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December 13, 2008

GameSetInterview: Play Dough: On Creating XBLA’s First Claymation Videogame.

[Who doesn't love Claymation? Only curmudgeons and illiterates, we think, and Simon Parkin was kind enough to sit down with Platypus creator Anthony Flack and the Tuna Technologies folks, who are doing things right by building Cletus Clay for Xbox Live Arcade and PC.]

As if creating a Metal Slug-style side-scrolling shooter starring a loudmouth hillbilly weren’t enough to distinguish his Xbox Live Arcade game from the crowd, Anthony Flack, Cletus Clay’s designer and animator, decided to build all of the game’s assets using clay.

It’s a painstaking process, crafting and posing every character, background object and frame of animation by hand. And the development has not made any easier by the fact that Flack is based in New Zealand on the other side of the world to the rest of his development team, the Sheffield-based Tuna Technologies.

GameSetWatch spoke to Anthony Flack, the game’s creator, Alex Amsel, managing Director of Tuna Technologies and Sarah Quick, one of the game’s artists, to find out how they’ve gone about this extraordinary undertaking and whether all of the painstaking effort’s been worth it.

Simon Parkin: Which came first, the game idea or the decision to make a claymation game?

Anthony Flack: I have pretty much committed myself to keep making claymation games until I feel that I’ve done it as well as I possibly could, and that’s an ambition that predates this particular game.

But actually, in this instance there was also a little game I made on the Amstrad CPC sometime in the late 80s that had an old farmer with a shotgun in it. He was going to be blasting aliens, but it was one of those half-hearted early efforts where you don’t get much further than making the main character jump around on a testbed. For some reason he came to mind again years later when I was deciding what game to do next.

Why did you decide to create a scrolling side-scrolling action game, a genre that’s less popular than it once was and which, in technical terms, a tall challenge to execute well in claymation?

Anthony: Well, the clay animation naturally lends itself better to a side-scrolling game than it does to full-roaming 3d, but mostly I wanted to do this because I enjoy that sort of game and felt like we could do with some more new ones.

I probably seek out less fashionable genres anyway because it’s more fun to operate around the fringes. I was also looking to do a game where I could try out some fluid character animation and get to grips with the issues of character/scenery interaction. There have been a lot of technical challenges in putting the graphics together, but solving technical problems makes us feel clever…

Alex Amsel: Technically it’s a more complex game than any of us imagined. Much of it simply has never been done before, and we’re learning new things almost every day.

What were the lessons you learned from using the technique in Platypus [Flack’s previous claymation game] that changed your approach with Cletus?

Anthony: Doing the graphics for Platypus was not really challenging at all – actually Platypus was a deliberate attempt to avoid dealing with these problems. There was very little animation to speak of, and no character/scenery interaction. And the scenery itself was just a sea of very simple background objects. I wanted to set aside any ambitious animation ideas I had and just concentrate on making a simple sprite game that moved well and was fun to play.

Because I didn't want to be someone who designed technically ambitious games that played like crap, so I felt like I needed to spend some time schooling myself in video game motion and mechanics. And then after I’d made Platypus I felt like I was ready to indulge a bit more of my stop-motion animation side, hopefully without allowing that to get in the way of the game mechanics. The most important thing when doing animation for a game is to make sure the animation doesn’t interfere with the responsiveness of the controls.

What makes the underlying game interesting? Had Cletus Clay’s assets been created in, say, 3D Studio Max, do you think it would still be an exciting proposition for gamers?

Anthony: I know that the clay art gives my games a certain appeal, and perhaps a degree of attention that I wouldn't have if I was using a more conventional style. And there’s nothing wrong with eye candy – I always enjoy a game more if it’s pretty to look at, and if it’s done in an unusual style then so much the better.

But although I do put a lot of work into the graphics, if the game design isn’t fun enough to stand up on it’s own, then I’ve failed. I’m not necessarily looking to create wildly innovative game mechanics – my ultimate ambition is just to make games with good structure and pacing, that are accessible, challenging, and fun all the way through.

Which sounds simple enough, but even within well-established genres it presents a huge, open-ended question: what change could you make to your design, that would make your game more fun than it is now? That’s what keeps me up at night; graphic design issues are a relaxing proposition by comparison.

My biggest hope is that our game will be considered exciting because it’s fun to play. That’s not really a feature you can bullet-point, but it’s the metric by which all games ultimately succeed or fail. Our game is all fast-paced, slapstick violence with tons of enemies, giant robots, explosions and madness at every turn. It should hopefully tap into that reptile part of the brain that enjoys smashing stuff and making a mess. I want players to start having fun from the moment they pick up the controller, so if we succeed you should know it right away.

Can you describe the creative process in getting your clay models into the game?

Anthony: Okay, let’s say we wanted to add a tree. First, either Sarah or I would build a clay model of the tree. For something like that, we’d probably just use solid clay, maybe with a pencil or similar in the trunk to help hold it up. (If the model was going to be animated extensively, then I might make a proper armature for it, and build the model using a combination of plasticine and Sculpey-type oven-hardening polymers, but most of the time that’s not necessary, particularly for scenery objects.)

Once the tree is built, it’s then photographed, and cut out in Photoshop. We may also tweak, colour or make other digital alterations to the image at this point if necessary.
Then the image is mapped onto a flat 3d mesh, and points in the mesh are extruded to give the object volume. We end up with something similar to a relief sculpture, 3d from the front but with no back, and with only rudimentary form around the sides. This then becomes a game asset that we can place in our scenery editor, where the levels are constructed from these semi-3d models.

We build our levels as full 3d scenes, although due to the nature of the objects, it only looks right when viewed from the front. It’s kind of complicated and a bit fiddly, but building the objects in this way means that we can create a full 3d parallax effect when the camera moves, as well as using 3d rendering techniques such as dynamic shadow casting between objects, while still retaining the authentic look of the clay models.

Other than for creating an unusual aesthetic, what are the benefits and drawbacks to using clay over 3D tools in terms of the gameplay experience?

Anthony: From the artist’s perspective, it’s probably faster and easier to model static scenery, and slower and harder to do animated characters than it would be with 3D tools. But in terms of the gameplay experience specifically… well, it’s inherently more limiting than using 3d models because in a 3d environment you can show anything from any angle, and do whatever you like with the camera and the game elements.

We have to be much more specific in planning what we’re going to show and how it’s going to work. Which is both a strength and a weakness, because although it means that some things are off-limits, it forces us to consider other alternatives.

So you end up making different decisions and it shapes the whole game differently. The benefit is that you end up with a different flavour to your gameplay than you would using another method, even with the same team.

Alex: One of the biggest drawbacks is our mixed use of 2d and 3d. Bionic Commando Rearmed just about made it work in a simpler form, but for Cletus Clay we really wanted to get the most out of the clay imagery. Where we’ve really gained on looks, we’ve made our life more difficult in terms of implementing elements such as core physics and player controls. I do think, however, that clay models feel more real, more physical, than many 3d models.

How much clay do you have in your studio?

Anthony: [In New Zealand] I probably have about 30kg of clay at my place. I had a big box of it shipped over at depressing expense when I was starting to get serious about stop-motion animation. I’ve been using and re-using this same clay for years, stripping down the models after I’m done with them.

Sarah Quick: [In Sheffield, UK] Here at Tuna we have literally got boxes of the stuff shoved under a desk. I'm not brave enough to recycle my models yet in case I have to go back and amend them so storage space for the models has also been a bit of a nightmare. If we had a fire like the unfortunate Aardman [British creators of Wallace and Gromit] then our cupboards would be dripping in clay.

Alex: We seem to have as much clay stuck in the carpet as on desks, in cupboards, and under tables!

Did you create the character designs for Cletus Clay on paper before clay modeling them or did you jump right in with the clay?

Anthony: The important characters usually begin to take shape as a rough sketch on paper, just to help visualize what we’re going to do. But it’s during the modeling that the designs really become refined. Clay is quite a responsive medium and the shapes of the models evolve quite naturally as they are constructed. Oftentimes I will just jump straight in with the clay and see what turns out.

Sarah: Depending on the complexity of the model I do try to do a quick sketch, just to get the design sorted in my head. Anthony created some pretty detailed level designs before I even started clay modeling and they have been extremely helpful so it is not always necessary for me to scratch something down on paper. Small things like trees and logs I can make on the fly but when I am creating something huge that is likely to take a lot of time I like to show Anthony what I am thinking of doing before I get stuck in with clay.

Clay modeling is a technique not usually associated with videogaming. Because of that, did you have to artists from outside of the games industry for the team?

Anthony: Haha, yeah, if I had a big team and a big budget I probably would want to hire a couple of stop-motion animators from the film industry, as well as a couple of Photoshop artists and a 3d modeler or two. But since we don’t have a big team it’s kind of a moot point – all the scenery modeling and Photoshop work is done by Sarah and I, and I’ve done all the stop-motion animation in the game myself. (I guess you could say I was an artist from outside the game industry, since I started out doing stop-motion for TV commercials.)

It would be nice to have more people to do the work for me though; I’d be into that. We’d be able to make the games faster and I could have more days off. That’s an excellent suggestion.

Sarah: I completely stumbled into my role as a Clay modeler. I remember being sat with Alex last Christmas, chatting about Cletus, when he asked if I fancied mucking about with some clay to see how I did. I loved sculpture at school and am normally game for getting mucky so after a few brilliant lessons from Anthony I was knee deep in clay and loving it.

Alex: We’re subject to many restrictions as a small indie, so for better or worse we have to work with what we have. Before we set about looking for a second modeler, we gave Sarah a chance. As it turned out, we didn’t need to look any further. Sarah has a habit of grabbing chances like this – she got a job at Tuna by approaching us completely out the blue at a film festival after-show party, then drunkenly asking me for a job!

One of the programmers, Ken, also has an art background so he has helped in non-modeling aspects of the art side, particularly with levels.

Sometimes limitations force you to improvise, and I quite like that we have a small, tight-knit team.

What has been the biggest headache for the team in the creative process?

Anthony: Probably the fact that I live in New Zealand and the rest of the team is in the UK. The internet has made this possible, and it’s great that I can work from anywhere in the world (until recently, I was based in Tokyo).

But there’s still no substitute for being in the same room together. We end up working in chunks and sending the pieces back and forth to each other, so it’s a slightly fractured kind of collaboration.

Alex: As Anthony says, location does make things more difficult. Also, the nature of the project has made scheduling rather less predictable than we would like, but I guess all developers could say that…

As the game comes together do you feel like all of the added effort has been worth it?

Anthony: It’s always worth trying out new things, and we got to use a bunch of techniques that I’d been itching to try out for ages. Experimentation is half of what motivates me to do these projects in the first place. Happily, our experiment is working out really well and I think we’ve got quite a unique-looking game because of it, so I would say it’s been well worth it.

Alex: The development process is quite tough. There has been a lot of two steps forward followed by one step back, but the end results are hugely satisfying.

Why did you decide to clay model by hand rather than, for example, approximating the look with 3D tools?

Anthony: My background is in stop-motion animation anyway, but I suppose you could just as well ask why I decided to study stop-motion animation in the first place while everyone else was learning 3D Max. I just found the idea of having an animation studio, with lights and cameras and models and sets, way more exciting.

And I also thought that there was a danger that with everyone moving towards CG, all these other kinds of animation would start to disappear – I guess this is my instinct to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing kicking in again. I just want to try to help make things a little bit more diverse.

You could probably come pretty close to approximating the look with 3d tools, but I don’t think it would feel like clay animation; just as cel-shaded 3d doesn’t really feel like hand-drawn animation. Any method that you use has its own peculiar strengths and limitations, and that is going to shape the whole character of your work. By building a game using unusual tools, we’re more likely to get unusual results.

Alex: If you show people something and tell them you made it in 3d, they may mutter something or may just walk away. However, if you tell them you actually made it all physically, out of clay, and it sits on a desk, then you move it a bit, take a picture, move it a bit more, take a picture, and so on, then the response you get is completely different.

People love that you actually make these things. There is a magic to it that digital tools don’t have. The same can be said for painting versus Photoshopping, or hand-drawn animation versus Flash.

