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November 22, 2008

Braid's Blow: 'How To Make Games That Touch People'

[We're finishing up our selected highlights of Gamasutra's Montreal Games Summit coverage with this Mathew Kumar-penned summary of an interesting and important Jon Blow keynote on games and their intent.]

As the closing keynote of the 2008 Montreal Games Summit, independent game developer and thinker Jonathan Blow, previously a Game Developer magazine columnist and an IGF winner for his time-bending title Braid, offered a striking deconstruction of a major video game conceit: that they can offer profound experiences through traditional storytelling forms.

Blow argued that, in fact, the interactivity of gameplay -- and its requirements of "fun" and "challenge" among others -- is in fact directly contradictory to such a goal.

In Blow's introduction, he said that his goal as a developer has always been to try and "figure out how to make games that touch people and make them feel something real."

While the question of how to do that was "too big a question" for him to deal with in a mere hour, he explained that his talk at MIGS was aimed at exploring the things that video game developers and games themselves do to make that quest harder.

"As an industry, we have adopted practices that make things fake, unimportant and careless," he declared, arguing that these were all the antithesis to creating profundity.

Yet games actually have an advantage over other media in attempting to impart importance, in that there are two ways of doing so: one, through expressing it to the player, and the other through the player discovering it via their own activity -- and Blow concluded that games largely fell into one camp or the other.

Metal Gear Solid, for example, expresses its meaning to the player, while in something like Pac-Man, the meaning lies in the activity. According to Blow, games that attempt to impart meaning through story are inherently conflicted -- since gameplay structures that render stories fake or unimportant are so "deeply ingrained."

Though he felt that this was largely a single problem, he split his argument up into three sections in order to explore the different facets of the problem.

Conflict One: Story Meaning vs. Dynamic Meaning

To Blow, "art" games such as The Marriage and Gravitation are interesting because they communicate their themes through the player's behavior within the game design and the cues from the visuals.

The Marriage, created by EA's The Sims Studio head Rod Humble, for example, initially looks completely abstract -- but as the player decodes what the game mechanics are, they are also learning the meaning of those mechanics.

The "more accessible" Gravitation instead offers a limited number of quickly-grasped mechanics that can create a number of interesting situations that are open to interpretation.

"If you haven't played this game, please leave the lecture and play it right now," Blow urged.

Gravitation is a key example of the conflict between meaning and play, Blow said. The more additions and features a designer adds to make the game more "fun" and more "exciting", the more the meaning of the game becomes obscured and easier to misinterpret.

If, in one interpretation of Gravitation as it currently stands the concept of collecting stars to become ice blocks is a representation of ideas turning into concrete projects, for example, what would it mean if you added dots to collect? Would that represent when you clean up your house rather than working?

"The fact is, in the games industry we're not used to thinking about the interpretations, and actually, we make jokes about it," Blow said. "'Pac-Man is about taking drugs and going on a rampage' -- But that's a completely valid interpretation."

"In games, interpretation extends past the visual art -- the dynamic system communicates something to the player, whether that is intentional or not."

Admittedly, though Gravitation uses its dynamic meaning, it does not tell a story, whereas most designers aim so directly to create something fun that they forget the importance of the dynamic meaning -- a problem Blow argued other media "do not have."

"If a director is creating a film where a beloved character dies, he doesn't put happy circus music over the funeral scene just because it's more fun. If you were David Lynch, you might put it in to unsettle the viewer, but that's something else entirely."

"In the games industry, we put happy circus music over every one of our funerals," Blow continued. To flesh this declaration, he drew on several recent examples. He called BioShock's little sisters an example of a "supposed dilemma," one undone by an interest in game balance.

"This supposed moral quandary might have worked well in the marketing campaign, but will that stand up as a profound moment in video games in forty years? If it is, I hope I have nothing to do with games when we reach that point."

Other examples included Grand Theft Auto 4 making a story-critical character functionally useless (requiring large effort from the player with no reward) and Half-Life 2's attempts to make you form a relationship with Alyx while at the same time your intention is to keep progressing through the game.

"Alyx can't be talking to you while you're in the middle of a firefight or solving puzzles, so it's in the quiet moments between, when you're trying to get to the next section, that she plays the role of the 'character who has to unlock the door that will get you to the next arena'." said Blow.

"Of course, they want you to form a relationship with her, so she can't just unlock it, she has to be like, 'Aw man, this door is jammed. Anyway, did you hear that Dr. Kleiner just got a new girlfriend?' and all you can think is 'Shut up and get the door open so I can get to where I want to go.'"

In Blow's mind, these kind of conflicts are always going to exist -- alternatives are hard to conceptualize, such as AAA titles that offer themes, moods and "interesting mental stuff" without story; pointless, by removing all dynamic meaning (in which case "why bother making a game?"); or unfeasible, such as managing dynamic meaning to precisely match story, which would be as hard as "pressing bubbles out of wallpaper."

Conflict Two: Challenge vs. Progression

Even if it were possible to reconcile dynamic meaning with story, Blow suggested that it still couldn't be enough to make true profundity possible.

"For a story to be interesting, it has to occur from scene to scene in a linear and direct fashion," Blow said -- but, he added, the industry "does not know how to make games that don't challenge the player."

Challenge is the easiest way to communicate, however subconsciously, that the player's interaction is meaningful. Yet at the same time, challenge works as a "friction" against the progression of the story -- so no matter what, a story in a challenging game is structurally unsound.

Blow admitted certain studios have figured this out, and now offer a "dramatic presentation of non-difficulty," where the player feels as though they're in danger but aren't, and dynamic difficulty adjustment, where the bar will be continually lowered until they can walk over it.

Yet, no matter how hard they might try, "friction" must always still exist, because for there to be a portrayed value to the difficulty, there must be at least some, or else players will lose their suspension of disbelief in the game's value system.

From this, Blow felt that "faux challenge" was "unlikely to impact someone deeply or change their life," because it was by its very nature fake, which is (at least to Blow) directly contradictory to depth.

Alternatively, though it does little to help story as a form within games, Blow emphasized that challenge was, in fact, "very precious," as unlike other forms, games could offer this challenge in a direct fashion.

"It is our domain and we ought to understand that," he said, "because if we want to hold our place alongside other arts, we need to play to our strengths."

Conflict Three: Interactivity vs. Pre-Baked Delivery

As every comedian knows, timing is everything. A bad comedian can get booed off the stage, while a good one can receive a standing ovation for an identical set of jokes -- simply due to their method of delivery.

"Games sabotage the timing of their delivery," Blow said of game stories. "In a game, you cannot control where the player does, what he just did or what he'll do next; you can't pre-bake that."

"Chekov argued that if you introduce an idea, like a gun, into a story, you have to use it by the end," said Blow. "The idea is the economy of audience attention. If you put a gun on stage because you thought, 'Oh, I want this place to seem 'Old Westy,' then some people are going to sit there thinking, 'what's the deal with that gun?'"

The core concept of "Chekov's Gun" also has its positive aspects -- the potential for foreshadowing and justification -- but in a game, it is difficult, if not impossible, to manage that within the dynamic meaning.

"Some people say that if we ever have good enough AI to manage the stories we'll be fine. I don't believe that, because managing a problem like Chekov's Gun would require human-level AI to create what would be little more than a stage manager, and a stage manager is nothing without the human-written, pre-baked story."

"Dynamic stories are pretend stories, poorly structured, poorly delivered and they will always be an awkward second fiddle to linear medium," concluded Blow.

"If that is our core value proposition, then our core value proposition kind of sucks," he added.

"I may have come across all 'anti-story', and I personally would like to see if we can make games offer something without them, but I still don't know how to scale up Gravitation to something to MGS4 size," Blow said.

He concluded: "Perhaps the problem is that we so deeply rely on reference points like film, which require stories progressing over time, when we could be referring to things like sculpture or painting, which require no timescale and people find just as moving."

(UPDATE: Jonathan Blow noted in the comments to this article that he has made the audio and slides of his MIGS talk available on the Braid website's blog.)

[This piece originally appeared on big sister game business site Gamasutra - don't forget to visit, check out the jobs, and subscribe to the RSS.]

Best Of Indie Games: Robots, Xoldiers and Rock Boshers

[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 edition include an IGF Grand Prize winner arriving on Mac, a new game from cactus, two remakes, a browser game, and a full-length adventure game which has been in development for nearly three years.

Here's the highlights:

Game Pick: 'Xoldiers' (distractionware, freeware)
"A new collaborative project by cactus and Terry Cavanagh (Self Destruct), where players assume control over a squadron of soldiers on a mission to destroy as many enemy installations as they can. Comes with an online high score submission feature and a level editor."

Game Pick: 'Rock Boshers' (Dugan, freeware)
"A ZX Spectrum-style remake of Volition's Red Faction, Rock Boshers is a late Bootleg Demakes entry created using Mark Overmars' Game Maker engine. The story is about a gentleman who was lured to work at a distant red planet in our solar system with promises of untold riches, only to end up being enslaved by the evil empire which offered the jobs in the first place. With the help of other miners caught in the same fate, he sets out to overthrow his captors and free the others from a life of servitude and injustice."

Game Pick: 'Life of D. Duck II' (Audunsoft, freeware)
"A full-length AGS adventure game which has taken nearly three years to develop, featuring a wacky cast of characters to interact with, numerous screens to explore, multiple GUIs, and more than twenty chiptunes for your listening pleasure. The unusual art style and meticulously-animated sprites are the contribution of Bjørnar B., an artist who happens to have an unhealthy obsession with drawing popular Disney characters."

Game Pick: 'Stack'Em' (Knox, browser)
"A remake of Columns originally developed by Arnauld Chevallier for the Intellivision, but then ported to a more accessible JavaScript code base four years after its initial release. The game comes with three difficulty settings with different starting levels, playable online or can be downloaded for offline play, and will work on most (if not all) versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera and even Google's new internet browser Chrome."

Game Pick: 'Robo-Evolution' (SKT, browser)
"A short action game created by the developer of the Moai series, where players undertake the task of building a robot by rolling up items and spare parts scattered on the ground. The attributes of your robot are determined by the objects it acquires, with some items adding bulk and changing the appearance of the robot as well."

Game Pick: 'Aquaria' (Bit Blot, commercial indie)
"This award-winning exploration action game is now available on the Mac. Customers who purchase the Mac release will find a new world map system with progress recording, wide screen support, an auto updater, user-created markers, location names, changes to the cooking system, a built-in help feature, additional graphics and easier puzzles."

Column: Chewing Pixels - 'Second-Hand Memories'

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time - why video game retail might be important for the soul of gaming.]

“Um, hi. Do you think you could tell me anything about this game? I, er, found it on the bottom shelf back there.”

“Gunstar Heroes? Hmm. I’ve not heard of that one. Let me take a look.”

This is Mad Andy. We’re not friends and that’s certainly not a nickname of my invention. Rather, it’s the name Andy’s given himself and, by extension, his shop, an independent, second-hand video game store based in South London.

Mad Andy pulls a dog-eared phone directory from the shelf behind where he’s sitting, and plants it with a dull thud on the counter with that officious sense of purpose some men display when called upon to give advice.

Tongue peeking from the corner of his mouth, he flickbooks through its tatty pages, every now and again calling out the name of a game that catches his attention as it flits past his eyes alphabetically.

“Altered Beast, Another World, Bomberman, Contra, D,…”

The book’s a catalogue of every game ever, or so it seems to the thirteen-year-old me. More accurately, it’s a price guide compiled by goodness–knows-who, listing the buy and sell rates for games current and past. Armed with this tome, every independent videogame store knows how much to buy in a second-hand game for and how much to mark it up in order to secure fair but essential profit without undercutting market rates.

As well as prices, the book also boasts reviews, again, written by God-knows-which sorry freelancer. These pithy one-line assessments are accompanied by a score out of five, two pieces of information that gives the salesman everything he needs to issue customers with an authoritative recommendation.

“Elite, Frogger…Ga…Gi…Go. Ah! Here we go: Gunstar Heroes. Hmm. Well what do you know! It’s a good one. Look, right there: ‘Fast, frantic, frenetic scrolling shoot ‘em up. Five out of five.’”

Our sorry freelancer is a fan of alliteration.

“Whoa.” I look down at the back of the box in my hands. “Treasure? Never heard of them.”

Mad Andy and his shop are long gone but I still think about him and his staff from time to time. All gamers of my generation knew a video game store like that, a dealership they visited in youth with wide eyes and a fistful of pocket money. These were the places where dreams were met, the escapism dealers.

Everyone who has ever bought a video game at a shop knows how long the walk home can be. But that time between when a purchase has been made and before it’s played is never unpleasant.

Rather, it is in these delicious moments that you hold in your hands the perfect video game: one which has been invested in but which is yet to let you down. Unknown games are always the best ones because they are played in our imaginations, free of budgetary restraints, deadlines and the ten thousand other pressures that bear down upon the games of reality.

They are always stronger, funnier, cleverer and better-executed than their realities and so that walk home from the store, when the game is tangible in your hands but still imagined in your mind, is oftentimes the most potent moment in the videogame experience.

And yet it’s an experience whose days are numbered. If not by the next generation of hardware then certainly by the one after, all of our games will be supplied by digital distribution, the walk home from the shop with a new game box an anachronism, the weird necessity of supposedly poorer and simpler age.

This makes sense. While shopping for clothes on the high street will always be preferable to mail order – after all, clothes are tactile, need to be tried on and assessed in the atom dimension – video games have nothing to do with physicality. Discs are a means to an end, not an end in themselves unlike, say, an art book with thick pages that you’d want to leave open on a coffee table. Just as .mp3s make CDs obsolete so too will our broadband pipes and copious hard-drives dismiss hard media.

The long walk home will be replaced by a loading bar which fills as you browse the internet or make a cup of tea. And why not? Quaintness will always give way to convenience in technology’s inevitable advance and few things are so convenient as digital distribution.

The game manufacturers, ostensibly, win too. As their games exist only as digital copies, tied to gamertags and PSN accounts, so the second hand market console software will choke. No need to tie hardware to software codes, or to create long-view achievements to convince players to hang on to their games. There will be no other option.

But beyond the romance of reminiscing about the dingy independent game stores of our youth, there’s the very real disadvantage of not being able to trade old games in for new. How many game sales are made in part-exchange, trading spent old experiences for new ones, especially amongst younger gamers?

And what of those games that will be lost to time when they’re removed from the publisher’s servers? Bandwidth costs ensure that not every game released into the ether will be served indefinitely. When a game fails to make enough money month on moth to cover the cost of its hosting, what sensible business is going to hold onto it?

Will we need a videogame arts council, funded to make available those games that aren’t necessarily popular but are important and culturally improving, like those who work tirelessly to preserve the opera?

Video game retail is endangered, its removal from the industry supposedly a good thing, bringing publisher and consumer closer to one another and, perhaps, by removing the middlemen, helping to reduce the cost of games.

But the implications of the shift are far-reaching, will cost jobs, will bury games that have outlived their virtual shelf life and will make it much harder for 13-year-old newcomers to find buried Treasure, a sad thing indeed.

GameSetLinks: The Ring Of Cthulhu

A Friday evening to bring you some GameSetLinks highlights, and I've decided to switch to eight links per post with a little more detail for each - as opposed to ten with minimal description. Hey, it's subtle, but if it makes GSW HQ happy...

Anyhow, quite apart from the actual release of the (pictured) Night Of The Cephalopods, scattered in here are Esquire's full Jason Rohrer piece, an odd Japanese print ad for God Of War, James Mielke's finally fantastic marriage proposal, and more besides.

