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November 8, 2008

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Bangai-O Origins

['Roboto-chan!' is a column written by Ollie Barder, which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This column covers the origins of the Bangai-O series and why Hover Attack isn't the main creative creative catalyst.]

bangaio_tamashii.jpgThere are few games developers in the world that engender such a fan driven fervour as Treasure. Their games are revered in an almost monolithic sense, beacons of taut gaming functionality they distill the mechanics of a game into something palpably cogent. However, there are a few instances amongst their creative portfolio that have wider cultural leanings.

I am, of course, referring to Bakuretsu Muteki Bangai-O. A series of games featuring the titular mecha, Bangai-O, as it sprays a colourful 2D world with a vast array of homing missiles and lasers. The initial functional impetus for the game was outed as being that of the Sharp X1 title Hover Attack but in a more recent interview, this was merely a partial catalyst as it became clearer that the main influences took on a far greater role.

Specifically, three anime series were cited in the interview; Macross, Layzner and Ideon. For those that have been reading the column regularly, I've already covered the effect of each of these series (here and here). Now it's time to see how these influences actually manifest themselves in a gaming series such as Bangai-O.

Before I get started, lets have a quick look at Assault Suit Leynos 2 on the Sega Saturn. This game was released at the beginning of 1997 and was a direct sequel to the original Leynos on the Megadrive. The reason I want to show this first is because this highlights the problem that faced 2D mecha games as their functionality became more potent. Basically, the more agile and well equipped a mecha becomes the more viewing space the player needs to use it effectively. Leynos 2 partially solved this problem by having the camera zoom in and out.

The reasoning being that you needed to see your cool assault suit, as that was the main focus of the game. Right?

Well, no. Mecha, apart from its size and aesthetic, are not solely defined by aesthetic parameters. Just showing these aspects to a player is rather pointless in fact, as they have no functional merit. The real purpose of a mecha, in a game at least, is based around what it can do. Two years later Treasure came along and proved this rather magnificently.

Bakuretsu Muteki Bangai-O (Nintendo 64)

bangaio_n64.jpgTreasure solved the problem of their mecha's potency by making the actual sprite tiny. As a consequence they were able to "fit" the mecha functionality into the player's view. This is where Hover Attack comes in, as games like Leynos were too hung up on showing off how cool the mecha was but Hover Attack wasn't showing a mecha at all so the game didn't suffer from a limited viewpoint. Hover Attack was also only a partial base as Bangai-O was offering something far greater in scope.

This is where we get onto the three anime series I mentioned earlier. Let's start with Ideon first, as this is the most ambitious influence of the three. Ideon is a super robot that can cut planets in half, fire black holes and re-boot the universe. If mecha were an interstellar empire, Ideon would be its terrifying emperor.

ideon_guns.jpgHowever, Ideon also possessed an array of other weapons tucked away within it. These were installed by the humans that originally found the alien artifact. One of the more visually memorable attacks was when the Ideon fired off a volley of omnidirectional guns. Now, try and imagine that occurring in a game where you just see the mecha up close. Doesn't work, does it?

You need to see where the shots are going, so you can ascertain whether you've taken out your targets. Bangai-O approached Ideon almost reverently in fact, to the point that it put its array of attacks in the player's view, leaving the mecha itself as a relative dot on the aesthetic horizon.

The remaining super robot abilities, unsurprisingly, didn't make it into the game. As re-booting the universe is a problematic endeavour at the best of times.

Bakuretsu Muteki Bangai-O (Dreamcast)

bangaio_dc.jpgBarely six months later, a Dreamcast version of Bangai-O was released in Japan. Despite initial appearances, this was not a direct port but instead a fundamental reworking of the original N64 game. It also received a global release and became the "face" of the series for many Western gamers (as the N64 version never made it out of Japan).

It also evolved the anime influences further. So it's time we moved onto Macross' involvement. This was a series that featured balletic dogfights with transforming mecha but with the added adage of wonderfully excessive missile volleys.

yf21_macross_plus.jpgIdeon offered the catch all omnidirectional attack of doom, whereas Macross afforded a level of pretentious precision. Specifically, the fact that the missiles snaked their way through the air to find their targets was something that Bangai-O nabbed from Macross.

The Itano Circus was part and parcel of Riki's basic homing missile firing gun, as enemies swayed and jinked you had a mini-anime almost choreographed by Ichiro Itano occurring in pixellated 2D.

Macross also had an influence in the way the mecha Bangai-O moved, whilst precise there was an element of momentum. This made matters more tactical as you didn't want to be wrong footed at the end of a maneuver. You were also always fighting the subtle effect of gravity, which fed into the momentum even more. Thing is, this wasn't realistic physics at work. Not even close in fact, it was skewed anime physics. The kind that allows constant thrust in space to equal constant speed (though it does look cool in all fairness). This tactical wrong-footing was and still is part of the Macross dogfight. Seeing variable fighters fire off dummy missile volleys so as to position an enemy for a well placed bout of vulcan gunfire fits perfectly into the Bangai-O mould.

Bangai-O Tamashii (Nintendo DS)

bangaio_tamashii.jpgBangai-O Tamashii was released earlier this year to much acclaim. It's quite a substantial change to the original Bangai-O formula more down to its increased functional platter. However, the original anime triumvirate are still very much present and fueling the core that makes this shooter tick.

I've saved Layzner until last as it's more relevant in the newer DS iteration than it was in the original. Layzner is one of the most realistic mecha that falls under the category real robot. However, it's also one of the most potent. This contradiction is at the very centre of Bangai-O's gameplay.

layzner_ready.jpgSpecifically, the Layzner is a mecha that has to work within in a very rigid ruleset, it also expects an inhuman level of precision from the pilot (something it's onboard AI helps to partially assuage) and it's also terrifyingly fragile once pitted against other SPT's.

Throughout the Bangai-O series, the player is expected to work within a very focused rule set, be precise in their control and teeter on the razor's edge of near death around every turn. In Tamashii this is even more true.

There are a few other visual aspects of Layzner that are very much at work as well. The V-MAX halo is now present whenever Bangai-O dashes and generally the movement is more exacting now.

Generally, Layzner makes itself felt in the taut nature of the levels themselves. As the expectation is on the player to perform within a suitably cunning set of parameters, which is probably why the level design is far more engaging than most other shooter-em-ups.

When mecha collide...

It's always interesting to see people jump on gaming references as the sole functional influence, when there are other far more relevant cultural aspects afoot. Bangai-O, as a series, is resolutely in the mecha gaming genre. Each of the series listed above have had an obvious tactile outcome. Without them Bangai-O,as we know it, simply wouldn't even exist.

If anything, Treasure are pulling on more anime series with the latest iteration with beam sabres, super napalm and baseball bats. Those abilities alone call on a good quarter of a century of mecha anime after all, in addition to the series mentioned obviously.

With this gaming genre specifically it's worth realising that it doesn't exist in a cultural vacuum, with only gaming influences taking an effect. Mecha gaming has been borne out of Japan's half century fascination with its varied pantheon of manga and anime robots. Treasure, it seems, know how to build upon and innovate from that. Maybe more people should learn from their example?

[Ollie Barder, formerly a freelance journalist, is now a senior games designer at doublesix. He also spends a sizeable amount of time playing robot games and dusting an ever growing collection of Japanese diecast robot toys.]

Opinion: Neo-Retro - Movement Or Passing Fad?

[In this opinion piece, Japan-based journalist Nayan Ramachandran considers the appeal of Mega Man 9 and other "neo-retro" titles that hinge on gamer nostalgia, and ruminates on the potential shelf life of the burgeoning subgenre.]

For gamers over the age of 22, the 8-bit era holds a certain level of nostalgia that is hard to explain or replicate.

Unlike the generations before or after that, there's something truly magical and special about the era the Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System took the world by storm. The sound was low-fidelity but strangely endearing. The graphics were blocky and lacking in color but oddly beautiful.

It’s been a long time since the 8-bit era saw its end, and most gamers have moved on to far more beautiful and complex games. Many gamers have forgotten what it was like to be six years old again, playing a single level for hours in hopes of getting that unattainable high score.

Near the beginning of this year, Namco announced a DS game using the Game Center CX license, a Japanese television show in which comedian Shinya Arino must complete insanely difficult challenges in Famicom games.

Expecting a list of old Namco games to make appearances in the DS version, gamers were floored when they found out that not a single one would be making it in. In fact, not a single real game would make an appearance.

Instead, Game Center CX simulates the Japanese 8-bit experience, offering a list of fake retro games that never existed, but could have in an alternate world. The game even gives players a shelf full of retro-styled magazines to flip through and find cheat codes for particularly difficult challenges.

It was amazing to see that Capcom felt the urge to feed the neo-retro niche when it announced Mega Man 9. Not only did the company manage to capture the visual style by aping the art and fidelity of the early Mega Man titles, it even managed to keep the feel of the music and the general aesthetic, making it a true throwback to the old days.

WayForward's Contra 4 was a similar attempt, turning back the clock both on the game itself as well as the timeline of the series. Pushing less satisfactory titles out of the game's continuity, WayForward and Konami successfully pushed Contra 4, a 2008 title, back in time, connecting it directly to Contra III: The Alien Wars, which originally released on the SNES and Super Famicom.

While PlayStation and PlayStation 2 incarnations of the Contra series tossed the number convention in favor of unconventional naming methods (e.g. Contra: Shattered Soldier and Neo Contra), WayForward purposely used the number 4 as a subtle nod that they were in fact going back to what made Contra a leading action series in the late 80s. Ostensibly, Contra 4 was a real sequel.

While I'm sure the main purpose of making a piece of neo-retro gaming (a game whose conventions mimic those of a previous generation without having existed at that time) is to recapture the feeling and ape what we all remember by using our nostalgia as a powerful weapon, the potential market is larger than that.

For those who never grew up in the 8- or 16-bit eras, games like Mega Man 9 and Game Center CX offer an accessible, easy-to-purchase glimpse into that time period.

Since many of the games' goals don't involve finishing the entire game, and it even incorporates the era's surrounding culture as well, Game Center CX is not just a glimpse into the technological time period, but the very culture and childhood many of us enjoyed.

Mega Man 9 is a different beast to Game Center CX. While Game Center CX is self-aware of its anachronistic nature and offers the game as a snapshot of a time period with all its trappings, Mega Man 9 might likely not stand the test of time.

This is not a comment on the quality of the game in any sense, but rather its ability to remain relevant to gamers 20 or even 30 years from now. Many gamers who bought Mega Man 9 did so because of the game's inherent nostalgia, or because they never had a chance to enjoy the older games on the Nintendo Entertainment System when they were younger.

Mega Man 9 is very much a product of its context. Its gameplay is fantastic, but it too is a product of the time period in which it reigned supreme. It suggests the question: can neo-retro games stand the test of time? Will games that mimic or lampoon the 8-bit era remain relevant and interesting to the masses long after its original audience has disappeared?

A friend suggested that perhaps "neo-retro" will mean something different in 30 years. Perhaps games with PlayStation- and PlayStation 2-quality graphics will become the new standard for neo-retro revivals. Maybe in 15 years, gamers will get a Vagrant Story sequel running in the same phenomenal engine the PSone original did.

It's a nice thought, but as evidenced by even current attitudes of PSone-era graphics, that period has not aged well. While 8-bit and 16-bit sprite based graphics still hold a charm that can only be described as "je ne sais quoi," PSone polygonal games are downright ugly. They have not aged well, and I suspect in 10 years, we will feel the same about PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast.

It certainly is impossible to explain why polygonal-based graphics don’t hold the same nostalgic allure of its sprite-based cousins, but that modern perspective speaks for itself.

Those who think Super Mario World is still beautiful are the same that will agree that Rival Schools, while an excellent fighting game, has aged horribly visually. The game is downright horrifying to look at.

Perhaps neo-retro gaming will never get that far. It's a burgeoning subgenre now, but no one really knows how long its steam will last. We may never get as far as 10 years before interest in its anachronistic mechanics and aesthetics thins out.

It is hardly in its death throes now, though. Namco has already announced Game Center CX 2 with a host of new old games, including a parody of Famicom Detective Club.

Mega Man 9 was also a big success for Capcom, garnering massive profits on all platforms for which it was released. It is hard to deny that, at least for now, there is an interest in replaying our childhood.

GameSetLinkDump: Emulating The Dance Revolution

Starting the weekend with this set of GameSetLinkDump goodness - while I wander off to Las Vegas with my lovely wife for a little relaxation (and Vosges chocolate store visiting) this weekend, which should be not unpleasant.

Anyhow, this set of strangeness is topped by 1UP's Jeremy Parish having some words about emulation quality in some recent retro compilations - which is not unreasonable, honestly - plus some free Fable music, an odd Dance Dance Revolution musical, Katamari Damacy on cellphone, fine random eBay auctionage, and more.

You oughta know:

GameSpite: 'Swing and a miss'
Parish doubts Backbone's emulator tech for the newly announced Sega Genesis compilation: 'If I saw someone playing an emulator with this filter running, I'd take away their computer privileges for life. (Well, actually, first I'd probably blink to check that I hadn't suddenly developed cataracts.)'

Jake Power's abused pets and November US box art - NeoGAF
These GAF threads are unmissable just to see all the weird box art lumped together.

Sumthing Digital: Fable I/II promo album
To celebrate the soundtrack release of the sequel, click on the 'download' ad in the top right for a mini-promo album.

Circuit Bent Atari Punk Dreamcast 8-bit noise synth - eBay (item 260309994148 end time Nov-09-08 17:03:54 PST)
Opto theremin Dreamcast? Just say yes!

Broadway World: Les Freres to Premiere DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION at the Ohio Starting 12/3; Hansis to Star
'Inspired by the wildly popular video game of the same name, Dance Dance Revolution is like Footloose set in the future—but much scarier, and with 40 really attractive, barely-clothed young actors as well as free beer!'

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Sense of Wonder Night 2008 Videos
Neat, all of these are worth checking out esp. I Wish I Were The Moon, Gomibako, The Unfinished Swan.

Double Fine Action News - Just One More Grim Thing
The Grim Fandango puzzle design doc. Awesome!

Andrew’s Site : National Videogame Archive Visit
'Tom detailed every way the archive stuff at the museum was setup and his plans to put on hopefully a permanent exhibition (maybe with interactive elements and some games to play), or at least a temporary exhibition of videogames once the museum has enough material - perhaps in a few years.'

Namco Games - Rolling with Katamari
A cellphone Katamari game? Interesting, though Keita Takahashi is prolly rolling in his non-grave.

Scott Adams Adventure Gold Computer Atari 24K Cassettes - eBay (item 400004809411 end time Nov-26-08 10:43:01 PST)
Wow, geeky.

November 7, 2008

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Integrated Character Creation in Spore

Spore galaxy screen['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at Spore's character development innovations.]

An experience common to most video games is that of inhabiting a character. Since the days of Pac-Man, players have adopted the roles of people and creatures with distinct appearances and personalities. Today, few games are released where the player character is not given a specific identity. Sometimes, this identity is fixed; the Half-Life series stars MIT grad Gordon Freeman, and the Mario series features the world's most famous plumber. Other games, however, allow the development and customization of a character which is unique to each player.

Character creation can take many forms. In many cases, characters are created seperately from the game, usually in a "character editor" that pops up before the beginning of the game proper. The Fallout series, most MMO games, and many more allow this sort of customization, where forming the character is a very "meta" experience; it's done in a seperate mode, and any changes that are made after gameplay begins are separate and disconnected from the actual experience of the game proper.

Pre-game character creation has an essential downside, however. Because it is separate from the game, the player does not know when making her first character what the consequences of her choices will be. When playing the game, the player may discover that some statistics or abilities are less useful than they initially appeared, or decide that a differently built character would better suit the game.

Additionally, having character creation as a completely separate takes away some of the unity of feeling of the player's experience. Because of this, a few games integrate character creation into gameplay. Maxis's recent game Spore takes an unusually broad approach; the entire evolution of the player character's species is shaped over the course of gameplay.

Spore Moiner creatureNatural Selection

Spore takes place in five stages: Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, and Space. However, the first four stages are quite simple, each taking under an hour for an experienced player. The Space stage is where the real meat of the game is; it has more story, more complexity, and more content than the other stages combined. Essentially, the first four stages serve as tutorial and character creator, introducing the concepts of evolution, customization, movement, and conflict.