Did you ever regret the artistic decision to approach the game in this way?

Anthony: Sometimes I see games that are done other ways that make me feel like using a totally different style, but it’s usually something equally esoteric, like coloured pencils and watercolor paint. I don’t regret doing our game the way we have though, because I think it’s looking pretty sweet. If it had all gone horribly wrong then there would have been much gnashing of teeth, but fortunately that hasn’t been the case.

Alex: Artistically it’s great but the programmers, including myself, do much gnashing of teeth at times!

How supportive have Microsoft been in getting your title onto XBLA?

Alex: David Edery (in particular) and our Microsoft producers have been wonderfully supportive all along. I really couldn’t be more positive about our experience so far.

How long will the game take to create from first concept through to submission?

Anthony: An awfully long time. Too long. I first started working on the game in 2003, I think. At that time it was just going to be a PC shareware game; something I was doing on my own, in my spare time. Real-life concerns intervened shortly after, and I suddenly found myself with a lot less spare time than I had, but I kept plugging away at it whenever I got the chance.

By 2007, I was close to finally getting the game finished, but the shareware scene had changed so much in the intervening years - the gold rush on bubble-popping, colour-matching games had reshaped the whole landscape, something I had resisted getting involved in because that kind of casual game really didn’t interest me personally. Meanwhile XBLA had come along, providing an alternative channel that was much more hospitable to an arcade-style action game like mine.

It was about that time that Alex from Tuna saw my demo and expressed an interest in working with me to get the game onto the Xbox 360. I had seen the extremely faithful job they had done in porting Alien Hominid to the GBA so I knew they would be able to do it justice. However, it would require extensive re-designing, adding multiplayer support and other features, and re-working the game’s structure. The graphics all had to be rebuilt in high definition, and the game needed to be re-coded from scratch.

In other words it was more-or-less back to square one. So after a brief period of mourning for all the years of work I was abandoning, I started to write the design document and prepare promotional materials to get the green light for the second, much-improved version of the game to be produced in partnership with the team at Tuna, which is what we have here.

Alex: The submission process with Microsoft took a few months overall, but that allowed us to rework Anthony’s original concept into a form more suited for console.

Did you go over budget with the game?

Alex: Since the game was started in 2003 it’s safe to say that it’s over schedule! The game isn’t due to be finished for a while yet, but everyone is putting in the effort to allow us to get out in 2009.

With it being an indie project, it’s a little difficult to say what the budget was, but it’s certainly a long, long way over the budget Anthony would have started with. I dread to think what the budget would have been if Cletus were a typical studio effort. Then again, I don’t think any studio would have taken the risk with it in this day and age.

Cletus Clay could only come from the amazing independent scene we have now.

What lessons have you learned through the experience? Is there anything you’d do differently next time?

Anthony: It’s been a new experience for me in so many ways, that everything we do is something to learn from. Working with a schedule, writing design documents, co-ordinating with a team, the art, the design… it’s really hard to single out any one aspect. Hopefully I’m slowly and incrementally getting better at all those things. And hopefully all the things we do in the future will also be new and different. Certainly I feel like I’ll have a much better understanding of how the whole process will play out when I put together the next design document.

I think I would also like to spend more time streamlining and simplifying the controls on the next game – I think a stick and two buttons is the ideal, but Cletus ended up needing four. I’m also interested in looking at other ways you can arrange the meta-structure of a game.

I prefer shorter, more tightly-constructed games to big sprawling ones that just bury you under a mountain of content, but there are so many ways you can structure the challenges and the way the game’s content opens up. I’d like to spend some more time looking into different ways of doing that – but right now I can’t afford to distract myself too much with thoughts of “what next?” or I’d never finish anything…

Alex: I have learned one thing. Next time Anthony says, “I have this great idea to make it better…”, I’m going to put my hands over my ears and run away, screaming, “la la la la la I can’t hear you la la la la”.

Just kidding.

Interview: The Making Of Resistance 2's Co-Op Mode

[Talking in-depth to Christian Nutt at big sister site Gamasutra about Resistance 2's co-operative mode, Insomniac Games' Jake Biegel explains how the big PS3 Xmas title handles a pretty in-depth, interesting mode, both from a design and execution standpoint.]

Released worldwide and exclusively for the PlayStation 3 last month, Insomniac Games' Resistance 2 will likely be one of the biggest sellers for the system this holiday season and the go-to title for PS3 gamers wanting an online multiplayer shooter for many months to come.

The game features three different modes -- single-player, multiplayer competitive, and multiplayer cooperative. Insomniac's co-op lead designer Jake Biegel spoke with Gamasutra in-depth on the development of Resistance 2's multiplayer co-op mode.

Biegel not only shares how the studio took inspiration from World of Warcraft's "spirit," but how the game scales enemies and bosses to handle both small and large groups of players, and how it mines data from the Resistance community to tune the experience.

Obviously, co-op is something that you guys wanted to differentiate from other modes in Resistance 2. It's very different from anything else that's out right now. Could you talk a little bit about where the inspiration came originally?

Jake Biegel: We definitely looked to some games for some places to start. Our initial intent was to make a multiplayer game that people actually played together, so we looked at multiplayer games in which people are forced to play together, not apart.

We looked at experiences like Team Fortress 2, in which there are dependencies on classes, and games like World of Warcraft, in which there are large amounts of people working in tandem, creating this kind of epic synergy to overcome these encounters that wouldn't be overcomeable as an individual.

We really wanted to focus on teamwork and the buzz that comes from people working together online, because even though there's some downtime when you're not playing together, the buzz is that much higher when the group locks together and everything falls into place.

You said the word "force" -- the idea is that the player won't feel forced, they'll feel excited, right?

JB: Right.

So, it's an encouragement thing. Did you analyze what design elements worked in those games, exactly?

JB: For instance, one way that we had to really distinguish ourselves from the other modes in Resistance 2 was regenerating health. Co-op is the one mode that does not have regenerating health. That's a subtle change, but at the same time, it puts a huge amount of pressure on the Medic, and the group is more likely to stick together.

It was funny with that one particularly, because there was push and pull, as it was the only mode that didn't have health regeneration. The moment we turned health regeneration back on, the moment people got injured, they would run to cover.

They would run away from the group, because they wouldn't rely on the Medic to heal them. Just that small mechanic [helped make teamwork] that much more organic by having those dependencies.

We have a lot of crossovers. For instance, the Special Ops ammo packs give healing charges to the Medic, as well as a shield boost and ammo to the soldier. There are all these crossover dependencies so that each class has contributions that they can give to the other two classes.

I'm assuming you did a great deal of prototyping with the way the classes function and the way the co-op would work. Could you talk a bit about that process?

JB: A lot of it was paring down my original design, because my design was very aggressive in scope, and it still is to a large degree. In the end, we treated it like a flagship mode, in terms of the depth we tried to add to the mode, and we had to taper back from that.

That's where we got the gravity of the mode, by treating it like a flagship mode, and then pulling back from there. The development of it was very much a very aggressive design. It definitely got scaled back from what it originally was.

You started with a paper design?

JB: A paper design of the way I wanted a multiplayer experience to be -- the incentives, rewards, and progression that would be there.

From there, we probably spent the most time developing the subtleties of how the classes would work together, really testing that plane to make sure the group would work together, because we had a lot of false starts and stuff that was left on the cutting room floor that just didn't work.

There's a fair amount of content that's unique to all three modes, which is a challenge just in terms of -- I don't even want to use the word "justify." I'm talking about the push and pull, "If you do this, you can't do this," and resources can only go so far.

That was definitely a challenge, but in the end, the upside to that is we have three modes with very distinct flavors. You can either gravitate towards one, or if you get bored with one, you can move to another, and there's that Orange Box feel to the whole thing.

I didn't think about it, but you're right, they are almost like different games to an extent. They're all inside the Resistance universe, but they have their own rules and themes. They have their own play style and play mode.

JB: Each mode really does have custom features. There are bosses in single-player that you won't see in co-op, although we try to use a lot of the big enemies, and you'll see them and Easter eggs in the co-op levels. We couldn't work everything into a co-op thing.

There are 'berserks' you'll only see in co-op called "Specific Functionality." We have competitive specific 'berserks.' Each mode has things that are absolutely exclusive to that mode.

How was the push towards developing modular content? The 'bosses' in particular are what I would call "design heavy." They are very aimed towards the protagonists taking them on and fighting them in sort of a set piece. That's difficult to make work, I would say.

JB: It was difficult to make work. The challenge was more in getting people to play together, and the challenge was to go back to the modular content. We have this concept of these special zones that we flip in for the end. If you get one that's the end, we swept out a new objective so it feels more epic.

We felt like we were pioneering, in terms of creating content that's dynamic and ... getting eight 'bosses' to work with eight players. Any entity that you point eight guns at all at once is going to need some special love for co-op.

The AI ramifications of what happens when you have eight targets vs. one are huge. That's why our co-op team worked around the clock to add on functions or modules that would make it work in co-op.

That's a good point. It's not so much just pumping up the hit points and hoping for the best; the behavior pattern of a boss is going to have to be drastically different.

JB: We struggled with that. As we had eight targets around these enemies, we had to make additions and modifications to make sure that the enemies could handle not being overwhelmed and still offer a challenge for players, because when you have eight guns pointed at anything, it falls pretty quickly.

So, we had to make them dynamically scaled in relation to the strength of the group.

That's something I want to talk about, because it's max eight players. What's the minimum, two?

JB: Right, minimum two. When you miss a class and you're playing just two, it's going to be tough. We knew that going in. We didn't want to cut any corners when it came to challenging the group. We wanted these things to feel like they were in these epic experiences that had to be overcome by a group, so we didn't really want to water it down.

With that being said, two players is very challenging, especially because of the dependencies between the classes. Not having one class available [or having] a small unit is very challenging. But our most hardcore fans have enjoyed it because of that challenge, depending on which kind of challenge that they want.

Eight is a pretty high requirement, for having to get eight people together at the same time to play through. How long do these levels last approximately? Because it's not a single player story, you play through a mission, and then it cuts there.

JB: Right. Because of the variability, and because of the maps and all that, it really depends on what you're doing. I'd say that they take, at minimum, 10 minutes to get through with a well-oiled eight-player group, and it can go as fast with four if you have a really well-oiled group.

Just to answer your question, with the variability, it's really hard to pinpoint how long these missions will take, because that really is based on the players' skill, the collection of missions that they get with any given play pack, and what map they're playing on.

Did you worry about the high player requirements or the high skills requirements in building co-op? Did you want to make it a challenge for the cream-of-the-crop, hardcore audience?

JB: It's an interesting challenge that we have because there are a lot of different facets, And again, balancing this thing is really a beast because of the variability and because it's this ever-changing thing. Trying to throw reigns on it is infinitely hard.

It's hard to say, because ... if you get into a group with a very well-oiled team, it's really not that hard.

The difficulty goes because it's like an instance or raid. You can go into that same raid with a horrible pick-up group, and you can be like, "Oh, my god. This is the most painful thing; I'm pulling my eyes out." And you go back with a group of skilled players, and all of a sudden, it's like, "What was I worried about before? This is entirely easy."

And that's what we have. You might get beat up when you're playing with a bunch of noobs, but if you get in with some more skilled players or even with people who just want to play together and are open to supporting each other, you'll see that it comes much easier.

We have seen people in the beta just pick this up, and it's been so reassuring to us. We've seen people just calling out orders and just getting it, plowing through this stuff.

[In] the first day, we saw people who made it halfway through the level unlocks. That's not halfway through the co-op campaign, but that's just plowing your way through. There are people out there pushing the limits.

Were you surprised that people picked it up as quickly as they did, in general?

JB: Yes, it exceeded my personal expectations for how intuitive it was going to be, because there's a lot of subtlety there. The thing that I am probably happiest about [with] the co-op is the teamwork that it invokes, organically.

People just play together, and it's really good for us and inspiring for us to see that.

How many classes are there?

JB: There are three.

So, if you have a group of three players, you can have one of every class.

