this is all about tracking human patterns, tracking what people do, and then being able to use that information into making them do what you want them to do. Hopefully that is going to be what they want to do also.

What about the business of ARGs? It doesn’t seem to get much discussion and traditionally ARGs are tied to something else. Do you think of the future of the business at all?

AS: Yeah, I do, and I have to say, it kind of scares me, because I realize we are not selling product. We cannot sell the ARG. What we can sell is basically the ability to warp people’s minds. I think that is very scary, because that can be used for purposes that I personally cannot stand for.

I wouldn’t, for example, do a commercial game for Coca-Cola. That’s not really me. But I also think this mind-warping thing can be used for creating social change in a way that is extremely interesting. This project, The Truth About Marika, we really had high ideals when we did that. We wanted it to be outside-the-box thinking.

Have you found that most ARGs have a feeling of ‘question everything’?

AS: Yeah, I think so. I think that is also the basic aesthetic of them all, and I think that is also why the ARG is so interesting. With every ARG you make, you have to push the limits.

ARGs are about getting the feeling that the boundaries of life as you know it suddenly disappeared, that anything can happen. If you’re going to keep that feeling, you cannot repeat yourself. You absolutely cannot. You have to always sort of find the new ways, the imaginative ways to do that.

If the business were to develop, it could be subscription.

AS: Yeah, actually, that is not an all that bad of an idea. I talked to Margaret earlier, and she said that a very difficult thing with ARGs is that you never hear of most of the good ones until they’re over, because people don’t get that this is going on.

We have that problem, too. We still had a lot of participants, but not as many as we could have. And afterwards, a lot of people came up to us, and they were like, "My God, I can’t believe I missed this."

It’s like a play, you can do an encore performance. You can let new people who didn’t see it the opening night see it through.

AS: Actually, that's not all that bad of an idea.

Opinion: Why Blizzard Hearts Last Century's PC Gaming

[As you fine GSW readers may recall, Chris Remo - late of Shacknews and various other sites - works here as Gamasutra's Editor At Large right now. He has kindly contributed an opinion piece on the launch of Diablo III - which he stayed up til 7am to gawk at, the crazy man - and the nuances of the folks developing it.]

I was pointedly concise with my reaction, but it should be clear enough that I am fairly excited about the just-announced Diablo III. With the possible exception of Tetris, Diablo II almost certainly tops my personal lifetime list of most gameplay hours dedicated to a single game. For some five years or so, my friends and I played it off and on - several of those years considerably more “on.” I just reinstalled it the other day, and have reached Act IV.

Along with the inevitable internet furor that has arisen in the wake of the announcement (and in the days leading up to it, as the storm cryptically but powerfully approached), there has come an explosion of gamer-generated research to try and sate the hunger for rapidly-depleting new information about the game. Much of this deals with singling out the personalities behind the game–and though none of this is secret information by any means, I have not seen it centralized or given full context. So here you are.

First off, Leonard Boyarsky–one of the three co-leads on the original Fallout–now serves as lead world designer on Diablo III. Boyarsky also contributed to Fallout II before leaving with the other members of the original Fallout big three (Tim Cain and Jason Anderson) to create Troika Games. He’s been at Blizzard for nearly three years now, and in an upcoming Gamasutra interview (which just debuted) he notes the game has been in the works since 2004.

Then, we’ve got Dustin Browder, a former Westwood Studios employee who lead the Red Alert 2 and Command & Conquer: Generals projects, before sticking around at Westwood purchaser Electronic Arts for a bit, then leaving for Blizzard, where he now heads up StarCraft II. While RA2 and C&C2 have both their admirers and detractors, there is something satisfying about that kind of evolution–as 90s PC gamers will recall, the original Command & Conquer and WarCraft series were head-to-head competitors.

In an intriguing cross-genre pollination, Diablo III lead designer Jay Wilson, who spoke on a panel after the game announcement, hails from Relic Entertainment, purveyor of fine real-time strategy, where he was a designer on Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War and a senior designer on Company of Heroes. Relic sprung up in the late 90s, a few years after the genesis of Blizzard and Westwood’s rivalry, but it made an immediate impact with its debut effort Homeworld in 1999.

Most had reasonably assumed Wilson to be on StarCraft II, given his background, but not so. On a personal note, Wilson’s Diablo III talk impressed the hell out of me as a Diablo II devotee–despite his development history, it is clear he knows this series inside and out, and has keen insight into how to improve it.

That Warhammer 40,000 connection leads me to the last, and possibly strangest, employee highlight. It has long been observed that Blizzard either steals from or pays homage to, depending on your point of view, Games Workshop’s Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 tabletop strategy gaming universes for the WarCraft and StarCraft worlds respectively. Sure, they’re all drawing from Tolkien in the first place, but the GW/Blizzard parallels are many and notable.

That highly unofficial relationship is potentially lent even more credence by the presence of former Games Workshop designer Andy Chambers, a name that anyone who, like me, was heavily into the Warhammer and 40K scenes in the 90s, may well recognize. Chambers worked for GW from about 1990 to 2004, and his name could often be seen in rulebook bylines and GW’s monthly magazine White Dwarf, of which I have stacks of hundreds packed away.

As it turns out, since 2005, Chambers has been working for Blizzard, and now serves as nothing less than the company’s creative director–if you’re going to steal and/or pay homage to material, might as well go the whole hog, right?–where he works on StarCraft II and presumably contributes to the rest of the company’s portfolio.

Essentially, it feels as though Blizzard is assembling a design team intended to cater directly to my PC gamer nostalgia–and doing it with PC (and Mac) exclusive titles, at that. But, almost impossibly, the company has also dipped its long arms into an entirely separate nostalgia pool that occupies space in my mind, that of tabletop wargaming. While that second nostalgia is light-years away from being universal, I am often surprised to learn just how many longtime PC gamers share it.

I’ve been looking forward to StarCraft II since it was announced, and my frothing demand for Diablo III has been increasing even before it was publicly confirmed, but it’s nice to know my overinflated hype is grounded in some fairly concrete staffing.

GameSetNetwork: The Midweek Countdown, Guv'nor

Ah yes, time to round up some of the best original posts thus far this week on sister sites including Gamasutra, WorldsInMotion and GameCareerGuide - headed by a neat interview with Ron Gilbert on the state of the biz and the inevitable impending episodic fame of, uhh, DeathSpank.

Also in here - a couple of intriguing Blizzard interviews from the Worldwide Invitational in Paris, a good couple of developer articles on in-house training and avoiding confusion with in-game obstacles, plus an online world profile, and the latest Design Challenge at GCG.

Go go gadget thingie:

Spanking Death: Ron Gilbert Goes Episodic... And Loves It
"Ron Gilbert is best known as the co-creator of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, and he's returning to games with the episodic DeathSpank - and, as Gamasutra finds out, strong opinions on how the game biz needs to evolve."

In-Depth: Sams Talks The State Of Blizzard
"During Blizzard's Paris tournament event, Gamasutra sat down with company COO Paul Sams to talk Diablo III and World Of Warcraft, including Blizzard's attitude towards game revenue models (they're the last thing the company decides), taking on console development (it's not a priority), and developing new IP (it'll probably happen eventually)."

Implementing Training: The Secret Of Winning The Development War
"How can game developers best organize formal ongoing staff training? Blitz Games (Sneak King) art director Nash discusses how the UK developer went about it in this in-depth Gamasutra feature."

In-Depth: Blizzard’s Boyarsky On Diablo III's Multiplayer Storytelling
"After co-creating the iconic Fallout and co-founding Troika Games, Leonard Boyarsky is now at Blizzard and a key force on Diablo III. He sat down with Gamasutra to discuss Blizzard's multiplayer focus, and its goal of recreating the social experience of playing a pen-and-paper RPG with friends."

Defining Boundaries: Creating Credible Obstacles In Games
"'Why can't I jump over that wall?' In this intriguing design article, Sidhe's Griffiths (Gripshift) spans Halo to Half-Life to examine usability-related issues - and solutions - for frustratingly invisible and unbreakable barriers in games."

Worlds In Motion Atlas: Fresbo World
"Here's an overview of Fresbo World, from Fresbo. An online world currently in public beta, Fresbo World is intended to be embedded in social networks (such as Facebook and MySpace) but also intends to offer full MMO functionality within that -- with a customizable avatar, home, and public areas to shop and socialize in real time."

GCG Game Design Challenge: The ESP Game
"In GameCareerGuide.com’s latest Game Design Challenge, special guest Mick West, co-founder of Neversoft Entertainment, submits a new challenge to design a simple game that might make a player believe she or he has psychic powers."

July 2, 2008

Opinion: The Problem Of The Cutscene

[Martin Herink is a University of Oxford graduate student, and a freelance gameplay designer for Cotopia Wireless. In this editorial, he delves into the role of video game cutscenes - not from a standpoint of structural appropriateness, as is often discussed, but from a narrative and cinematic point of view.]

The often discussed "problem" of the cutscene, at least in so far as it relates to the ongoing debate about interruption of interactivity and narrative exposition, rather than being a problem of structural functionality, appears instead to be a question on the propriety of decisions made by designers regarding issues of perspective relatively easily resolved in the framework of editing, rhythm, and aesthetic expression.

This rather cryptic statement means merely to suggest that instead of deciding what is appropriate to video games strictly in the terms of interactivity vs. narrative, designers and artists should instead review their understanding of the film form in the terms of editorial rhythm, aesthetic expression and, above all, cinematic tact.

The Question of the Cutscene

If the use of the cutscene means an injection of purely contemplative material into a fundamentally kinetic experience, and if the game is meant to be an interactive experience, should we avoid the risk of offending the player's expectations with non-interactive content by abandoning the cutscene completely, as some suggest?

The games industry has not yet abandoned the cutscene. Instead, it has largely focused on the transformation of the cutscene into a kind of narrative experience which arises from a perspective external to the player (through NPCs, sound clips, in-game sequences, etc.) This is for a number of very good reasons.

The cutscene has always been, and will continue to be, a useful aesthetic tool for the expression of the story and of the narrative. The problem of the cutscene as such is not its existence inside the interactive space of the game. Players, in fact, appear to enjoy the additional layers of immersion which it can provide. The problem with its use ought rather to be viewed as the inappropriate sequencing of what is a fundamentally contemplative medium within the context of an inherently kinetic one.

These are two very different actions, and while both have an inherent value on their own, the method of their integration requires both an understanding of rhythm, pacing and aesthetic tact. This is in fact the concept of editing transposed on to the interactive medium of the video game.

Rhythm and Pacing

Even in its most classical state, the cutscene can still be effectively integrated without causing the kind of perspective disjunction that forms the basis of criticism against it. On the most basic level, the designer need only be careful that the cutscene does not inappropriately intersect with sections of kinetic action.

To elaborate this idea on a very basic level, if the designer creates specific gameplay goals which the player must achieve in order to realize narrative progression, it makes very little sense to abruptly interrupt the expected flow of kinesthetic events with non-interactive content.

To interrupt a conversation, as many of us have been taught, is rather a rude way of joining it. This in a sense is also what might be meant when we talk about episodic developments in gameplay: an episode of gameplay may be followed by the contemplative engagement of a cutscene.

