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November 29, 2008

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

Even this Thanksgiving week ended up having quite a lot of neatness posted on big sister site Gamasutra and various other sites - including a reprint of the The Graveyard's (pictured) postmortem.

Let's go through a few of these, complete with some brief personalized GameSetWatch-specific comments for those still recovering from Turkey Day:

- The Last Express: Revisiting An Unsung Classic
Based on some chance interviews conducted after Jordan Mechner's Comic-Con lecture, Chris Remo has done an excellent job of documenting The Last Express, a beautiful late '90s Mechner-authored adventure game that was roundly ignored at the time - but can be played via GameTap now, for the intrigued.

- Postmortem: Tale of Tales' The Graveyard
I believe we already linked to a version of this on GSW, but the story of the making of short/neat art-game The Graveyard - including funding info and download stats - is painstakingly well-documented here by Michael Samyn. Bravo.

- Emotions And War: The Valkyria Chronicles Interview
Some people claim that Sega's Valkyria Chronicles is one of the most under-rated games of this holiday season. The PS3 strategy game has some beautiful visuals and some interesting ideas about mixing real-time and turn-based action. Personally, it's not my kind of thing, but Brandon Sheffield did a great job talking to the developers about the intricacies of the game.

- The Designer's Notebook: The Moral Panic Isn't Over Yet
Possibly the most controversial Designer's Notebook opinion piece thus far - let's just quote the description for this one: "After Barack Obama's U.S. election victory, do we still have to worry about game censorship? IGDA co-founder Ernest Adams looks at an Obama administration, games and 'moral panic'."

- Gameplay Fundamentals Revisited, Part 2: Building a Pacing Structure
An in-depth design article from an EA and THQ veteran - and there's some really good point made in here about how to pace the level design of games correctly to keep people guessing, but still have a neat ratcheting-up of tension/difficulty - without the designers having to redo things 8 times.

Interview: Inside Naruto's Video Game Timewarp

[Manga/anime license Naruto is a surprisingly popular game franchise in North America - but what can you do when the Japanese TV show is airing two years ahead of the West? Tomy decided to get creative with exclusive new Western-specific characters and stories, producer Nobi Matsuo explains to big sister site Gamasutra - an interesting solution.]

Tomy's titles based on the internationally popular anime series Naruto is a surprisingly popular game franchise in North America -- and notably, they're also known for solid quality.

But Tomy's latest fighting game title, Naruto: Clash of Ninja Revolution 2 for Wii, was now faced with an interesting challenge: how to bring North American players the next adventure when the TV series in Japan is as much as two years ahead of what's airing in the West?

Clash of Ninja Revolution 2's Tomy producer Nobi Matsuo decided to leverage the gap by filling it in with original characters and storylines made specifically for the game.

But how does this work with a game licensed from a Japanese cartoon, developed for a U.S. audience, requiring permission from a Japanese IP-holder? It gets complicated, and Matsuo explains the process in an interview with Gamasutra.

How did this game come to be chosen and conceived?

Nobi Matsuo: It was a timing thing. Everything fell in place. We've been localizing [the Japanese titles] for the GameCube; as you know, the Japanese TV shows are as much as a year or a couple years ahead of the U.S. TV show. So a lot of the characters have grown up and everything, so we can't usually use any of the assets from the Japanese side and bring them over to the U.S. side.

Especially when we made the transition to the Wii -- by that time, all the Japanese games that, for Tomy, used all the characters, which were prohibited for us to use. So we basically used that opportunity to start from scratch and put in all our characters, because they didn't exist for the Wii.

We took advantage of that and said "Why don't we go ahead and put in original storyline?" A lot of fans already know the TV show and everything; they know how it's going to turn out: so, rehashing the TV show isn't something that I personally like. So I said "This is a perfect chance."

And then we also started exploring a lot of aspects of Naruto that, I think, would have worked for the U.S. audience. And one of them was the ANBU theme.

The ANBU are like the black-ops organization that belong to the same organization as Naruto. And they exist in the background, so they appear in the TV show; they're always masked; they're always mysterious.

So I wanted to take that angle, because that's more like the description of what we Americans understand as "ninja" -- not some blond-haired kid with an orange jumpsuit. So these are the masked guys with the katanas and everything -- let's bring them out in the front.

So what was the framework? Did you layer in your new material on top of an existing structure?

NM: It was like an iteration... this is basically the fourth rendition in the U.S. So we've been building on the same engines, same developer - obviously improving it. There was a big jump going from the GameCube from the Wii, we added a lot of additional systems.

We established that, and laid the groundwork for Revolution 1, and once we got that, we basically took that out and took a lot of user comments, ideas, things we wanted to put in but couldn't do; and we just started layering and adding it on.

Is this game actually going to come out in Japan as well?

NM: Exclusive for North America. I mean, if there are Naruto fans over in Japan, they're going to have to buy the U.S. version.

That's not exactly the usual situation.

NM: Absolutely. This is a really rare opportunity where we were able to do that. We went ahead and created original characters that never existed anywhere in the world, not in Japan or in the U.S. -- characters from scratch, characters I wanted to see in there from the TV show that never were created.

So we concepted those, sketched them out, and then we sent it to the publisher, the licensor, for Naruto and had them approve it, see if it's within the realm of possibility in that world or not.

Was it challenging to get that license and the liberty to add those new characters and storylines?

NM: Absolutely. Absolutely. It was always a challenge. But it was a fun concept. They weren't very like "Oh, you can't do this; you can't do that"; "Show us what you can do" was their attitude; "and then we'll guide you and we'll help you out." So that's the direction we had.

One of the main characters: she originally started out in a wetsuit type of bodysuit type like X-Men-like thing, and they said "It's kind of going away from Naruto." So we went for more of the Asian feel, the kimono type of thing. And they helped guide us, but not really block us from our creativity. So they were very cooperative with that.

So you're with Tomy. How does that how structure work? There's Tomy and D3 -- who owns the actual Naruto property?

NM: The Naruto property is actually owned in Japan by Shueisha. And then North American license-holder is VIZ Media; from VIZ Media, we pay royalties and stuff.

So, since our game is North American-related, we license through them. But, ultimately, they have to get approval for everything through Shueisha. Since we're running on such a short schedule, we basically CC to keep the VIZ Media guys in the loop while communicating with Shueisha. Normally, you go through it the other way.

We're the publisher for the game: Tomy. D3 helps with the distributing. So that's how it works.

That's a lot of links in the chain.

NM: Links in the chain, and we have a very limited schedule. And so it was a challenge just getting everything in place. But the fact that we were able to go in and put something original and add to the story, to the world of Naruto, is really, really great.

How long did you have?

NM: I think we had about eight months to start. We had to get the contract set up for aiding; we had to get through service, 'cause it's an original story, so we had to hire a writer and then write the entire scenario and then get that approved by the licensor.

And the licensor actually has to go through, step by step, and make sure the names are correct and everything; and that takes a lot of time. So there was a lot of bottlenecks that we had to overcome.

As far as the writing and the characters and the scenario and all that: did you guys generate it yourselves, and then pass it on to the licensor and so on?

NM: Yeah. It passed a lot of hands. You have the artists; we had alternate, separate artists that did it. We had a separate writer. We'd go and pass information back and forth. Obviously, we'd give them direction; they'd start forming something together: "Here's a rough draft. What do you think?" It goes back and forth.

And, once it solidifies, we give it to the licensor. The licensor comes back with all their information, feedback, and we make the adjustments necessary. It goes back to the writer; the writer rewrites it. And we have to resubmit it again. So it's a fairly time-consuming process.

It's actually a committee. It's a line of people sitting up on the table, and it's like "Please, give us approval. Are these models OK?" So all the animation, special attacks, and everything: we all have to put it on DVD, show them the images and stuff; and they'll say "We don't like the color", or, "Speed this up."

It sounds like a more international effort than would often happen with a game like this; is that typical?

NM: It is; it's normal. Even domestically, with domestic Tomy over in Japan, there's a lot of back and forth going on with that.

Actually, the fact that we're international, they've given us a little more leniency, because they're further along, so they know what's going on... in terms of how we could have certain characters interact with each other without it affecting the main story arc of the story.

How does it feel to have it done?

It's an enormous relief, first of all. The fact that we had such a limited amount of time, the fact that we were able to put in so much of that.

Another thing I didn't mention was we even talked to the animation studio that does the TV show, and we basically presented them sketches of all our original characters.

They created an original animated intro; so we actually had the guys who narrate Naruto all the time go in and animate our original characters that we concepted. So I mean it was a very big and challenging effort, but it was definitely good.

[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: Stars, Moon and Night Skies

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


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

The goodies in this edition include two Gamma 3D game submissions right out of Montreal, a sequel to Newgrounds' popular adventure game Miestas, a 3D application created by the inventor of Sony's Echochrome, and a 2D adventure game developed with the aging but still versatile AGS adventure game creation engine.

Game Pick: 'Paper Moon' (Infinite Ammo, freeware)
"A short 3D glasses-enabled platformer which lasts for only five minutes, featuring artwork by the developer of Nano and Gravity Hook."

Game Pick: 'Super Hypercube' (Kokoromi, freeware)
"A puzzle game based on the concept of fitting 3D shapes into a hole in the wall, simply by rotating the cluster of cubes around until the correct orientation is found. One of the two 3D glasses-using games featured this week to be created specifically for the Gamma 3D event in Montreal."

App Pick: 'theRelativity' (Jun Fujiki, freeware)
"A funky little 3D application created by the developer of OLE Coordinate System, the engine in which Sony's Echochrome was originally based on. Virtual characters are now placed inside cubes instead of above them, and selecting any of the four modes will affect the shape of the corridors from the autonomous character's view."

Game Pick: 'Pragaras' (Jurgis ,Teshla, and Jurgis, browser)
"A new 2D exploration adventure game by the developers of Menulis and Miestas, where a small piece of the story is revealed as reward for each puzzle solved by the player. This sequel features a new shapeshifting ability, more colour, and inventory item slots for the purpose of carrying stuff around."

Game Pick: 'Loftus and the Sky Cap' (Ivan Dixon, freeware)
"A surprising departure from Ivan's previous works, who happens to be best known for a series of comics and adventure games based on Sydney Claywood and his friends. The story is about an apprentice named Inessa who discovers that her teacher has disappeared without a single trace, so she sets off on an epic journey in hopes of finding the current whereabouts of the great inventor Loftus."

November 28, 2008

Interview: How Ensemble Gets Halo Fans To Appreciate Halo Wars

[Four years into Halo Wars's development, Ensemble Studios feels like it's succeeding in bringing the RTS to consoles. Christian Nutt of big sister site Gamasutra recently spoke to the studio's Graeme Devine and Bill Jackson - and we thought it intriguing enough from a design/ethos context to reprint here on GSW.]

The Halo series is in a period of rapid expansion. The first title outside of the mainline numbered installments will be next year's Halo Wars, a console-oriented realtime strategy title for Xbox 360.

Unfortunately for Ensemble, Halo Wars marks the final game from the Dallas, Texas-based Age Of Empires studio, with the Microsoft-owned developer set to close in early 2009 following the game's completion.

Nonetheless, Gamasutra recently had the chance to speak to lead designer Graeme Devine and Bill Jackson, the game's campaign producer.

The interview focuses on the challenges of bringing an original realtime strategy title to consoles, what focus tests taught them about Halo fans and grenades, project origins, and why one of their job titles is simply 'Game Developer'.

Prototyping and Testing Functional Controls

So, you guys are pretty far along in development, then, on this title, and it's gotten to the point where everything is pretty much set completely, at this point.

Bill Jackson: Oh, yeah. We're four years into the title, so...

Really? Four years?

BJ: Yes. Four years. Four long years. The first year was some R&D work -- controls, and things like that -- so I'd say three solid years of production.

That's what I want to talk about... There are two big obvious challenges: bringing this franchise into this kind of genre, and then bringing this kind of genre successfully onto consoles. How did you approach both of these?

Graeme Devine: That is exactly the problem; getting Halo fans to play a realtime strategy game, and getting realtime strategy fans to play a Halo game.

So I think that's one of the very core virtues that we took, in how to make the game approachable. "What are the best things about Halo?" You know, that visceral experience: the sound of the combat. The actual units and style aren't different than an RTS game, so, that helps. And then, bringing realtime strategy to the console; just that kind of crunch there too.

One of the very first things that we did was not try and port any other game. We didn't try and think, you know, "Okay, how can we get these keyboard/mouse equivalents onto the console?" That seemed to be where every other game went wrong; trying to emulate, somehow, that same same pattern -- some of them even had a pointer.

[We decided to] really start again from the ground up, and think about what we wanted to do in realtime strategy games -- controlling large armies, building structures, building some economy, and some technology -- to be able to do those constructions and then controlling them easily with the controller. When you start to think about it that way, instead of how it's been done before, the solutions started to present themselves, and it became pretty easy.

Did you go through a heavy prototyping phase? At that point, were you trying to make functional control schemes?

GD: Oh yeah. We actually started out with Titans, one of the expansions on one of the Age of Mythology games. We spent a long time trying all sorts of variations; we had all sorts of things -- circle menu changes, with twelve things round it, and sub menus, and...

You you actually took an Age of Mythology game, and hacked it to use as a prototype?

GD: Yup. Yeah, basically the first year of the project. And then about six or seven months in, Justin -- one of the balance testers at that point, and he's now a game designer -- he's a real big RTS player, and he came up after one of the games, which he'd tested every single day. He said, "I think it's now easier to play this game with the controller than it is with the mouse and keyboard." And at that point we thought, "Well, okay, we're on the right track."

At that point did you unleash it on focus groups, or at least people who had not encountered it before, to see what their reaction was? Because obviously he had probably been there, observing that process.

GD: That was one of the actual concerns. In game design, it's very easy to reach an evolved process. You know: We have an evolved set of controls; we're now here because we did A, B, C, D, E, so if someone new comes in, can they get the E right away without having gone through A, B, C, D? So, we actually had a high amount of belief in what we were doing. I remember when we did our first focus test...

BJ: It's been at least two years since we started testing.

GD: But we started early on in the process. We weren't Halo IP when we did our first.

BJ: So about three years ago we did our first, and we've done focus group testing with different types of people, not just with the same group over and over. So, we've done Halo fans; we've done non-Halo fans; we've done people that have never touched a console game; even people that have never touched a game.

And we've gone the whole gamut, and gotten feedback. And useful feedback, from just about all of those people. With that said, I would say that Graeme and everyone who worked on the controls, it was a design that was internal. We just used the focus testing to validate assumptions -- as opposed to, "Hey! What do you want in an RTS control scheme?" And that's why it's so different than the RTS control schemes that are out.