JB: The game is balanced to be played with any singular class, it allows for that. If you want to experiment and go in with all Medics, you can do that. If you want to go in with all Soldiers, you can still do that, because our enemies drop ammo occasionally, so you can make it through without Special Ops. Everybody has the ability to revive [each other], but the medics revive much faster than any other class, so again, it doesn't force a Medic to be there to progress.

It sounds like you got inspiration from World of Warcraft raids. Did you follow these archetypes, like Tank, Priest, or direct damage ...

JB: I think it's more of the spirit than anything that we looked at for specific classes. There are no totems or anything like that. It's definitely the spirit of that forced dependency and really relying on each other, and that buzz that you get from working together to overcome things, less than actually following the classes.

And even though it's similar to a couple of games, I think it's very unique from games like Team Fortress. Our Medic functions much differently than the Medic in TF2. We really did go out of our way to make sure that we had our own flavor for the Resistance franchise.

It's interesting, because I'm personally very interested when designers solve problems by observing outside their genre. At the same time -- and I'm not talking about Resistance 2 -- I'm less impressed when designers think, "Hey, I really like World of Warcraft, so I'm going to turn this racing game into WoW."

JB: I don't think it's like that [with Resistance 2]. I think that [when people] play it, it feels like a raid. To some degree, there's nothing new under that sun. People are borrowing from each other, but there's nothing that we ripped off. Everybody knows that people borrow things from other companies, right?

It's all about the execution and how you bring it. I consider what we do to be an art form, and the greatest artists of all time have been inspired by other people's art.

The thing about game development is, yes, it's a creative endeavor, but at the same time, you're also building software, and software is built around solving problems. It's an interesting synthesis. Looking at how other people solve problems is the only intelligent way to go, right?

JB: Yeah, and also, as far as the history that I've seen, as long as you put your take on it and expand the sensibility, bringing something new to the table, then it's not a big deal to people.

People understand that you're standing on the shoulders of giants and taking it further. What people, including myself, get really bitter about, is when they just rip this thing out and smack it in, just thinking something is going to work.

And they don't care about it, or they don't understand what they're doing, they're just copying. But we didn't do anything like that. It was much more the spirit than anything we directly copied.

As long as we're talking about it, the game scales, too, right? When you have two people or eight people, it scales in terms of both what types of enemies and how many enemies spawn in, right?

JB: We have a variation for all those things, how many enemies and how much their hit points are, depending on how big the group is, mostly because of that analogy of having eight guns pointed at certain enemies.

We don't scale health much, but just enough so things don't feel like they're paper when you're playing with a group of eight. Because when we had eight players and we weren't doing any health scaling, things were just paper.

There are player numbers, player types, and even setups that we'll swap out to make sure that you get an epic ending. ... That's why you can go through a zone and be like, "Oh, this is playing out entirely differently than the last time I was here."

And you might go through a level and never see some of these Easter egg bosses that we put in, and then [you'll play] 30 or 40 hours in and happen to get this combination.

Did you do a lot testing to determine what combinations or settings were relevant to the different numbers of players? Did you have to do a lot of play testing?

JB: Yes, [we did] a huge amount of play testing, but it still wasn't enough. To go back into the complexity of this mode with the dynamicism, the variability, the different classes, the progression, and all the upgrades that you get ... Like I said, we treated it like a flagship mode in terms of complexity and depth.

And with that, it turned into this monster that we we threw as much play testing as we could at, and luckily, it's a multiplayer game. We continue to be very active on the forum. And we will be patching and making adjustments that balance it, just like any good online game does.

[Marketing director Ryan Schneider] was saying that you can, to an extent, use the MyResistance registered users and mine their data to see how their game play goes. Is that something that you're going to be using?

JB: Absolutely. I know we have one of the most robust stat tracking systems out there. We're tracking tens of thousands of lines and states.

And a lot of that stuff we pre-requested to have data mining for -- like how many people are dying in a zone, how much grey tech is collected in a run, what's the class makeup -- all those things, we can look at that.

A lot of these stats are stuff that are transparent to the players and the users of MyResistance.

JB: Yeah. Most of the stuff that we use explicitly aren't stats that the player would want to know; it's stuff that we ask for specifically so we can tune the experience.

That must be super valuable.

JB: Yeah, it's really important to me. We made sure that we had a very lengthy list of variables that we could check for to make sure that we really have our finger on the pulse of what's happening.

Best Of Indie Games: Sweet Jesus, Indie Games!

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

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

The goodies in this edition include a religious RPG, a retro one-switch game, the Mac port of Data Realms' Cortex Command, a 2D platformer with Lovecraftian influences, a game about public transportation, two Ludum Dare competition entries, a skydiving hotseat party game, and a map pack edition of Edmund McMillen's Meat Boy.

Game Pick: 'Cortex Command' (Data Realms, commercial indie - demo available)
"Data Realms' team-based combat game with neat pixel graphics and physics is now available for the Mac. The OSX version has all the features from the latest Windows build and comes with full mod support."

Game Pick: 'The You Testament' (MDickie, commercial indie - demo available)
"A fitting swan song to Mat Dickie's decorated indie game development career, where players are invited to experience life as a disciple of Jesus and witness the birth of Christianity with their own eyes. You start off by designing a suitable look for your avatar, then proceed to guide your chosen disciple on a long and arduous journey of self-discovery and revelation."

Game Pick: 'Ropor' (Tom Beaumont, freeware)
"A simple one-switch game created by the developer of Snakoban Dash for the Retro Remakes competition. The objective in each level is to collect just enough treasure to reveal the exit, simply by swinging from one point to another with the press of a single button."

Game Pick: 'Night Cruising' (Calvin French, freeware)
"A remake of Road Fighter created in under three days for the Ludum Dare competition. In it, players assume control over a troubled man who goes for a short drive on the highway to help him forget his worries for a couple of hours."

Game Pick: 'Meat Boy Map Pack' (Edmund McMillen and Jonathan McEntee, browser)
"This new map pack for Jonathan McEntee and Edmund McMillen's Meat Boy features seventy new levels designed by the community (including one from Tom Fulp himself, of Newgrounds fame), four new skins, and four new endings."

Game Pick: 'Rara Racer' (Stephen Lavelle, freeware)
"Another short arcade game created for the Ludum Dare competition. Players get to ride a race kart around cones placed haphazardly around the track as they attempt to make it to the finish line without getting involved in too many crashes."

Game Pick: 'Überleben' (Beau Blyth, freeware)
"A hotseat party game with support of up seven players on keyboard, mouse and joypad. In it, participating skydivers must attempt to reach the ground safely by navigating around obstacles while collecting rings to increase their mobility and attack strength."

Game Pick: 'Metro Rules of Conduct' (Kian Bashiri, browser)
"A game about public transportation, based on Kian's experiences of commuting in Stockholm. You play an unnamed train passenger who has to continuously stare at other commuters without drawing their attention while waiting to arrive at your intended stop."

Game Pick: 'Insomnia' (Wilson Saunders, freeware)
"A 2D platformer created by Wilson Saunders, the objective of Insomnia is to reach the top of a tower before you collapse from sleep deprivation and get dragged down by tentacles into their cold embrace for a really long nap."

December 12, 2008

(Not Quite) Game Time With Mister Raroo: "From Cacophony to Harmony: Wii Music is Better Than You’ve Heard"

(Not Quite) Game Time With Mister Raroo logo [Mister Raroo continues his exploration of “non-games,” this time with an examination of the oft-maligned Wii Music. Raroo believes that anyone with the slightest bit of musical knowledge, a touch of rhythm, and plenty of creativity should think twice before they dismiss Wii Music. It may not be software that all gamers can appreciate, but it may also be worth another look.]

Not Just For Band Nerds

When I was growing up, I played the trumpet. I did so through junior high, but got out of band by the time I entered high school because I was too embarrassed to join the marching band and take the field during halftime at football games. Remembering the jeers the band received from spectators, I think I might have made the right choice. I wasn’t one of the “cool” kids in high school, but I also wasn’t one of the “losers,” which sadly most of the band kids were. They had a tendency to get picked on and teased by the other students, which was something I was more than happy to avoid.

Still, I have some great memories from being in band. Many bandleaders think it is fun to have the kids play “Tequila,” and mine was no different. Of course, being junior high kids, some of us boys took this as an opportunity to display our lack of maturity, and we’d always yell “Pussy!” instead of “Tequila!” It was usually drowned out in the crowd, but every now and then I swear our bandleader would raise an eyebrow, trying to figure out if he actually heard what he thought he just did.

And, despite not keeping up with band, I continued to be involved with music. Like many high school kids, I started expanding my musical palate by listening to new bands, especially those that weren't played ad nauseum on the radio. My friend Jon and I got really into experimental music and death metal, and we’d get together and jam with a drummer named Travis. Jon was a better musician than me, but our styles melded well and we always had a blast.

My love for music continued into college, where I took up the guitar and would regularly rock out with some of the other guys in my dorm, much to the disappointment of students who wanted to study. I became exposed to even more intriguing types of music, and my musical tastes eventually expanded to include almost every genre. I loved scouring music stores in hopes of a rare find.

Raroo Recording Music at HomeI decided to save up for some home recording equipment and began creating songs and albums of my own. I never managed to do much with my music, let alone have any of it professionally released or recognized, but I had a great time all the same. I even got in touch with musicians and bands from all over the world, and since it was during the days before online music sharing was a possibility, we’d trade tapes of our music by mail. It was so fun to open my mailbox and find a new album waiting for me.

Even to this day, music is a continual part of my life. Though my busy days and many obligations don’t afford me much time to record my own music, I’m still constantly creating and singing my own silly songs as I go about my daily routines. My son Kaz seems to have a deep appreciation for music, too, and he’s routinely bobbing his head in shockingly-good rhythm to whatever music is on the television or radio. And, when he was just a newborn, one of the ways I’d get him to fall asleep was by doing “Beats” on his back, drumming out rhythms until he dozed off.

Needless to say, with such a strong love for music, one of my favorite video game genres over the years has been music games. More specifically, I’ve liked music games that are of a more esoteric nature. Perhaps this is due to my own eclectic musical tastes, but games like Parappa the Rapper and Gitaroo Man have always seemed more interesting to me than the likes of Guitar Hero and Beatmania. In other words, I like music games where the atmosphere is colorful, lighthearted, and perhaps even a little childish.

It’s no surprise, then, that I’m really captivated by Wii Music. With its bright, cheerful, and family-friendly presentation, Wii Music seems like it’d be right up my alley… and it is! But what I didn’t expect was that Wii Music is a substantially deeper experience than I figured it would be—so much so that I feel that perhaps the reason it has reviewed and sold rather poorly is because it requires a sense of musicality that many other music games don’t call for.

Double Take

Most people already know that Wii Music isn’t necessarily a game. But what most people don’t know is that Wii Music is gloriously fun. Sadly, Wii Music has been given an unfair rap by most gamers, many of whom drew their conclusions about the title long before it even made its way to store shelves. While it's not for everyone, Wii Music is a fairly incredible piece of software that is worth another examination.

Confused Wii Music PlayerHowever, anyone looking to delve into the world of Wii Music should keep a few things in mind. First, there really is no direction other than what you choose. Unlike a game such as Guitar Hero, Wii Music doesn’t require you to play certain notes at certain times. Rather, you have full creative freedom to play along to the music in any way you see fit. This seems to be something most gamers I know can’t wrap their heads around. “I don’t get it. What am I supposed to do?”

Second, your mileage with Wii Music will vary depending on your musical and rhythmic abilities. Nintendo's Rhythm Tengoku games may get the spotlight in terms of being titles in which rhythm is required to excel, but I’d argue Wii Music is perhaps even more demanding when it comes to players needing to know not only how to stay on beat, but where to place their notes.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning once more that Wii Music is not a “proper” game! Nintendo has a long history of creating toys, both in traditional and software form, and Wii Music is no different. You don’t have to do anything in Wii Music except let your imagination run wild. Sure, you can play along to the suggested notes for each song, but the real fun comes in experimenting with instrument arrangements, note placement, and putting your own spin on the sounds. Coloring outside the lines is not only allowed, it’s almost required.