One can imagine a version of Spore that consists of just the Space stage. Players would create their species, vehicles, and buildings in the editors, and pick an assortment of traits from a list. Indeed, once the Space stage is unlocked, players can do almost exactly that when they start a new game. However, this would not only lose much of the evolutionary feel of Spore, but would be rather overwhelming for a first-time player. A full set of creations for a species would require players to make a creature, an outfit, four buildings, four vehicles, and an anthem.

Instead, Spore's first four stages spread this creation process out, and encourage creativity and customization. Players return to the creature editor repeatedly during the Creature stage. This lets them add new abilities, but also allows them to refine their creature's appearance gradually, with inspiration and experience gleaned from the gameplay proper. Likewise, the player's actions during the first four stages shape the attitude of her species, from aggressive to peaceful, which provides her species with special traits and abilities.

This gradual character creation process is made possible by Spore's evolutionary theme and scale. It's hard to imagine playing a game like Morrowind for an hour with the player character half-built, but because Spore gradually introduces gameplay elements, players need only flesh out their characters when the gameplay requires it.

Spore civilized creatureIntelligent Design

Slow, integrated character development mitigates the problem of uninformed character creation that is seen in games with a separate character build system. During the Creature stage, the creature is completely editable at any time, allowing the player to change her mind or refine its abilities whenever she wants. Additionally, the player is able to experiment with different gameplay styles. If she finds that she dislikes combat, the player can reshape her character with a more peaceful approach.

The appearance of the player's character, likewise, is fully customizable throughout this stage. When the player first reaches the creature stage, her selection of possible parts is quite small, which helps to avoid overwhelming the player with too many choices. As the stage progresses, the player has the opportunity to collect more parts, which tend to be variants of the parts that the creature is already using. At any one time, the player is choosing between just a few alternatives, but the sum total of these simple choices is a complex creation.

This is handled less deftly in later stages. In the tribal stage, the number of options are very small and have little aesthetic effect due to the scale at which creatures are displayed. This means that the player has little encouragement to customize her creature's appearance, and the statistical bonuses of outfits are small enough that there's little real need to choose them carefully.

In the civilization stage, on the other hand, the player is immediately provided with a large array of largely interchangeable parts for her buildings and vehicles, and never gains new components. As a result, the player is likely to make a single set of creations at the beginning of the stage and never customize them further.

In addition to the low-level creation of creatures, outfits, buildings, and vehicles, there is the overarching alignment system, which establishes personalities and consequences based on how aggressive or cooperative the player behaves. Through the civilization stage, the player's alignment can be adjusted, but it becomes more difficult as the stages advance. This allows the player to change her mind about her approach if she decides she doesn't like it, but also encourages consistency in player actions.

Spore town hallGenetic Drift

As well as this works, there's an odd schizophrenia to Spore's opening acts that betrays the difficulties with this in-game approach to character creation. The early stages seem to be confused as to whether they should be an extended character creator or games in their own right.

They are simple by necessity, as the player has not yet developed her character enough to support more complex gameplay. This simplicity makes for an effective character development experience, but it also means that the gameplay lacks depth, and risks becoming boring or repetitive.

To avoid making gameplay suffer for the sake of more integrated character creation, it might be preferable to make a more organic game structure, where the stages of gameplay are less distinct. Spore has clear and sudden divisions between the phases, but a more continuous progression could help to alleviate the downsides of the pacing, and hide the artificiality of the goals that end each stage.

Integrating character creation and development with gameplay, as Spore does, helps to unify the player's experience and help her make informed decisions. It also allows the player to change her mind if she decides that she made the wrong choice at some point in character creation.

This approach to character creation is appropriate in any situation where the game's mechanics support a gradual increase in complexity, and where it makes sense for the player to be able to modify her character in response to gameplay experience.

[Gregory Weir is a writer, game developer, and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at Gregory.Weir@gmail.com.]

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of Nov. 7th

In this new round-up we'll be posting weekly, we are highlighting some of the notable jobs posted on Gamasutra and its sister sites' industry-leading game jobs section, including positions from Sony Santa Monica, Big Huge Games, Volition, and many more.

Each job posted will appear on the main Gamasutra job board, and appear in the site's daily and weekly newsletters, reaching our readers directly.

It will also be cross-posted for free across its network of submarket sites, which includes content sites focused on online worlds, cellphone/iPhone games, 'serious games', independent games and more.

Some of the notable jobs posted in each market area this week include:

Gamasutra.com - Game Industry Jobs

Sony Santa Monica: Manager of Art Development
"Join the God of War team!... SCEA Santa Monica Studio is in search of a Manager of Art Development to oversee the day-to-day operations of our Internal Art Department... The Manager of Art Development will oversee a large staff of artists. The job requires a fundamental understanding of a variety of disciplines: concept, environment, special effects, character, technical art, animation, and cinematics."

Backbone Entertainment: Studio Technical Director
"Backbone Entertainment, a division of Foundation 9 Entertainment, is located in the San Francisco Bay Area. We develop original games and remakes of classic games franchises for PS3, X360, Wii, PSP and DS... work with several development teams as a technology leader, mentor and auditor... be responsible and accountable for all the strategic technology and technical process decisions on several game teams."

Big Huge Games: Concept Artist
"Big Huge Games is looking for an experienced, exceptionally knowledgeable, talented, and motivated Concept Artist to contribute to our upcoming original RPG title, headed by internationally celebrated Game Designer Ken Rolston of Oblivion fame. This is also an opportunity to work alongside award-winning Big Huge Concept Artists Sean Andrew Murray and Jeremy Enecio. Together this talented duo has earned high accolades from Spectrum, Dominance War, and Society of Illustrators to name a few."

Volition: Project Manager
"PEOPLE OF THE INTERNET, HEED OUR CALL. Volition is seeking a Project Manager who will unleash the magical powers of Excel and slay the zombie army of interdependencies that would hinder us in our just and righteous march toward The Milestone. Join us! RISE UP AND JOIN US!"

WorldsInMotion - Online Game Jobs

Tencent Boston: Senior MMO Engine Programmer
"Tencent Boston is an exciting new start-up with a focus on creating top quality online games. We are looking for an experienced MMO engine programmer to help create our server side engine technology. If you have a track record in online server development and want to work in one of the most exciting and dynamic areas of MMO development, check out this listing!"

SeriousGamesSource - Serious Game Jobs

America's Army Game: Artist Squad Leader
"The Lead Artist is responsible for managing a team of artists and interns in the creation of 3D models, textures, concept art and environmental level work and will have a significant role in establishing and maintaining the look of the project. Responsibilities include managing a daily scrum meeting and interfacing with a Producer as well as other team leads to determine monthly schedule tasks and prioritize work to insure that all departments are receiving assets as they are needed."

IndieGames - Independent-Relevant Game Jobs

Sony Online Entertainment Denver - Programmer (Flash/ActionScript)
"Sony Online Entertainment’s Denver Studio is the developer of Legends of Norrath, Pirates Constructible Strategy Game Online, Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga, Star Wars Galaxies Trading Card Game, and Stargate Online Trading Card games... Create and maintain ActionScript code to drive the Flash-based user interface for our games."

To browse hundreds of similar jobs, and for more information on searching, responding to, or posting game industry-relevant jobs to the top source for jobs in the business, please visit Gamasutra's job board now.

Event Report: Toronto's Artcade No Nostalgia Trip

2008_11_05_snow.jpg[GSW's resident Scottishman in Canada, Mathew Kumar, was kind enough to attend the Toronto-based Artcade game exhibit the other weekend - and presents a report for your delight and delectation.]

If you happen to read Gamasutra as well as GameSetWatch (and I hope you do, because it's important to cut your intake of unusual game-related nonsense with hard-hitting industry reportage—otherwise, you won't get all the nutrients that'll help you grow up strong and healthy) you might have read a few reports I wrote last week from the Ontario Game Summit and Game On: Finance.

These were two interconnected conferences here in Toronto that dealt (largely) with game development in Ontario—which happens to be part of Canada, that oh-so-important third biggest game developer in the world, but also happens to not be Quebec or British Colombia, where almost all of that development happens.

As a result, the conferences were really interesting when you think of them as a whole. Jason Della Rocca opened with a keynote on how to create a cluster which would foster creative and sustainable game development within Ontario (or, indeed, anywhere in the world) but I really don't think the message was taken in the best spirit.

No disrespect intended to Ian Kelso, the fine gentleman who runs Interactive Ontario, but his opening waffle, where he asked the audience to think of game development in Ontario as an opportunity to replace "car engines with game engines," was about as wrongheaded as you can get.

We all know—or at least, well all should know—that game development isn't a factory process. We can't just replace the sign that used to say "General Motors" with one that says "Ubisoft", and yet a significant proportion of the two days were spent with many of the commentators—especially those who worked for the government—spending their time debating how to draw large companies to set up huge studios to churn out million sellers and hire thousands of grateful employees.

The most astonishing thing about the conferences was that it wasn't until the very last session that anyone mentioned the amazing creative talent that Toronto has fostered in small, independent developers. Sherpa Games' Warren Currell was the first and only person to mention Metanet Software (N+), Jonathan Mak (Everyday Shooter) or Capybara Games (Critter Crunch).

So thank goodness for people like Jim Munroe for running things like the Artsy Game Incubator.

The Incubator is a collaborative game development group for artists and people who want to make games but have no technical skills (or not enough) that uses simple and accessible tools to allow their game concepts to be developed.

The group is about creativity, first and foremost, and the gathering it held the weekend before the Ontario Game Summit/Game On: Finance, Artcade, could not have been more different from the conferences that followed.

2008_11_05_artcade.jpg

The event was part of Toronto's regular zine and alternative culture fair Canzine, and these were the Artcade rules, up on the wall for everyone to see. The Artcade was in a tiny room that was unbearably hot and sweaty (like all the best arcades, I guess) despite a sub-zero temperature on the street outside, so if anyone had pooped their pants it would have been the end, honestly.

And actually—I'll take this point to note that the Artcade wasn't merely showing games from the Artsy Game Incubator. As well as a few independent projects, it was also exhibiting titles developed during the most recent Toronto Indie Games Jam, arguably the largest independent games jam in the world.

On show included:

2008_11_05_ghes.jpg

Gesundheit. There's a good chance you've heard of this, because it's been mentioned a few times here before and was part of the IGF's Student Showcase 2008. But just look at it! Developed by illustrator Matt Hammill, not only is it beautiful, but the design is clever; I'm surprised this hasn't been snapped up to be redeveloped for Xbox Live Arcade or something. Er, unless it has and he didn't mention it.

2008_11_05_ceph.jpg

Night of the Cephalopods. This is probably one of the most exciting titles, because it does something that I can't think of any other games doing—well, other than sports games, anyway—running commentary.

Sounds stupid, but as you play this Lovecraft inspired tentacle horror, an (impressive!) narrator describes what is happening on screen with macabre glee. I cannot establish how amusing this is and how ripe with potential it feels. Seriously. I eagerly await the point where the download is available, as it sadly isn't yet.

2008_11_05_snow2.jpg

Snow. People who know me might consider it cronyism to give special props to this, considering I know the developer well and he's one of the brains behind the (now defunct?) The Gamer's Quarter magazine , but this is a sweet point-and-click adventure that might be the first independent game/independent comic crossover. That I can think of, anyway.

On a recent edition of video game radio show/podcast One Life Left they finally found a reason to play some Mogwai, because it turns out that they contributed music to Actua Ice Hockey 2.

If you've been looking for an excuse to play some Godspeed You Black Emperor on your excellent video game radio show/podcast (hey, it's possible) , then The Scourge is your answer. It's a completely freaky zombie survival title developed to ebb and flow to the movement of a Godspeed You Black Emperor piece. It also contains some wonderful art from SuperBrothers—and a unique sort of "choose-your-own adventure" design. Well worth checking out.

There were actually too many interesting games for me to really give them all a fair shake. Titles also well worth looking at include Bubl, a game which attempts to be a video game version of those Tomy Water Games where you used bubbles to move objects around; Albacross, for the adorable art and non-preachy ecological themes; and A Game About Bouncing, ToJam 2008's best game, developed by Shawn McGrath (developer of Chain 3 for iPhone/iPod Touch).

I'll close with a couple of things. First of all, can you help with this?

2008_11_05_appeal.jpg

Let me know and I'll pass it on.

Secondly, Jim McGinley noted in his brief discussion of this (excellent) Shadow of the Colossus de-make Hold Me Closer, Giant Dancer that few people actually bother to download and play games that are on the TOJam site.

In fact, he explicitly stated as advice to any game developer that they should "make a game that they want to play," because "you're the only one who is probably going to play it."

It's good advice—to strive for your own idea of creativity and not spend your time thinking about what other people want. In fact, it's one that I hope in time government bodies will think about when they consider how to keep expanding the games industry here in Ontario. I'd rather have more opportunity for people to develop "what they want to play". than see game engines developed here as if they were car engines.

(However, please feel free to prove Jim wrong and actually download some of the titles I've just mentioned. It'll be worth your time!)

GameSetLinkDump: Elite Beat Sorcerors

A return to GameSetLinkDump after a couple of days, and a few pop up from earlier this week, in preparation for a fresh RSS trawl this weekend. It's headed by a review of Simon The Sorceror 4, actually, which is neat because the classic adventure franchise is still alive, supported by those lovely Germans.

But also in here - a hint (or we can only dream) that Elite Beat Agents 2 might be forthcoming, alongside pinball layoffs (aw), Fable 2's maturity issues, a horror game conference, Invader street art awesomeness, and Psygnosis box art heaven.

Yee haw:

Simon the Sorcerer 4: Chaos Happens - Review - Adventure Classic Gaming
'If you are a fan of classic click-and-point adventure games, you will love Silver Style Entertainment’s Simon the Sorcerer 4: Chaos Happens. This game is among the best adventure games I have played, on par with a LucasArts classic of yesteryear, but with modern graphics and effects.'

Pinball News - Stern Pinball cuts
'Accordingly, some of the well-known names at the company were told their positions would be disappearing. Game designers Dennis Nordman and John Borg, software designers Keith Johnson and Dwight Sullivan and Director of Technical Support Joe Blackwell were believed to be among those leaving the company.'

Artsy Games Incubator » Blog Archive » Artcade Rocks!
Oo, totally cool Toronto indie game goodness - see next GSW post!

GoNintendo » Blog Archive » Nintendo UK press site lists Elite Beat Agents 2- What are you waiting for?
One can only hope.

The Brainy Gamer: The world according to Molyneux
Interesting point on the game's M rating: 'On a hunch, I spoke with the manager of my near-local EB Games store, and he told me, "You have no idea how many underage people we've turned away on Fable 2. I'd say at least a hundred, including phone calls."'

Daniel Primed:: Gaming Analysis, Critique and Culture » Exploring Jamaican Game Culture (Interview)
'Apart from massive 80’s arcade hits like Pacman and Space Invaders there was never a coin ‘op culture in Jamaica. Although there have been video games here from before I think the Super Nintendo truly kick started the video game sub-culture here.'

Elder Game: MMO game development » Player Superstitions
'Human beings don’t deal well with randomness in general. Our brains are powerful pattern-matching machines, and we will see patterns no matter what it takes… even if the patterns are fake.'

Free Pixel » horrific new conference call for papers
Whoa, an academic conf just about horror games? Neeto.

Invader's New Binary Code Street Art and a Bridge Too Cool | GameCulture
'French artist Invader is the Banksy of the videogame aesthetic. Since the late 1990s, he has used ceramic subway tiles as tangible pixels in his game sprite-inspired street art.'

All Style: Early Psygnosis Games and Box Art | How They Got Game
'To further bulwark the company's focus on the visual, Psygnosis enlisted artist Roger Dean to design the company's logo and provide cover art for future games.'

November 6, 2008

Opinion: Why A Game Designer Outgrew Video Games

[As kids grow, they may trade Dr. Seuss for George Orwell, and Nickelodeon for CNN -- but for what can they trade Super Mario Bros.? In this opinion piece, designer Brice Morrison laments the lack of truly mature games -- and examines what "adulthood" for games might look like.]

My mother was never interested in games when I was little. Looking up from her newspaper, she would give a soft smile as she saw my brother and I engrossed in Super Mario Brothers before slipping back into her reading.