The Yukon river:

STANFORD Magazine: November/December 2008 > Farm Report > News > Virtual Worlds
On Henry Lowood and friends' virtual worlds and classic game preservation efforts, with an interesting quote from a Library Of Congress rep on the importance of video games: "Besides showing us how society has entertained itself, they also provide a graphic picture of how technology itself has evolved over the decades.”

press the ACTION BUTTON!!: Tim Rogers reviews Gears Of War 2
Filled with enjoyably inflammatory piquant rhetoric, as per normal: 'What we’re saying is, if you’re going to make a game that blatantly rips off another game, for god’s sake, rip off Gears of War 2, not BioShock.'

1UP EIC Proposes With The Help of Final Fantasy Creators
James Mielke "...called upon two of the creators of the Final Fantasy series -- composer Nobuo Uematsu and artist/designer Yoshitaka Amano -- to help him out. Amano designed the ring for him and Uematsu composed a melody that played as he proposed." I really like the ring design.

Future of Video Game Design - Jason Rohrer's Programming Online Games - Esquire
The companion article to Rohrer's new game on Esquire. It's a really interesting outsider view of the state of independent games, and some of the mixed emotions people have relating to them. The fact it can be written shows we've arrived.

xkcd - A Webcomic - Theft of the Magi
Uhoh, Left 4 Dead vs. Xbox 360 tragedy in the making from the perpetually wry webcomic.

Dusk and Dawn » Salaryman of War
An ad for God Of War PSP from earlier this year in Famitsu: 'I’m not sure what about this ad I like better: the flame-rimmed salaryman going batshit with the Blades of Chaos or the ad copy proclaiming this game a remedy for today’s stressful Japanese workplace.'

Night of the Cephalopods - official site
Oo, Artsy Game Incubator plus Lovecraftian goodness equals an awesome-looking PC indie freeware game, downloadable now, good folks.

An American Game Journalist in Paris | GameCulture
John Gaudiosi: 'This was my fourth videogame trip to Paris this year.' Seriously? Not really sure what this has to do with the ECA or GameCulture.com, which is normally very smart, but all of Gaudiosi's posts for the site just seem to be playing up his oldschool publisher-funded worldwide jaunts.

November 21, 2008

Interview: Heileen And The Rise (?) Of The Western Visual Novel

Now, here's something interesting. In the raft of press releases we get sent here at GSW, we came across Heileen, created by the folks at Tycoon Games.

It's, intriguingly enough, a PC indie title that's a "historical-fiction visual novel game with multiple endings", and the release for it has Tycoon's Riva Celso insisting: “Visual novels are the next wave of interactive fiction games. They're like a hybrid of books and games - they're deeper than the average video game since they're narrative-based, and they're interactive; what the player does affects the story and ultimately the outcome.”

The game, for which there's PC, Mac and Linux demos available, and 4500 screens of dialog, 8 chapters and 3 different endings, "...tells the tale of a young girl from the 17th Century, Heileen. Her merchant uncle leaving her no choice, she undertakes a voyage to the New World. She'll meet old friends, like her childhood friend Marie, and get the chance to befriend other people, like John, the young, dashing sailor, Marco, the ship's cook, and Lora, the shameless mistress accompanying her uncle on the voyage."

Of course, those who know the visual novel genre will realize that they are pretty popular - in a niche way - in Japan, but have never really made a big impact in the West, primarily because they're not interactive enough for a lot of people who consider themselves gamers, one suspects.

In any case, I caught up with Italian native Celso, who has made a surprisingly eclectic set of homebrew-ish titles, including Universal Boxing Manager and the RPG/card-ish Magic Stones, and asked him a few questions exclusively for GameSetWatch via email about his new game and his thoughts on the genre:

What made you decide to try the visual novel, given it's popular in Japan but not so much in the West?

First of all because I like them. I remember playing those kinds of games already 10 years ago, like True Love, Paradise Heights 1 & 2, and so on. Second because I'm an indie, that means I can try making any game I want, and not always follow the "market rules".

Is romance as major part of your visual novels as it is in Japan, or even explicit content?

Romance is present, and sensuality as well (the character of Lora for example) but there's more than that. It's basically a story and there are choices like in real life, which influences your relationships with the other crew member. There's not only love in the game, but also friendship, hate, envy and more.

Who do you think the target market is for this kind of product?

I believe everyone who enjoy reading books or comics, and sometimes thinks "If I was the protagonist, I would have made this other choice".

This is quite different from your previous products, which include sports simulators - why the shift?

I love making simulation games, but they require lots of effort, research, and unfortunately, big name licenses to sell well. Playing a soccer game where all player names are false isn't as exciting as playing an "officially licensed game". Beside that, I am always experimenting with various games genres. I did a card/RPG (Magic Stones) and a space wargame (Supernova 2) too. However, I'm really enjoying making visual novels so probably will make more in the near future.

Do you think the relative non-interactivity of the genre presents a problem in the West?

It could be, I don't want to lie. Some players really don't get what's so exciting in those kind of games and I can understand them.

In Heileen I tried to break a bit from the classic visual novel scheme introducing a "Quest System" inside the game and a final rating similar to those you find in Sid Meier's games, to add more replay value.

What are your favorite examples of the visual novel genre?

Well I've mentioned some earlier, if I have to talk about more recent titles, I liked Hanako's game Fatal Hearts, but honestly apart for that there isn't anything else that caught my attention.

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of Nov. 21st

In this round-up, we highlight some of the notable jobs posted in sister site Gamasutra's industry-leading game jobs section, including positions from RealNetworks, TimeGate Studios, Factor 5, and 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, downloadable console games, cellphone games, independent games, 'serious games', and more.

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

Gamasutra.com - Game Industry Jobs

RealNetworks: Casual Game Designer
"GameHouse Studios is a leading provider of games serving the Casual Games market since 2000 and has over 50 games to its credit. We have an open environment and value creativity and hard work. GameHouse Studios is owned by RealNetworks, Inc. a rapidly growing, cutting edge technology, web based digital music, online gaming and streaming company headquartered in Seattle, Washington. Real provides the universal platform for the delivery of any digital media from any point of origin, across virtually any network, to any person on any Internet-enabled device, anywhere in the world."

Factor 5: Combat Designer
"Designers at Factor 5 are responsible for a combination of level and system design. Depending on the specific role the balance may shift towards one discipline or the other, but each designer is expected to have at least a basic understanding of all aspects of design and be able to learn quickly even in areas outside their primary expertise. Designers will work with the Lead Designer to document all game systems and levels, then work iteratively with all other disciplines to create 'AAA' quality gameplay."

AiLive: Art Director
"AiLive is a California-based company best known for its motion control products on the Wii. AiLive has spent years perfecting a one-of-a-kind machine learning technology for behavior capture, which will drive entirely new forms of gameplay. Earlier this year, the lead designer of Guitar Hero and Rock Band joined AiLive as Creative Director. The Art Director will join as another key member of a growing, world-class team that is determined to exploit their unique strengths to create amazing new games."

TimeGate Studios: Senior Technical Artist
"TimeGate Studios, developer of the award-winning F.E.A.R. Extraction Point and Kohan series, is looking for talented and driven individuals to work on its current line of next-generation products for major publishers. Projects in development include the Unreal Engine 3-powered Section 8, a team-based first-person shooter where elite powered-armor infantry wage war on epic sci-fi battelfields."

WorldsInMotion - Online Game Jobs

Bluehole Studio: Director of Marketing
"Bluehole Interactive is seeking a Director of Marketing for its flagship MMORPG title in North America. The title is being developed by the core members of the team that developed and serviced Lineage II, which achieved worldwide revenues second only to World of Warcraft. The new title is envisioned to be one of the top three MMORPGs in the world by 2011. The title has been under development since March 2007 by 100 + developers, and it is on schedule for beta release in the summer 2009."

SeriousGamesSource - Serious Game Jobs

America's Army Game: Artist Squad Leader
"Launched in July 2002, the America's Army game has penetrated contemporary culture and is one of the most recognizable game brands as a result of its unique inside perspective of the U.S. Army and its exciting game play. As the game's popularity continued to grow, the Army has expanded its brand through a variety of products including console and cell phone games In the near future, the America's Army brand will expand with America's Army Game version 3.0. We're looking for an experienced, exceptionally knowledgeable, talented, and motivated Lead Artist to join our team."

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.

MIGS: Frontier's Braben On Retailers 'Killing The Longevity' Of Games

[Continuing to bring Montreal Game Summit goodness - and how come nobody else ever writes anything up longform any more, huh? - Gamasutra's Chris Remo tackles Elite co-creator David Braben's fun and intelligently developer-focused, if a tad ranty MIGS keynote.]

In a Montreal International Game Summit keynote, Frontier Development chairman David Braben spoke on the evolution of game consoles over the last five game generations and speculated on the future, concluding his talk with a reflection on the benefits of rapid development as exemplified by the studio's own LostWinds.

Calling himself an "old-timer" who got his start in 1982 with Elite, co-authored with Ian Bell, Braben began by identifying some consistent trends over the decades.

"There's been a very consistent six-year tick throughout the generations," starting in about 1986 up until the present day, according to Braben. He pointed out that performance has increased exponentially since then, while storage capacity and RAM are progressing at a slower rate.

"When we started in the early 80s, the machines were not leading edge," he pointed out; developers were working on machines that were already dated in some ways. Now, on the other hand, generational shifts constantly push the bleeding edge.

Looking at that same six-year "tick," the next generation may occur in 2012. But what does this mean? The Wii suggests evolution may come with new input devices rather than purely performance.

"Nintendo, just by being clever, have bypassed" the traditional generational curve, Braben said.

"What Nintendo were very, very good to spot is that the reason we're increasing performance dramatically with each generation is so that we can make much better games with that performance," he explained. "Arguably, by the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, the return on that investment was reducing."

Braben continued, "We still had good animations and recorded voice, but there are other ways we can make better games, and that is what Nintendo have spotted. The lesson I take away from the Wii is not that it has a good controller, but that you can do great things with that controller."

The Online Myth

Braben then criticized ongoing comments from WildTangent's Alex St. John, who argues that the current console generation will be the last such generation. "That to me just feels bizarre," said Braben.

"The more likely scenario is that the next console generation will be sold as media devices," he argued, "but to suggest they don't run games -- I'd be astonished if they don't run games with controllers."

"If you look at the PC, that's what's problematic," he continued, noting that the success of the PC is online games -- but those games will increasingly not require a PC, as more and more systems gain online capabilities. "We'll see the PC moving away from being a mainstream game platform. We'll see those online games moving to other media devices."

But Braben says that even in the next generation, online connections will not be ubiquitous -- in 2007, only 53 percent of United States homes have broadband connections, and data suggests a smaller proportion of consoles are ever taken online. Even by 2012, some forecasts suggest that only 70 percent of homes will have broadband.

"There's a lot of lack of appreciation of the benefits online," he said, adding, "Over in Europe, we're probably slightly ahead of the U.S." when it comes to proliferation of online access.

The Retail Myth

"As an industry, we're in denial about the problems with retail," Braben argued, citing a common myth that online distribution will become the norm in the coming generation.

"Retail is killing the longevity of our titles," he said, with the massive used game market contributing to the problem. "The industry sees none of this" when it comes to preowned sales.

Meanwhile, the retail film industry puts its new films front and center, and the stores in which movies are sold are often more attractive and inviting than game stores.

"What's worse, if you ask for a new release, they'll offer you a used one, and it's not even much cheaper," said Braben. "What it's doing as an industry, means the long tail, which is what games rely on, is going to go away. And relying on online is killing ourselves."

Braben suggested selling higher-priced copies of games to rental stores, then lowering the prices of not-for-resale copies -- thus making new games more affordable for players, while introducing additional revenue streams for rentals.

"We can add value for people who have actually bought the game," he said -- designers should come up with additional content that rewards those who buy games new.

A Broken Business Model

Braben pointed out that under the current business model, revenue is shared roughly equally between developer, publisher, distributor, and retail -- but risk is almost entirely shouldered by developer and publisher, making the revenue split uneven.

"I think there is an inevitability that development costs increase again as capabilities increase," he said, "because as developers, we can't resist" taking advantage of the latest technology.

"We'll see more in-house development by publishers, and more publishing by developers. Publishers are already saying it now -- 'Let's grab the big slice of the value chain,'" he said. "What does this mean for a pure developer, who doesn't publish or fund their own titles?"

"The important thing to do is de-risk development wherever we can," Braben continued, suggesting developers look for ways to reuse their own content, keeping hold of their own intellectual property, and sharing technology as much as possible.

Capturing Design Ideas

"The upside of this is that it's us in this room who are shaping the sixth generation now," he said. "Customers don't buy machines because of fancy controllers, they buy them for what you can do with those fancy controllers, or the new performance, and it's us who determines that. ... The important thing is, how can we stay fresh as an industry? It's certainly why I'm still in the industry -- to learn new things."

"Almost everyone I know in the industry has some element of game design in their heart," Braben continued. "What I mean by that is not producing documents -- but you might be in a pub and say, 'Oh I really hated Crackdown, if only they added this, or if only I could do this in another game.' That is essentially game design. Just wacky ideas, and see where it goes. Sadly, this creativity is very rarely captured."

Several years ago, Frontier introduced a "game of the week" program, where developers pitched ideas for discussion by the team. "Some of these ideas should stay in 'game of the week,' but some are really fantastic," Braben said. "For a long time, nothing came out of this. But the first game to go through the system was LostWinds."

"We made the game in fifteen weeks," he said, pointing to the rapid development techniques used during production. Once the concept had been developed, six days were given to a programmer and designer to create a prototype -- simply taking the 2D images from the design document and mocking them up as a playable to test the control mechanics.

"Some of the control mechanisms we tried actually worked very badly, so we learned a lot from this," Braben recalled. "We could do playtesting regularly, every week, with a new group of people, just so we could see their opinions genuinely fresh."

"Rapid development requires real discipline in the tasks you do and the tasks you don't do," he warned, explaining that it is important keep to the schedule and not let unnecessary features creep in. When a feature starts to go awry, it may be worth simply cutting it.

"The mantra was really to get the maximum fun from the minimum time," said Braben. The game was completed fifteen weeks after the prototype.

"It was very exciting for all that worked on it," he added, "and [to have] the feeling of euphoria to have completed a game in this day and age in that [amount of time] instead of two or three years."

The game ended up topping WiiWare charts in North America and Europe, but Frontier had initial difficulties breaking into the Japanese market. "I'm delighted to announce today that LostWinds will be published in Japan and the rest of Asia by Square Enix," Braben announced.

The veteran designer concluded his talk by showing brief artwork from Frontier's ambitious upcoming nonlinear game The Outsider, promising more details on the long-in-development title next year.

[This piece originally appeared on big sister game business site Gamasutra - don't forget to visit, check out the jobs, and subscribe to the RSS.]

GameSetLinks: Loving The Interactive Journalism Alien

Time to round up some of the best links we've dug up here at GameSetWatch in the last 24 hours or so - headed by some discussion of Obama's buddies and their love of Azeroth (please, put away the pitchforks).

Some of the other highlights of the lovingly scraped links here - Cliffski on the making of Kudos 2, Life magazine's (pictured) photos of video game-related randomness, Retro Game Challenge explained for the DS, Gus Mastrapa on reviews getting no respect, and quite a lot more.

Mar vell us:

Obama’s FCC Transition Team Co-chair a WoW Player - GigaOM
'The Wharton professor is a hardcore World of Warcraft player, a member of two guilds.'