Max Payne 2 is a superb example of the way that episode-based editing can lead to a positive integration of the cutscene. What MP2 did was attach a narrative framework with multiple character perspectives to mission-driven gameplay. Each mission was limited in length and offered in a variety of settings (from hospitals to construction sites). In order for the narrative sequences to be triggered, gameplay goals had to be met.

Even more importantly, not only was the goal progression rewarded with cutscenes, but the cutscenes would also set up the transition into different settings and places. The player could skip the cutscenes but watching them (at least the first time around) really made the game experience something that you could care about.

Like a noir puzzle film, each viewing offered new layers of understanding not only Max Payne as a character but also the complex world of which he was a part. To this day Max Payne 2 is one of the few games I've not only completed repeatedly but in which I've actually watched the cutscenes repeatedly as well.

Indeed, the pattern by which such episodic involvement occurs might not simply follow the familiar structure of gameplay, cutscene, gameplay, cutscene, but the switch between the two can also be done in different arrangements as long as it is executed in such a way as not to interrupt the player's involvement in either.

This is especially the case when the level of interruption is restricted to the game's internal world. This is what I mean when I speak of maintaining appropriate rhythm and pacing.

Aesthetic Tact

What I mean by aesthetic tact can largely be divided along two lines of criticism. First, our respect for the player, second, our respect for the way the player is asked to engage with the game (either by affecting it or by contemplating it)

Returning to the example of Max Payne 2, what the game did not do was interrupt actual sessions of game play with cutscenes prior to goal completion. Even when the designer decided to throw in a narrative twist by making the meeting of certain goals actually work against the player, the player never felt that his effort was being undermined, because it was merely refocused in terms of the game's narrative sequence not in terms of game play itself.

By separating the two activities, appreciation and involvement, the designer created an experience that not only had an appropriate rhythm but also respected the player's role in moving the game and indeed its story forward.

On the other hand, Shenmue - a game which many (including myself) admire for its innovative approach to cinematography is at the same time one of my favorite examples of instances where the contemplative and aesthetically rewarding experience of the cutscene had been rudely interrupted (often without any warning) by a scripted time-action event.

In the long run, innovative as it might have been, the uncertainty of when such imposition might occur next had always left me feeling uncomfortable with fully enjoying the drama of the visual sequence.

I call it a "visual sequence" rather than a cutscene, because once I had been prevented from relying on these sequences to be cinematic and completely contemplative, they were no longer anything more than visual sequences that may at some point in time become interactive. This is not the kind of pacing conducive to respecting the player's relationship with different kind of sequences in the game.

As has been pointed out to me, this style of aesthetic integration has remained relatively popular having been adopted in the very successful God of War series and a number of other games that have followed in its steps since. An obvious counter to my summary of the trigger event therefore might be that it is just this - a personal preference.

My discomfort comes from the fact that I felt tricked into believing that what I was experiencing was a cutscene (and my expectations of a cutscene are of aesthetic engagement) while in reality I was partaking in another style of (albeit less directly responsive) gameplay, which allowed me neither to fully interact with the environment of which the character was a part, nor to simply appreciate the drama on the screen.

The lesson in terms of rhythm and cinematic tact (at least in so far as I would suggest it to be) is therefore this: just as with an unexpected interruption of gameplay by the cutscene prior to the completion of a goal understood either implicitly or explicitly, it is no more appropriate to interrupt the contemplative nature of the cutscene with gameplay, without either allowing the player sufficient time to switch modes or at the very least reaching some sort of closure on why it is happening.

The final point of contention in regards to the cutscene is the change in aesthetic definition that a player experiences when a cutscene has been fully pre-rendered (and is not therefore a part of the in-game sequence). In the case of pre-rendered scenes we must also take into account the perspective (point of view) through which the player occupies the game.

In addition to utilizing appropriate pacing and tact as already discussed, games that want to exploit the way that pre-rendered cutscene surpass the game engine's ability to render sufficiently impressive visuals internally must also take into account the proximity between the player's point of view and that of the game's.

Third-Person Games

I would first like to note that the pre-rendered cutscene has been (and indeed continues to be) used very effectively in the third person perspective - perhaps more so than any other genre of play where the interface is directly responsive.

Look for example at the increasingly elaborate cutscenes in games by Blizzard, and the now inactive Westwood Studios. Without involving the question of the financial cost of such sequences, if we, nonetheless take these examples as our guiding point, we'll quickly notice that one way of addressing the issue of differences between visual definition is to distance the narrative content of the pre-rendered cutscene from the game play sessions themselves by making sure that the cutscene isn't simply mirroring the game play sequence or its immediate perspective.

This is most formidably the case with Diablo II, one of a number of games that I believe fundamentally appreciated not only the editorial rhythm but even more importantly the distance required to accomplish the integration of a fully pre-rendered and visually impressive cutscene. The reason for this is that the distancing between the completion of an episode of gameplay from the contemplative content of the cutscene was sufficient enough to make them a kind of welcome (but not enforced) reward.

Interestingly, in the case of Diablo II, the use of the cutscene in relation to the narrative was also further removed from the kinesthetic relationship that develops between the player and the avatar through the use of the parallel storyline (that is, a pre-rendered cutscene which does not concern the player or the avatar immediately, but which instead follows other characters and shadows the events of the game's dramatic progression through an external perspective).

The other and even more popular example of cut-scene use can be seen in the case of Square Enix games, especially the Final Fantasy series. The examination here is somewhat more problematic because unlike many other franchises, games like Final Fantasy rely heavily on genre guidelines firmly established by one or two companies during the mid-1990s console warfare.

As most people are aware, the introduction of the CD-ROM meant that content could now be streamed rather than generated on the fly, and impressive pre-rendered sequences became an easy way of selling already impressive gameplay to large but nonetheless niche markets like that for the RPG. The Square Enix model, to this day, relies heavily on such sequences.

I would argue that it is no longer because it's an easy way of improving in-game visuals, but also largely because the marketplace has come to expect it. Like digital animation in Pixar films, the improvement in quality of pre-rendered graphics must in many ways continue to improve in the context of its own marketplace simply in order to outdo the previous generation. This is especially true when there are only a few big players in a given segment of the marketplace.

On the aesthetic front, Square Enix games still predominantly follow the same guidelines that have already been set out, and in this way they also respect the player's expectations of the game. As a reward, the cutscene is predominantly a question of of rhythm and pacing, allowing the narrative to move forward on visual and contemplative terms; an episode of gameplay will be rewarded with a cutscene and the expectation is therefore fulfilled.

The First-Person Shooter: The Trickiest Of Genres

In the case of the first-person shooter the inappropriateness of interrupting the kinetic proximity which develops between the player and the avatar is the most direct, since the FPS in effect directly aligns the player's own view of the immersive world with that of the character.

This, quite likely, is the reason why designers are increasingly opting for sound bites and scripted NPC action (as in Half-Life 2) as opposed to pre-rendered sequences (at least once the game play has begun). Once again, the use of the cutscene isn't on trial here; the designer must be, more so than elsewhere, painstakingly careful when considering the methods by which the cutscene is integrated.

In the FPS genre, there is the additional problem of aligning the cutscene's narrative function regardless of the method of integration, too directly with the player's own perspective resulting in the breaking of the fourth wall. Here the inappropriateness of disabling the player from engaging in the action which occurs on screen is amplified in terms of making evident the player's secondary status in the diegetic world of the narrative.

Games like BioShock put this problem of self-consciousness in the foreground on predominantly postmodern terms, by effectively rubbing it in the player's face. The danger of such approach is, much like the danger faced by nearly all other postmodern aesthetic movements inclusive of cinema, the collapse of its novelty. You can only rub the limits of the genre's structural foundation in the face of your audience so many times before they find some better way of entertaining themselves.

It is also interesting to note that in the examples specifically mentioned here (both BioShock and Half-Life 2), there is always a time gap between the conclusion of heavily engaging game play (fighting, moving items around, getting out of negative situations) and the occurrence of the scripted cut-scene event. This is analogous to the good sense rules of rhythm in showmanship: a good band will rarely play a gig where the fast song is immediately followed by a slow song without any kind of temporal transition.

This is what good pacing means not only for the FPS but also for other predominantly action-driven games: It is innately difficult for us to move from a kinetically engaged and often an adrenaline-charged state to an aesthetically contemplative state without being offered the chance to calm down first. Without at the very least an indication of such a transition being near, the designer risks ripping the player out of the action of game play.

Interplay's now defunct Descent series addressed this problem by associating the exit door of a given level with the immediate triggering of the cut-scene sequence. Having played one or two levels, the player quickly learned what to expect and could then breathe a sigh of relief when the open exit door was in sight, leaning back to watch the cutscene a they entered it.

A Brief Note on Games Without a Directly Responsive Interface

There's a big difference between these sorts of games and point-and-click games, or any other scenario where the player's involvement with the movement of the on-screen space is not quite so directly responsive. The reason why I consider this scenario to be fundamentally different arises from the fact that the cutscene can, and often should, be inserted at a variety of different points without requiring the kind of pacing or tact that the more immediate interface would call for.

Since the player's involvement with gameplay is far less direct (and therefore the perspective is by its very definition more contemplative), the experience isn't anywhere as jarring and the same sense of rhythm, pacing and tact isn't necessarily required. Similarly, the kind of expectation with which the player enters the game space is less engaged in play as a kinetic process.

Conclusion

My goal in writing this article was to redirect the conversation from the consideration of the propriety of the cutscenes as such, to a more holistic approach to video games as a cinematically conscious art form.

In this sense, if we are to stake any claim to games as a medium that can utilize cinema in exciting new ways, it is important for us to first decide on the terms upon which aspects of cinema can be utilized in order to create aesthetic experiences specific to games as both a contemplative and a kinetically engaging medium.

By following a few simple guidelines regarding rhythm and pacing but above all by respecting the player's experience of the narrative game not as a singularly kinetic experience upon which we must force the narratological semblance of cinematic tact, but rather as an experience that shifts and morphs according to our relationship with each immersive moment, the long history of narrative cinema can offer us novel new ways of engaging the player not only in play but also the immersive world of which such play is a part.

Design Lesson 101 - Ratchet & Clank

ratchetandclank.jpg['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by Raven game designer Manveer Heir. The challenge is to play a game from start to completion - and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at Insomniac Games' original Ratchet & Clank]

Once one of the predominant genre of games, the quantity of platform games has dropped off significantly as technology has matured and moved the industry to predominantly 3D titles. As that has occurred, the propensity to create hybrid platform games has increased.

Games like Tomb Raider, Metroid Prime, and the subject of today's column, Ratchet & Clank, combine the classic platform elements with different combat and puzzle styles, to create unique game experiences.

While I enjoyed Ratchet & Clank quite a bit, the latter portion of the game began to taper off for me. The game offers the player sixteen different weapons for combat, the majority of which must be bought at vendors throughout the game.

As to be expected, the different weapons are made available slowly and have varying costs, which forces the player to make decisions. Here's where the problem, in my mind, lies with Ratchet & Clank.

Design Lesson: Ratchet & Clank fails to give the player sufficient reason and information to experiment with new weapons, which slowly causes the game to level off. This illustrates the difficulty in straddling the fine line between giving the player enough and not enough information.