GD: Our first focus group was actually Halo fans. I remember that. It was interesting, because one of the first things we learned was how much hardcore Halo fans like throwing grenades.

(laughter)

GD: It seemed like a really funny thing to get out of the control test, but they all would come up and say, "This trigger needs to throw grenades!" Over and over and over again, that was direct feedback -- "We need to be able to throw grenades!" So, you can throw grenades now.

(laughter)

BJ: Another thing that we found out is that there's a pretty big overlap already, between Halo fans and RTS -- at least some RTS experience. Whether that's RTS on consoles on some other products, or whether that's RTS on PC.

So we actually had to go out and say, "Let's change our criteria; let's only get Halo players that have not played a realtime strategy game." When we first did it, we just ended up with a large proportion of people who understood what RTS was as a concept. So we have really stretched our wings on that, and really tried to find every little nook and cranny, to get the feedback from all groups.

Design Is Also a Solution

You're aiming at some problems that are pretty ripe to be solved on consoles, still. First, getting an RTS just to function as a genre on the console is still a relatively large issue that hasn't really been addressed. Like you've said, some have done better and better at emulating the existing control mechanism from the genre, but there hasn't been a lot of effective work in developing new, meaningful controls.

GD: I think, even, it goes beyond controls sometimes, too. I mean, on a PC RTS, you can sometimes get 3,000 units, or something. You can get so many units that you just can't physically do this on a console. But they try! And then you get the photo frame-fest, of just one frame every three seconds, and the game becomes non-fun very quickly.

So design becomes a major component in getting people to understand the game, both as a Halo game, and as a strategy game that they can effectively play?

GD: I think it was key that it'd be console-only. And everyone was like, "Oh, there will be a PC version down the road," or, "I'll wait for the PC version," we see that all the time. But no, there's no PC version coming, because it was designed for the console.

We thought about going both ways, but as soon as you make that thought in your mind, it's easy to say, "Well, I'll use the text interface device that's coming out... That'll be how I do macros; I'll start to use the shift button to do more than one control thing," It starts to become an issue. But if you've only got this thing [holds up controller] and this thing's complicated enough -- it's a good challenge.

Yeah, the challenge of consoles, I think, is to simplify the controls to the point where they still function, rather than complicate the controls to the point where you can do everything on different buttons.

GD: There's ways to simplify the two, I think; they're kind of invisible. One of the ways that we simplify, say, the economy in the game. We have just one resource in the game. The supplies come in, and they come in all the time; you don't have to send people to go dig in the dirt.

But one of the other things that we have is our bases, in order to simplify -- that provides, actually, depth -- that there's only so many slots around the base that you can build at. It starts with three, you can upgrade to five, and then upgrade to seven.

But the decisions that you make there, as to what you put in the slots, is actually a really complicated problem. But because it's a visual problem on the screen, it's like the map becomes a desktop, almost...

If you become really good at Halo Wars, it's actually a hardcore decision, like, "Do I build two supply pads and upgrade one to get the reactor?" It's a different way of presenting the same problem, but visually, and with the controller, it's solved pretty well.

Working With Bungie's Baby

Were you able to pull any assets from Bungie's stuff, and use them? Or did you have to build it all from scratch?

GD: We had to build it all from scratch.

Did you have really good reference material from them?

GD: At the time, the movie deal was in process, so they actually prepared a lot of stuff for Weta. We used that. We also found the Halo art books to be very useful. But one of the other challenges was, all of their stuff was from this [forward] perspective, and all of our stuff is from the top. So we actually had to change things up quite a bit for that perspective, to make the units recognizable.

Getting the Halo units to look and feel the same was also one of the other challenges, because everyone knows what those Warthogs look like, when you drive them and so forth, but up in the air you can actually exaggerate that a quite little bit and they'll still look the same.

So, you know, that thing's actually jumping three times as high as it does in Halo, and it goes four times faster than it does in Halo, and all these things -- but it looks the same. Very different, between look and accuracy.

Did you have the wherewithal to create new units and machinery? Or did you have to have to stick to what had been established in the mainline Halo series?

GD: One of the things about Halo is... Well, Master Chief is a one man army, right? So he's got a couple of ODST troops to help him, but that's really about it.

We actually had to fill in a little bit on the UNSC side to make the side more complete. The Covenant, they were actually more complete than the UNSC side, so then less work went into making them a complimentary army.

Because you're already fighting them as an army.

GD: Yeah.

From a design perspective, when you just threw the extant Halo ideas into a new perspective, did it offer up design ideas, by dint of just changing the view?

GD: Yeah. And it's a cool universe, because the humans need to fire lead, and the aliens need to fire plasma. You can't just suddenly give the humans ray guns, and say, "Okay, now we're gonna go out there, and kick ass with ray guns."

On Job Titles

I actually have a question that's totally outside of this, but I notice that your card just says "Game Developer," rather than a specific discipline. Is that a philosophical choice, on crediting? Or is that because you do a lot of different stuff?

GD: Well, I can kinda do a lot of different stuff! I've been making games almost 30 years now. So, I am terrible at drawing, but I can make games. But I'd program, write -- you know, juggle...

One of the things, when you make games, is that there's no badge when you make a game: You might be a programmer on the game, but you're still have an actual opinion about the actual game you're making. So many people are labeled "Programmer", and, "I'm not going to listen to you because you're a programmer," that's just the wrong approach to take. Someone's discipline is not necessarily their role in a game.

BJ: That's why I chose producer, Graeme.

GD: Yes. You can't comment on the story at all! No, you comment on the story the whole time. But that was exactly -- you know, it's a good example, I mean, Bill read through the scripts and gave great feedback on the story.

BJ: I was the editor.

GD: He was the producer on the campaign, and was integral to a lot of the actual design of the campaign maps, and how they were laid out. When you say the word 'Producer', it doesn't conjure up in your mind the guy who is helping me out with the script, or working on campaign map layout.

Yeah. If anything, it's one of those roles that, depending on what studio you're talking to, it means one thing or another.

BJ: Yes, that's very true. It's very true. I think, at our studio, we've always had the mentality that everybody can comment on the design of the game in any way that they want.

So it doesn't matter what role you are, or how long you've been there; you can say whatever it is you want to say. And our job is to hear that and respond to it. And if we can't respond to it, then it probably means there's some validity to what you're saying -- so, it's worked well, I think. It makes good games; high quality games.

[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.]

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of Nov. 28th

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 2K Marin, Insomniac, Recoil Games, Relic Entertainment, NCsoft and more.

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

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

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

Gamasutra.com - Game Industry Jobs

2K Marin: Systems Designer
"2K Marin is looking for a dedicated, passionate and personable Systems Designer to join the team working on Bioshock 2. As a Systems Designer, you'll be the man in the middle of the million moving parts that transform high-level gameplay concepts into concrete player experience (and back again). "

Insomniac Games: Programmers - North Carolina Office
"Insomniac Games, an independent videogame developer ranked among the top 10 best small companies to work for nationally and locally, is opening a North Carolina-based development studio. Our NC studio will blend our experience and proven track record of hits with the tenacity of a start-up. Expanding to the Triangle also allows Insomniac to maintain an ideal size in Burbank while offering an East Coast alternative to attract and retain the best in the industry."

Recoil Games: Lead Programmer
"RECOIL GAMES and RADAR GROUP are co-producing EARTH NO MORE, a groundbreaking original IP action-adventure game for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. We are now looking for a LEAD PROGRAMMER to become a key member of the company. Setup by industry veterans, we are an English-speaking team spanning seven nationalities based in Helsinki, Finland, a country known for its high standard of living, beautiful nature and a modern way of life."

Relic Entertainment: Senior Tools Programmer
"At Relic Entertainment we are developing an original game for PS3 and Xbox 360 and continue to build on our history of award winning games - games like Company of Heroes, Dawn of War, and Homeworld. Experience freedom of creativity and know your contribution is valued and recognized by the Relic team and also by gamers and industry experts around the globe."

WorldsInMotion - Online Game Jobs

NCsoft NorCal Studio: Powers Designer
"NCsoft is looking for talented individuals to be a part of the world's leading developer and publisher of online PC games. Makers of the world's most popular online game franchise, Lineage, NCsoft has also created many other award winning and groundbreaking products such as City of Heroes, Guild Wars, Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa, Aion and Dungeon Runners in addition to various casual games via its game portal, PlayNC.

GamesOnDeck - Mobile Game Jobs

Nokia: Director Of Engineering - Games
"Services & Software will play a leading role in shaping Nokia’s growth and transformation, generating new revenue streams based on software and services. The Services & Software Unit’s portfolio of services creates opportunities for people to connect to each other and the things that matter to them."

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.

Game Time With Mister Raroo: "Get High: The Return of the Score"

Game Time With Mister Raroo logo[For those of us old enough to remember arcade gaming during its peak, Mister Raroo takes us on a trip down memory lane, recalling the beauty of the high score. Though their importance may have been diminished in the more recent past, his GameSetWatch column examines how in some ways, they may be more popular than ever.]

Pizza Grease Memories

During my formative gaming years of the early- to mid-1980s, I spent much of my free time at the local Straw Hat pizza parlor. Located less than 10 minutes from my house by bike, Straw Hat featured a special area of the establishment that was dedicated to arcade games. Crammed with the hottest new cabinets, Straw Hat’s makeshift arcade drew a menagerie of gamers from the local area, each with pockets full of quarters and one goal in mind: high scores.

Straw Hat’s arcade games not only attracted nerdy little kids like me, but it was also a hangout for some of the seedier teenagers and adults from the surrounding neighborhoods. Hyperactive, long-haired, pimple-faced rockers with faded Ratt t-shirts, 30-something go-nowheres still living at home and getting an allowance from their mothers, and burned-out stoners zoning out and forgetting where they are at and what they are doing are but a sampling of Straw Hat’s rogues gallery of gamers.

A Bad Day For GauntletI quickly discovered the optimal times to visit Straw Hat during which I could steer clear of the shadier patrons. Still, there were those few unavoidable times when I’d end up playing shoulder to shoulder with some pretty questionable fellows.

I’m still filled with fear when I think back to being yelled at by one particularly fierce Gauntlet player. I wasn’t necessarily appreciative of the swearing that was blasted in my direction and in my honor, but at least I picked up a few choice combinations of curse words that I’d never heard before.

No matter whom it was that frequented Straw Hat on any given day, there was nary a person immune to allure of being able to permanently make a mark of their gaming prowess by scoring enough points to enter their initials on a game’s high score screen. There were a handful of diehard Straw Hat regulars who continually jostled for the number one position, proudly putting their initials on display.

And, on the other side of the token, there were jokers who took the golden opportunity to perform electronic graffiti by entering their initials as FUK, DIK, ASS, or any other number of clever three-letter profanities. I only managed to claw my way to the bottom of the high score charts on a few rare occasions, but it still was enough to make me feel like I was riding on air as I peddled my bike back home.

A Lack of Belonging

My allowance wasn’t hefty enough to warrant Straw Hat gaming as often as I’d have liked, so a great deal of gaming during that period of my life was at home. Even there, high scores mattered to me, and provided a significant way for my sister Sara and me to engage in some healthy sibling rivalry (save for hurt feelings or even a punch in the shoulder from time to time). Being 8 years younger than my sister meant I didn’t get to stay up as late as she was able to, and it always seemed to be while I was asleep that my top scores were bested.

These were the days of the Atari 2600 (at least in my house—we weren’t lucky enough to upgrade from that until after the NES era!), and since the game cartridges didn’t provide an option to save scores, I often would argue the validity of Sara’s alleged accomplishments, but my mom would always chime in as the neutral observer, verifying my sister’s prowess. Sadly, Sara passed away a few years ago, but our epic battles for high scores make up some of my favorite gaming memories of all time.

Game Time With Mister Raroo logoIt wasn’t long after this period in my life that scores began to lose meaning in many games. I recall Super Mario Bros. as the first game in which I realized that the score didn’t really have any value toward the overall experience of navigating the levels. Case in point: each coin you collect results in your score increasing by 100 points.

However, these points in and of themselves don’t provide much benefit to the player. Instead, it’s the amount of coins gathered that holds the true value, with an extra life being awarded every each time 100 coins are collected. Thus, collecting coins has a purpose, but the score assigned to them actually does not. Needless to say, as much as I’ve always loved playing Super Mario Bros., I don’t think I ever once put much thought into how high my score was.

Though some gamers may argue that score does matter in games like Super Mario Bros., to me it just seems like an unnecessary carryover from previous game design paradigms. In other words, I believe the reason so many developers continued to include scores in games whose design didn’t necessarily require them was because, quite frankly, that was what had always been done. As a result, countless games continued to incorporate score tallies that didn’t seem to have any purpose other than just to exist for the sake of being there.

So, to summarize, Super Mario Bros. is but one example of a game in which the score has little bearing on the overall experience. Does having a higher score make the process of guiding Mario through the levels significantly more thrilling? I don’t believe so. For me, the beauty of playing Super Mario Bros. is in clearing what are truly unprecedented platforming challenges rather than concentrating on the score I amass doing so.

Relocation and Evolution

Naturally, over time, scores began to disappear from many games altogether. Or, in other cases, they evolved into something else. In a game like Phantasy Star Online, for instance, your score is essentially the experience points you gain from slaying monsters, and the leveling up of your character is the reward you get for “scoring” well in the game.

That’s not to say that score-based games ceased to exist, but I believe they became much more niche or simply fell into a few specific categories. Puzzle games, for example, are an excellent showcase of games in which score continued to matter. When I received a Gameboy for Christmas in 1989, I didn’t care much about my score in Super Mario Land, but I sure was preoccupied with the number of lines I could clear in Tetris. “Shmups” also became safe havens for score fiends, with some shooters incorporating scoring systems so intricate that sometimes I’d think I needed a mathematics degree to interpret them.

But even though high scores continued to hold importance in some games, the decline of arcades meant most gaming was taking place in people’s homes, with bragging rights often being limited to the small circle of one’s family and friends. Sometimes game magazines would publish reader-submitted high scores, and fans would send in photographs of their television screens to validate their rankings.

High Scores in Game Magazines

I was never good enough to go to that extreme, but I still took the time to enter my initials into any game I ranked highly in, sometimes even getting saucy and putting in something a little inappropriate just to make myself chuckle. However, since I had very few friends or family members who were into gaming, high score rosters were important to me mostly for personal vanity and nothing more.

The Return of the Score

For better or worse, there’s no denying that the Internet has truly revolutionized global information transmittal. It’s pretty incredible and more than a little frightening to realize that information can be exchanged at such a rapid and widespread rate. Anyone who has had nude photos unwontedly spread online can attest to this fact.

