« November 23, 2008 - November 29, 2008 | Main | December 7, 2008 - December 13, 2008 »

December 6, 2008

The Game Anthropologist: Left 4 Dead: "Let's Do This!"

['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column looking at gaming communities and subcultures. This week he argues that Left 4 Dead represents bigger changes for co-op gaming than, say, Gears of War 2.]

Co-op gaming is older than most gamers; while examination of co-op gaming has always existed (Co-Optimus.com, for instance, is an entire site dedicated to co-op gaming), many recent releases have prompted players everywhere to think about the state of co-op and its capabilities.

In fact, one might argue that Epic's Gears of War 2 is the culmination of what co-op gaming always was, while Valve's Left 4 Dead and its unique game mechanics are truly a step toward the future.

Gears of War 2 followed a formula, and did it very well. It is a shooter complete with content, a campaign, and various multiplayer modes. One of these modes, horde mode, brings the players together in co-operation, a first for a title like Gears of War.

In Gears of War 2, co-op is doing what it has always done: adding even more value and longetivity to the game, creating incentive not only for consumers to buy the game, but to keep it; also, the more players that keep the game, the fewer that have the option to buy used. From the side of production, there was always the incentive to provide co-op modes so that more people would purchase the game.

Turtle Rock and Valve, on the other hand, saw that co-op could have other uses; instead of making co-op an added feature, why not make significantly different design decisions based on co-op principles?

They are not necessarily the first to do this (Army of Two attempted to do the same thing), but they are the first to design a full-priced game around co-op while achieving impressive sales and, at the same time, omitting traditional content!

Most co-op to this point has simply been meeting the need for players to play together while not playing competitively. The players could thus experience the content together. Left 4 Dead does not have traditional content or competition (if Valve achievements are any measure), yet sold well and is still highly-played. Why?

It could almost be called an MMO in a box; you are out in the hostile world, monsters anywhere, and you don't know who you will have to engage these monsters with. Left 4 Dead can only be conquered if the players have the level of cooperation that a dungeon full of huge ogres and dragons requires.

And this time, it's zombies and shotguns with FPS mechanics instead, and with no subscription fee and leveling. Many of the trappings still apply, though.

As for content—well, there's that movie; the writings on the walls at the beginning of each level are interesting to read. But still, there's no ending, or cutscenes, or anything.

There is a game world here, but those who have cried desparately for appropriate "interactivity" have gotten it—each time you run through this game, the experience is highly different. And it's not just the A.I. director placing every zombie randomly, either.

Because in Left 4 Dead, you will often need to play with random players, which is what would likely happen if a terrible disaster like a zombie infection were to occur. They may or may not cooperate, they may wish to lead or to follow, they may wish to go first or last, they may be gung-ho or they may be too cowardly.

Even technology that creates "narrative dissonance" keeps the immersion complete; the question of whether or not the player has a mic or not is just as important as whether he will heal you with his sole first aid kit -- or whether he has the ability to use a pistol to pick off the hunter that has pounced you and is rending your flesh, far away from any other team mate.

Friends or strangers, every single time you play you are re-experiencing a disaster and the teamwork (or lack thereof) that it requires.

It seems that for some, Gears of War 2 is replacing Halo 3 as the new golf. Maybe it should be Left 4 Dead instead, since you learn about the other players much more quickly. Each time it's a new tale, pleasant or not.

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of Dec. 5th

In this round-up, Gamasutra highlights some of the notable jobs posted in its industry-leading game jobs section, including positions from RedOctane, Backbone Entertainment, Sparkplay Media, Airtight Games, 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

RedOctane: Product Manager
"The Product Manager will be primarily responsible for developing the product requirements, roadmap, positioning and competitive analysis for direct-to-consumer controllers and accessories. In order to do this effectively the Product Manager will need to understand the needs of the customer as well as be knowledgeable with any relevant competitive offerings. The Product Manager will work closely with the various engineering teams, local and in the Far-East, to develop these products."

Backbone Entertainment: Senior Graphics Engineer
"Backbone Entertainment, a division of Foundation 9 Entertainment, is located in the San Francisco Bay Area. We develop original games and remakes of classic games franchises for PS3, X360, Wii, PSP and DS. If you’re a gamer with a taste for the quirky and different, our Backbone studios are a great place for you!"

Ignition Entertainment: Producer
"Ignition is a young, energetic team composed of talented artists and engineers. We're currently working on a revolutionary action game with Unreal Engine 3 technology and we are looking for gifted individuals to join our team."

Airtight Games: Technical Lead/Lead Programmer
"Airtight Games is a group of industry veterans formed around the core of the team that did Crimson Skies. We have just launched a new intellectual property with top tier publishing partner Capcom called Dark Void. This is a chance to get on board a unique project with a quality focused development and publishing team."

WorldsInMotion - Online Game Jobs

Sparkplay Media: Software Engineer
"Sparkplay Media is a small but well-funded start-up developing an MMO with a unique twist. We're a team of MMO veterans working outside the publisher system, backed by the same investors that funded companies like Tivo and Netflix. Why should you care? Because this gives us the freedom of complete creative control and control over our future. If you're interested in being part of a fun, independent team with stock options and plenty of upside, get in touch with us."

GamesOnDeck - Mobile Game Jobs

Mind Gamz: iPhone Game Developer
"Mind Gamz is an independent game development company specializing in fun, innovative, and challenging “mind” games for hand-held devices. We are looking for a talented game developer to work on a game demo for release on the App store. This is a 6-8 week contract job."

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.

Opinion: How Mega Man 9 Resembles... Real Life?

[In this personal piece, EA designer Brice Morrison examines Mega Man 9's anachronistic design to see how it provides an exhilarating experience uncommon with today's games, and how its pacing of positive feedback can be applied to the difficulty curves of real life.]

Though it’s been out for a few months, I only recently downloaded Capcom’s Mega Man 9, an anomaly among other recent game releases. It is the latest offering in the classic Mega Man series, whose heyday was in the late 80s and early 90s.

But while other sequels of cherished franchises do everything in their power to take advantage of the newest technology available, going places that the old games weren't capable of going to, Mega Man 9 does the opposite.

Instead of targeting a new generation of players, Capcom sought now adult players of the old games by painstakingly emulating every graphical restriction, sound channel limit, and level design choice as it would have occurred on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and the result is an entirely new game that appears as though it belongs in the 1980s.

The magic of the title, therefore, is not what is new and fresh, but rather a walk down memory lane for those of us who struggled alongside Mega Man during a more innocent time in our lives.

Fans of the Mega Man series, including myself, have felt bright smiles appear on our faces as the game transports us back to our childhood. Capcom did everything it could to make sure that the game was a faithful sequel, so that if you could go back in time and release it amidst the other Mega Man games, no one would notice anything strange.

But there is something fascinating about a game company releasing a title made for a different time; it provides a snapshot of how games as a form of entertainment have changed through the last 20 years.

Obviously, changes in graphics and sound technology have come about, and these are readily identifiable. Latent changes and trends in our industry, however, lie revealed in the design choices of the game.

Mega Man 9 is a kind of time capsule, a blast from the past, and in playing it, you can’t help but feel that even beyond the large pixels, bleeps, and bloops, the game layout and design itself result in a gameplay experience that is almost extinct.

Unreasonably Difficult And The Risk Of Time

When picking up Mega Man 9, most players notice something almost immediately -- the game is unreasonably difficult.

The feeling that many players and reviewers have expressed, that the game is too hard, comes from the lens of our current industry. As interactive entertainment grew and expanded, our industry has become a place where games are targeted at the mass market, tuned for a perfect challenge ramp, and sculpted to provide the most entertaining experience possible.

Mega Man 9 refrains from this philosophy; the game is notoriously unforgiving. Each stage consists of only two save points, a mid point and right before the boss. Thus, if you happen to die when you are 49 percent of the way through the stage, which is a 10 minute experience at minimum, then you are yanked all the way back to the beginning of the level.

This is unheard of among games nowadays. No developer with sales in mind would punish Mega Man so ruthlessly, as players would simply decide the game wasn’t worth their time, turn off the system, and go on with their lives.

To entice the players of today -- who are short on time and have even shorter attention spans -- positive feedback and progress must be much more frequently communicated than once every few hours.

Recently, after successfully jumping and shooting my way through one of the stages over the course of a full 60 minutes, I arrived at the boss, the final enemy. On my way to his room, I managed to lose all of my extra lives, and so as I fought him, I knew that it was all on the line.

For about 30 seconds or so, the fight raged on; I was doing my best to recognize his pattern and avoid his attacks while sneaking in a few shots of my own. It seemed like a normal gaming experience until I noticed something odd -- my heart was pounding almost right out of my chest. My hands were shaking, my palms were sweaty, and I had even stifled my breath.

Why was this happening? Why was I, an adult far removed from my childhood world, so nervous and invested in this game? The reason was that if I was unsuccessful in the battle, if this robot master defeated Mega Man, then I was going to have to replay the entire stage all over again.

An entire hour of play, try after try after try, would be flushed down the drain. Unless I came away with a victory, I might as well have not played the game at all, it seemed. But if I did win, then I was victorious! All of my work would be rewarded, and I would not have to replay the stage. It would be done, completed, defeated by Mega Man.

With such high stakes, the battle was as epic as ever. Even though I was only watching tiny pixels dance around on my television, I was as emotional as when my high school tennis team was playing in the district finals.

Within another 30 seconds, I fired a final shot, and the boss was defeated. I let out a yell as a wave of triumph washed over me, and I slumped back into my futon, a silly grin plastered on my face.

What struck me was that this was a collection of sensations that I hadn’t felt since I was a child, a realization which made me think how much games have changed. By being bold enough to make a game of such intensity, the developers of Mega Man 9 tapped into an emotional reservoir that allowed for such memorable gameplay.

Since a loss in the game held the real life consequence of requiring me to play through the stage again, our goals became one. Mega Man’s potential death carried with it not just a fictional weight, but a real cost to my personal life, and thus a victory carried with it a true emotional reward. It was a temporary marriage of the world of Mega Man and reality.

However, this level of challenge comes with a price. Because the learning curve is so steep, those who aren’t willing to risk the time, perhaps the many who don’t have a childhood attachment to Mega Man, miss out on the experience.

By choosing to make the game so difficult, the developers rewarded a few but alienated many. This is the reason that Mega Man 9 stands in such stark contrast to the games of today.

Emotional investment or not, what matters to a for-profit game company is the number of SKUs a title has sold, and most players simply will not survive without more frequent sips of positive feedback and some signs marked “well done”.

A Lesson In Persistence

Mega Man 9’s difficulty and subsequent capability for emotional investment brings with it another broader life lesson. At the time of this article’s writing, I’ve beaten about six of the eight robot masters, over the course of a month.

In half-hour increments, I suspect I’ve invested about six or seven hours into the game. But today, when I went to go load my game, I glanced at the “playtime elapsed” statistic, and was puzzled. Instead of six or seven hours, the clock read only 55 minutes, just under an hour.

At first, I was perplexed by this, since I had surely played the game much more than that. But I quickly understood what was going on. This playtime statistic didn’t represent all of the times I’d played the game, it only represented the time accumulated after I saved the game. And unless I had completed a stage, there was no reason to save the game.

All of those hours I had spent playing a stage three quarters of the way through before quitting were not recorded. As far as the game was concerned, I had made no progress.

Since the game is incredibly hard, you may play the game for hours before you receive the positive feedback of completing a stage. So what’s happening during all of those hours?

If the game thought it only took me an hour to run through six stages, what was going on during the other five hours I had spent getting 90 percent of the way through each stage before colliding with a spike? Were they simply a waste of time? If I played through to a robot master and was defeated, was my struggle for naught?

The answer to this question depends on the outlook of the player and how they choose to assess the “Game Over” screen. Stanford Professor Carol Dweck researched the mindsets of children and adults alike for decades, and her studies resulted in a dichotomy of two distinct worldviews.

The first and more common is the Fixed Mentality, the belief that one’s skills and lot in life are constant and unchanging. People who subscribe to this mentality are more likely to give up in the face of adversity (or in the case of Mega Man, the inability to complete a stage). They see their efforts that end in Mega Man’s death as fruitless, and become frustrated by the game.

The second mindset is Growth Mentality, which is when a person believes that their skills are constantly improving as a result of their actions. When they see a challenge, they persist, because they believe that through effort, they will eventually master it. When they are presented with the “Game Over” screen, they don’t see a waste of time, instead they reflect on the learning experience that their previous playthrough has given them.

“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want,” goes the old adage. In Mega Man 9, the player obviously wants to clear the stage. However, if the player goes through the stage and then dies right before completing it, the Growth Mindset dictates that they have not truly wasted their time. They learned a great deal on their journey, and this knowledge will serve them better next time.

They learned that it takes three shots to defeat the springy robots. They learned that there are spikes coming up at the next screen, and they better move left if they want to survive. They learned that it’s best to run full speed through the deluge of bullets instead of trying to tiptoe.

All of this information, gained through painful trial and error, is valuable. While some players may view death as a failure, others will watch Mega Man explode into a million bits and say, “Well, that’s okay. I know not to do that next time.”

Thus, almost every time the player dies, they are actually making progress. Their reflexes are getting faster, they’re learning and memorizing the stage, and they’re finding the best route through it.

Player-Driven vs. Game-Driven Feedback

The difference between Mega Man 9 and other games today is the pacing of the positive feedback that the game imparts on the player, and this pacing decision affects where the feedback originates from. If you listen to the death sound effect that plays every time Mega Man runs out of health, the game is communicating that the player failed.

And indeed, according to the bits and bytes stored on the hard drive, the player made no progress. Other present day games would not dare be so ruthless. They would encourage the player, either by stamping that they played the game that day at all (as in Brain Age), charting their progress against themselves instead of the game (Wii Sports), or allowing them to save more often, breaking their triumphs into smaller increments (the Half Life series).

But interestingly, the difficulty of Mega Man 9 demands that the player keep track of their progress themselves.

In order for a player to be successful at any challenge that gives little positive feedback, one of two items is required. The first is readily available to many children but not many adults -- the luxury of time.

When players enjoyed the old Mega Man games, the fact that they were so difficult was not a problem, because we could wake up, play the game until school, come home from school, and play until bedtime. Day in and day out, we knew the game would be beaten eventually.

However, when an abundance of time is not available, then another attribute must be present for a person to be successful and enjoy the journey -- player driven feedback, which is born out of a player’s Growth Mindset.

People of all ages become frustrated when they sense they are making no progress. But if they believe that progress is being made internally, that they are learning from their failures, then they encourage themselves to continue pressing on.

After playing the game, I came to develop this outlook towards it, and it made the game very enjoyable to me, even though I am not one who enjoys difficult games in my adult life. I would often go over to other friends’ homes and notice that they also downloaded Mega Man 9, which I would pick up and play.