In the first half of the game, weapons are fairly cheap and usually when a new one is introduced the player can afford it. As a player, I bought new weapons immediately and was usually satisfied with the new toy to play with.

As the game progresses, more weapon choices are posed, while the price dramatically increases. This, in and of its own, isn't a bad thing. It encourages the player to save up bolts (the in-game currency) and buy a subset of the weapons. You probably won't get every weapon in the game, so each weapon choice becomes more important.

The issue, for me, began with some poor weapon purchases I made around the halfway point. I bought a couple of weapons that just weren't very useful. The cost of buying them was significant (at the time). Without fail, after each bad buy, a cooler weapon would be offered that I could have bought had I saved my bolts. The negative consequences for my bad decision were moderate.

Consequence in games is not a bad thing. Telling the player exactly what consequences will occur depending on their actions is not necessarily good game design. However, in the case of Ratchet & Clank, it felt like the developers wanted to encourage experimentation in the game world through the weapons. By providing so many weapons, Insomniac provides the player with many opportunities to learn about enemy weaknesses and weapon roles.

However, the moment I made my first mistake with a weapon buy I became more hesitant to make another mistake. Instead of just blindly buying the next weapon, I started to read the descriptions that scrolled by. Using this new information, I bought another weapon. Again, I made a poor choice.

The number of weapon options increased as well. Instead of having one weapon available for purchase, I had four. This made me even more hesitant to buy new weapons; I was hamstrung by the options. Partly because I didn't want to get burned, and partly because I figured something even better was just on the horizon that I should save for.

So that's exactly what I did. Just as I am about to buy a new, awesome sounding weapon, the game threw me a curveball. It upgraded my health by one for free. It then also offered me a super health upgrade for a significant number of bolts. More than I had, in fact.

I chose to save some more and buy the health, as I realized I was dying more often in the latter levels. As a result, the weapon I was saving for was now out of my reach, and I was rapidly approaching the end of the game.

Weapons are the key to Ratchet & Clank, and by somewhat forcing my hand to buy health over a weapon, I lost out on another interaction with the world that I could have experimented with.

My interactions did not increase from having more health. My frustration levels just lowered, slightly. However, the lack of new weapons in the second half of the game reduced my enjoyment. Instead of having fun learning about new enemies and how different weapons are effective against them, I was using the same old weapons that worked the same way as before.

Insomniac may have already fixed this flaw in future games in the series, but the original Ratchet & Clank shows the fine line between giving the player enough and not enough information. Not having enough information led to poor decisions on my part, which then led to hesitancy in buying new weapons, which ultimately led to me enjoyed the latter part of the game far less than the beginning.

In order to fix these problems, I would do one or more of the following. First, show the weapons in-game some how. Many games have enemies that use weapons that you later get. Second, allow the player to actually use the weapon, in a test arena, to fully understand how it works would help the player feel like he had sufficient information to make a solid decision. Third, I would have spaced out the weapons a little more and possibly even reduced the set of total weapons. Finally, the health upgrade should have been available by completing a difficult, optional mission, rather than requiring a substantial amount of bolts.

What's fascinating about Ratchet & Clank is how it's still a very good game after all these years and these problems. I certainly enjoyed my first six hours in the game more than the last six, but the game didn't go downhill; It just leveled off. The lack of new weapons changed the feeling and pacing of the game, but only because I was scared to make the wrong decision.

If the game gave sufficient reason and information before purchasing new weapons, I would have tried out some of the more expensive, crazy weapons that were available later in the game. Weapons are what Ratchet & Clank is all about, so the reduction of new weapons as the game progresses causes the new, experimental feeling of the game to subside and causes the experience to slowly level off.

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

GameSetLinks: Food Of The (Game) Gods

The inevitable comeback of GameSetLinks, this time headed by, among other things, the Prima Games author blog getting down to it and reviewing the food provided by famous game developers - an important, under-discussed topic, no doubt.

Also hanging out in here - a cute looking new robotic freeware graphic adventure, chiptune 8-bit music video art stylings, the different kinds of game programmers, scary graphs of the Japanese dojin fan-scene, and lots more.

Is there anybody out there?

Hit Self-Destruct: Supermodel Is One Word
On hyperbole and flameout in the reception of games, I think? 'The press accelerates. It doesn't reflect. No time for classics or slow burns.'

Food of the Game Gods: Part 3/4 « Prima Games Author Blog
I may be the only person subscribed to the Prima Games strategy guide author blog, but now they're doing bizarre Yelp-ish developer food reviews, so time to tell the world!

Lively Ivy » Nanobots
V.neat looking freeware graphic adventure, from a female developer and contributor to the Blackwell series - via Gnome.

Metal Gear Solid E3 Snake Meat | Proto-dev-grail-interesting auctions | gameSniped.com
Highly amusing promo item.

Rhizome: 'Pixel Pop'
'Raquel Meyers's vividly animated videos for chiptuners like Jellica, Bubblyfish, and Glomag mirror the music's retro-tech aesthetic with 8-bit visuals and narrative elements lifted from the era of 2-D videogames.'

'Women's Work' - Feature from 1UP.com
'Female gaming spokespeople tell us what it's like living in the public eye.'

Joe Ludwig’s blog » Five Kinds of Programmers
'Over the course of my career I’ve run into several archetypes of professional programmers.' Described here!

Confessions of an Aca/Fan: Designing Accessible Games
Eitan Glinert (co-creator of AudiOdyssey) on accessibility.

Gamers Surveyed on Fake Games from 1UP.com
Elliott/Ashley transition onto 1UP is making for some mighty good stuff, considering they used to be the 'elite' print guys for Ziff.

Canned Dogs » Blog Archive » Comiket circles doing Leaf, Key or Type-moon
The game fanclub/creation scene for Japanese supergeeks, graphed.

July 1, 2008

COLUMN: @ Play: 'Izuna, Legend of the Roguelike Ninja'

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a kinda-sorta bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

That first generation of games in a new genre tends to not look too critically at the source material. Depending on how charitable one's feeling, this could be considered to be either because of a cynical exploitation of that material or a genuine enthusiasm for it. The "lost" roguelikes mentioned last time were like this.

The second generation is made by people further removed from the seed concept. Sometimes they may not even know of the idea's source, or they might view it in a less enthusiastic light. People start trying to fix what are perceived to be problems in the game. Sometimes these are actual problems, and sometimes the apparent flaws are a result of an incomplete understanding of the design. Often it's both at once; the designers fix things that are only problems from their point of view.

When the third generation comes around the same thing happens, then again, and again. Minor things are misunderstood to be essential to the design, and important things are forgotten. Eventually the genre solidifies around the aspects that are copied the most, and the Platonic ideal becomes something iconic that may, or may not, have a great deal to do with the original.

When the cycle crosses a cultural divide, there often occurs a much greater disconnect between the original ideas and their mutations. When Yuuji Horii created Dragon Quest, he was directly inspired by Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, which he discovered on a trip to the U.S. Later on there was Final Fantasy, which bears unmistakable marks of Dragon Quest's influence but less of Wizardry.

The cycle can also be seen when Chunsoft created the first two Mystery Dungeon games, Torneko and Shiren, both games that crib from Rogue, but not, directly, Dungeons & Dragons. Then other games were inspired by Mystery Dungeon while being ignorant of Rogue, each taking the core ideas and pulling them in a different direction.

Now, there are two main types of JCRPGs that draw from Mystery Dungeon. The more-common is the generic random dungeon game, the influence can be seen in full games (like Time Stalkers and Persona 3) and as a special area or mode in more traditional games (two that come to mind are in Lufia: Rise of the Sinistrals and Parasite Eve). The other, rarer category is a game that is more recognizably roguelike, but produced by people who have never heard of Rogue itself. This is what brings us around to Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja.

izuna1.png
Reincarnation Doesn't Suck As Bad As It Should

Izuna follows the same dungeon-replay model as Torneko and Shiren. But instead of one "major" dungeon to complete along with some bonuses, it features multiple sub-dungeons which are intended to be completed in order. Later dungeons are tougher, so the game allows Izuna to retain her experience level even after defeat.

One of the best ways to tell if a developer of a game with roguelike attributes is familiar with Rogue is how comfortable they are with the idea of permadeath. This is why Shiren returns to level 1 after each quest. While Izuna loses most of her items after each failure, she retains her level, including all the experience earned on the failed run.

Shiren does allow players to build up weapons and armor, but it's always possible for an accident to occur to them, resulting in their loss. Such losses, while somewhat preventable, are unavoidable in the long run. Izuna's permanent experience gain means the game becomes substantively easier the more the player plays it, and over-tough monsters at the beginning of later dungeons means that players will have to do some gaining to survive those dungeons. There is a word for this kind of experience gaining: grind.

Grind. You've played long enough that you deserve to be more powerful. More simulationist RPGs can excuse grind as being a realistic touch, and because there was both risk and skill to gaining experience points. But as RPGs have become more removed from the pretense of simulation, grind has become artificial and petty. If there's risk involved then it's a gamble, but Izuna doesn't lose a single experience point when she dies. At its core, grind means paying dues to the game, dues of time, and that's not healthy.

In addition to a storehouse in which items can be stashed between runs, and shops in town in which supplies can be purchased, Izuna provides a fairly easy way to ensure the player's main weapon can be saved, even after a death. Also, instant escape items aren't particularly rare. With all these escapes, it's relatively easy to ensure a beloved weapon not be lost, and this removes the game quite far from Rodney's endless stream of dungeon runs.

izuna2.pngIzuna the Strict Diet Ninja

Another thing that Izuna leaves out, to better effect in fact, is the food system. To remind: the classic roguelike purpose for food is to provide a time limit. Limits on food provide an incentive to keep exploring new levels, so that more food will be generated. To conserve food players must learn to explore maps efficiently, must not waste too many turns regenerating hit points, and must not wait for the wandering monster generator to produce too many easy experience points on the early levels.

Izuna does without food completely; there is no such item in the game. This means that the game must address each of the points I just brought up, and it actually does so: traps are more common in the more difficult dungeons of Izuna than usual providing cost to aimless exploration, monsters begin each level in greater supply than usual so evasion in order to heal is a less viable strategy, and new monsters are not randomly added to a level while it is being explored, so players can't build up so well on an easy floor. (Though they can, of course, replay earlier dungeons and build permanent experience that way. So this kind of balance is somewhat misplaced.)

Izuna brings some additions to the roguelike formula as well, and for the most part they're interesting ones. The biggest thing is the idea of weapon durability, which admittedly does act as a counter to the ease with which weapons can be kept indefinitely. Here, all uses of a weapon damage it slightly. Hitting certain monsters damages it more than others. Untended, a weapon can last maybe for around ten floors. When a weapon has taken sufficient damage it cracks, which is the player's warning that it only has a few swings left in it. If used beyond ultimate endurance, weapons shatter and are lost completely. In the intra-dungeon town there is a shop that repairs weapons, and one of the talismans that can appear in the dungeon can repair weapons of a portion of their damage, but later dungeons are long enough that durability becomes a matter of concern.

No weapon in Izuna is immune to damage! They're all limited in endurance, and keeping one in repair requires consuming resources. In a way, this makes up for the lack of food: players must still periodically consume stuff to remain viable, they're just weapon fixers instead of food rations. Weapons are common enough in dungeons that players can probably pick up a spare to use along the way, or go without in a pinch; Izuna is weak but not helpless without a blade in her hand.