In terms of gaming, I believe the Internet revitalized a sense of community that had long since disappeared since the heydays of arcades. Of course, the interconnecting of gamers has also brought with it some pretty vulgar aspects, namely unsavory characters who take every opportunity to question your sexuality, insult your mother, and call you every racial slur in the book. But looking beyond these negative factors and even beyond positive cooperative play, gaming’s intermingling with the Internet has allowed for something that I consider truly wonderful to arise: online leaderboards.

Though it can be disheartening to realize that my global rankings in many games are embarrassingly low, what makes online leaderboards most alluring is seeing how you rank against your friends. In that sense, the spirit of competition is back and stronger than ever, and whenever I play a game that supports online leaderboards, I’m always anxious to see how I stack up against my friends. Discovering that one my pals has bested my score since the last time I’d played is often enough to spark a fire under me to reclaim my position above them.

Mister Raroo Compares His Score

Granted, most popular modern games still don’t support traditional scores. What would be the point of keeping track of score in a point-and-click adventure game like Sam & Max, for example? But the advent of global competition via the Internet and online ranking boards has definitely had an impact on the creation of a greater number of score-based games. A quick glance at the types of games available on Xbox Live, Playstation Network, or WiiWare will reassure any gamer that competition via scores is not only alive and well, but in some ways it’s perhaps even healthier than it’s ever been.

In fact, scores are so healthy that an entirely new type of score—namely, the Xbox 360’s gamerscore—has been cultivated in the past few years. In this case it’s not necessarily one’s score for any particular game that matters as much as the cumulative score obtained from meeting certain criteria for the various games played on the system.

Far too many players go out of their way to play games they’d probably be better off not wasting their time on just to snag points for their gamerscores. I shudder to think how many relationships have broken up because gamers have chosen raising their gamerscores over spending time with their significant others!

And even for gamers like my brother-in-law Thomas who have yet to fully embrace the Internet as a way to play and connect with other gamers, the quest for high scores is a way in which he’s been able to bond with his son Mario.

Missus Raroo and I purchased Link’s Crossbow Training as a gift for Thomas on his birthday this past year, and he and Mario still regularly play the game, gleefully aiming to beat other other’s top scores. I can only imagine how obsessed Thomas will become with attaining top scores once he finally enters the addictive world of online leaderboards, not to mention learning what a gamerscore is.

My son Kazuo is still too young to play video games, let alone understand what high scores are. But I have a feeling that sooner rather than later he’ll become hooked on games, and I’m looking forward to the day he furiously works to beat Daddy’s top marks.

Scores may not have relevance in all games released these days, but I’m glad their importance still exists and, with the ever-growing increase in gamers using the Internet, they’ll no doubt continue to gain even more value to players. That said, high score rosters filled with names like MastaGangsta, xxSephiroth987xx, or WhiteBoi420 just don’t have the same silly allure as those containing initials like FUK, DIK, and ASS!

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

GameSetLinks: No More Wii-ning About Wii Music?

The post-Thanksgiving lull is delightful, but that's not an excuse to slow down with the GameSetLink-related goodness, this time commenced with Vice Magazine's fruity LittleBigPlanet-ness.

Also in here - Russell Carroll on the delights of Wii Music (which is, yes, an excuse to print THAT picture), plus Julian Dibbell on the gold farming kings, what Statestats thinks of the videogame demographic, and the small things on the Vorpal Bunny Ranch.

Ka tan ga:

Wonderland: VICE magazine and Little Big Planet = LittleBigVice
Alice @ Wonderland points out LittleBigPlanet's takeover of hipster mag Vice, with supercute pictures - of course, hipster and mass market are not always intersecting, which might be one of LBP's issues?

Video Games Business & Marketing: In defense of WiiMusic
GameTunnel and Reflexive's Russell Carroll is a smart guy, which makes his passionate defence of Wii Music all the more interesting: 'Some games can change the way you think and act by giving you information that you can only learn by experiencing it. WiiMusic did that for me.'

Wired Magazine: 'The Decline and Fall of an Ultra Rich Online Gaming Empire'
Gold farming veteran Julian Dibbell takes on the 'legend' of gold farming titan IGE, in some style.

Xboxlive.com: My 'beautiful' Xbox Live avatar
You can show people your own at http://avatar.xboxlive.com/avatar/GAMERTAG/avatar-body.png, I guess. Feel free to add yours in the comments and say how true to life they are, relatively - I think mine is reeeasonably accurate.

StateStats For 'Videogame'
Interesting tool that lets you crossreference U.S. states with search queries - for videogames, looks like there's good correlation with high income, high population areas, and bad correlations with suicide and 'voted for Bush'. So there you go!

Vorpal Bunny Ranch: Seven for a secret never to be told.
Mr. Bunny has some good points on some of Xmas' blockbusters like Fallout 3, and the small, evocative things: 'What I'm interested in for this post is not the narrative told by gameplay, optional quests, or personal investment; what I am interested in is the story told in the nooks, crannies, and little details. Those moments that I just pause and think about what was or could have been, particularly in a post-apocalyptic world.'

1UP Zine Issue 4 preview - 'FunSpot Trip'
Raina Lee's zine (unrelated to the Ziff Davis site of the same name) is pretty seminal in that it's humanistic and cultural and smart, rather than OCD gamegeekish, and here's a preview of Issue 4, due out Spring 2009, about a trip to the legendary FunSpot Arcade.

Level Up : The Big Idea: Are Videogame Reviewers Missing the Forest for the Trees When It Comes to Assessing Important and Innovative Titles?
Painful erudition seems increasingly to be N'Gai's MO recently - though I may obviously be biased, working with Leigh, etc - here's her response, and Ben Fritz's rejoinder. [EDIT: I've actually just been persuaded that all three posts are equally meta/confusing. Hurray! Bonus points for anyone who can explain what the argument is to dunderheads like me.]

November 27, 2008

Inside GDC 2009: 'Content Is King'

[Ever wondered how talks get selected for GDC? Starting a series of articles from the event blog we'll also be posting on GSW for your informational delectation, Game Developers Conference event director Meggan Scavio reveals this year's GDC advisory board and submission process.]

Every summer, the GDC advisory board gathers to discuss the direction of the next event. The board is made up of 17 of the most dedicated, brilliant people in the industry. And I’m not just saying that because they might read this.

You may have heard of some of them, for example Blizzard’s Rob Pardo, Electronic Arts' Lou Castle, veteran creator Mark Cerny, Bungie's Chris Butcher, MGS's Laura Fryer, and Maxis’ Chris Hecker. See, it’s true. Smarties.

Anyhow, during this meeting they talk about everything from networking opportunities (“wouldn’t it be cool to have a roundtable follow a thought-provoking lecture so the attendees can discuss what they just heard?”) to session formats (“what if we gave speakers 3 minutes each to present their cool idea or technology”).

The meat of what they talk about, however, is the session content and how to make it better. It’s all-quality all-the-time with these folks.

Our attempt at improving (and some might say maintaining) session quality for GDC 2009 was evidenced in our Call for Submissions. The board is always looking for interesting, well crafted submissions but the reality is they are really looking at takeaway.

When reviewing submissions, they want to know if the attendee is going to walk out of the room knowing something they didn’t know when they walked in.

We updated the submissions process this year by dividing it into two phases with takeaway being the focal point of phase one.

GDC Submissions: Phase One

We asked three things in phase one of GDC submissions this year: what do you want to call your talk?; briefly explain the focus of your talk; and explain to us how the attendee is going to benefit from attending this talk. We received over 800 of these.

The board then reads, reviews and grades every single one to determine who moves on.

This process involves locking the board into a hotel meeting room for 2 whole days while they productively discuss (sometimes I call it bickering like little girls but they don’t like that very much) the merits of the submissions.

It breaks down like this: by track, we sort the submissions by the reviewers average grade and discuss every single submission that received a grade of 3.8 or higher (1=not so much, 5=much awesomeness).

The board determines which of these will move on to phase two. After that, we go around the room and each board member has an opportunity to fight for a submission that didn’t score so well but they want to save.

We continue to go around the room until no one has anything left to save. Wash and repeat. All weekend. And you wonder why I drink.

GDC Submissions: Phase Two

Right now we are in phase two. Submitters are in the process of, well, submitting the bulk of what their Game Developers Conference presentation is going to be for a second round of review.

This is where the board can see if the content matches the intent. And this will, fingers crossed, help us in making sure that what seems like a super awesome submission turns into a super awesome GDC session.

We shall see!

[Meggan and her colleagues will be posting regular updates from behind the scenes through the lead-up to next March's Game Developers Conference 2009, including content reveals and other helpful information. You can subscribe individually to the GDC News blog via its RSS feed.]

Best Of GamerBytes: Fighting In The Streets

cletcla.jpg[Every week, Gamasutra sister weblog GamerBytes' editor Ryan Langley will be summing up the top console digital download news tidbits from the past 7 days, including brand new game announcements and scoops through the world of Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and WiiWare.]

This week, GamerBytes had a look back to pick out the best digital download titles released in October. It was quite a packed month for all, and we're here to help you in case you missed out on a few.

Along with that, we check out more Community Games on XNA, interview Nathan Fout on his game Weapon of Choice, see what the indie PC creator behind Platypus is up to, check out the new Punisher game for PSN, and see what High Voltage Software are up to next.

Here's the top stories:

October Picks

October's PSN Picks: 'Confronting Rocket Powered Cars'
We remind ourselves about Rocket Powered Battle Cars, SOCOM Confrontation, Puzzle Quest and Prince of Persia Classic for PSN

October's XBLA Picks: 'Rain-Slick Booty'
We look back on Mega Man 9, Age Of Booty, Portal and Penny Arcade Episode 2 for Xbox Live Arcade.

October's WiiWare Picks: 'Building Up Structures'
It's all about building towers with World of Goo, Rotohex and Tetris Party this month, with a slice of Strongbad on the side.

XBLA

Banjo Kazooie XBLA Delayed, Bonus Cards Troubles
Banjo Kazooie XBLA is now coming out next week, citing pre-order card troubles as an issue.

Cletus Clay For XBLA - From The Makers Of Platypus
A high-definition claymation game featuring rednecks? Sign me up.

Today In Community Games - Snakes , Crystals and Sin Waves
10 more XNA games are added to the list- find out which ones are worth your while, in our handy guide.

Q&A: From Resistance To... XNA Community Games?
We talk to Nathan Fout about what it's like going from giant developer to a husband and wife team.

PlayStation Network

NA PSN Store Update - Street Fighter II HD Remix, Brain Challenge and PSN Bargains
An early release for the PlayStation Store this week - get your hands on Street Fighter II, Brain Challenge, and now with bargain prices for the Thanksgiving holiday.

First Video Of The Punisher: No Mercy
Zen Studios' first PlayStation Network title is unveiled in video form - play as The Punisher in this online multiplayer FPS.

WiiWare

NA WiiWare Update: Boingz And Sudoku
This week on WiiWare North America, get the chance to twang little critters around the place, all in the name of fun.

EU WiiWare Update - Strongbad, Cue Sports, Cooking Jam And Cubello
Big WiiWare update for Europe this week - including the first of the Art Style games making its way here.

Evasive Space Screen Shot Blowout
High Voltage Software's new title Evasive Space mixes classic top down shooting with maze gameplay.

Opinion: Why Blood and Guts Make Up For A Dead Story, Characters

ds11.jpg[In this new opinion piece, writer and commentator Tom Cross examines EA Redwood Shores' Dead Space, a title he believes that 'triumphed despite itself' - here's a look at its failings and strange accomplishments.]

I've recently been thinking that too many games operate in the shadow of Aliens, especially in the atmosphere created by that movie’s characters.

So, it's with bemusement that I encounter a game that derives everything else from Ripley's world: setting, plot, enemies (after a fashion), and lines of dialogue. When you hear somebody posit the notion that somebody might want to study or preserve the game's horrific monsters, you know exactly what the writers are thinking.

Taking after Cameron, Not Scott

Many people have of course pointed out this fact since the game shipped. However, most people are focusing on how the tempo of that movie is similar to Dead Space’s gameplay. They say that this game is like Aliens, with its frantic action and small scares, and less like Alien's slow creeping dread. What they don't mention is that the story, which mixes the aforementioned movies with The Thing and a bit of clichéd religious zeal, is hackneyed beyond belief.

The game sends you from one end of the deep-space mining vessel Ishimura to another, fixing leaks, restarting generators, and basically acting like the meanest, most badass space janitor/engineer in history. Let me say, right out of the gate, that I loved this game. I thought that it was beautiful, fun, tense, and occasionally scary. I never for once thought it was original or creative (except in its depiction of zero gravity and vacuum situations, which are absolutely brilliant).

What Dead Space is, is carefully and stylishly unoriginal. You'll love playing it, but when you aren't playing it, it's hard to say what's so great about it. It has some really great set pieces, some sweet effects, solid gameplay, an amazing interface and that's all. Anything and everything having to do with dialogue and story comes off as rote.

Let's take our hero and avatar, Isaac Clark. Mr. Clark (whose face you can only glimpse for a moment or two from start to finish) is a voiceless middle-aged white man it would appear, who specializes in heavy breathing and killing things. You are ostensibly interested in the plight of the Ishimura because your ex is on it, but we never really care about this "relationship." The problem is that Isaac has been saddled with modern video games' most ludicrous trope: the "everyman" silent protagonist.

Isaac never speaks, and you never get any indication of his mood, other than that he doesn't like dying. He wears a mask throughout the game, and reacts to little. Apparently, this makes him relatable, because so many of us are demure, voiceless, deep space mechanics who constantly wear masks.

When are people going to stop beating this dead horse? It wasn’t a good idea in the first place, and it has become less of a good idea as games have evolved. I don't see how you can relate to a character that does not exist. I guess it lets you make stuff up about him or her; it lets us call him a "blank slate" or some other foolishness.

I Care More About Mr. Burke

What it also does is make me absolutely not care about his plight. I don't care about his ex, I don't care about his shipmates (why should I, they just spout dialogue and send me to tighten some screws down in Engineering), and I really don't care about the [Spoilers ahead] incredibly clichéd mad scientist who talks at me through windows and wants to meld humans and aliens. [End of the spoilers] The plot, for me, was bad, and it gets worse.

ds.jpg

It doesn't help that Dead Space makes Drake's Fortune look scary. It creates a very creepy setting, and does next to nothing with it. I can count on my hand the number of time I was scared by this game, and that’s when the unkillable monster is banging around in the walls and coming after me. He has such a scary voice! Actually, this part scared me silly, and had me running around without my normal care and caution.