"Mom!" we called. "Come play Mario with us!" We happily tossed her the controller, only to grimace as we watched her plummet poor Mario off a cliff accidentally. "I don’t like these games. You boys have a good time," she would say, handing the controller back to us. With a sigh, my brother and I would take back the controls and continue on.

Try as she might, my mother could never get the hang of moving that "tiny man", as she called him, around the screen. To her, games were toys; children’s playthings, a skill not worth investing time in.

Games provided no lessons, no useful knowledge, no reward that interested her. They were fine for us, but to her, an intelligent adult, they were a waste of time.

Only Entertainment

It was only a few years later when I myself began to share my mother’s point of view. I was disappointed to find that as I matured, I was leaving games behind.

While my interests in other media grew substantially more adult -- from Nickelodeon to CNN, from Dr. Seuss to George Orwell -- games did not seem to have a more intelligent counterpart for me to move on to.

As I entered college, I became less interested in mindless entertainment and more interested in encountering new ideas. I didn’t want to kill time; I wanted to take advantage of it. I wanted to challenge myself with profound concepts, to learn of new paradigms, processes, and possibilities.

To fill my growing need for intellectual nourishment, I left games and moved to other media, texts largely influenced by schoolwork. In the search for ideas, books more than satisfied me. Fiction and non-fiction books such as Brave New World and Seven Habits enriched my life and took me places I had never before been. Television and documentary films followed close behind. I was an "infovore", eager to learn all I could about the world I live in.

But the games I played appeared to have nothing to say in this discussion of the pragmatic. And so reluctantly I waved goodbye to my entertaining friend in search of deeper art and ideas.

As a longtime video game player, I wondered: did it have to be this way? Why were games stuck with a preteen obsession, while other media managed to satisfy different consumers at different stages of life?

Books were also capable of pure entertainment, so why was it that the written word was versatile enough to delve deep into the human psyche, while games could only provide simple fun? Surely there was a way to make games with more depth than Super Mario. But if so, where were they?

TV Can Do It, Why Can’t I?

I began to compare games to other communication forms, and I noticed that some media have hit the big time, so to speak. Television is one. Film is another. Books and magazines yet another.

All of these media are universally accepted and not even questioned when we see them expressing the deeper concerns of reality, simply a palette on which artists can create their craft. They are capable of being either pure entertainment or pure intellectual discourse. As a medium, they are free.

Games do not have this luxury. To many people, games are only allowed to exist for pure entertainment. Another medium that has succumbed to this sad fate is comic books. Artist Scott McCloud has written (and drawn) extensively about the tragedy of comic books. They, like games, are a medium which has yet to break out of its childish audience.

Only a small handful of comics have been able to reach deeper and more intellectual concepts than the slam-bang action of superheroes. Yet McCloud argues that comics as a medium are capable of so much more than children’s fantasies. Themes of romance, biography, satire, or surrealism are not out of their reach.

Perhaps comics are not yet down for the count; perhaps they will one day serve more purposes than children’s entertainment. For example, a comic drawn by McCloud himself served as the tutorial for Google’s newest Chrome browser.

But for a form of communication that has been around since the 1930’s, comics are a long way from where they would like to be: read by children and adults, men and women, expressing a multitude of themes and ideas.

Games As The Baby Brother

Games, luckily, are only about 30 years old at best, much younger than comics, and certainly much younger than books. As a medium, they have a lot of time ahead to grow and find their identity.

So what exactly are the barriers of entry for great thinkers (or groups of thinkers) to leave their mark on games? What must happen for games -- or interactive entertainment, if you will, to mature as a medium?

While no one knows the answer to this question, many people (and companies) have stepped up to the plate to attempt to bring games to the next level. The Nintendo Wii has been a monumental development in the games industry, not because of its innovative technology, not because is has helped get people off of the couch, but because of the way it has changed the audience.

My mother, who claimed she could never play games, frequently plays Wii bowling with my aunt. A substantial amount of Wii owners claim that it is their first video game console. This means that, by taking away the buttons that confounded my mother and replacing them with movement-based controls, Nintendo has opened up the possibility that games could be for people other than kids.

But Nintendo is not the only one moving the age of gamers up the scale. The ESRB claims that the average gamer is 35 years old, contrary to most anecdotal evidence. As kids (such as myself) who grew up on games turn into adults, the opportunity exists to satisfy their new tastes.

Who cares if games are played by an older audience? That doesn’t guarantee that it will become a truly respectable medium. Ian Bogost, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote that games will not be truly expected as a medium until there are more boring games.

Only when games are mundane enough to be accepted as a method to, say, teach us how to drive safely, will games have truly arrived. While the goal isn’t to create boring games, the goal is to approach a world and a public perception where boring games are not outlandish.

So how do we get there? One step at a time. Games like My Weight Loss Coach, or independent titles such as Passage are slowly, one by one, changing the public’s conception of games.

As new titles appear that push the envelope of what people, like my mother, think of as games, we approach an environment where emotional and intellectual discourse is possible.

So what’s the big deal?

Games have a lot of growing to do before they are ready to be heard. But imagine when we arrive: a world where games could teach you how to drive better, how to write better, how to talk with coworkers and friends better.

Imagine games that could help you understand life outside of your country, to conceptualize the hardships of the poor. Imagine games that could expand your mind, and make your personal world richer than it as before. Those are games worth seeking out.

[Brice Morrison is a game designer who has been developing quirky titles since he was in middle school. Before taking a job at Electronic Arts, he developed several successful independent games such as Jelly Wars, an action adventure franchise, and QuickQuests, a casual MMORPG.

While at the University of Virginia, Brice founded Student Game Developers, an organization which continues to produce games every semester and open the doors to the games industry for students. His blog at BriceMorrison.com discusses games in a broader context and how they can be more than simply entertainment.]

Best Of Indie Games: Way to Go, Mac

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

This week on 'Best Of Indie Games', we take a look at some of the top independent PC Flash/downloadable titles released over this last week.

The delights in this latest version include two (!) Mac releases, a puzzler based on Conway's Game of Life, a procedural-generated strategy game, a 2D platformer and a physics-based variation of Tetris.

Here's the top releases of the week:

Game Pick: 'Dyson' (Alex May and Rudolf Kremers, freeware)
"A real-time strategy game which involves commanding an army of seedlings with the aim of colonizing an entire asteroid belt, one asteroid at a time. The latest version includes a handy three-page tutorial, and a Linux build has been made available to download as well."

Game Pick: 'Treasure Hunter Man' (Bernie, freeware)
"A freeware 2D platformer created by the developer of Darkside Adventures and Reactor 09, featuring four dungeons with different themes to explore, a variety of inventory items to find for puzzle-solving purposes, unlockable skills, a couple of secrets, and two endings to discover."

Game Pick: 'The irRegularGame of Life' (irRegularGames, browser)
"A puzzler based on Conway's fascinating Game of Life theory, where cells in a grid stay alive, die or multiply based four simple mathematical rules. The included sandbox mode allows for easy sharing of user creations, and there is even an option to change the colour of cells if grey isn't your thing."

Game Pick: '99 Bricks' (WeirdBeard Games, browser)
"A physics-based variation of Tetris created by WeirdBeard Games, where the objective is to build the highest tower possible out of ninety-nine tetromino shapes."

Game Pick: 'Millenipede' (Zolyx, freeware)
"This Centipede remake was recently updated with a host of new additions - power-ups, statistics tracking, an online high score table, new music, improved visuals and more. Millenipede is available for both Windows and Mac platforms."

Game Pick: 'World of Goo' (2D Boy, commercial indie)
"We couldn't resist mentioning 2D Boy's award-winning debut release for a second time, especially since Mac users can now get a taste of what Windows people and Wii owners have been raving about for the last couple of weeks."

Column: Diamond in the Rough: 'If You're Going To Shoot Low, At Least Do It Right'

lotr3rd.JPG['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly updated column by Tom Cross focusing on innovations that a game makes on an old, tired aspect of game design. This week, Tom compares Jedi Knight II and LOTR: The Third Age to appreciate those relatively staid, formulaic games that "provide a safe place from which to slowly, carefully refine video gaming tools and traditions."]

Some great games aren’t innovative in the slightest. These games don’t try to do anything new because they don’t want to. Instead, they take (some might say, steal) the ideas of trendsetting games that were rough around the edges, refining and tweaking them into a smoothness they lacked the first time around.

These games are often delivered to us behind the façade of established franchises or IPs, settings and fictions that we as gamers are often highly loyal to. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Final Fantasy, Mario—all of these franchises have included such entries, games that would be labeled as “competent” or “uninventive” in another setting. And indeed, it somehow seems wrong to love a game that’s really just super-competent plagiarism. Or it might just seem wrong to admit it.

Yet these games are often a place where I find solace hard to come by in other games. I can enjoy smoothly executed mechanics and gameplay tropes that I would otherwise shun for their “tiredness” or unoriginality. Simply put, these games provide a safe place from which to slowly, carefully refine video gaming tools and traditions.

There are some studios that specialize in this kind of work. Raven Software is often used by various larger companies (Lucasarts, Id) to make sometimes good, often formulaic games, includingJedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, Elite Force, and Quake IV. And Electronic Arts' Redwood Shores studio worked on The Lord Of The Rings: The Third Age, an RPG with a similar well-worn feel.

Jedi Knight II in particular is a favorite of mine, mixing a great story with a very enjoyable Force-powered game. However, when you examine the two alongside each other, The Third Age makes lots of smart decisions and produces a great set of experiences. Outcast makes enough slipups to stop it from attaining the same level of carefully constructed fun.

Inside The Third Age

The Third Age is an obvious example of a polished, almost soulless game. Based on the Lord of the Rings movie franchise, the game follows the plot of the movies, replacing all of the main characters with peculiar doppelgangers. Instead of Aragorn, you have a Ranger with a Middle Earth name. The same is true for all members of the Fellowship, Arwen, and others.

Starting as an uninteresting Gondorian warrior, you’ll travel from area to area, killing enemies in random encounters, like in many RPGs. You’ll pick up increasingly better weapons, upgrade skills and spells, and create new items of your own. It’s extremely bland, completely uninventive, and devoid of drama or emotion. The actors read their bad dialogue as if asleep,.

What makes The Third Age so enjoyable is how it presents these elements: without all of the noise and unnecessary to-do of many big JRPGs and their ilk. When I start this game up after a slight break, I don’t have to worry about what bizarre plot twists, character secrets and reveals, and hour-long cutscenes I might have forgotten. I know what I’m doing, why, and what difference it makes in the cookie-cutter world I find myself in.

The plot is just serviceable enough to convince you to fight another wave of Uruk-Hai. Your magic and combat skills, while uninspired in their design, are epic and flashy to look at and use. New party members always offer new skills and options, and many have high-level skills that will take hours to unlock. Gameplay consists of random encounters and linear exploration.

What I’m trying to say is that this game is Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Lost Odyssey, but without the fluff. Playing The Third Age is like watching a good, bad action movie. Like knowing that the remake of Death Race is bad, you know that many parts of The Third Age will be bad, but it’s also exactly what you expect and want. It doesn’t try to do anything beyond its capabilities, and it never lies to you about what to expect.

The same kind of competence seen in The Third Age can be found in Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. This game had absolutely nothing to do with its illustrious CRPG predecessors, and everything to do with Gauntlet. It was because of its strong and unabashed immersion in action and arcade traditions that I loved this game. It gave me the combat and mild RPG elements I wanted, along with a completely unconvincing story to carry me between fights.

Being A Jedi Outcast

Where The Third Age succeeds, Jedi Outcast fails, unfortunately. Jedi Outcast was tasked with delivering a long-awaited experience: that of wielding a lightsaber as a Jedi, in a fluid, convincing manner, not that jerky, arcade-like action from the original Jedi Knight.

j2outc.jpg In that area, it mostly succeeds. It gives you three different saber styles, directional and movement sensitive swings and combos. You engage in cinematic duels with a few bosses, and a host of force-enabled henchmen. Despite the generic nature of these encounters, they are always fun, and your encounters with Stormtroopers and Mechs are always a riot, mostly due to Force Push and Force Lightning.

The problem is, Raven not only decided to put you through four or so hours of non-saber, non-Force based gameplay, they also chose to make the first-person parts of their game persist into the later levels. When I’m running around Nar Shadaa slicing enemies with my saber, the last thing I want to do is take some time and snipe a distant Rodian with my badly implemented rifle.

Throughout the game, one feels the divided nature of Outcast’s design. It’s as if Raven had been told to make a shooter and a Jedi game, or maybe that these two could be easily melded. Maybe they can be, but as a shooter, Outcast is almost offensively boring and routine. Raven went and made a competent sword and sorcery third-person action game (with some Star Wars dressing), and then they added a decidedly not-competent shooter.

When I went back and played the original Jedi Knight, I realized what the problem was. Jedi Knight was never really about third-person “balletic” saber play. It was more like a shooter of the old school, with magic thrown in (like Hexen or Heretic maybe).

Jedi Knight is also of course the sequel to Dark Forces, and a good Doom clone. Dark Forces was exactly what Outcast is not: a well-constructed, completely formulaic game that makes few advances over its predecessors. Still, it leveraged its setting and a few good design decisions to become very popular.

With Outcast, the limitations of extremely competent games become apparent: no matter their genre clout or fictional backing, well-built average games can’t afford to spread their focus too widely. Because they’ve limited themselves to what they can borrow from other games, they have to stick with that. Too many attempted innovations (or worse, mistakes) in a borrowed, stable system mess the whole thing up. Complicated lightsaber work doesn’t fly in an otherwise straight-up copy of a range-weapon-based original.

Conclusion: On The Less Ambitious, More Accessible

There are many games that attempt to meld more than one style of gameplay, and many fail. When they succeed, its often because they are clear about what they are trying to achieve, and they deliver on those promises. That’s why Fable failed, and Fable II won’t: one made many promise, and failed, while the other is actually good for many of those same promises. What Outcast doesn’t do is perform competently (at the very least) in all of the game styles it dips its toes into.

When I think of games that I want to go back and play again, The Third Age makes the list, whereas Outcast does not. That’s because the price I’d pay for re-entering the world of Outcast is too high in comparison to the reward: to experience the entire narrative (which I happen to like), I’d have to put myself through too many unpleasant moments.

The same can’t be said of The Third Age, Fable and its sequel, or Dark Alliance. Those games provide gratification without requiring an overwhelming or annoying amount of effort on the part of the gamer: they’re fun, accessible, and they have worlds or settings that provide enjoyment on a simple level.

I may be more familiar with the world of The Third Age, and it may produce a bit of nostalgia, but I’m equally amused, enchanted, and engrossed by Fable II’s stereotype-ridden Albion. Maybe I’m making the case for less intelligent, less original games, but I think there’s a place for such games, especially when “epic” and “deep” are often code words for ponderous, overproduced, and underwritten.

So here’s to less ambitious, more accessible games, made with care and passion. To be sure, this is a dangerous path to go down. It’s the kind of thinking that might lead us to more Deus Ex: Invisible Wars, or another Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel.

Still, if this is the kind of thinking that can deliver Fable II to us (the crystallization of the “take a very complicated game and make it simple” tactic), or On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness, then we should encourage it as much as possible.

[Tom Cross writes for Gamers' Temple and blogs about video games at shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

Interview: How Far Cry 2's Fire Fuels, Spreads

[Ubisoft Montreal gameplay programmer Jean-Francois Levesque spent a year and a half "literally obsessed," solely focused on making Far Cry 2's fire believable, and he speaks exclusively to us about the details of his extensive process -- and how players react to the flames' lifelike lack of control.]

Much of the development focus on Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2 centered around its open world and procedural systems -- which has resulted in an unusual reception curve.

But the game is frequently noted for its fire propagation -- fire spreads realistically and can be used to create or exacerbate explosive chain reactions for strategic purposes. As a result, it's also somewhat unpredictable, making it a double-edged sword.

Jean-Francois Lévesque of Ubisoft Montreal is the individual most responsible for that feature. A gameplay programmer who contributed to various tools and the audio implementation, Lévasque ended up spending over a year on fire propagation alone, researching existing models of CG fire representation and attempting to balance realism and gameplay practicality.

We caught up with Lévesque to discuss how fire gained importance during development, how he approached his assignment, and how he has perceived player reaction to the feature.

How did your team decide this kind of complex, procedural feature was necessary for the design?