It didn’t matter that my save file wasn’t on their console, because the experience I was gaining wasn’t stored on their hard disk, it was stored within me. As I learned to navigate Galaxy Man’s stage on my friend’s Xbox, I didn’t view it as a loss that I couldn’t save my progress, because the next time I picked up the game on my Wii, that experience would show through, as I would go even further than before.

When I played through Splash Woman’s stage before going to sleep, only to die right at the end and be presented with a “Game Over” screen, I wasn’t discouraged, because I knew that the next time I played her stage I would likely win. By believing that I was making progress within myself, despite the absence of positive feedback from the game, my eventual victory was assured.

The Difficulty Curve Of Life

The difficulty curves in real life are more similar to Mega Man 9 than today’s games, and to be successful, they also require internal positive feedback. In reality, achievement is not recognized until a massive performance has been completed.

Students don’t receive points for memorizing a single vocabulary word; they only receive a grade that assesses their familiarity with a collection of 100 words. Tennis players don’t hear a pleasant “Nice shot!” after they hit a good forehand at tennis practice, they only are congratulated after winning an entire match. Employees don’t receive a smiley face sticker every time they contribute to their project; they only receive a single pat on the back from their yearly performance evaluations.

In the same way, players of Mega Man 9 aren’t rewarded along the way, but only after completing an entire stage, the result of hours of struggle. To reach that accomplishment, the positive feedback must be generated by the player, not the environment.

Of course, being successful in Mega Man 9 does not necessarily translate to success in life. But the lessons from the game design of years past sing the same tune. The lack of well tuned positive feedback in a game environment evokes a different play experience with different requirements for success.

Learning to create positive feedback and encouragement from yourself, and deciding to view every failure as a learning opportunity applies to both Magma Man’s fortress as well as one’s real life career.

It may take me until New Years, but I’m coming for you, Wily!

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

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

Best Of Indie Games: Melancholic Naked Assassin Musings

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

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

The delights in this edition include a new game from prolific Japanese developer Ikiki, a couple of entries from TIGSource's recent Commonplace Book competition, a tower defense-type strategy game, a game about drug addiction and abuse, an interactive fiction work which finished a respectable third in the recent IFComp contest, and more.

Game Pick: 'Teppomanto' (Ikiki, freeware)
"A 2D action game from the developer of Nikujin and Teppoman, where players assume control over another naked assassin on a mission to infiltrate the enemy base and take out all adversaries within."

Game Pick: 'Lost in Eldritch' (Joachim Despland-Lichtert, freeware)
"A short 2D platformer created by Joachim for TIGSource's Commonplace Book competition, featuring a protagonist who is stranded on an unfamiliar landscape with no memory of events leading up to his current predicament."

Game Pick: 'From Primordial Egg' (Logan Ames, freeware)
"A Commonplace Book competition entry created by Logan Ames, developer of the exploration platformer Nothing. Starting out as a baby dinosaur inside an egg, players would have to break out of the shell, venture forth into the labyrinth, search for food, and terrorize a couple of archaeologists during the course of their adventure."

Game Pick: 'Verge' (Kyle Pulver, freeware)
"In Verge, players assume control over an unnamed protagonist who has to traverse between two worlds in order to solve rudimentary block puzzles and reach the exit in each stage. This 2D platformer features music written by Alec Holowka of Aquaria fame."

Game Pick: 'Everybody Dies' (Jim Munroe, browser)
"An interactive fiction work written by Jim Munroe, with Michael Cho contributing illustrations for the game. The story is centered around three employees who happens to work in the same Cost Cutters grocery store building. Playable on any internet browser with Java Machine installed."

Game Pick: 'Lovecraft Game' (cactus, freeware)
"cactus' Lovecraft game is a mouse-controlled action shooter created for TIGSource's Commonplace Book competition, where a number ideas from the author's journal form the inspiration for events, objects and situations to encounter in this journey into the macabre."

Game Pick: 'Freefall' (David Slagle and Warren Post, freeware)
"A short game which puts you in control of a man who has made the decision to end his life by jumping off a bridge. An Xbox 360 controller is required to play this one, as keyboard and mouse controls are not supported."

Game Pick: 'Akrasia' (AHA! Studios, freeware)
"An experimental game which features multiple endings, where players can arrive at a different conclusion based on the number of pills they collect and the state they are in when exiting a maze."

Game Pick: 'Cosmic Invaders' (X-G, freeware)
"An interesting take on the classic Space Invaders gameplay, where ships have been replaced by defensive structures in which players must purchase and place on the ground to protect themselves from the advancing alien invasion."

December 5, 2008

Missus Raroo Says: "Quickie Gaming: Small Commitment Equals Big Fun"

Missus Raroo Says logo[Missus Raroo once again takes the helm in the Game Time column, bringing her unique and personal perspective to the topic of commitment. With our lives seemingly getting busier all the time, it’s tough to commit to just about anything, especially gaming. Missus Raroo examines how in many ways her life has become a series of “quickie” commitments, and brings this discussion around toward ways in which games can successfully make use of the “quickie” mentality.]

My Life in Quickies

There are a few things in life that I wish would always last longer, things such as my almost-two-year old son’s naps and the time between my head hitting the pillow and my alarm clock going off. Notice that both of these examples involve sleep. I love sleep—I have since I was a little kid. Unlike my son, who seems to defy the sleep requirements for a toddler since he barely naps and can stay up as late as a teenager, I was the kid who could fall asleep standing up or while sitting in a high chair with my face in a cup.

So, barring sleep, I must say that I often prefer that things in life would be shorter. Take movies. I don’t have the patience for movies that last much more than about 90-minutes. In fact, since our son was born, Mister Raroo and I have given up on watching most movies altogether, opting instead to rent TV shows on DVD. While it can seem nearly impossible to squeeze a complete movie into our evening schedule, we can easily commit to fitting in a quick television episode.

Happy FamilyOf course, ironically, we have been known to become addicted to certain television series and end up watching multiple episodes in a single sitting. We’ll get to the credit music, hit “next” on our DVD remote, and anxiously hope that there’s still another episode on the disc. While this means the sum of our watching time sometimes ends up being way more than the time it would’ve taken to watch a movie, the initial commitment is something that is always much easier to make.

Being afraid of commitment is not something people would normally associate with me. I love being married and never went through the experience of having cold feet before our wedding. I never thought twice about ending up stuck in a job forever nor did I worry about how being a mother would be a life-long endeavor. These are major life commitments, but they are ones that are easy for me. The ones that I find hard are the day-to-day commitments that I face.

Documenting the Momentary

Enter journal writing. Mister Raroo has an impressive history of keeping a handwritten journal. He has journals dating as far back as second grade. He kept a regular journal throughout his high school and college years, recently allowing me to read them despite the amount of potentially embarrassing content that you can only imagine fill the days of a teenage and young adult male.

Mister Raroo’s journal writing began its latest iteration on April 18, 2003. Since that date, Mister Raroo has written in his journal every single day, even when he’s been sick, when we’ve been out of town, on our wedding night, and on the day our son was born. No matter how tired he feels, it is certain he will write in his journal tonight before he goes to sleep without fail.

Me? I’m another case. Mister Raroo’s journal writing inspired me to follow suit. I, however, had to overcome my fear of committing to a journal by purchasing a special 10-year journal that has a page for every day of the year. Each page is subdivided into ten rows so that this year I write in one space and a year from now, I will be on the same page, but one row down. The beauty of it is that this layout means that there are only four lines to write on for any given day.

Writing in Missus Raroo's JournalA journal filled with blank lines seemed like a big commitment to me, but four lines is something that I knew I could manage. Even then, I am very guilty of cheating. I will sometimes get as much as a week behind in my writing and will then have to backtrack. Mister Raroo is kind enough to lend me his journal for reference, because it’s amazing how difficult it can be to remember what happened just a day or two earlier. It can be downright scary how much I forget, which brings me to Twitter.

Just as journal writing has become a crucial record of our lives, Mister Raroo has again persuaded me to try “journaling” on the Web. I have some friends who keep blogs on Friendster and BlogSpot and reading their entries is a nice way for me to keep abreast of their lives even though they live far away. Committing to this type of site is something that I’ve never pursued for myself, though, since it seems too much like work to me. It’s like a journal with blank pages.

But then, just a week or two ago, Mister Raroo convinced me to give Twitter a shot. Its 140 character limit per entry makes it the web-equivalent of my four-line journal and I’m digging it. The thing is, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling overwhelmed by all of the time commitments we face. Perhaps other people are feeling as commitment-phobic as me and that’s why Twitter is so popular. Perhaps that is also why texting has become the preferred method of communication for the younger generation.

Texting While SleepingOur 16-year old niece and her friends have been texting through their teen years much more than talking on the phone or sending emails, which were my main modes of communication throughout high school and college. And, while I hardly text since it costs extra on my phone plan (and our niece gets a kick out of how truly inept I am at texting), I can see the beauty of it. It’s the quickie method of communication.

With texting, you don’t have to worry about filling in a conversation with small talk before you ask what you want to ask and you don't have to figure out how you will awkwardly end a conversation that’s going on too long. If you write an email, it can come off rude if you’re too brief, but with a text you only write a little because that’s what is required.

Of course, just as Mister Raroo and I have been guilty of having one short TV episode viewing turn into a full marathon night, we’ve seen how text messaging can also balloon into one of the longest short-term commitments. Our niece’s best friend has been known to send nearly a thousand texts in a single day and we are firsthand witnesses to her literally sending them in her sleep.

The Quickie In Gaming

And so I’ll finally come around to my point on gaming. Just as I have come to appreciate “quickie” communication, I have also become a big proponent for what I’m going to call “quickie” gaming. This wasn’t always the case for me. When Mister Raroo first introduced me to gaming, I had so much more spare time on my hands that one of my favorite games back then was Chrono Trigger—Mister Raroo even recorded a song years back with the main refrain, “Akemi Loves to Play Chrono Trigger.”

These days, however, I play games that require just a small commitment or I don’t play them at all. Below are several key features that I consider to be the main ingredients of a good quickie game:

No “story schmory”!

I enjoy when a game follows a good story arc, but I cannot afford to get bogged down with long in-game cinemas and drawn out dialogue. I will give up on a game that makes you commit to some lengthy introduction, because I want to be able to jump right into the gameplay. And, in cases when there is dialogue or cut scenes, they should be easy to skip or fast forward through.

A recent example of an offending game to this rule is Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King. Just as the title is way too long for its own good, the game’s introduction also dragged on to the point of exhaustion. Mister Raroo excitedly downloaded this game on the day it became available on the Wii Shopping Channel, but when he gave it a spin, I goaded him about how it was so slow to get into the actual playing.

I think I may have ruined the game for him with my criticism, because he gave up on it fairly quickly. But, he had to agree that at least the initial commitment that it took to get to the playable parts made it seem impractical for our lifestyle of limited playing time.

Sailors!Games should not require you to remember what to do or where to go next.

Just as I cannot remember what I did a day or two ago to catch up in my journal, there is no way that I can remember what to do in a game that depends on my memory. These days, my playing sessions may be interrupted by days, weeks, months, or sometimes years. If a game does not have some built in directions or clues, then I may have no choice but to either backtrack or else restart from the beginning, and in either case, I will usually just not bother picking it up again.

As much as I can sometimes hate story, I did love Shenmue back when I had more playing time. The game isn’t really a “quickie,” but it is an example of how a game can employ clues so that you don’t have to remember what do next. Ryo’s journal was a good enough guide that I never got stuck trying to remember what I was supposed to be doing next. Besides, the questions that he asked around town always made it a no-brainer as far as what I was supposed to working on. This was one of the few games I’ve ever finished to completion and I was able to do so without the assistance of any guide or FAQ.

Games should not require a regular time commitment.

While the requirement of a consistent time commitment is probably not the norm for games, I think I see my share of these types of games since Mister Raroo loves them. With life in general, Mister Raroo is a total creature of routine. He is the one in our household, for example, who keeps us on track with doing laundry once a week. If I were left to my own devices, I would let it pile up until I ran out of underwear. I do get things done, but in big spurts rather than in measured doses.

While Mister Raroo is not only good at, but also seems to enjoy games that require daily or regular play since he works them into his routine, I see these games as a chore. My towns in Animal Crossing always end up filled with weeds, I get lectured in Brain Training about my poor attendance, and my neglected Seaman languishes in a dirty tank. I have a hard enough time keeping up with day-to-day demands of my real life. There is no way I want to have the burden of virtual commitments.

As an added note, another category of gaming that can require regular time investments and is widely popular is online gaming. Luckily Mister Raroo is responsible in communicating his time limits when playing online and never prioritizes online buddies over real life commitments. I hear plenty of stories, though, of how online playing can become as consuming as a full-time job, with strict meet-up times and minimum playing lengths. Talk about a big commitment!

Gaming sessions should be as short as you want or need them to be.

This does not mean that games must be short in total. For example, some of the shortest games out there are “microgames” like with the Wario Ware series. Unfortunately, I’m pretty horrible at these quick paced games since they often rely upon speedy response time and my reflexes are pathetic.

Just Save Already!Moving up from microgames, there are minigames like those in the Mario Party series. While I’m a fan of playing Mario Party minigames in the context of a full game session, I don’t really find it fun to play them separately.

Therefore, when I’m talking about gaming sessions being short, I don’t mean the games must be literally short. Just as a "quickie" in the most common use of the term can occur within the context of a short term relationship or a long term relationship, quickie gaming does not refer to the length of the game in total.

Instead, I just mean that games should have the flexibility of allowing for short playing sessions. You should be able to save your game at any point or in the least very frequently. I can’t tell you how frustrated I’ve gotten when it’s been time to leave our home and here’s Mister Raroo frantically running through a foggy town, into the City Hall, and back to some scary room of Silent Hill: Homecoming just to find a save point.

Quickies For a Better Tomorrow

Quickie gaming is about the only way that I game these days. I’m able to use games as a quick pick-up activity with no stress attached. I can start playing without the fear of having to make some long-term commitment to the game, and when I’m interrupted, which always happens, I don’t have to feel any regret about ending my session wherever I may be.

My only warning is that sometimes the smallest initial commitment can turn into a marathon session. With Pac-Man Championship Edition, I’ve started a single 5-minute session only to get hooked on beating my top score and before I know it, a whole hour will have passed.

Come to think of it, that’s what sometimes happens in life in general. It seems just like yesterday that I first agreed to go catch a movie with Mister Raroo and now we have a whole life together. Sometimes the smallest starts really do give the biggest returns.

All illustrations by Mister Raroo.