Games That Weren’t » Bioforge Plus intro on YouTube
'Former employee of Origin Systems, Jeff Morris, informed us today that he captured and uploaded the introduction cinematic of Origin’s unreleased PC game "Bioforge Plus" (an extended version of the original game) to YouTube.'

Geometry Wars: Retro Explained Interview - Page 1 // Xbox 360 /// Eurogamer - Games Reviews, News and More
'The very first version was just kind of a test application... We didn't know why we weren't getting the right analogue [input] out of it, so we wrote a test app just to play around with the analogue sticks.'

Cliffski's Kudos 2 post mortem
'Pretty early on it became clear that the original game was too dark and miserable, and to sell better, it needed to be more upbeat, more engaging, and less like the diary of a manic depressive.'

evandorkin: National Tragedy
Not very game related, but this is soo beyond Yahtzee in amazing vitriol (re: a New York comics convention) that I must share.

1UP: Retro Game Challenge Hands-On Preview
'Retro Game Challenge features "cameos" from a few well-known Western game journalists. Expect to see columns from "Dan Sock," "Milkman," and "Johnny England".' This is going to be interesting.

Curmudgeon Gamer: Review: Mirror's Edge
'The last half of the finale profoundly angered me. A man can only eat so many cheap sniper shots, so many deaths by machine gun from over 75 meters away, so many attempts at a final tricky jump to a tiny ledge across a giant gap, so many degrading restarts.'

video game source:life - Google Image Search
The Life Magazine photo archives have pretty bad video game images, semi-unsurprisingly.

Hit Self-Destruct: Interactive Journalism
'Sometimes, though, you do feel like Deep Throat and Woodward's not giving you his full attention because at that moment he's booked for three other garage appointments where he's going to be told all about new Xbox 360 faceplates, a Mean Girls-branded Puzzle Quest clone, and "what's next" for mobile gaming.' This is actually a bit obnoxious, but hey, it's well-written.

Media Coverage: Readers, We Hate You Too - GameDaily
'I'll let you in on a little secret. People who review video games have feelings too. Funny, right?'

November 20, 2008

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Grim Fandango and Diegesis

Manny Calavera with scythe['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive 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 diegesis in Grim Fandango.]

In video games, there is a division between the world inhabited by the game's characters and the representation of that world to the player. The game environment, world objects, and most sound effects and dialogue exist in the game world; that is, they can be perceived by characters. Other elements, such as most background music, loading screens, and subtitles, exist outside of the game world. They are part of the narration of the game, and help to provide the player with information or emotion that is not necessarily apparent to the characters of the game.

The film world calls this concept "diegesis." This is most easily explained in relation to music. If a film's music comes from a source inside the world of the film, like Casablanca's piano-playing Sam, it is said to be diegetic.

The dramatic music that plays over a James Bond action scene, however, cannot be heard by Bond; it is non-diegetic. Video game music can be looked at in the same way; Super Mario Bros.'s earworm background music is decidedly non-diegetic, but when the player comes across a radio in Portal playing a Latin version of "Still Alive," that music is diegetic. The player character Chell can hear it just like the player can.

The concept of diegesis applies to more than just music, of course.HUD elements can be non-diegetic or, as in Metroid Prime or Star Wars: Republic Commando, incorporated into the player character's helmet and therefore diegetic. Metroid Prime, in fact, plays with diegesis via the game's very interface. By using the X-Ray Visor, it becomes clear that while the player selects Samus's weapons with the C Stick, Samus herself chooses weapons by moving her fingers into various positions.

One work that pays particular attention to the concept of diegesis is LucasArts's 1998 game Grim Fandango. The game creates a very cinematic atmosphere by dispensing with many non-diegetic elements. Playing the game feels very much like watching a film noir piece due in part to this decision. By looking at how Grim Fandango handles diegesis, we can see how this concept can be used in video games.

Inventory screen with pack of cardsWith Bony Hands I Hold My Partner; on Soulless Feet We Cross the Floor

Grim Fandango is the successor to a long line of adventure games put out by LucasArts. All of the company's previous titles use the SCUMM engine, where the player controls the game with a mouse cursor, choosing verbs for the player character from a list or a "verb coin." Clicking on the ground moves the character, and the character's inventory of held items either occupies a portion of the screen or is visible via a secondary screen.

Grim Fandango, however, is based on a new engine. The GrimE engine, as used in this game, has no visible verb list, no mouse cursor, no inventory screen, and no hover text for world objects. Instead of clicking to move the main character, Manny Calavera, the player steers him with the keyboard. Interactive objects are indicated by Manny turning his head to look at them as he moves. The non-diegetic inventory screen is replaced by a close-up view of Manny's jacket, where he takes out various objects as the player flips through his collection, putting each item away before taking out the next.

This design decision has clear advantages. The lack of non-diegetic screen elements encourages player immersion by making the game world seem less artificial, and the inventory system does a similar thing by ensuring that every player action, even that of searching through the inventory, represents an action taken by Manny. Additionally, the gameplay looks more cinematic, which reinforces the game's connection to its film noir inspirations. The game almost feels like playing a CGI noir film.

However, the diegetic elements have their downsides. The movement system is often more awkward than the simple click-to-move approach, and Manny's gaze is a less useful indicator when he is near multiple interactive objects.

The one-item-at-a-time inventory system creates the most problems; at some points in the game, Manny is carrying a large number of things, and scrolling through them all can be annoying, with the amount of time it takes for Manny to remove each item from his jacket and describe what it is.

Manny at piano with GlottisThe Music Stops as if to Answer an Empty Knocking at the Door

There are still several non-diegetic elements left in the game. The conversation system is a notable exception to the immersive interface. When Manny speaks to someone, Grim Fandango presents a rather standard conversation tree interface, with visible options that the player can scroll through and pick from. It's understandable why the developers made this choice.

A diegetic alternative could be created, maybe letting Manny think about various topics in his head and mumble the options to himself, but this would probably be even more awkward than the inventory system... and would make Manny's character much more tongue-tied and socially awkward.

The other major non-diegetic element is the music. Most of Grim Fandango's music is non-diegetic; generally, the wide array of jazzy tunes don't come from an in-game source. This is in keeping with the cinematic feel of the game. While the music seems to work against the player's suspension of disbelief, it does support the illusion of the game as film. This is an aspect that would have been easy to make diegetic; there are ample opportunities in the world of the game for diegetic music. However, the developers' choice to make the music non-diegetic doesn't weaken the game.

Manny and MecheBut Now We Dance This Grim Fandango and Will Four Years Before We Rest

Diegesis is fundamentally a method of bringing the player closer to the game. Every non-diegetic element, whether it's a mouse cursor or a soundtrack, serves to reinforce the "fourth wall" between the player and the game world. By removing non-diegetic elements, the developer can make it easier for the player to lose herself in the game via immersion. That isn't to say that immersion isn't possible in a heavily non-diegetic game, but all other things being equal, a diegetic game will be more immersive.

There's an important caveat, though. If an element of the gameplay experience is made diegetic at the cost of usability, the player is pulled out of the experience again. Consider Manny's coat-based inventory; using this system is actually more difficult than it would be for Manny to actually pull something out of his pocket. In this case, immersion would probably be restored by using an easier but less diegetic inventory system. This would undermine Grim Fandango's goal of creating a cinematic experience, but it would make the game less frustrating and easier to use.

Grim Fandango is one of the most well-crafted video games of all time, and it has a lot to teach us about how video games can and should be made. Its use of diegesis is probably the way in which the game is most unique among games.

Diegesis is something that all developers should consider in the course of making a game: when is it better for an element of the game to be diegetic, and when is it best to make it separate from the game world? By considering this, developers can ensure that their game strikes the best balance between immersion and usability.

[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 [email protected]]

GamerBytes Special: Inside XNA Community Games, Part 3

blowlogo.jpg [Well, the final update from Ryan Langley at sister console download site GamerBytes finishes previewing the launch set of XNA Community Games, following Part 1 and Part 2. Are there new games even past these by now? Probably, blimey.]

Here we are, the final selection of XNA Community Games that are available to you from day one on the New Xbox Experience update for your Xbox 360. This time, we've got a little more than 10 titles, pushing it past 30 separate titles on day one. That is an awful lot of choice.

Titles can go up at any time, so it's difficult to keep track. We'll continue keeping you informed with every new game that comes available, hopefully with a little commentary to give you a bit of an idea of what each game is like.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:88319763-14e4-4cb7-a717-41148d1e14a5&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Alien Ambush Game Trailer">Video: Alien Ambush Game Trailer</a>

Alien Ambush

Creator: Star Gaming Network
Genre: Classics
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: A Space Invaders / Galaga clone. It's also not very good from what I could see from the trial. Enemies follow very simple patterns and overall just seems a little boring. Sorry, Star Gaming Network.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:3933b216-a52e-4e32-b471-0d266eab6e9c&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Loot, Steal &#39;n Destroy">Video: Loot, Steal &#39;n Destroy</a>

Loot, Steal 'n Destroy

Creator: reallyjoel
Genre: Action & Adventure
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: A game about looting gold from the source and from your enemies. The game is multiplayer only, but looks like it could be some fun. A hearty opening theme too.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:84f453f9-3cf6-4cdb-bc70-9194a529a078&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Blow">Video: Blow</a>


Creator: David Flook
Genre: Other
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: One of the best games on the service right now, Blow is a entrancing puzzle game where you set up fans in order to blow bubbles through checkpoints and on to the exit. The game relies on you setting the speed of the fans, and whether they can make bubbles hot (and rise) or cold (and fall faster). Sporting 70 man made levels and infinite procedurally generated levels for endless variety, it is absolutely worth your 400 Points.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:502a70d5-548c-44f5-bcad-b394d478cbc0&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Colosseum">Video: Colosseum</a>


Creator: Shortfuse Games
Genre: Fighting
Price: 800 Points

Trial Play: Here we have one of most expensive XNA Community Games, Colosseum. It's a 4 player brawler which uses the second analog stick for combat. While it looks nice, the single player experience appears to be pretty mundane. It will probably be at its best in the local multiplayer modes.



Creator: Fervent Interactive
Genre: Puzzle & Trivia
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: Totem is a single player puzzle game involving a variety of totem pieces. Each stage is about surviving through whatever the computer throws at you.You then stack up several totem pieces of one color, and when the next comes crashing down, the matching ones break. It's simple and a bit of fun, and has some nice artwork too. Reminds me a bit of the GameBoy Mario & Yoshi title with a dash of XBLA's TiQal.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:56ad400b-3e2b-490f-a06a-c795ae9902ba&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Artoon Trailer">Video: Artoon Trailer</a>


Creator: Oscar K
Genre: Platformer
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: Bounce your buddy Art through tens of levels as you rack up a multiplier by jumping on new squares in the level. It looks nice - Oscar K has his head around some very neat shader effects, it has some decent techno music, and it includes a split screen challenge level too. The first few levels are very simple, but do the later ones offer any challenge?

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:3c44bba5-c4d1-46ba-8e15-cabfab202286&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Galax-e-mail">Video: Galax-e-mail</a>


Creator: BogTurtleCarl
Genre: Shooter
Price: 200 Points

Despite the crazy premise, this game is actually quite fun. The graphics, while simple, are consistent and very clean looking - it "knows" what it is. I'm not really sure just how the game does work in terms of levels (does the game simply generate a level based on difficulty) but for 200 Points it looks like it may be worth your money.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:df61044d-75aa-4605-877b-7797abc6a58c&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Trailer for &quot;In the Pit&quot; for Dream Build Play 2008">Video: Trailer for &quot;In the Pit&quot; for Dream Build Play 2008</a>

In the Pit

Creator: luvcraft
Genre: Action & Adventure
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: Now here is something that can only be done on XNA - In The Pit is not your normal game. In fact, the game has no graphics whatsoever. It is an audio-game. You play a blind monster in a cave, and new prey is dropped into your cave. Using only sounds, you must find these people and eat them. You hear them breathing, running away, all through your surround sound system. The controller vibrated to their heart beat too. It's certainly something you've never played before.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:391c21d5-5b9f-40fa-b062-bb5fda6464b7&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Smashell">Video: Smashell</a>


Creator: Antab
Genre: Platformer
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: Plug yourself into an arena and begin to jump on top of enemy heads. This is one of the better looking XNA games on the marketplace, but I don't know how long it will last. You appear to be able to upgrade and see many different kinds of enemies, but you don't see a lot of that in the trial space.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:7972b767-ccee-4fa5-b87a-f9636d5183cd&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Biology Battle (Sneak Trailer: XBox360)">Video: Biology Battle (Sneak Trailer: XBox360)</a>


Creator: Novaleaf Software
Genre:Action & Adventure
Price: 800 Points

Trial Play: The most XBLA-like game on the service. Biology Battle pits you inside of a giant cell, battling the oncoming hordes of bacteria coming to kill you. It's got a whole lot of modes, and online leader boards through some tricky measures.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:28bfe642-2405-49d2-8fb9-289ec224d6b0&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Funky Punch XL">Video: Funky Punch XL</a>

Funky Punch XL

Creator: SolusG
Genre: Fighting
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: A 3D fighting game played on a 2D plane. You play as very simple characters, ranging from fireball throwing karate masters to cheerleaders. The game does support online play, which is great for such a game. It might be some fun for kids, but I can't see many people getting into it unfortunately.

Q&A: From Resistance To... XNA Community Games?

[Continuing the XNA Community Games coverage blowout by other means, Gamasutra's Christian Nutt recently got to chat to Weapon Of Choice creator Nathan Fouts, who has a really interesting story to tell about his Xbox 360 egalitarian game debut - and his game is really retro-creepy cool in the best 'programmer art' fashion, too!]

The XNA Creators' Club is being touted as a way for semi-pro and amateur developers to bring their designs to the masses via XNA Community Games, which launch alongside the New Xbox Experience today.

At its recent San Francisco XNA Community Games event, however, it became clear that a lot of the developers who have created the most polished and ready-for-market games on the service actually do have professional backgrounds.

At the event, we had a chance to speak with Nathan Fouts, founder and president of Mommy's Best Games (as well as its only full-time employee.) His game, Weapon of Choice, is a neo-retro throwback that brings to mind classics like Contra while embracing contemporary design choices.

Despite its hardest-of-hardcore looks and (nearly) one-man creation, it sprang not from the mind of an enthusiastic amateur, but a seasoned professional.

Though Fouts left Insomniac Games to found his own company, Insomniac CEO Ted Price, when recently asked, called him "an instrumental part of Resistance: Fall of Man... one of the most creative programmers I've ever met."

What is it that drove Fouts to leave his job at one of the most successful independent developers in the country and strike out on his own, and why through XNA Community Games? The answers may surprise you.

Did you have any sort of professional background in development before you started this project?

Nathan Fouts: I've been in the industry for over a decade now -- I guess I'm getting old! I've worked at Running with Scissors, I've worked at N-Space, I've worked at Insomniac Games.

I actually designed and programmed the weapons on Resistance: Fall of Man, the launch title. And I did the bosses on Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction.

So you actually have extensive experience on high-budget, next-gen projects. You decided to give that up and make your own project?

NF: Yeah. It's kind of crazy. We were making good coin at Insomniac Games.

They still are, without you. (laughs)

NF: Oh, yeah. Everybody there. That place... it's a great place to work. Basically, though, we had a child -- I don't know if you guys are interested in this from a developer standpoint, but because we're getting older, a lot of people, a lot of the professionals I'm friends with have had kids.