Jean-Francois Lévesque: I think [creative director] Clint Hocking, very early on, wanted to create a new standard in terms of player immersion. The game design was ambitious, and in order to support that vision the development team had to reach new heights in term of features.

It's probably uncommon in video game development to have a guy working full time for three years on the vegetation system, or to have another one, like me, working a year and a half to make fire believable. That’s how much dedication and effort the team had to reach the goals we set for ourselves.

But to come back to the question, the fire didn’t start as something really ambitious from the beginning.

Before [technical director] Dominic Guay assigned me to fire propagation, the game was supposed to have that feature, but nobody was working on it. He explained that the player would have a flamethrower and some Molotov cocktails to play with, but that explosions and other sources of heat might set fire too.

Dominic is a technical director and obviously he foresaw the performance issues we would have later on. So his first idea was that fire would propagate only on small predefined patches of grass no bigger than 10 meters by 10 meters, and on a very limited set of small objects.

A few weeks later, I had implemented what Dominic wanted, and it was working pretty well. At that point, he, [producer] Louis-Pierre Pharand and Clint flew to Paris to show a demo of the game to the management team.

It turned out that the management team in Paris loved the fire so much, they asked that the entire savanna and every tree be capable of catching fire and propagating it. Since I was junior and had no idea how complicated it was going to be, I agreed.
That’s how it turned out to become an important feature of the game.

What models and principles did you use to determine the fire's implementation?

JFL: Usually, when we need to develop a new feature in a game, we check what has been done before -- we analyze the good points as well as what could be done better or differently.

Sadly, in my case, I didn’t find many references in video games. Historically, fire is just used as a special effect. It hurts the player if he comes too close, but that’s about it.

That said, I checked every game I could think of that included some kind of fire propagation: Postal, Overlord, Mercenaries 2, Alone in the Dark -- I checked tech videos because it was in development while we were as well. We also checked a lot of video references of burning African savanna. We tried to accurately represent not only the behavior, but also the color.

At one point I became literally obsessed -- I would meticulously analyze every flame I saw, virtual or real, and my fire behavior issues in the game would keep me awake at night trying to solve them.

As for the technical aspects of the implementation, I read quite a few PhD research papers. These guys came up with formulas to very realistically simulate fire -- the way hot gases behave and how the fire propagates on complex, curved shapes.

Unfortunately, those solutions can rarely run in real-time -- and when they do, they are too slow for an FPS. I used my research as a base, and cut corners to simplify the math and physics. After all, the goal was not a fire simulation game, but a game with fire propagation in it.

I've succeeded if the player tosses a Molotov into some high grass and says to himself, "Cool. If I had done that in real life, it's plausible the fire would have spread in a similar way."

How did you balance between realism and playability in terms of the fire model?

JFL: There's a funny anecdote about that. A few months after Dominic told me I had to propagate fire to everything, I had it working in my test environment, and I decided to give it a try in the game.

I launched the game and decided to attack a small camp with five or six guards. There was an explosive barrel there, so I shot a single round into it. The barrel exploded and sets fire to the grass underneath, and the fire spread to the camp and set fire to the hut.

The hut set fire to the trees nearby, and the flames reached a propane tank, which went flying in every direction, setting fire to everything in its path.

One of the guards then caught fire and, in his panic, set more things on fire. Within two minutes, as far as I could see, literally miles of terrain were on fire. Every single tree, every hut, everything. The result was that I had killed every guard by shooting a single round and that my PC was now reduced to a crawling speed.

So obviously, we had to make trade-off between realism and playability. The fire doesn’t propagate indefinitely because it’s just not fun. It doesn’t look exactly as in real life, because pushing that many particles on screen while maintaining a decent framerate while keeping some processing power for AI, physics, dynamic world loading, and other game components, was not possible.

Actually, the balance between realism and playability is what I spent the most time on. The propagation mechanics were simple by comparison. I think it turned out well -- the player can go totally crazy with the flamethrower and set fire to as many things as he wants, and he probably won’t notice a slowdown in the framerate.

At the same time, the fire doesn’t oversimplify every thing. You can't expect to set fire to a camp, sit down, read a book, and expect that every NPC dies. That’s also where clever level design and AI come into play.

What in-game factors and variables does the fire in Far Cry 2 take into account?

JFL: It's common knowledge that wind affects propagation direction, but it's not as well known that hot gases released by the flames affect it too. It makes the propagation move faster uphill than downhill.

Humidity is another big factor -- you will notice that the jungle is much harder to set on fire than the savanna, and it doesn’t propagate as much there. The same thing happens if it rains or if it rained recently. It takes some time for the environment to dry and starting a fire during that time might prove to be difficult.

Another nice touch is that, if a burning object falls into the water, only the submerged part of the object will extinguish, while the dry part will continue to burn. The game is filled with those details that nobody might ever notice, but that contribute to the world believability I was talking about earlier.

What's the most entertaining thing that you've seen fire do in the game?

JFL: I really like chain reactions caused by fire. During development, I often found myself laughing out loud because a small fire I started turned into complete chaos -- blowing up cars and structures, setting trees on fire.

The beauty in that is it’s always different. It’s unscripted. I have laid down the rules and the world reacts to them. It causes some surprising and unexpected results.

Do you have a sense for how players are reacting to the feature?

JFL: Since the game came out last week, I’ve spent an enormous amount of time reading forums, blogs and reviews. I even went to game shops to stand anonymously behind gamers that were trying the game to hear what they were saying.

It's true that the difficulty controlling the fire is something that comes back often. Players say they create a wall of fire to block off enemies, only to become surrounded themselves.

It could be that the wind was against them, or they were uphill, but they ended up running away from the fire instead of the enemy -- not exactly what they had planned.

But that lack of control can be a good thing. For example, where I used to live, in the autumn, farmers would make piles of dead leaves and burn them in their fields. Sometimes, things went wrong; they lost control of their small burning pile, and a part of a forest disappeared in smoke.

It works the same way in Far Cry 2. You might plan your attack very well, setting fire to the left hoping to flush your enemies to the right, but you don't take into account the fire spreading to a tree and propagating to that hut or that barrel, which explodes and flies your way. It adds a level of unpredictability that can be fun.

How does that piece of procedural design play into the whole game -- does it interact with wildlife and other in-game elements in interesting ways?

JFL: You often find yourself outnumbered in Far Cry 2, and the AI is programmed to flank you and use openness to its advantage. Speaking in RPG terms, the fire acts as an area of effect fear spell.

Life forms will flee or at least try to avoid fire. It disorients the AI, making enemies forget about you and focus on saving their own skin. It gives you an advantage against high numbers of opponents.

It also reinforces the idea that you are a mercenary, using guerrilla tactics to achieve your objectives. It doesn't matter if it's amoral -- if you have to torch an entire village, you can do it.

November 5, 2008

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': The Customer is Always Right

['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This time, she examines popular PC casual time management game Burger Shop, finding out why it's really well-crafted, but ultimately just not that different.]

So, we have GoBit Games' Burger Shop. It's a time management game like many others, in which you have to assemble orders for customers before they get bored and leave. So why is it so much better than the average?

Well, production values are high. The art is consistent, attractive, and smooth. (It's astonishing how many casual games there are out there with really rather sub-par art -- I think because the pressure is to create as many as possible of this kind of game, with a minimum of investment. But it shows.)

Sounds are well-chosen and unintrusive, the kind that give you feedback about whether you've accomplished what you wanted to do (and remind you what you have to do next) without getting too distracting.

The interface is extremely well-designed. It's comparatively difficult to make stupid mistakes, and if one does, the mistakes don't interrupt flow enough to cause a major slow-down. The game demands almost no low-information action from the user, either: that is to say, it requires as much clicking and dragging as necessary to communicate your intentions, but no more. Once an order is completed, for instance, pressing the space bar will deliver the order automatically to the person for whom it is intended.

Failure is well-communicated. If you assemble a burger for someone, and then that burger turns out not to be quite right (if for instance you put on tomatoes the customer doesn't want), the wrong element will flash slightly to let you know what's wrong.

Conversely, if you left something out, an outline of the missing element will appear. It's hard to get stuck in a position where you've done something wrong but don't know quite what.

The reward structure is rich and complex. The game keeps track of many, many statistics -- a ludicrous number, really. Many another game awards the player four or five special trophies, but Burger Shop has dozens of them.

The game offers a number of different play styles of different intensities. Story mode is moderately difficult, but there is also a Relax mode in which some of the time pressure is removed, and a Challenge mode in which that pressure is stepped up, instead.

What's more, there's about twice as much content to the Story Mode as most time management games offer, because once you've gone through the regular sequence, there's also an Expert Story sequence retracing the same story track with more difficult gameplay and new cut-scene events at the major junctures.

In just about every respect, then, Burger Shop is designed as a consumer's game. The player is given control of play style to an unusual degree. The range of goals caters allows her to shoot for various kinds of success, and arrive there.

The structure -- with a story mode but many variants of play beyond that -- allow the customer to feel that she's "beaten" the game in about the same amount of time it takes to complete other games of the same ilk, but also allows her to go on to new tasks if she wants to.

(By contrast, I find that most games in this style become pretty stultifying once one has completed each of the levels of play: though they all allow you to replay levels to try to improve the score, I pretty much never want to.)

It's all extremely well-crafted. Well-crafted, but free of independent vision. Every element of game-play is borrowed from other games: customers that get impatient, orders that you assemble from parts, distractions you can offer to customers to pacify them temporarily, upgrades you can buy for your shop, power-ups that make your work faster and smoother for a time. It's all there, and none of it is at all new.

If anything, Burger Shop abstracts away some elements that are usually present by not giving the player a visible avatar in the game: you click on patties and buns to build them into burgers directly. There is no small figure running to and fro to put the pieces together.

I don't intend this entirely as a criticism, though. There's room in the world for works that are perfect in their type, where the type is already long ago defined. Burger Shop pretty much falls into that category.

And what happens to the narrative in this just-about-perfect treatment of the time management mechanic? It becomes the perfect level-based story arc. Since the player has no avatar, the protagonist is even more personality-free than usual. Plot events, such as they are, are all about explaining the new settings and equipment, with no extraneous narrative threads.

There is -- kind of -- a denouement in which we discover where all this burger-constructing equipment has come from. It's not a story to care much about, though, and Burger Shop itself kind of explains why game designers might want to opt out of worrying about a strong narrative: a good story line complicates things. Making the interaction and the plot dovetail together tends to mean that the gameplay cannot be a simple elaboration of a single theme, as Burger Shop's basically is.

Of course, a good story also makes a game different from all the other games sitting next to it. I only need one Burger Shop. But I'd play a whole bunch of games this smooth and polished if they all had different stories.

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

Analysis: On Theme And Game Design

[In this powerful analysis, game designer Daniel Cook considers the role of themes, from pirates to princesses, in game development, asking why games seem so limited in that area compared to film and literature -- and laying out some possible answers.]

Recently, I was chatting with some friends about the role of "theme" in game design. Theme, in this discussion, was the setting of the game, be it fantasy, sci-fi, military, and so on.

At first blush, the typical game designer's use of theme appears a bit primitive.

First, there is a limited range in games compared to the wide variety of themes in movies or books. Games recycle a half dozen major themes, or in some cases, invent their own surrealist themes that make little sense outside the context of the game.

Books, despite being grouped into narrow genres, have explored many thousands of powerful, evocative settings. You have books about bored European manuscript editors exploring the bizarre world of the pseudo occult, and you have books set inside the mind of a quadriplegic. The disparity in variety is intriguing.

Secondly, it is often crudely applied. Theme is applied in broad strokes at the beginning of many games, but almost always plays second fiddle to interesting game mechanics. Goombas are mushrooms, but this matters little beyond the fact that they are squat, match the scale of the world, and can be squashed.

If a novelist lazily integrated a character into their book's theme the way that game developer do on a regular basis, he would never be published.

Develop-And-Switch

The result is that theme is often seen as an interchangeable "skin" that can be applied after the fact to a set of working game mechanics. The task is typically left to marketers to round up a popular license so that it can be painted onto the latest hot collection of game mechanics. This attitude towards theme affects the very fabric of game development.

And yet, something interesting occurs when we work this way. Very few licensed games turn into major long-term franchises. They often feel incomplete and the pieces ill-matched. On the other hand, seminal "grown from scratch" games like Bejeweled, Mario, Quake, Grand Theft Auto, and The Sims end up doing amazingly well.

Despite their surreal and often disjointed themes, they are surprisingly fun. In these titles, the theme of the game mechanics and the theme evolved hand-in-hand, often undergoing major switches halfway through before settling into a successful partnership.

The Sims was a game about architecture that morphed into a game about playing dollhouse. Grand Theft Auto was a cops and robbers chase game where you were the cop that evolved into a game about being a free roaming criminal. Quake was an Aztec-style world where you tossed about a giant Thor-like hammer that evolved into the story of a nameless soldier battling against the mutants in a series of brown dungeons. And BioShock was originally about Nazis on an island.

If you start to dig into how games generate "fun," many of these thematic transformations are, if not inevitable, certainly commonplace. It turns out that most game designers are not complete idiots when it comes to integrating theme and setting into their game designs. Designers aren't ignoring theme, they are simply using theme in a manner appropriate to the medium in which they work.

Some Logic Behind The Madness

If you look at games as being about exploratory learning, they tend to teach the player a series of skills. First, the player learns basic skills (such as how to press a button) and, over time, assembles a scaffold of skills that lets him engage in more complex scenarios like "save the princess." Each moment of learning gives a burst of pleasure.

These basic skills are utilized over and over again. If the player fails to learn them, the rest of the game is lost on them. Games reward involvement, yet there is a high cost the player must pay in terms of initial learning necessary to become involved.

"Theme," from this perspective, is shorthand for a collection of preexisting mental tools, skills and mental models. I think of it as a tool chest of chunked behaviors that the designer can rely upon to smooth out the initial learning curve.

The theme you select directly influences how you present your initial skills to the user. By saying "pirates," I turn on a particular schema in the player's brain and a network of possible behaviors and likely outcomes instantaneously lights up. If they see a pirate with an impressive sword facing a small soldier, the goal of fighting the enemy is self evident. With a small visual cue, I've eliminated minutes of painful initial learning.

There is a fascinating moment in the sequence of exploratory learning where players say to themselves "Oh, I recognize and have mastered this situation already, so let me demonstrate my excellence." Because of the triggering of the theme, the challenge appears possible and attainable.

If, on the other hand, I had substituted the pirates with gray blob A and orange blob B, the player might be quite confused, not even bothering to pick up the controller.

Why So Few Themes?

To a certain degree, this perspective on games explains the limited number of themes used in games compared to books or movies. A book uses theme as a hook to get people interested in plot and character dynamics. There are lots of potential hooks, and the more unique they are, the more intrigued the reader is to find out more. This encourages a proliferation of fascinating settings.

On the other hand, a good theme in a game is one that triggers a number of clear mental models that are applicable to the game mechanics at hand. If you push too far outside the experience zone of potential players, you make them feel inadequate.

It also suggests that occasionally a literary theme simply is not needed. Sometimes it is better to just tell the player, "Hey, it is a game and like any game you've played, we'll educate you as you go." The same triggering of appropriate schema occurs. If it is enough to grease the wheels of learning, then our mission as a game designer is accomplished.

"Skinning" Is A Bad Practice

When you look at game design from the "games as learning" perspective, the idea of creating a slap-on aesthetic skin for a set of game mechanics starts to break down.

In the best games, mechanics and theme evolve in lockstep over the course of the many iterations. If a mechanic isn't working, you have a couple choices. You can adjust the rules or you can adjust the feedback that the player receives. The two act in concert to produce the player's learning experience.

Often it makes sense to adjust the feedback side of the equation. What if people don't understand that the pirate is their character? Maybe it makes sense to make the pirate wear a right red outfit, and make the enemy a bit more evil-looking. When you do so, the theme of the game shifts ever so slightly. Over hundreds (or thousands) of tweaks, a theme for the game might emerge that is quite different than what you originally envisioned. This is often the case for the best game in the history of our industry.

In fact, the final theme may be semi-incoherent if you attempt to analyze it as a literary work. However, that doesn't matter, because it provides the moment-by-moment scaffolding of feedback that helps the player learn their way through the game. As long as the game is fun and delivers value to the customer, we can often toss the literary definition of theme out the window.