The sad thing is that the other times I was scared were at the very beginning of the game, and then never again. The first time was when a vent pops into your face and nothing evil pops out after it. This will happen 500 times throughout the game. Then again, the first time the lights go out.

So there you have it. Three scares. Of course, I kind of like this. I love killing monsters, aiming precisely at their limbs, changing guns manically (oh, and let us congratulate EA Redwood on the Ripper, my favorite remote controlled spinning saw gun), and cursing my frail engineer's body. It's fun, and it never got too scary, like some games that make me take a break or two.

You get the feeling the developer are trying very hard, though. When I see a dark shape in the distance, which turns and disappears, I don't get scared. I know he'll pop out of a vent later! Likewise, when I find a scientist who promptly slits her throat because of the horror, I just check for an item drop. None of the survivors ever surprise you and go hostile (which I think would have been a brilliant scare), so you never have to worry.

They miss even the basic scares. Where's the alien dropping on my face when I'm minding my business in an elevator? Oh right, he does so, but his arrival is heralded (as almost all monster arrivals are) by clanging metal and vents breaking. Where's the alien that actually surprises me? The game’s tricks become old quickly; I’m never in doubt as to when monsters will rush me, and am thus never surprised or scared.

I'm not sure how to instill actual dread or nervousness, but I know that AVP 2, Drake's Fortune, and all of the Resident Evil games did a better job at creating atmosphere than Dead Space does. I mean, the hallway where arms attack Leon Kennedy in the police station scared the living daylights out of me, and that was one of many moments in the game.

The Only Way to be Sure

This is all to say that the game annoys me on a very deep level, and is still amazingly fun. I want to play it again, on either Impossible mode or on Hard mode again with beefed up weapons.

It's consistently entertaining, something I can’t say for some survival horror and action horror games that outstay their welcome (see BioShock and RE4). I'm sure I can forgive it its faults for another run through its scary spaceship.

ds01.jpg

It keeps up its pace by going through amusing (if predictable) twists and developments. What’s that you say? An army vessel is approaching? I wonder if they’re here to help us or not? Maybe they’re here for mysterious, sinister reasons? Luckily for us, the much-touted “strategic dismemberment” aspect of gameplay makes up for the slow, well-trod machinations of the plot.

The game makes every physical encounter exciting, by throwing multiple enemies at you, or putting you in zero-gravity (where threats come from every direction), or pitting you against new enemies. Admittedly, the enemies are culled from the annals of horror history. Still, when you meet a new enemy that holds within its belly enemies you’ve been fighting for an hour or so, your tactics change immediately.

Oh, and as for the interface - it's fantastic. It’s the last word on mid-action inventory presentation and management, for all games, no matter what genre. It's a holo-inventory/map that you project into the air in front of your suit. It's sweet and pretty and fun. And about an hour ago, I realized that it was emitting from the collar of his suit, where there was a little readout. When you’re bringing up the map regularly just to spin the camera around your character and see the real-time presentation, you know you’ve got something special on your hands

In the end, I’m still not sure why I like Dead Space so much: it makes all of the story mistakes that I don't appreciate, and it displays a disdain for interesting presentation of its characters. Yet, for once, it’s enough that the rest of the game comes through, no matter the contortions my brain is forced to go through to believe its justification. Style and flair really can prevail over substance and feeling.

[Tom Cross blogs about video games at shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

GameSetLinks: Who Watches The Indies?

Continuing to showcase some more thoughtful writing on the Interweb for GameSetLinks, allegedly, we start out with Kyle Orland's Crispy Gamer piece on how independent games actually get, well, noticed.

Also in this set of links - the latest GameTunnel indie reviews countdown (hey, one of the ways indies get noticed!), as well as gaming in India, the rise of video in game reviews/coverage, the 5 million raptor LED sign countdown, that awesome Zork manual, and more besides.

Super furry animals:

Crispy Gamer - Column: Press Pass: Going Indie
Kyle Orland takes a look at the issues in getting publicity for indie games, with quotes from myself, Russell Carroll, Kieron Gillen and others - some good points made on first-tier indies getting a heck of a lot of buzz, but a lot of others being off the radar.

November 2008 Indie game Round-Up by Game Tunnel
The intro description explains it just fine, so no retyping needed: 'Game Tunnel is proud to publish the November Independent Video Game round-up, the latest in our long-running Famitsu-styled panels that review all the latest Indie PC games. The 10 games reviewed for November include 2D Boy's World of Goo (pictured), Mount & Blade from Taleworlds and Project Aftermath from Games Faction.'

'Media Coverage: The Rise of Video' - GameDaily Biz
Another excellent, slightly buried Gus Mastrapa column: 'Most gamers still read their news and reviews and they do so, for the most part, on the Internet. The coming tidal wave of Internet video won't leave video games untouched.'

Blur.st Blog: '5,000,000 Raptors Killed!'
Matthew and Steve of Flashbang Studios/Blurst (also IGF co-organizers) are pure rock - who else has a special LED ticker in their office for how many velociraptors have been killed in their game?

Game recommendation - Black Rock/Disney's 'Pure' for 360/PS3.
For all those who've played a bunch of generic ATV games and got turned off them - repent! Perfect pacing and beautiful controls make this one of the most entertaining racing games I've played in the past couple of years - gorgeous graphics, too.

Kotaku: 'Feature: I, Gamer'
Leigh's regular column at her previous employer, Kotaku, gets into how we presume people know things about games, when the average game buyer, well, doesn't: 'In your average game store, customers do not read reviews. They do not post on forums, they have never been motivated to leave Amazon feedback just to "send a message," they do not blog.'

Zork Infocom PDP-11 First Edition Manual | PC Gaming | gameSniped.com
Wow, truly a piece of gaming history - the manual for the mainframe version of Zork - and it went for a suitably large chunk of change, too.

NetworkComputing.in on the Indian gaming market
A sister publication to us on the Indian game market: '“As per global estimates mobile gaming penetration in the Indian market is at 2 – 3 %." Thus far, it's been a bit anemic, but you never know...

November 26, 2008

In-Depth: Behind The Scenes Of Certain Affinity's Age of Booty

[How did the Bungie veterans at indie developer Certain Affinity construct its downloadable pirate-themed console RTS Age of Booty? We have some fun highlights from the Game Developer cover postmortem here - oh, and random extra fact, did you know that C64 music legend Martin Galway is Certain Affinity's audio director?]

The latest issue of GameSetWatch sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a creator-written postmortem on the making of Certain Affinity's Age of Booty, the pirate-themed RTS released via download on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.

These extracts reveal how the Texas-based start-up studio behind the game faced the obstacles of succeeding as an independent development house while still keeping a hold on its game rights.

Certain Affinity president Max Hoberman, a Bungie Studios veteran, crafted the postmortem of the Capcom-published product, which was introduced in Game Developer as follows:

"Beginning with a paper prototype and then creating an original engine, Certain Affinity brought Age of Booty to completion in just over a year, all while juggling multiple projects and shuffling developers on and off the project. Even an unexpected last minute dispute over the name couldn't scuttle the game and Certain Affinity took home the real treasure: full control over its own IP."

The Importance of Prototyping

Particularly for downloadable games that rest heavily on heavily-repeated mechanics, early and thorough prototyping of the concept is crucial.

Hoberman explains of the game, which has largely positive, constructive reviews on aggregation site Metacritic:

"One of the things I most appreciate about Settlers of Catan is that a player can learn all the rules and mechanics during a single game. This was the very heart of what we were trying to accomplish with Age of Booty -- nailing a simple, intuitive control scheme was our highest priority.

"Once we'd nailed the basic controls it was possible to manage resources and sail a single ship around and fight, but there really wasn't much depth to combat, partially due to the simplified control scheme. We wanted combat to happen automatically when ships got near each other, without requiring micro-management, and this added to the feeling that there wasn't enough to do. Rather than adding complexity to the controls we decided to get team play working.

"Before this there was a little bit of randomness in combat, but when two ships were fighting, the player with the bigger guns almost always won. The addition of teams allowed you to work together against a single enemy and manipulate the odds.

"We didn't fully appreciated the depth that this added until we played a few team games, and two of our artists -- guys that barely even play games -- skunked us designers. We'd been beating them mercilessly on our Halo maps for months, so at first we thought this was a fluke. We tried it again. And again. And again. They were unbeatable.

"We actually thought that they were cheating until we watched them play. They stuck together like glue, while we got cocky and went off and each did our own thing, and this worked to their advantage time and time again. We tried to emulate this strategy but inevitably bickered and lacked coordination and always ended up losing. We were consumed with a burning passion to beat the artists at our own game, and at that point we knew that we'd discovered something wonderful.

"Team play added a ton of depth to the game without compromising the simple controls. This was probably the best possible start for a game. We had created a playable prototype that looked good, that was both easy and fun to play, and that demonstrated the game's core mechanics. The value of this prototype can't be underestimated -- not just in helping us pitch the game, but in guiding us later on."

Communication is the First Casualty

Even within a smaller team like Certain Affinity, when communication between disciplines starts to break down, the project will inevitably have problems.

Hoberman explains of some of the issues inherent in creating a game with a smaller team with less well-defined roles:

"The changing assignments and splitting of focus challenged everyone and presented a prioritization nightmare that left no area untouched. One serious consequence was a breakdown in cross-disciplinary communication, something we take a lot of pride in, as evidenced by our completely open pit-style office.

"Over the course of the project there were numerous disconnects between the perceived state of the game and the actual state of the game, especially between programmers and designers, but sometimes also between artists and programmers.

"Animation support was one huge casualty of this disconnect, ultimately causing us to cut characters and character animation entirely, after we'd already done the modeling work and re-done the animation work several times.

"The hardest hit were the designers, who continued fine-tuning plans for sophisticated features like matchmaking and party support long after the programmers had already made huge simplifications (and often cuts) to these systems.

"A combination of lack of attention to the project, poor communication, and wishful thinking led to the design team believing that several features were far more advanced than we were actually able to implement, and they did not find out the reality until very late in the project.

"These misconceptions inevitably trickled down to Capcom and caused some confusion and even a bit of friction toward the end of the project when they learned about big cuts and changes that had been made months earlier."

It's Better to be "The Man"

After the game ships, it can make a huge difference to the studio whether it has retained the intellectual property to its creation.

Certain Affinity pulled off that sometimes-difficult trick of having a publisher to help fund the game, but having the IP under its control for subsequent titles, as follows:

"One of the very best things we did was negotiate a deal that left us entirely in control of the game and the intellectual property. We went in to discussions with this as our highest priority, but to be completely honest I was a bit surprised when we walked out with full IP ownership.

"What this did for us in a development sense was provide awesome motivation. There was no way the publisher could dictate our game design, and regardless of how much the company made off of this first title we knew that we were building something that had long-term value.

"This was a great motivator both for the development team and for business decisions. Simply put, this gave us a reason to invest our own money in the game, above and beyond what we got from the publisher.

"We couldn't have crammed all of the juicy features we wanted in otherwise; the business model for a single title, and especially for a risky new IP (a downloadable game, at that) simply didn't justify the investment."

Additional Info

The full postmortem, including a great deal more insight into Age of Booty's development, with "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" reasoning, is now available in the November 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes Game Developer's first annual "Top Deck" feature of influential and innovative game developers, and Oliver Franzke offers up an in-depth feature compiling best practices for error reporting and value editing systems.

Plus, as usual, there is Matthew Wasteland's humor column, as well as development columns from Power of Two's Noel Llopis, Bungie's Steve Theodore, LucasArts' Jesse Harlin, and Maxis' Soren Johnson.

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

2009 IGF Announces Record Entries For Main, Student Competitions

The organizers of the 2009 Independent Games Festival have announced a record turnout for this year's IGF competition, with a total of 226 entries in the Main Competition (an increase of 30% on last year's 173 entries), and a total of 145 Student Showcase entries (up over 15% on last year's 125 entries).

Information on the 226 separate IGF Main Competition entries, including screenshots, descriptions, and links to official game websites, are now available to view on the official IGF website.

Examples of the entries span already announced indie titles, including Jason Rohrer's Between, alternate reality RPG Barkley Shut Up and Jam Gaiden, visually lush point and click adventure Machinarium, and art-game I Wish I Were The Moon, through previously little-discussed titles such as Pieces Interactive's "first walk'em up" Walkie Tonky, new Nifflas-designed title Night Game, and Lexaloffle's "ecological action game" Conflux.

In addition, the 145 IGF Student Showcase entries are also available for viewing on the official IGF website, with descriptions, screenshots, and official website information.

Again, a great diversity of student-made games with original concepts are showcased, with examples including GumBeat, in which you "...blow bubble gum and gather enough supporters to your cause to topple the anti-gum government", High Moon, a "abstract post-apocalyptic zombie western robot romance in 3 acts", and It's MimeTime, in which "you are a female mime artist in Paris, who must earn as much as possible, by miming your way through an invisible maze."

The IGF judges, which currently comprise notable journalists, indie and mainstream game creators, are now in the process of judging this year's titles. with almost $50,000 in prizes to be handed out, including the $20,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize.

Finalists will be announced in early January 2009, and winners, as picked by the 2009 IGF judges, will be announced on stage at the prestigious Independent Games Festival Awards on Wednesday, March 25, 2009, at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

The Independent Games Festival Awards are held along the Game Developers Choice Awards, and both award shows are part of the 2009 Game Developers Conference, which also features a two-day Independent Games Summit, with lectures and panels from the best indie developers.

More information and a full list of entrants for this year's Independent Games Festival is available at its official website.

GameSetLinks: The Fixer Of The Dead

Catching up on some GameSetLinks goodness, and there's some random fun in here, starting with some video footage from the relatively unseen (and canned) The Fixer for PS3, and carrying on with... a Raymond Chandler DS game?

Also notable - Valve listening to slightly unhinged (but wonderfully so) UK journos, Chris Remo's song about Call Of Duty infighting, Chasing Ghosts popping up on Showtime, and rather more things besides.

Crack a window:

superannuation finds a trailer for Climax/Sony's canned 'The Fixer' for PS3
He's digging up some neat stuff: 'I never thought anyone would be able to make Resident Evil 5 look sensitive, but Climax Action did with The Fixer, which was righteously nipped in the bud by SCEE.'

Siliconera » American Detective Novelist Raymond Chandler Gets A Japanese DS Game
'Next spring a DS game based on the 1940s novel Farewell, My Lovely will come out in Japan.' This is very odd, to say the last, but along the lines of some of the noir-ish visual novel-y stuff that you'll see in Japan, sometimes - via TinyCartridge.