[Missus Raroo doesn't consider herself to be a "real" gamer, but between listening to her husband excitedly talk about games on a regular basis and trying her hand at a select few titles herself, she knows a thing or two about video games. She served as co-editor-in-chief of the print version of Game Time With Mister Raroo and was called the "heart and soul" of the zine by faithful readers. Missus Raroo lives in El Cajon, CA with her husband, son, and pets. She can be reached at [email protected].]

Game Developer Research Calls For iPhone Developer Feedback

[Since the iPhone game market is getting increasingly neat -- heck, I just downloaded a bunch of titles last night, including the awesome soundtrack-toting Tap Tap Dance and the awesome Dr. Awesome -- Game Developer Research is surveying creators on how they're doing, with highlights to appear online.]

Gamasutra sister service Game Developer Research is inviting game creators to complete the first iPhone Developer Research survey, aimed at all game developers working on the iPhone/iPod Touch platform.

Highlights of this anonymous survey will be published in an upcoming issue of Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra.com, as well as in much more detailed form as a Game Developer Research report.

In appreciation of your time and effort, once you complete the survey, your name will optionally (and separately of your responses) be entered into a drawing to win an All Access Pass to Game Developers Conference 2009 in San Francisco.

The survey addresses a broad range of topics related to the unique, quickly-growing field of iPhone game development, including development budgets, company sizes, genres, gameplay features, and others. It is open to all developers who have released an iPhone game or are currently planning or producing one.

Interested participants can now click through to take part in the survey, with feedback being accepted until December 11th.

Inside Game Piracy, Part 2: The Countermeasures

[Yesterday, big sister site Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander spoke to the ESA and the PC Gaming Alliance about just how complex video game piracy really is, and how a combination of enforcement and education can form a solid foundation to fight it.

Completing our two-part special on piracy, we look at countermeasures against PC piracy, from Mass Effect to Titan Quest and beyond, with the PC Gaming Alliance's Christian Svensson explaining: "We don't make money by making your lives difficult."]

Developing standards to measure piracy's impact and then educating consumers seems like solid footing on which both the PC Gaming Alliance and the ESA can begin to address their respective constituencies. But then what?

Christian Svensson, senior director of strategic planning and research at Capcom and a PCGA member, says it best: "You can't talk about piracy without talking about countermeasures."

One such countermeasure is, of course, digital rights management utilities that work in various ways to copy-protect software, and some of these have been controversial -- in particular, SecuROM, which most recently drew fire for EA with Spore.

The ESA steers clear of opining on which DRM methods work best, or on judging various solutions, preferring instead to leave it at the publisher's jurisdiction.

"Generally, publishers undertake their own measures based on their own judgment about the effectiveness and the cost of various applications that can be used, and measures that can be used to prevent the piracy of their game products," says the ESA's Ric Hirsch, senior vice president of intellectual property enforcement.

But as for the PCGA, Svensson says that internal discussions have focused on some possible best practices for DRM -- although he stresses that there is "absolutely no policy" in place for such standards just yet. "I think that Stardock's Bill of Rights, for example, touches on DRM slightly," he says.

But even standardizing best practices is a complicated goal. "[Stardock CEO] Brad [Wardell]'s approach is very hands-off," says Svensson. "I think that if the PCGA as an organization is going to be all-embracing, if Stardock were to become a member and EA were to become a member, I think there are very obvious differences in their strategy as pertains to DRM. As a PC gaming organization, we probably need to be able to embrace both approaches, and still be able to make recommendations."

"I think it's fair to say that, along the continuum of what is the best experience for the consumer and what provides the highest level of protection for developers and publishers, there's a whole realm of grays in there. I don't think that anyone has the right answer today."

The New Solutions

Svensson says new, emerging technologies that make rights management increasingly transparent to end users -- and also increasingly secure - can help. "Everything, no matter how you slice it, it tends to be net-authenticated," he says. "I do believe that session-based online protection... like [Valve's] Steam, is probably the most secure and least onerous, in most cases."

Indeed, Valve has placed a particular emphasis on unintrusiveness with its Steam service; widespread media reports recently focused on an email Newell purportedly wrote to a fan, who published it on his LiveJournal, in which Newell said that most DRM offerings are "broken" and "just dumb."

"The goal should be to create greater value for customers through service value (make it easy for me to play my games whenever and wherever I want to), not by decreasing the value of a product (maybe I'll be able to play my game and maybe I won't)," Newell wrote, as he addressed a fan who wanted to "give as little money as possible to EA" -- a distribution partner to Valve -- in protest of its use of SecuROM DRM.

As for Svensson, he spoke to Gamasutra strictly on behalf of the PCGA, and not as a representative of Capcom's individual stance as a company -- "We have an exclusive agreement with SecuROM at Capcom, and we're very pleased with that level of protection," he says.

"But I think you're going to see a number of technologies emerging from various vendors that do allow for session-based access, that free up the issue of, 'am I renting this thing, or do I own this thing?'."

Speaking of newer technology, "Mass Effect probably had the best DRM implementation that I've ever seen," says Svensson.

"They had tripwires all through that thing that basically would do an authorization check at certain activities... if any failed, it would trigger weapons overheating, or you'd level at a slower rate... it was really well thought-out, and really well-engineered."

However, there was an unintended side effect of that sort of efficacy. "I think a lot of pirates got frustrated by that - but I also think there's a messaging component there," Svensson explains.

"You have those pirates saying, 'what kind of buggy POS is this?' and then legit copies didn't have that experience at all, but potential buyers say, 'I don't want to buy that buggy game,' because they didn't really message, or give people any awareness."

Svensson says Titan Quest might have suffered from the same issue - it would crash when tripwires failed to authenticate, and so gained a reputation for being an unstable title, creating a negative perception of the product.

Titan Quest's creator, Iron Lore, recently shuttered its studio -- notably, Michael Fitch, creative director of Titan Quest publisher THQ, blamed rampant piracy in part for Iron Lore's failure to thrive.

Moreover, this sort of technology requires detailed implementation and testing, and Svensson notes how time consuming and expensive such an investment can be. "So there's a cost/investment/loss equation," he says -- which again comes back to the issue of how hard it is to quantify the benefit when the impact of piracy is so hard to map out.

As the PCGA convenes a new subcommittee to investigate just this very quantification issue, Svensson ultimately hopes they'll come up with information that will make those calculations easier. But in the meantime, he recalls when, on the heels of EA's own DRM controversy, CEO John Riccitiello told Gamasutra that he hated DRM.

"I don't like locks on my door, and I don't like to use keys in my car... I'd like to live in a world where there are no passports. Unfortunately, we don't," Riccitiello said at the time.

"I think that was spot on," says Svensson. "People rail against DRM and feel that it treats them like criminals - unfortunately, we live in a world where some people are criminals, and sometimes we have to take steps to mitigate as best we can. We live with some slight inconveniences, and obviously, we try to keep inconveniences to a minimum."

"I think people who put it out there that publishers are just trying to be evil -- I assure you. We don't make money by making your lives difficult. If we didn't feel it was absolutely, positively imperative that we have this for our business, we wouldn't do it."

GameSetLinks: The Killer Klaxaguchi Experience

Time for some GameSetLinks goodness, on this fabulous Friday, and it's headed out by the Action Button-ers' gloriously random ramble on Dead Space - such is his rambunctious way.

But also hanging out in here - indie games times two, Infinity Ward's LED controller of coolness, law firms in the game industry, the Play Auditorium surrealism, an off-topic Killers video, and other things that must not be named.

Nibbler power:

press the ACTION BUTTON!!'s review of 'Dead Space'
I presume this is Tim Rogers - tremendously entertaining, in any case: 'Dead Space is an interactive cinematic experience about depressed, frustrated kleptomaniacs stomping corpses in zero gravity.'

Ragdoll Metaphysics: 2008 And The Indie Renaissance - Offworld
Awesome Jim Rossignol paean to something I obviously love - independent games: '2008 was the year that, for me at least, indie gaming was confirmed as a vital, valid movement within the world of gaming.'

The Work of Play: law firms cater to the video game industry | Technology | Los Angeles Times
Another v.interesting Alex Pham piece on the game biz for the LA Times.

YouTube - The Killers Human EMA 08
Yes, it's off-topic for games technically, but visually feels like some kind of Mizuguchi vs. Klax insanity to me, so hey.

Cowboy Programming » Custom responsiveness measuring device
Wow, following on from Mick West's recent Gamasutra article on responsiveness in games and a potential issue with it, plus a stylish solution: 'The guys at Infinity Ward saw this problem [of 'you have to set up the controller so you can see the button being pressed, which means your finger or thums starts off not touching the button'], and their solution was to commission modder Benjamin Heckendorn to build a custom joystick that had a seperate display with an individual LED for each button.'

IndieCade Roundup Article // PC /// Eurogamer
Rounding up the indie games shown at GameCity in Nottingham with Indiecade this year - a good slice of the art-game crossover crowd.

enemy6 - Jason Nelson's latest outside art Flash game oddness
As he explained to me in email: 'It's a sequel of sorts to game, game, game and again game, based on screen shots from odd and popular sites and is another artwork/platform game/digital poem.' Bravo.

chewing pixels » Best Thing I Saw Today #37: Play Auditorium
Oop, I got sent info on this really neat Flash music-abstract weirdness, and I forgot to mention - luckily, Simon Parkin picks up the slack.

December 4, 2008

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Puzzle Quest and the Best of Both Worlds

Shot of puzzle mode with character stats['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at genre fusion in Puzzle Quest.]

The concept of the video game genre is one which is both a blessing and a curse on the medium. Video game genres categorize and describe games, allowing players to easily guess what games they will like and allowing developers to use a successful and proven formula.

That latter aspect, however, is what makes genres a limiting concept. A genre, in this context, is really just a collection of game design elements: a perspective, a mode of interaction, a game structure, and so on. An individual game might benefit from most of the elements in a genre, but be better suited by a different choice of perspective or gameplay style. However, a designer who blindly follows a genre will miss that fact, and shoehorn her game into a genre just for the sake of fitting the template.

Few games utterly ignore genre. There is, however, a long-standing tradition of genre fusion: taking two or more established genres and combining them into a game that is neither one nor the other. ActRaiser, Sacrifice, and System Shock 2 are among the many excellent games that take this approach.

This allows developers to pick and choose from the design elements of multiple genres without abandoning the benefits of easy recognition by players. Marketing can refer to a game as a "FPS/RPG" and appeal to the fans of both genres. Especially well-done instances of genre fusion can spawn genres themselves; The Legend of Zelda was originally an action/RPG hybrid, but it's now regarded as one of the first examples of the action-adventure genre.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is an excellent example of a game that mixes genres well. Created by Infinite Interactive in 2007, Puzzle Quest combines the color-matching puzzle genre with the RPG genre. As a pure concept, it's appealing: a strategic roleplaying game where battles are fought through a Bejeweled-like puzzle system.

However, what's remarkable about Puzzle Quest is that it actually works. Beyond being a high-concept novelty, Puzzle Quest is a good game. By looking at how it combined genres, one can get a deeper understanding of how to effectively create a genre-bending game.

Shot of mapRune of Mastery

Part of Puzzle Quest's success is due to the skilled execution of both of its genres. The two game modes are sharply divided, with the exploration, questing, and roleplaying aspects serving as the high-level game mode and the puzzle game restricted to the battle system. There's never a point where the player is engaging in both game modes at once, so the experience is never confusing or unfamiliar. Remarkably, each game mode is a solid example of its respective genre.

The RPG mode presents a competent storyline involving the strange surge of undead in the world of Etheria. It helps that the game is set in the established Warlords fantasy universe. The player gains experience, levels up, gains spells and skills, and recruits companions. There's even a strategic aspect of this mode that allows the player to improve citadels and gain benefits from city upgrades. The quest structure is as compelling as many traditional RPGs, with plenty of side quests and optional objectives to pursue.

With the complexity of the RPG mode, it would have been easy to make the puzzle mode nothing more than a copy of Bejeweled match-3 gameplay. However, while the basic concept remains the same, Puzzle Quest adds an additional layer by assigning significance to the different kinds of game tiles. The basic goal is still to make rows of three or more by swapping adjacent tiles, but each type of tile yields a different benefit when matched. The overarching goal for each puzzle battle is to reduce the opponent's hit points to zero before they do the same to the player character, but the mana meters and special tiles mean that there is a strong element of strategy to which tiles the player should match in a given situation.

It's clear from Puzzle Quest's two well-executed game modes that the developers paid close attention to each genre. Instead of focusing on one game style and letting the other suffer, the developers made sure that each game mode is a solid example of its style of gameplay. This is a trap that is easy to fall into when blending game genres; even the classic Deus Ex has a weak FPS aspect to it. Running and shooting in Deus Ex is nowhere near as compelling as it is in, say, Half-Life 2, but both of Puzzle Quest's modes could hold their own against single-genre games.

Shot of all basic tile typesA Perfect Match

The true cleverness of Puzzle Quest's design is how well the two game modes interact. The two modes are separate, but the player's actions in one mode affect the other. In the high-level RPG mode, the player collects equipment, skills, and allies which provide benefits and extra options in the low-level puzzle mode. In puzzle mode, the gold and experience tiles provide no immediate benefit, but they allow the player to buy equipment and level up in RPG mode. This interaction between the two modes is what makes the game a truly dual-genre title, instead of just an RPG bolted to a puzzle game.

The two modes interact so well because of the two specific game genres that the designers chose. The RPG genre already has a convention of a separate battle mode. In an archetypical roleplaying game, the player explores and interacts with characters in one mode, and battles in a separate, turn-based battle mode. RPG battles do not usually allow much freedom of motion or nuance of action, in contract to the often open-ended exploration mode. Because of this, it doesn't feel quite so jarring when the player runs into a skeleton and is suddenly dropped into a puzzle game. Experienced players of RPGs are used to being dropped into a simplified, separate mode of gameplay.

On the other side, puzzle games like Bejeweled often offer a segmented experience, where the gameplay is divided into levels loosely connected by a sequential or narrative structure. Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo orders and structures its Tetris-like puzzle bouts as if the player were progressing through a fighting game, and Magical Drop III has a branching story mode. A version of Puzzle Quest without the RPG mode but with the same story concept is easy to imagine; this method of structuring the puzzle progression suits the puzzle game genre.

Shot of character portraitsThe Missive

In creating Puzzle Quest, the developers did not just pick two random genres and drop them into a blender. They chose two genres that would interact well together, with the puzzle mode serving as the battle "minigame" for the RPG mode, and the RPG mode serving as the narrative and dividing structure for the puzzle mode. The two genres were then linked so that achievements and actions in one mode affected the player's strengths and options in the other mode.

When creating genre-spanning games, developers should follow Puzzle Quest's example. They should choose genres that can interact well with each other, and look at places where the tropes of one genre can be exploited, as with Puzzle Quest's use of puzzle gameplay as a battle system.