In fact, you start getting into trouble when you make the theme so rigidly defined that you can't adjust the feedback for specific game mechanics. What if you are dealing with a license where the pirate isn't allowed to wear a red outfit? That design option, which may have been the best one available, is taken off the table. The hundreds of little trade-offs that occur when theme coherence wins and gameplay loses diminishes the effectiveness of the game.

So you can't just "skin" a set of game mechanics. When you do makes the attempt, a well executed iterative process of game design will often result in a game that is quite different than its source material. A poorly-executed process results in a game that plays poorly.

Conclusion

There are a few lessons here. First, the most effective game themes exist primarily to facilitate the learning process for the player. This may be a traditional narrative theme, but it doesn't need to be.

Next, theme evolves in lock step with the rules of the game over a process of many iterations. You might as well plan for it. Early on develop vertical slices of your game. This will help you converge on working combinations of theme and rules. As you go, allow for iteration on production assets.

Finally, note that locking in your theme too early and too rigidly can stunt the exploration of more effective feedback systems. A bit of flexibility often yields better gameplay.

[Daniel Cook writes regularly on design, the business of games and product development techniques on his blog Lost Garden. He currently works as a game designer at Microsoft.]

GameSetLinkDump: Delicious Headcrab Snacks For All

So, it's something called 'U.S. Election Night' in the real world, and that's rather cool in itself, but over here in the video game space, GameSetLinkDump is continuing in good form, headed by Kokoromi's hints on their neat 3D-glasses enabled indie games.

Elsewhere in here - the (pictured) gorgeous Half Life-related food, a stealth Ken Levine bombshell about BioShock 2, an offkilter recommendation for the Deadliest Catch game, Empire: Total War's real-life naval combat shenanigans, and lots more.

Yay tay zonday:

Kokoromi Collective - Día de los vivos
Looking forward to seeing these showcased at MIGS. (3D red/blue glasses indie games!)

Lost Garden: The Princess Rescuing Application: Slides
'My talk was on building an application that rescued princesses. The goal was to give interaction designers some insight into how game design might be applied to the domain of more utilitarian applications.'

Not So Few Monstrosities » Blog Archive » Vortisnaucks
Valve's Marc Laidlaw points out a bunch of neat HL-related snacks.

Patent Arcade: Case: In re Bilski limits patentable subject matter
'While not strictly a video game case, the Federal Circuit today (October 30, 2008) released its decision in In re Bilski regarding the limits on patentable subject matter, which could certainly affect patentability of some video game patents.'

superannuation points out Ken Levine isn't involved with BioShock 2
...despite with Take-Two said, presumably for PR-related reasons. Intemeresting.

PlayOn! | MediaMall Technologies
'PlayOn enables consumers who own a PLAYSTATION 3, Xbox 360, or HP MediaSmart TV to access content from sites including Netflix, Hulu, CBS, YouTube, ESPN and more on their television. We have just released PlayOn Beta, and the fully featured release will be coming shortly!' You may have seen this mentioned before, but I tried it and it's working pretty well.

Deadliest Catch: Alaskan Storm - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Rented the Xbox 360 version of this to check it out, and it's, well... definitely overlooked and interesting, but it really is a hardcore crab fishing sim on consoles, which is pretty darn odd.

Richard Cobbett > Richard's Online Journal > Fallout 3
The kind of review I like nowadays, which is to say a generalized ramble by an intelligent person on their personal experience with the game.

SEGA America Blog | Empire Total War: Naval Combat for Beginners
Chris Remo covered this for us - 'twas was one of the more relevant, educational and cute press trips (though it was a bit loud for interviewing on the ship!)

EGM’s Jennifer Tsao joins Sega - Sega Nerds
More high-profile journalist => industry moves from the consumer side.

November 4, 2008

The State Of Machinima, Part 2: The Machinima Filmfest Report

[Following the first part of this series, Matthew Hawkins concludes his GameSetWatch-exclusive report on the Machinima Filmfest that just concluded in New York.]

This past weekend saw the Machinima Filmfest 2008 here in New York City. Most regular readers of GameSetWatch more than likely know what the word machinima means, but for those who do not, it's basically a blanket term for filmmaking that's directly related to video games.

For the most part, it's a term given to the fruits and labors of amateur filmmakers who use video game engines to tell their own stories. For years now, those spearheading the movement -- as well as critics looking from afar -- have heralded the future of storytelling via this form. Meanwhile, others have needed some further convincing that it isn't just a niche effort and nothing more.

I suppose I'm part of the latter group. I was first exposed to machinima via a festival at the Museum of Moving Images, five or so years ago. To put it bluntly, virtually everything I saw left me in a state of utter boredom and confusion.

As I saw it, two things were holding the medium back:

- Inaccessibility: quite a few movies were based upon the games whose technology they utilized, spoke only to players of those games while leaving everyone else out in the cold.

- Over-infatuation with the form: everything else seemed more concerned and satisfied with the act of using game tech to make a movie than with the actual tale itself.

I figured back then that it would take some time for things to mature, before we finally got something of substance that could be approached by the rest of the world.

Five years later, it would seem that things are at least heading in the right direction. The festival consisted of two basic components; first and foremost, the movies, of course. All the Mackie Award nominees were projected on the big screen.

The selection is indicative of how far things have come. Quite a few of the nominees were entertaining even for those unfamiliar with the source material. You don't have to be a die-hard Halo fan to enjoy This Spartan Life, although it doesn't hurt to be one either. It was the other part of the festival, the panels, which provided the most insight into where things are and where machinima might be headed.

Interfacing Virtual Actors

The first panel I caught saw each speaker touching upon the concept of game technology as being in essence "live theater...enabling creative decisions in real-time, in the moment.” In that sense, machinima can be best described as digital puppetry.

Each person provided his own viewpoint, as well as technical solution to the struggle of getting virtual beings to look, act, and feel real. Perhaps the two most interesting examples, simply due to their bold-faced differences, were provided by Armando Troisi and John C. Martin.

Troisi, the lead cinematic designer at BioWare, demonstrated a bit of the work that went into animating the principle characters in Mass Effect. The system is a extremely complex one that allows for a wide range of complex human-like emotions to be created and adjusted by the numerous artists behind the game.

As sophisticated as the underlining technology might be, it's hardly automatic; Troisi noted that everything must go through "the hands of God" -- the aforementioned artists who ultimately control the show.

Serving as a counterpoint was the animation suite from Martin's company, Reallusion; iClone simplifies the process for aspiring filmmakers who lack a certain degree of resources and technical know-how, when compared to BioWare's experience for example, by providing drag-and-drop tools that take the concept of puppets on a stage to a far more literal level.

The real proof in the pudding was watching Martin animate a video game-like character realistically using the WASD keys. Traditionally, even the simple act of creating a walking animation has been a struggle for many users. Here, it remains quick and dirty, nothing close to resembling BioWare's final product.

But it works, and is immediately accessible by using a visual language that every gamer, even the most casual ones, can understand. In a Q&A session, most participants agreed that "reality is overrated" and that photorealism is simply a stylistic choice. As was also noted, "the actors in real movies are real, but they can't help it -- they're real!"

Machinima & Art

Up next was a panel on "Machinima and Art" which demonstrated how, for better or worse, the artsy-fartsy world knows that machinima exists. In fact, from the few examples that were shown, machinima might be the new video art of the 21st century.

One example, by French art collective Les Riches Douaniers, is a recorded clip of the rider from Shadow of the Colossus, recorded and manipulated to be even more solemn and barren. The piece was originally projected on a city wall, and its audio employed the sounds of the traffic nearby, which also proved to be a different approach from the traditional hacking of a game's engine to create an end product.

Then there was Annie Ok's use of Second Life. Two pieces were presented, one of her avatar doing an interpretive dance set to a black background -- the second of a series of films that explores her virtual self. The other was part of a mixed reality project in which a designer jeans sweatshop was set up in Second Life, with Ok as its documentarian.

It's odd that many of the trappings of the initial wave of machinima artists were evident here, specifically the obsession of the form to an almost narcissistic degree. But at least the pioneers didn't see a need to pile on superfluous tech with needless integration of Flickr and blogs.

But then again, the fine arts have always been about personal expression. People either get it, or they don't -- or they do and still think it’s dumb. The audience here appeared to be split 50/50, either completely engrossed (many appeared to be no strangers to the New York art scene) or totally bored to death (everyone else, or the "normal" people).

Grassroots Machinima

As such, the next panel, "Grassroots Machinima", which was about bringing machinima "to the people", was a breath of fresh air. All of the artists on stage for that particular hour were high school students or had just entered college. There were two young guys who simply loved movies and video games, and once they realized that the two could be merged, the creative juices simply flowed.

While not exactly original, one of the two dudes' homage to Kill Bill was earnest and lacking pretense. Gone are the days when kids are running around their backyards, recreating their favorite film scenes -- especially given that backyards are a dying commodity in themselves.

The rest of the kids, mostly girls, were part of an after-school program called Global Kids, for which they created movies in Second Life about pressing social issues.

Each of the kids hailed from New York City, and many did not have access to video games, let alone computers and the internet at home, which also meant that they had no idea that stuff like Red Vs. Blue (one of the more popular examples of machinima) existed before theit project began.

Where Do We Go From Here?

One of the final topics of the day centered around the state of machinima. Assembled was a trio of perhaps the most commercially successfully machinima creators today, including Chris Burke, the mind behind This Spartan Life; Frank Dellario of The Ill Clan; and Douglas Gayeton, creator of Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey.

The three passed along helpful advice to those that are serious about machinima by talking about their own difficulties, primarily when it came to dealing with other people's intellectual properties. Gayeton chose Second Life from the get-go to avoid such hassles ("Think IP all the way" was his motto), while Dellario used the Torque Engine because he wanted to be able to purchase a license and work with its authors in order to help deal with technical hurdles.

On the other hand, Burke's use of the Halo engine was something he couldn't keep a secret for long, due to the almost instant smash success of his series. "You can't hide when Marty [O'Donnell], the composer of Halo, wants to be on your show," he noted.

Gayeton detailed how his show, which at one point caused a bidding war between MTV, Sundance, and HBO, with the last network winning out, basically wrote itself. One HBO executive said, "You just explained what online lives are to me." When explaining how he managed to keep all ownership over his work, including DVD rights, Gayeton simply pointed out how anything otherwise would be like someone buying the rights to Eddie Murphy's likeness from Murphy. Gayeton's persona in Second Life, despite appearing artificial, was still very much himself.

That was simply one example of how machinima is rewriting entertainment laws and will continue to do so. If anything, the one clear message that was delivered by the festival, but accentuated in this particular panel, was that machinima is growing more accepted, perhaps thanks to the growth of online worlds.

Dellario, who does frequent work for hire, noted that machinima "is no longer a novelty, it's an actual production approach. It's changed the very definition of animation." He further suggested that "the gatekeepers of traditional animation just don't get it," due to how traditional content production such as animation takes far more pre-planning, execution, and post-production.

And so This Spartan Life's Burke had this one final piece of advice for all those eager to get their feet wet: "Don't sell yourself short. Whatever it is, try bringing [your creativity] to another audience."

The State Of Machinima, Part 1: Kirschner On Machinima's Past, Future

[We're doing a little two-part 'state of machinima' series here on GSW over the next, uh, four hours! Firstly, in an interview we also ran on Gamasutra, Matthew Hawkins sat down with Machinima Festival director Friedrich Kirschner to discuss where the real-time game engine cinema format is at nowadays.]

According to Friedrich Kirschner, festival director of this year's New York-based Machinima Festival, the form is evolving away from gaming in-jokes and toward a broader, more relevant way to create film.

For the first time this year, the festival, which has just presented its 2008 'Mackie' awards, has opened up a "long form" category -- for works of over 20 minutes in length.

The winners of this year's awards for cinema created using real-time engines do still show a reliance on game-related content -- i.e. This Spartan Life, World of Workcraft, Azerothian Super Villains.

But the mix of different types of content, both explicitly game and non-game, makes for a richer medium, and points to continued enthusiasm for the form from a variety of comers.

And though filmmakers from outside games who initially embraced the format in its infancy found difficulty sustaining traction, Kirschner believes they are coming back now that new games and new communities have made it more accessible.

In this interview, Kirschner examines the state of machinima as an artform, discussing the different ways the medium is evolving and changing as user-created content continues to flourish.

So how long have you been involved with the festival and machinima itself?

Friedrich Kirschner: Well, this is my first time directing the event, but I've been making my own films for about five years now. That's when I first got the idea to making movies from video game technology, and thought I was the first at the time.

But of course, the internet has a way proving that your idea is hardly original. [laughs] That's when I cam across the original machinima.org and eventually met Paul Marino and got seriously involved in the movement.

I know this is a loaded question, but what would you say is the very first instance or example of machinima as it is defined today?

FK: (laughs) Yeah, that is a loaded question. Well, I would have to say from 1996, a short piece called Diary of a Camper, which utilized the Quake engine.

It was the first to tap into video game tech to create a coherent narrative, though it was mostly a funny little piece. That's how most machinima were back then, though as time as moved on, people have realized that it can be used for something more.

How exactly have things changed over the years?

FK: Well first off, there are new, far more games out there than ever before, which means new tools and means for people to express themselves. Yet things are still the same; it still takes a while before you see anything good produced. About a year or so before people become familiar with the tool set.

How would you define "good"?

FK: Well, in the beginning people simply just poke around with whatever game's engine, but as time goes on, folks begin to dismantle it and learn the ins and outs, to create custom textures, animations, and the like.

I myself still use Unreal Tournament 2k4, which is pretty old by today's standards, but I'm comfortable with the tools, it does what I want.

And how are things changing?

FK: Well, with games such as The Sims 2 and World of Warcraft, the technical aspects are not as daunting. It’s easier to set up the camera and the elements you want, then begin shooting.

Plus there's also far more resources out there, more communities, more comprehensive web pages, that it's a bit easier overall.

But to go back to the issue of good, there's still the issue of quality, and more specifically accessibility. I have to admit, when I first went to a machinima festival about five years ago, I didn't enjoy much of what I saw. It appeared that most of the films were about the form, and that was basically it...

FK: (laughs) The bottom line is there's a lot of mediocre stuff out there. The thing that is helping to make machinima stronger and better as years go on, as evidenced now, is that more people are playing games. The machinima culture, as with game culture as a whole, has made such incredible leaps and grown.

This year's festival marks the first time ever in which there's a long form category, and we were a bit afraid that a lot of submissions were going to be unwatchable, since anything 20 minutes that's not absolutely engaging and just plain good is very hard to sit through.

Yet we were all pleasantly surprised by the entrants, even the ones that didn't make it into the nominations.

Because the number of people and playing games has expanded, you have an increase of different folks doing machinima, bringing more to the table.

One piece employs blue screen technology, with humans interacting with video game elements, a first. There's another [entitled Clear Skies] that's basically an homage to that sci-fi western from Joss Whedon [Firefly]. Another thing that there was almost never any of, good quality voice acting, is largely persistent.

How many entries did you receive for this year's festival?

FK: Over 200 films from 22 countries.

What were the standards that they had to meet in order to qualify for the festival?

FK: They simply had to be good. They have to work as a film, period. Regardless of the category; even a film that's up for best visual design still needs to stand on its own.

We also have different people from different fields choosing the nominees -- but just those actively involved in machinima -- artists, writers, directors, and the like all working professionally in the world of cinema.

Because things are changing so rapidly, and with many more people getting involved as you say, along with how Hollywood is willingly embracing video games -- as well as that video games are able to express such realistic graphics, to the point that they don't seem very "video game-y" at all -- is there a concern, perhaps from the core group that helped to start it all, that things might change too much?

FK: Not at all. Take Team Fortress 2 for example. It may not have the most photo-realistic graphics in the world, but its exceptional animation and unique art style makes its a joy for certain artists to play with. As technology marches on, people will still want to express themselves in not necessarily realistic ways with not so realistic games.

Once again, the true emphasis will not be on technological but cultural change. I predict more casual gamers to get involved, such as films featuring Spore or LittleBigPlanet, by those that got into gaming thanks to the Wii. Does that mean we're now finally going to get Shakespeare? No.

But the core idea behind machinima has always been opening animation and filmmaking to the masses, and that's definitely happening. People have stories to tell and will utilize whatever means to do so, and now there's this new, rich way of doing so. And because the audience continues to widen, that means an even greater incentive to get people involved.