Forging Your Own Path

As mentioned above, a key complaint I’ve heard from my friends who have tried Wii Music is that there didn’t seem to be any point to the experience. Herein lies Wii Music’s biggest obstacle. In an era in which gamers enjoy showing off their pseudo-musical prowess by blazing along note-for-note with music’s biggest names in Rock Band, how can poor Wii Music compete?

But look a little deeper, and gamers will find in many ways Wii Music provides an even more demanding experience. Instead of mastering challenges thrown at you, Wii Music puts the ball in the players’ hands, leaving the challenge up to them. With all of the musical creativity left to players, making songs sound good is no easy task.

Haphazard button presses and willy-nilly Wii Remote swings will not result in a final product that sounds anywhere near decent. Instead, creating worthwhile songs takes consideration and precision, with restraint being the order of the day. Playing notes and placing beats at opportune moments is far more critical than how many times one wags the controller.

In that sense, Wii Music certainly proves to have direction, it’s just that the player is given the role of leader. Creating a wall of misplaced notes and off-time beats gets old quickly, but having the foresight and rhythm to construct songs that are not only listenable, but demonstrate your own take on the material, is a challenge that will continue to compel players. With an almost endless amount of potential arrangements, Wii Music will keep inventive gamers busy for a long, long time.

Top Ten Video Countdown

While Wii Music includes a few minigames that provide for some fun side diversions, the core content of the game is in the Custom Jam option. Sure, you can jam along to randomly-selected, pre-arranged tunes, but nothing beats picking your own song, choosing what instruments to include, setting the tempo, putting in your favorite Miis, and having a go at it.

Wii Music Album CoverIn essence, the Custom Jam mode is a multi-track recorder that allows for six different instruments to be layered on top of each other. Broken down into band-specific roles such as percussion, chord, and lead, each instrument can be chosen by the player, but lazy gamers can also select from a variety of pre-arranged musical genres. So, for instance, if you want to play a Latin version of “Sakura Sakura” or a rock version of “Twinkle, Twinkle,” you can, and Wii Music will assign the instruments for you. Still, songs are best when the reins are in the hands of the players.

One of the small pleasures of Wii Music comes after you finish playing the various parts of the song and are ready to enjoy the fruits of your labor. At this point the game allows you to create a custom album cover for your song, often to hilarious results. Choose a background, select a layout, place images of the musicians, and put it to press. Once your album has been created, you can kick back and watch a video of your performance.

Anyone will Friend Code Phobia will be ecstatic to know that videos can be swapped over WiiConnect24 without any Wii Music-specific code exchange required. If you’ve already registered a friend’s Wii and you both own copies of the game, Wii Music will recognize this and allow you to freely exchange videos. Not only that, but you can “remix” your pals’ videos and send them back, adding your own touches and putting in different Miis.

Not Quite Standbys

If there’s one area of Wii Music that may be worthy of some of the criticism it has received, it’s the song selection. One of the most attractive features of popular music games is that gamers can play along to pricey licensed music performed by real musicians. Wii Music, on the other hand, goes a much simpler route by including mostly license-free or lost-cost tunes. Anyone hoping for Wii Music: Metallica will be extremely disappointed.

Still, keeping in mind that Wii Music is more of a sandbox than a play-along, the included song selections are actually rather brilliant. They’re all catchy, simple in structure, short in length, and easily recognizable. In that regard, Wii Music’s songs are perfect for improvisation and rearrangement. I was able to create some very abstract versions of John Lennon’s “Mother” and Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September” that sound nothing like the originals, for instance.

Thankfully, Nintendo also included a handful of classic tunes from their past catalog of games for players to enjoy. It would’ve been nice, of course, had more vintage Nintendo tunes made the cut, but it’s almost endlessly fun to try out new arrangements, tempos, and improvisations for the main theme from “The Legend of Zelda.” I’m rather proud of a hip-hop arrangement of the song I created!

Also worth mentioning is that some of the instrument sounds are noticeably artificial. I’m going to assume that the MIDI-quality sounds are the result of Nintendo having to be able to morph all notes, beats, and sound effects so as to keep them in tune throughout the songs. Even so, when all is considered, most of the instruments sound pretty decent. Besides, most Nintendo fans will appreciate the tone of the self-explanatory NES Horn or the K.K. Slider-like singing.

Music Training in Minutes a Day!

Under Wii Music’s cute façade is a surprisingly deep learning experience for would-be musicians. Through its tutorials, players will quickly (and perhaps unknowingly) pick up some basic music theory. Maybe this musical base of Wii Music is why so many gamers are struggling to enjoy it. Most other music games require players to memorize when to hit the right notes, but Wii Music requires players to think like musicians. That is a tall order!

Guitar Hero WizardDon’t get me wrong. There are gamers who demonstrate mesmerizing dexterity by never missing a cue when games like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, or Dance Dance Revolution require what seems to be physically impossible. Wii Music may not call for the same level of physical prowess, but I’d argue that since it requires a different type of thinking—one that is perhaps even more musically-based—it shouldn’t be dismissed as easy or childlike. Wii Music is a demanding piece of software that taxes the minds of anyone willing to step up to its challenges.

This is why I believe Wii Music is failing to capture the attention and respect of many gamers, especially those without a musical bone in their bodies. Wii Music will certainly train players on the basics of music theory, but it only provides the foundation, leaving gamers with the task of building upon it. You create your own experience in Wii Music, and that is easier said than done. Unless you’re able to light a fire under your imagination, you’ll be left scratching your head as you try to decipher what the heck you should be doing.

However, for anyone with a willingness to learn more music theory and improve their rhythm and timing, Wii Music has the potential to be exceptionally entertaining. Sure, you’re more or less pantomiming to music by shaking the Wii Remote or pressing buttons, but given the appeal of so many other music games in which the core gameplay isn’t much different, that’s not Wii Music’s problem.

Instead, it’s more likely that gamers who don’t like Wii Music simply don’t have the required patience, creativity, or willingness to call their own shots. Though it certainly won’t win over anyone not responsive to its open-endedness, all gamers brave enough to take the plunge will discover that playing Wii Music can be a harmonious experience indeed.

Bonus Feature! Eight Tracks From the Musical Vault of Mister Raroo

I toyed with the idea of including some sound samples of a few choice Wii Music tracks I’ve created. However, since it's so easy to go online and find plenty of examples of Wii Music arrangements (many of which may be much better than mine!), I thought instead it would be more fun to share some of the original music I’ve recorded over the years. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting, but I’m sorry if it’s not to your liking!

The first song can be found by clicking here.
Artist: Roswell. Track: Untitled.
My friend Jon Apgar and I recorded this in 1998 using an analog 4-track. Our goal was to create video game-like music. I programmed the beats while Jon handled keyboards. The main melody is pretty catchy!

The second song can be found by clicking here.
Artist: Roswell. Track: Untitled.
This was the next evolution in the sound Jon and I explored with the first song. We used a digital 8-track recorder to capture the music. I once again handled beats as well as random weird sounds, while Jon took care of the music on top of it. Listen for a random nod of the head to Dr. Dre!

The third song can be found by clicking here.
Artist: Hydrant Inspectors. Track: "Charlemagne."
This song is yet another collaborative effort with Jon. I performed all the music on the track while Jon took care of vocal duties. Jon originally wrote the song for another music project in which his sister was the vocalist. We reworked it here with new lyrics and a souped-up tempo.

Raroo ROCK!The fourth song can be found by clicking here.
Artist: The Raroos. Track: "The Way the Raroos Rock It."
This song was recorded in 2005 for a Game Time With Mister Raroo album that we sent to subscribers of our zine. It starts off with a death metal segment then segues into hip-hop, with the lyrics covering the topic of games. This was a solo effort on my part, save for some guest vocals by Missus Raroo in the chorus.

The fifth song can be found by clicking here.
Artist: Bumbling Detective. Track: "Dr. Science."
This was another solo effort, save for guest “robotic” vocals by Missus Raroo. I believe we recorded this in 2003 or so. The “rapper” in the song is me in the guise of a character named Dr. Science. Maybe I listed to too many Kool Keith albums, but I liked to create tons of personas in my own music. The beat is pretty strange!

The sixth song can be found by clicking here.
Artist: Stuntbumble. Track: "Distress Signals."
The Dr. Science character returned in 2005, this time in a collaboration I did with rapper Stuntdouble. Stunt handled the beats and the intro rap, while I tackled the second verse and added some keyboards on top of his beats. My “rap name” for this project is The Bumbling Detective, so when we teamed up, we became Stuntbumble!

The seventh song can be found by clicking here.
Artist: Meth. Track: Untitled.
I believe this was recorded right around 2000. Once again, it was a solo effort. I included it here because it has a Super Mario Bros. sample, which of course is something every gaming-obsessed musician seems to do, but all the same I followed suit. I remember trying to line my NES directly into the digital 8-track, only to get frustrated until it dawned on me to simply sample a loop and use that!

The eighth and final song can be found by clicking here.
Artist: The Raroos. Track: "Sonic the Hedgehog!"
To wrap up this little musical tour, I chose another track from the Game Time With Mister Raroo album. It's a tongue-in-cheek punk tribute to Sonic the Hedgehog. I handled all the music and Missus Raroo and I shared vocal duties. We think this song is silly but fun!

I hope that listening to these examples from my back catalog of music recordings has been a more enjoyable than painful experience for you! As I stated before, the main focus of creating music for me was simply to have fun, but that’s what counts. And, in many ways, I think my history of creating music makes it quite clear why I find Wii Music so engaging. We may all have different musical tastes, but there’s no denying music can be exhilarating for everyone!

[Mister Raroo is a happy husband, proud father, full-time public library employee, and active gamer. He currently lives in El Cajon, CA with his family and many pets. One day when he gets more time, he wants to record some new music! In the meantime, he's got the Korg DS-10 on his Christmas list. You may reach Mister Raroo at [email protected].]

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of December 12th

In this round-up, we highlight some of the notable jobs posted in sister site Gamasutra's industry-leading game jobs section, including positions from Insomniac Games, Planet Moon, Activision, Telltale 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

Planet Moon Studios: Senior Game Programmer
"The Senior Game Programmer will leverage proven skills designing and creating core game systems in addition to fostering their use within the team. The Ideal candidate will be a generalist programmer with a willingness to work in most areas of development. This is a full-service position where design, implementation, tool extensions and use by example are all aspects of the job. The position involves working closely with the other disciplines. As a key member of the team you’ll be involved in creating great games with great publishers using state-of-the-art techniques!"

Activision: Vice President of Production
"Activision is seeking a dynamic Vice President of Production to join our team. Reporting to the Head of Production, the Vice President of Production will oversee development of a slate of related products from a business and publishing perspective. By partnering with internal and external studios, deliver great games that are positioned to sell and achieve financial and quality goals on time."

Insomniac Games: Programmers
"Insomniac Games is looking for people for its North Carolina office! Specifically in Gameplay! The gameplay group is in search of motivated programmers to further develop our team. Gameplay programmers are responsible for the high-level runtime code that pulls everything together into a highly polished and ultimately compelling game experience. You know – the kind that blows your mind!"

GamerBytes - Downloadable Console Game Jobs

Telltale Games: Gameplay Programmer/Software Engineer, Senior Software Engineers - Core Technology
"Telltale is poised to become the interactive equivalent of a broadcast television channel. We have already begun to accomplish this by creating, developing, and publishing multiple video game series based upon popular stories and characters. The company's goal is to be the leader in interactive episodic storytelling."

Serious Games Source - Serious Game Jobs

Firsthand Technology: Game and Graphics Engineer
"Firsthand seeks a versatile Game and Graphics Engineer to help build a stereoscopic 3D multi-player game that will be the centerpiece of an NIH-funded exhibit for science centers. This multi-talented and agile programmer will help to design architecture, write code and shaders, and optimize performance of the game. If you have outgrown programming blood-and-gore systems for fragging your friends, this is an opportunity to use your knowledge of the dynamics of digital destruction to make a positive impact!"

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.