Idle Thumbs: A Weekly Video Game Podcast
It's worth plugging the podcast again, because it co-stars our own Chris Remo and even has awesomely random songs about Infinity Ward and Treyarch infighting. But LOOK AT THE URL. If you're not telling GamerGrub, then I won't, hee. (Also, the actual pictures of the actual Strategy Chocolate snacks, hidden behind the logo - look terrible.)

Peter Hirschberg's Journal: "Chasing Ghosts" on Showtime!
The _other_ classic Pac-Man documentary finally gets released - and it's on the Showtime pay-TV channel (home of Dexter), interestingly enough.

on iPhone app pricing - z a c k h i w i l l e r
Zack makes some great points (and links to better ones still) on iPhone pricing - I think that the super-elastic, low pricing is definitely making it much more difficult for iPhone game developers to make a living at it in the long run. Which is a major shame, but I guess market forces at work can't be beat unless Apple artificially does something?

Game/app recommendation: KORG DS-10 for Nintendo DS
XSeed sent me over a copy of the DS synth software, and I must say I'm impressed. It's real-time tweaking/performance heaven for electronic music freaks - I'm sure you've seen the demos - but it's available in the States now, so there's no excuse for not checking it out.

World Of Stuart: 'Valve: Excellent'
Email-documented examples of the Valve folks responding directly to Dr. Stuart Campbell's customarily ranty requests for legacy controls in TF2 and now Left 4 Dead on consoles - this kind of thoughtful user response can't be faked.

Raph’s Website » Game Informer on “Impostor” games
Raph Koster on games that aren't games, maybe: 'if we can orient the brain around real world models instead of the synthetic game ones, the logic goes, we can then use the strong feedback capabilities of software to help elucidate the model more, and thus encourage us to take the right actions.'

November 25, 2008

Column: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 11/25/08

['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.]

electronic_gaming_monthly.jpg

Many game outlets on the web reported -- a little gloatingly, perhaps -- on comments that Ziff Davis Media chief Jason Young made to the New York Times on Wednesday.

In case you zoned out on it, the report (mainly about PC Magazine's move to an online-only distribution format starting January) mentions that Young is entertaining the idea of taking EGM online-only as well, though no decision on the print mag's ultimate fate will be made before the end of the year.

To most gamers, the reaction was probably "Well, duh, I get all my news and reviews from forums." (That or "Oh nooo my bathroom reading!!", which I never quite understood. Quit spending so much time in the bathroom, people!) My reaction, though, is a bit more nuanced.

If I had to spout it out in one sentence, I'd take a deep breath and say: "Well, duh, EGM's ad pages have plummeted over even last year when they were already getting pretty sparse, and it's published by a company still recovering from bankruptcy, and given that EGM is the only remaining print magazine in the brands they own, it's plain that dead trees aren't anything like priority one over there any longer." Then I'd breathe again.

Sad, but true: Ad pages are down for every rag in the video-game market, and out of all the US mags coming out this month, only Game Informer and Play (who prints some anime and Geek Monthly-runoff ads the rest don't) have book sizes over 100 pages.

A distressingly interesting 2009 in store, eh?

Electronic Gaming Monthly December 2008 (Podcast)

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Cover: Watchmen: The End Is Nigh
Gift Guide: 2 pages

To the magazine itself: This month has a remarkable amount of variety despite its eensy size, from the cover feature (intricately designed and breathtakingly full-featured, as you'd expect with Mielke behind it) to the Goichi Suda interview where he talks about how porno inspires his games to a think piece about why more games don't do "funny" correctly.

There's also a gift guide, but it's very small and doesn't get in the way of things, which I give high marks to. Sometimes I wonder if holiday gift guides exist solely to get PR people off the editors' backs. Hang on. That's the cynic in me talking. Please ignore that. Strike it from the record! Now!

Game Informer December 2008

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Cover: Halo 3: Recon
Gift Guide: 10 pages (same size as the cover feature!)

A typical GI "stretch it out 'til it snaps" cover feature. When the cover says "world-exclusive details," it really means details, not anything else -- other than a couple of concept art pieces, there is nothing in the feature's visual aids you've missed assuming you saw the trailer. The text is half dev interview, half play report written to sound like a Halo novel except, and I have a feeling that the feature would've been better served if it were delayed a few months for some more concrete stuff to support it.

Play December 2008

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Cover: Persona 4
Gift Guide: 0 pages (yay!)

Frankly, a pretty amazing 10-page cover feature/review in the style of OXM's mega-reviews, complete with three or four interviews and more bits of trivia than an RPG fan could possibly shake a stick at long enough to digest before his arm grew tired. Otherwise, it's an issue you'll mostly buy for the reviews, since I think Play gives more space to them this month than even GI did for theirs.

Nintendo Power Holiday 2008

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Cover: Reviews special
Gift Guide: 3 pages

Play may have the most in-depth interviews, but NP always seems to get the coolest people to talk to. In this issue you've got Eiji Aonuma (in a long, lovely, incredibly readable Ocarina of Time retro-feature), Goichi Suda, Shinji Mikami, Gradius ReBirth director Toshiyasu Kamiko, and Daisuke Amaya -- aka Pixel, the Cave Story guy, who comes off every bit the Japanese Jonathan Blow I imagined him to be. Plus, since it's the last issue of '08, this book also has the final installment of NP's history of itself -- all the editors chime in on what makes the mag special to them, and it's just a happy, warm little thing, you know?

Simply put, Nintendo fanboys should be beating paths to the bookshops to get this issue.

PlayStation: The Official Magazine Holiday 2008

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Cover: Alpha Protocol
Gift Guide: 8 pages overall (though with the most striking visual design out of them all, an "iPod silhouette"-inspired look that's eye-catching)

PTOM's a year old! And I'm sure editing it must be a ton easier now that the PS3's finally got a critical mass of developments to report on. This one's full of TGS coverage (probably has the most per-capita out of NP's rambling tour of the show floor) and reviews, reviews, reviews. I'm really starting to dig PTOM's design, to the point where it's hard to decide if the writing or the art is the most improved part of the rag compared to Issue 1.

Retro Gamer Issue 56

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Cover: Gauntlet

On to the Britmags! RG shelled out for a crazy fold-out cover this month; the rest of it features the new DS Gauntlet, which is reviewed in this issue alongside an enormous retrospective look at the original.

There's a massive bumper crop of making-of features this issue -- Samba de Amigo, arcade game Rampage (an intensely interesting look into Midway arcade management in the '80s), Brit-adventure Beneath A Steel Sky, somewhat older Brit-adventure Terrormolinos, and an ancient Brit platformer called Super Pipeline that not even I'd heard of until now. Plus, a Kojima interview where he talks about Snatcher. Good heavens!

CVG Presents Issue 4

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I am really, really starting to dig this series of specials. I couldn't give two craps about Call of Duty, but this is one hell of a piece of work, the best one they've done so far. Game recaps, interviews, gun info, programming tech info, old covers, even a potted WWII history that actually succeeds in engaging the reader thanks to its crazily stimulating, geographically-themed art design. I don't even want to think about the amount of time that went into this work, and how few people will really appreciate how high-quality it is. If you see this sucker, get it.

PC Zone November 2008

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Cover: Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning

I had a look at the next issue of Total PC Gaming, but it appeared to be more of the same thing -- basically, your typical Brit PC mag -- so I decided to quit buying it in favor of PC Zone, which is similarly expensive and comes with a DVD I don't care about (and also a month or two behind in US distribution) but at least is hilarious to read.

I kind of have difficulty explaining why I enjoy this mag so much sometime. It's certainly not because I get lots of hot and exclusive information each issue, not with the time lag on it. It's not because of its design, which is pretty run-of-the-mill (PC Gamer US is flashier, even). No, it's because it's seriously goddamn funny, and that's the only current game mag I would even consider using that adjective to describe. I should just devote a column to scans of bits and pieces I laughed out loud at -- then it'd be easier to explain.

Anyway, if you're American and are lucky enough to see this, give it a shot, please.

Game Developer November 2008

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Cover: Age of Booty

Can't forget about this one, of course! The "Top Deck" list of the most influential people in the industry, teased on the top of the cover, is pretty cool -- I wrote the same sort of feature for 1UP.com's launch five years ago, which I tried to find on the site just now but I'm sure is long gone. Comparing the two features woulda been neat, though. I'm positive that I had Satoshi Tajiri and Nexon's Min Kim on my 2003 list, for example. Lorne Lanning was on my list, too, though in the ensuing half-decade he seems to have missed the cut for GD's. Hmm.

[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.]

Best Of FingerGaming: From Aurora Feint to Dr. Awesome

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

This week's notable items in the iPhone gaming space include the highly anticipated sequel to puzzle/RPG Aurora Feint, two newly announced titles from ngmoco, and Newtonica2 from Skip Ltd. co-founder Kenichi Nishi.

Here are the top stories:

Aurora Feint II: The Arena in App Store
"Aurora Feint developers Danielle Cassley and Jason Citron released a sequel to their acclaimed RPG with a Tetris Attack/Panel de Pon twist. Those of you who’ve played Puzzle Quest should be familiar with this hybridization, but Aurora Feint II: The Arena takes it a step further with its new focus on multiplayer competitions as an 'asynchronous MMO.'"

ngmoco Announces Dropship, Dr. Awesome
"Dr. Awesome [is] a Qix-styled title with a light-hearted surgery premise and humor/graphics similar to what we’ve seen with Atlus’ Trauma Center and Capcom’s Phoenix Wright series for Nintendo platforms."

Field System Reveals Newtonica Sequel
"Field System has put up an official teaser site and a screenshot for Newtonica2, a follow-up to August’s sphere-rotating iPhone game Newtonica. Presumably, game designer Kenichi Nishi, whose credits include Chibi-Robo! and Incredible Crisis, is returning to develop the game along with composer Kenji Eno."

SimCity Coming December
"The EA Mobile title has the “look and feel” of SimCity 3000, but with touchscreen controls for tasks like zoning. Players can also use the platform’s multi-touch capabilities for zooming in and out of cities, as well as other functions."

Uno now in App Store
"Gameloft has added classic card game Uno to the App Store, taking advantage of the platform’s touchscreens and allowing players to drag and drop cards to get rid of their hands as easily as possible."

Cube now in App Store, Free
"Fernlightning’s first-person shooter Cube is finally on the App store, over six weeks after the company submitted the iPhone/iPod Touch game to Apple for review. Billed as a technology demo, the opensource title is available for free and includes multiplayer support, in-game editing, cooperative editing, demo recording, and more."

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Trouble and Danger

DHSSmall.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Mousechief's unique social indie PC/Mac RPG, Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble.]

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble is a game about prejudice, repression, and parochial thinking, in which your avatars are spunky teenagers determined to discover everything that's going wrong around their (apparently) sleepy 1920s town. In order to reveal secrets and find clues, your gang of girls challenges the other characters to mini-games that represent lying, flirting, teasing, and other forms of social engagement.

That description on its own ought to be enough to attract some curiosity: DHSGiT takes on aspects of human interaction that just don't appear very often in computer games. It does so in metaphorical terms (exposing secrets relies on a kind of word puzzle; lying is a bluffing game using card suits) rather than through direct conversation -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing, and there is plenty of written dialogue to accompany the more abstract interaction.

The game-play does manage to take some advantage of characterization, too, in that some of the mini-games need to be approached with different strategies depending on the personality of your opponent -- a strength I would have liked to see taken further.

Probably by intention, the game-play during the first part of the game is not the kind that you want to sit down with for hours and hours at a time. The mini-games are amusing (and several are considerably improved over those shown in the samples shown in the teaser version of the game that came out last year), but they become repetitive relatively soon.

The narrative structure doesn't entirely help with that. In fact, the instructions for the game encourage the player to play in relatively small pieces, and several features -- a "recap" option and the built-in reminders about the player's tasks -- make it relatively easy to come back and resume play after a hiatus. Some of the details of past interactions may have faded, but you can keep going.

I find that kind of play fosters a different relationship than I usually have with narrative-heavy games. Sometimes a game's story will draw me in (if it's any good) and make me want to keep playing until I see how it all comes out. The early stages of DHSGiT by contrast made me keep the story at arm's length.

That sense of distance is only heightened by the arch presentation: dialogue is very stylized, not only to represent the period but also to give the game a sort of ironic gloss. Locations are shown as spots on a playing board. People are represented by metallic pawns. DHSGiT is a game of a game -- the computer game represents a physical board and cards, which in turn represents the town and its population.

The gang-of-protagonists feature contributes as well. Over the course of a long playing, different girls may come and go from the gang; you may invest some time in improving a girl's skills, only to have her lose an important social wrangle and go away.

That means that the girls are in a sense interchangeable. Though they have different skill profiles, none of them has a particularly strong characterization, and none of the storylines seem to turn importantly on the question of who your girls are. The non-player characters are far more distinct and memorable than the protagonists.

Despite all that, there is quite a lot of story here. It starts out meandering and episodic, but plentiful (there's more narrative in fifteen minutes of DHSGiT than in an entire Dash game, which is admittedly not saying much). In the final stages of the game, that story becomes much tauter and more compelling, and much darker as well.

Where initially the hypocrisy of your native town of Brigiton was mostly a source of amusing ironies, by the end it becomes clear that something much deeper and more sinister has corrupted the relationships in the town, especially those between the sexes.

The final act revisits places and characters from the beginning of the game, which is an effective way to remind the player how far things have come: bullies who were troublesome at the outset are now easily managed and essentially pathetic, compared with the much greater problems around.

DHS2.jpgThe gameplay comes more into its own at this point, because though the mini-games do not become substantially more nuanced than they were at the outset, the stakes are now much higher. It's possible for things to go really wrong along the way: towards the end of the game there are a handful of abrupt, horrible endings that serve to remind you that your gang is in serious trouble.

You are likely to lose a couple of girls before the end, too -- even if they're not killed, events may traumatize them sufficiently that they have to go home, leaving you with a reduced force. And contrary to the structure of the more naive sort of RPG, your individual characters do not necessarily become monotonically more powerful until the end: instead they're likely to encounter set-backs in late play that will leave them with fewer options than they're used to having at their disposal.

All these features make it harder to win casually -- I had to replay the endgame several times to get an ending I was willing to accept -- but easier to take that ending seriously. (I'm sure that it would have been possible to get an even yet better outcome -- there were a couple of objects I never used, and there were hints at a romantic subplot that I lacked the necessary skills to bring off.)

That said, the game definitely has a specific story it wants to tell. Though DHSGiT offers the player lots of choices, and though there are multiple ways the story and its subplots can turn out, the player mostly lacks significant choices. As a rule, conversations can end only two or three ways at most, and one outcome is often plainly superior to the others.