Talismans and SP

Izuna's item system is similar to, but substantially different from, the roguelike standard. There are no potions, scrolls, rings or wands. Replacing them are pills, which can be eaten or thrown; orbs and pictures, which provide restorative and utility effects; and the real attraction here, talismans. (None of these items, by the way, is randomly scrambled. As in Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, all items are known the moment they are found.) A talisman has three potential uses: it can be read aloud for an effect, it can be "stuck" to a weapon to give it an effect, or it can be thrown at a monster to apply its "use" effect to it.

izuna3.pngBoth the use and stick effects carry an extra cost beyond using up the item. Reading a talisman causes Izuna to lose some of her SP, which only regenerate from looking at a picture, entering a boss fight or returning to town. If she doesn't have enough SP talismans cannot be read, but more importantly, her attack power drops dramatically if she's low on SP! An Izuna without any SP only does 10% of the damage one with all her SP will do.

This means that using talismans as emergency items is a much greater risk than the player might expect. Most talismans, especially those with an emergency-use function, have SP costs of 50 or more. Using one to get out of trouble or make a crowd of monsters easy to kill has the side effect of reducing Izuna's general survivability unless she's got a picture on-hand to restore that lost SP... and keeping spare pictures around quickly runs up against the game's 20-space inventory limit. So in practice, talismans don't get a lot of use in this way.

Sticking talismans to weapons works a bit better. Every weapon and "arm" (the game's version of armor) bears a "capacity," which is the total number of talisman SP points that can safely be stuck to it. While that number can be exceeded, the item will then decay rapidly in use, breaking after only a few hits. Until the later dungeons, most items will have a pitifully low capacity unless a few talismans have been used on it to increase its capacity, or Izuna has paid to have it expanded in town. And expanding capacity is slow work, with each expansion only adding a few points.

Weapon and armor power can be built up as well, although the process is different than in other games. One of the talismans raises a weapon's attack power when stuck, and another raises the defense of armor. As long as they are stuck to the item, its power is increased. But just sticking them takes up slots that could hold other abilities, and some monster abilities can remove talismans, returning the item to its default power. To make these stat changes permanent, the player must use a "Burn-In Orb," which destroys talismans on equipped items but makes stat changes (but not special effects) permanent, in exchange for permanently reducing the item's SP capacity by the burnt items' values.

Frogs, Why Did It Have To Be Frogs?

The monsters are a generally interesting bunch, not as tricky as Shiren's but still capable of some surprises. Marimos are round foes that have a bad habit of cloning themselves when struck, and promoting randomly when out of sight. Frogguns are the most interesting of the bunch. They're normal foes in most ways, but when killed they leave one or more eggs that, if struck, hatch into monsters far stronger than the original Froggun. Eggs block movement, meaning offing a frog in an inopportune spot could trap Izuna into having to fight a tough opponent to escape a dead end.

izuna3.pngThere are monsters that remove talismans from equipment, monsters that bestow a SP-draining condition, monsters that explode when struck, and monsters that don't move, but get the first hit when approached. None of the foes is as instantly incapacitating as Shiren's worst monsters; there is nothing like a Gaze, an Armor, a Skull Wraith or a Fear Radish here. The worst thing about monsters (other than those damnable Froggun) is the damage they do.

To fight against them there are a few miscellaneous bits of ninja equipment that players can find along the way. Shuriken and Kunai work like arrows in Shiren, but Caltrops and Bombs are new, special, and worthy additions to the game. Caltrops can be placed on the ground for a monster to cross, which does minor damage to it, or the whole bag can be thrown to scatter them across the floor. They do damage to Izuna too, however, so some care must be taken with them. They don't do a great deal of damage, but they serve to slow fast foes.

Bombs, when used, are placed on the ground and explode in a few turns. Explosions work like Shiren's landmines, halving hit points. (On the other hand, Shiren's exploding monsters do all but one HP of damage if they explode near the player.) Bombs take a turn to set and are only effective if you can get away and the monster can be lured near, so the best way to use them is to chuck them directly at foes, which provides all of the benefits with none of the risk.

While it doesn't happen nearly as often, it is possible for monsters in Izuna to promote, Shiren-style. It's rare because there are fewer things that can cause enemies to attack one another. The most common is perhaps one type of weapon Izuna can wield that randomly turns a monster into an ally. While nice to have around, this makes that monster a target for his former friends, and will probably result in a promoted enemy before long; sadly, ally monsters don't promote. This kind of monster advancement is as distinctive to Shiren as room shops are to Nethack, making it obvious where the idea came from. And promoted monsters are much more dangerous in Izuna, since the game's mechanics are geared more towards a slow, long-term gaining of levels instead of a rapid rise in power and the special items that might help the player cope also decrease attack strength. It's a good thing, then, that promotions are so rare.

The difference in the power-gain curve is the biggest problem with Izuna. Roguelike games of the Hack school are most fun when the player can turn sudden advantage against overwhelming odds through clever use of resources. Shiren, played carefully enough, can make it through hell alive. Izuna steals a lot from Mystery Dungeon, and adds in a lot of its own coolnesses, but those kinds of power plays are much rarer. Levels are gained much more slowly, as they have to be since experience gain is permanent, and too many of the power items leave the player depleted afterward. The game's slow rise in power gives it some similarity to the 'Bands, but without the tremendous strategic depth of those games. It's actually not bad, not at all, and it shows a lot of thought, but it falls short of Shiren's general excellence.

Screenshots scavenged from Atlus, by way of GoNintendo.

Interview: Neil Young Reveals iPhone Publisher Ngmoco

[Big sister site Gamasutra was one of a handful of outlets to get the scoop on Neil Young's post-EA plans yesterday, and it's worth reprinting the Christian Nutt-conducted chat because it reignites a tremendously fun argument I've been having with Andy Baio on just how important the iPhone is going to be to gaming. Neil says very!]

Following his recent departure from Electronic Arts after 11 years with the company, former EA Blueprint head Neil Young has announced the formation of Ngmoco, a new iPhone-focused studio that he tells Gamasutra plans to bring 'entrepreneurial focus' to mobile game development.

EA's Blueprint studio was headed by Young and colleague Alan Yu with a charter to assist smaller teams with strategic funding and project management on both original IP and extensions of EA brands -- including Facebook games like its version of trivia title Smarty Pants.

Prior to his work with Blueprint, Young helmed a number of high profile projects at Electronic Arts in design and executive roles, including its early foray into alternate reality gaming Majestic.

Other notable projects included oversight on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Sims 2 and recent Wii-exclusive Steven Spielberg collaboration Boom Blox as part of his former job heading Electronic Arts LA.

In this interview, Young offers further details on his thinking behind the new enterprise and why he's so excited to work in this new market for phone games.

Can you tell me a little bit about your new venture?

Neil Young: Sure. I'm leaving EA to found a new type of mobile games publisher that is specifically focused on games for the iPhone and beyond -- that class of mobile phone, a more open mobile platform that has the type of capability you see in a device like the iPhone.

It feels to me like the time is right to really innovate, both in terms of the business and the games that can get made for mobile platforms. I'm leaving Electronic Arts to focus on that.

Is that something you felt you couldn't do at EA? What is your motivation behind leaving to found your own company?

NY: It's the type of thing that requires real entrepreneurial focus. When you're working for a large company - and Electronic Arts is a great and wonderful company - especially after you've been there for a long time, you have a lot of responsibility.

Not just for the products you're making, but also to the organization as a whole. To some degree, that dilutes your focus on going after a single business. So this really warranted, for me, entrepreneurial focus.

When EA Blueprint had been announced, we got the impression that it was the "out there" space at EA, but I guess it just wasn't compatible with what you wanted to do after all. Do you have any comment on that?

NY: We never really talked about Blueprint. There was a lot of speculation about Blueprint, you know? Really, Blueprint is designed and is now under the leadership of Louis Castle, who is a wonderfully creative entrepreneur and intrapreneur inside Electronic Arts. He most recently produced Boom Blox, and before that oversaw getting the RTS games onto the console. Before that, back in the day, he founded Westwood Studios.

The purpose of Blueprint was really three things: one, focus on creating new intellectual property under a new development model; two, taking other intellectual property and moving it across media type in a really well-coordinated way; and three, attracting new talent to Electronic Arts. That was really the hope, the purpose, and the focus of Blueprint.

There's no better place to do that than inside Electronic Arts, and I still support that venture and that idea. I want to make sure it's successful. I wouldn't try to do EA Blueprint outside of Electronic Arts.

This is just a different type of opportunity, and honestly, if it wasn't for the advent of the iPhone and the advent of the App Store and the SDK, I would probably still be at Electronic Arts focusing on making Blueprint as successful as it could possibly be.

What is so attractive about the iPhone, to you?

NY: There are a couple of things. The first is the usage of the device. What I mean by that is more than half the time the average iPhone is in use, it's being used for something other than making a telephone call. If you think about that concept, that is a fundamental shift.

I think with this device, mobile phones have crossed a threshold of usability that is really changing the patterns of usage. That really opens the door to a whole bunch of different things that you can start doing with the device. That's the first thing.

The second thing is capability. The iPhone, from a performance standpoint, is pretty close to a PSP, but unlike the PSP, it's got a touchscreen, accelerometers, a camera, it's location-aware, it's got all of your media on it, it's awake with you, it's always on, and it's always connected to the network. So if you think about the types of games and entertainment experiences that you can build on a platform like that, it's got to get pretty exciting pretty quickly.

And the last thing is the way in which Apple is reinventing the relationship between developers and publishers of software and the customers themselves. In the existing mobile games business, if you want to publish a game, you publish it through the carrier and the carrier deck.

They have tiers of pricing that you need to conform to, and they pay you a royalty, and if you've got enough muscle, like Electronic Arts has, you can get placement on those decks at a preferential position.

Yeah, I understand that carriers are quite restrictive and sort of unpleasant to work with, basically, and don't really understand gaming that well.

NY: Yeah. So if you think about what Apple's doing with the App Store, they're really turning mobile on its ear. They allow you to control the pricing yourself. They're taking a distribution fee for distributing your software, but they're really allowing users to choose what to put on their phone and how they want to enhance their device. And that is a fundamental shift.

The opportunity from my standpoint is that we've now got the device and a business environment that is favorable to us closing and filling the vacuum in average revenue per user between what currently exists in the mobile phone space and what exists in the handheld gaming space. In mobile phone, it's $7.50 or $8 average revenue per user. On PSP, it's $45, and on the Nintendo DS, it's $62.

We're at this moment where there's an opportunity to lead both in terms of the type of software they we make and give to people in mobile phones, specifically, starting with the iPhone. And from a business standpoint, there's an opportunity to lead in the growth of the industry. And not incremental growth, but dramatic growth. And that's, from a business standpoint, why I'm excited about the device.

Are you actually going to be developing the applications and games yourself with an internal team? What is the structure of your enterprise?

NY: Yeah, the company is a publisher. We probably won't do a lot of internal development ourselves. You're probably as in tune with the development community as anyone, and you can feel the excitement around the iPhone and the opportunity for small teams of people to build really interesting things for the device. What we will be doing is essentially commissioning the development, which you can think of as first-party.