Additionally, developers should not fall into the trap of believing that the novelty of genre fusion will make players forgive a shoddy implementation of the individual genres. An FPS/RPG hybrid need not be the best FPS or the best RPG, but it should present each genre in a way that it could at least hold its own against single-genre games. Combining shoddy implementations of two genres does not lead to a single good game, but a sort of shambling Frankenstein's monster. Puzzle Quest, on the other hand, is a true hybrid, taking two well-executed genre games and combining them into an even better whole.

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

Best Of GamerBytes: Back In Time With Banjo

banjokazooiebogb.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.]

For digital console downloads, this was a slow week for all concerned. But it's to be expected - we're right at the beginning of December.

GamerByte's pick of the week would be Banjo Kazooie on Xbox Live Arcade. Being a huge fan of platform games - 2D and 3D, Banjo is a very welcome addition to the service, especially since we've got such a drought of platformers on all systems.

If you didn't manage to pre-order Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts to get your free code, it's still worth the 1200 Microsoft Points for a good 10-12 hours of content.

Here's the highlights for this week:

Xbox Live Arcade

This Week In XBLA - Banjo Kazooie
This week you can relive this fantastic Nintendo 64 platformer, now with HD visuals.

Denki Working On XBLA Project
The creators of the hidden Game Boy Advance gem Go! Go! Beckham are now working on a secret Xbox Live Arcade project.

1UP Specials Check Out Peggle XBLA
During this week's 1UP Show special, the crew look back on some missed gems over the past few months. When discussing Peggle Nights, they also discuss the upcoming Xbox Live Arcade version.

Reawakening The Sleeping Giant: The Pac-Man CE Interview
Christian Nutt at Gamasutra sits down with the people behind Pac-Man CE and Galaga Legions to understand the thinking process behind revitalizing classic Namco franchises.

Interpol Still On Its Way To Xbox Live Arcade
Sierra Online no longer appears to be, and with it go many of its XBLA games that were so close to release. At least one has been saved - Interpol has now been picked up by Microsoft.

PlayStation Network

Start-Select Preview Crash Commando
UK video game show Start-Select check out side scrolling Contra-esque multiplayer title Crash Commando on this week's episode.

EU PlayStation Store Update: Booty Docks, GTI Club+ Demo Available
The European PlayStation Store finally get Capcom's Age Of Booty, and also get the chance to play the demo of GTI Club+, which is coming in just a few weeks' time.

WiiWare

NA WiiWare Update - Pit Crews and Invaders From Space
The North American WiiWare update includes Hudson Soft's Pit Crew Panic, as well as Taito's Space Invaders Extreme.

OFLC Reveal Hudson's Onslaught For WiiWare
Another Australian classification website revelation for WiiWare games - Hudson bringing Onslaught to WiiWare.

2009 IGF Mobile Competition Reveals Record Number Of Entries

[After the IGF entrants debuted, a similarly neat set of portable games of various kinds - from homebrew DS/PSP through cellphone, iPhone and beyond - are also showcased in IGF Mobile. Sure, it's niche-ier, but still some neat stuff in here.]

The organizers of the Independent Games Festival Mobile have revealed a total of 107 entries for the second year of the event, more than doubling the amount of entries seen in the inaugural competition.

The entries were bolstered with a strong showing from the emergent iPhone and iPod Touch platform, but entries spanned platforms including mobile phones, DS, PSP and the Zune.

The event (organized by GameSetWatch parent Think Services) is a sister competition to the long-running Independent Games Festival, which announced record entries last week.

IGF Mobile itself, founded in 2007, has seen a host of notable independent projects enter the contest -- for which $30,000 in prizes are to be awarded at GDC 2009 next March. Nvidia is Platinum and Founding Sponsor for the event, and the prize pool includes a Best iPhone Game, presented by Gold Sponsor ngmoco.

A full list of IGF Mobile 2009 entries is now available, including screenshots and details on each of the entries. As always, many of the top IGF Mobile games will only come to the fore during the judging process -- and there are many high-quality titles not listed below.

However, a diverse set of entries have come from many different mobile formats and multiple continents, with the diversity of mobile platforms being reflected in some of the following entries:

Zen Bound [iPhone/iPod Touch] (Secret Exit)
"Zen Bound is a calm and meditative game of wrapping rope around wooden sculptures -- a simple task that can become surprisingly complex."

Soul Trapper [iPhone/iPod Touch] (Realtime Audio Adventures)
"Soul Trapper is a 3+ hour interactive audio adventure that follows the turbulent life of Kane Pryce, a 27 year-old drifter who possess a mysterious device known as the Soul Trap, a supernaturally charged object that allows him to hunt down, capture, and send ghosts from the earthly realm to the afterlife."

Picopoke [MMS] (Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab)
"Picopoke is an interpretive photo game which brings flexible play to a new level. The game revolves around weekly challenge rounds, involving fulfilling challenges by taking photos and voting to determine winners. Picopoke takes advantage of the social networking community. Picopoke can also be played with mobile phones via multimedia messaging service (MMS), capturing moments spontaneously with camera phones."

Rhythm of War [Playstation Portable] (SME Dynamic Systems)
"Rhythm of War is a rhythm action strategy game where the player must travel through different time epochs to fight aliens and saves the planet. The struggle takes place on the four tracks, where the player has to defend himself in accordance with musical rhythm of each track."

Ruben and Lullaby [iPhone/iPod Touch] (Song New Creative)
"Ruben & Lullaby is a story you play like a musical instrument. Two lovers are fighting. You can control what they're feeling, where they're looking, when they speak, and when they listen. Your actions conduct a moody jazz soundtrack that reflects the feelings of the characters as they change in real time."

UZA: The First Journey [Nintendo DS] (Multiple:Option)
"Arcade action meets abstract art in UZA: The First Journey, an arcade action game similar to Robotron/Geometry Wars. Watch as your gameplay performance creates a piece of real-time abstract art. With only one life, how long can you survive, how much can you score, and what will your actions look like?"

FastFoot_Challenge [J2ME] (urban team)
"FastFoot-Challenge is a multiplayer GPS action game. 4 to 5 players with mobile phones and GPS receivers play in an area of 1km radius. One player escapes, the others have 25 minutes to catch him. His advantage: continuous updates of the chasers' positions, while those only see his position every 6 minutes. "

Wardrive [Nintendo DS] (and-or)
"Wardive captures the wireless networks in the immediate area, like a wardrive tool, and creates a game. it reads the names of the hotspots in your immediate area and turns them into enemies which try to take your wardrive-crystal."

Laser [Flash Lite] (CreatePlayShare)
"Creation and customization, community and sharing, single and multiplayer; endless levels with a variety of gameplay. Laser."

Circuit Swap [Zune] (Teabag Games)
"Circuit Swap is an exciting new puzzle game targeting mobile devices. Players are given the task to power up the city as they move battery pieces and get them inserted to the socket 'goal' pieces."

Finalists in the IGF Mobile competition will be announced on January 26th, 2009, and more information is available on the official IGF Mobile website.

GameSetLinks: The Windmills Of The Metro

You know, it's quite possible that we don't cover indie games enough on GameSetWatch any more, due to the fact that I presume everyone is reading the IndieGames.com blog, run by my esteemed colleague Tim W.

So I'm going to try to layer in some more game links from time to time - Kian Bashiri's 'Metro' being the first of these wonders, but accompanied by Braid's David Hellman mentioning a Spike TV indie game special, romantic co-op games, Giant Bomb info, Troy Goodfellow on game reviews, and more.

I respectfully decline:

The Plush Apocalypse » Blog Archive » The love story(game)
LMNO's Borut Pfeifer in fine editorial form, as per normal: 'I wanted to write about the lack of a certain type of coop game - a romantic coop game.'

gameslol » Blog Archive » So I Guess GiantBomb Did Not Bomb
I've seen very little media buzz about GiantBomb, which is odd, because it's the future of game information, pretty much. And awesome.

A Game From Life: Metro Rules of Conduct | GameCyte
Kian Bashiri's latest IGF entry is spotted by the GameCyte folks, and it's awesome+: 'The goal of the game is to make it the five stops to your final destination while obeying the metro rules of conduct, which is essentially only one rule: Do not make eye contact with other travelers. In between stops, you can rack up points by moving your viewfinder over the various accoutrements of your fellow passengers — MP3 players, cell phones, ties, scarves and even brassieres.'

Boing Boing: Offworld: 'Why Left 4 Dead has the best tutorial ever... and why you never noticed it had one to begin with'
Excellent John Brownlee piece on the subtle learning in Valve's latest.

David Hellman » Blog Archive » Fueled by Dieu
The Braid artist reveals: 'Earlier this month, a Spike TV crew came to my apartment to shoot an interview which is going to run close to (or perhaps immediately before?) the awards. I’m told it will be part of a half-hour feature on indie games of 2008.' This sounds most excellent - maybe on GameTrailers TV?

NYC Game Industry - Be part of the evolution!
Good to see a local scene-specific website (of some sophistication) for the sometimes struggling (but always adorable!) New York game development scene.

Flash Of Steel: 'Reviewing, Criticizing and Games Media'
Troy Goodfellow is a smart cookie, and skipping mercilessly to the conclusion, he hits the nail on the head, for me: 'The best games writing is usually not found in the review/preview morass and it’s pointless to look for it there at the expense of all the good feature, interview and analysis work being done elsewhere.'

Brash's Wall Street MMO - The Cut Scene - Variety.com
Some good sleuthing here by Fritz - rare to see a good autopsy of a failed publisher.

December 3, 2008

Inside Game Piracy, Part 1: Crushing Discs, Pushing Education

[Game piracy is still a major issue, and in this first part of a special report for big sister site Gamasutra, Leigh Alexander talked to the ESA and PC Gaming Alliance -- discussing why cracking down on physical goods piracy and "making people think just one more time before they click download" may break the vicious cycle.]

When 2D Boy recently claimed that the piracy rate for its PC independent game World of Goo was something like 90 percent, it raised two interesting issues.

First, it demonstrated that the methodology for actually quantifying piracy is a long way from stability, as many debated the saliency of such a figure.

And second, it proved that although piracy is unmistakably a major obstacle for an industry where profitability is already highly challenging, there's little that can be done about it until the methods for measuring its impact are clearly defined.

The PC Gaming Alliance is a group of industry leaders including reps from Microsoft, Dell, Activision, Capcom and many others, who meet to work on solutions for challenges facing the space and promote the health of the platform - and piracy is a particular problem for PC in particular.

With that in mind, the PCGA has formed a new subcommittee to start examining ways to take the crucial first step of learning to quantify piracy and its material impact.

Christian Svensson, senior director of strategic planning and research at Capcom, is a member of the PCGA, and tells Gamasutra that the new impact-oriented subcommittee is just now getting off the ground. There's a complicated road ahead with a good many factors still up in the air, but the subcommittee knows that quantifying that impact is a key first step.

"We're just starting to lay out the groundwork," Svensson says,"I would hope within the next three months we have started to make some progress toward that."

Enforcement In The Non-Digital World

Meanwhile, the Entertainment Software Association, as the trade body that represents the industry's interests, has also been tackling the problem. "Part of the problem is it's vast, it's happening in different parts of the world where the ability to measure activity is difficult," says the ESA's Ric Hirsch, senior vice president of intellectual property enforcement.

"And that's exacerbated by the internet, which has the effect of anonymizing a lot of activity, and a lot of it is done behind closed digital doors, if you will, so it is difficult to estimate. We see a piece of that, and the piece that we see can be somewhat alarming at times, vis a vis the volume and intensity of activity, particularly around new releases."

Hirsch admits that the ESA and the PCGA have not formally aligned to collaborate on anti-piracy initiatives. Instead, the ESA approaches the problem through various international programs focused on enforcement and training.

It works with local authorities to bust hard goods piracy rings - for example, the ESA's enforcement program in Mexico, established in 2005, has helped it build a "positive working relationship," as Hirsch says, with authorities in that country.

Recently, with the help of Mexican law enforcement, the ESA targeted a large Guadalajara shopping center where investigators had identified several vendors selling pirated games. "Based on the evidence selected, we went to authorities, explained the problem, and were ultimately able to arrange for them to take an action in seizing a lot of illegal game products," Hirsch says.

And Hirsch adds the ESA has programs in six other countries: Canada, Brazil, Paraguay, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. A new initiative in Korea focuses largely on that country's thriving online games biz with a takedown program. "We use an outside vendor through which we monitor instances of infringing activity involving our members' game product," says Hirsch.

"Based on the reports... once we verify that infringement is infringement, we will transmit a takedown notice to the ISP requesting their intervention in procuring cessation of the pirate activity. And that's something we do globally; we send takedown notices to ISPs all over the world."

Of course, to benefit from the ESA's enforcement activities, companies need to be members of the ESA. "We need specific authorization from members, as rights-holders to engage in this activity," Hirsch explains - so for example, when it comes to companies like Activision who have left the ESA, "we don't have any specific authorization to undertake specific activities on their behalf."

The Online Factor

But while the ESA has met with a great deal of success putting out hard goods piracy fires where it finds them, Hirsch admits that disc copying is less and less the major problem, these days.

"We pretty much recognize... how much infringing activity is moving more and more to the internet," he says, citing convenience and availability online as a primary driver.

The ESA still plans to focus on hard goods, which Hirsch says still remains a significant problem, especially in developing nations where internet access is not widespread.

"In a lot of established markets with greater broadband access to the internet, we do tend to see upticks in download activity involving pirated games , and obviously there's a concern about that," says Hirsch.

"We are trying to pursue some of the principal players who are involved in this activity in terms of the people at the top of the piracy food chain, members of warez groups who within days of a game's release and sometimes before, manage to get pirate versions of games available out there on the internet for download."

So as the ESA focuses its investigative efforts on online groups while continuing its ground-level enforcement initiatives, Hirsch says the issue of IP protection is also enjoying increased support from the U.S. government. "Over the last eight to 10 years, the U.S. government has stepped up its efforts in addressing IP piracy, in which game piracy is a small but growing part," says Hirsch.

And that's allowed the ESA to contribute an "extensive" training program to help investigative and law enforcement groups increase their knowledge and sophistication when it comes to recognizing pirate software, education efforts it continues to expand as part of its international enforcement initiatives.

"Part of our mission is to make law enforcement understand better the problems that game piracy creates for the development of local game markets and how it impacts businesses and tax revenues from the game sector," says Hirsch.

And at least on the PC gaming side, the PCGA's committee to evaluate this impact in more specific terms is a promising idea. Capcom's Svensson finds 2D Boy's 90-percent figure for World of Goo a bit high, though.

"I think most of us on the software side that have any kind of reporting capability, and any kind of tracking mechanism for authorized versus unauthorized server data... 90 percent is high. There's no question that's high, probably a little higher than what we normally see."

And what's normal for Capcom? "For what we have seen with our own games, 50 percent would be the low end," says Svensson.