To make steering more challenging, you're offered a menu of conversation choices where each of your comments is represented by only two or three words -- which means that sometimes your avatar winds up saying something completely different, or significantly more nuanced, than what you thought you were selecting.

Along the same lines, the mini-games succeed or fail and failures are worked into the plot -- sometimes by giving the player a chance to achieve the same thing in a different way; sometimes by accepting a non-optimal outcome and moving on (not all subplots need to succeed for the main story to come out); and sometimes, especially late in the game, by ending the game in a loss. But it is not possible to play a mini-game in a way that signifies a choice about how you want things to come out; they are no more steerable than the conversation portions of the game.

Finally, the player is free to explore items in town in any order he wants, but in almost all cases it's necessary to explore everything thoroughly; even when that's not the case, it's rare for the player to know enough about what each encounter will bring to be able to choose to go one direction or another in order to achieve specific plot goals.

None of this is necessarily a bad design choice, but I found myself struggling a little at the outset to figure out on what level I was supposed to be engaging with the story. Once I accepted that I was mainly going to be driving it via my successes or failures, I could relax a little and go where the narrative wanted to take me.

It's also tempting to suggest that DHSGiT would be a stronger, more balanced, more narratively compelling game if it maintained a more uniform distribution of plot twists from beginning to end. Jess over at JayIsGames comments:

"Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble does have its issues. Most prominently, it seemed to me that about 60% of the story was compressed into the last 20% of the game; the revelations come fast and furious, and at times can become mind-boggling."

But I'm not sure that greater uniformity would have made the overall experience better. What makes the later stages of DHSGiT effective is our famiiarity with the town, our investment in certain characters (whom we've rescued repeatedly) -- and the fact that we've come to take the nature of its problems and corruption a bit for granted.

During the mid-game, the storytelling approach of DHSGiT is a little reminiscent of the Tradewinds games -- lots of small but linked missions for different characters, focus on humor and setting -- but with more freedom for the player.

By the end, though, it has become something substantially more powerful, because the story introduces more serious problems and because the play becomes more difficult to match. In more traditional media, the structure of DHSGiT reminded me most of a season of a Joss Whedon show: it starts off light and episodic, but by the time you get to May it's all angst and cliff-hangers.

No matter where you come in, a few hours of play have a certain thematic unity that raises DHSGiT above the average. At every level, through all its metaphors of interaction, DHSGiT is about the games we play socially: about hypocrisy, dishonesty, manipulation, double meaning. If it sometimes feels difficult really to know the characters in its story, maybe that's intentional.

There were some choices along the way that I might not have made myself -- about player interaction, about how many goofy/fantasy elements to allow into the story, about how to handle the moral message. But the overall project is daring and novel, and it does essentially work.

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

GameSetLinks: Gaming, The Watchmen Way

Here's the latest of our - somewhat incrementally better explained - sets of link neatness, headed up by Richard Cobbett unearthing a horrible 3DO FMV adventure given new, slightly 'abandonware'-tastic life by YouTube branching.

Also notable: some interesting discussion of the Watchmen episodic game (we shouldn't write it off yet, but the man has some good points), the Far Cry 2 in-game blog we missed, an odd cover version apparently from the upcoming Saboteur, what Will Wright thinks about things, et al.

Go stop go:

Richard Cobbett > Richard's Online Journal > Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties
Oh no, Cobbett unearths and YouTube branching version of the infamously bad 3DO FMV adventure.

Click Nothing: '...and let slip the blogs of war!'
Interesting, Far Cry 2 supremo Clint Hocking reveals "...for those who never found it, we were maintaining a fictional blog for the character of the journalist Reuben Oluwagembi who you meet in Far Cry 2."

Who Botches The Watchmen? » Murderblog 3D
Some delicious fun at the expense of the upcoming Watchmen episodic game, which could be good, but I share a little skepticism: 'Quick time events? Combos? Finishing moves? It’s like they distilled Watchmen to it’s very essence.'

Sore Thumbs: 'Shit Lit'
I can't help linking the Sore Thumbs shenanigans -- this time it's Crispin Boyer criticizing game writing randomly -- because the level of vitriol is still pretty impressive. I dunno - I guess I'm a half-full type of guy.

superannuation: 'My contribution to the 24-hour Tumblr-thon of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel.'
...an odd music video (from the game soundtrack?) with alpha video footage from Pandemic's long in development Saboteur, dug up by the indefatigable Superannuation blogger.

Quit your job and make your game - Citizen Gamer- msnbc.com
Another nice mainstream 2D Boy piece, with some good news from Kyle Gabler: 'We can finally say that, two years after leaving our jobs, we are better off financially and emotionally than we would have been had we stayed at the same company where we were working.'

mbf [email protected]: Coming Soon: "The Ethics of Computer Games" by Miguel Sicart (MIT Press)
The MIT Press continues to do great serious conceptual looks at games - they're my favorite game book publisher right now. In this upcoming tome: 'Miguel Sicart addresses broader issues about the ethics of games, the ethics of playing the games, and the ethical responsibilities of game designers. He argues that computer games are ethical objects, that computer game players are ethical agents, and that the ethics of computer games should be seen as a complex network of responsibilities and moral duties.'

Domains - Will Wright - SimCity Living - Interview - NYTimes.com
A mini-profile of Wright as a person, not his product, which is nice. Says Will: 'People associate games with explosions and guns, but the designers I know are well read and have diverse interests.' I think this is increasingly true, which is, of course, increasingly important.

November 24, 2008

GameSetQ: Where Next On The (R)Evolution Of GSW?

Well, it's a rare appearance of the GameSetWatch spaceman guy (designed by Mira Han, yay), so that must mean it's time for a little rumination on the history of the site, and a question on where you'd like to see it go next.

Firstly, I'm not sure if everyone has been reading for long enough to realize this, but GSW has been through quite a major series of shifts over the past three years or so (yes, we've been running since 2005).

Here's a potted history, with links to weekly archives to give you a good idea along the way:

- Early Prehistory (January 2006)
We started things off with more of a group feel and eclectic, six+ posts a day styling. In fact, our initial group bloggers theoretically included Michael McWhertor (nowadays at Kotaku, of course), Brandon Boyer (who just started the BoingBoing-affiliated Offworld, which early GSW vaguely resembles, only with less Greenblat), and Wonderland's delightful Alice Taylor. It evolved into a solo effort (with a few exceptions) over time, though.

- The Mid-Period Evolution (April 2007)
Halfway between the oldschool and the new school, GSW in mid-2007 had quite a few link-style posts. It was still clocking in at about five posts a day, some on eclectic subjects, but now had a regular-ish GameSetLinks link round-up. It was also starting to increase longer-form columns from folks like Slashdot/Massively's Michael Zenke, the indefatigable John '@Play' Harris, and quite a few more besides. It was a transition time...

- The Here And Now (November 2008)
Well, now we're at three posts per day, with the daily GameSetLinks round-ups picking up some of the more thoughtful writing online. The other posts alternate between GSW-exclusive columns (generally design analysis/critiques, like 'The Interactive Palette', or more personal perspectives, like 'Chewing Pixels'), and there are more crossposts from sister sites - particularly longform writing from Gamasutra that we think might get lost, but also link round-ups from sister sites like FingerGaming and IndieGames.

So that explains where we were, and where we are.

In a lot of ways, today's GameSetWatch is an 'unblog'. Which is to say - instead of lots of tiny, pithy posts, we hit you with three big chunks of text every day. I guess this is a little bizarre - and in our regularity in doing so, we're practically recidivist.

Of course, the site's current structure is partly a reaction to the site itself being a sideproject to our regular dayjobs running Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra, and helping with GDC, so there you go.

But I'd like this to be a call for ideas, and feedback. What bits of GSW do you dig now - which columns, whose writing, what particular features? What would you like to see more of, and what would you like to see less of? What are we doing that's important and enjoyable, and what are we doing that's tedious or less than necessary?

[Feedback to editors at gamesetwatch dot com welcome, of course, but the blog comments are the best way to get discussion going.]

Opinion: The Game Industry's PR Problem

[In this editorial, originally published in Game Developer magazine, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield tackles the difficulties of dealing with games industry public relations from a journalist's point of view -- and suggests some possible remedies.]

Public relations in the games industry is a constant source of frustration. This is true for me, and for pretty much anyone else writing about games who wants to go above and beyond the normal regurgitation of press releases.

I want to preface by saying that this editorial is not an easy one to write. There are a number of people in PR whom I respect, who are good at their jobs, and who are very helpful. I think a large number of established names can feel confident that most of this editorial does not refer directly to them, but there still may be points applicable here.

First, why should developers care about their PR? Well, what is said about you reflects on you, and the way in which your products are presented and represented do so as well.

In many cases, the brunt of a bad experience will lie with the rep him/herself, but in other cases, it can cause a flustered journalist to simply start ignoring any emails or calls related to that company. I’ve done it, and everyone I know in this industry has done it.

Naturally this is something developers want to avoid. I will guess that most developers have not dealt with PR from the journalist’s side, so perhaps this will help you learn a bit about what goes on.

The Problems

The most frequent problem I see is lack of familiarity with the product, and with games in general. This is more common with external PR, but is also seen internally as well.

At this point, we do expect PR people to know less about your game than we do, and especially much less about the developer and its pedigree. This is, of course, because PR and marketing are viewed as universal skill sets. If you can do public relations for soda, snowboards, or watches, you can do it for games -- or so the common wisdom goes.

That may be true in other industries, but it’s not true here. As an example, I once asked internal PR for a large game company if the director of the original games was working on the new version. The trick is, I didn’t say “the director,” I said that director’s actual name. The PR person had never heard of the director of this long-running series. To me, that is a problem, and highlights the general lack of interest in games among many PR personnel.

If you go up to a film or book publicist and mention the name of a director, an actor, a screewriter, a novelist, or a graphic novel artist respectively, there is a real good chance they will know who you’re talking about. In games, this would hardly ever happen. Try asking games PR if they’ve heard of Warren Spector, Atsushi Inaba, Fumito Ueda, or Cliff Bleszinski, and see how many blank stares you get.

Can you promote something you don’t like, or aren’t truly interested in? Many seem to think so. It makes such a huge difference when the person trying to get a journalist to cover a game actually likes it, and actually plays games outside of work. When this lack of familiarity is combined with badgering, via frequent emails and calls about products I’ve already told someone I’m not able to cover, that’s when I start ignoring people.

You don’t want to get to that stage. It is possible to cold-call journalists and have them be receptive -- the PR person just has to initiate a conversation, figure out if it’s a fit, be humble, and not act like this product they don’t actually understand is the new Jesus.

We’re All Human

The biggest thing that’s been getting to me is the constant lying. Not lying to people strikes me as a basic human courtesy, but lying happens so frequently in my interactions with PR as to cause me to lose respect for the people that do it, and want to deal less with those companies.

When I ask a question, and am told “no,” but the answer is really “yes, but I can’t tell you,” that’s a lie. When someone says, “We’re not doing any interviews,” but really means “…with you,” that’s a lie. Just tell me you can’t do an interview with me, because you’re only doing video. It makes your life harder, but at least you’re being honest with me, and you don’t lose my respect.

It’s almost impossible to lie to a journalist and have him or her not find out about it when you’re telling another journalist something else, because we all talk to each other! I can’t respect someone who lies to me -- not in any sort of relationship, professional or otherwise.

The Setup

There are four major types of PR that I see. Internal PR at large companies like Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony is largely designed to keep information away from journalists when it’s requested. They have labyrinthine structures, it’s tough to know if you’re ever speaking to the right person, and once you get there, it’s hard to make them respond.

This is compounded by their use of external PR as well, which acts as a further hall of mirrors to keep the journalist from his or her goal. External PR usually knows less about games, employs people who are newer to the job, and generally gets the lower-tier tasks, if employed by a large company. In the case where external PR is a company’s only PR, that’s a much different story, and they wind up working more closely with the client/publisher/developer.

Then there’s internal PR at medium-sized developers or publishers. These folks contact you when they have an announcement, try to help you out of they can, or want to, when you come to them with a question, but otherwise are too busy to hassle you. For whatever reason, they tend to be the least frustrating to deal with.

The last type is the PR (usually external) for X developer/publisher/peripheral manufacturer you’ve never heard of. These folks tend to work on the periphery – mobile, virtual worlds, and things like that. They will hound you for coverage, which may be effective in some cases, but is tough for a journalist to stomach, especially when combined with a general lack of knowledge of the product, or the journalist’s areas of interest and expertise.

Solutions

I do have some ideas about how to fix this. I don’t know if there’s any way to stop people from lying -- that may just be a learned trait. But that would be a great thing to eliminate.

The number one thing you can do is to keep your PR as educated as possible. Show them your process and introduce them to your leads. Try to get people who actually have an interest in games, and who will read game news because they’re interested in it, not just because it’s their job. We talk about passion a lot in this industry, and rightly so -– it should be ubiquitous, all the way down to your PR.

Good PR can really help you. It can get your game noticed, it can get good coverage (though contrary to what some believe, it can not –- or at least should not -– determine review scores), and it can help you build relationships with good journalists. Bad PR can inspire people to ignore your company completely. Let’s make it better.

[You can find out more about Game Developer magazine, including how to subscribe to physical and digital versions and its digital sample issue, at its official homepage.]

GDC Mobile Announces 2009 Focus, iPhone Lectures

[Another neat heads-up for next year's GDC here, this time on the mobile summit, which includes the IGF Mobile awards and have fun stuff like iPhone and Android to the fore this year, which should make it a bit more interesting for those not already in that niche.]

Organizers for March 2009's GDC Mobile summit have revealed a focus on emerging platforms such as Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android, as well as initial speakers from EA and Indiagames, for the mobile-specific game event taking place on the first two days of GDC 2009.

The GDC Mobile conference (created by Think Services, who also runs Gamasutra) gathers creators, publishers, technology providers, handset manufacturers, and distributors to discuss the future of the medium.

This year's program will cover six tracks encompassing the entirity of mobile gaming: New Platforms, Game Design, Programming, Deals & Distribution, Production, and Original Innovation.

The lectures announced so far include 'The iPhone Bag Of Tricks,' a hands-on session covering the day-to-day aspects of iPhone development, presented by G3 Studios CEO Guido Henkel; and 'Social Games for Android, iPhone, Java, C++ and Objective C? Where do you fit in?', presented by Pick Up And Play president and CEO Paul Foster.

Other notable speakers announced for the event include EA Mobile Europe marketing director Tim Harrison, Indiagames founder and CEO Vishal Gondal, Amplified Games president and CEO Tom Hubina, and School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech associate professor Blair MacIntyre.