The Best Of 2008: Top 5 Indie Games

[Continuing big sister site Gamasutra's year-end retrospective, the editors pick out the top five independent games of 2008 -- including Cursor*10 and Rom Check Fail -- along with ten notable indie games that get honorable mentions.]

Throughout December, Gamasutra will be presenting a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2008, from the perspective of our position covering the art, science, and business of games.

Previously, we tallied up 2008's top disappointments, downloadable titles, overlooked games, and gameplay mechanics.

Now, we're going we take a look at the top five indie games released in 2008, with information from Gamasutra sister site IndieGames.com - and ten other 'honorable mentions' also included.

The games picked are the editors' choice, and span PC free-to-play titles released during 2008's calendar year to date, with a mixture of Flash and Windows executable games. (Many other fine pay-to-download games for console and PC that might be considered 'indie' were ranked in the Top 5 Downloadable Games earlier this week.)

5. You Have To Burn The Rope (Kian Bashiri) [video]
IndieGames.com's description: "Possibly inspired by Valve's Portal, You Have to Burn the Rope is an extremely short game that features good pixel art and sound production using DrPetter's sfxr tool. There is only one solution to the problem, though the credits will be remembered long after you've managed to beat the final boss."

From the creator of the newer, and equally tart Metro: Rules Of Conduct, You Have To... is a gorgeously cheeky tweak on the nose for games as a medium. It's silly, sure, but if you haven't played it before, it'll make you grin.

4 Rom Check Fail (Farbs) [video]

IndieGames.com's description: "ROM CHECK FAIL is a new action game from the developer of Fishie Fishie and Polychromatic Funk Monkey. Players have to clear the screen of all enemies to complete each level, but the task is made a little more difficult by the random switching of gameplay rules where ideas are recycled and remastered as an odd mix of arcade or console classics from the past."

The mashup has been a popular concept in music for some time, further popularized by tremendously complex, skilled practitioners like Girl Talk. Farbs' Rom Check Fail is a dazzling example of this - in no way could the Pac-Man vs. Space Invaders vs. everything mashup ever exist in a world ruled by copyright... but yet it does anyhow. Delightful.

3. Cursor*10 (Nekogames) [video]

IndieGames.com's description: "Cursor*10 is a puzzler which involves directing the actions of all ten cursors and clicks, one at a time. Events will loop, but it will take at least a couple of tries to figure out a solution for all sixteen floors."

Another example of the kind of experimental freeware wonder that makes us happy that games exist, this Flash wonder has you playing a cursor, acting on top of your previous actions to explore multiple levels of a stark isometric dungeon. It's difficult to explain, but it's wholly worth trying.

2. Everybody Dies (Jim Munroe/Michael Cho)

IndieGames.com's description: "Everybody Dies is 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."

From the creator of the Artsy Game Incubator project, this illustrated text adventure is contemporary, thoughtful, and, as author Emily Short points out in her review: "...one of the best cases I’ve seen for the potential of illustrated IF not as a poor man’s version of a graphical game. but as its own thing."

1. I Wish I Were The Moon (Daniel Benmergui) [video - includes spoilers]

IndieGames.com's description: "I Wish I Were The Moon is a short puzzle game designed by Daniel Benmergui, where players must figure out the correct solution to achieve any of the five possible endings in this story. Use the camera frame to take pictures and relocate objects onscreen, or press the R key to reset the scene for another attempt."

Actually, there's now an updated version with even more endings, but this indie title goes to the core of what is fascinating about independent games today. At its best, they're different, they're evocative, they're poignant, and they make you think differently about yourself and your life. Why do you care? Who do you care about? Make your choice in this micro-game, and sink or swim accordingly.

Finally, honorable mentions for some of our favorite indie games in 2008 that didn't quite reach the top five go to: Knytt Nano, Incredibots, Chronotron, Dyson, Nanobots, Shift 3, Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden, Gravitation, Mighty Jill Off, Iji.

[Do you agree or disagree with these picks? Feel free to comment below. We'll pick the best reader comments on each list for our final retrospective, to debut on Gamasutra close to the holidays.]

GameSetLinks: Toon Panic In Hazardous Materials

Time to wander around some GameSetLinks, in that case, headed up by Slate's traditional chewing of the fat of the year in game releases, with plenty of top analytical minds in tow, hurray.

Also hanging out in here - Toon Panic 64 (pictured!) resurfaces, a human story of an iPhone developer hoping to make it big, some of the offbeat DS titles entered into our own IGF Mobile, 'The Gentle Physics and Science of Hazardous Materials', and lots more besides.

Un deux trois:

Slate's year-end gaming club. (2) - By N'Gai Croal , Seth Schiesel, Chris Suellentrop, and Stephen Totilo - Slate Magazine
The big men on campus come forth. Plenty of earnest missives, including some useful content!

The Making of... Dune II | Edge Online
Excellent Edge mag retrospective on the making of the seminal RTS.

Amid recession, developer finds hope in the Apple App Store | Gaming and Culture - CNET News
Nice human story from Daniel Terdiman about a developer trying to find new hope with an iPhone game.

The Toon Panic 64 proto has finally leaked! | Unseen 64: Beta, Unreleased & Unseen Videogames!
'Toon Panic is an original N64 game. It is a 3D arena fighting game in the spirit of Power Stone on Dreamcast. The game was never achieved due to the bankruptcy of its developer, Bottom Up.'

Famicom The Gentle Physics and Science of Hazardous Materials | Famicom | gameSniped.com
'The Gentle Physics and Science of Hazardous Materials is a wierd item - even by our standards. It’ a Famicom “game” developed in the early 90’s by Konami for a petroleum company called Idemitsu Kosan.'

Let's look at IGF Mobile's DS entries - Tiny Cartridge
'This coming Independent Games Festival Mobile competition — an event designed to “promote innovation in portable games” — features five Nintendo DS entries, three of which I’ve never seen before.'

The Official Forumwarz Blog - An open letter to Kotaku
'I have personally emailed you and members of your team several times about the game, hoping you'd mention us on your blog or to see if you'd want a review copy. Every single time it has fallen on deaf ears.' To a certain extent, it's what people want to read, of course - and Crecente replied, too, in comments.

Media Molecule - we make games. » Blog Archive » This Week’s MmPicks
Still a lot of super-interesting LittleBigPlanet levels, if not very web-spottable until MM points them out.

December 11, 2008

GameSetInterview: Korg DS Trio Talk App Creation, EXTRA Concert

[Our latest Japanese game music interview from the excellent Jeriaska sits down with three prominent Japanese composers behind Square Enix and Namco classics, and all now involved in the Korg DS-10 synth, as they performed a special three-DS gig at the EXTRA game concert held just after Tokyo Game Show.]

A trio of established videogame musicians performed at the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event hosted by 5pb Records in October.

Their chosen instruments were Nintendo DS portable consoles running the Korg DS-10 cartridge, which is designed by AQ Interactive in Japan and distributed by XSEED in English-language territories.

The Korg DS Trio is composed of Nobuyoshi Sano, a veteran composer of the Ridge Racer series of games, Michio Okamiya, a member of The Black Mages hard rock Final Fantasy band, and Yasunori Mitsuda, composer of Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. All three musicians were involved in the process of creating the Korg DS-10 software.

Following the performance, we had the chance to speak with the trio about the making the of the music creation software and the experience of demonstrating its features before a packed crowd of videogame enthusiasts at the Studio Coast auditorium in Shin-Kiba, Tokyo.

The conversation offers some insights into how the developers of the DS-10 sought both to retain the foundational design framework of the Korg MS-10 synthesizer while ensuring its tools could be applied toward recreating and expanding upon familiar videogame music concepts.

The Korg DS Trio live at the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event

Interview conducted by Jeriaska and Jérémie Kermarrec. Translation by Ryojiro Sato. This text is available in Japanese on the Korg DS-10 Blog and in French on Squaremusic.

GameSetWatch: For those who are not yet familiar with it, what is the Korg DS-10?

Nobuyoshi Sano: It's not a game, but a synthesizer for the Nintendo DS. Compared with other music software designed for the DS, I think this is the most user-friendly and efficient choice for creating quality music on your own.

GSW: Much like your performance today, we are told the making of the Korg DS-10 was very much a team effort. Who participated?

Sano: Developers from Korg, Procyon Studio, and my company Cavia were involved in the creation of the Korg DS-10. All the programmers on the project were extremely skilled, so everything went very smoothly throughout every stage of development. Everyone set out to create something remarkable using Nintendo DS software, and staff from Korg were actually involved, so it's more than just a name. We all participated in the programming together.

Michio Okamiya: This was very much a project combining the talents of staff from a number of different companies. I am the producer of the software and very much wanted to make a DS product focusing on music. Then I talked to Sano--we were actually drinking at the time--and we concluded, it's time to make an instrument. Let's make a synthesizer! That's how the project started. Personally, I'm not only a lover of guitars, but I also like synthesizers, so it was a great opportunity. I hope that someone like me who does not play the keyboard, or somebody who loves the guitar, can just as easily find enjoyment in this software.

Yasunori Mitsuda, Procyon Studio

Yasunori Mitsuda: (Hidenori) Suzuki from our company worked on the sequencer. We had been researching the DS at Procyon, so when Sano told me he was working on this project, we realized that it was within the capabilities of the DS to make a synthesizer. We had pretty much figured out by that time the extent of what you could do with the DS.

GSW: What was the source material for the songs you performed today?

Sano: "Grip" from Ridge Racer Revolution. I was surprised at how shockingly easy it was to program. It's impossible to make it sound exactly like the original, of course, but the spirit of the original is retained.

Okamiya: The tune I performed was not my own composition but Nobuo Uematsu's. I got permission to play it today, and as for "Korg de Chocobo," that's a name I came up with for it just now. I hope he isn't angry with me for calling it that.

GSW: Mitsuda-san, today you performed a medley of songs from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. I'm certain many people in the audience were thinking about the Nintendo DS release.

Mitsuda: Yes, Chrono Trigger is being remade for the Nintendo DS. I wrote these songs a long time ago and today I had the chance to make a techno remix, which was really a lot of fun. I could see that everyone was enthusiastic about the idea, but I was just as excited. The original tunes were more oriented toward acoustic instruments, so to create a techno arrangement was a new experience entirely.

Nobuyoshi Sano, Cavia

GSW: Just how did this idea of the Korg DS Trio performing at the EXTRA event come about? Had you worked previously with the concert organizers?

Sano: I talked Nakamura-san into it. He is the producer of 5pb Records and the organizer of the EXTRA event. I wanted to show off all that could be done with the DS-10.

GSW: How was it working with AQ Interactive during the product's development?

Sano: Every day was full of surprises. Even after seventeen years of working in this industry, joining this project offered such an abundance of discoveries.

GSW: You say you performed a song from Ridge Racer Revolution. As someone who has been a member of the series' sound team since the beginning, what would you mention as one of your fondest Ridge Racer memories?

Sano: You know, the moment I put together the intro section to this song, I was struck by the thought that I had been touched by genius. I don't think I will ever forget the feeling.

GSW: At EXTRA you performed your electronic software live, but for the game Drakengard you took live orchestral music and treated it electronically. Seeing as the two musical ideas seem like inverses of the other, was it in your mind at all during EXTRA?

Sano: These projects were similar in the sense that no one had ever done them before. The beauty of exploration through music was an important motivation on both.

GSW: The amount of interest that listeners have expressed in your music with Takayuki Aihara for Drakengard appears only to have increased with time. What was the kernel of the idea behind it and do you have any interest in taking this unique musical experiment further in the future?

Sano: In a way, I was interested in working on a musical concept I had heard explored by the Chemical Brothers. They had used the sounds of the guitar and reconstructed it through techno. Quite often you find that the use of the guitar is implicitly prohibited in techno. Observing this idea, I thought about applying a techno design to reconstructing orchestral music.

The game Drakengard revolved around the concept of the player being overwhelmend by opponents that must be defeated, complemented by a storyline that grows chaotically out of proportion as it progresses. I tried to express that in the music, but for the player that expected a traditional RPG music style, it was disappointing. They complained of it being repetitive and grating. Some of the criticism was, let's say, very harsh.