Of course, it may depend on the size of the game and the resultant ease of piracy, with Reflexive's Russell Carroll recently estimating that around 92% of the people playing the full version of his company's PC casual game Ricochet Infinity pirated it.

How Education May Help

It may seem a surprising number - which is why it makes sense that when the PCGA convenes to start forming its new anti-piracy plans, one major goal will be to look at ways to increase consumer awareness.

"I think if we can actually educate people on the impact, and how prevalent it is, I think that will eventually have a positive impact on many people," says Svensson. "It may help make people think just one more time before they click download."

Education plays a key role in the ESA's anti-piracy initiatives, too, and not just the training it offers law enforcement. Says Hirsch, "Several years ago, in discussions with member companies, we tried to sit down and think about how we impact the demand side, as opposed to the supply side."

The ESA decided that in that respect it would be best served addressing the segment of the gaming audience most open to receiving messages about the rights and wrongs of unlawful downloads: elementary school students.

"Many of them are starting to use computers and internet at earlier age," says Hirsch. "And we're trying to give them some guidance with respect to what IP is, and why taking stuff without permission is wrong. These are things that oftentimes children do not learn as they learn to use the internet."

So the ESA worked with an educational curriculum company called LearningWorks -now known as YoungMinds - and developed an age-appropriate curriculum to be used by elementary schoolteachers, designed to complement other core lesson plans they may have.

The program they developed is targeted at various age groups from kindergarteners to 5th grade, and is designed to introduce to them on a basic level the value of intellectual property. Curriculum materials are housed on the web at JoinTheCTeam.com.

"Having the kids work on things and develop things -- their own pieces of intellectual property... they get to understand that after working on something, they have certain privileges of ownership with respect to what they created," says Hirsch.

"It ties in with plagiarism themes... and teachers respond very well to that, because they're looking for materials about plagiarism, particularly through the use of computers and the internet."

In particular, parents are included in these school-based initiatives, as an important part of the equation is helping parents understand their children's online behavior.

[Tune in tomorrow for the second part of the piracy special, focusing on counter-measures, copy protection schemes, and new solutions for piracy-related issues.]

COLUMN: @Play: Objects of Collection

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

I've said this about first-person shooters before, but in the interest of fairness, I admit it's completely appropriate to say it of roguelikes too: from one quite valid point-of-view, they're all the same game.

Of course when you look at the games up close this assertion falls apart. This perspective completely discounts Crawl's razor-sharp play balance, ADOM's surprising expanse, Angband's epic struggle against the odds, and Nethack's amazingly complex, interlocking gameplay features. But the core of what makes roguelike games was invented back in Rogue, and a big part of that is the item system practically all the games share.

Many of these items are randomly scrambled when a game begins. If the player saves his game (thus ending his session) and loads it back in later (which erases the save), items will retain their identities. Purple potions will still do whatever they did before the save. But if a new game is started, it will have re-randomized items, and if the player dies, all the item identities figured out are completely lost.

Here is an overview of the primary item categories, with an eye towards a closer examination of each in the future. (Afterwards, we'll have a brief recap of the winners of the 2008 devnull Nethack tournament.)

roguefood49.png
One-use items, when used, are gone. There is nothing random about them. In most roguelikes, the basic food ration item is like this, a simple, reliable object that fills the player's stomach. Most one-use items like this are types of food.

Since these items are not random, their purpose in the game is more strictly resource-management than the more unpredictable things left by the dungeon litterers. But what happens if there's simply not enough food to survive? Rogue handled this by scattering a few guaranteed rations around its levels, Nethack, ADOM and Crawl players can eat monster corpses, and Angband contains a nearly guaranteed source of food in town.

But the lesson here is one that a lot of people who make commercial roguelikes could stand learning, that non-random items aren't that interesting. Basic roguelike play involves completely searching each level, and if the items are all known then their uses, unless it's loaded with Rogue-and-Nethack-style alternate purposes, will be obvious. Ultimately, roguelike play is about the items found on the ground versus the monsters found in the rooms and halls, with the player serving as the role of intermediary. Anything that detracts from, or makes obvious, those decisions the player must make weakens the game. If all the items found on the ground are pre-identified, like food rations, then that's correspondingly less the player must do to affect his chances of survival.

roguepotion49.png
One-use random magic items are, most often, potions and scrolls. These items are used up when consumed. This plays a major role in the identification game, for even if the result from using the item left no doubt as to its purpose, the item is still lost. Because of this, these items tend to be fairly easy to figure out; the primary cost to ID-by-trial is item loss and negative effects from bad items. Some of these might be bad indeed: the most dangerous item in Rogue was the potion of blindness, which made the game nearly unplayable for a few hundred turns.

A few roguelikes, in addition to non-random food rations, offer one or more random food types. Berries and mushrooms, natural sources of sustenance that may have unexpected, even dangerous, properties are common choices for these. (Shiren's herbs are also like this, even though their other aspects make them a closer analogue for potions.) They are often used as a kind of variant type of potion, and so can, indeed must, have powerful effects, for the nutrition from eating one is almost never worth the risk of identifying it unless the player's character is in starvation mode.


roguescroll49.pngWearable random magic items are usually rings and amulets. Rogue itself only had rings, which are pretty widely-spread. (It also had the Amulet of Yendor, but that's most of a goal item, see below.) Hack added random amulets, but not many other games have gone along with it. These items are not generally lost when used; they continue to perform their function over time. This eliminates one of the major costs to ID-by-trial, so to compensate most of their functions are subtle. No normal player is going to notice doing an extra +1 to damage. Also, since items with bad effects could have their effect nullified just by removing it, these items are often cursed, meaning the player can't remove it once it is worn without using special means, usually a specific type of scroll.

(Some more recent roguelikes, especially Hack, ADOM and Shiren, have generalized the idea of curses to cover all kinds of items. There, a cursed item will work badly, or in a frustrating or dangerous way, or simply not at all. Some of these games also apply the idea of the opposite of a curse, that is, a "blessing," which similarly improves an item's functioning.)

In D&D, and some other CRPGs as well, a curse is a specific type of bad effect that may or may not make it hard to stop using the item. In roguelikes, a curse is a property of the item separate from its purpose. The curse can be lifted and the item used normally. This doesn't mean the item is suddenly good for you, just that it can be worn and removed freely.

There is one further cost normally associated with these items, and that is food consumption. It's another of those obscure roguelike rules that wearing a ring makes you slightly hungrier over time. (And a couple of rings, hunger and regeneration, make you much hungrier.) The effect this has on the game varies by how perilous the player's food needs already are; in Rogue, the player is often only a ration or two away from starvation, while after the early game in Nethack players usually pass up far more food than they eat. But the presence of the food drain makes clear that developers believe such long-lasting benefits should be compensated for, even if they're relatively minor.

roguewand49.pngRandom multi-use items are a mixture between the two previous types. Nearly all roguelikes use wands (or sometimes, sticks) for this, but there are other types. Usually they have a limited number of charges, and when the item runs out it's useless.

Wands are even easier to figure out than potions and scrolls, and probably still have several charges remaining after an initial trial use, so the resource cost for testing them out is much less. And since they're not wearable, curses don't apply in many roguelikes (unless it's a game with generalized curses). So to compensate, the risk of bad effects is rather greater with wands than the other types. This is helped in that nearly all wand functions involve doing something to a monster. Testing one on a weak monster could be a fatal mistake if the wand turns out to be polymorph, but even something like fire that could whizz by the foe, bounce off a wall, and hit you.

Nethack's spellbooks are a rare example of a multi-use random item that doesn't have charges, or at least not charges that substantively affect the game. (As with many things in Nethack, the precise truth would take a long time to explain.) They must be identified, which might be done by trial. Notably, however, other than the difficulty level of the spell all the bad effects from failing to learn a spell, or reading a cursed book, are the same across spells. Once a spellbook is read, it's always known. (I've always considered this as kind of a missed opportunity; why not make the player figure out what a learned spell does?)

rogueweapon49.pngThe place of normal equipment is easy to overlook when explicating the roguelike item system. Neither weapons nor armor in these games are randomized in the same way as the other types. A dagger will tend to operate like a dagger, even across games. Leather armor retains its rustproof property without having to discover it each time. The player can acquire knowledge of which items are better and worse and rely upon it between games.

(An aside.... When there is a lot of this knowledge, like of rustproof leather, to acquire, it can contribute to a feeling that the player must "pay his dues" building miscellaneous knowledge before he's allowed to do well at the game. In the old days, this information was either regarded as common—lots of early roguelike players knew about weapons and armor from playing Dungeons & Dragons—or a just reward for clever deduction; now, people see it as just another thing to look up in a FAQ. This is one reason that I believe the future of roguelike gaming leads in the direction of more randomized game elements, as it makes a game more resistant to spoilers.)

While the basic function of normal pieces of equipment are the same, they are still, in a small way, randomized. Weapon and armor pieces carry a property called a plus, named after the concept from Dungeons & Dragons. The plus of an equipment item is hidden from the player until it is identified. The conventions with different games vary; Rogue and Hack-likes reveal the plus of armor as soon as it is worn. Unlike with random magic items, once one +3 long sword is known others of that type are not instantly discovered. Each individual item must be identified to find its plus. Equipment that carries a negative plus (a.k.a. minus) may also be cursed, another property that must be discovered on a per-item basis.

Some games introduce other kinds of per-instance item properties. Angband and ADOM's ego weapons follow this property, an attribute that can be tied to an object that must be identified to discover. Many roguelike games also have artifact items to find; usually these types are identified to the player ahead of time (they are obvious information due to the object's status in legend), but ADOM in particular treats artifact status and name as information that must be identified. But IDing one ego weapon doesn't give insight into others of the same type, and knowing how to make best use of an artifact tends to be spoiler material.

roguearmor49.pngRandom magic equipment is something a few games introduced in order to approach Dungeons & Dragons to a closer degree. Mostly, these games are the Hack-likes and ADOM. They include types of weapons and armor that have generic base properties, but also a random magical function. The base properties are tied with the description (snow boots), but each item also has a "real" type (speed boots). The tie between the appearance and magic power is randomized in the same manner as the other magic stuff, so these items vary from game to game. Jungle boots in one game might be boots of water-walking, but in another might be fumble boots.

In a few cases, the "description" of one of these items implies another use, and Nethack's Dev Team is canny enough to also build those uses into the game. Riding boots and gloves are random types, but regardless of their magic, they additionally make it easier to mount and ride steeds. Snow boots make it easier to get around on icy surfaces, although it's possible that its magic type will turn out to be fumble boots, hardly an improvement.

Interestingly, although magic rings have been around since Rogue, Nethack and ADOM provide for random magic armor pieces, and both those games plus Crawl and Angband have artifact weapons (those other two adding "randarts" whose properties vary between games), no roguelike game I'm aware of, major or minor, provides for random magical weapons, on the same scheme as potions, wands and rings.

Finally, there are the goal items. Roguelike games are more about the dungeon than the monsters, so more often the goal is to get some object and escape with it more than to Kill Foozle. This gets a category to itself because, in play terms, these items are often useless, or have an obscure, or purely winning-oriented, kind of utility. Rogue's Amulet of Yendor confers only two abilities: much reduced hunger, and the ability to go up stairs, both of these things being necessary to win. Nethack's Amulet major function is to prevent level teleport, which is necessary to stop the player from escaping thirty seconds after he finds it. Nethack's three "key" items, needed to get the Amulet, also fall into this category. Dungeon Crawl's goal items are runes of which an operator-adjustable number are needed to win (commonly 3, but some players try to collect 13 or even more), and the Orb of Zot, which, like Nethack's Amulet of Yendor, exists primarily to make the player's life more miserable while it's carried.


Surprisingly, marvin did not take away top prize again in this year's devnull Nethack tournament. I sometimes make jokes about his awe-inspiring Nethack skills, but he is an amazing player. This year though he still won 11 games, certainly no slouch. marvin's position as the maintainer of the official Atari window port of Nethack means that his slightly-diminished performance this year gives one pause. Could it be that the reason is a secret round of DevTeam testing aimed at a new release? Interested parties are invited to speculate upon this possibility on message boards throughout the internet. (The preceding statement is an unfounded rumor with no basis in reality. It represents wishful thinking only, and in no way represents a sneaky tactic to prod the Dev'vers into releasing a new version.)

There were more players vying for the trophies this year than any before, likely because of Slashdot's gala 10-year-anniversary article on the tournament. Best of 13, which goes to the player who wins the most games in a row of different alignments, races and roles, was won by hillance. Most ascensions (18 in the 30-day tournament period) was hard-earned by adeon.

The fastest victorious game, in game-time, was played by tenaya, coming in at 8,023 turns. The fastest in real time was played by adeon, bathed in radiance after only in two hours and 22 minutes. The lowest-scored victory was won by nuslayer, who had a scant 24,920 points when he went to his reward.

theta once again won the most types of death trophy, this time "discovering" 161 of the game's reasons for cessation of operation. This was less than last year, but still an impressive display of mortality.

This year's special challenge turned out to be an entire other roguelike game, ZAPM! A science-fiction game inspired by Nethack, it got its own high score, winner and most causes of death scoreboards in addition to its overall challenge board. The game looks interesting in its own right, and may well get its own @Play focusing on it before long. In any event, 87 players attempted it, and 34 completed it.

COLUMN: GameSetVideo Treasures - The Art Of The Game Mockumentary

[GameSetVideo Treasures is a new column by the IGDA Preservation SIG's Andrew Armstrong, picking out and discussing some of the highlights of the Internet Archive's Game Videos collection, which preserves game-related archival videos for posterity. First up - some intriguingly elaborate promotional mockumentaries for two Microsoft-published games.]

First on this revamped GameSetVideo Treasures, we have a double feature of mockumentaries made by (at that time) Microsoft Game Studios employee Fred Northup Jr., promoting two Microsoft games made a few years apart.

Northup himself worked from 2000 to 2005 on various video games made by Microsoft, in addition to making these two videos. As a creative writer, he contributed to the story and scripts of games like Midtown Madness 3, Forza Motorsport and Project Gotham Racing 2.

The first spoof-ish video, The Man Behind the Motion was for Midtown Madness 3, and goes a little something like this:

The actual mockumentary features Michael White (under his real name), Motion Capture "Artist" -- who is the defacto perfectionist of the motion capture biz.

It's a rather fun video, especially the retro look at motion capture (with Pong or Pitfall) by his father, Moe, where the term "Mo Cap" was coined from. The cast as a whole appears to be from the Seattle based Unexpected Productions group -- of which Fred was a member before he joined Microsoft.

Microsoft put out their own press release when it got made, noting a few of production details like it being filmed in 3 days, and winning an audience choice award, but it's obviously meant to be virally spread -- like now!

[You can also download it too (WMV, 32MB).]