We had a baby and we decided to move back to the Midwest to be closer to my parents, so they could be with their grandson. This wasn't going to work, working at a big place. So a couple of years ago I started to think about forming my own place. And we didn't know how, and we knew that we couldn't pull it off until the whole downloadable thing started, with the new systems, basically.

Once Live Arcade started moving, I thought, "Wow, if we can get our money together, this might be possible." When XNA came through, and when Community Games announced that you could make money through it, that's when I knew we could do it.

How many people did you have working on the title?

NF: Me.


NF: Okay, that's extreme. But basically, I did original concept, design, art, programming, animation, sound effects, and then I had a really talented musician out of Tucson who did the music. I wrote the skeleton for the story, and then I had a science fiction writer friend write the story and the dialogue. So, basically, 95% of the game.

Wow. How long have you been in development?

NF: Like I said, we saved our money for a couple of years, and then I quit my job at Insomniac, and then I started full time in November last year. So it's almost been a year now.

I can imagine that's been like perpetual crunch.

NF: You know what's funny? Just, again, for the other developers' standpoint, working at home, it's been perpetual crunch that has been doable because I get these, like, mini-breaks.

You have dinner, there's your wife, your kid, and then you keep working. It's not as bad as a real place. I've done plenty of crunch before, and it drains your soul. But this hasn't been as bad. Anyway -- it's just different, working at home.

It's something, as you said, that people are facing. People want to start families. Everyone comes coastal to work in development. You don't really have a lot of choice in the matter.

NF: We didn't love Los Angeles, honestly. We lived there a couple of years. The only reason we were there was to work on games. There are a ton of places there. It's easy to move around. It isn't nice, but...

The interesting thing is, with the internet, it was possible to do our game in the boonies. We live out in the country, in Indiana, actually. And so it was actually possible to keep in touch with people, share files, and actually share the game itself, so that actually made it possible.

And your wife worked on it, too, right?

NF: Well, I did the development side, and she's like business, and producer -- well, quasi-producer. She does marketing, and helps with the press and that kind of stuff.

She's actually a fundraiser grant writer by trade, so she's really good at talking with people and working with them and everything. It's kind of like the Frank Zappa scenario. His wife managed him and did the marketing, and he did the music.

We actually have a couple of guys, very freelance, who helped me with the art, off and on. So I wouldn't mind expanding, but it's a really touchy kind of thing -- you have to be really careful about it.

I heard this story from Kathleen from Microsoft -- she said it's based on a concept that you had when you were 17, and then your wife found the designs, and it kind of grew from there. Can you tell me about that?

NF: Sure. I don't want this to turn into a... what's that Silicon Knights game?

Too Human.

NF: It's not a Too Human.


NF: I've always been playing games, and as a kid, as a middle-schooler, I'd do game design. And then I would send in game designs to, like, Electronic Arts, and get refused. And then I'd send them to Tecmo, and Sega, and places like that.

Now, with my wife, we're actually living with my parents, and she was digging through these old boxes, and found my old drawings.

And the funny thing is, they look similar to the new stuff that I've been working on -- but the game design is totally different in this. It's just the fact that I was doing this old style...

Well, the game is very reminiscent of a 16-bit aesthetic. It was a semi-credible story.

NF: No, it's true. It's fine that they say that, but it's a conscious thing -- I wanted to make a new 16-bit kind of game, that looks better, that plays better, that's more fluid, but it plays like that.

In the game there are a lot of elements that make it more playable, nowadays. It's an instant-kill game, but there's an element called "death brushing." Everything slows down, and you have this brush with death. It can happen as often as it needs to, and it's infinite, and it makes it a lot more possible to not die. It's an old-style game with new influences.

It's such a small thing, but the title screen really looks like a TurboGrafx or Genesis game to me, aesthetically.

NF: Exactly! That was a conscious decision. Another comparison that Steve Wik, of Postal, the game designer there -- he said, "I'd expect it to be on a marquee for an arcade machine from, like, '87." Yes!

I love that kind of art. I just love that you can see the pencil drawing in it, and you can just imagine the guy laboring over it, and I wanted to bring that through -- and I labored over it.

And the other thing is, and this isn't a negative on Resistance: Fall of Man, but when you go from one thing to another, that game is, the color palette is really kind of... low-key.


NF: Okay, it's brown. It's Brown World. It just gets to you. Ratchet was very full and colorful, but that did not cure me. From working on Resistance, I was like, "Man, I want insane aliens, and I want crazy colors!" I've been seeing forum posts that have been saying it looks like an acid trip, and I've been like, "Thanks!" You know? Cool!

It reminds me a lot of 16-bit games, but more so. Based on what I've just seen.

NF: That's the idea. A lot of the weapons -- the other design idea behind the weapons is that each character has a weapon. It's his weapon of choice. But each character has a weapon, but when you play him, he's a life.

So when you play him, you're stuck with that guy. And even though you think you may not enjoy that weapon, you get to explore it more, and every weapon has a lot of depth to it. So it's easy to use at first, but then there's a lot more things you can do with it, and hopefully you'll grow to like all of the different weapons.

So it sounds like you've definitely put a lot of thought into how to evolve the design of a 16-bit game and make it compelling for a contemporary audience. I mean, we all have a lot of nostalgia for old games, but Mega Man 9 notwithstanding, it's a bit hard to approach them.

NF: And I'm playing Mega Man 9! And it kicks my butt. And it's a wake up, man. When you start those old games -- I still play a lot of those old games -- but when you start them, they smack you in the face! And in this one I wanted it to be a little bit more of an ease-in.

Again, I studied all of those old games really carefully. This is a game where you restart from the beginning -- which not everybody's psyched about -- but you do restart it from the beginning, I wanted to make it interesting every time you play.

So say you only play 10 minutes, and you fail. Then, you restart from the beginning. But when you restart, there's a lot of different paths to take. And within the levels themselves, you can actually branch and go a whole different way, and the story changes.

So if you keep trying this one path, and it starts to get boring, you can say, "I'm going to try this other path," but as you go, you're also picking up new operatives, so you're picking up new people with new weapons.

So say that one path you didn't get too far in -- it was too tough for you. You manage to save a new guy, you restart the game, and you have four guys -- four extra lives -- and now you are able to get further down the path. And that's how we make it playable for everybody. We've focused a lot on that.

To talk about something a bit different -- you said that your original inspiration was that you thought you could go on a traditional download service -- you made it sound like you were going for Xbox Live Arcade, when you initially had this idea to do it yourself as an independent developer.

NF: Absolutely.

But you ended up moving into the Community Games space. That has the benefit that you don't have to wend your way through getting picked, and everything, but obviously you don't have the same level of support.

NF: Right.

Can you talk about that decision-making process, and your expectations?

NF: It's a hard thing to talk about, but I'll just tell you, we got refused from Live Arcade. The initial game didn't look as good as this one.

Basically what happened -- and this is for everybody else who's thinking about it -- we went in, we pushed the game through to them, and they thought it was really interesting and fun.

But they thought the art style just wasn't enough, so we actually took that and spent a month and a half redoing just about every single thing in the game, and it was just horrible.

What I did, initially, was really static, and since then I've re-animated everything -- all the trees, all the grass, everything moves. I've had Xbox people say it's even stronger now, and because they want to bump up Community Games, they want to keep it on Community Games!

I'm cool with that, because I like Community Games. But it's been tough. I wanted it on Live Arcade -- or I thought I wanted it on there. But this whole thing's been a blessing too, so it's really come out great. And the [Dream Build Play] contest was pretty amazing, so I'm really excited about the whole thing.

[This piece originally appeared on big sister game business site Gamasutra - don't forget to visit, check out the jobs, and subscribe to the RSS.]

GameSetLinkDump: The Quantum Of Plot Intensity

Continuing the tutoring of the GameSetLinkDump, this time we're headed by the Montreal Mirror covering the GAMMA 3D competition - which is awesome from the 'indie folks getting noticed' angle, even if I forgot my 3D glasses today.

Also hanging out in here - Ste Pickford on the Bond approach to plotting, a Georgia Tech project about how video games can be used in journalism, how people coded games in 1991, the IFComp results, and quite a few more besides.

Link tast ick:

Montreal Mirror - 'Indie gaming on the rise'
'The future may belong to indie games, but for now GAMMA 3D will serve to introduce gamers and non-gamers alike to interactive entertainment that really doesn’t bear any resemblance to the Halos and Grand Theft Autos of the world.'

Cowboy Programming » My coding practices in 1991
'I wrote this in 1991, when I was writing Amiga and Atari ST games for Ocean Software in Manchester, UK. I think at the time I was working on Parasol Stars. It’s an interesting look at a simpler time in games programming.'

Media Coverage: The Case For Games Journalism - Video Game Features, PC Game Features
Missed Gus Mastrapa's hearty bravo for game writing: 'When I browse my RSS reader everyday, I'm consistently impressed by the quality and originality of the reporting being done by the video game press.'

TwitterCrit » PixelVixen707
Really interesting analysis of how games are discussed from the, uhh, fictional ARG character. (Yes, it's odd.)

Ste Pickford's Blog - 'Don't Start With Story'
A fine point, even for demos: 'If we're going to copy movies, then at least copy the right ones. Bond movies tend to start with a massive, stupid action sequence (almost like the end of a previous story), before settling down for the new story to begin.' This (Bond story structure!) coincidentally just got covered on Gamasutra.

VGPC.com Blog: 30 Rare & Expensive Gamecube Games
Prices are a little inflated here (highest ever new price is cited), but it's interesting to note the mix of uncommon but boring titles and actually interesting rarities.

Georgia Tech Journalism & Games Project
'This research project, made possible by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, seeks to understand the ways videogames can be used in the field of journalism, providing examples, theoretical approaches, speculative ideas, and practical advice about the past, present, and future of games and journalism.' Bogost-impelled, v.cool.

Dollarshort: The Definition of a Slow News Day
Not strictly game-related, but the same tabloid-related problems occurs. Also, it's depressing cos they are all great headlines. all hail the tabloid apocalypse!

Wikipedia:Articles for deletion/VG Chartz - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Some interesting chatter in here: 'We don't base arguments for keeping articles on the accuracy of the subject—we base it (in part) on it the sources available.'

Results of the 14th annual Interactive Fiction Competition
Hurray, IFComp winners again!

November 19, 2008

2009 GDC Canada Announces Dates, Calls For Submissions

[Not content with running GDC in San Francisco and our regular Austin GDC jaunt next year, my lovely colleagues here are expanding with GDC Canada, and for any Canucks or Pacific Northwesterners interested, here's the call for submissions.]

Think Services, co-organizer of the Game Developers Conference Canada has announced that next year's inaugural expo will run from May 12 - 13, 2009 at the Vancouver Convention and Exposition Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The organizers have also opened the call for proposals on lectures, roundtables, and panel sessions, and will accept submissions through midnight, Friday, November 28, 2008.

GDC Canada, which has an extensive local advisory board including representation from BioWare, EA Black Box, Threewave, Radical, Next Level Games and more, will emphasize the challenges and opportunities of creating games with long production cycles, large development teams, and multi-platform releases.

The event's tracks are structured according to production stages of game development, so submissions should address the most pressing game development challenges that fall under the following development stages: concept/preproduction, production, finalling, and post-launch.

Building on the success of the Vancouver International Game Summit, GDC Canada, which is co-organized by Reboot Communications and Think Services, will feature global perspectives on cross-discipline and cross-platform content, with an eye to serving the increasingly significant Canadian games business sector.

The conference will take place during Vancouver Digital Week, organized by local government entity New Media BC, billed as "...an immersive week of innovative programming and partnership opportunities for the digital media industry that features top minds from around the globe."

To learn more about the submission guidelines and conference tracks, please visit the official site for 2009 GDC Canada.

MIGS: Far Cry 2's Guay On The Importance Of Procedural Content

[Here's another MIGS highlight originally debuting on Gamasutra, with Chris Remo documenting some really interesting discussion of procedural content creation from one of the Ubisoft Montreal folks behind Far Cry 2, which is rapidly wandering into 'underappreciated' territory for me - or possibly just 'too clever for its own good', if you're being cynical.]

During the Montreal International Game Summit, Far Cry 2 technical director Dominic Guay painted procedural content generation as an increasingly important game development technique, not just to control costs as games get bigger and bigger, but also to retain the crucial ability to make changes throughout the production process.

"This talk is not about Far Cry 2 the game," began Guay, who populated his talk with development examples from Far Cry 2's creation rather than descriptions of the end-user goals of the game's features.

Guay defined "procedural data generation" as "techniques and algorithms of runtime or highly automated offline data generation," but noted the term refers not just the algorithms and code that comprise systems, but also the surrounding tools that enable designers to make use of them.

The Evolution Of Proceduralism

Procedural generation is "nothing new," Guay pointed out, citing Bethesda's 1996 game The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, which boasts a "land mass twice the size of Great Britain."

Going back further to 1984, he praised "the granddaddy of space trading games," Ian Bell and David Braben's influential Elite. It consists of eight galaxies of 256 planets each, generated procedurally using data tables and "pseudo-random sequences" -- the code for which can today be downloaded via Bell's website.

Moving to the modern day, Guay noted that particle systems, now widely used, are really a form of procedural generation. "It's a procedural approach to creating content that has become pretty common," he said.

However, "the industry in general tends to favor brute force approaches," he said. The Far Cry 2 team found itself butting up against that tendency, due to the vast size of the game's world.

"The first big draw of generating procedural content is to save on cost and time," said Guay.

"When we started conceiving Far Cry 2, we didn't have a senior animator on board, so we didn't really have an idea of what would be possible for an animation team," he recalled, and noted that the number of discrete animations required turned out to be unfeasible, "so we moved many of those animations up into a procedural animation system."

That approach allowed the team to blend animations that change based on the player's influence on the world -- early in the game, a character might perform certain acts in a way that demonstrates contempt of the player, but later on, when the player has gained notoriety, that same character could perform those same actions while "tainted" with visual cues of fear or intimidation.

Opening Up Innovation Fields

"Another big benefit [of procedural content creation] is that you end up being able to do stuff you simply couldn't do otherwise," Guay continued. "It opens up innovation fields. If you're creating things through code, you have a deeper understanding of what you're doing, and you can bake in some limitations."

"Our artists needed to be able to build not a random tree, but a type of tree," he said by way of example. "It's actually much closer to building a particle system than building traditional art assets. Artists play with parameters more than they play with vertices."

Creating those tools allowed artists to define trees based on characteristics gleaned from extensive photo reference, more than to create a number of discrete tree variants based on those references.

That approach led to a huge amount of control and unique systems -- Guay showed an internal video of trees in Far Cry 2 growing from sapling to their full adult state. Those systems are not available to the player in the game, but they allowed the team to convincingly populate the world and deal with realistically regenerating trees that have, for example, been destroyed by fire.

"Another benefit of procedurally-generated content is the time you gain on turnaround for changes," he said, distinguishing that advantage from the more straightforward time saved in initially creating content.

"Level designers love to move roads around," he said as an example. "Typically, this would drive artists crazy. But [here], what will happen is that the terrain will actually smooth in according to how the rules were designed, and the vegetation will move and regrow." The designer can then drill down and more explicitly tweak the positioning of elements that have been adjusted dynamically.

Retaining Artistry

Procedural content isn't perfect, Guay admitted. One difficulty associated with the practice is retaining artistic control alongside the dynamic processes.

Initially, the team created a procedural sky rendering approached based on algorithms -- which led to a totally unconvincing skybox that was clearly inferior to what a hand-authored skybox would be. "We considered it to be a total failure," he said.