So commissioning, financing, and producing titles ourselves, that's the first party. Then there's the second party, which is looking to the independent developer community and asking ourselves, "What great ideas are out there that need to be funded and financed?"

And lastly, it's a third party for people who don't necessarily need our producing experience or our financing, but the opportunity to work with us within an ecosystem that gets enabled by some specific technologies that we're developing and providing.

Obviously, the thing with the iPhone SDK is that people can work directly - they can put things on the store themselves. What are the advantages of working with your company?

NY: We're not going to speak specifically about those things today, because I think that would foreshadow the strategy of the company. One thing that I will say is that when you're in any type of publishing business, one half of the equation is the quality of things that you make.

Quality comes from having the right teams with the right experience, really trying to focus on creating the right types of titles that are built to specifically take advantage of what the device has to offer. On the other side of the equation is distribution strength and marketing muscle.

I think it's important to try and think about things like: what are the new types of methods and mechanisms for marketing and distribution in the online space? How do you create the types of channels or systems or enabling technologies that give independent developers access to more customers, to be able to stay with those customers longer and to be able to build an ongoing relationship with them that they're able to modify?

Often, when you're a small team of three or four people and you're focused on just trying to make that one piece of great software, you don't necessarily have the bandwidth or the perspective to be able to build those other pieces of the puzzle.

My sense is, in the App Store, you're going to see thousands of applications coming into the marketplace fairly quickly, and it will become very difficult, I think, for developers to differentiate themselves in that landscape. Undoubtedly, some will, and undoubtedly some will create hits.

Those are obviously things that we would like to be associated with, but I would imagine that we're probably not going to be able to associate with 100 percent of those things. But I think at the end of the day, we will work hard, not only to create hit titles that we're commissioning and making, but also find ways to work with those who have their own ideas to create hits.

Who do you see as the audience for iPhone game apps? I think the obvious thing that people are going to go for fairly quickly is more casual games, like PopCap-type stuff. But there's an opportunity also, as you said, to create an almost PSP-quality experience on the system, but the traditional PSP-type game may not appeal to that audience. Who do you see as the audience for iPhone games?

NY: I should be clear. I don't think that taking games that would look good on the PSP and then moving them onto the iPhone is the right strategy. I think that the great leader in this particular space has been Nintendo. What Nintendo does better than any other company is build hardware that has specific features that can be serviced well in games.

Then, as a game maker, they make games that really showcase and leverage those features, whether that's petting a dog in Nintendogs or drawing on a map in Zelda or doing rapid number writing in Brain Age. Those are all examples of how they made touch relevant to a play experience at its very core. The same thing is true on the Wii, with the Wiimote.

I think it's incumbent upon anyone who wants to be a successful creator and publisher of games on the iPhone to ask yourself what kind of experiences you can build that take full advantage of what the device has to offer, with the touch screen, the GPS, the connection, the accelerometers, the fact that you have a camera, your media - your photos and pictures that exist on the device.

I don't really think the right path to go down is to immediately start thinking about how to build bigger, better, higher-end, more traditional gaming experiences. Rather, not to obviate or ignore those things, but rather try to take true advantage of what's in the system. So if you saw a game on the iPhone, you'd say, "Wow, this is only a game that can function on this platform."

To answer your question about who the customer is, I think at the end of the day, you can really think of three groups of people with varying degrees of overlap.

There's the hardcore customer - and I don't necessarily mean a hardcore gamer, but someone who is probably male, are probably fans of the system, and definitely grew up gaming - the early entertainment and technology adopters who are deep into not just the software itself, but the details about the story and the making of the software. I think that's probably the core that we're going to have to pass through.

Then there's what you think of as the primary customer. These are the people who grew up with gaming, but potentially grew out of gaming. This is the audience of people that the Wii and to a lesser extent the DS has been able to unlock.

These are people who, at one point in their life, might have finished Zelda, but right now, are trying to figure out how to have social entertainment experiences, either in their home or on the network, that aren't occupying more than 30 minutes to an hour of their time.

And then you can think of the last group of people as what Nintendo calls the Touch Generation. It's basically 8 to 80-year-old gamers, and essentially anyone with the device. I don't know about you, but I finished Zelda on the Wii. I play Wii Sports, and I play Guitar Hero.

If you look at that and said, "Wow, okay, he's finished Zelda. He must be a hardcore gamer. Yet he has a little fun playing Wii Sports, and he has a lot of fun playing Guitar Hero."

Why should I get bucketed into the third type of consumer? I think we should be offering a framework for people to essentially define their entertainment experiences in the ways that they define it. If they want a PopCap-type game and an RPG-type game and they want to play those on their device, then we should be offering them the opportunity to at least access those, and in some cases have those to all buyers.

There's not necessarily clear stratifications or sharp divisions, necessarily, between what people are actually interested in, which makes it difficult, but it's a challenge that I'm sure you're interested in facing.

NY: Yeah. I think where we're going to start, is we're going to say, "Okay, what are the three to five games that we're going to commission that really showcase what the device can do?" and "What's happening in the independent developer community that is a work in progress that might need financing or taking to the next level, or are great ideas from great teams of people who just want to get started on the iPhone?" We're going to look to those to get to a similar end. What's really going to showcase this device?

Have you started any development or even started any talking with developers? What stage are you at right now? Can you talk about that?

NY: Barely, right now. We literally announced last week that I was leaving Electronic Arts, and that had been something that was in the works from the preceding couple of months, so we had a transition plan in place that would make sure the things that were in my responsibility set would be handed over smoothly.

We do have some conversations going with some developers - really small, core, independent teams of people - and we have a clear picture of the first five things that we would like to commission and finance. But beyond that, we're not really at super-earnest development on these things, so it's a great opportunity for ideas from the outside to influence things.

2009 IGF Announces Call For Submissions, New Judges, Awards

Think Services, organizer of the Game Developers Conference (GDC), is pleased to announce that submissions are now open for the 2009 Independent Games Festival (IGF). Submissions to the 11th annual festival are due by November 2008, with finalists to be announced January 5th.

Games selected as finalists will available in playable form on the GDC show floor and will compete for nearly $50,000 in prizes, including awards for Innovation, Excellence in Design, and the coveted $20,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize.

Winners will be announced on stage at the prestigious Independent Games Festival Awards on Wednesday, March 25, 2009, at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The Independent Games Festival Awards are held along the Game Developers Choice Awards and both award shows are part of the 2009 Game Developers Conference.

Over the past few years, the Independent Games Festival has helped guide the rise of the indie game scene by honoring and popularizing the best and brightest independent developers and their games. Former IGF winners include Everyday Shooter, Audiosurf, and World of Goo.

Notable evolutions to this year’s festival include:

- A number of new IGF judges, including Spore designer Chaim Gingold, World Of Goo co-creator Kyle Gabler, The Sims Studio head Rod Humble, Civilization IV co-creator Soren Johnson, Rock Paper Shotgun co-founder Jim Rossignol, and Crayon Physics author Petri Purho.

- Returning IGF judges include independent game creators Jon Blow (Braid), Raigan Burns (N+), and Derek Yu (Aquaria), game industry veterans Brian Reynolds (Big Huge Games), Chris Rausch (SuperVillain Studios), and Chris Charla (Foundation9), and journalists N’Gai Croal (Newsweek), Chris Kohler (Wired News), and Stephen Totilo (MTV News). The full list of judges will be announced in the near future.

- In addition to the $20,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize and the awards for audio, art direction, design and technology, the IGF is presenting a new Innovation Award in the Main Competition. This new award is intended to honor abstract, shortform, and unconventional game development, allowing more esoteric ‘art games’ to compete on their own terms alongside longer-form indie titles.

“We’re delighted to welcome a new cadre of judges, alongside categories that encourage even greater experimentalism and innovation, to our industry-leading indie game competition”, said Simon Carless, Chairman of the IGF. “We’re very much looking forward to see what you crazy independent developers come up with this time round.”

Submissions to the competition are now open to all independent game developers; important dates for IGF 2009 are as follows:

July 1st, 2008 - Submissions are Open
November 1st, 2008 - Submission Deadline, Main Competition
November 15th, 2008 - Submission Deadline, Student Competition
January 5th, 2009 - Finalists Announced, Main Competition
January 19th, 2009 - Finalists Announced, Student Competition
March 23rd-27th, 2009 - Game Developer’s Conference 2009
March 25th-27th, 2009 - IGF Pavilion @ GDC
March 25th, 2009 - 2009 IGF Awards Ceremony

For a complete list of IGF 2008 event information, please visit the official Independent Games Festival website.

GameSetLinks: The Very Model Of A Modern Otomedius

When the GameSetLinks get a bit frantic, in terms of compiling, then yes, I will start referencing Gilbert & Sullivan in relation to odd Japanese Xbox 360 touchpad joysticks. What of it?

Luckily, this set of links is also filled with other more sane things - including cute Flash games, the 'Kirby Dots' Photoshop plugin, RPGMaker and XNA hanging out in the corner smooching, and lots more.

Ready steady cook:

Canned Dogs » Blog Archive » RPGmaker to produce Xbox 360 compatible code
Via XNA Creator's Club - this sounds potentially very interesting.

Arcade Renaissance: Amazingly hot Otomedius arcade stick from Hori
''In addition to being one of the first arcade sticks on the Xbox 360 to feature Sanwa parts, the Hyper Stick Pro will also have a small touch input screen on the right side of the action buttons.'

Octopus Motor's 'Kirby Dots!' Photoshop plugin
Haha, Jack Kirby-ize your illustrations with Sparky and Lars, this is awesome. And game related cos they are STILL making They Came From Hollywood, so there.

Lifehacker: 'Xbox 360: Turn Your Xbox 360 into a Streaming Netflix Player'
Unfortunately supercomplicated and Media Center-needing, but hey, possible.

Orisinal.com - Sunny Day Sky
Lots of buzz for Ferry Halim's latest surreal Flash cuteness - via everyone.

chewing pixels » Critics versus Consumers: The Gulf Between Us
Discussing how films are held back from reviewers like games, plus Final Fantasy vitriol.

GameSpot: 'PressSpotting: Covering pro gaming'
'There's another potential gaming angle that gets comparatively little coverage or respect from the press in general: gaming as professional sport.'

Fresh Look At IMVU, Mini-MMO With Big Numbers - GigaOM
There's some interesting vitriol from IMVU users in the comments, for some reason - community issues?

The Wired Bunch - 2008 Summer Journey - TIME
'If computer gaming has only ever been a solipsistic, antisocial nonactivity to you, then a few days in its emerging world capital, Seoul, will come as a brain-scrambling revelation.'

Rhizome | Rhizome News: Mind Games
'Clicking through Portland artist Tabor Robak's site Reality CPU feels like stumbling upon a scrambled memory bank of images captured sometime around 1993' - via MBF Today.

June 30, 2008

Column: The Game Anthropologist: 'A Community That Writes About Games'

typewriter.jpg[The Game Anthropologist chronicles Michael Walbridge's ventures into gaming communities as he reports on their inhabitants and culture. This column is a summary of Michael's interviews with six prominent and prolific game writers and one professor who all have one thing in common: they spend a lot of time blogging, too.]