Nex up, Conker: Celebrity Squirrel promotes Conker: Live and Reloaded, a remake made in 2005 of the Rare/Nintendo 64 classic Conker's Bad Fur Day:

This mockumentary details the disappearance and finding of Conker in the feature "Celebrity Squirrel". In here, there's some very random interviews and "facts" about his life, including a good look at his bad language - including his part in Halo 2 being recast due to it.

Conker also puts together a rap single, "No More Tediz", heard in the credits. There's some funny moments, but not quite as consistent as the Midtown Madness one, in my opinion.

This film goes with a broader cast, and adds some 'celebrity' cameos, including Shaun Alexander (Seattle Seahawks), Cam'ron (rap artist), and Ryan Stiles (comedian) with Mike James presenting. There's some video game people on the cast too, with Halo's audio guru Marty' O'Donnell, and Conker's voice is properly done by the brilliant Chris Seavor. It's all pretty goofy, but... hey, this is a genuine cultural artifact!

[You can download it here (WMV, 85MB).]

Game Developer's 2008 Front Line Award Finalists Announced

[Here's this year's Front Line Award nominees, the major awards for game tools - thanks to my colleagues Brandon Sheffield and especially Jeff Fleming at Game Developer magazine for masterminding this, which is a really worthy effort to honor the things that let people make games.]

The editors of Think Services' Game Developer magazine, a sister publication to Gamasutra, have named the finalists for the 2008 Front Line Awards, the magazine’s tenth annual evaluation of the year’s best game-making tools in the categories of programming, art, audio, game engine, middleware, and books.

Game Developer’s mission for more than ten years has been to provide game developers with information, news, and articles that pertain directly to them. The Front Line Awards are an official way of recognizing one specific aspect of the industry: the tools that developers need to do their jobs.

Each year, Game Developer looks at the powerful lineup of new products and new releases of favorite tools, from game engines to books, and selects the top five in six different categories. Front Line Award finalists represent the most innovative, user-friendly, and useful products from behind the scenes of the world’s best video games.

The finalists for the 2008 Game Developer Front Line Awards by category are as follows:

Art Tools

Photoshop CS3, Adobe
Softimage|XSI 7, Softimage
Autodesk 3ds Max 2009, Autodesk
Modo 302, Luxology
Autodesk Maya 2008, Autodesk

Audio Tools

Vivox Precision Studio v.2, Vivox
Wwise 2008.3, Audiokinetic
Fmod Designer 4.17, Firelight Technologies
Miles Sound System 7.2c, Rad Game Tools
Voice-O-Matic 2.6, Di-O-Matic

Engines

Unity 2.1, Unity Technologies
CryEngine 2, Crytek
Gamebryo 2.5, Emergent Game Technologies
Torque Game Engine 1.5.2, GarageGames
Source Protocol 14, Build 3531, Valve

Middleware

Autodesk Kynapse 5, Autodesk
PathEngine 5.16, PathEngine
Havok Physics, Havok
Euphoria, NaturalMotion
GameSpy SDK, GameSpy

Programming/Production Tools

TestTrack Pro 2008.2, Seapine Software
Perforce 2008.1, Perforce Software
XNA Game Studio 2.0, Microsoft
Subversion 1.5, CollabNet
Visual Studio 2008 SP1, Microsoft

Books

Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-playing Games, Matt Barton; AK Peters
Game Production Handbook, 2nd Edition, Heather Maxwell Chandler; Infinity Science Press
Real-Time Rendering, Third Edition, Tomas Akenine-Moller, Eric Haines, Naty Hoffman; AK Peters
The Art of Game Design: A Book Of Lenses, Jesse Schell;
Morgan Kaufmann
Game Programming Gems 7, edited by Scott Jacobs; Charles River Media

For this year’s Front Line Awards, both Game Developer magazine subscribers and Gamasutra.com community members were surveyed to nominate the best game development-related products.

Following consultation with the magazine’s editors, finalists were selected based on criteria such as utility, innovation, value, and ease of use, and professional developers are now voting to decide this year’s ultimate winners.

“This was a year in which tools became even more key to the game industry, with both high-end console game complexity and small-team indie innovation needing high quality products to help get things done swiftly and efficiently,” said Brandon Sheffield, editor-in-chief of Game Developer. “The editors of Game Developer extend our congratulations to all of this year’s Front Line Awards finalists!”

The final winners for the prestigious awards, plus one inductee to the Front Line Awards Hall of Fame chosen for its outstanding contribution to the game development industry for five years or more, will be announced in the January 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine, available to subscribers in early January. (The Front Line Awards Hall of Fame inductee is not eligible for consideration for regular awards in its winning year.)

GameSetLinks: Party With The Babyz

Well, in the newly silent world of 'comments not working', GameSetLinks has returned, and starting out with, darn, yes, Lester Bangs and game criticism, yet again - but actually not handled too badly.

Also hanging out in here - the danger of Party Babyz, the Artsy Game Incubator, American McGee's call to unity, the non-return of visual novels, piggy banks and games, and quite a few things besides.

Well hello there:

Does Video Game Criticism Need a Lester Bangs? < Multimedia | PopMatters
This is, surprisingly, a well-written article about Bangs himself that doesn't focus too much on the tedious 'why isn't there?' question. Hurray.

Artsy Games Incubator » Blog Archive » New Games Released and AGI Expansion
Not only are the latest art-incubated games available, but Jim Munroe is asking for AGI expansions worldwide, which would be a delightful thing.

chewing pixels » Bow Street Runner Wins BAFTA
GameSetWatch columnist Simon Parkin gets a UK BAFTA for his episodic point and click web game - congratulations are in order.

American McGee’s Blog | Shared Knowledge = Healthy Growth
Besides McGee's nice Gamasutra shout-out, this is an interesting call to (shared) arms: 'Developers and publishers could and should go one step further by pushing their knowledge, their tools, and their solutions to interesting problems and challenges out to communal repositories.' Hey, Insomniac is trying it, to some extent.

Will Visual Novels Ever Escape Obscurity? « High Dynamic Range Lying
An interesting musing on something I was discussing a few days back: 'If there really is no room for visual novels and reading in the future of western games, is there some other avenue to introduce it to the western world and garner an audience?'

Wired.com: This Little Piggy Bank Became a Videogame
Nice gallery of the game-related banks, I lusted after these when I was at TGS but there's no fansub translated versions, heh, soo....

A Vampyre Story - Review - Adventure Classic Gaming
Checking out one of the first 2D adventure titles from LucasArts alumni to pop up recently - also see Mata Hari.

Alex Litel's Lackluster Emporium: Babyz. Party Babyz.
GSW columnist Litel plays through 'unimanual-flailing regiment Imagine Party Babyz' - and chaos of the word-based kind ensues.

December 2, 2008

System-Wide Note: Comments Disabled In The Short-Term

Unfortunately, we've had to disable comments on all our blogs for the short-term, due to spam-related issues affecting the efficacy of the server we're hosting Think Services' game blogs on. We're hoping to switch to a new commenting system in the very near future - in the meantime, posts will lack commenting capabilities.

- The Management.

[UPDATE: And we're back up with comments on this blog. We think we've fixed the problem but will continue to work to improve comment posting speed - you may notice it's a little slow over the next few days.]

COLUMN: Bell, Game, and Candle - 'A Modest, But Brash Proposal'

['Bell, Game, and Candle' is a regular GameSetWatch column by writer Alex Litel, discussing stuff that happens - or doesn't happen - in the game business. This time, he borrows from the EA/Take-Two saga to fulfill his entrepreneurial aspirations.]

Dear Brash Entertainment Proprietors:

I am writing to you to formally express my interest in acquiring the name “Brash Entertainment” and to propose a transaction in which I would acquire the exclusive, perpetual rights to the “Brash Entertainment” moniker for $300 in cash and, in accordance with the advice of my financial adviser, a dozen cookies from a bakery of your choice (value up to $25).

This proposed nomenclatural transfer would infuse some much-needed liquidity to pay off mounting debts you are facing. Based on the recent sale of the majority of likewise financially addled Midway Games for $100,000, my calculations show that this offer provides a delicious premium of more than 50% on the fair market value of about $200.

To sidestep the imminent corrosion of value, I believe the quick conclusion of this transaction is in the best interest of the both of us. Hesitance will prove disastrous for the both of us in today’s troubled economy and presents a serious obstacle to our respective future business endeavors.

I also believe that the proposed entitlement exchange would eventually create additional value the name would not acquire otherwise with my plan to create a Brash Entertainment that combines the best in independent film properties with the best talent in independent gaming that targets an audience thus far untargeted by gaming companies.

The initial lineup would include game versions of Academy Award-nominated drama Half-Nelson, cult horror flick Stay Alive, mind-bending thriller π, heist comedy Bottle Rocket, and crime drama Hard Eight—and these titles would be distributed through cheap, accessible download services. The low cost of licenses combined with the low cost of entry and low development cost would create a high margin opportunity.

Considerable time and resources have been put forth in developing this offer, and I have personally approved its disclosure. My offer is not contingent on any financing requirement. I have completed a thorough review of Brash’s prior and once-future output and am prepared to progress immediately on a transaction with no impediment to either party. Given recent reportage that indicates a dearth of professional activity, I feel it is fully reasonable to expect a reply by the close of this business week on Friday, December 4, 2008.

Sincerely,

Alex Litel
Extraordinary Professional

[Alex Litel can be reached at [email protected] and occasionally found at alexlitel.blogspot.com. He does sympathize with developers and publishing staff affected by the Brash situation, so don't start.]

Best Of FingerGaming: From Antimatter to Gabo

[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 Pangea's particle arcade game Antimatter, Yoot Saito's (Seaman series) Gabo, and two newly announced titles from Gameloft.

Here are the top stories:

Antimatter in App Store
"Enigmo developer Pangea Software released Antimatter to the App Store, its first iPhone/iPod Touch title that hasn’t been previously released for Mac. Advertising the title as a “particle arcade game,” even Pangea has a difficult time explaining Antimatter’s mechanics, admitting, 'The game is so unique that it is hard to describe.'"

Seaman Developer Reveals Gabo
"As with Seaman 2, this iPhone title charges you with rearing a 'Peking Man' named Gabo, allowing you to act as a god and alter his island environment to influence his growth. Unlike past Seaman titles, however, you probably won’t use a specialized microphone to command Gabo. Instead, you’ll likely just use the iPhone touchscreen."

Gameloft Announces Brothers in Arms: Hour of Heroes, Hero of Sparta
"Hour of Heroes will use a virtual directional pad for movement, with elements like ducking for cover and jumping over obstacles handled automatically by the game. Hero of Sparta also uses a virtual D-pad for contextual options like hitting, defending, and changing weapons."

Developer Diary 3: Pay the price
"When you start the development of a new game, one day or another, you’ll have to face the following questions: What will be the price of this game? What will be our strategy to make a good game as well as a financial success? ... Developers are not only making games for the sake of entertainment, it is also a business, and people are living off of it."

ngmoco Prescribes Dr. Awesome For Next Week
"CEO Neil Young revealed that surgery game Dr. Awesome, Microsurgeon M.D. will be available on the App Store next week. Presented with Trauma Center-esque art and Qix-like gameplay, the title enables players to admit contacts from their address book as patients, and operate on them."

Touchgrind in App Store
"Illusion Labs, the studio that has seen almost 4.5 million downloads with its maze game Labyrinth, just released a multi-touch fingerboarding title called Touchgrind. The game allows players to use the touchscreen to execute a variety of tricks with an on-screen skateboard, such as ollies, shuvits, kickflips, heelflips, smithgrinds, boardslides, and more, along with combinations of those moves."

Opinion: The GlaDOS Effect - Can Antagonists Rule The World?

[In this opinion piece, GameSetWatch creator and Gamasutra/Game Developer publisher Simon Carless muses about what it would be like in a world where the bad guys ruled the world of games - and, heck, who are the bad guys, anyhow?]

"This was a triumph - I'm making a note here: huge success."

As everyone knows, the one truly memorable character in Portal was GlaDOS, the deranged AI in residence at Aperture Science. As a first-person title with a relatively anonymous lead character, GlaDOS is the character I keep returning to - because she's funny, and unexpected, and beguiling.

So it got me thinking. Could a game work starring the homicidal computer as the lead character? You could argue that this would make approximately as much sense as a 2001 sequel starring HAL. Yet games work in a very different way narratively to films, so that flippant comparison may be a little, well, flippant.

As a result, I've been starting to question the meaning of the antagonist in games. Could there ever be a game that makes you play the bad guy in an existing franchise, but changes the gameplay accordingly alongside the perspective shift?

Luckily, we've asked a similar question before, and the answer tends to be that it's the mascot-style games in which this happens. Some of the earliest examples are the most interesting - after all, Donkey Kong is the antagonist in the original arcade game named after him, before switching to protagonist in Rare's SNES platformer series.

While we're discussing Nintendo, Wario is probably the best example of video game antagonist turned protagonist - and it's particularly fun because his games reflect his dastardly nature. But he is essentially a Bizarro Mario, with fairly conventional mechanics to match. Oh, and Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine is deliciously tangential, but still... tangential.

There's also Triumph Studios' Overlord, of course, an antagonist view of a world that there's never been a protagonist-starring game in. But it's replete with the kind of humor you'd hope for, and is squarely in the tradition of earlier games like Dungeon Keeper which rain derision down on the stylized hero.

Appropriately, one of the most interesting protagonist/antagonist flips, albeit not so direct as the above examples, is the Gearbox-developed Half-Life: Opposing Force, in which the player is one of the enemies from Valve's original Half-Life. There are no major gameplay changes, but it's an altogether less cartoon-y way to switch perspectives.

So how about it, Valve? The entire 'god game' genre allows those currently ensconced in basements to believe that they are taking over the world. Why don't you go all Evil Genius for a spinoff?

In this slightly tortured game, GlaDOS can be designing nigh impossible traps for 'test subjects' to traverse. Throw some Tower Defense-style enemy and obstacle placement in there, and you've got a game. You can even pick varieties of cake for victors to hypothetically snack upon.

Still, get anyone to evaluate the chances of this game being successful, and I think they'd be pretty skeptical. Most passively acted games, like the Deception series, just aren't that popular because, y'know, most people don't like being passive.

Thus, there's two approaches. There's the mascot-style absolutism. But today's forward-thinking game is dealing with this issue in a completely different way. Why get the player to empathize with the good guy, and then completely switch his allegiance to the bad guy for the sequel - a bit of a stretch - when you can be all these things in one game?

In the modern era, BioWare's Knights Of The Old Republic was one of the first titles to do this, with some obvious Jedi/Sith themes to riff off. And at least one of the top games of this holiday season, Lionhead's Fable II, builds its entire hook around the protagonist have the choice of whether to be good or bad. It's malleability taken to extremes.