He explained that a great deal of focus must be put on the tools that surround the algorithms, to allow the systems to be properly harnessed. In the end, the game shipped with a revamped procedural sky system that ended up much more effective than the first attempt. It takes into account myriad weather patterns, atmospheric conditions, and other variables.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of the approach, Guay showed an image made up of rows of in-game screenshots essentially forming a color palette, with time of day on one axis, and "storminess" on another axis, representing the full spectrum of skyboxes that the player will see with all the combinations of time and weather.

Unfamiliar Complexity

Another drawback is simply the complexity of the pipeline and tools. Putting the focus so much on systems and rules can be shocking to artists, who are accustomed to much more straightforward, linear art tools.

"It's not always clear what the parameters actually do in the simulation," he said.

On that same note, "the guy with the great idea for procedural data not necessarily the guy with the right mindset to make the tools," Guay added. The Far Cry 2 team dealt with this by setting up teams that paired those "idea people" with technical staff capable of executing on the ideas.

Still, despite the improvements over early development, he said there is still a lot of room to improve the tools.

With most elements of the game, the amount of time spent on developing and refining tools was vastly greater than the amount of time spent on actually developing and refining the underlying engine. In the case of the environmental tools, 15 times more time was spent on the tools rather than the engine. The only exception was the skybox tools and engine -- which points to the team's difficulties in that area.

Another hurdle was that "everything depended on programmers," since such a great deal of the game's assets depended on underlying algorithmic systems that had to be programmed.

In the end, it took about three years for the asset pipeline for the vegetation system to reach a state where it was considerd "mature and flexible," after an eight-month prototype period.

A Testing Nightmater

Procedural content can also be "a testing nightmare," Guay noted.

When a team member made a seemingly minor after-hours change to the ecosystem, it ended up increasing the asset density of the game world by 25 percent -- resulting in more than a few headaches.

"If I'm tweaking a jungle procedurally, maybe I'll just tweak it in my test map," Guay said. "But when I integrate it into the game, somewhere in the 50 square kilometer game world, maybe in just three small areas, it might cause problems, and we won't find those problems until QA uncovers them."

Still, there are ways to mitigate those problems, such as automated information gathering that searches for discrepancies in performance, memory validity, and other areas. Towards the end of the project, the team also locked generation to stabilize the world.

Looking Forwards

Though he said he was loathe to delve too deep into predicting the future, Guay did try to extrapolate some general development trends that will affect procedural content.

Amount of content in games, he said, is increasing at an exponential rate, just as team sizes are increasing more linearly. Complexity of tasks, he said, are fortunately increasing more linearly.

"I still have some long-term fears," he said. He painted a picture of a potential future where these kinds of procedural systems have improved to the point where games can run essentially complete physical simulations, where items must actually be built according to real-world physics and architectual principles.

This would then begin to make it harder and harder to "significantly, or usefully, change the game content during production," he said, particularly if it means teams must start working with trained architectural engineers.

"Processes sound like the silver bullet," he said, referring to the idea of "failing early and failing often," with the aim that more and more mistakes can be pushed into pre-production so that by the time production begins, very few mistakes and changes are made. This idea comes from film, Guay said, where the production process is much more quantified and defined than it is in game development.

"But I think we need to preserve the idea of making changes during game production," he said, claiming there is a fundamental difference between a linear medium like film and an interactive one like games, noting that the role of creative leads during production depends on the ability to keep making changes.

"The bottom line here is that I'm not trying to say creating content procedurally is... the [only] solution, but it's an interesting avenue," Guay summarized, noting that a highly systemic attitude to asset creation can preserve the important game development property of allowing for important creative changes throughout the whole production process. In conclusion, he added, "After working on Far Cry 2 I'm interested in taking it further."

[This piece originally appeared on big sister game business site Gamasutra - don't forget to visit, check out the jobs, and subscribe to the RSS.]

GamerBytes Special: Inside XNA Community Games, Part 2

bei.jpg[Sister console download site GamerBytes (psst, RSS it!) is continuing to very efficiently preview the XNA Community Games, following Part 1 and here's Ryan Langley with a look at another set of the indie/hobbyist titles launching with NXE in the next few hours.]

Today we bring you the second set of XNA Community Games that are gearing up for tomorrow's release of the New Xbox Experience.

There's 10 more games to look through here . It appears that over 30 games will be available on Community Games at NXE launch now - so think of these posts as a helpful shopping guide when searching through every single Community Game available.

The next update will include not only the final selection of XNA Community Games, but GamerBytes' top games that you should really consider buying. It's going to be a very big market - get ready to swim through it all.


Poker Ball

Creator: MarkcusD
Genre: Card & Board
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: Poker Ball takes the essence of Arkanoid and plugs Poker hands into the mix. The last 5 cards you've hit pop up in the side bar and you get an additional score based on the hand you get. Sounds good in theory, but Arkanoid is such a random game that even attempting to make a decent hand out of your cards isn't that achievable without a lot of chance on your side.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:7e001628-33b2-4b27-9d5e-1bafd1d483c8&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Weapon of Choice: Strike Back Trailer">Video: Weapon of Choice: Strike Back Trailer</a>

Weapon of Choice

Creator: MommysBest
Genre: Action & Adventure
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: Feel like blowing stuff up? Than Weapon of Choice is for you. A hark back to the days of Contra and Metal Slug, WOC is perhaps the most game-like game out right now on XNA Community. Run around, blow stuff up, several different routes through the game, several different characters with their own unique weapons. Definitely give it a look.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:ffcdcfe2-3a8f-46f9-a63f-f11b6d8a625c&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Beat IT!">Video: Beat IT!</a>

Beat IT!

Creator: MonsuneMoon
Genre: Family
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: A multiplayer only game in which you play "Simon" with an Xbox 360 controller. The screen will tell you to do something - actions like twisting the analog stick or pressing the trigger buttons, and you've got to do it just before the timer runs out and the highest possible score value - it will also randomly tell you to switch players, while also getting faster and faster. Looks like the kind of game that'll get you laughing while you and your friends are drunk and barely comprehensible.



Creator: Mo
Genre: Puzzle & Trivia
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: Think Tetris, but playing two games at once. Single blocks drop from the top and bottom of the screen to join up in the middle, but they could be different colors, causing all sorts of confusion. It's a little limited, it only has single player, but what's there is pretty decent.



Creator: DarthCheesiest
Genre: Shooter
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: A time based 3D-Space shooter where you've got to hit all the coloured squares in the level as quickly as possible. Not bad looking, but I felt the controls were not very well suited to the Xbox controller. I'd rather be able to move around like other shooters, and use the triggers to push forwards and backwards with thrust.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:fd1ea5df-5ca8-43df-ba87-e5f9f00851a3&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Bad Atom: Episode 1 (Dream Build Play 2008 Preview)">Video: Bad Atom: Episode 1 (Dream Build Play 2008 Preview)</a>

Bad Atom Episode 1

Creator: kstrat2001
Genre: Action & Adventure
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: Bad Atom has you flying around a sphere, where you're always aiming towards the middle. You've got to maneuver your ship around the environment to shoot the red baddies with the blue and the blue with the red. It's pretty difficult to understand what's going on, but they've attempted to put in a bit of a story in there.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:018f5245-60a4-40c8-8f37-97feefa39237&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Abstacked">Video: Abstacked</a>


Creator: lutas
Genre: Puzzle & Trivia
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: Abstacked is another drop down puzzle game where you connect objects together. The hook is that you cannot remove the stars normally - you can only do so by putting two of the same shape on opposite sides of the stars. Nice idea, but the presentation is really poor on this one. Drab, stretched presentation with little or no audio makes it a fairly ugly game.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:3e1e12b4-6603-4e5e-9bbc-6727b8e9a439&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Endless Swarm Trailer">Video: Endless Swarm Trailer</a>

Endless Swarm

Creator: Andrew Thayer
Genre: Shooter
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: Think Missile Command meets Desktop Tower Defense. You set up your laser and other cannons at the bottom of the screen, point them in a certain direction, keep them alive by healing them, and make sure the oncoming swarms don't take down your two factories. An interesting take on DTD games. Give it a go and see if you can get your mind around it.


Tail Gun Charlie

Creator: Duckocide
Genre: Shooter
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: Charlie Chatsworth must shoot things in order to win. Plays like you're playing Space Invaders from looking at the bottom. Aiming seems to be pretty difficult and honestly did not have a lot of fun with this.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:f420a068-317b-4afd-91a0-34b554ef0a02&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="UAV Wars - Xbox 360 Community Game">Video: UAV Wars - Xbox 360 Community Game</a>

UAV Wars

Creator: Some Call Me Tim
Genre: Action & Adventure
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: You are a space ship shooting other space ships. The aiming is difficult as you need to judge vertical space as well. You also hear the sound of a lawnmower the entire time of playing. Just not really that much fun.

MIGS: Spector Calls For 'Pioneer Spirit,' 'Renaissance' In Tough Times

[We have a couple of people in situ at the Montreal Game Summit this week, and kicking things off, Mathew Kumar sat in on Warren Spector's opening keynote - some interesting, and happily somewhat optimistic things being said here.]

As the opening keynote for the fifth Montreal International Game Summit, celebrated game designer Warren Spector (Deus Ex) had to live up to his own legacy.

Origin and Looking Glass veteran Spector, whose Junction Point development studio is now owned by Disney, recalled a pessimistic talk he gave at the summit in 2005, "Gaming in the Margins," where he discussed industry challenges, from new hardware to increased media scrutiny -- and turned out to be "pretty much wrong about everything."

"The positives are all still positive and the negatives aren’t so bad," said Spector at the keynote. "Maybe it was because I was an independent developer struggling to survive, while now I'm in a corporation [Disney] which smooths things out -- or maybe I was just plain wrong."

Yet he admitted that thanks to the current economic downturn, "things have changed."

"Lots of companies are in trouble, and many of my friends have been laid off," Spector revealed. "So it in bad taste to be happy about how the industry is doing?"

But, he suggests: "I am still optimistic in the way I wasn't three years ago and haven't been in a really long time. We are still in a sort of renaissance, and we really can be the medium of the 21st century."

Knocked Down, Will Get Up Again

"Taking the long view, this current downturn will pass," Spector continued. "There are new audiences to find, new businesses will thrive. I know this may sound strange to you, but I was never really convinced that games were going to survive -- I was always sure that one day we'd become a niche product like comics. But I no longer believe that's possible, not until some medium comes along that no one in this room can even imagine."

"I may be known to hate MMOs," the Deux Ex co-creator laughed, "but compared to other mediums they’re some of the best entertainment value you can get. Even a sixty dollar game usually offers more value than a sixty dollar date..."

Though Spector feels that creativity and innovation are healthy in the industry even in the current downturn, he still warned that it was something that still needed to be argued for.

"The reality is that in tough times, most people get conservative," he said. "We need a renewed ‘pioneer spirit’."

How Pioneer Spirit Works In Games

Previous generations of developers were scientists, Warren said, noting early designers such as Ralph Baer. Next came the explorers -- early creatives such as Shigeru Miyamoto and Richard Garriott -- and then the settlers, developers such as Blizzard and Rockstar.

Considering himself part of the "settlers" group of developers from his time at Looking Glass, Spector said that this new, post-settling "pioneer" generation were the continuation of a story similar to that of the new world.

"If Richard Garriott is the person who discovered New York, then I'm like the first mayor of the city, the person who made it a place people wanted to live. The pioneers are the people leaving these settled areas to find the new frontiers."

"The most interesting thing to me,is that these guys in reinterpreting genres are not so much reinventing as turning things around completely," he continued, reasoning that this was a result of this new category of developers often being university educated and that many of them were women --"Thank god," he praised.

Considering a list of recent standout titles like Flow, Braid, Portal and Everyday Shooter, Spector said, "I don't know how anybody can look at the list on that screen and not feel positive about our future."

And this kind of creativity is infectious: "The amazing thing is that this isn't just independents who have this fever, the big companies do too," he said, referencing titles including LittleBigPlanet and Rock Band.

"Am I the only one to be excited to see EA create five new IPs this year? Rock on, EA!" he pronounced, to a chorus of applause.

The Road To Greatness Is Long

With all of this good news, Spector’s call to a renewed pioneer spirit could have seemed untimely, but he argued that "we’re not done yet."

"We're barely anywhere figuring out this medium. We don't just create commodities; we build communities and we create cultures. Sadly, to me, the cultures we have largely created are ‘nerd’ cultures."

Not trying to be offensive, Spector claimed a "card-carrying, D&D playing nerd heritage" but demanded an industry that offers more than just "adrenaline-fueled fantasies."

"How many games are you going to work on in your career?" he asked the audience. "If you're lucky you'll be a key creative force on some of them, so what are you going to offer the gamers that play your game? Hopefully something more than ‘I killed another alien today.’"

With this in mind, Spector began to reel of a list of areas where gaming remained deficient. These ranged from a need to put players more in control of stories, through better virtual characters ("usually the only interesting character is the one holding the controller!"), and the feeling that most conversation systems had barely moved on from the "Name, Job, Bye" system used in the early Ultima titles.

Spector urged: "We need to create better tools to offer more than just the fantasy of pulling a trigger."

In addition, developers needed to think of their game spaces as worlds rather than simply sets. "We create movie sets because it’s easier for us, not because it’s better for the player. If we claim we’re about interactivity, let’s prove it." However, he was quick to note that this did not mean all games had to be sandboxes.

The Team's The Thing

Of course, game developers need ways to foster this kind of innovation, and in Spector’s mind, working with a like-minded team was key.

He recalled: "The day before we went beta on System Shock, all of a sudden the (in-game) security cameras were tracking the player as they walked around. I screamed at the team ‘how can you add something like that this late in the game?’ but as I went into my office, I was ecstatic. You want your team to do things like that, to take chances and work hard on making the game the best it can be within a defined vision."

To ensure this, Spector recommended small teams ("You don't need much structure, communication is easier") that designers be open to change ("you have to believe in your goals, but you can't be married to a particular way of achieving those goals") and to learn to "fail often, but fail quickly."

"Having the time to focus and fix what is wrong is important. I used to call alpha stage ‘the game is finished but it sucks,’ and that is so wrong."

Concluding, Spector reiterated his points one last time: "Publishers, don't get conservative. If you're an independent developer, swing for the fences -- I see too many independents whose works look like portfolio pieces -- and if you work for an established developer, be an agent for change.... We can never satisfied with the status quo."

GameSetLinkDump: Claymation Rules The Waves

Well, another GameSetLinkDump, and I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that there are too many links in the world. But hey, I'm having fun distilling them, and throwing them in your direction - especially if they involve Claymation, something that games do all too seldom.

Also hanging out in here - weird Space Invaders insanity, the return of the delightful Boyer in conjunction with those wacky Boing Boing folks, discussions on good E rated games getting ignored, GameRanger vs. Dungeon Keeper 2, and lots more.

Woo hah:

Boing Boing Offworld launches! - Boing Boing
Hurray, my buddy and former colleague Brandon Boyer springs into eclectogame action to launch Boing Boing's new game blog, with launch ad support from Intel - should be neat, eclectic stuff.

State of the Shoot ‘Em Up | Edge Online
Good piece on shmups from the print version of Edge.

ARGNet: An Interview with JC Hutchins: Personal Effects
More from PixelVixen707's daddy.

The Brainy Gamer: The big ignore
'Let's say you're interested in finding a good E-rated game (evaluated by the ESRB as appropriate for "Everyone")' Good points on the _good_ family games sometimes getting ignored.

Cletus Clay official dev blog
Oo, claymation game return of alert - sister site IndieGames has more.