A Changing Industry

It’s no secret that game journalism and writing about games is dramatically changing, but what’s not so simple is describing or naming those changes. Even more difficult is determining whether personal, alternative writing spaces can be considered communities, and how they function.

Chris Dahlen’s Save the Robot and Leigh Alexander’s now retired The Aberrant Gamer are two of my favorite GameSetWatch columns. I have since followed these writers to their blogs, Save the Robot and Sexy Videogameland. I noted that in the blog chain they are a part of, sites such as Dubious Quality and Giant Bomb kept reappearing, as if there are common ties. I couldn’t see any explicit mention of these ties, however.

As a newcomer with a puny blog and very few paying game writing assignments to call my own, I thought it fascinating that so many overworked, 50+ hours a week journalists were, for no pay and not necessarily as part of their work, keeping frequently updated blogs. At work they write and when they’re taking a break they’re…still writing. “Why, when they’re taking a break, are they still writing? Why aren’t they, I don’t know, playing video games? They certainly don’t get to do that as much as they’d like….”

The Blogging of Champions

I’ve participated in these sites by reading, commenting, reading comments, and commenting on commenters and their comments. Still, these journalists (and one professor) must know their readers better than I do, so I interviewed some of the ones that have a stronger presence.

In order, I talked to N’Gai Croal of Newsweek’s Level Up; Kieron Gillen from Rock, Paper, Shotgun; Leigh Alexander of Sexy Videogameland (also an editor at Kotaku); Shawn Elliott, an editor at 1Up; Chris Dahlen of Save The Robot; Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer; and Mitch Krpata of Insult Swordfighting.

They had a lot to say: I talked to them for about 45 minutes each (though one was for only 20 and another was for about 75). They said so much that I don’t have enough space here to cover each person in totality.

To my advantage, however, is the fact that they have a variety of backgrounds despite having so much in common, and the fact that I have seven people’s opinions instead of just one or two. I discovered what they did and didn’t share.

We discussed the nature of current games writing in the games press, why they put so much work into their blogs when they already write plenty at their gigs, whether they consider their blogs as communities, and where they hope the industry heads next.

There Are Things You Don’t Talk About In Public

Things they have in common:

-- Dissatisfaction with the traditional way games have been covered and analyzed. From N’gai Croal: “The traditional models of games journalism are broken. People who have a curiosity about games don't want to be shackled by rules that are found in the enthusiast press and sometimes found in the mainstream press. The monologues and dialogues on blogs, forums, and now websites have generally become more interesting.”

-- A desire for their own personal space for writing and discussion - despite writing plenty for their workweek. Leigh Alexander on Sexy Videogameland: “I wasn't sure what it was for at first--it was simply a repository for my thoughts and a place to practice my voice."

“Well, you certainly have a lot of practice now,” I said. “Why do you have it now?” For the same reasons, but now that she’s become more successful, she also writes because: “It's still important for me to be able to say things I want when there is nowhere to publish them."

Kieron Gillen is also successful, having written at many mainstream publications. “I've been a games journalist for a decade at least. 13 years. RPS (Rock, Paper, Shotgun) is an outlet for our PC stuff because we're not seeing people write about the format the way we want to.”

“It's just part time. Games journalism doesn't tend to emphasize the PC. But I do. So commercially and intellectually, making and working on RPS makes the most sense because it's not something anyone else does. It's especially an approach that American readers don't often see, in terms of tone.”

-- The way they wish to write and discuss games. Mitch Krpata noted: "Much of what is being written is 'How fun is it to hop on this multiplayer?', but not 'How are the people really interacting with this game?' or anything else reflecting on the people who play it. That should be the real basis for what we're covering instead of the way they're being reviewed now."

--The roughly common wish for the way they hope games writing will be covered in the future. Shawn Elliott is experimenting with this new style on his member blog on 1UP.com. Of change, he says that “The notion of a non-enthusiast style of writing is new, but it was inevitable that it would come.”

Mitch Krpata, who writes for the alternative weekly the Boston Phoenix, said “The more games are accepted by the mainstream, the more games writing can change. The New York Times, the Phoenix, and other mainstream publications aren't relying on video game advertising dollars--that's why they read differently.”

-- They really want you to really read and get to know them, and actually talk with them.

Regarding his blog, Chris Dahlen says that “The community side evolved on its own. There aren't many visitors, but those that do comment I know pretty well. It's more satisfying to hear from the narrow group of my own blog, not the few or zero I hear from regarding pieces I write at publications.”

Things most of them have in common:

-- A craving for approval amidst some general anxiety despite being highly confident about their ability to think and write. Many are used to criticism and flaming. Despite being highly polite and civil, they sometimes receive feedback that isn’t.

Michael Abbott told me about someone who disagreed. "I once got an email that just said 'Or you could just go read Hamlet.' I'm guessing he meant games don't have enough meaning and that they're inferior. There is resistance out there, but I think we have to plow through that."

-- They all know each other and interact on a regular basis, even if it’s not readily apparent. Phone calls, AIM, working together at different outlets, and recommending each other aren’t uncommon.

-- They are helpful and want more people to join the conversation by comments and writing. As mentioned earlier, all of the writers were generous with their time and honesty.

“Would you say there is a hunger for this [type of discussion amongst people who play games?]” I asked Michael Abbott. “I have a feeling that might be right,” he admitted. “My only evidence is from the emails I've gotten that basically say 'Oh thank God someone's talking intelligently about games', which is encouraging. And I’ve found older gamers are the hungriest….I'd say, 30s and older.”

-- With the exception of Michael, who is not a journalist, they wish there were more ways to be paid to write about games in the way they like.

Things about which they feel differently:

-- Having a name or label for the type of writing these blogs entail. N’Gai was hesitant: “I’ll let you pick a name; it’s your article.” Kieron Gillen certainly wasn’t going to; he wrote the treatise The New Games Journalism, which blew up in his face. “The way the whole thing turned was not something I foresaw," he said. “It was more of a letter, really. I was speaking to my peers, not the readers, and so it ended up seeming condescending to some people. Most people thought it said 'no reviews.’ People thought I was trying to change games journalism—I was simply trying to add to it.”

Leigh Alexander was confident with “Games Criticism”. I took that title to everyone I interviewed after her and they cautiously accepted it, though they weren’t sure what exactly constituted games criticism. “I think game criticism is a good term for us to use, but I don't think there's much being done. I'd say Ian Bogost is definitely doing it right, though,” Chris Dahlen mused.

Shawn Elliott said, “Games criticism has the potential to be a term we use. I come from a literary background, so I'd be picky about what qualifies. I'd say that some of the writing we've seen recently holds up to that term.”

-- Whether their blogs are home truly home to a community. Michael Abbott and Leigh Alexander considered their blogs communities, something I had to agree with. Not only are there plenty of loyal readers, but often the commenters hold discussions, something rarely seen outside of high-traffic sites like Slashdot or Kotaku.

Michael and Leigh’s commenters even influence content: Michael asked what RPGs he should include in a course he was going to teach and used the number of votes to influence his picks; Leigh once wrote a post giving full attention to a well-written, humorous comment on a post she wrote about EA’s attempt to buy Take Two. Others have fewer readers and commenters. N’Gai, for example, doesn’t consider his blog home a community, but simply a place for content—it has few comments and in his eyes is simply a golden opportunity (and though it’s his creation and idea, it is still the property of Newsweek).

-- What it will take to change the way games are covered and why they aren’t being covered the way they wish it were. Some believe it will change inevitably. Some are more cautious. Others think they can contribute to change, and others feel more powerless.

The two responses I received are best summarized as “I hope it changes, but I don’t see how it will or what we can do it about” and “I think it will change, but it’s an uphill climb and I don’t know what it would take to influence those changes.” They share a common goal, but the future of the games writing field is up in the air, even for these hotshots.

Ultimately, these writers and bloggers see a demand and an interest in the kind of writing they love most (which is not the writing that supplies most of their income), even if they disagree how large that demand is. Whether the field of games journalism changes the way these game critics want it to, the discussion will inevitably continue in this form.

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: all these writers said very interesting things that are beyond the scope of this article but which I think should still be printed. Also, the way my own opinions and perceptions came about were highly influenced by the order in which I interviewed them, as well as the flow of the discussion. More details and more of their opinions will be posted on my own humble blog in the coming weeks.]

COLUMN: Quiz Me Qwik - 'And The Orchestra Played On'

lol1.gif['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 innocent bystander and a nearby train wreck.]

Regarding the whole Limbo of the Lost fiasco, has anyone coined the term “LoLgate” for it? I don’t seem to be able to find any kinds of references to it as that around the place, so let’s see if we can’t get it to catch on. After all, it’s a pretty fair bet that people will be talking about this for some time to come – how often do you hear about something as blatantly weird as this?

On one hand, it does seem cut and dry. The independent Majestic Studios used locales from existing games for their own game, Limbo of the Lost - 3D areas translated into 2D click and point adventure backdrops, presumably by simply taking screenshots. Screenshots from games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Thief: Deadly Shadows, Diablo II, Unreal Tournament 2004, Unreal Tournament 2003, Crysis, Silent Hill 4: The Room, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, World of Warcraft, Painkiller, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines and hell, probably more too.

It’s a pretty straightforward case of plagiarism, and copyright infringement. It’s absolutely no shock that US publisher Tri Synergy pulled the game from release within days of the accusations hitting news sites and forums. Majestic recently responded themselves, calling the “notification that some alleged unauthorized copyrighted materials submitted by sources external to the development team have been found” within the game “shocking”. It’s a pretty meaningless and weak rebuttal.

But, there’s something oddly endearing about the company’s naïveté.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to defend it. It just feels more dense than insidious. Even their response is amusing: “Uh…wasn’t me.” Who would honestly believe that this kind of thing would go unnoticed in 2008? It’s like Ernest Goes To Digipen or something, except that they’re British, so maybe it’s more like Carry On Game Developers.

Still, even with that dimwit appeal, you’ve got to really feel for the people wrapped up in this. Majestic will never produce another game – that’s a given. But what happens to the credibility of Tri Synergy? What happens to the credibility of composer Marko Hautamäki, who worked to produce music for the game as a freelancer, and had no knowledge of the way that the game was being developed?

Already, he’s been under fire: guilt by association. “I have seen my name mentioned in several internet discussion forums,” he noted in a recent press release, “and there has been speculation about if the game contains stolen music but so far that has not been proven one way or another.” While Hautamäki didn’t produce every piece of music used in the game, he adds that he “can 100% guarantee everything” he worked on is original, offering the files on his website for scrutiny.

In order to work through his side of the story in more detail, I contacted Hautamäki, and asked about his experiences working with Majestic, and what this could mean for the future of his career as a composer.

GSW: When were you first contacted by Majestic Studios?

lol1.gifMarko Hautamäki: The initial contact was in May 2006 via an internet forum. They posted an ad looking for composer and I replied and got the job.

GSW: So you were on the lookout for a project like that?

MH: I was - and still am - constantly looking for interesting projects, and at the time Limbo of the Lost did seem interesting.

GSW: What was it about the project that appealed to you?

MH: I wanted to get a game in my CV, so it was easier to get to do one with a smaller company. It was a starting company working on a game that would be quite different from the bulk of games released nowadays. I figured it was a good way to get some recognition in the composer market, plus it offered me a chance to write a very varied soundtrack that isn't tied to just one strict music style. I saw there an opportunity to show my skills in a fairly large scale.