One of my favorite movies, Jake Kasdan's Zero Effect, has Ben Stiller's character Steve Arlo explaining to the slightly overwrought, self-deluded 'world's greatest private detective' Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman): "There are no good guys. There are no bad guys. It's just a bunch of... guys."

In today's post-black & white society, this maxim equally applies. Which is probably why the answer to this column's question is subtler than you might think. After all, what games like Fallout 3 and Fable II show above all is that, in this nuanced world, it's not really about the barrel-chested hero and the moustache-twiddling villain. It's just a bunch of... guys.

GameSetLinks: Welcome To The Otherland

All kinds of happy goodness on GameSetLinks, this time out, headed up, at least visually, by the completely bonkers 'cyberpunk' PC MMO Otherland, which is the only game I've seen that makes Second Life's mandelbrot chic excesses look visually tame.

Luckily, there's some other stuff in here to make your brains explode less, including the latest instalment of the adorably quiffed Kenka Banchou series, classic Chris Crawford game box scans, the case against art games (rise up, artisans!), and quite a few others besides.

Man of mystery:

NCSX Import Video Games & Toys: Kenka Banchou 3: Zenkoku Seiha - New Import, In Stock
An interesting cult schoolyard brawler series that's Japan-only gets a third instalment: 'The new protagonist in Kenka Bancho is a fresh-faced youth named Takashi Sakamoto who's living on the wrong side of the school yard. He's tough, fast, and has got a serious problem with authority figures. To that end, he gets into fights with other toughs and bristles in the presence of teachers.'

Old Paradigms and a Podcast | How They Got Game
The Stanford Cabrinety Collection has some really interesting scans of early Chris Crawford simulation games for Atari - not just Scram, which was the nuclear-related one I knew about.

Feature: 15 Indie Games for the Holidays - Big Download Blog
Great selection, and another example of people caring about the indie scene, hurray.

One more past blast: Enigma - The Gameshelf
Andrew Plotkin knows good puzzles when he sees them - so I direct you to Enigma, an update of Atari ST puzzle classic Oxyd.

gamebunny » Blog Archive » Otherland: What In The World?
The PC Gamer screenshots/info made it look MMO-bubble cuckoo in the best cyberpunk ways: 'Singapore-based developer, Real U is bringing author, Tad Williams' sci fi novels to life, where varied virtual worlds are lorded over by the super rich. One moment you are traipsing across a “steampunk Mars world”, the next, a “Through the LookingGlass” environment where Oz is “over-industrialized” and out of control.' [UPDATE: Wait, GamesRadar has the preview up, with suitably Bladerunnerneon screenshots.]

Game Design Advance » The Case Against ‘Art-Games’
It's sorta fun we're having this discussion, even if it all seems a little definitionally random: 'The prevailing wisdom may be that games have not achieved the vaunted status of ‘art’, but perhaps the problem isn’t with games. Perhaps the problem is with our own ability to recognize their artistic merits.'

GAMBIT: Updates: Introducing Ochos Locos and the Locos Engine!
'Ochos Locos is a tiny game with a tremendous goal: get players of all ages and nationalities playing and, eventually, creating together. Developed in Python, Ochos Locos was originally created for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO laptop and is also now available for Windows and Linux environments.'

Free Pixel » Looking into Shadows - should Machinima be interactive?
Excellent piece on the PS3 demo: 'Linger in Shadows tries to make exactly this activity, the play with the material of the projected image, accessible to the player. When I shake the PS3 controller, I shake the image, break the sound and continuity of the “film” clip, and find the space in-between. Like the momentary blackness between two projected film images we explore the space between individual visual
moments.'

December 1, 2008

Column: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Thanksgiving Break

['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.]

Everyone needs a break now and again -- I know I do, after having written about what seems like 20,000 magazines over the years here -- so for this holiday, I thought I'd cover a couple electronics-themed mags I picked up earlier in the week, one of whom I love with all my heart and two I at least enjoy a fling with now and then:

Make Issue 16

make16.jpg

If there is hope for print media about video games, or for that matter any kind of very nerdy topic, then this is it.

Make is a lot more than a technology/do-it-yourself mag. It's a snappy and visually interesting introduction to modern nerd-dom, with the '70s definition of nerd ("I wired my S-100 bus machine with an extra 4K of RAM over the weekend instead of going to the company picnic with my wife") used instead of the modern one ("I used an iPhone to split up the bar tab"). The "visually interesting" phrase is important here; unlike other electronics periodicals, the emphasis is on ideas, concepts, and neat pictures over tech details.

And even when tech details are required, the light, airy, Edge-like visual design keeps attention spans engaged. Photos and diagrams are everywhere. You can flip to any random page and find something interesting to read. Try flipping through a modern US game mag. You're guaranteed to stop on an advertisement of some sort, whether a pull-out poster or subscription card. The sense of curiosity is lost.

But Make still has it, and a lot of that is because of its smaller dimensions, I think -- the tinier size allows for 200 pages an issue, and you feel like you're getting a ton, even for the premium price.

That's the watchword there -- "premium." Yeah, Make is a luxury item. But it's not that expensive, and the unique size, look, voice and design of it makes the buyer feel like he's getting something special. Compare that to game mags, where subs cost pocket change and only crazy coots like me keep any issue longer than a few months.

Nuts and Volts December 2008

nutsvolts2.jpg

I confessed in this column a while back that I bought an issue of Nuts and Volts sheerly because of how silly the cover looked. I must sheepishly admit that I did it again. Sorry. I was standing there at the bookstore wondering what was up with Santa's right arm, and I... I... I just couldn't help myself. Forgive me.

Nuts and Volts, along with its main competitor Circuit Cellar, is among the only hardcore electronics-hobbyist mags left in the US marketplace. They survive chiefly thanks to their diehard readership and an even more dedicated base of advertisers, some of whom have been doggedly supporting both mags since their launches in the '80s.

In terms of content, both mags are kind of amateur in style, a term I don't mean to sound offensive. Articles are mostly submitted by enthusiasts who snap their own pictures of parts, and schematics and step-by-step circuit instructions are de rigeur. It's a hobbyist rag, in other words, while Make is meant more to read for its own sake. Both approaches have their charms, but N&V wins out in cover design, no contest. Ahem.

Popular Communications December 2008

popcomm.jpg

Another hobbyist mag I bought mainly for its cover. Damn, this looks exactly like any computer mag from the early 1980s! And as this index shows, neither the logo nor the visual design has changed appreciably since the title's launch in 1982.

PopComm is a mag about shortwave radios and police scanners and that sort of thing, a companion volume to its big brother, the amateur-radio mag CQ. Like N&V, it's mostly supported by diehard (and old) radio buffs and suppliers, and in many ways it looks like something from a bygone era inside and out. And yet...it's oddly readable.

I have no interest in amateur communications, but I still dig reading this, especially the article on the soon-to-be-dead art of TV DX, enabling people in Massachusetts to receive stations from South Carolina and Venezuela. I have a thing for "subversive" tech like that, the sort of thing Make or 2600 might cover. If only there were a little more of that...

[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.]

GDC Europe To Take Place At 2009 GamesCom

[My colleagues who run the GDC events have been on a bit of a roll recently, what with the main SF-based GDC event, Austin GDC, and the recent announcement of GDC Canada, and here's the capper - we're doing a pan-European developer event, appropriately called GDC Europe, at GamesCom in Cologne next August. Looking forward to supping Kolsch over there with you good Euro devs next August...]

Gamasutra parent Think Services has announced its flagship European event, Game Developers Conference (GDC) Europe for August 17th-19th 2009, alongside new German consumer games event GamesCom, with former GCDC head Frank Sliwka joining Think Services to run the event.

Think Services also runs game industry events including next March's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and September's Austin GDC, as well as the recently announced GDC Canada, while also operating Gamasutra.com and Game Developer magazine.

Frank Sliwka, who formerly worked at GC organizer Leipziger Messe, where he was conference director for the GC Developers Conference (GCDC) and national/international advisor, will join the Think Services Game Group as Vice President of European Business Development and Event Director, GDC Europe.

In association with the announcement, Think Services is acquiring the business of Global Games Media (GGM), the Sliwka-headed organization specializing in marketing, business development, and event management for the international game industry.

Sliwka will lead the management of GDC Europe, bringing with him years of game industry conference and event management experience. The event will take place August 17-19, 2009 in Cologne, Germany, alongside the GamesCom event, which recently changed its dates to August 19-23, 2009.

“We are thrilled to present GDC Europe during gamescom,” Kathy Schoback, Executive Vice President, Global Events, Think Services, said. “A world class game developer event belongs at the premier European game industry event. With the support of Koelnmesse, BIU (the German Trade Association of Interactive Entertainment Software), and the City of Cologne, Europe’s most significant games gathering will definitely be a great success, and we couldn’t be more excited to have Frank Sliwka bring his deep experience to helping deliver GDC Europe.”

"We are pleased to welcome the European development community to GDC Europe during gamescom,” noted Oliver P. Kuhrt, Executive Vice President of Koelnmesse GmbH. “The team in charge of GDC Europe, Think Services and Frank Sliwka, are professionals who are renowned for organizing internationally respected developer events and who have deep industry experience, strong networking connections, and know how.”

More information on GDC Europe will be unveiled in the near future via the official GDC Europe website.

GameSetLinks: The Ecclesiastical Comics

Time to spool out the ol' GameSetLinks again, headed by Eurogamer covering Xbox Live Community Games - and I'm delighted to see obvious mainstream coverage of this particularly difficult to navigate part of the New Xbox Experience. This is why recommendations are increasingly important, folks.

Also hanging out in here - the cute Castlevania: Order Of Ecclesia comics translated (pictured), NVScene lecture videos available, a digital version of MCV debuts, some fun Taito recommendations, and more besides.

Cha cha cha:

Xbox Live Community Games Roundup Article // Xbox 360 /// Eurogamer
Really nice to see mainstream media covering these so adroitly, since there's certainly a lot to wade through.

demoscene.us - NVScene seminar videos available
Some excellent technical talks from the Nvidia-sponsored U.S. demo scene event are now available in video form.

8bitrocket:Atari Nerd Interviews The First Mainstream Game Journalist - Michael Schrage Of Rolling Stone
A great informal interview with a super-early mainstream game journo, with quotes like this, among other things: 'it's like sushi; japanese video games were an acquired taste but they transformed how americans both played and designed them...'

Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii vie for Christmas salesXbox 360, PS3 and Wii vie for Christmas sales - Telegraph
No, not VGChartz :/ As I've explained at length, reputable news sources should not be using them as a lead stat.

Translation of Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia 4koma at WELCOME TO THE DREAM OF FUTURE
Some very odd/cute official comics for the latest Castlevania DS fanservice, translated by (former?) GSW cartoonist Persona.

MCV Issue 515, November 28th 2008
UK game biz trade magazine MCV now has a free digital version for the first time, and it's fun to look through to understand the still independent-friendly - though, one would imagine, increasingly less so - world of UK games retail.

The Reticule » Blog Archive » Cliff Harris Interview
This interview with the Kudos/Democracy indie game maker has some interesting opinions on using portals for distribution: 'You MUST have some direct sales. By all means have some portals as part of your game plan, but all developers attract some gamers who just happen to really share their tastes, and these people WANT to buy direct from you.'

1UP: 'EGM Extras: The Essential Taito'
It's nice to see video game history well-documented in pieces like this - particularly when the Taito Legends/Memories packs have a number of these games easily playable legally on consoles, which is wonderful.

November 30, 2008

GameSetInterview: 'Bleep To Gold - Remixing The Mega Man 9 Soundtrack'

[We're pleased to introduce a new set of GameSetWatch-exclusive interviews with game musicians, conducted by Jeriaska. He starts things out with a great chat to the Inti Creates folks behind the Mega Man 9 remix album.]

Following the release of Mega Man 9, the Inti Creates sound team developed an arranged music album composed of remixed songs from the NES-style platformer.

Produced by Ippo Yamada, who participated in a Siliconera interview last month on the subject of the original soundtrack, the new album includes the participation of composers from Capcom’s 8-bit era and other musical guests.

Here Yamada offers an introduction to the arranged album and the process behind its creation, this time joined by Inti Creates composer Ryo Kawakami and guest arranger Akari Kaida, whose songs can be heard on the Breath of Fire III and Luminous Arc soundtracks, among others.

The discussion offers an informal look at how videogame composers consider the context of their music and the process of adapting in-game tunes to other genres, including classical, hard rock, fusion and jazz.

Thunder Tornado, Mega Man 9 Original Soundtrack

See the translated track list. Hear other samples at Inti Creates.

Interview by Jeriaska. Translation by Ryojiro Sato. This text is also available in Japanese on Game Design Current and in Portuguese on Bem Vindo a WarpZona!

GameSetWatch: Thank you for joining us for this discussion of the music of Mega Man 9, original and arranged. Could you tell us a little about your background in writing music for the Mega Man series?

Ryo Kawakami: I’m Ryo Kawakami. I started working for Inti Creates in November of last year. I’ve written songs for a few games previous to joining, including Mega Man ZX and Mega Man ZX Advent. Recently I composed songs for Mega Man 9.

GSW: Which songs that you have been responsible for composing for the Mega Man series stand out in your memory?

Kawakami: Previously I have written quite a few songs, but maybe the best known is the Prometheus and Pandora Battle Theme “Trap Factory” from Mega Man ZX and “Trap Phantasm” from ZX Advent. For Mega Man 9, I wrote the opening, the title song, the themes for Magma Man, Plug Man, Wily Stage 1 and the Special Stage.

GSW: Were any of the songs you just mentioned composed in collaboration with other musicians?

Kawakami: Those songs I wrote independently, though I received a lot of good advice.

GSW: Which of your songs for Mega Man 9 are you particularly proud of?

Kawakami: I’m really pleased with how the atmosphere of Wily Stage 1 turned out. The sun is setting, thunder is echoing… it’s got something of the feel of Mega Man 2’s Wily Stage 1. For Plug Man, I wanted there to be something of an electrical static to the song, kind of like the high frequency sound in Quick Man's stage from Mega Man 2. I thought it turned out pretty well.

GSW: What were the songs that you were involved in reinterpreting for the second soundtrack?

Kawakami: For the arranged album, I remixed three songs total. The opening and ending themes have received piano arrangements. How might you describe the Plug Man remix? It’s kind of an electronic, progressive rock song with keyboards at the forefront and live drums.

Akari Kaida: I’m Akari Kaida. I joined Capcom in 1994 and have written for a variety of projects, but as far as Mega Man is concerned, I wrote songs for Mega Man and Bass, Mega Man ZX Advent, and Mega Man Battle Network 1 & 5. I went freelance in 2005, and joined the arrange soundtrack for Mega Man 9 this year.

GSW: You are often credited as Akari Kaida Groves. Is this your formal name?