Between Video Game Download - Jason Rohrer Games' New Between - Esquire
On Esquire.com? Intemeresting - see Bogost's analysis on Gamasutra for more details.

Nintendo > Science « Vancouver Game Design
'There are so many benefits to playing games already that it confuses me as to why Nintendo feels they need to lie in order to attract new gamers.' Wuhwoh!

GDN: GameRanger Helps you Scout out Competition
Yes, player matching for Dungeon Keeper 2, modernized for your pleasure! Very odd, cool - via AHandy.

Kotaku: 'Feature: Composing The Soundtrack To Blizzard's World'
Wow, sumptuous Blizzard soundtrack insanity, neat.

YouTube - Space Invaders Anime Music Video
Crazy 30th anniversary insanity - via Brandonn.

November 18, 2008

In-Depth: Montreal Game Biz Sees Salary-Fixing Collusion?

[We don't tend to crosspost most industry-related stories from Gamasutra, but in this case, Leigh Alexander has uncovered something pretty concerning and biz-relevant -- alleged wage-fixing in the closely knit Montreal game development community -- and so, since I know a lot of developers read GSW...]

Industry sources often claim that certain kinds of "truces" between game studios are fairly commonplace.

For example, competitors might occasionally agree not to hire one another’s talent for the duration of a given project, to help each other retain staff when all hands are needed on deck.

But a correspondence obtained by Gamasutra suggests that some Montreal-based companies may be attempting to collude on salary caps, under the auspices of benefiting the economics of the industry in a given region – and at the expense of competitive wages for development staff.

According to a scan of an internal email that we translated from French, human resources director Flavie Tremblay -- when employed by Eidos in June 2007 -- reached out to fellow Montreal publisher Ubisoft to propose just such a collaboration.

"As you know, there are more and more important players in the Montreal industry, and the well of our resources is limited," wrote Tremblay, herself a former Ubisoft employee, to Francis Baillet, as she welcomed him to the role of human resources vice president at Ubisoft.

"I sincerely believe that a collaboration would eventually allow us to better provide for our needs in forming a workforce, and avoid a bid for higher wages which would only benefit the employee, and which would end up harming the industry in the long term," Tremblay’s message continued.

"I know that all of us face the challenge of employee retention, but I sincerely believe that salary augmentation does not represent a long term solution. Let me know if you are interested in an eventual discussion. I believe that [Montreal-based] A2M will probably be interested; then, we’d only have EA left to convince."

Electronic Arts did, in fact, verify that it received a correspondence from competitors in Montreal similar to the one obtained by Gamasutra. But the company declined to provide any further details, neither to show us the correspondence nor to confirm the company or individual that sent it.

When approached by Gamasutra for comment on this story, EA Montreal vice president and general manager Alain Tascan called the letters "troubling."

"Colluding with competitors to restrict salaries in Montreal appears unethical and definitely contradicts EA’s core values," Tascan said. "EA is currently reviewing records to affirm our understanding that no representatives from our company participated in the meetings referenced in these letters, and that no one from EA colluded with competitors to restrict employee salaries."

Notably, Tremblay’s correspondence was written prior to the public launch of Eidos’ Montreal studio. According to claims from Gamasutra sources, Tremblay composed and sent the email in question on her own initiative and without the support of executives at Eidos. The company allegedly dismissed Tremblay some months after she sent the email.

However, there is no confirmation of how or whether Ubisoft or A2M responded to Tremblay's invitation, the status of any discussions or whether any such agreement was put into place.

Following her dismissal from Eidos, Tremblay has since returned to Ubisoft, and according to public information, is currently Ubisoft’s human resources manager.

Tremblay’s original memo -- independently verified by Gamasutra as being legitimate -- was also recently leaked onto the web, and the timing of the leak appears significant – it is, after all, over a year old.

According to Eidos Montreal’s official website, the studio held an open house to attract new talent on November 15 – the same time frame that Tremblay’s memo (which lists her as an Eidos employee) first surfaced and roused suspicions, making it possible the leak is another tactic in the region's recruitment wars.

Today also marks the kickoff of the Montreal International Games Summit, which aims to bring public and media attention to the games industry in Quebec and address the interests of its workers.

"Since EA opened a Montreal studio in 2003, we have fought a legal battle for an open employment policy that allows natural market forces to determine where people work and how much they are compensated," EA Montreal’s Tascain said.

"These letters are especially troubling given the generous support that the Quebec Government and taxpayers have provided to help these companies create jobs in the region."

Gamasutra attempted to contact all parties involved for further comment on this story. Ubisoft declined to comment or address questions on this matter, calling the issue "rumor and speculation," and Gamasutra was not able to reach either A2M or Eidos Montreal to obtain an official comment as of press time.

GamerBytes Special: Inside XNA Community Games, Part 1

bei.jpg[Over at our sister console digital download site GamerBytes, Ryan Langley is taking an early look at the Xbox Live Community Games scheduled for launch in a couple of days time, and I'm really intrigued already - here's his roundup of the first ten or so.]

In just two days, the "New Xbox Experience" will be downloaded by millions of Xbox 360 users, and with that comes the XNA Community Games section, showcasing indie and hobbyist titles which will cost 200-800 points ($2.50-$10) to download.

Those who have been lucky enough to get into the NXE preview have been able to check out the current crop of XNA titles, with new games popping up everyday. For the few days left before it's released we'll be looking at each title that pops up, and and give you a little overview of each from the trial.

Today we look at ten titles to show up on the service - each of which has a timed, free demo. Some are good, some are bad, but it's all a part of seeing what can be done with just a couple of guys (or gals) in a short amount of time.

In some case, it seems like the creators got quickly bored with the project and released it anyway, but most of the initial XNA Community Games titles are interesting, and show what kinds of games can be made with XNA and the Xbox 360.



Creator: XNA Prod 001
Genre: Action & Adventure
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: During the trial mode, you are only able to play the "paint by Numbers" mode, which allows you to fill out a painting with flowers. The actual game is more like this - surrounding weeds with flowers. Why they didn't add that as the trial mode makes no sense to me. Is there a fun game here? Difficult to determine.



Creator: Louis Ingenthron
Genre: Puzzle & Trivia
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: This is exactly what it looks like. You want a Rubik's Cube program? You've got yourself a Rubik's Cube program.


Fruit Attack

Creator: ScrumThorax
Genre: Puzzle & Trivia
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: Essentially, Fruit Attack is a clone of Sega's classic Columns game, except with Fruit. It certainly does that job, and has a two player mode. It keeps your highest score but has no sort of scoreboard system, which is a little disappointing. I'd say its main drawback is just how bland the setting is. Brown wood backgrounds, plain fruit graphics... You need to have a bit more fun with your game creation!

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:fde5aab1-4fb5-4861-bde3-113e59d7c37d&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="SpaceCombat - Xbox Live Community Game">Video: SpaceCombat - Xbox Live Community Game</a>


Creator: cilcoder
Genre: Shooter
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: SpaceCombat is a very simple, cel-shaded space shooter. Its hook is that it has online multiplayer for up to 8 players for only 200 Points. Unfortunately I found the control scheme to be a little confusing and the choice of cel-shading makes it difficult to understand just how far away you are. If it can build up a community it might be fun.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:a9e179e9-ed6f-473e-b63d-456c6a77c3b9&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Being Trailer">Video: Being Trailer</a>


Creator: Chounard
Genre: Platformer
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: Being is a very simple platforming game. The entire point is just to get through its 4 or so levels. You can't attack - you're simply avoiding everything, grabbing keys and coins, and completing the level. It's the only 2D platformer of the bunch, and despite its rather mundane graphics, it reminds me of a few 1990 shareware titles I used to play. I did end up buying Being, and for the half an hour to an hour it took to finish it I had fun.


Fuel Depot 360

Creator: Interstellar
Genre: Action & Adventure
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: Fly your space craft around, and shoot the bad guys before they take all of your fuel barrels away. Did you ever have Wario Ware Touched and unlocked Pyoro-T? It's vaguely like that, I guess. Simple premise, but I feel it doesn't control all that well and figuring out what's going on is a little difficult.


Word Soup

Creator: Fuzzy Bug
Genre: Puzzle & Trivia
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: Word Soup is actually based off of a popular parlor game in Great Britain called Word Up - a simple "skill with prizes" game which you can win back a small amount of money if you play well. You simply find words within the grid and are graded based off of how well you did in 3 or so minutes. No winning money here, but if you're looking for a way to bone up on your knowledge of words this would be the place to do it.



Creator: Polychrome
Genre: Other
Price: 400 Points

Trial Play: Specifically tells you that "this is not a game". A collection of ambient screen savers. I don't think it's worth the 400 Points to be honest.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:473f2fc5-4312-4524-ad28-68c3a754ed96&showPlaylist=true&from=msnvideo" target="_new" title="Bloc">Video: Bloc</a>


Creator: Metacreature Games
Genre: Action & Adventure
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: A shooter that is more complex than it looks. You move around the screen as a ball of color. You rotate the ball around to change the direction the colors are facing, and then shoot said colors using the buttons of the controller. It's an interesting concept which might be worth your money. It does have cooperative play where each player controls two colors, so it might be good to get you and your girlfriend playing.



Creator: EdAndersenUK
Genre: Puzzle & Trivia
Price: 200 Points

Trial Play: This may look like a Lumines knockoff at first, but let me assure you it isn't. It's really a mix between it and Q? Entertainment's other title Gunpey - you have to set up several blocks together, but also put the line within each block next to another, like Pipe Dream. Connecting 5 together will cause them to disappear, and you can set up combos and the like.

My main concern is that you can royally screw yourself very easily - just set up two facing L blocks on the bottom and you'll never be able to get rid of them. I'm guessing that's why this game hasn't really been attempted before.

The game has online leaderboards as well - but instead of it being automatically updated, you have to go to edngames.com and put in your password. Unfortunately, it's the only way you can do it within the infrastructure.

Opinion: Fallout 3 - Escape From Vault 101

[In this in-depth analysis, commentator Duncan Fyfe looks closely at Bethesda's Fallout 3 to discuss why it's "distinctly unlike those "choose fate, save world" games", but is oddly affecting nonetheless.]

Bethesda were part of the story. Fallout 3 previews, between explaining VATS and the Megaton dilemma, made sure to note the long-standing concerns over whether Bethesda could pull this off.

Bethesda had inserted themselves into the history of someone else's series: Fallout, ardently mythologized as a classic, although its commercial cachet had declined. After Bethesda cultivated their house franchise into a well-received cross-platform hit with Oblivion, they suddenly had everything to prove.

Their motivations find parallel in the story Fallout 3 tells about the player character's father, James. One day and without any specific impetus, James abruptly leaves home and the security it provides. He risks everything on resurrecting a certain project commonly thought to be untenable after some recent failures.

Why'd he leave, and why did Bethesda decide to do this? Fortunately they did, because at worst, Fallout 3 would have been an undetermined game; a cautious compromise between the varying design sensibilities of Bethesda and Black Isle and a half-hearted and restrained remake of the original Fallout.

That's not Fallout 3. Here's why it mattered to the post-apocalyptic, profanity-laden, morally vague wasteland that Bethesda make it this time.

The Hopelessness After The Explosion

Game worlds which exist in their fiction as monumental achievements -- like Rapture and Liberty City, grand and exhaustive -- can reflect their developers' real-life dedication to building a quality game.

Instead of vicariously crafting in-game opulence, Bethesda recreated Washington, D.C. as a blasted shithole devastated by nuclear war and depressingly rendered in decrepit detail. BioShock was a toast to failed ambition; Fallout 3 a toast to failure.

Given Fallout 3's timing, reintroducing the series' conceit of war beginning with an Alaskan invasion is faintly hilarious. Now that the resultant wasteland exists in one of Bethesda's open and persistent worlds, you're forced to survey the full extent of the destruction.

You can't ignore all the bombed-out highways, the bridges to nowhere, the irradiated waters, the torn-apart schools, the abandoned cars, the skeletal remains embracing on the beds of shattered houses, or the random and meaningless firefights and explosions. That's the world, and you have to deal with it even when it has no quest relevance.

No previous Fallout game has actually felt so plausibly Post-Nuclear. If Fallout 3 doesn't seem as funny as its predecessors, it's because there's really nothing funny about that. A video game has never been so appropriately painted in brown and gray; the thematic prerogative of Gears of War wasn't hopelessness.

Why Washington DC Works

The decision to set Fallout 3 in D.C. was ostensibly made to further distance Bethesda's game from the West Coast adventures of Fallout 1 and 2, and because the Maryland-based developer were more familiar with the Capitol. This is workmanlike reasoning, which doesn't hint at the massive implications the decision would have on the creative direction of the game.

It's not until after the player leaves the pristine sanctity of Vault 101 in search of his father -- and makes it to Washington proper -- that you remember what's specifically important about D.C.

Not until you march down the Mall, through the wrecks of the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, the Museums of History and Technology, the National Archives and the Lincoln Memorial to the tune of the America the Beautiful, ducking the street-gangs and mutants further blowing apart the ruins, can you can tell that this is the dismal coda to American history.

America as it was conceived in 1776 is in gradual decline. While some civilians still go about their lives, it seems inevitable that the light will blink out sooner rather than later. When you're able to casually scavenge the Declaration of Independence, and sell it, whatever immaculate prestige American history once had is probably gone.

On your tour of D.C., you're made to revisit all the initial promise inherent in that document, while you're picking up the pieces and kicking around the ashes. The buildings stand remarkably intact, frozen in time, for you to look up at and think about how this all went to hell.

Sitting in the Museum of Technology's planetarium, you can watch the stars flicker across the ceiling from an antiquated projector, listening to an earnest narrator explains the great dream of mankind to explore outer space and some '40s nostalgia drifting over the radio. A pair of super mutants interrupt with lead pipes and miniguns, screaming about tearing your head off. That's Fallout 3.

Vault Boy's Lament

It's a heartbreaking picture, even though Fallout is still decorated with contrarily cheerful '50s duck-and-cover iconography, replete with the perpetually enthused Vault Boy character. As much as that imagery serves as ironic commentary, it almost exists to leaven the psychological burden of walking around awake in this nightmare.

If you can point to something out-of-place or ridiculous, then you can detach from the world -- rather than submitting to it as a reasonable state of existence.

Even so, Fallout the third is the sober one in the family. Whether you think that's a deliberate choice or Bethesda's Achilles' heel, it works for this game. Fallout 3 executes its humorous interstitials as well as anything in the first game, while rejecting the broader pop culture excesses of Fallout 2's Monty Python prostitute showcase. It is, after all, the end of the world.

Far Cry 2, another sequel from a different studio, has absolutely nothing to do with the first game. The name is a vehicle for an unrelated design document and the game's called Far Cry 2 only because Ubisoft doesn't own the Mercenaries license.

The new Far Cry team and the new Fallout team offer new perspectives. Far Cry 2's Africa abandons aliens for malaria, item degradation, civil war and all-purpose ugliness -- while Fallout 3's wasteland is deliberately and unremittingly tragic. To the history of their respective series, they introduce a conscience.

They tell gamers that they can have their open-world shooter and post-apocalyptic wastelands, with their bloody conflicts, nuclear weapons, headshots, political intrigue and all the occasionally goofy video game accouterments, but they won't pretend anymore that it's all unreservedly awesome.

You should feel bad in Far Cry 2 or sad just walking around in Fallout 3. That Fallout 3 is able to convey all this entirely through atmosphere, rather than disadvantaging the player (a page out of the survival horror playbook) is a pretty remarkable achievement.