However, more recently I have begun to receive a number of positive comments from listeners, as you just mentioned. Although the soundtrack is still rather niche, it is gratifying to see more and more game players' opinions resonating with the composers' original intentions. For my own personal feelings, I still like the originality and the intensity of the music. If someone were to ask me to return to this style, especially if it were for a film score, I'd put everything else on hold and focus all of my attention on it. It's gratifying to have the chance to talk about the soundtrack again, since it has after all received negative feedback in certain circles.

Michio Okamiya, AQ Interactive

GSW: Okamiya-san, as you have stated, you have a keen interest in synthesizers. What specific features of a traditional synthesizer did you feel were important to integrate into the Korg DS software?

Sano: For one, we wanted for this to be an analog experience so that touching the stylus to the screen would mean something. For example, Patch Mode is an essential part of the software in that it allows you to create more complex sound designs than would otherwise be practical. Furthermore, the visual interface of plugging and unplugging cables is really well built and an irresistible addition for those who really love analog synthesizers.

I think that in general, most composers plan out the structure of their songs prior to sitting down to compose. That can be done on a DS-10, but perhaps more importantly I wanted to allow people to clear their minds and just be free to play around with the software. To borrow Sano's apt words, "It's like kneading clay." Suddenly, lo and behold, there you are with a splendid musical idea that you never would have arrived at otherwise. Just, please don't forget to save your data! We think it will be fun for people with a Nintendo DS to recognize that the fun of listening to and analyzing the musical creations of others is a challenge not unlike making progress through a videogame.

GSW: As someone who performs on stage as a member of The Black Mages, what did you feel was important to bring to the EXTRA Hyper Game Music performance to showcase your Korg software?

Okamiya: Today, I tried to perform just like how I play my guitar. If you use the Kaoss Pad, you can do dynamic maneuvers just like I did today. Normally analog synthesizers have a keyboard attached, but it's not the primary purpose. In terms of making good sounds, knowledge of music theory is not the key thing, so I want to encourage a lot of people to try out the software. I tried to emphasize that aspect of the Korg-DS through my performance today.

GSW: Would you consider taking a DS along to the next Black Mages concert?

Okamiya: Sure! It really is an interesting instrument to be used live and it's visually unique from the audience's perspective, so I want to try it in the future. There's nothing quite like the feeling of plugging a game console into a Marshall amplifier and playing music!

GSW: As the producer of Korg DS-10, what are your feelings about the intersection of videogames and music creation? Can you envision guitar creation software being designed for a home console?

Okamiya: My focus is rather on the promotional side, and that's often how I get involved in projects. I feel that videogame music is catching on more and more. I often hear of people starting to create music because they are inspired by their memories of games. Another plus is that music transcends language barriers, allowing us to communicate directly with listeners around the world. In designing videogames, music plays an essential role, and I think it has to be treated very sensitively, just like other significant elements of the game design.

I feel it would be tremendously interesting if more music creation software is released in the future. I am very interested in seeing software designed for guitarists. There are hardware specification restrictions of course, but something like an amp simulator would be very practical... but I had better stop there or else I am liable to give away too much information about my next project.

GSW: Finally, how did you enjoy the performance at EXTRA?

Okamiya: It was really fun. Didn't you wanted to keep going today Sano?

Sano: For sure. I am positive that a lot of people in the audience had a great time, but I think those who were on the stage were the ones who enjoyed it most of all! If you invite us to your country, next time we hope to perform for you.

[Images courtesy of 5pb Records, Yoshie Miyajima of Procyon Studio, Peter Gallina of Photofashion, and Michio Okamiya.]

Best Of GamerBytes: Falling Blocks And Building Towers

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

This week we got the chance to sit down with RealNetworks, the people behind PC casual spaces RealArcade and GameHouse, about their new plans to break into the casual games market with their new WiiWare and iPhone titles.

That game is Tiki Towers -- a game bringing the tower building of World Of Goo with a mixture of monkeys. Also coming this week -- Meteos Wars and PowerUp Forever for Xbox Live Arcade, Astro Tripper and Lumines for the PlayStation Network, and Bruiser and Scratch and Hockey Allstar Shootout for WiiWare.

Here's the top stories of the week:

Xbox Live Arcade

PowerUp Forever And Meteos Wars This Week On XBLA
This weeks nets you a new top-down, almost soothing shooter, and a classic Nintendo DS puzzler now playing in HD.

Community Games Round Up W/XNPlay: Flying Cats And Light Cycles
The first of our joint venture with XNplay -- check out the latest XNA Community Games now available for download.

Community Games Round Up W/XNPlay: A Hive Of Ladybirds
Out second look at XNA Community Games. Ladybirds, card games, racing games and plenty more.

EA Reveal 3 On 3 NHL Arcade For XBLA And PSN
Arcade style hockey on your way from EA.

Denki Reveal Quarrel For Xbox Live Arcade
Risk meets Countdown meets Scrabble in this new title from Denki.

EXIT 2 Coming To Xbox Live Arcade
Taito's PSP puzzler brings its sequel to the Xbox Live Arcade.

PlayStation Network

Astro Tripper To EU PSN This Week
PomPom's award winning shooter making its way to the PSN in Europe this week.

EU PSN Store Update -- GTI Club+, Brain Challenge
Classic arcade racing and brain puzzler now available in Europe.

NA PSN Store Update: Get Your Himmelssturmer On
Soldner-X: Himmelssturmer now available in America. You can also grab Age Of Booty DLC, and a demo of Flock! for those with Qore subscriptions.

Trine Announces For PSN -- Puzzle-Platforming In Style
Beautiful 2D platforming coming to the PSN.


GamerBytes Interviews - RealNetworks Talk Tiki Towers And Their Journey Into WiiWare
We chat to RealNetworks about their upcoming WiiWare tower-building game.

EU WiiWare Update - Rotohex, Bang, Strong Bad 4 and Pit Crew Panic
A substantial release selection for WiiWare in Europe this week, with a bit for everyone.

NA WiiWare Update - Bruises and Scratches
North America gets Bruiser and Scratch and Hockey Allstar Shootout this week.

The Best Of 2008: Top 5 Gameplay Mechanics

[Continuing big sister site Gamasutra's year-end retrospective, Editor At Large Chris Remo has picked out the top five game mechanics of 2008 -- including Braid, Left 4 Dead, and more -- along with ten more significant honorable mentions.]

Throughout December, Gamasutra will be presenting a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2008, from the perspective of our position covering the art, science, and business of games.

Previously, we tallied up 2008's top disappointments, downloadable titles, and overlooked games.

Next, we'll cover this year's top five gameplay mechanics (with ten other honorable mentions), calling attention to a number of innovative, novel, or particularly well-executed individual elements of game design from throughout the year.

The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date, with eligible titles spanning home consoles, handhelds, and PC.

For these broad purposes, "gameplay mechanic" can refer to an input method, a character action, rules affecting the game world, and so on.

Generally, features were considered only if they were meaningfully implemented in their franchise for the first time, which in most (but not all) cases excluded sequels. They did not need to represent the first time any such feature has been implemented in a game, if they demonstrated particular excellence or importance.

Games are listed alphabetically; no order of preference is implied:

Top 5 Gameplay Mechanics of 2008

Braid (Jonathan Blow/Number None; Xbox 360)
Mechanic: time manipulation

Braid is not the first game to incorporate a time manipulation mechanic, but it is surely the first game to integrate one so crucially, permeating every moment and puzzle to a degree usually reserved for basic actions like running and jumping. And each world was treated as a gameplay variation on the theme of time, taking that central mechanic and expanding it in elegant ways.

The pervasiveness of that mechanical theme even extended to the game's narrative and protagonist, putting a gameplay property front and center in the kind of thorough way that remains surprisingly infrequent in game design, which makes it all the more impressive on the part of designer Jon Blow that the mechanic itself is so unusual.

Left 4 Dead (Valve/Valve South; PC, Xbox 360)
Mechanic: cooperative player assistance, AI director

Cooperative play has been undergoing a welcome renaissance lately, and Valve's recent zombie-themed shooter has reached a new high in the balance between genuinely necessary cooperation and individual agency.

Some games simply drop multiple players into an otherwise single-player campaign, and some become cumbersome in their devotion to constant cooperative acts, but Left 4 Dead's simple player-to-player assistance interactions -- not to mention the inherent benefit of cooperation engendered by the setting -- make group coherence eminently rewarding and manageable, even with random online players.

To cheat another mechanic into this entry, the game's AI director -- which oversees item and enemy spawning based in part on player behavior -- is a brilliantly seamless method by which to not only promote replayability, but to feed into the intrinsically frantic nature of a four-player close-quarters FPS.

And after all, if you start to suspect the game is out to get you, the urge and ability to fight back is all the more intensified by having three comrades-in-arms on the other end of a headset.

LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule; PS3)
Mechanic: real-time level editing

LittleBigPlanet is as much about enabling gamers to participate in level design as anything else, which means its user design experience needed to at least approach the level of accessibility seen in more traditional gameplay.

Certainly, creating a LittleBigPlanet level requires more investment of time and creativity than playing a LittleBigPlanet level, but it is telling that the lines between the two can be somewhat blurred.

It is perhaps even more telling that, thanks to the game's intuitive, real-time nature of level editing, Media Molecule has shipped a creation mechanic that has proved enormously usable for end users while remaining standard issue for the studio's professional designers.

Mirror's Edge (Digital Illusions CE; Xbox 360, PS3)
Mechanic: first-person parkour

The demo for Mirror's Edge generated considerable gamer hype based on the surprising fluidity and elegance of its central hook, first-person freerunning amidst a cleanly-defined urban setting.

Despite taking criticism upon full release for inconsistency and certain presentational elements, developer DICE nonetheless achieved an impressive feat with the implementation of the game's character control.

Combining a simple control setup with the immediacy of the first-person perspective, DICE translated a gameplay idea that had previously been well-explored in other formats into something extremely fresh.

Spore (Maxis; PC)
Mechanic: procedural character creation

Arguably the most significant gameplay feature of Will Wright's latest offering isn't even a direct part of what gamers would traditionally call its core gameplay, but Spore's procedural character creation mechanic can become an entire game unto itself.

Incorporating dynamic skeletal systems, animation, texturing, and more, Maxis achieved astonishingly robust results in an area of game design that in practice often ends up stilted and too-obviously artificial.

The tens of millions of diverse creatures and structures that have been generated demonstrate the diversity of Spore in particular, but the successful implementation of the technology should be encouraging to the development community at large.

Top Gameplay Mechanic Honorable Mentions

Audiosurf (Dylan Fitterer; PC): dynamic music-based level creation

Bangai-O Spirits (Treasure; Nintendo DS): auditory level sharing

Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): enemy limb dismemberment

echochrome (SCE Japan Studio; PS3): Escher-esque perspective manifestation

Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): VATS combat

Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): day/night and weather cycle

NHL 09 (EA Canada; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): fully human-controlled teams

PixelJunk Eden (Q-Games; PS3): swing-based movement

Tom Clancy's EndWar (Ubisoft Shanghai; Xbox 360, PS3): unit voice control

World of Goo (2D Boy; PC, Wii): physics-based lattice building

Amusing Gameplay Mechanic Special Mentions

Army of Two (EA Montreal; Xbox 360, PS3): congratulatory player-to-player maneuvers

No More Heroes (Grasshopper Manufacture; Wii): suggestive waggle-based sword recharging

[Do you agree or disagree with these picks? Feel free to comment below. We'll pick the best reader comments on each list for our final retrospective, to debut on Gamasutra close to the holidays.]

GameSetLinks: Indie Dew In Twycross, Innit?

Some further GameSetLink-age for you good readers this week, started out by the info on that Spike TV show about indie game makers, which'll debut this Friday night - interested to see what it looks like, since Geoff Keighley is a pretty well-informed guy.

Other than that, I'm off to Seoul, South Korea this weekend, since I'm a judge for the Global Online Game Awards that they're holding early next week - ping me if you've got recommendations for Seoul-based game stores and neat game culture places to visit?