GSW: How long did you work on the music?

MH: I finished with the game level backgrounds in December 2006. After that I still did some scoring for the bonus DVD. If I remember correctly, I was finished with those in February 2007 or so.

GSW: How did you record the music?

MH: I have a PC based studio running Cubase and lots of virtual instruments. There are some - mostly percussive - elements that I recorded in traditional way with a microphone. There was no budget for session musicians, so everything you hear in my scores was played by myself.

GSW: How long, all up, is the score?

MH: All in all I composed about one and a half hours of music for the game. In the last minute some pieces got replaced by others that I suppose were done by [Majestic employee] Lawrence Francis.

So, a bit over an hour of my music was actually used in the game. The DVD main feature was one of the pieces that I originally composed music to, but got later replaced. The original score for that one can be found on my demo page.

GSW: Did you have a copy of the game to work from?

lol1.gifMH: At the time of composing I didn't have a playable game to work with. Instead I got written descriptions about each level - what's happening, what kind of place it is and what kind of mood it should have. The guys of Majestic Studios also encouraged me to feel free to interpret their descriptions musically, so I was having pretty free hands with the score.

I'd say the biggest source of inspiration were the written descriptions themselves. At some point I also got to see some concept art but as they were mainly about characters without their own themes, I can't say they would have influenced me much.

GSW: Any impressions of the game from that time?

MH: None about the game itself. I only got to see the finished game when I received my own boxed copy a couple of days before I first read the news about accusations of plagiarism and that someone had found some stolen graphical assets in the game. It seemed to me that Majestic Studios were very enthusiastic about the game and working hard on it, so I felt good about being involved in the game.

GSW: What are you concerns regarding your reputation, from this point?

MH: After my initial announcement and press release got out, it seems people understand my situation and are being very supportive. I'm still undecided about whether it's better to keep Limbo of the Lost in my CV or just forget about it.

Anyone Googling my name will find plenty of mentions about Limbo so I couldn't just pretend it never happened, even if I wanted to. On the other hand, I don't think I have any reason to feel bad about the music I composed for the game. How all this will affect my career in the future is very hard to predict, so as a precautionary measure I'm taking steps to clear my name.

What will actually happen and what kind of effect this will have in the long run remains to be seen.

GSW: Was it difficult to come out with the press release?

lol1.gifMH: Not as such. The difficult part is keeping in mind the contracts and NDA and what they allow me to say in public and what not. When posting my initial announcement about the matter, I was only concerned about clearing my own name. Understandably, after that I got a lot of inquiries related to the stolen assets and actions of Majestic Studios. Unfortunately I can't answer those - not because of an NDA but simply because I don't have any more answers than anyone else outside the Majestic core team.

GSW: How do you feel about what the developers have done in regards to reusing art?

MH: Simply put, it's a fucking catastrophe! I have no insider information about the game development process outside my own part and I sincerely hope there will be some sensible explanation to how this happened and how it's even possible as so many aspects in this whole circus just seem to defy common sense. Personally it's a major source of frustration and uncertainty for me.

GSW: Did you have any troubles working with Majestic, either personally or professionally?

MH: Not at all. I thought they were a pleasure to work with. They were enthusiastic about the game and seemingly worked hard on it so I felt good about contributing to the game. Working with the written descriptions about the game levels can be quite liberating and I had pretty free hands with the background music so I felt good about working with them. I didn't notice anything odd or alarming at all.

All in all, I have to say that if the plagiarism hadn't happened I would still feel very good about the game and the work I did for Majestic - even if it means that relatively few people had ever heard about the game. Now that's not a concern anymore.

GSW: Any trouble with payment for the work?

MH: Money issues are something I can't talk about in public. So far, no problems.

GSW: What proof are you able to offer that your work is 100% original?

MH: I have all the original Cubase project files. When I work I save my project often under different name. This way, the files not only show the contents of the music files but also the whole composing process from beginning to end. That's something that would be extremely hard to replicate afterwards.
Also, I posted some of the pieces I made for the game on my demo page, so you can make comparisons yourself. Furthermore, I think there's a very big difference in the style and sound of the music pieces I did versus the ones I didn't do. Again, I'm assuming that the rest of the pieces were written by Lawrence Francis. Majestic Studios project leader Steve Bovis has also assured me that there isn't any stolen music in the game.

GSW: How do you feel about accusations that elements of the soundtrack are not your own work?

lol1.gifMH: Of course I'm not happy about it, and that's also the reason I went public trying to clear my name. Such accusations can be disastrous to the career of anyone doing creative work.

Though, as said, there are pieces in the game that are not my work, most notably the game intro and the DVD main feature. The intro was something that was supposed to be done by Lawrence Francis from the start. The music I composed for the DVD main feature got replaced with that same intro piece. Some trailers in YouTube do feature my music, some do not. I have been assured all the music in the game is original but personally I can only guarantee my own work.

GSW: What level of communication have you had with the developers, post-release?

MH: We have been in contact, although not on a daily basis. They have apologized me for the mess but I'm afraid I can't really say much more about that. To my understanding, their announcement should be on its way and I hope it will give more answers than I'm able to.

GSW: Do you feel lucky, in a way, to be only credited in the .pdf that accompanies the game?

MH: Yes and no. Of course a proper credit would have been nice if things had gone the way they were supposed to go with the game. Now, I think having my name in the .pdf only probably hasn't done any harm, but probably mostly because of the fact that I have gone public.

GSW: What hopes do you have for your career from here?

MH: Well, I'm going to continue working on film and game music in the future anyway. I honestly don't know what kind of effect this whole Limbo circus will have so I guess we'll just have to wait and see. I'm currently working on a Finnish feature film that will be released in October. After that my plans are pretty much open at the moment.

GameSetLinks: Games Are Nutritional, Yum

As the weekend grinds to an inexorable halt, a plethora of GameSetLinks are upon us, with one of the more fun being the (pictured) concept of a nutritional-style label for video games.

Of course, the ESRB descriptors do this in a more advisory, statutory type way in terms of 'forbidden' content, but it is indeed an interesting, oddly alluring concept to have gameplay mechanics described that way. And this weirdness is twinned with 'Sabotage' videos in Halo 3, Scrum and pre-production, and a lot of other stuff, yay.

Go go gadget:

T=Machine » Scrum … and Production, Pre-Production in games
'I see this as one of the interesting unanswered questions with Scrum for games dev.'

Wakeup Throwing Since 1994: Video Game "Nutrition" Facts
'So what if video games had a similar "nutrition" label based on the core elements of that video game?'

Hardcore Gaming 101 - special Treasure game focus
Doesn't seem to be a master index for it, but you can see all the games listed in the 6/24 update!

Lost Garden: Shade: A game prototyping challenge
My wife, also a redhead, finds this hiiiilarious/brilliant.

What They Play - Blog - Entertainment Weekly Ranks Video Games In New Classics Issue
Nice to see EW mentioning games, actually.

Jared Rea: 'Don’t You Get Souped Yet at The Way Things Are'
'Chris Sauer has recreated one of the greatest music videos of all time, Beastie Boy’s “Sabotage,” in Halo 3 and I think it’s adorable.'

Write the Game » Help! I’ve built my game - now what?
'You have to be a bit more imaginative - and exploit the fickle and viral nature of the internet.'

8bitrocket:Home Computer Wars Alpha Mission: Post Mortem for a Failed Viral Flash Game
'In the game you would play a trusty Atari 800 computer. You would battle the likes of TI99, Apple II, Commodore 64 and the IBM PC.'

GameDaily Biz: 'Media Coverage: The Critical Divide'
'Games are reaching the tipping point where more customers are casual consumers – the kind who have a harder time sniffing out quality.'

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Space Invaders from 1UP.com
Benj Edwards looks at the classic Taito franchise.

June 29, 2008

Focus On: Futurama's New Game References, Bonus Episode

If you are at all sensible, you will likely have purchased the 'Futurama: The Beast With A Billion Backs' DVD, which came out this week. It's the second of a set of four DVD specials which will be cut up into sets of four episodes when shown on TV.

The Wikipedia page for the special has plenty of initial information, but one of the DVD extras will be of particular interest to GameSetWatch readers. It's a recut version of the 'lost Futurama episode' which appeared as cut-scenes within the Futurama video game.

As noted on the Wikipedia entry: "Many of the crew from the Futurama series worked on the game. Matt Groening served as Executive game developer and David X. Cohen directed the voice actors. These voice actors were the original actors from the series: Billy West, Katey Sagal, John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Maurice LaMarche, and David Herman... music composition [was] provided by Christopher Tyng who also composed the music in the series and Futurama scriptwriter and producer J. Stewart Burns who scripted an original storyline for the plot."

There's a gigantic multi-person commentary on the 30-ish minutes of cut-scenes (using 3D assets created for the game) that the Futurama folks cut together for the bonus feature, and I thought I'd highlight some of the interesting bits:

- In order to make the linear DVD story flow properly and to improve it, the Futurama producers and editors actually cut new sound effects and inserted excerpts of gameplay footage to make it flow correctly - even adding a sound effect joke or two to bridge things over.

- When the Futurama folks went to try to find the original, non-compressed version of this footage (which was presumably rendered FMV and not in-engine), they found out that the Swedish developer, UDS had gone out of business, had its assets taken over, and were taken over again by an online poker company - so even though former employees of UDS tried to help them, they couldn't track it down.

- Therefore, the footage on the DVD is actually taken directly from the Xbox version of the game. Apparently, series executive producer David X Cohen had a memory card with the completed game on it, so that served as the basis of the DVD grabs. However, they couldn't get some FMV sequences that were triggered by bonuses, so had to go find a cheat code on the Internet. Oh, and also: "We had to go buy the component cables to get decent video."

- There's some interesting discussion of video game voiceover work from the assorted actors on the commentary, including Billy West, John DiMaggio (who voices Marcus Fenix in Gears Of War as well as Bender!), and Maurice LaMarche. They noted that the variant voice sound effects were really rough to perform in games, especially when they had to do a lot of 'shouting'-style reactions to being shot or bumped.

In fact, LaMarche revealed that he lost his voice on a Yosemite Sam game, and had to go on enforced voice rest for an entire month, after having to do too many short, medium and long bellowing-style sound effects, and "took a long hiatus from video games" after that, only returning to do the Futurama game. He didn't mention the game in question, but I'm going to guess it's Loons: The Fight For Fame. Anyone?

There's also a tribute to the sad passing of Gary Gygax on the main DVD commentary. In fact, it's mentioned that Gygax is a "heavy inspiration" to the third DVD, 'Bender's Game', for which there's a trailer on the 'Billion Backs' DVD, and which features nerds, D20 rolling, and... oh wait, here's the trailer on YouTube.

[BONUS: In a montage during the main 'Billion Backs' feature, Fry is playing 'Normal Combat' (in a Mortal Kombat font) in a video game arcade when the two main characters in the 2D fighting game kiss, reminding him of his lost love (aw!) As is traditional in Futurama/The Simpsons, there are a bunch of neat fake arcade game references, in the background.