In addition, the IGF Mobile competition, which is giving out $30,000 to the most innovative independent mobile games, including a new $10,000 Best iPhone Game award, will have its awards during GDC Mobile once again this year.

GDC Mobile 2009 will take place on March 23rd and 24th during Game Developers Conference 2009, which will run from March 23rd to 27th at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California.

For more information on the GDC Mobile summit and other lecture highlights, please visit the official GDC Mobile 2009 site.

In-Depth: A Response to 'Outgrowing Games', With A Bonus Competition

[After we at GSW - and Gamasutra - ran EA designer Brice Morrison's opinion piece on a game designer outgrowing video games, he got such a major response that he returns to GameSetWatch to answer some common questions, and set a competition to conceptually design a game that makes its player better.]

My article on 'Why I Outgrew Video Games', originally posted on my blog and then on Gamasutra and on GameSetWatch, has received considerable press coverage from Slashdot, from Kotaku, and other online news outlets.

The discussion generated around the article has been very thought provoking; many readers sympathized, claiming that they too have been forced to leave games behind as other more important aspects of life crept in during their 30's and 40's, unable to justify the time sacrifice for pure entertainment. Many more readers had some very intelligent contentions.

I'd like to further fuel the discussion by responding to some of the great points raised by readers:

You say that as you grew up, you found no adult parallels to Super Mario. What about games with deeper themes, such as Shadow of the Colossus or BioShock?

Shadow of the Colossus and BioShock are both magnificent games. The reason that they don't quite reach the goal of being life enriching experiences is that they are still designed from the ground up with the primary purpose of being entertainment. Yes, the compelling stories, settings, and characters in both games may provide some tangential learning of the concepts of mindless pursuit of a selfish motive (Shadow) or the perversion of humanist beliefs (BioShock), and these are not to be downplayed.

However, games as a medium could offer much more if the original intent was to express an idea. It's the difference between a fictional movie that causes viewers to consider the real world parallels and a real life documentary. Both eventually get to the purpose of causing the audience to grapple with the concept, but one goes through entertainment on its way, and the other seeks to make its point first and be entertaining second.

Of course, the reasons behind this have a lot to do with the nature of the video games business itself. Games are made for a profit, and entertainment is more profitable.

There are plenty of mature games that were made quite some time ago: Trinity, Hidden Agenda, or works of Interactive Fiction, to name a few. What about those?

Great point! These are all games that do much more than provide entertainment. Hidden Agenda, for example, educates players about the intricacies and difficulties of the political climate in South America, and does so through engaging gameplay (despite its use of only black and white colors).

Many of these games were tested by the market in the 80's, and sadly faded from the mainstream. Jim Gasperini, creator of Hidden Agenda, wrote that "Hidden Agenda was created in an early, idealistic time in the development of the game medium. " Since then, it would seem that simple entertainment won out in the marketplace. This is good for those who simply want entertainment, but it's bad for others who need more to justify the time spent.

Still, those are some games with more mature themes than Mario. How can you say games are still a child's medium?

In addition to the low proportion of games that deal with adult themes, another issue here is simply the public perception of games. While the Wii, online casual gaming, and other movements are helping to make great strides, it is not outlandish to say that many people would still view games as kid's toys, though few would say the same of a medium like literature. There are children's books and there are adult books, but with games the public perception is more myopic.

This is also true of comics; many readers commented that comics that touch on mature themes do in fact exist, such as Watchmen or Maus. but the public perception of the medium as a whole tragically does not reflect this.

Your article claims that many people have outgrown games, but many older people DO actually play games: board games, like chess.

True, but as someone who left my NES behind, I wish that there were video and computer games which received the same love from the general public. The capabilities of video and computer games are far beyond what any board game could be, and thus are something to be taken advantage of.

Also, board games oftentimes have peripheral advantages that make them "worthwhile" in the player's mind: spending time with family, flexing mental muscles, etc. It's difficult to come up with the same justifications for many video game titles out today.

Why are you saying we need more boring games? Games are supposed to be fun.

This was actually a misconception of Ian Bogost's recent Gamasutra article. The goal isn't to create boring games, but when boring games have been created, then we will know that games have truly been accepted as a versatile medium by the general public.

Some readers mentioned army training and pilot training games, which is exactly the type of boring games I believe Bogost would say he's looking for. As these become more ubiquitous, it can be seen as a thermometer that our medium is becoming more accepted.

What's wrong with games as simply entertainment? If you want intellectual stimulation, why not turn to something else?

Nothing is wrong with viewing games as entertainment, but there is so much more that could be done! Games have the capability to be incredibly experiential because of their capability to provide interactivity.

As designer Dan Cook from Lost Garden wrote, it's the difference between hearing about the time someone decided not to pull the trigger, and deciding for yourself not to pull the trigger. Actually going through experiences yourself is much more compelling and personal than reading a story. The opportunities are too ripe not to pursue the possibilities.

Additionally, it's sad for someone who loved games while they were younger to have to turn away later in life because the days become busier. Other activities, sports for example, are still viewed as a worthwhile use of time, but only because of some other benefit in addition to being entertainment, such as exercise.

Video games also have the capability to provide the same kind of peripheral benefit. This doesn't mean entertainment should be shown the door, but I think even popularizing the idea that games could be something more is a good step.

"Edutainment" games are terrible. Why would you be asking for more of them?

Edutainment games aren't terrible by definition; sadly these games have that reputation because they are oftentimes simply not designed well. A few years ago, we all would have agreed that those crazy bicycle games in front of TVs at the science museum were terrible.

Exercise games don't work, we would have said. But after a professional team got their hands on the idea of exercise, Wii Fit was born (and I don't need to talk about the popularity of Wii Fit).

The problem is a game design problem, not a content problem. In terms of making compelling reward systems, the content is nearly irrelevant. I would venture to say that the greatest asset games have over other media is to take any topic and make it interesting, such that the player decides to forge ahead of their own volition.

Game Design Competition

Games have the ability to discuss and teach real world politics, history, science, health, business, psychology, and so much more. Games have the potential to not only be entertaining, but to have the player put down the controller and say, "Wow. I am a better person for having played this game. Those last few hours have contributed to my well being and will continue to enrich my life long after I'm done playing."

Many developers would agree with this thesis, but the real question is how. To follow up this discussion, GSW editors have allowed me to host a game design competition, focusing on creating games that do more for the player than simply entertain.

If this topic has interested you, I'd invite you to consider participating. You can find more information on the competition on my weblog.

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

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

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

End of the weekend, but still time to round up the best posts of the week on our alma mater, Gamasutra and other sites - including everything from interviews (Keiichi Yano!) through development pieces (effective art direction!) and analysis (NPD craziness!)

This time (and going forward), I'm going to try to make GSW user-centric - and maybe even nuanced - commentary on some of this past week's best articles.

More Than Just Lips: Keiichi Yano On Music Game Innovation by Christian Nutt
I've been a fan of Yano's output for a while, thanks to titles from GitarooMan through Elite Beat Agents, and although it seems Lips is getting some mixed reviews, his genuine music-loving attitude and enlightened approach to the medium makes this Gamasutra interview a whole lot of fun.

Persuasive Games: Disjunctive Play by Ian Bogost
Jason Rohrer is going go down as an important, but likely divisive, figure in the history of art-games - and in this neat, if slightly mindboggly Gamasutra feature, writer/author Bogost analyzes Between to help map out a new, indirect style of multiplayer gaming.

NPD: Behind The Numbers, October 2008 by Matt Matthews
We were absolutely delighted to get Matt Matthews' NPD column back in Gamasutra's care, and this latest one shows his mastery of the stat crunching insanity. Some of the neat stuff in here - Guitar Hero sales analysis and some cleverly extrapolated top single-SKU games of 2008 so far in the U.S. - Smash Bros for Wii leading the way.

Effective Art Directors: Gaming's Something Something by Ben Cammarano
We love to run developer-written articles alongside the analysis and interviews, and Microsoft Game Studios uber art director Cammarano does a great job of documenting the five major traits that make the video game art director truly effective, from partnerships through unlikely inspiration.

GCG’s Game Design Challenge: Achievement and Insomnia by Jill Duffy
I'm gonna quote this one, cos Jill Duffy and Manveer Heir are doing a great job on this anyhow: "GameCareerGuide has recently posted its next Game Design Challenge: design a card game that incorporates the theme ‘insomnia.’ The site has also posted the top three submissions to a recently closed design challenge, in which readers invented a new Xbox Achievement for an existing game."

Also original and worth checking out on Gamasutra from last week: Share Your Experience: YouTube Integration In Games; Interview: GameStop's DeMatteo Talks State Of Holiday Market; MIGS: Imagining A Hero - Ubisoft's Mattes On Prince of Persia's Visual Evolution; MIGS: Microsoft's Fryer On Creating a Culture Of Production ; MIGS: EALA's Smith - Games Have Feelings Too; In-Depth: Casual Game Execs Aim For New Audiences On Core Platforms; Stardock CEO Wardell Eyes Star Control, Orion, And More.

November 23, 2008

The Game Anthropologist: Fable II and World Mixing

['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column looking at gaming communities and subcultures. This week he explores how Fable II lacks clarity at first, and how an early multiplayer experience powerfully changed his own journey through the main storyline, among other things.]

(Spoiler notification: if you've heard nothing about Fable II's ending or the characters you meet in it and don't want to yet, you will want to stop reading.)

Most games, even bad ones, at least have plain and simple goals. Fable II does not; even if one includes the many unedited, uncoached musings of Peter Molyneux, there are still some design decisions in the game that are not easily understood by the player. Is it an RPG? Is it like the Sims? Both? Fable II can't make up its mind. Maybe the Fable II-related announcement due this Monday the 24th will let us know, whatever it is.

For example, it seems apparent even from both sides of the box cover ("Who will you become?") that Fable II is a place to explore morality, but the consequences of choices seem weak. I started off playing the game with a friend I know from college, wondering if the world would be a place that is shared together, but it is not. It is just one player playing the role of visitor to another; worlds cannot be shared, and this makes Fable II a mostly solitary game even if there is a multiplayer option.

And the multiplayer actually changed the outcome of my own world! The friend I played with was ahead of me; I earned almost 100,000 gold from his real estate empire by playing with him for just two hours. Where was the challenge in that? Then again, the game wasn't meant to be challenging; it's easy to chop, shoot, and explode enemies away, though admittedly very enjoyable.

Still, it powered me through by enabling to purchase powerful weapons early in my own story. I didn't have to take the time to be a blacksmith or bartender and feel like I'd worked hard; Fable II gives you more money from buying businesses and buildings and by playing tiresome mini-games, but without working I'd earned plenty of money. So the multiplayer aspect, the community aspect, seems like a choice that is made for the benefit of the gamers, but not the game.

When I beat the game, I was faced with the choice to choose the needs of many, the needs of my few loved ones, or to just be selfish and choose a wad of cash. Because everyone thought the latter boring and I'd heard nothing about it, I decided to take the wealth. I was disappointed and not planning on playing the game anymore anyway.

So I got 1,000,000 gold and immediately received notice that Castle Fairfax, the castle your sister wanted, was available for sale. I went straight there, wondering what it would be like to own the game's biggest building. It was huge and the butler said the bed was the best bed in the world--magical powers, or something.

Owning it made me irresistible--33 people feel in love with me instantly. But no sooner than I had first stepped in the building, bandits attacked it! Upon their decimation, my butler announced he was quitting--he couldn't take the pressure.

I talked to him but he hated my guts, as polite as he'd been. I hadn't noticed. In fact, everyone hated me, I later discovered. Everyone in the world except those in love with me; except they hated me, too. Maybe they wanted me only for my money. Cute.

I shot the butler in the back as he walked away, bitter at the game's hype, brevity, and acclaim. I was mad more at myself, really; I misunderstood the game's desire to want me to play house, and that was my fault; Fable II is good, but I didn't realize it then.

In the library, the butler had traced the bandits' entry route: an underground tunnel. At the end, I found a sex change potion and the warning that failure to drink it now is a choice to never drink it.

I drank it, of course. I looked exactly the same under the bulk of five pies from fifteen years earlier, yet only celery could help me lose weight. I took my clothes off to see if anything had really happened. Well, there were breasts now, but little else had changed, making me look like the transexual version of an archetypal comic book store guy. And magic had given me lots of glowing, blue raspberry lightning bolts over my body.

I was hideous and everyone in the world hated me, despite having a neutralish moral system. Life was not fair and this game sucked. So I decided to do something I've never done, not even in Oblivion: I was going to go on a rampage.

I set out for Oakfield village. I danced and posed and farted and whistled until I got 25 people around me. Then, I turned the safety off on my character. I cast the inferno spell up to 5 levels and let it loose. Let's see Grand Theft Auto beat that! 2/3 of a village, over two dozen people, dead in one move. Also, I think I killed the parents of some children. The children, of course, survived. The guards were pitifully weak; one child walked the entire village road with his hands over his head, limping, not crying, but in shock.

There were literally only five characters I'd met in the game, and they were long gone, not even in the world. The story was over. I could still do most of or all of the quests, I could still get all my virtue back and weight lost and the wife I'd married and the child I'd had I'd spent little time with. I'd been married for 45 minutes before beating the main storyline--had I taken my sweet time, perhaps I'd have felt more regret or anguish over the choice, but the dog wasn't convincing. No one had a hold on me. The world was the only thing that did, and my actions seemed to have little impact over it.

I became violent to feel a little more something from the simple, controllable people, but I felt I had to beat it out of them. Still, few consequences. Horns and a new achievement: Paragon. The Paragon achievement says "Reach 100% good or evil, or see another Hero do so."

Now that's an interesting idea. I don't usually pay attention to achievements; most of these achievements have that "or see another Hero do so" at the end. Why is it so important that everything be seen instead of done?

Well, I said it has few characters, but it did have some. What did they have to say?

Lucien, the villain, said we should make the world what it ought to be. Hammer said people are more products of the home they are raised in; she also bemoans that issue versus her own choices. The other two characters had some outlooks on the world of their own.

In fact, they mostly just keep saying what they are going to do with their lives and why; they represent the three choices Theresa gives you. This whole time, your character has a stupid grin on his or her (or both, in my case) face. He listens to the world speak. Character or no, every single person in the game except Theresa talks out loud, to herself. And all Theresa really says is that you must choose.

And you? Once you take leave of speaking or interacting with Albion's inhabitants, you are left with your own thoughts about the topics of death, marriage, parenting, personal health and hygiene, popularity, economics, religion, violence, sexuality, animals, drugs, gambling, housing, morality, and what your choices mean in the world.