Lots more links down here, from Huelsbeck through Rare to Valkyria - enjoy:

Mountain Dew and Spike TV's Geoff Keighley Team Up to Recognize 'The Next Great Game Gods' - Yahoo! Finance
Debuting this Friday at 12.30am, and talking to Dylan Cuthbert (PixelJunk), David Hellman (Braid), Dylan Fitterer (Audiosurf), Ron Carmel/Kyle Gabler (World Of Goo) - kinda cool, I think, despite sponsorkwak, and more evidence of the indie takeover.

Original Sound Version » Blog Archive » Symphonic Shades: Robot Conductor Says Transform and Roll Out
Am a massive fan of Chris Huelsbeck's classic Amiga music, so this orchestral CD (pictured) seems rather awesome.

Inside Rare | OXM ONLINE
Gillen's OXM cover-ish story is split over a few too many pages, but has some nice idyllic pics of Twycross, so hey!

Calling All Cars: Trouble at Chuck E. Cheese's, Again - WSJ.com
The Nolan Bushnell-founded game restaurant offspring is having trouble, apparently: 'In Brookfield, Wis., no restaurant has triggered more calls to the police department since last year than Chuck E. Cheese's.'

To All The Scouts I've Loved | The New Gamer
I just couldn't get on with Valkyria Chronicles, but other people definitely do - D. Riley, for example, who particularly singles out a harsh but provoking feature: "What really makes me love it is my attachment to my squad. There’s permanent death, and though it’s significantly less harsh than other Strategy RPGs (Fire Emblem) it still makes you think. "

Develop - Issue 89 - November 2008
The latest digital issue of UK trade mag Develop -- interesting editorial choice of ’10 best Canadian game companies’ vs. their advertisers - where's EA Montreal and Eidos Montreal, A2M, BioWare, Silicon Knights, Radical, etcetera?

Sore Thumbs: 'Life after gaming journalism: The top 6 career paths'
Hey, a Sore Thumbs blog entry I'm not going to complain about! You see, I'm not all curmudgeon.

Hardcasual’s Impomptu Get-togethers « Hardcasual
Wow, Hardcasual.net is back with a vengeance - lots of cheeky posts, I particularly liked the CliffyB NGJ gag one.

December 10, 2008

Interview: Anna Anthropy's Jill-Off Extravaganza

[Over at sister site IndieGames.com, editor Tim W. has been chatting to marvellously odd, S&M-ish indie developer Dessgeega, aka Anna Anthropy - here's the full interview in all its xpost-ish glory.]

We've been meaning to interview the developer of Mighty Jill Off and Calamity Annie for a while now, but alas Eegra and Lesbian Gamers got to her first. Still, better late than never as the old saying goes. What follows is a chat transcript of our discussion about fanart, art games, indie games, IGF, IFs, and more. (interview archives)

Hi Anna, how about we start off with a short introduction of who you are and what it is exactly that you do.

i'm anna anthropy. my nom de game is "auntie pixelante." i make games.

When did you start making games? And how many games have you made since then?

i started making games when i was little, with whatever tools i could get my hands on: zzt, stuff like that. i still use whatever i can find to tell stories. i like games that allow for creativity as much as destruction, so i spend a lot of time with games that have level editors. my own games i usually put together in game maker, which isn't ideal but is easy and cheap, which is why it's brought a lot of people into game design who wouldn't otherwise be.

Which of your creations are you most proud of?

mighty jill off seems to be the game i'm most associated with, though i'm just as proud of other projects. calamity annie is important to me, as it came out of a time of trial for me -- i'd just gotten kicked out of game school for using the word "art" to refer to something other than photoshop and i felt a drive to prove myself. i made a game this past weekend, a one-switch version of mighty jill off called "jill off with one hand," and maybe i'm still in the afterglow but i'm very proud of that right now.


Were you pleased/thrilled with the number of turnouts for the Mighty Jill Off fanart contest? Which entries were the most arousing to you?

my only disappointments with the competition were the entries that didn't get finished! josh rylander pencilled a wonderful drawing of jill creeping over a pit of spikes that seemed to have claimed the life of an earlier jill, and mariel cartwright sketched a perspective drawing of the queen stamping her boot on jill's face, which is the sort of thing i am all about.

How long do you see yourself still sticking with making freeware (or donationware) Game Maker games?

donationware is a good model for me: what's most important to me is for people to be able to play my games. if those players feel there's value in what i do and want me to continue to do it, that's dandy. "donationware" allows players to decide how much my games are worth.

Which of your game has done the best in terms of donationware, and why you think that is the case?

calamity annie was the first game i asked for donations for: players who donate any sum receive a password that unlocks hidden characters in the game, a totally superficial extra. i like to think that both as a measure of the game's quality and as a show of support from my players during that rough time, annie made more than enough money in donations to pay for both annie's and mighty jill off's admittance to the upcoming independent games festival.

Is there actually any secret easter eggs that fans of your games don't know about?

calamity annie is pretty much all easter eggs. but here's one i like: get the "happy ending," then play three games without losing before you reach the bar. you'll see a special message i wrote to my slut.

Do you harbor plans on milking Calamity Annie and Mighty Jill Off for all they're worth by releasing sequels in the near future (besides Jill Off Harder)?

i think our medium is too obsessed with sequels: sequels to videogames tend to offer new content but not new ideas. i say this, of course, after having spent a weekend working on a one-switch spin off to mighty jill off. i'm not interested in retreading ground i've already explored, though it seems i'm building a cast of characters.

Are you currently working on anything new then?

always. at the moment, not to give too much away, my projects include a reimagining of the data east game nail 'n scale, a rom hack of megaman 2, and an rpg of the "pen and paper" variety, though it most likely won't involve either pens or paper. and i'm dangerously prone to getting sudden ideas and spending the next few days putting them together, so i can't make any guarantees.

Let's just say you have a choice of collaborating with any indie game developer out there, would you do it? Who would you choose, and why? And what sweet games would you make?

i ought to collaborate with messhof. we keep being in the same room and nearly meeting. i can't say exactly what we'd create, but it would have lots of flashing colors. if anyone reading this is messhof, feel free to collaborate with me.

Playing Favorites

Which game genres are your favorites?

i think that discussing games in terms of genre is dangerous and paralyzing. part of the reason we see so many games that are the exact same experience is because our critical vocabulary only allows for us to discuss games, and what games might be, in terms of these very limiting, established models. though i have to confess, i'm typically drawn to shooters (of the "space invaders" variety) because what they represent is the most basic, abstract form of videogame interaction: one actor sends a signal, another actor receives it, and reacts.

Any favorite indie games then?

among freeware games, those that have impressed me recently are knytt stories, barkley, shut up and jam: gaiden, karoshi 2.0 and psychosomnium. nifflas, jesse venbrux and cactus are among the designers i most admire, them and emily short. and linley's dungeon crawl is probably the game i will have spent the most time with, in total, when all is said and done.

Your favorite IF writers? And favorite IF games?

i admire emily short immensely: she's interested in the discussion of design, which is something we need far more of. i very much like zarf's work, particularly "hunter, in darkness" and "so far." i like some of adam cadre's more formal experiments, like 9:05 and shrapnel. and i consider victor gijsbers's the baron to be pretty important, since i keep citing it as an example of how games by hobbyist game developers are allowing the medium to shift away from men with guns and toward the exploration of more relevant and human topics.

Recent indie games which you've been playing?

lately i've been spending time with an early nineties mac game called glider, now freeware. it's neat in that it's played with just two buttons, to move your paper plane left and right, and the y axis is accounted for by gravity and gusts of wind. what's particularly charming about it is the sheer breadth of things that have been implemented simply for the sake of implementation, like a guitar that plays a chord as your plane glides across its strings.

Any unreleased indie games you can't wait to get your hands on?

i'm excited about games that haven't yet been made, because there are so many of them, and lots of them explore our medium in ways we haven't seen so far. i am looking forward to the day when these games are made.

Being Indie

What do you think is wrong with the indie games scene? Any suggestions on how to improve the situation?

a problem i think the "indie" games scene unfortunately shares with the larger community surrounding videogames is that of exclusion. that's why i don't like the "indie" label - there's a sense of this is us and these are our values and these are our private jokes that only serves to keep people out, when what should be the real strength of independent game development - the thing that above all the industry is incapable of - is diversity. independent game development should be an avenue for anyone to tell her stories, not another tiny, self-congratulatory circle.

What are your thoughts on the subject of art games?

i think the discussion of whether games are art, or whether some games are art, or which games are art and which aren't is a diversion and a waste of time. what's true is that games are an expressive and communicative medium and that, at the moment, they aren't communicating very much. we need to be telling more interesting stories, mapping out the potential of our medium, and saying a lot more than we are now.

This is sort of related to the Eegra interview you did back in September (2008). Do you prefer the word gamer or player?

i don't like the term "gamer," as it implies that one defines one's identity around videogames. which, apart from being shallow, ties into this poisonous idea we have in our medium that playing a game should be considered an end in and of itself. we need to escape this complacency: videogames are not worthwhile unless we are doing something worthwhile with them. i find "player" a more useful term in that describes an act -- it describes someone who is in the process of playing a game -- not an identity.

The Festivities

What are your modest expectations on how the two games you've submitted to IGF will do?

i'm not holding my breath. there are categories for innovation in graphics and innovation in audio, which are neat parlor tricks, but there are no awards honoring holistic game design or storytelling. i think that's another trend that it's unfortunate to see the independent game community share with the mainstream: partitioning games rather than considering the work as a whole. there's supposedly a new category this year to address this issue: i'm interested in seeing what it produces.

So what changes would you like to see made to the competition?

i've sort of already answered this question: i want to see the awards recognize progress in storytelling rather than technology. the latter we have plenty of, but it's the former that is going to allow our medium to come into its own. i would like to see more celebration of bedroom coders, of hobbyist game designers, of people that are outside the mainstream and who really are outside the industry and whose lives would actually be changed by getting the thousand dollar prize for their creations.

Played any competition entries in this year's IGF yet? Anything that impressed you?

i'm sharing the entry list with a lot of games i admire: barkley, shut up and jam: gaiden, which i've mentioned before, dino run, i wish i were the moon, dangerous high school girls in trouble. quite soulless is competing, and i hope it and i both make finalist so i can meet vasily zotov. i'm a little disappointed that none of my former classmates seem to be competing in the student competition.

Who would you like to see win the grand prize?

i want barkley, shut up and jam: gaiden to win, and i want the developers to be handed their award by none other than charles barkley himself. then, right there on stage, they break for an impromptu game of b-ball as everyone in the audience whistles "sweet georgia brown" in unison. i can't help it. i think it's an important game. though i don't know if, legally, they can. tim, talk to simon. do whatever you have to do to make this happen.

I'll consider that a prediction then. In closing, any favorite haunts? Any shoutouts?

i'll give a shout out to my comrades at glorioustrainwrecks.com, a site that champions the value of spirit in game creation above technical ability. we have an amazing two-hour game jam the third saturday of every month - traditionally using free copies of klik & play - and all are invited to join in.

9th Game Developers Choice Awards Opens Special Nominations

[We're helping to organize the Game Developers Choice Awards again for GDC 2009, and for all developers reading GSW, it's time to go nominate for Lifetime Achievement and other special awards for the big developer ceremony, yay.]

The 9th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards has launched a call for nominations for its three Special Awards, including Lifetime Achievement, Pioneer, and Ambassador Awards, with nominating power for Gamasutra members.

Voted on entirely by game professionals, next year’s 9th Annual Award Ceremony will be hosted on March 25th, 2009 in the Esplanade Room in the South Hall of San Francisco’s Moscone Center, as part of Game Developers Conference 2009.

As the first part of this year's voting process, three special Choice Awards - the Ambassador Award, the Pioneer Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award - are available for nominations after logging on with your main Gamasutra.com user ID. (You can register for free if you do not currently have one.)

These special awards honor individuals whose achievements have made an impact on games and the game community as a whole, and not necessarily only over the past year:

- The Ambassador Award honors an individual (or group of individuals) who has helped the game industry advance to a better place, either through facilitating a better game community from within, or by reaching outside the industry to be an advocate for video games to help further the art.