Enter The AntAgonizer

Fallout 3's weirdest moment has two costumed crusaders fighting on the outskirts of a remote town, calling themselves the Mechanist and the AntAgonizer. It's a moronic premise, albeit one right in line with Fallout.

When you talk to the AntAgonizer, though, and persuade her to knock it off, the game treats her with completely dignity, as she presents a reasonable case for how she wanted to help the impossibly lost inhabitants of the wasteland, before running away in tears.

As Fallout's setting is such an unnatural mode of existence, it's especially worthwhile to observe how the residents of the wasteland choose to live their lives. What are you supposed to do when all of civilisation's institutions have been erased?

Everyone you meet has written their own self-help book on post-nuclear living. Most subsist on vice, as murderers, dealers, slavers and prostitutes. Skilled fighters hire themselves out as mercenaries or anarchically pillage towns. Others go flat-out insane.

Personal survival can be so insurmountable a bar that few rise above self-interest and do what's right for what little remains of the world. Some try, like the semi-righteous order of knights, the Brotherhood of Steel, but even they're divided on how much they want to help out humanity. The Capitol Wasteland lacks any government or ideology and as chaotic and sociologically fractured as it is, it's a perfect setting for an unfocused open-world game.

There's exactly one person in Fallout 3 who will sacrifice for the greater good and you can follow him if you want. It's impossible to believe that in this world enough people like Alexander Hamilton or James Madison will emerge; a small number of smart people who, though ideologically divided, could do something as immense as drafting and ratifying the Constitution. You can't expect any such coherence or drive from the people of Fallout 3.

Carry On, Regardless

Most interesting among the populace are not the raiders or the samaritans but those going on as if nothing happened. Isolated in private zones or secluded in vaults, they run restaurants, sweep floors, nurse high school crushes; reintroducing domesticity to the post-apocalypse.

You have to wonder how responsible that actually is. Are they doing the right thing in rebuilding familiar societal constructs, or should they accept that the world's in decline and do something about it?

You're an actor in the wasteland like the rest, with more agency and influence than all of them combined, which prompts you to consider what you are going to do. In Fallout, making moral decisions isn't a feature designed to encourage replayability, it's arguably the entire point.

Fallout is distinctly unlike those "choose fate, save world" games like Mass Effect (or Oblivion, for that matter) since their worlds are never believably imperiled. The world is in pretty good shape for the entire game; the danger is theoretical and only ever exacerbated by the player allowing the linear plot to progress.

Here, the world is already a write-off. You can't fix the wasteland or the war but there are so many people whose lives you can affect, and that in turn determines what kind of person you are. All that really matters is the quality of your character. If you help whoever you meet, you won't get anything out of it -- not really, not the world or power or glory or any kind of meaningful relationship. All it is is karma.

See What You Can Do

In a weird way, the wasteland is an inviting avenue for change. There are no rules, no institutions, no laws. What do you do when nobody is watching and you can't be held accountable? If you try and approximate the moral and legal standards of today, then that's a statement in itself: you want those structures to endure.

The place is already so desolate you don't even have to do much to improve it. It reminds me, tangentially, of reading about post-invasion Iraq and the early stages of the occupation when the country, bleached to a dreamlike blank slate, so briefly overflowed with possibilities, and an influx of bright young graduates headed out to the Green Zone to reconstruct the country.

I remember thinking, for one dangerously unguarded moment, that wouldn't it be great to move to Baghdad. A place where there's so much to achieve and you can finally have an impact even though you'll probably ruin everything and get murdered.

When the Ink Spots' shiftless anthem "Maybe" is broadcast over the in-game radio, the song being the first thing you heard in Fallout 1, it invokes the series' own memory. Bethesda inspire nostalgia for something they had nothing to do with and recall how unlikely it once seemed that they'd be the ones to restart this thing.

The lyrics -- "Maybe you'll sit and sigh, wishing that I were near/Then maybe you'll ask me to come back again/And maybe I'll say 'Maybe'" -- contradict what this game is all about. Fallout 3 is about making a decision. It's about commitment. It's about doing something.

'A Tribute To Intent'

If it seems like an overly general theme, consider Bethesda's own history with this game. Consider how, out of unspecified desire, they left the safety of the Elder Scrolls for this, and how many development studios are factories for endless variations on popular franchises or uninspired sequels nobody cares about.

Fallout 3 is a tribute to intent. It's not a rallying cry for any cause or even a cautionary tale about the hypothetical horrors of nuclear holocaust. It's a statement on the worthlessness of inaction. It's about not staying in the vault.

In the spirit, then, of conclusive action and definitive answers, we are at last able to resolve every question we've ever had about this game. Does it work; did they pull it off; was it worth all the time, the money, the effort, the mistrust and the suspicion; with everything that this game says and everything that it achieves, well, finally, is this Fallout?

GameSetLinkDump: The Shadows Of Your Smile

Delighted to return with a few more GameSetLinks, and there's quite a few fun things in here, with the (pictured) Linger In Shadows PS3 demo educational post somewhat to the fore, hurray.

Also in here - ruminations on the Mother 3 translation, Atari's wacky cool The Chase: Felix Meets Felicity, a disturbing UK Resistance fantasy, a new Mega64 video, and quite a few other things besides.

An amazing race:

Crummy: 'One Bad Mother'
Also see this initial post: overall: 'There's a tendentious video-game logic that says that bad things are caused by people who are evil, and that the evil people do the bidding of a boss, and that if you kill the boss you've solved the problem... if there's one video game that could take a more realistic approach, it would be a Mother game.'

BitFellas: Linger in Shadows PS3
A good guide to the PS3 interactive demo, with links to the demogroups greeted in it in hidden parts.

MTV Multiplayer » ‘Shaun White’ Launch Party - Our Guest Blogger Weighs In
'I’m glad I stayed outside though because I scored an interview with Tila Tequila, Bam Margera, Jesse from “The Bachelor” and many more!' 'Normal' MTV meets MTV Multiplayer, pain ensues.

Nov. 13, 1983: Teen Sets 'Asteroids' Record in 3-Day Marathon
'1983: Fifteen-year-old Scott Safran of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, sets the world record score in the arcade game Asteroids — the longest-standing videogame high score in history.' Neat mini-Kohler piece.

YouTube - Mega64: "SYTEFREEK"
Never non-awesome: 'A video to promote the new Mega64.com.'

Absolutely NSFW, absolutely ridiculous.

A love story between a blogger and a game concept - Tiny Cartridge
On Atari’s The Chase: Felix Meets Felicity - looks v.interesting.

Lost Levels | Technology | guardian.co.uk
Nice music video: 'UK group Lost Levels are hugely influenced by videogame music, and indeed, videogames in general, ploughing an intriguing furrow between indie pop and the US blipcore scene. '

Sore Thumbs: 'A Letter To My Former Co-Workers'
Still annoying, at least to me.

OneSwitch.org.uk blog: Creature Discomforts
The Aardman folks make designs for disability awareness games.

November 17, 2008

Exploring Online Worlds: Inside The Dark Majesty Of NeoPets

[Over at sister 'online worlds' site Worlds In Motion, Mathew Kumar continues to expand the Worlds In Motion Atlas, and this time, he looks at the tremendously popular, but slightly baffling Viacom-owned NeoPets - s'fun having him puzzle over it.]

2008_10_31_neo.jpgName: NeoPets

: NeoPets, Inc.

Established: November 1999

2008_10_31_neo2.jpgHow it Works: NeoPets is entirely browser-based and runs in HTML and Flash. Navigation and gameplay are accomplished via mouse and keyboard input.

Overview: NeoPets is, essentially, an online "virtual pet" simulation, where players take care of pets by buying them food, toys, clothes, and other accessories using a virtual currency called Neopoints, which can be raised by playing games and other methods. Players can interact with each other through in-game mail, discussion boards and groups.

Payment Method
: NeoPets is free to play and ad-supported, but also offers a subscription, starting at $7.99 for one month's access, which removes (some) adverts and allows access to more areas and features. In addition, there is also the NC Mall, which is a cash shop for virtual items.

Key Features:

- Virtual pet simulation
- Customizable pet/home
- Safe environment with moderated interaction between players (for example, across discussion boards)
- Combination of revenue streams (ad-supported, item sales, subscriptions)

NeoPets: In-Depth Tour


I've spent literally days just staring at Neopets' homepage trying to make head or tail of it. I'm a person who has managed to hack a MySpace into shape and has managed to grap some of the worst designed online spaces you can find, but Neopets is bewildering.

It's probably simply that the site has existed for so long—since 1999—that has led to it being so complex and confusing, but as a world that's aimed at children, I'm amazed. What does an eight year-old make of this page? Do they know what the "Neodaq Index" is, or why I should care (or not?)


Well, at least getting started with Neopets is sort of simple. You create a user name, then select your Neopet from a vast selection of creatures and options; I created a red "Yurble" called Dotstream (I named him after the first thing I saw on my shelf; my copy of the wonderful Bit Generations title Dotstream for GBA) and once past that point I was thrown into the world with no idea what to do.

So much so, in fact, that I managed to not feed Dotstream until I realized he was starving. My plan—to visit the Neopets food store (because it was linked on the page where I found out he was starving) was somewhat stymied by the fact they were "sold out of everything"(amazingly) and was advised "Neopian Inflation is currently at 2.31%", which, well, I have no idea what that means.

Rather than wait the "eight minutes or so" I was told I'd have to wait until the store was restocked, I decided to play one of the minigames available, Dice-A-Roo, because (yet again) the page told me that might be a good way to win some food.

Each play, it turns out, costs 5 "NP", or NeoPoints, which I found I had 1,050 of. Thankfully Neopoints are the points that you can raise in-world, unlike NeoCash, which are the points you must purchase with real-world money.

Dice-A-Roo turned out to be an bizarre dice game with rules that were completely obscure to me (though perhaps I didn't pay enough attention, worrying that Dotstream was going to expire at any minute) and after a few rolls I was informed that there was a "new challenger!!!" waiting for me at the Battledome.


So, easily distracted, I decided to go and explore the Battledome. Except, only pets who aren't hungry can play that minigame. So that was out until I could find some food.

After what felt like hundreds of throws (and no food in sight) I gave up on Dice-A-Roo, and returned to the shop to find (finally) they had some food back in stock. After haggling for a while, I was loaded up with deli Turkey slices to feed Dotstream… If I could just work out how to do it. I'm not joking, but I could not work out how—until eventually I stumbled upon my inventory (I'm not even sure how) and finally made him reach the state of "famished" rather than starving.

Of course, on returning to the store to buy more food, it was sold out again. And with that, I put an end to my initial Neopets experience; still thoroughly confused and dispirited with the whole thing.

NeoPets: Conclusion


IThe most striking thing for any user of Neopets is that it is, at least initially, very complex to get to grips with for a online space aimed at children. Each screen is full of a mass of information and images, much of which is redundant or advertising (which isn't always obvious).

Navigation is poor—there is a navigation bar at the top of the screen, but the meaning of each section isn't clear to a new user, particularly when each section splits up into even more choices.

Despite all that, there is a reason that so many users clearly find Neopets captivating—and that's as simple as there are a near never-ending amount of things to do. By simply stumbling about the site (as I have been doing) you can find any number of unique and interesting games to play. For example, the last time I logged in, I clicked about for a while and found myself playing KeyQuest, a detailed, Mario-Party-esque virtual board-game that contained live chat and interaction with other players. There are tons of games, some of which are good and some of which aren't so great, but there's a lot of them.


In addition, Neopets also has a very strong and consistent theme. There's clearly as much depth and backstory to the Neopets world as there is to World of Warcraft (really!) and although the cutesy pet animals look like a barely acceptable rip-off of Pokemon to someone like me, they're enjoyed by the intended audience.

People get very attached to their pets and their experience in the world, though, and that's not only due to the consistency of the theme. They're very clever to ensure you keep logging back in by making sure that your pet gets hungry and lonely if you don't, and make sure you spend a lot of time there by requiring you play it for long periods of time in order to raise the required Neopoints to buy food, toys, or other things for your pet.

Gamers who have money, of course, can shortcut this by visiting the cash shop.


But taking all that into account, none of that makes me particularly like the world. I can absolutely respect the work put into Neopets across the years, but what the've chosen to engineer is (to an adult, at least) absolutely and transparently a timesink. Everything seems geared to keep you surfing their pages and seeing the adverts (and there are a lot) or spending money in their cash shop (or on any of the real world items that you can buy which gain you some advantage in the world).

Were the experience of using it more streamlined, better designed or just more pleasant I think we could overlook that, but Neopets sinks your time into doing something that isn't even especially fun.

It's an interesting world, one worth looking at, but as much to see success despite glaring problems as it is to see its positive aspects.

Useful Links:
The Daily Neopets (fan site)
Neopets Fanatic (fan site)

Opinion: Social Responsibility And Why Games Should Grow Up

[In this editorial, originally printed in Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, EIC Brandon Sheffield suggests that video games and their developers should start looking to a wider breadth of influences and themes -- and it looks like the market is ready for it.]

Games need to grow up. As this medium follows that inevitable path toward mainstream social acceptance, the limitations as an art form become more apparent.

The focus of our work is still far too narrow, or more correctly, our narrow focus is pointed in far too few directions. As the medium that will lead youths into the next generation, I feel that we have a social responsibility to represent a diversity of views in terms of our content.

Every other mainstream media, from books to theatre to movies to comics, has major genre or thematic derivations. Narrow focus isn't a bad thing in itself -- I think it can actually help people identify strongly with a given subject. But we greatly need to diversify the themes and subjects we tackle.

In video games, the vast majority of content is still combat and competition-based. This isn't a problem; after all, most games -- electronic or otherwise -- are about good-natured competition.

The trouble is that due to the common theme, the message is often quite simple: there are good guys, there are bad guys, and maybe the bad guys aren't who you thought they were at the start, but really you don't care as a player. You just want to keep shooting, smacking, or otherwise subjugating whatever's in front of you.

Social Context

Games have been dealing with social issues for as long as they've had narratives. Unfortunately, they usually have very shallow messages to impart. War is bad because it killed your family. People should understand each other, because your character used to be poor.

The intentions are good, but generally the message is told to the player, rather than shown to him. If you want to be told that war is horrible, play Metal Gear Solid 4. If you want to be shown, play Call of Duty 4.

If you want to be told about the dangers of capitalist extremism and its dystopian results, play Final Fantasy VII. If you want to be shown, play BioShock.

These examples are a bit trite, as these are the games everyone trots out when they want to praise the future of narrative. But my point is only further validated by the fact that better examples are still very difficult to find.

Entertain to Inform

If games are going to be tackling social issues, which most narrative games seem to strive toward, there needs to be more outside influence. I don't mean outside the industry -- I mean game developers need to draw more from their daily lives and other media for inspiration.

Right now, games are too influenced by other games. People know games, and they're safe. We need to move outside the comfort zone if we're to make any impact. BioShock's reflection on Ayn Rand is a good start, and games like Civilization do a good job of simulating real-world economies and warfare, but we need more examples to point to.

A Dickens- or Fitzgerald-inspired game, properly handled, could yield amazing results -- and what about taking inspiration from an original video game work like Braid? This sort of thing is usually relegated to the Experimental Gameplay Sessions panel at GDC, but these sorts of games should actually be made.

Who Needs It?

Really, most games don't need complex narratives or themes. We insert them because we want our games to have an "awesome story," but most games fall horrifically flat here, and would be better off with simple objective screens.

In games like Halo 2 or 3, where you sometimes can't even understand what the characters are saying and the plot is needlessly convoluted, wouldn't the experience be better with no story at all?