What do you think? What choices do you want to make? Which have you already essentially made? What issues does every person in every culture and every age have to deal with? A new Fable emerges in your own mind, one of your own writing.

Looks like Fable II is making up its mind after all. Maybe it will again on the 24th. That's nothing unlike the digital and real people playing and living in it. Anyone who plays Fable II will likely forget the characters, but not what he did, and maybe not what he learned about himself, either.

Analysis: The Quandary Of 2D Vs. 3D

[In a fascinating analysis piece, originally printed in Game Developer magazine earlier this year, EA Maxis designer and programmer Soren Johnson (Spore, Civilization IV) talks about a genuine choice game developers have in picking 2D vs. 3D for their games, arguing that 2D games are "an underrated style that is often unfairly ignored as an old technology."]

The industry's first video games -- Pong, Asteroids, Space Invaders -- were all 2D by necessity. A few early games experimented with basic 3D, such as Battlezone's vector-based tank simulator, but these games were simply interesting footnotes, not the mainstream.

Everything changed in 1992 with id Software's Wolfenstein 3D, which popularized 3D as the leading edge of game development. Since then, almost no corner of the industry has been left untouched by the transition from 2D to 3D graphics. Almost every franchise, from Mario to Zelda to even Pac-Man himself, has tried out 3D technology.

Now that this transition is essentially complete, it may finally be a good time to ask ourselves what we have learned in the process. What are the advantages of 3D? What are its challenges? For what is 2D still best?

Perhaps game developers can now at last choose the best graphics environment on a game-by-game basis instead of making the move to 3D just from competitive pressure.

Troubles with Cameras

3D games and cameras have a long, troubled history. While first-person games are essentially a solved problem for 3D, most other genres are still adapting to the new technology. Teaching the player how to use a camera while also teaching the game's core experience can be a tough challenge.

One distinct advantage 2D games have is that the easiest camera to teach is one which doesn't exist. In fact, 3D games have been trending away from giving the player extensive camera controls.

Super Mario 64 is credited with being the first successful 3D platformer, but it required the player to make extensive use of the camera controls to keep Mario visible and heading in the right direction.

Platformers attempted more intelligent camera systems over the years, trying to dynamically determine the best perspective at any given time. Such solutions, however, are bound to fail at some point, such as when the character gets stuck behind a corner or under a ledge.

To solve this sticky problem, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time introduced two alternative static camera perspectives that the player could access at any time. God of War took this approach a step further and enforced a single fixed camera for each of the game's scenes, approaching the level design almost like a film cinematographer.

Super Mario Galaxy has a dynamic camera without any controls whatsoever, although it adopts a nearly top-down view to enable the player to always see the surrounding area. Other avatar-based games, such as World of Warcraft, prevent the player from tweaking the camera while moving, ensuring that the player can never end up running directly into the camera.

Strategy games have also gone through a progression of camera systems, similarly trending towards taking camera controls away from the player, or at least hiding them from the novice. Star Wars: Force Commander, one of the first 3D RTS games, had an infamously difficult free camera, which made finding the right angle to view your troops a constant chore.

Warcraft 3 may be considered the first RTS to get 3D right. The designers achieved this feat by greatly restricting the camera's freedom -- the zoom range was minuscule, the pitch angle came directly from zoom, and the only camera rotation was attached to an obscure hot-key.

Lead Designer Rob Pardo describes the process behind these restrictions:

"With 3D, we decided to bring the camera down quite a bit and try out some things. The problem was with the camera pulled all the way down, it became a pseudo-third-person experience.

It was disorienting when you went around the map, and it was difficult to select units in battle because your camera frustum was pointed in one direction so you didn't have a good view of the battlefield.

It was a challenge because we still wanted a fun strategy game. Eventually we pulled the camera into a more traditional isometric view, and that's when we really started making progress."


But Which 2D?

Not all 2D games are the same. Two major styles have developed: “classic” 2D, which is a straight top-down (chess/checkers) or side-on (Sonic games) view, or isometric 2D, which tries to fake 3D with an isometric projection at a pre-set angle. Before making the full jump to 3D, many genres made a move from classic 2D to isometric 2D as an intermediary step.

For example, the original Civilization had a traditional top-down grid view while Civ 2 had a three-quarters isometric view. While this new perspective gave the game world a more life-like appearance, the change did come at a cost to the user's game experience. Namely, distances are much more difficult to judge on an isometric grid as the east-west axis takes up twice as many pixels as the north-south axis.

To solve this problem, for Civ 4, our 3D perspective actually hearkened back to the original game as we showed the game's grid straight ahead and not at an angle. The easier the players perceive the grid through the graphics, the better they can “see” their possible decisions.

It is significant that Advance Wars: Days of Ruin (DS), the latest version in this long-running series, has maintained the traditional chess-board view, keeping the player focused squarely on the core gameplay. The “chunky” unit art familiar to the series is a great example of an artistic style which flows from the limitations of the game's presentation.

In contrast, a game heavily influenced by the Advance Wars series -- Age of Empires: The Age of Kings (DS) -- chose to move the same game mechanics into an isometric 2D world. The transition was not altogether successful.

Not only was the immediacy of the grid harder to follow, but because units extended beyond the edges of their tiles, selecting units and locations became a significant problem when groups of units overlapped one another. Thus, tile-based games tend to be more successful when a top-down view is adopted.

Graphics are not Gameplay

3D graphics are not the same things as 3D gameplay. For example, two sci-fi RTS games -- Homeworld and Sins of a Solar Empire -- use very similar 3D engines to recreate the vast scale and special effects of deep space combat.

However, they do not share core gameplay, as Homeworld is a "true" 3D game, meaning that ships could be moved freely along the z-axis, while Sins actually has 2D gameplay, as the game is played on a single, flat plane, meaning that ships cannot fly above or below each other.

In fact, the game could have been implemented with a 2D engine; using 3D was a secondary choice to enable smooth zooming and to evoke the "feel" of outer space. The team's decision to adopt 2D gameplay saved Sins from the interface complications of Homeworld, which required two or three separate clicks to give units a destination in all three dimensions.

Many other example of hybrids exist, where games use 3D graphics to render essentially flat 2D gameplay. Super Smash Bros. Brawl, for example, is fought on a single, vertical plane that uses the 3D engine for the all-important animations and fluid background environments.

Cliff Bleszinski has described the gameplay of Gears of War as a horizontal version of the classic 2D platform Bionic Commando. Instead of using the grappling hook to ascend from platform to platform, Gears players "jump" from cover point to cover point along a horizontal plane.

Essentially, most games can be divided into three play mechanic categories which are related to but semi-independent from the graphics:

  1. Tile-Based Games (Tetris, Puzzle Quest, Civilization, Oasis, NetHack)
  2. Single-Plane Games (Starcraft, Madden, Geometry Wars, Super Mario Bros.)
  3. Real-World Games (Portal, Super Mario Galaxy, Burnout, Boom Blox)

Good rules-of-thumb exist for each of these categories.

Real-world games essentially require 3D graphics. Of course, the term "real" is not meant to be taken literally. The gun from Portal is not real, but the user enjoys playing with it because of the expectation that its unique behavior exists in harmony with the physics and gravity of our own world.

The easiest way to guarantee that the player bring along assumptions from the real world is to immerse them in a 3D environment that looks, behaves, and feels real. These environments are the equivalent of what-you-see-is-what-you-get for games.

On the other hand, tile-based games usually work best as top-down 2D games, with little separating the player from the core game mechanics. For single-plane games, the choice comes down to largely one of aesthetics and technology.

Can the game's platform support 3D graphics smoothly? Does 3D provide an advantage, from either shared animations or dynamic effects or general flexibility, that makes the technology worthwhile?

All in all, 2D is an underrated style that is often unfairly ignored as an old technology. Developers should not underestimate the advantages of avoiding the technical overhead of maintaining a bulky 3D engine and asset pipeline.

Furthermore, well-made 2D graphics never really go obsolete. Sulka Haro, lead designer of Habbo Hotel, likes to point out that their retro 2D style looks just as good today as when the game launched eight years ago. If they had used 3D, Habbo would probably be on its second or third engine by now.

Once a 2D engine is up and running, the artists can focus on simply improving the game's look piece by piece. If 2D helps clarify and communicate the underlying game mechanic, then all the better.

[You can find out more about Game Developer magazine, including how to subscribe to physical and digital versions and its digital sample issue, at its official homepage.]

In-Depth: The Future Of iPhone Games?

[It's interesting - I got into a 'heated discussion' with a certain blogger a few months ago about whether the iPhone would be successful for games - which it is, financially and even creatively, from an early adopter point of view. But with masses of games and elastic price-setting, can bigger companies do well? Certainly, the below folks, part of a showcase big sister site Gamasutra's Christian Nutt was invited to a couple of days ago, seem to think so.]

With the success of the iPhone (and the iPod Touch, which can also access the App Store), there has been a huge influx of games to the platform, which is currently the best-selling U.S. consumer mobile phone.

At a recent San Francisco briefing, Apple's senior director of marketing for iPhone, Bob Borchers, showcased a range of upcoming iPhone game titles, and laid out his company's vision of why the uptake has been so swift.

Though most people think of the iPhone as the single target platform, the iPod Touch also works with the vast majority of applications. Borcher noted: "If you're a hardware developer you've got two great platforms to develop for." On top of that, Apple has "worked very hard to develop [the SDK] in a very comprehensive way."

While Sega's Super Monkey Ball, one of the launch games for the App Store and a 500,000 unit seller, was an early indicator of what the platform is capable of -- Borcher described it as "a posterchild of what's possible" -- he believes that "things have gone so much further than that."

Of course, this is true in terms of choice as well, perhaps making it more difficult to sell that many in today's iPhone game market. There are over 8,000 applications available on the store in 20 different categories; according to Borcher, over 200 million applications were downloaded in the first 100 days of availability, from July 10, 2008.

Big Players, Big Games

To reinforce the strength of the platform, Borcher invited a handful of Apple-selected app developers to present their games and software, starting with Electronic Arts.

Patrick Gunn, director of marketing for EA Mobile, showcased Need for Speed Undercover, which will be available next month. Gunn says that EA has "taken full advantage of all of the unique elements... like touch, flick, accelerometer, and motion sensitivity" -- and graphically, the game appears to be roughly on par with a PSP title.

More revealingly, Gunn says, "The partnership that we are building with Apple in delivering these great apps and helping sell more hardware is equally as exciting" as selling games on iPhone to consumers.

He added: "From our perspective of being in the mobile industry for a long time, the UI that Apple has delivered is so easy and so compelling that it makes shopping for apps so compelling, that it has us excited."

Gameloft also showed a 3D driving game, Ferrari GT Evolution, which will also be available in December. PR manager Carmen Pearson gave out some interesting stats -- the publisher, part of Ubisoft, has over 18 titles on the app store currently, and notes that "Apple is actually Gameloft's top customer right now."

Neil Young, who recently founded iPhone-oriented startup ngmoco, commented, "We specifically created our company to focus on the iPhone and iPod Touch. We have 14 games in development right now."

Five ngmoco titles will be released between now and the Holiday season, though the company chose specifically to showcase Rolando, its platform/puzzle hybrid that calls to mind Sony's LocoRoco.

Time was also given to demonstrations from marketing firm AKQA, which is handling retail apps for Target and Gap, social networking tool Loopt, and Handmark, which is launching a version of the Zagat restaurant guide for iPhone. Handmark's Cassidy Lackey also commented that while its GTS World Racing game is available for a variety of smartphones, "our iPhone version generates 98% of our revenue."

In-Depth: Talking Rolando

After the presentation concluded, Gamasutra had a chance to speak to the presenters about their game titles and get some time to try out the applications.

Simon Oliver, founder of Hand Circus, the London-based developer of Rolando, explained that though he had never developed a game before, he has worked in new media and Flash development and had been toying with the idea of making games for some time.

He had also considered the XNA Community Games service as an outlet for his aspirations before settling on the "uncharted territory" of the iPhone.

When Super Monkey Ball and Spore Origins were first revealed, Oliver concluded that "it was very much an indication that [the platform] was viable" for games, and at that point he began to move forward with prototyping Rolando.

According to him, the title drew its initial inspiration from early-'80s British kids show Terrahawks, which features a group of rolling robots, as well as PC and console classic Lemmings. Oliver believes that games which are "heavily evolved" to make use of the iPhone's unique control properties "will fit that platform best."

His initial challenge was getting the Lemmings-esque gameplay to work, combined with the rolling characters he'd envisioned when inspired by Terrahawks.

Though Rolando started with a puzzle-oriented point and click design, like Lemmings, "it evolved into something more platformery. We had to throw away a lot of stuff," while prototyping, Oliver admits, "but it's led to a lot of fun things. It's been very iterative."

Development on the game began in June this year, and became a collaboration with Finnish illustrator Mikko Walamies, whose pop-art design (he's a T-shirt designer by trade) has lent the game its colorful LocoRoco-like look.

While Oliver originally intended to release the game independently, he hooked up with ngmoco after he released his first trailer. He notes that ngmoco's staff "has been a great creative sounding board" thanks to their experience in the industry, and has also facilitated music licensing -- the game features tunes by DJ and musician Mr. Scruff.

The Established Names of Gaming

EA Mobile's Patrick Gunn notes that the company's overall console expertise "certainly helps" in developing games for the iPhone, noting that the company intends to "bring as much advanced gaming to this platform as it can handle."

While noting that dealing with carriers on other mobile platforms is difficult, the ability to directly market to consumers on the iPhone is extremely attractive to EA. Despite the large selection, Gunn says, "We've had no trouble staying in the top 100 apps."

Sanette Chao, director of PR for Gameloft, feels that the iPhone opens up more opportunity for the carrier, noting, as her colleague Carmen Pearson did during their presentation ,that the company has been very aggressive in releasing games for the platform.

Though the company has not done much research into the audience spread yet, "we see it very competitive to DS and PSP", according to Chao. She also notes that while typical DS games clock in at 20 or 30MB (but can go as high as 256MB), iPhone apps top out at 100MB, allowing much more room than Nintendo's platform for the average game.

What makes the system a competitor -- its graphics abilities or its unique controls? "A little bit of both," Chao suggests, noting that she believes currently released games from Gameloft only tap into "10% of the capabilities" of the platform, and explaining that the company's second generation of titles will begin to launch in January.

Casual titles have been "really successful on iPod" for Gameloft, but Chao sees the iPhone as attracting more than just a casual audience -- the company seeks a "good balance" of titles while "targeting also the hardcore gamers."

[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. Oh, and we crossposted it onto FingerGaming too, because that's our site all about iPhone games!]



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

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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