And not just gamers telling other gamers stories about games? Another thing that turned me off five years ago was that I simply had no clue what was being told, because I wasn't familiar with the game that was being used.

FK: Exactly. The funny thing is that more and more traditional filmmakers are getting involved. And that's because, in its infancy, that's who first became involved in machinima, because they foresaw the opportunities that lay ahead.

But things didn't exactly pan out... the technological hurdles made it basically inaccessible. But those barriers are slowly moving aside.

Opinion: Investment In Character And The Mystery Box

[In this opinion piece, Swordfish Studios game director Julian Widdows (Cold Winter, 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand) looks at the importance of character meaningful interaction in games, citing J.J. Abrams, pointing to Grand Theft Auto IV as a game that does it right and rhapsodizing, "In Niko Bellic, video game characters comes of age."]

Earlier this week, a member of our development team sent around a link to a TED lecture called "The Mystery Box," by legendary film and TV producer J.J. Abrams.

Whatever you think of Abrams, his films (Armageddon, Cloverfield), or TV shows (Alias, Lost), he's a compelling speaker -- excitable, engaging, passionate, he speaks on his field with the conviction you'd expect from such a reliable money maker.

The inspiring moment for me comes 11 minutes in, when he show a clip from Jaws, as Roy Scheider's character is in his dining room with his son and wife. He's having a bad day -- this is Jaws, after all -- and as he sits at the table putting his face in his hands, his son starts copying his actions.

Scheider becomes aware of the copying, plays up to it, father and son snarl at each other, and then Scheider says, “Come here. Give us a kiss."

"Why?" his son asks, to which Scheider replies, "'Cause I need it."

It really is a great moment. Abrams' point is that scenes like that one are what make Jaws work. It's an investment in character -- if it were two hours of what was, even at the time, a pretty poor mechanical rubber shark, the film wouldn't be the classic it is.

Looking at a different film, it's the character of Ripley and the dynamic between her and the crew members that makes Alien(s) so utterly compelling.

The monster's not the narrative, it's just the MacGuffin to put the already well-formed character of Ripley under pressure and show her responding to unthinkably harrowing events. Both Jaws and Alien invest in the most important narrative vehicle of all -- character.

Rockstars Of Character

I finished Grand Theft Auto IV this week. It's a stunning game by any standards and, unusually, one I was totally compelled to complete, even through some of the more frustrating missions.

My takeaway from the whole thing -- the whole, incredible, 10/10 experience -- is that Rockstar's developers are, at this moment in time, the best exponents of game narrative in the industry.

Why? Because while the story's actually very simple -- an immigrant comes to America, seeking revenge on the people who double crossed him and his friends -- the investment in character is off the scale. It's the best of what our industry's capable of: totally compelling, believable characters throughout.

I could talk all night about the lesser roles -- Roman, Little Jacob, the hilarious Real Badman -- but it's the hero Niko Bellic who really shines.

In an Edge interview last month, I saw him described as "evil." That's one way of looking at him, but I think "evil" undersells what Rockstar has done with Niko. Amoral, yes; but evil, I'm not so sure.

Shades of Gray

Late in the game, there's a moment when Nico finally thinks he's found the traitor Florian. Confronting this old friend in a penthouse apartment, you prepare for the confrontation to end all confrontations -- and then Florian steps out from behind the bed, flamboyantly gay as a lord, and innocent to boot.

The relationship that subsequently develops between Nico and Florian is amazingly well-pitched -- funny, yes; camp, yes; but also very cleverly-handled. The high point for me is a scene, just after Niko has taken down a "hater" in the park as a favor to Florian.

In a car ride heading back to Florian's apartment, Niko -- normally a man of few words -- delivers a lengthy monologue about honesty in politics, how Florian shouldn't be dating a politician who simultaneously sells himself on a married family image.

He finishes by saying, and I'm paraphrasing, "I'm sorry, Florian. I don't normally talk this much. But you're my friend. I don't want to see you hurt."

It's a great moment. Later still, Nico is talking to Kate, a nice girl in an Irish-American criminal family, about her dead cop brother following his funeral. She intimates that Nico must be pleased to see another cop dead, to which he responds, "I have nothing against cops. They're just regular guys trying to get by."

Conclusion

What comes through time and time again with Niko is that, although amoral, he's actually highly principled, driven by a deep-seated belief structure centered on family, friends, and honor.

He has a sophistication and complexity that you rarely see in any medium, let alone a video game. In Niko Bellic, video game characters comes of age.

To quote J.J. Abrams: "When people do sequels... they're ripping off the wrong thing. You're not supposed to rip off the shark or the monster. If you're going to rip something off, rip off the character, rip off the stuff that matters."

Wise words.

GameSetLinkDump: Street Fighter Plus Electricity!

Time for some more GameSetLinkDump, headed, at least visually, by a cute limited edition Street Fighter T-shirt, along with news that Meatbun has a sale-y sale on a lot of their own fun tees. And who has enough video game tees, huh?

Also in here - chiptune goodness, the canning of Rat Race, some high-end Fallout 3 talk, whether long games can tell a good story, the UK Guardian being nice about Gamasutra, and, uhh, stuff journalists like.

[EDIT: Frank Cifaldi checked in with the Superego Games guys about Rat Race, and apparently it's not cancelled after all, despite comments to the contrary from Shu, and is still in development for PS3/PC. Weird. Maybe it's being self-published now instead of Sony-funded, or something?]

Wah wah waaaah:

Spectre Collie » Blog Archive » By Their Farts Ye Shall Know Them
A developer surprised by digging Fable 2: 'It can come across as condescending and a little dismissive to describe a videogame as “charming,” (I know this from experience), but that’s the best word I can think to describe Fable 2 overall.'

Tale of Tales » The Graveyard post mortem
Aha, finally finished, some v.interesting stats - >100,000 downloads, but: 'With the huge amount of downloads versus the low amount of sales, the conversion rate of the Graveyard was pretty disastrous: only 0.34% of the people who downloaded the trial actually bought the full version.'

Meat Bun » Blog Archive » Street Fighter Club: Brooklyn Took It!
Exclusive Street Fighter design for that NY Capcom event - also, Meatbun has a great sale on a lot of their neat tees (Typing Of The Dead!) Via TinyCartridge.

The X’2008 demoparty: All releases online! | TRUE CHIP 'TILL DEATH
The Commodore 64 demo and music scene still going strong - info about a recent party is on the excellent new chipmusic/visuals blog TCTD.

Rat Race [PS3 - Cancelled] | Unseen 64: Beta, Unreleased & Unseen Videogames!
Didn't notice this was canned, apparently Shu Yoshida mentioned so at E3 - shame, it was an intriguing PSN concept.

Versus CluClu Land: My Life in Fallout: Nasty, Brutish, and Short
'Where Hobbes' rhetoric in the Leviathan was meant to work on the reader and convince her of the empowerment she gained from participation in the civil contract, Fallout's rhetoric is all about the compelling ambiguity of a world without security and without laws.'

You Are Lose!: Can a 40+ Hour Game Tell an Engaging Story?
'More importantly, I think the community and developer mindset of "bigger and longer is better" is a huge detriment.'

American Elf: The Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka: 'MegaMan costume'
James Kochalka built a cute Halloween costume for his son, and did a cartoon about it, too.

Stuff journalists like - the weblog.
Oh dear. Many applicable to game journos, perhaps?

Gamasutra looks at the people behind the games | Technology | guardian.co.uk
This is neat - also, Jack has a cool pipe!

November 3, 2008

Best Of FingerGaming: From Crystal Defenders to NIN

[Every week, Gamasutra sums up sister iPhone site FingerGaming's top news and reviews for Apple's nascent -- and increasingly exciting -- portable games platform, as written by editor Matt Burris.]

This week's notable items in the iPhone gaming space include Square Enix's first iPhone game, Tap Tap Revenge with two Nine Inch Nails albums, and two game reviews.

Here are the top stories:

Square Enix to Release iPhone Game
"One of the more respected development studios in the world, Square Enix, plans on releasing a new iPhone game this winter called Crystal Defenders ... a Final Fantasy-related, map-based defense simulation game."

Tap Tap Revenge NIN Edition Released
"Tapulous has released the premium Tap Tap Revenge: Nine Inch Nails Edition ($4.99) which allows you to play Tap Tap Revenge using 16 hand-picked songs from the last two Nine Inch Nails albums, The Slip and Ghosts I-IV."

Finger Gaming Review: Pass the Pigs
"Sound effects and music are also top-notch, especially the oinks, of which you’ll hear plenty. All said and done, Pass the Pigs has superb production quality, and is one of the more polished games available in the App Store."

Finger Gaming Review: Rising Blocks
Rising Blocks is yet another match-3 puzzle game available in the App Store. The game plays like a classic puzzle game on the console, called Puzzle League, of which Tetris Attack on the SNES is part of that series.

First Look: Cronk
"Commanding a premium price tag, Cronk ($7.99) from Cronk Games is a boulder-tossing game where you match 3 or more of the same colored boulders as they roll around on the screen. The object of the game is to remove all the boulders before they reach the end. Similar games of its type are Puzzloop, Zuma, and Luxor."

Cube, FPS, Free on iPhone Soon
"Fernlightning ported the free, open source 3D first-person shooter engine, Cube, to the iPhone/iPod Touch and had submitted it to Apple for review back on October 2nd. Unfortunately, the game still hasn’t been released yet, and the developer has no idea what’s taking so long."

Flying Aces, Upcoming Flight Combat Sim
"SnakeHead Software has an upcoming dogfight flight sim game, called Flying Aces, that will be available sometimes in November. Think X-Plane but with combat involved."

COLUMN: @Play: Ten Years of the devnull Nethack Tournament, Part 2

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. Following a profile of the devnull Nethack competition, here's an interview with the competition organizers.]

November 1 marks the beginning of the tenth-annual devnull Nethack tournament. A couple of days ago we provided an overview and took a look at the trophy structure. I asked a few questions of the co-creator and primary maintainer of the tournament. Here are his answers. Thanks to the Bandy brothers for taking time away from the tournament preparations to give us the story!

Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Robin Bandy, I'm 37 years old and married; my wife has played NetHack, but is not exactly excited about how much of my time the Tournament takes each year though she's been extremely patient about it. I grew up on a ranch in southwest Colorado, but I've lived in the hills in east Oakland, California, since '97.

Though my college degrees are in anthropology and history, I've been a professional geek since '94 and have been freelance since '97; most of my work these days is as a consultant running the server farm that runs 1up.com, gamevideos.com and mycheats.com for Ziff Davis Media.

My other main interest after my wife and my geekery is making hard apple cider (and a variety of other fruit wines as well as a small amount of beer); we're fortunate to live in a part of Oakland that was an orchard 100 years ago, so most of our neighborhood has semi-wild apple trees which are great for ciders. Cider bottling time is usually about halfway through the Tournament, which tends to liven things up a bit. ;-)

His brother, who runs another tournament server and has been involved with the running since the beginning, adds:

My name is Matt Bandy. I am Robin's older brother. I have a PhD in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and am an archaeologist who works in Peru, Bolivia, and the United States. I live in Boulder, Colorado. I had the idea for the tournament many years ago and co-wrote the code (with Robin) for the first few years. Robin has since taken the over maintanance and development of the tournament and it really is his baby and it has been for at least five years now.

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How did the tournament get started?

That was actually my brother Matt's idea; as I remember it, it was basically a case of him saying "Hey, you know what would be fun to do?" and it just kinda snowballing from there.

He and I co-wrote the first version of the control server, and he wrote most of the original game server kit on his own; we still use most of his game server code, but we lost the original control server several years ago when that server lost its primary and backup disks in the same night so I had to re-write all of it from scratch. He runs a game server each year now, but with two kids that's about all he has the time to contribute.

When did the tournament first become really popular? Was it around the time Slashdot first linked to it?

The first time Slashdot posted a front-page link (in 2001) almost doubled the number of players, it's true, but the biggest year was actually the year after that. We don't have anything except the scoreboard files from the years before 2002, but I think we had ~400 competitors in 2000 and 800 in 2001; in 2002 we had 1071 players and haven't had a year that big since.

The time we consider the Tournament to have really become a staple in the NetHack community was with the release of 3.4.3 when the release notes file opened with the sentence "Now that the November tournament period is over, it is time for the NetHack DevTeam to make NetHack 3.4.3 available."; according to VersionTracker that was on 2004-01-08.

This year, actually, we're hoping to be the largest; I'm even trying to write a press release. ;-)

How well does the distributed game hosting software work? Were there any interesting technical challenges in getting the servers up and synced?

It actually does a pretty good job, though the rsync commands could stand a bit of debugging; the cron jobs throw errors when the source directories are empty for example.

The niftiest thing in it, in my opinion, was the way Matt set it up to work via ssh remote command execution so that the one control server can execute scripts on the game servers to get information from them; combined with a clever bit of Perl that lets us use flavor-specific Perl libraries for various commands means that the same script can be called on the various game servers and work the same way even though they're running many flavors of Unix.

I've gone on to use that style of remote command many times since; it's a staple for the entire admin structure on the servers that I built and run for 1up.com, for example.

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The trophy system came about as a fairer way to judge playing skill than the old score-based system, which is vulnerable to certain score-optimal playing styles that aren't generally considered normal play. Would you like to discuss the thinking behind the current trophy setup?

The grand prize trophy is basically a stunt (a streak of 13 winning games covering all races, roles, alignments and genders), and now that more players almost managed it in 2007 we are considering how to replace it with an even more outrageous stunt; that's the kind of thing that should be there at the top.

The major trophies, other than First Ascension, are all intended to recognize different play styles that have developed in the community over the years; the Recognition trophies are also aimed at that, but we extended them down to include folks who (like myself) cannot reliably ascend.

OK, another one of them is also not really based on a play style but rather on an aspect of the game: it kills a lot of characters, so the Most Unique Deaths trophy came in as a joke originally; now, though, it has actually developed into a play style that (as you mention below) abandons the concept of "winning" completely.

The minor trophies continue to reflect NetHack's score, since it would be inappropriate to just ignore it. Many folks have made very good cases that it doesn't really reflect the degrees of skill between the top players, though, which is why we brought in the major/minor distinction in the first place.

The Clan trophy is a bit of a joke, as the whole clan system is (Hi EIT!). It would be a lot more meaningful except for the fact that RGRN overshadows everyone else by such a huge margin. This is definitely an area that could use some serious re-imagining.

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One of the most interesting trophies, although one that a player has to almost abandon going for wins to shoot for, is Most Unique Deaths. For 2007's Most Deaths trophy, player theta achieved 74% of all the deaths categorized in the game, for a little more (according to my math) than 80 death types. Another neat trophy is the "Death by Trickery" consolation prize. Are there any other clever new trophy types (or any new trophies at all) coming this year?

I really like the Most Unique Deaths trophy, and I really enjoy watching it when it gets competitive; some of the deaths that have been posted can only be achieved by getting a game up to the point where it could be ascended and then doing something stupid like eating the corpse of Famine.

Trickery is actually the game's internal name for what happens to you when something goes wrong with the game files that makes the game give up completely; this is usually caused by an admin screwing something up, so we adopted it as the apology for when something we do kills off a character.

We do have one more major trophy in mind and I've actually done the artwork for its icon, though it won't premier this year; it will be named something prosaic like "Most Extinctions", but I think of the icon image as being "ASCII Chief" since it's based on the iconic helmet from Halo.

(Note: this will probably be a trophy for the most complete "extinctionist" game. Nethack keeps a count of the number of monsters of each species that are generated, and when the count hits 120 most of them will no longer be randomly generated except in special circumstances. Extinctionist players seek to do this to all monster types that respect extinction, which tends to make for very long games.)

For several years now marvin, a.k.a. Christian Bressler, has won the grand prize, Best of 13. Last year sawtooth game him a bit of a run for his money, tying for most ascensions overall at 14. Now that multiple players are getting to the point where they are competitive for the grand prize, is it possible that you'll have to come up with some other way of measuring playing skill?

Yep; we're really pleased to see more players rising up to those levels. The closest anyone but marvin has gotten to the Best of 13 is sawtooth's 11 from two years ago, so there's probably some life in that stunt yet.