One of the large problems is the lack of a true director or auteur. The compartmentalization of leadership in Western game companies has its serious advantages in terms of workflow, but one thing Japan still has over us is singular vision. One person truly directs the project and has the final say.

This yields both astounding successes and spectacular failures, but if nothing else, helps to point a game in a specific direction.

Broadly Narrow

I think most current games, even the hardcore ones, appeal too much to the mainstream in terms of their themes. Just as the movie 300 appeals to frat boys, so too does God of War or SOCOM.

Our blockbuster games are designed to be mainstream, even if they do only appeal to the hardcore by and large (see my previous editorial "The Hardcore Niche.")

I want to believe that game developers care about more interesting things. We should be showing more of this in our games. We need to present a diversity of viewpoints, themes, and gameplay styles to the people who are absorbing and internalizing our content (when we do it right).

Last year proved that games with vision can actually be popular. So now, the only limiting factor is our own creativity.

The Independent Games Summit: A History

[This weekend, we've been updating the IGF website after the submission deadline, and while in there, I also had a chance to properly update the Independent Games Summit website. Since this is the first time the history of the Summit has been laid out, figured I'd crosspost over here.]

The Independent Games Summit, which first took place in 2007, is a forum to discuss the state of independent games at the Game Developers Conference, the largest game creation conference in the world.

It takes place alongside the pioneering Independent Games Festival at GDC, which is in its eleventh year of awarding and showcasing the best independent video games, with previous winners including Everyday Shooter, World Of Goo, Braid, Gish, Darwinia, Audiosurf, and many more.

The Summit, which will take place for the third time on March 23rd and 24th, 2009 in San Francisco, California, features lectures, postmortems and roundtables from some of the most notable independent game creators, including many former and current Independent Games Festival finalists and winners.

The latest information on the 2009 Independent Games Summit, including line-up, pass price, and recent additions is available at the official 2009 Indie Games Summit page on the GDC website. Some of the confirmed speakers for 2009's third ever IGS include Stardock's Brad Wardell (Galactic Civilizations II), 2D Boy's Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler (World Of Goo), Jonatan 'Cactus' Soderstrom (Clean Asia, Psychosomnium), and more.

This article, part of the IGF website, exists in order to document current and previous iterations of the Independent Games Summit, linking to videos and write-ups of previous years' lectures and panels for posterity.

The 2008 Independent Games Summit

In its second iteration, the 2008 Independent Games Summit at GDC looked to highlight the brightest and the best of indie development, with discussions ranging from indie game distribution methods through game design topics, detailed postmortems of independent titles, digital distribution-centric business concepts, and much more.

The event took place on the Monday and Tuesday of Game Developers Conference 2008, February 18th and 19th, and the full lecture/panel roster is available for reading. Featured lectures included N+ co-creator Raigan Burns on rolling your own tech, Q Games' Dylan Cuthbert on creating the PixelJunk series (including the first public unveiling of PixelJunk Eden), and Introversion's Vicky Arundel (Darwinia) on indie marketing.

Also notable was Torpex's Bill Dugan on the making of XBLA title Schizoid, a postmortem of the IGF Grand Prize-winning Aquaria from Bit Blot's Derek Yu and Alec Holowka, a panel on web browser-based games, and contributions from the creators of Professor Fizzwizzle, Outpost Kaloki, Shantae and more.

Extensive coverage of this Summit appeared on sister site Gamasutra, including, from day one, the opening panel, the Aquaria postmortem, Raigan from N+'s 'unique knobs' talk, the Flash games panel, and the PixelJunk Eden discussion.

Also covered from day two was the 'Two Kyles' lecture on paths to indie greatness, plus the full postmortem of N+ for XBLA, and Croal and Totilo with a media perspective on indie, and the final 'State Of Indie' panel.

The 2007 Independent Games Summit
Featuring lectures, postmortems and roundtables from some of the most notable independent game creators around, the inaugural Independent Games Summit took place at Game Developers Conference 2007 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, on March 5th and 6th, 2007.

The full roster for the 2007 Independent Games Summit is available to read, and included notable lectures from Braid's Jonathan Blow (pictured), ThatGameCompany's Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago (Flow/Flower), and a talk on going from Narbacular Drop to Portal by Valve's Kim Swift.

Some of the other notable lectures included a special keynote by Space Giraffe creator and indie legend Jeff Minter, an indie business talk by The Behemoth's John Baez (Alien Hominid, Castle Crashers), and an Innovation panel including Everyday Shooter developer Jon Mak and a number of other indie luminaries.

Many of the top IGS 2007 talks are available for viewing on Google Video, including Kim Swift's lecture on Portal, the Jon Blow 'indie prototyping' talk, and a postmortem of XBLA title Small Arms from its creators at Gastronaut Studios.

In addition, sister website Gamasutra covered a number of the 2007 IGS lectures with write-ups, including those by Jeff Minter, by John Baez, by XBLA/PSN representative, and the panel on indie innovation, plus the final 'State Of Indie Games' panel. Finally, audio of Monday's lectures and Tuesday's lectures are available for purchase from the GDC Radio website.

[If you'd like to discuss any elements of the Independent Games Summit, including lecture suggestions, media interviews, and other feedback, please contact us at [email protected].]

November 16, 2008

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Whoops, I Was Logged Out

['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which documents the history of video game magazines, from their birth in the early '80s to the current day.]


How much does the Japanese PC game industry not matter outside of girl-themed, usually pornographic adventures and sound novels? It matters so little that the one completely PG-rated magazine in Japan that covered the scene -- and, in fact, the oldest and longest-lasting game magazine in Japanese history -- folded this summer after 388 issues and I completely failed to notice.

LOGiN launched in May 1982 as a quarterly magazine from ASCII, the biggest computer publisher in Japan at the time. It was the first computer mag ASCII published that wasn't primarily targeted at an IT/business/industrial tech audience, and therefore it was written at a much more casual and engaging tone, sort of like what Creative Computing was simultaneously doing for the industry in the US. (LOGiN didn't coin the term "otaku," but it was one of the first national publications to use the term in print to refer to PC and anime hobbyists.)

In April 1983 LOGiN went monthly and shifted its focus from programing and tech topics to video games, a restructuring that proved to be a major success. This shift accelerated when Fumitaka Kojima (later the founding editor of Famitsu) took on the EIC job in September 1984.

From that point on, LOGiN took on a very silly, almost Python-esque sense of humor that is probably its greatest legacy in Japan mag history, frequently publishing humor articles that had little to do with games (or computers) even as it covered new games, new technologies, and all the other things the then-exploding PC industry was up to. The formula made LOGiN the number-one game mag in Japan -- the 1980s issues are all thick as a brick, and in 1988 the mag went biweekly, the first computer title in Japan to do so.

LOGiN was also where Famitsu itself got its start. The original Famicom Tsushin was a section of the magazine that debuted in the March 1985 issue and included the usual assortment of game previews and strategies. The section grew and grew until ASCII gave it its own biweekly publication in June 1986, no doubt noting how much advertising cash rival publisher Tokuma Shoten was raking in with Family Computer Magazine at the time.

(Just as the very unique writing style of Your Sinclair and Amiga Power largely defined the voice of British game mags, so did LOGiN and Famitsu take the for-kids content of past game mags and make it just mature and funny enough to keep adults interested. You don't see it quite as much in modern-day Famitsu, but then again video games are the purest definition of mainstream and Famitsu's its primary coverage outlet in Japan. It had to grow up sometime.)


The '80s PC gaming boom in Japan largely settled down by the mid '90s, with casual gamers drifting to consoles and hardcore fans growing pubes and playing dating sims by the handful. For LOGiN -- which, by 1992, boasted so much fantasy/sci-fi/geek content that it had as many non-gamer readers as PC otaku -- it was the end of the party.

By 1997 most of the far-out humor pages were gone, and the title evolved back to its roots as an orthodox PC game mag. It returned to monthly publication in 1998, got taken over by Enterbrain in 2000 alongside the Famitsu lineup, and by 2005 its circulation was down to only 50,000 copies (a figure almost certainly inflated, just like all Japan circ figures are).

The last issue (July '08) came out last May. In its place now is the website LOGiN Web Magazine, a fairly decent-looking news blog type site that has put up some of LOGiN's '80s content for free. B's Log, an Enterbrain sister magazine devoted to yaoi PC games, still exists, to my extreme embarrassment.

I don't think anyone in Japan really paid much attention to LOGiN after 2000 or so, but its passing is still mightily symbolic. It's not the end of print-mag PC coverage in Japan, because PC gaming in East Asia essentially means MMO's and there are a few different titles covering that beast.

But it's certainly a turning point in game media over there. I mean, think about it -- if you're a Japanese-speaking PC gamer who's not into FFXI or Ragnarok and you're also not a registered sex offender in the making, it's now the Internet or nothing for coverage. Weird.

(Yes, I know not all Japanese PC adventure games are pornographic. The fact that aficionadoes have to defend their genre by clarifying this point before anything else says a great deal, however.)

[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.]

GameSetLinkDump: Those User Generated Mirrors

Does the GameSetLinkDump action never end? Not when there's websites to be trawled, and RSS feeds to be read, and smart writing to be disseminated to you lovely GameSetWatch readers, it won't.

Among the neatness here - The New Gamer on spookiness in Fallout, discussion of user-generated content in games like (the pictured) LittleBigPlanet, Rhianna Pratchett on the Mirror's Edge multiverse, World Of Warcraft beer steins, and other things besides.

Morons on parade:

SteveStreeting.com » Blog Archive » User generated content and centralised control don’t mix
'Guitar Hero : World Tour and Little Big Planet are the two most recognised sources of console UGC right now, and both are subject to many media reports of users’ carefully crafted content being deleted by moderators, due to copyright concerns. Via NimbleBit.'

The Situation At Tenpenny Tower | The New Gamer
'Somewhere out there, far to the west of the Washington Monument, sits Tenpenny Tower. Tenpenny's citizens, effete shop clerks and socialites, likely consider it the sole surviving bastion of civilization.'

Music 4 Games interviews Mirror's Edge composer Solar Fields
Interesting electronica choice for the soundtrack, and I really think it works.

Comic Book Resources > CBR News: Running The Mirror’s Edge With Rhianna Pratchett
'CBR News caught up with Pratchett to talk about the “Mirror’s Edge” video game series and the recently released Wildstorm comic book prequel to the game'. Via Gillen.

YouTube - (Little Big Planet)リトルビッグプラネットでテトリス?
Wow, physics-based jetpack Tetris in LBP! Via Jordan Mechner.

The Brainy Gamer: A bit thick
I do agree that I feel a bit betrayed too. It's odd. But interesting. But odd.

Game Design Advance » Turn Me On, Dead Man: Why Urban Legends Make the Best ARGs
'So, the next time anybody’s going to work on a Big Game of some kind, keep this in mind– it’s easier to make people buy into an alternate reality when the reality you’re asking everyone to purchase more closely resembles the one they live in already, rather than anything found in fantasy.'

Win thine own World of Warcraft stein | Fidgit
Whoa, this is super geektastic!

auntie pixelante › the princess is in another castle
'it occured to me how pertinent and recurrent the theme of unrequited love is in videogames - of pursuing, but not being allowed to touch - while playing orbient, a downloadable wii game by skip for nintendo.'

Naomi Alderman debates the artistic merits of videogames | Technology | guardian.co.uk
Hey, more decent UK Guardian website games writing, hurray. If on an oft-discussed subject.

Event Report: Inside G*, Korea's Biggest Game Show

[Government-funded gaming expo Gstar -- South Korea's equivalent of E3 -- opened yesterday, and our own Brandon Sheffield was in Seoul to see NCSoft, Nexon and Microsoft with high-profile booths, improved attendance compared to the previous year's show -- but lingering doubts from developers about its usefulness.]

Gstar, South Korea’s equivalent of E3, opened yesterday in Seoul, and presented what most agreed was a slightly better show than last year, but still oddly positioned in this online-dominated market.

Gstar is a curious event. It’s open to the public, and is consumer-facing on the surface. As one expects from an event of this nature, a number of the major game developers and publishers set up large booths with loud music in the Kintex exhibition hall. But realistically, the consumers are not who this event is tailored toward.

The game market in South Korea is almost exclusively online, with MMOs and microtransaction-based gameplay the most pervasive forms of interactive digital entertainment. That being the case, why hold a giant event, an hour and a half outside of Seoul, to demonstrate games that anyone can play in open beta from their home computer?

The answer is that Gstar is funded and promoted by the South Korean government. It’s not like in China, where game companies are incentivized to exhibit by various voluntary or less voluntary means. But the aim of the companies here does seem much more like an appeal to the government rather than consumers.

Last year, a number of developers told me they felt that the event was going downhill, getting smaller and smaller over the years. From that perspective, this year was actually a slight improvement. The show floor was visibly a bit more crowded, and NCSoft's just-launched Aion was on prominent display.

More importantly, Nexon announced five new games which were previously unknown, during the show, which actually validates the stated intent of the event. And this makes sense indeed, considering that there are Nexon executives on the Gstar board of directors.

But realistically, Gstar’s main objective seems to be showing the power of Korean games to the world. Quite simply, “we are here, we are great.”

Feeling Gstar

Those I spoke to about the event, press and publishers alike, felt that this year was indeed an improvement over the last, but that Gstar still didn’t have an immediate relevance to the current shape of the game industry.

From the developer’s perspective, I spoke with several in-the-trenches types prior to the show, all of whom flatly stated that Gstar is “for government and executives.”

Developers have little desire to go, though a manager at Neowiz mentioned that his team members would occasionally make the trip simply to see the booth babes -- which have this year been cut from the show (though everyone agrees this was for the better).

Perhaps the most useful element of Gstar is the associated Korean Game Conference, or KGC, which is akin in spirit to the Game Developers Conference. KGC is held concurrently with Gstar, is quite well attended, and rather extensive in its scope.

Developers I spoke with said essentially that the conference is far from perfect, but it’s much better than nothing.

This is the kind of event that could not occur in Japan, for example, where sharing of technology, design, or knowledge of the product is often still forbidden even for two teams within one company.

As incestuous as the game industry is worldwide, it’s even more amplified in the Seoul area, where most Korean game development takes place.

One need only go out drinking with one group of developers to see who knows whom... and the quick answer is everyone knows everyone, if you’re someone in the first place.

KGC supports and is supported by this rather open group of developers, and is a hallmark of the different nature of this industry when compared to other development hubs in Asia.


The Gstar show floor itself is home to booths from the likes of NCSoft, Nexon, NHN, CJ Internet, Neowiz, and most of the major online players, with looping video trailers and PC kiosks for trying new products.

Microsoft made a return appearance, showing off localized versions of Gears of War 2 and Fallout 3 – a potential draw for the small number of consumers that actually play console games.

Unfortunately, the major, though absolutely unstated reason I perceive for Gstar’s existence, that is to say to promote the Korean industry to the world, is also the place that the show continues to need improvement.

The event does little to engage the foreign audience in a meaningful way, and because of the same problem of being able to play an open beta from anywhere in the world, there is little reason for foreign press to attend.

Gstar will never be a blockbuster event the likes of a 2006-era E3, but at least this year there was an effort on the part of the exhibiting publishers to make it somewhat worthwhile.

If the organizers can continue to wrangle a few game launches, or perhaps attract the likes of a Nintendo or even some foreign exhibitors, Gstar’s fire will continue to burn. However, perhaps its flickering flame does not quite match the blaze of improvement that the Korean game industry itself has undergone in the last five years.

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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