Kaida: Yes, my husband is Australian, so I compose music under the Western surname of Groves.

GSW: Mega Man & Bass is one of the few early Mega Man titles not to be localized for English-language territories, only receiving a release years later for the Game Boy Advance. There were various musicians who contributed to the soundtrack. Which songs were yours?

Kaida: Let's see, I think they were Cloud Man, Ground Man... and Tengu Man, I'd say. There may have been others, but it's hard to remember.

GSW: What was your contribution to the arrange soundtrack?

Kaida: For the arranged album, Yamada-san suggested I write something stylish and easygoing... a kind of European, French-style scat vocal. The state I was looking to capture was laid back and untroubled. Because quite a few of the other arrangements involved electronic instruments, I was going for a more acoustic sound by comparison. There’s an acoustic guitar in there if you listen closely. It was fun to write.

Ippo Yamada: I’m Ippo Yamada, sound producer and sound director for Inti Creates. I did not focus so much on composing this time, writing two tracks total—Tornado Man and the Staff Roll theme. I really would have liked to compose more, but my hands were full serving as the producer. In addition to working on the game itself, I produced the original soundtrack album along with the arrange soundtrack.

We wanted to do something different in terms of style of music, while retaining the quality of the original tunes, or perhaps preserve the quintessential images from each of the stages and robots. The Magma Man arrangement is interesting. Magma Man resides inside a volcano, so the track features a passionate Spanish style sound with a furious rhythm. I asked Uchiyama-san, who worked on Mega Man 8, to write a dance tune that retains both Tornado Man’s characteristics and the melody line itself. It was asking a lot of him, but he sure did a great job.

Kaida: That one is very cool.

Yamada:  Weren’t you surprised? It sounded really fresh to my ear when I first listened to it. The entire idea behind this arrange album was to enjoy the music in a different light.

Magma Burning, Mega Man 9 Arrange Soundtrack

See the translated track list. Hear other samples at Inti Creates.


GSW: What can you tell us about Inti Creates'... well, creation?

Yamada: Inti Creates started off with eleven employees. Everyone chipped in on the work programming, designing characters, planning the scenario… it felt less like a company than a small team. In fact, it was a company founded on teamwork. We were young and skipped meals, working twenty-four hours making games. While I had gathered some experience while working for Capcom, here I was involved in every area of the creation process. It was a learning experience. We ensured the highest quality possible and got a lot of pleasure out of investing as much substance to the game as we could.

GSW: Does the arrange soundtrack for Mega Man 9 differ from previous music albums made by the company?

Yamada: Past Inti Creates albums have been developed along different lines than Mega Man 9 Arrange Soundtrack. Previously the original soundtrack was not published, so to remind listeners of the original, we stuck close to the source material in the instruments that we used. This time, however, an original soundtrack has been released, so the remixes ought to be something new and different. For this reason we hope people will find it interesting to compare these two versions.

Manami Matsumae of Mega Man 1 & 2 (also known as CHANCHACORIN MANAMI) has arranged Shimoda-san’s Wily Stage 2. In addition to this track, BUN BUN of Mega Man 3 [Yasuaki Fujita] remixed Kawakami-san’s Special Stage theme。 You might think of it as a kind of Breath of Fire-style orchestral track. It has a symphonic sound and a fighting spirit to it. Then there is Makoto Tomozawa, who I worked with on Resident Evil and Mega Man 7. He arranged the Wily Machine song.

After that, there is Luna Umegaki, a composer on Mega Man Zero. She provides a soothing arrangement of Splash Woman’s theme. We were also joined by a musician that has no prior experience with the Mega Man series. Guitarist Toshiki Horizawa arranges Wily Stage 1 in the form of a Jeff Beck-style power ballad featuring a suitably dramatic performance. In that sense, a number of artists have contributed a variety of styles to the album.

GSW: When did you first start becoming interested in videogames?

Kaida: It’s hard for me to recall the game titles, but I often played when I was in elementary school around 10 or 11 years of age.

Yamada: NES?

Kaida: That’s right. The 8-bit era. It’s probably the same for everyone, but I started out with Super Mario. To tell you the truth, I never dreamed of making videogame music. I often played games, and especially enjoyed trying them out on my PC. It was only after entering music school that it even occurred to me that this could be a job.

Yamada: That’s a common story, though. For myself, I had the vague notion that I wanted to create music, but it was not as if I had this insistent notion that my destiny was to write game music.

Kaida: It wasn’t sought out.

rock_magma_tn.jpg

Yamada: Game music, that’s something you think of as fun. Games are all about the interplay of action and reaction. That dramatic component of the experience needs to be reflected in the music. That might be what attracted me to this field in the first place.

Kaida: That sounds about right. You are given a certain theme to work with, and discover how to endow the scene with that feeling. I like that challenge.

Yamada: You are also working with data. If you lose sight of that, the consequences can be devastating. Back then, it wasn’t like now where you can make music using a Mac or PC—you really needed to know how to program. You had to know about compiling and decoding data and be able to discern what was going on within your program. Making videogame music would be very difficult if you did not have much practical knowledge on those subjects.

Kaida: There were also size limitations, forcing you to think about how much information you could include before running out of space.

Kawakami:  The music this time around was designed so that even if some of the sound gets cut off due to the emulated limitations of the 8-bit hardware, it would not interrupt the musical flow. The music still sounds good, even if one or two instruments are interrupted by sound effects every once in a while.

Yamada: You know, I recently was listening to CD recordings of Dragon Quest and Bomberman. It was shocking—Bomberman only uses a single line for the music!

Kawakami: Complicating the melody sometimes distracts from the gameplay.

Yamada:  The trick is to write a strong melody line that drives the music forward regardless of sound loss in other portions of the song. NES music is very particular in that sense.

Kaida: This title intended to imitate the NES, so the sound effects do cut off certain part of the music. If there were the chance in the future, I would want to further explore that aspect of composition.

rockman9_arrange_group.jpg

From left to right: Inti Creates designer Yukimasa Tamura with musicians Ryo Kawakami, Akari Kaida & Ippo Yamada.

[Images courtesy of Capcom and Inti Creates. Photos by Jeriaska. Mega Man 9 Arrange Soundtrack is available for import through VGM World and Amazon.co.jp.]

In-Depth: The Difficult Birth Of EA's Army of Two

[EA Montreal's Army of Two had a high-profile delay before its early 2008 release, and as Gamasutra noted, executive producer Reid Schneider was at the Montreal Games Summit recently to talk about it - as Schneider noted: "Your feature list is not a measure of success."]

The production history of EA Montreal's Army of Two is an interesting one, with the company's decision to delay the game just before its release widely covered in the media.

And during a Gamasutra-attended lecture [thanks, Mathew Kumar!] at the Montreal International Game Summit, executive producer and franchise manager Reid Schneider delved deeper into the game's development.

He shared a postmortem imparting lessons on quality, process and execution for the game, which garnered mixed reviews on its early 2008 debut, but has nonetheless reportedly sold robustly.

Refreshingly, Schneider opened his talk not by focusing on his own personal successes, but by describing his biggest failures -- from working on the "first Game Boy Color game to feature partial nudity," Little Nicky, through Batman: Gotham City Racer, which he called "little more than a mod of Dukes of Hazzard Racing, which did not ever need to be modded."

Keeping On Track

On Army of Two, Schneider explained, the actual production phase was dwarfed by the concepting and pre-production phase, which was "not the right way to do things," even when taking into account the extensive polish phase.

Because Army of Two was intended to be a new IP from an untested studio and was to include what was (at the time) the new concept of an entirely co-op-focused story mode, the team did not know "the exact boundaries of what they were trying to do" and therefore spent "way too long" testing them out.

Though iterative design can have its place, Schneider warned that producers must keep a tight rein on iteration to keep projects on track. "When you have too much iteration with too many people, it can get expensive and unwieldy very quickly," he said.

Creating a productive team culture can also sometimes be counter-intuitive. Going into the project, the strategy was to "minimize team conflicts," but Schneider would now advocate potentially conflicting discourse -- even that which can be seen as being disruptive can be good in the long run, he said.

"Hiring 'disruptive' people is a really good thing," he said, clarifying making a distinction between "disruptive" staffers and "crazy" staffers. "Hiring crazy people is only going to lead to conflict and frustration."

Brutal Honesty: Can You Make The Deadline Or Not?

Returning to Army of Two's unusual production schedule, Schneider cited misplaced optimism for the production phase. "The days of honor badges for shipping games in massively compressed schedules are over," he said.

"If you want to make something triple-A, you need to be brutally honest on if you can do it or not. We work in an industry where miracles never happen, so don't expect one to happen to you."

Teams can no longer get away with releasing titles in compressed schedules, he explained, no matter how innovative the ideas, because innovation is not the defining factor that makes a successful game.

"As developers, we tend to live and die on the field of innovation," he said, "but there is no point to innovation without polished execution. Call of Duty 4's story mode was not focused on innovation, but was executed so superbly it outpaced ours by far.

"When we did a feature-by-feature analysis, we had more and newer features than they did, but their execution was way stronger. Lesson learned."

Feature Lists Won't Win Quality Scores

In fact, it was Schneider's standpoint that execution far outweighs innovation when it comes to a frequently-referenced mark of success -- Metacritic scores.

"Your feature list is not a measure of success," he said. "90-plus Metacritic scores are driven by flawless execution and connecting with your customers in the way that they want." And connecting with customers begins the moment you reveal the project you're developing.

Schneider said that while new IP on next-gen hardware generally has a halo of excitement around it, "you only get one chance to make a first impression. Do not talk about, or show, your new IP unless it is very ready. Because you will end up bruised for the experience."

In closing, the producer reflected on the biggest lessons that he felt he had learned the hard way during Army of Two's production -- the need for a creative director.

"Two years ago I was arguing against the position, but now I know that triple-A titles need precision creative focus, and even then they still assume a huge amount of risk," Schneider concluded. "A producer can not do it all. You will have too many factors pulling on you."

Exploring Online Worlds: The Oddness Of Trukz

[Over at sister 'online worlds' site Worlds In Motion, Mathew Kumar continues to expand the Worlds In Motion Atlas, and I really like the way he goes off the beaten track to cover online games that, well, other folks don't. This time - the browser-based trucking game (yes, really!) Trukz.]

Here's an overview of Trukz, a persistent browser-based trucking simulation.

2008_11_14_truckz.jpgName: Trukz

Developer: Trukz

Established: May 2007

How it Works: Trukz is entirely browser-based and runs in HTML. Navigation and gameplay are accomplished via mouse and keyboard input.

2008_11_14_truckz1.jpgOverview: Trukz is a largely text based game where players create a driver, buy a truck and earn money by hauling loads from real-life cities around the world. Cities have distinct supplies and demands, and with cash earned players can buy upgrade and new trucks. Players have to deal with issues such as fatigue, gas prices and weather, and players can cooperate with other drivers by joining "companies" and talk to other players via "CB Radio."

Payment Method: Trukz is free to play; players can make a donation (starting at $5.00) to receive in-game cash bonuses.

Key Features:
- Real-world set trucking simulation
- Active community with player-run "companies"

Trukz: In-Depth Tour

2008_11_21_truckz.jpg

Trukz! What on earth to make of this unusual trucking simulation? Well, rather than get straight to answering that question, I've decided to digress and talk about what made this game uniquely attractive to me.

You see, this week I was lucky enough to meet David Braben, one of the co-creators of the seminal space trading game Elite. Elite was one of the first games that I had for my first computer—an Amstrad CPC 6128 (with color monitor!), if you can believe that—and it's (at that point) unique "buy low here, travel there and sell high" gameplay fascinated me, even if my six-year-old hands were completely unable to successfully dock with space stations nine times out of ten.

I've always wished to play something that recreated that experience—and I soldered on playing Frontier: First Encounters way longer than I should have, for example—but nothing ever has (admittedly, I have yet to play Eve Online.)

I'll say straight away that in its own modest way, Trukz fills a hole that Elite made. After making my driver—which I should have named Commander Jameson, now that I think about it—I bought him the cheapest truck (assuming that would allow me to raise money to buy a decent truck sooner) and set him off from his home base in Toronto to the nearest city which required what it could offer.

Like most other browser-based MMO titles (indeed, nearly all) Trukz requires players to use up a limited resource—in this case, fatigue points—which are then replenished over time by being away from the game. Trukz juices this up, however, by making your "expected arrival time" in another city a point in real time. So if you set off on a trip from North Carolina to New York but forget to log in for a week, you'll lose almost all of your profit to late fees (something I've done myself.)

The game isn't entirely single-player, however, and has, honestly, the most active community of any browser-based game I've played yet. I'm not sure why that is—it's entirely possible that the online trucking community follows the pattern of the reputedly tight-knit real-world trucking community—but literally within minutes of logging in I received invites to join tens of different companies, all offering wildly differing benefits, such as reduced costs for repairs, fuel costs, tickets all for a cut of the profits.

I'm not entirely sure there's much more depth to go into—almost all of Trukz is going from one location to another, talking on "CB radio" and buying new items or trucks, and so there's little left to do but conclude if that is enough or not—which you'll find out in our conclusion.

Trukz: Conclusion

2008_11_24_trukz.jpg

Yes, I've been playing Trukz for a while and (finally) worked out that the game is actually called "Trukz" and not any variant of that. But what to make of it?

Well, I think Trukz is fascinating. It's got a (frankly) very obscure and specific theme, one which only a certain subset of gamers/internet users are going to be interested in, and yet (or perhaps because of that) it has a strong, vibrant community. If the concept of long-haul trucking thrills you, you probably could not have more fun than playing this game and interacting with the other players.

Though the game is graphically very simple—by which I mean there are almost no graphics at all—it's quite evocative, because once you've purchased a GPS unit, you can view your truck moving across the real world map.

If there is a problem, it's how strict it is in comparison to other browser-based games which "tick" to give you action points. In the game you have to wait regularly in order to regain the fatigue points which allow you to continue on your journeys, however, if you remain logged out for too long, you will tend to suffer late penalties.

As a result, the game, rather than being the kind of game where you can log in every few days, is quite demanding when you're on a journey, and after a few big failures—especially if you've had your truck break down a once or twice—you can be faced with what feels like insurmountable odds.

But what is there to learn from Trukz? Well, I'd consider the game educational in the way that going to your local board game store is for the average video game or MMO developer, because it makes it clear that not everything needs to be festooned in triple-A graphics and mechanics as long as it has a concrete theme.

Though few gamers might be interested in long haul trucking, there is nothing wrong with concentrating on a small group of gamers and offering them the best experience they can get within their limited requirements.

In fact, the more MMO developers who realize this—that a small group of loyal players is better than a huge group of disinterested players—the better, honestly.

Useful Links:
Official Forum
New Player Guide



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


Copyright © UBM TechWeb