This time they include 'Honkey Kong' (Donkey Kong font), 'Exlaxian' (Galaxian font), 'Coin Vacuum', 'Extreme Flosser' (with the 'm' as a tooth), 'Shovel Command(o?)', and most awesomely, 'Ms. Marple Madness' (Marble Madness font, but with two+ joysticks instead of a trackball, get with it, guys!) Ah, and there's a good gag involving a Pac-Man board game elsewhere in the movie. That's enough Futurama for now!]

GameSetNetwork: Oh Grasshopper, El Diablo

Finishing up the GameSetLinks - that is to say, the best original writing from big sister site Gamasutra and our other website-based endeavors this week, we start off with a pretty neat interview with Grasshopper's Masafumi Takada.

Also flecked into this particular mix - some initial info on Diablo III from Paris, Web 2.0 vs games with Tom Armitage, Ubisoft on putting the 'z' in Dogz, fluid dynamics in games, games that have real-world reactions, and more...

A hoy hoy:

Masafumi Takada: Grasshopper's Musical Craftsman
"Masafumi Takada is possibly the breakout Japanese game composer of recent years - soundtracking cult titles Killer7 and No More Heroes and contributing to the Smash Bros and Resident Evil series - Gamasutra goes in-depth with him on his art."

In-Person: Diablo 3's Unveiling In Paris
"Gamasutra was at Blizzard's Worldwide Invitational in Paris to see the unveiling of Diablo 3 - following the official announcement, we have an in-person look at the return of the seminal franchise. [UPDATE: Lead designer Jay Wilson talks narrative, replayability through randomness.]"

Innovations In Character: Personalizing RPGs
"In this detailed design piece, researcher Tychsen looks to tabletop RPGs for inspiration on the best ways to create compelling characters - and lasting experiences - for video games."

Q&A: Inside The House Of Disgaea
"Increasingly well-known in recent years for its strategy RPG series, Nippon Ichi Software is preparing for the North American release of Disgaea 3 on PlayStation 3 - and Gamasutra probes the developer and franchise with producer Souhei Niikawa and lead programmer Masahiro Yamamoto."

Practical Fluid Dynamics: Part 1
"In this technical article originally printed in Game Developer magazine, Neversoft co-founder Mick West looks at how to efficiently implement fluid effects - from smoke to water and beyond - in video games, with example code."

Headshift's Armitage: Games Must Relinquish Control To Players
"Is the game industry becoming too insular and ignoring the trends of the social web? Gamasutra spoke to web developer Tom Armitage, whose firm has worked on social website projects with the BBC, Channel 4, and The Saatchi Gallery, and who stressed that developers and console certification needs to adapt to allow rapid iteration."

Persuasive Games: Performative Play
"Most games let you change things on screen. But how about the real world? Writer/designer Ian Bogost looks at Pain Station, World Without Oil and an RPG piggy bank to explore games that affect our everyday lives directly."

Q&A: Ubisoft's Galarneau On The Rise Of The Petz
"For French-headquartered publisher Ubisoft, its Petz casual game series has now sold more than 13 million units - and it's so vital that Ubisoft Montreal has taken the Wii version of Dogz 2008 in-house. Gamasutra talks to producer Benoit Galarneau on the series..."

Life In Vegas: Surreal's Alan Patmore On Open World Innovation
"Surreal's open-world title This Is Vegas is a vital game for publisher Midway - and studio head Alan Patmore talks in-depth to Gamasutra on code sharing and the art of designing sandbox games."

Heavy Rain's Cage: Games Stuck In Primitive Emotional Range
"At a recent Gamasutra-attended symposium in France, Quantic Dream's David Cage (Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain) and Lexis Numerique's Eric Viennot discussed immersion in gaming, with Cage suggesting that more "sophisticated" emotions are still lacking from the medium."

[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: The Z-Axis: 'Lust for the New'

piechartsidebar.jpg['The Z-Axis' is a bi-weekly column from game writer Michael Zenke, stretching games and gaming trends out planarly to poke, caress, and pinpoint the innards of what makes them great. This week, he offers an alternative viewpoint on excess and quality in the modern gaming industry.]

On the surface, this is the best time going to be a gamer. The industry is booming, with the ‘next gen’ consoles now really hitting their stride. PC gaming is so dead it’s getting cool to develop for again, and the online game industry is threatening to grow its own consciousness and take over, Skynet-style.

PSPs and DSes seem to be everywhere, and grannies are happily showing their grandchildren how to play Wii Bowling at the senior center. The problem: what’s good for the industry is not the same thing as what’s good for the gamer.

I’d argue that, in fact, it’s becoming increasingly hard to be a gamer.

The sheer torrential pressure of game releases over the last three years has made it extremely difficult to ‘keep up with the flow.‘ As gaming continues along the path to mainstream acceptance, the constant lust for the new (and the resulting dismissal of the ‘old’) will be one of its biggest obstacles.

How can we really take seriously an artform which deprecates and dismisses work so quickly? How can we even track the artform when this week’s hot new release is next week’s bottom-of-the-pile forgotten pearl? Let’s tackle the thorny problem of why too many games could be - in truth - a bad thing(TM).

Always Looking To The Future, To The Horizon

The essential nature of gaming has become one of excess. Once primarily the pick-up-and-play of dim arcades, the console and PC renaissance since the early '90s has lead to a wholly different concept of what a game is ‘supposed to be.’ The expectation that every game should give the player hours of entertainment is now implicit, and the result - even combined with the rising costs associated with gaming - is a hobby rife with bargain basement-priced experiences.

For the cost of two tickets and a box of popcorn, you can buy a videogame that will last 3-20 times the length of the average movie. For the cost of a hardcover book, you can pay the monthly subscription fee for an MMO that might happily swallow every waking moment of your life.

That’s great on paper, and has lead to the aforementioned boom in gaming popularity and sales. That success has a very real downside, though: gamers are simply swamped with games. The GameRankings site offers some clues to just how much gaming we’re doing.

Since the Xbox 360 launched at the end of 2005, there have been 683 games released to the platform. There have been 844 NintendoDS games released since late 2004, and some 331 PlayStation 3 games dropped since late 2006. That’s an average of four games a week, every week, for both the 360 and DS. The PS3 averages more like three games a week.

piechartsidebar.jpgThis isn’t just a surfeit of choice, it’s a tidal wave of gaming. There can indeed be too much of a good thing. The result: gamers who stand in front of their television sets or sit at their computer desks and stare in mute horror at the sheer number of options they have.

Despite the seemingly self-evident reality that more choice is always better, modern life has proven otherwise. There’s even a book about this phenomenon called 'The Paradox of Choice'. Barry Schwartz, author of the book, gave a compelling talk about the issue at the TED conference a few years back.

The gist of the idea is this: even though having more choices might make you think you’re doing better, or are more well off, you’re probably going to feel worse about the situation. For some people - maybe a lot of people - having too many choices causes serious problems.

Let’s take last year’s smorgasbord game release season as our example. The list of AAA titles that came out last year made it quite possibly the strongest year in gaming ever. But how can you choose, realistically, between Halo 3 and Mass Effect? How can you choose between BioShock and Puzzle Quest? There were so *many* good games released last year that you couldn’t.

You couldn’t go into a store and buy Call of Duty 4 without *having* to pick up Super Mario Galaxy. Can’t snag Rock Band without that Burning Crusade box. And - seriously - can you even still be called a gamer if you didn’t play at least one of the offerings from The Orange Box?

The happy shopping sprees and smiling faces at GameStop, more than likely, eventually turned into sour grimaces and furrowed brows at home. Like it or not, the gaming public is an aging public. We’ve got kids, jobs, and responsibilities. Ironically, at a time when more gamers are able to afford these games than ever before, the Western lifestyle precludes the time to play more than a handful.

So I’m willing to bet that, across the country, gamers brought home games they didn’t play. They downloaded titles they never loaded up, purchased handheld games that stayed in the packaging.

Time To Get High-Falutin'

Not only is this bad for the pocketbook as gamers purchase games they never play, but it’s bad for games as an art form. Compare games with the modern literary scene. Novel-writing is a mature art, and one that the enthusiast can dive into with as much gusto as a gamer. There are dozens of books released into stores every week, and within a given genre one can always find new titles to enjoy.

Add to that the enormous history of every novel ever written and you have a beautiful unbroken chain of artistry. New aficionados can arrive at the literary doorstep with no preconceptions, and enjoy modern works as easily as classics.

Games are simply not that accessible. The bang for your buck in buying a game means working through a series of video game titles is just not as easy as reading through a few hundred-page book. It might take fifteen hours to read through a thick trilogy of books, perhaps spread across a few weeks. It might take even less time for a dedicated reader. Even the most dedicated game player might take just as long to complete one of last year’s AAA titles.

RPGs, arguably one of the epic examples of the art, could easily take three to four times as long to complete. Again, for one title. To play through all of the games I mentioned above (not including The Burning Crusade) I conservatively estimate could take 60 to 70 hours - for just nine of the dozens of quality titles that came out last year.

Lots of gamers are buying games. This much is clear from the NPD numbers. But how many are playing them when they get home? Of those, how many are making it past the first hour of gameplay? Of those, how many actually finish the games they play? Grand Theft Auto IV is sure to be this year’s GOTY darling but - as Warren Spector recently asked - how many people do you think really finished it? The need, the drive, to see the new and the interesting always pushes gamers onward to new games, to new experiences.

That push into the future guarantees that even a great game of a few years ago will probably be relegated to the bin of history. The news of a new Beyond Good and Evil will no doubt spur numerous players to actually try it out, tying the old with the new.

But what of true classics like the LucasArts adventure games, or even the most primitive graphical games of yesterday? Anyone that’s played through the original Alone the Dark will tell you that in that time, and in that place, it was as terrifying as any over-the-top gorefest could hope to be. More so, I’d argue. But no one is going to play that game in anticipation of the new version from Eden Games. Why would you? “It’s so old!”

Great novels live forever. Great games live only until the next great game.

What we’re left with is a medium where the vast majority of the audience has only a flimsy grasp on the subject. They don’t know about the games of the past because they don’t have time to play them. They don’t know about the games of the future because there are too many to play.

They know about the games of the future because game journalists choke them with previews and spoilers, forcing them to swallow the delicious promises of marketing devils. After all: the lies of tomorrow are better than the bitter reality of today.

Taking Off The Whineypants

So what, right? I mean, it’s great to talk about this and reflect on what we’re missing out on as a subculture. It’s intellectually interesting to consider what might be if we had the time to really explore the art form we’re so fond of. But that’s not the way of things, that’s not reality. No-one has time to commit to a game the way they might want to, gotta pick up and move on to the next thing while the going’s good.

My purpose for bringing this up is to point out the role of the gamer in this mad dash. Ultimately, it’s the individual’s choice to participate in the hobby the way they want to. You can surf the cutting edge of gaming trends, if that’s your goal, but that wave will carry you swiftly past some experiences that take a bit more time to digest.

Despite what the marketing tells you, despite what your friends might be telling you, I want to tell you that it’s okay to slow down. It’s okay to stop and experience what games have to offer. Go back and play Deus Ex if you’ve always wanted to. Fire up that copy of Baldur’s Gate or Planescape:Torment.

Don’t let your relationship with something you love be dictated by hype, fads, or peer pressure. You may not know art, but you know what you like.



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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