We don't have any ideas in mind for what would replace it, but we've gotten several suggestions. If (or when) we do bring in a new grand prize we'll keep the Best of 13 active, probably by downgrading it to being a major trophy.

barrogue.png

Would you mind telling us a bit (officially) about the Challenge system and player reactions to past challenges? How do players "opt out" of a challenge? Are there and difficulties with the challenge patches accidentally changing the logic of the vanilla game, even if the player opts out? Would you like to drop any hints about this year's challenge?

The Challenge trophies I added in 2005 when I had to write a new control server from scratch; they (like the Recognition trophies) were intended to open the scoreboard up to some new folks who (like myself) wouldn't be able to compete at the levels the old scoreboard required. By adding this additional dimension to the Tournament, and by making it one that the serious ascenders would probably avoid, it gives a lot more people a chance to get onto the scoreboard and a lot of new ways to play.

This year's Challenge really expands on that, to the point that it has its own separate scoreboard in addition to the list of players who've completed it that past Challenges have had.

They were also intended to be a bit of an apology to the players, since the old system was wiped out about a month before the Tournament was due to start and I wasn't at all certain that I'd be able to get the new system built up enough to start on time.

Some players have been upset that this changes the Tournament from being a vanilla NetHack build, but from the beginning we've made them optional and I've gotten a lot better about actually limiting their impact to players who accept them; I think I tracked down the last bug in the Grue code this summer that was exposing it to non-Challenged players.

The Grue and PacMan Challenges have been the most complicated, since they both involved creating new levels and changing how light/dark worked for the Grues and overriding the vision system completely for the PacMan level. In both cases many characters (some of whom weren't on the Challenge) died in the first few days from bugs in my Challenge code and players have been rightly annoyed about that.

The basic idea of each Challenge is a narrative, hung onto a single feature of NetHack, which will be unavailable until the player completes the Challenge; last year's PacMan Challenge is a good example: when a player tries to eat a fruit, they'll be offered a Challenge (with nothing to say what it is; the Challenge must be entered into blindly) and the choice of accepting the Challenge, declining it or ignoring it for the rest of the Tournament.

Players who ignore it will not be offered it again in that year, players who decline it will not be offered it again in that game, players who accept it are given a little story about "the necromancers Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde (the four greatest villains of their age)" since I'm very fond of stupid jokes and I also like to make sure there are enough clues around for players to figure out what the Challenge is going to be.

Once the player has accepted, they will be prevented from eating any fruit in the Game until they either complete the Challenge (by playing a NetHack-ified PacMan game) or log onto the web site to block it from there.

Hints? OK, two words: "Bizarro Orgasmatron" ... ;-)

Any plans to expand the tournament to cover notable variants, like SLASH'EM, SporkHack or Nethack Brass? How about other popular roguelike games like Angband or Crawl?

I would definitely be up for that, but I'd really need to do it by working with someone from each game's community who could be responsible for that game's presence; in addition to having to patch NetHack to get it to log the data we need for the trophies, I really think an important part of the Tournament's acceptance has been that we try to build it in NetHack's style as well as we can and I don't really have the experience with any of the other major roguelikes to do that for them.

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How about leaving a devnull Nethack server up year 'round?

It's said on the web site for many years that we would do that, and we really should either do it or delete that line. ;-)

At this point, though, I'm leaning towards not. Unless NAO is short on capacity, they do an excellent job of providing a public playground and I really can't take the time to either adapt our system to running a regular server or learning how their system works.

If they do need additional capacity, or if they disappear for some reason and no one else can step in, we would certainly dedicate at least one server to being a full-time NetHack service but as long as we're not needed for that we'll keep our resources focused on the Tournament.

I am, however, working on another roguelike project that will involve providing a server; I mentioned on rec.games.roguelike.development a few weeks ago that after 10 years of running this Tournament I've finally decided to try my hand at developing a new roguelike on my own and (though that won't be a /dev/null project) I will definitely have a public server up for it.

Would you want to say something more to @Play's audience?

It's not a game unless you can lose; in a great game, losing can be at least as much fun as winning.

In my opinion that's the core of what the roguelike games contribute, and it's a lesson that could have made a lot of the mediocre games out there genuinely great.

GameSetLinkDump: Gathering The Gatheryn

Lawks a lordy, it's Monday again, and that means the latest GameSetLinkDump, wonderfully started off by GameTunnel's monthly indie game round-up - which will never ever die properly, much like horrible movie franchises like Saw, as far as we can work out.

Anyhow, this latest set of links includes pics of steampunk MMO Gatheryn, courtesy of sister online worlds site Worlds In Motion, which I'm excited about just from a 'damn, steampunk' perspective, as well as Wired on the state of Japanese development, tonnes of random indie links, and lots more.

Mickey mouse club:

October 2008 Indie game Round-Up by Game Tunnel
Latest in the mega-reliable review series: 'The 10 games reviewed for October include Introversion's Multiwinia, Archibald's Adventure from Rake in Grass and Zatikon from Chronic Logic.'

EA Denies Cancellation of Spielberg's Mystery Game | Game | Life from Wired.com
Random, slightly larcenous line of the week: 'I've tried to convince my EA contacts to smuggle me out some concept art or a development diary'.

The Independent Gaming Source: Recommended Ohrrpgce Games
How many games are there in the universe? I've never even heard of this engine, wow.

Worlds In Motion - MindFuse Officially Announces Steampunk Casual MMO Gatheryn
Yum, delicious steampunk MMO action, count me in!

TigSource: Indie Arcade Eurogamer Expo Pics
Good job, Pixel-Lab and Eurogamer chaps, for bringing the indie goodness to Londoooon.

Prince of Persia Animation Reference 1985 on Vimeo
V.cool from Mechner.

What is Love? | Jared Rea
Molyneux + dog + Fable protagonist = jebus.

McSweeney's Internet Tendency: The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life—A Few Mini-Games From Level III:
'McSweeney's Internet Tendency editor Christopher Monks has a new book out today: The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life; or, the Video Game as Existential Metaphor.' Excerpt! Neat stuff! Via ALitel.

Indie Video Game Developers Have Room To Play : NPR
Woo, another NPR story about indie games, this one referencing Sanzaru (Ninja Reflex guys) oddly enough - quite big for traditional indie.

Analysis: On the Death of Next-Gen in Japan | Game | Life from Wired.com
'Nintendo saw the writing on the wall -- people called them crazy for it, but they saw the dead end represented by business as usual. Game publishers just need to figure out how to turn Japan's next-gen worries into an advantage.'

Interview: How Frictional Games Does Frightening Without Fighting

[As you folks maybe know, Leigh Alexander digs the survival horror thing, so following the release of October's big survival horror blockbusters, she talked to Frictional Games, creators of the cult PC-based Penumbra series, about its alternate approach to the genre, Xbox 360 possibilities, and details on their new, 18th-century Codename: Unknown project. Boo!]

This busy October saw the release of two significant new entries into the survival horror game genre: Silent Hill: Homecoming and Dead Space.

While both games take rather different approaches to survival horror as it's been conventionally established, both games brought the issue of combat as a fear creation mechanism to the forefront: Dead Space for its "strategic dismemberment" approach, and Homecoming for the somewhat increased focus developer Double Helix gave the combat mechanics in a franchise that has historically struggled with them.

Swedish developer Frictional Games is a small studio perhaps lesser-known in the wider press, but its two Penumbra series PC games, Overture and Black Plague, have received widespread cult standing for the fashion in which they create a fear mood with only a minimal focus on fighting.

Interested in their approach to the survival horror genre -- and to the PC gaming market, and to episodic content, on which Frictional also maintains a focus -- we caught up with co-founders Jens Nilsson and Thomas Grip to learn more about developing Penumbra, thriving as a small independent company, and to get some hints on their next project, whose working title is "Codename: Unknown."

The Penumbra 'Trilogy'

In 2007, the studio released Penumbra: Overture for PC, Mac and Linux, billed as "Episode One" in a trilogy -- although it didn't quite work out that way.

"When we first started working on the Penumbra series, we were going to do a proper episodic game in three parts, but due to massive problems with our first publisher, we could not go through with that," Grip explains.

So Frictional switched publishers from Lexicon Entertainment to Paradox Interactive, and the planned trilogy's last two games were released together early this year as Penumbra: Black Plague. Recently, the company released Penumbra: Requiem, a puzzle expansion that "ties up some story stuff, but [is] more of an add-on than part of the series."

"I am not totally sold on the whole episodic deal, perhaps due to the many problems we had, but I do like the idea of shorter, self-contained games," Grip reflects, and he also sees such a format as a good fit for the horror genre.

"I think horror games would fit nicely into this and think it would be fun to have a series with each episode a specific horror-tale," he says. "That sort of thing has been the concept of many TV shows, and I see no reason why you could not do it for games. Horror lends itself very well to shorter bursts, and you could have episodes taking part at different scary locations, and so on."

Frictional's problem with episodic games is not so much in the final result, but in the development process, and he outlined the challenges. "It is a bad thing to do them in a serial fashion, so you would rather do all the voice work at one time, figure out ways to share resources... and then you might as well do a full game, and skip all the extra work that comes with a release. Telltale Games (Sam and Max) seem to have pulled it off, though, so it seems like it might be possible."

"Telltale has released more than one game series this way and it seems to work with a nice flow, and meeting expectations as well," agrees Nilsson.

But for Frictional, the team says, the idea of episodic delivery is "currently put in storage."

"As we got such a horrible start in the industry with this idea, we can think of nothing else more fun than to simply create one complete game," says Nilsson. Though he says Frictional felt a sense of relief with the completion of Penumbra as a trilogy, "it is great to finally get started on a completely new and exciting project!"

Innovating On Horror

Frictional is interested in creating a somewhat different breed of survival horror than what's eminently available on the market -- and perhaps their history of achieving these goals is what has won them such a loyal fanbase.

"Our main focus is to make a compelling experience without having the main gameplay revolve around killing things -- and also to not rely on flashy (and expensive!) graphics to create the mood," says Grip.

Largely, the studio's physics system takes much of the responsibility for making this possible, Grip explains: "Using physics for all interaction came out of the simple idea that the player should be able to open drawers, and we figured that animations would be too expensive."

"We then figured that using physics would be easier, and after that all of the other physics interaction came about. This also helped with the problem of creating fun gameplay without having tons of enemies roaming around. When the player could interact with the environment, it increased the level of immersion and gave the player something to do while exploring the levels."

Frictional also has a no cut-scene policy, with a focus on "keeping the player in charge as much as possible."

Says Grip, "Whenever one shows a cut scene, or somehow locks the player and forces some event, the player is brought back to reality, and some of the immersion is lost. Half-Life started doing this the right way, but still locked and forced the player to wait for some event to happen at times."

Although he wouldn't do away with all game cut scenes, Grip thinks it's best to leave them out of the kinds of games where immersion is essential to the experience.

"In Penumbra, we had this in mind throughout the design of the game, and tried to narrate the game through the ways puzzles where constructed, by showing evidence of events in the environment, and more. Still, we feel like there is a lot left to be done with this -- and will go several steps further in our upcoming game, Unknown."

Challenges In The Unknown

"Unknown", according to the team, will be set in a whole new universe from Penumbra's, and in a different time period -- "the end of the 18th century to be exact," says Grip.

"The game will have less focus on combat compared to your average survival horror game, but will have a lot more action-oriented gameplay than Penumbra."

Grip clarified that "action-oriented" refers to "more flow in the gameplay," suggesting that Penumbra's heavy reliance on logic puzzles might have "forced the player to stop and think" for extended periods, thereby interrupting the dramatic pacing.

"Now this is not necessarily bad, and we still want to have some more complex puzzles in Unknown too -- but we want the base of the gameplay to consist of action.... without adding tons of pickaxes, shotguns and roaming zombies."

Action without fighting -- Frictional knows it'll be difficult, but Grip and Nilsson say they're "confident" they can pull it off. Again, the game's main feature will be reliant on a "simplified and yet extended physics system."

The biggest challenge in designing these kinds of puzzles, says Grip, is avoiding letting the player get a puzzle into an unwinnable state -- no small concern with unpredictable physics. "Mostly the player needs to want to screw up for it to happen though, so it is not that bad," he explains.

Another challenge in Frictional's approach to survival horror, says Grip, is to moderate player expectations. In Penumbra: Overture, for example, they added support for melee combat to allow the player to defend himself in last-resort situations -- but many players seized their weapon and tried to aggressively fight the enemies.

"Because of this many thought the fighting system was really bad, even though that was a design choice," he says. Still, all weapons were removed from Black Plague in favor of letting players stun enemies with environmental objects.

"While this gave a nice addition of fear, it also forced players to only use these few options of behavior," says Nilsson. "As we do believe in giving player choices, as we often do with multiple solutions to all the puzzles in our games, we are going to try and address the weapon/no weapon issue in Unknown as well."

Nilsson says Frictional will add some weapons to Unknown, but with "negative side-effects" for their usage in order to encourage the player toward more favorable resolutions.

Unknown's first prototype is currently in progress, Nilsson says. "The final prototype will be ready in January, and by then we will have tested, re-designed and tweaked everything enough to move on to the full game production."

As the team's been at work since early summer, it makes about six months of pre-production, and Frictional appreciates the leisurely pace as compared to the Penumbra games, aiming for an early 2010 release.

Looking At Other Avenues

Frictional's also recently become licensed as an Xbox 360 developer -- "so we are looking into it and just waiting for the right opportunity," Grip says.

According to Nilsson, "It would be great to try and get something done for consoles. It’s also a tad scary with all the unknowns and new ground we need to learn about, but all in all it would be a very exciting venture."

Though Grip says that the studio's had little insight into how the Penumbra games have performed via GameTap, as the venture was done through another company, Frictional is interested in moving to Steam if possible.

"We have tried to contact Steam several times to no avail," says Grip. "Not sure if they are missing our mails, or if they simply do not want do business with us."

"From a pure Metacritic point of view, the average rating of the games available on Steam is below ours so it seems that quality should not be the problem," adds Nilsson. "Also, considering what sort of games the majority of the user base plays, it also feels as it would be a nice fit for our games."

"To end with a positive tone, we do think Steam is great and the closest to iTunes available in the games industry. If we ever had the opportunity we would love to get some products out on Steam."

November 2, 2008

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

Time to wander around the best features and originals of the week on our other main sites, including big sister publication Gamasutra and educational site Game Career Guide - and some standout stuff here, particularly interviews with Peter Molyneux and BioWare Austin's Daniel Erickson.

But also in here - a comprehensive game engine overview, the latest Game Career Guide competition winners and a new challenge, Ian Bogost on presidential election games, a postmortem of The Incredible Hulk for DS, and plenty more.

Here's them goods:

Gamasutra Features

A New Galaxy: Daniel Erickson On Writing The Old Republic
"In an in-depth interview, BioWare Austin lead writer Daniel Erickson reveals the philosophy and practicality of implementing massive story elements into the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO."

Persuasive Games: The Birth and Death of the Election Game
"Author and game designer Bogost examines the use of video games in 2004 and 2008's U.S. Presidential election, seeing a sharp decline in games used for political means this year, and simply asking - why?"

Postmortem: Fizz Factor's The Incredible Hulk
"In this postmortem, the creators of The Incredible Hulk game for Nintendo DS discuss the 'fully destructible environment' title for handhelds, from GameMaker prototyping to 'Rage' button removal."

Optimizing Asset Processing
"In this in-depth technical article, Neversoft co-founder Mick West discusses performance concerns when optimizing asset processing for games, including the basic nature of the common problems and in-depth solutions for keeping the pipeline efficient."

Engines of Creation: An Overview of Game Engines
"So you need a game engine? Gamasutra surveys the state of the market in this comprehensive overview of solutions, priced from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Peter Molyneux: Fable II, From Conception To Reality
"With Lionhead's Fable II now released, Gamasutra talks to creator Peter Molyneux in-depth about the creative process behind the game, from 'white box' prototyping to live-action filming."

Gamasutra Originals/Others

Results from Game Design Challenge: Fantasy Game Development
What are the factors and how are they scored? That was the toughest question to answer in a recent game design challenge that asked you to design a Fantasy Game Development game in the same vein as fantasy sports games.

GOF 2008: Edery - Devs Need To Watch Advergaming, Corporate Training
"Small to mid-size developers must investigate projects such as advergaming or corporate training simulations -- else they're putting their future "at real risk", said Xbox Live worldwide games portfolio planner David Edery, at the opening of the Gamasutra-attended GameON: Finance event."

Educational Feature: 5 Ways Game Designers Communicate
"No one should assume that aspiring game designers understand what it means when they’re told they need to be good communicators to succeed at the job. Game designer Tim Lang has written an article on GameCareerGuide.com that explains the five main ways that designers communicate their ideas."

OGS 2008: Della Rocca On How Sharing, 'Clusters' Can Strengthen Biz
"Government tax incentives aren't necessarily the most viable way to build strong regional game development, said IGDA executive director Jason Della Rocca at the Ontario Game Summit -- and in his keynote, he stressed that technology sharing and cyclical, cross-company development "clusters" are key."

GameCareerGuide.com's Game Design Challenge: Black History Month
"Could you design a game, electronic or not, that could be built in just three months that teaches school children about Black history? That's the task in this week's Game Design Challenge. What would you (and what couldn't) you do under those constraints?"

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': GamesTM Immortalized

emag_gtm_01_eshop.jpg

Following up their previous Retro Gamer collection, Imagine Publishing recently put out a DVD that contains PDF files of the first 50 issues of gamesTM, their multiformat magazine in the UK. The package (which includes a bunch of bonus wallpapers, mostly retro-themed) costs £23.99 shipped to America, which I'd consider a pretty honest deal; it's less than a buck per issue. Since the mag started in late 2002, the content on this disc is mainly from the PS2/Xbox/GC era.

Launched as a rival to Edge (which was undergoing some serious editorial turmoil around that era), gamesTM's main "gimmick" is the fact that you get a 180-page issue every single month, approximately 150-160 pages of which are editorial content -- something that's sadly never going to happen again in US mag-land.

It's also arguably the first professional magazine (Retro Gamer not appearing until early 2004) to have really extensive classic gaming coverage that wasn't an afterthought compared to the rest of the mag. For these two traits alone, gamesTM has my eternal respect, although I sometimes find myself skipping past the endless pages of humdrum previews so I can get to the columns and retro section.

At one point in 2006, gamesTM's future was in jeopardy after Highbury, its original publisher, went bankrupt. It wound up being one of the 24 titles in Highbury's family that Imagine bought (the other game mags being X360, Play (no relation to Halverson's Play) and strategy magtitle PowerStation, all still in business).

I'm definitely glad it's still around -- it's good for Edge to have some kind of direct competition, and even if you don't care about the old content on this DVD, there's no better and cheaper way to sample modern UK magazine design than by browsing through these PDFs.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. In his spare time he does writing and translation for lots and lots of publishers and game companies.]

In-Depth: LucasArts Alum On Strong Bad's Episodic Gaming Kick

[A 14-year LucasArts veteran before landing at Telltale, game designer and writer Mike Stemmle talked to our own Chris Remo about his work with the episodic Strong Bad series, the "Telltale Tool," and the studio's "veteran-friendly work atmosphere" that has attracted so many classic adventure game alumni.]

Mike Stemmle got his start at LucasArts during the company's golden age of adventure game development, and early in his career served as one of the design and writing leads on Sam & Max Hit the Road, the first game incarnation of Steve Purcell's surprisingly cross-medium dog and rabbit duo.

This year, he was hired as a game designer with California-based Telltale Games, which is getting ready to start development on its third season of Sam & Max episodic games.

It brings things full circle for Stemmle, who left LucasArts after the planned sequel Sam & Max: Freelance Police was cancelled, and then spent some time at now-defunct Perpetual Entertainment on its also-cancelled version of Star Trek Online.

This week, Telltale shipped the third episode of Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, a monthly PC and WiiWare series based on the popular online Homestar Runner flash cartoons. Stemmle has contributed writing and design to the series.

We caught up with the designer to speak about his new role at Telltale, the company's unusual development style, the relief at finally shipping a game after years of cancellations, and whether the studio plans to introduce its own original games based on non-licensed IP.

The Telltale Process

What are you up to since arriving at Telltale? There are so many series going at once.

Mike Stemmle: Yeah, yeah. When I came in, in early March or late February, the very first day I was there -- literally -- they said, "Hey, we're doing the Homestar game and we need somebody to write dialogue for Episode One. Go!"

And I said, "Homestar? What's a Homestar?" That's not very true. I was actually pretty well acquainted with the cartoon. But the thought of just jumping in was pretty tricky.

I came in and wrote a lot of the dialogue for the first episode, but that was really Mark Darin's design. A lot of it had already been designed at that point, so we traded off episodes. Chuck Jordan [led] the second episode. As Episode One was winding down, I was designing the third episode, Baddest of the Bands, which we had a rough idea about.

That was pretty much it. We had a seed and we had a reason to do a "battle of the bands," but the puzzles were up to me at that point. It was really a collaborative process anyway, because our process is [that] every day all the designers for the season get together and say, "We're working on the puzzles for Episode Three."

I kind of have ownership over it, but we all work together to come up with the puzzles. That keeps the episodes from getting really uneven, difficulty-wise.

What was very funny is when we submitted to Nintendo, and I was doing a sign-off with a producer, I went to the studio and suddenly realized, "This is the first time in a few years since I actually signed off anything." I was thinking, "That's a really good feeling."

Will you move over to the Sam & Max series when the next season starts?

MS: Yeah. Right now everybody who would be working on Sam & Max Season Three is kind of at varying levels of deepness from waist to armpits to foreheads on Strong Bad.

We've started talking. We've had some story seed ideas and some game mechanic ideas for the next season that we're already kicking around. We're starting to reserve about 10 percent of our brains to think about that and get excited about that. But we're making sure that Homestar is everything that it needs to be.

You were on the cancelled Sam & Max: Freelance Police project [from LucasArts], right?

MS: I was leading the Freelance Police project, yeah. Didn't get it out.

Do you have plans for original Telltale properties in the future, not just licensed ones?

MS: We always talk about it. We've always got a few things bubbling around. We're trying to get to a point where we're secure enough in our pipelines that we can push out a little time to be talking about it more seriously.

[Designer] Brendan Ferguson is back from his vacation, so he's doing high-level design thoughts right now, and we'll start thinking about stuff like that more often. It's [a matter of] finding the right thing, because we've got so many cool things going already that we have to make the first original thing the coolest darn thing ever.

We get the designers together a lot to toss ideas around. I'm missing one of those today. People are constantly talking and throwing ideas in front of Dan and Kevin to see if anything sticks. We'll know it when we see it. That's how it usually goes.

Constant Production

Must be refreshing to go from these cancelled projects to a company where you're constantly shipping games all the time.

MS: Well, that's the thing. Especially after working on [Perpetual's cancelled] Star Trek [Online]. Even if it had been any MMO, even if it's going smoothly, it makes the old games that I was working on look like short games.

You know, it has kind of been really interesting to be at Telltale for six months now and get a game out that's got a writing credit on it. And in a few weeks, somewhere in there, I'm going to have a game out that has got a design credit on it. And we'll ship an entire season by the end of the year. Wow, that's cool.

I'm just flabbergasted by the level of smoothness of the production process at Telltale, while keeping the quality up. This isn't sort of "knock it out" game design production here. This is everybody coming together and making sure things get polished. It's not passing bucks around. It's just about everybody working on a project to do about three or four things. When they see something wrong, it's their responsibility to fix it or immediately get in front of somebody who can fix it.

It's great. It's full, hands-on programming and designing. I've been exercising my feeble programming chops, my choreography chops, my design chops, my writing chops night and day to get these things together and so does everybody else. Testers come in and do patches and even code on occasion. It is something can do, so we don't have to bother always. It's great.

How big are those teams?

MS: On this sucker, the low twenties. They're lean and mean, and we have it set up so the choreographers finish what they're doing for an episode and are mostly moved on to the next episode while other guys are fixing all the bugs and stitching it all together.

There are these one-week periods where everything seems to be lying out on the floor, and all of a sudden it just congeals together into a playable game in a week. You're thinking, "Okay, I'm impressed."

From what I've heard, it wasn't that clean-cut at first, but it's really come together.

MS: We still learn new things every episode. The process gets better, but they have figured out a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff is working now, and it's great because it allows us to start pushing on our engine and saying, "Here's what we're going to do differently for Wallace & Gromit, and make it different not just visually, but gameplay-wise.

A lot of the cool things we're going to be doing from here are [the result of asking], "Going into Sam & Max: Episode 3, what did we learn from Strong Bad?" We get to experience that. We're going to put our stakes in the ground and make it all better. It's great.

Episodes, Veterans, And Twenty-Somethings

"Episodic" was a buzzword there for a while, but Telltale seems like the only high-profile company doing it in a way that's really comparable to, say, an episodic television model.

MS: I think there will be other players that get into it. It helps that we have this really great mix of veterans who understand how to ship games, how to finish them up, and the usual curry of incredibly hungry young twenty-somethings whose adrenal glands we feed on to actually get a lot of work done. But there will be other people. It's just a question of getting your tools together.

I can't say enough about the fact that we have one development tool [known as the Telltale Tool]. We have one tool; that's the thing we use. When we go start up a new property, we don't want to build an entirely new tool. So many companies run into that [mentality] of, "I didn't invent it, so I won't use it." We use that one tool, and that's what we push.

On day one, I was able to write dialog that went into the tool, and you could see characters performing it. I've been on projects where it takes months to get to that point. That, alone, is enough to get us 80% of the way through the battle.

Knowing that that's settled makes it so much easier. Some people will complain about working in a box for that. No, it just means, "Here are some things I can do. Let's see how I can push it."

We've got a puzzle in the third episode with Strong Bad auditioning for Pom-Pom with this continuous song that you're trying to get the rhymes down correctly for. I crossed my fingers, because there's this whole question of smoothly flowing from one thing to the next that can be a problem. But we pretty much pulled it off. With the tool, we didn't have to add a single thing to it, we just had to know what the tool did, and drop those things in. It's wonderful.

We can do so much with our basic technology, really. We can break out if we want to. We're slowly getting to that. You'll start seeing some really interesting trends. This season of Strong Bad, and the [upcoming] Sam & Max and Wallace & Gromit are going to do some amazing stuff.

Speaking of veterans, it seems like almost every few months there's a new LucasArts veteran coming aboard at Telltale.

MS: There's a little bit of that. We all know each other, so it's a nice incestuous little industry as far as that goes. Telltale's got this very veteran-friendly work atmosphere, and I think a lot of that is happening in the industry anyway. The 40-year-olds in the industries are really officially tired of working ridiculous hours.

At Telltale, we work hard every day from the moment you get in to the moment you get home. But it's nine-to-six. Maybe at the end of the crunch, you throw a couple hours at the end. But Dave Grossman, the head of the design department, looks physically pained if someone says, "I worked on Saturday." No, something's wrong if we're working on Saturdays. Something's wrong if you've worked a 15-hour day. A lot of veterans like coming into that.

You're going to get a bunch of job applications when this interview gets published.

MS: I think we're hiring. We must be hiring, because we have a lot of projects that we've got in the pipe.

You were full time at Perpetual Entertainment, right?

MS: I was at Perpetual for a couple of years working on Star Trek Online. That was a fun process, getting deep into the largest game that I could possibly be involved with. I met a lot of good people there who are off doing other good things now.

Were there jobs in between LucasArts and that?

MS: There were 14 years at LucasArts and then a very interesting four or five months of freelance contracting, which involved actually working with Cisco for a few months.

Cisco? What were you doing there?

MS: They wanted to do some gaming stuff for trading. It was a good, high-paying gig. And also there was contract work, ironically enough, for LucasArts on...is it Battlegrounds 2? Battlegrounds or Battlefront?

[Star Wars:] Battlefront.

MS: I always get the 'Fronts and the 'Grounds mixed up. Battlefront 2, yeah, doing some script work. It was fun.

What was your last full-time Lucas project?

MS: My last Lucas project was [Star Wars:] Republic Commando. And what's really funny is that I was working at LucasArts for 14 years and it wasn't until the last year and a half that they let me anywhere near Star Wars.

Was that deliberate on your part? I know [former LucasArts and now Double Fine designer] Tim Schafer explicitly did not want to work on a Star Wars game.

MS: It was half and half, I think. I had other things on my plate, and it was also that the company was probably very happy that I didn't get the Star Wars in my sights. Like, "Really? You wanted to do Star Wars? You're going to do funny stuff with Star Wars, aren't you? We don't need that."

But towards the end, yeah, it's when I was doing a lot more straight up dialogue writing. That was basically it.

The company had pretty much transitioned to just Star Wars games for a while there, right?

MS: No, it was just where I was needed, really. They were always searching around for the next original IP that they wanted to do. I don't think LucasArts ever got to a point where they said, "We're only doing Star Wars." It was just trying to find more things to do, and they're doing that to this day.

How did you end up Telltale? You have a lot of old Lucas buddies there, right?

MS: Well, it is sort of funny getting back there. I didn't quite have the spheres to go off and start off with Telltale at the beginning. All credit to [CEO] Dan [Connors] and [CTO] Kevin [Bruner] and everybody involved for starting this puppy up. They really pulled it together and had a great model.

When I got out of Perpetual doing Star Trek, I kept looking at Telltale out of the corner of my eye, watching them to see what they were up to. I had to do Star Trek. I'm a monstrous Trekkie, and the opportunity to basically write Star Trek was one I really could not ever actually leave until the last dog died.

So when it became apparent that the last dog was, in fact, on life support, Telltale was the first place I showed up and I said, "If you can use me, use me." They were very good about taking me in. And so that's how I ended up there. You know, I love the just colossal irony of -- how many years is it now since [Sam & Max:] Hit the Road came out?

Fifteen years.

MS: Fifteen years, and I'm going to end up doing more Sam & Max.

GameSetLinkDump: The Jillian Fight Club

A rainy Saturday in the Bay Area is a perfect time to catch up on links, even those from a little earlier in the week, and we start off GameSetLinkDump with a handy review of the Jillian Michaels Wii title I was skeptical about earlier in the week - and which may not be either shove or ware-like, thankfully for the wellbeing of casual Wii customers everywhere.

Also hanging out in here - Matt Hawkins goes to the NY Street Fighter IV event (participants pictured!), bizarre Spore tribute albums, the New Yorker takes on the Bleszinski, Lara Croft vs. Quebecois fashion designers, and plenty more questionmark-worthy fare.

Yip yip yip:

4 color rebellion » 4cr Review - Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2009
Oh, a review of the title I was talking about earlier in the week - and it seems decent, so apologies for semi-denigrating you, Majesco.

Gametrailers.com - The Fallout Retrospective
This has been getting some good acclaim recently, good to see a site doing extensive custom goodness on videos.

Fort90 Journal » Capcom’s Fight Club & Chloë the Craigslist Roommate From Hell
Nice (and customarily crazed) write-up of the Street Fighter IV/HD Remix New York event, with a segueway into bizarre NY female wrestling showcases, of course.

Digital Press - Classic Video Game FAQ Archive
Newly archived, PDFs of the classic game collecting fanzine - via Frank.

Cyber Record Label announces Natubella’s music tribute to the Spore video game
'To build up an online awareness, she has made an online release of the song "Evolve or Wait", a tribute to the video game Spore.'

Kotaku: 'Guitar Hero: World Tour KFC Fully Loaded Box Meal Unboxing, Impressions'
And people complain there's no verity in game journalism!

Steven Poole: Working for the Man
'In Shenmue, there was a famous episode where you actually had to go and get a job driving fork-lift trucks within the gameworld. Perhaps that was an ironic acknowledgment already of the job-like nature of too many games.' No, but fun essay anyhow :)

CNW Group | FESTIVAL ARCADIA | Festival Arcadia merges fashion and videogame industries with "Virtually Fashionable" - November 8, 2008
' For this world first event that merges the fashion and videogame industries, ten of Quebec's best-known fashion designers are creating costumes for famed videogame icon Lara Croft. Two of these outfits will be incorporated into Lara's official wardrobe as downloadable content for Tomb Raider: Underworld post launch.'

Annals of Technology: The Grammar of Fun: Reporting & Essays: The New Yorker
Blimey, CliffyB in The New Yorker. It may give Gears' plot a bit much credit, but heck, that's wonderful in itself.

The most ridiculous game box quotes ever | GamesRadar
Nice scanning/laughing-at work done here by GR.



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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