- The Pioneer Award (the successor to the First Penguin award) celebrates those individuals who developed a breakthrough technology, game concept or gameplay design at a crucial juncture in video game history, paving the way for the myriad developers who followed them.

- Finally, the Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes the career and achievements of a developer who has made an indelible impact on the craft of game development.

2008's G4-televised Choice Awards, which saw Portal win the Game Of The Year award, gave out the Ambassador Award to the IGDA's Jason Della Rocca, the Pioneer Award to Magnavox Odyssey and original Pong inventor Ralph Baer (pictured), and the Lifetime Achievement award to legendary Civilization creator Sid Meier.

The Game Developers Choice Awards is presented by GDC, and the voting process is overseen by the editors of Game Developer Magazine and Gamasutra.com, the leading media outlets for game industry professionals. All game professionals with a Gamasutra.com user account will be able to nominate and vote in the 2008 Choice Awards.

In addition, for the purposes of picking recipients of the Ambassador, Pioneer and Lifetime Achievement Awards following the public nominations, and to help adjudicate on the awards process in general, the editors of both outlets have set up an Advisory Committee of distinguished industry veterans.

As well as the Ambassador, Pioneer and Lifetime Achievement Awards, Choice Awards will be given in the following categories:

• Best Audio
• Best Game Design
• Best Technology
• Best Visual Arts
• Best Writing
• Best Debut Game
• Best Downloadable Game
• Best Handheld Game
• Innovation
• Game of the Year

These particular categories will be both nominated and voted on by the development community. The call for nominations period for these categories begins in late December.

For further information, and to submit a nomination for one of the three Special Awards through December 17th, please visit the official Game Developers Choice Awards website.

The Best Of 2008: Top 5 Overlooked Games

[Continuing Gamasutra's year-end retrospective, Eric Caoili picks out the top five overlooked games of 2008, from Roogoo through Culdcept Saga and beyond -- with ten other 'honorable mentions' also included.]

Throughout December, Gamasutra will be presenting a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2008, from the perspective of our position covering the art, science, and business of games.

Previously, we tallied up 2008's top disappointments and downloadable titles. Next, we'll cover this year's top five overlooked games (with ten other 'honorable mentions'), calling attention to high quality releases that went mostly ignored by mainstream consumers, the gaming press, and video game communities.

The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date, with eligible titles spanning home consoles, handhelds, and PCs:

5. Roogoo (SpiderMonk Entertainment, XBLA/PC)

Though its simple design and cartoonish presentation invited comparisons to Fisher Price's "Baby's First Blocks" toy, Roogoo was praised by reviewers for its fast-paced gameplay, challenging stages, and online multiplayer mode.

The casual title didn't generate as much buzz as some of the other innovative puzzle games released this year, like Electronic Arts' Boom Blox and Void Star Creations' Poker Smash, but Roogoo will have another chance to attract open-minded gamers in 2009 with Nintendo DS and Wii releases.

4. Culdcept Saga (OmiyaSoft/Jamsworks, Xbox 360)

Initially released in Japan in 2006, Culdcept Saga didn't make it stateside until February of this year. This strategy board game series -- often described as a mix of Monopoly and Magic the Gathering -- has never been popular in the U.S., but with its dated visuals and card-based gameplay, this was a particularly hard sell as a disc release to Xbox 360 gamers, even with its budget price.

Those who were able to look past Culdcept Saga's eccentric premise and dowdy 3D cutscenes, however, found an addictive and unique strategy experience with lots of replay value and beautiful card art.

3. Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection (FarSight Studios, Wii/PS2/PSP)

While many gamers marked 2008 as a blue-ribbon year for revivals of retro franchises -- MegaMan, Bionic Commando, and Space Invaders -- most quickly dismissed Crave Entertainment's collection of arcade classics, Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection.

The game offers ten (mostly) faithful virtual reproductions of Williams pinball tables from the 70s to 90s. Anyone who longs to hear the sound of a small steel ball rolling up an entry lane but doesn't have the time or money to purchase and refurbish a pinball machine, should definitely look into this anthology.

2. Pure (Blackrock Studio, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)

Without the name recognition that other racing titles enjoyed with their sequels this year, Pure's debut (and Blackrock Studio's debut under Disney's banner) went unnoticed by anyone who wasn't paying attention to reviews. Created by the same studio behind ATV Offroad Fury 3 and 4, naturally, this offroad racing title garnered a slew of top-end ratings.

Pure received near universal acclaim from critics, with many lauding its detailed graphics, exaggerated trick system, and reckless sense of speed. Unfortunately, not many gamers picked this up to enjoy those highlights themselves.

1. Soul Bubbles (Mekensleep, DS)

Soul Bubbles' goofy cover design and limited marketing budget didn't do the game any favors, but its Toys R' Us-exclusive release ensured that almost everyone missed out on this clever, polished title fitted for both casual and core players.

Gamers looking for an original and creative Nintendo DS title that takes advantage of the system's touchscreen would do well to try out Soul Bubbles. If you're specifically looking for something nonviolent or even more soothing than the typical game, even better!

Finally, honorable mentions for some of our favorite overlooked games in 2008 that didn't quite reach the top five go to: Shiren the Wanderer, Multiwinia, Yakuza 2, Civilization 4: Colonization, Blast Works, Princess Debut, Spin (iPhone), MLB Power Pros 2008, Sega Superstars Tennis, and Spider-Man: Web of Shadows (DS).

[Do you agree or disagree with these picks? Feel free to comment below. We'll pick the best reader comments on each list for our final retrospective, to debut on Gamasutra close to the holidays.]

GameSetLinks: Insert Credit, Deploy Coin

The week continues, and with it the GameSetLinks fun and games - headed by a pleasant return by my co-worker Brandon Sheffield and his cohorts to the beautifully esoteric Insert Credit, a site I've even guestblogged for before, but just aren't emo enough anymore for (no, wait, J-random enough, that's what I meant!)

Also in here - Chris Remo CAUGHT IN THE WILD by Tim Schafer, Kevin Gifford on the Player One Podcast - wait, is this link post all self-referential? Ah well, you should be able to find a link or two that doesn't mention our own journalists, like the BlazBlue fighting game reviews and Jake Simpson on the game biz, huzzah.


insertcredit.com: Link: The VNs of al|together 2008
Yay, Game Developer EIC Brandon Sheffield plus Vincent Diamante and buddies are back and updating IC with all kinds of J-weirdness, just like it should be.

Welcome to Jake World - Game Industry Primer Pts.1, 2
Ex-Linden programmer Jake Simpson with a fascinating two-part primer about the game biz for the uninitiated in the film, other media biz. You may know, but many don't.

Shawn Elliott: Commencing Countdown
A 'big, ambitious project that will span several months' talking about the state of gaming with a lot of today's most interesting critics.

Player One Podcast - guest starring Kevin Gifford
Aha, our very own Magweasel makes an appearance on the popular podcast.

Subatomic Brainfreeze: Blazblue impressions
The odd theming is cos there's something going on here with Arc System Works losing the rights to Guilty Gear, rumors say - here's a neat review of the US arcade version, Nayan has more impressions.

Double Fine Action News - At least they had Tamales there.
Wow, our own Chris Remo paparazzi-ed by Tim Schafer. Danger, Will Robinson!

BriceMorrison.com » Best of the Design Competition
Morrison presents the results of the GSW-promoted competition to '...design a game that had peripheral benefit, a game that the player would view as a worthwhile experience outside of enjoying a piece of entertainment.'

g-mixer . mark cooke . blog: Doing Business as a Foreign Designer in Japan
On a new PingMag interview: 'Although not specifically game related, from my experience what Parissa said rings very true.'

December 9, 2008

The Best Of 2008: Top 5 Disappointments

[Continuing Gamasutra's year-end retrospective, Leigh Alexander looks at the top five disappointments of 2008 - from weak Wii software through rampant piracy to the effect of the global recession on the game industry.]

Throughout December, Gamasutra will be presenting a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2008, from the perspective of our position covering the art, science, and business of games.

We first took a look at the top five downloadable games released in 2008. Next, we go in-depth on 2008's top five biggest disappointments. Our top five is as follows:

5. Wii Software Is Still Weak

Sure, it's a tough sell to assert that the Wii is a disappointment of any stripe. It outsells its fellow consoles handily, has brought gaming into the mainstream family living room, and has done a goodly heap of shiny white image control for an industry that many still want to relegate to the domain of the basement nerd.

But the Wii's banner success seems to do little good overall for anyone other than Nintendo -- its lineup of successful third party titles is still too thin as the console comes up on its third Christmas, while the company's own Wii Fit and Wii Sports remain top sellers.

And while Nintendo has long promised "something for the hardcore," few rejoiced to know that Animal Crossing: City Folk was that something, and barely iterative on its predecessors to boot.

Nintendo can easily keep in riches through the whims of the faddish mainstream trendline -- and that's only sensible, the well-earned fruits of brilliant business savvy and an admirable marketing campaign. But it's disappointing to see that arguably the most successful console of all time has so little to do with the rest of the video game industry.

4. Rampant, Unrepentant Piracy

Piracy has always been a problem for the game industry, and one could even argue that an increase in the variety of copy protection mechanisms and the success of distribution services like Steam has actually lessened the issue in recent years.

But unfortunately, we've got few reliable ways to measure it concretely, so all we know is that whether it's a high-budget, long-lead title like Spore or a wildly innovative indie success story like World of Goo, alarming numbers in the audience still think it's fair to steal en masse.

Some digital rights management methods are controversial, as are the publishers that continue to employ them despite widespread protest, and the industry has yet to offer compelling data that demonstrates the extent to which piracy hurts the business.

But turning a profit on a game is a high-risk proposition already, and any activity that shaves those profits harms innovation and the medium's future health -- and it's disappointing to see continuing volumes of people who believe there's any rationale for that.

3. The Holiday Glut

Last year, we were promised that 2008 would be a breakout year for a maturing medium, and this holiday saw one of the most impressive release slates across the board in terms of quality and differentiation than we have perhaps ever seen.

But did anyone, whether critic, reviewer or consumer, really have time to give any of these titles more than a cursory fifteen minutes of fame? The year-end crunch meant hype-driven flashbangs that dissipated far too fast before cultural pressure demanded attentions turn to the Next Big Thing -- which is a shame, when what we've asked for all along is titles with enough depth for us to savor at length.

And the holiday glut tactic actually turned out to create additional challenges for the industry as the floor fell out from under the economy -- better sales from better titles earlier in the summer might have boosted investor confidence ahead of tough times. Let's hope that next year publishers space their crown jewels out a bit better, for everyone's sake.

2. Lack Of Critical Vocabulary

The critical reception for many of the year's interesting titles often seemed inconsistent and stilted throughout the year. It seemed like many reviewers (among whom this editor includes herself) struggled to find a new language through which to evaluate the offerings of a medium whose complexity -- both technically and creatively -- ramped to new heights in 2008.

Reviewers even argued amongst themselves the merit of the assertion that they might be missing the forest for the trees, as the old "product guide" methodology continues to translate ever more poorly to the modern era.

Discussion and media coverage of games -- which is capable of creating ambassadorship between the culture of games and the culture of more established mainstream media -- would do well in 2009 to embrace the distinction between "review" and "criticism," and to better incorporate the idea that games are now a much more subjective, experiential medium than they were in the days of pixels and bloops.

1. We Are Not Recession-Proof

Former U.S. Presidential candidate John McCain received a widespread backlash when he faced the darkening economic horizon and claimed, "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." He later clarified that, in making this assertion, he was referring to the spirit of the American worker, but general consensus held it was still something of a naive statement.

And the fundamentals of the game industry may indeed still be strong -- monthly NPD is still growing, with declines largely due to mitigating factors in year-over-year comparisons. Hardware is still selling, and a raft of analyst opinions and retailer surveys show that even the cash-strapped consumer is still buying video games.

But even the stalwarts among the industry's major publishers feel the pinch when investors -- themselves cash-strapped consumers -- get skittish. And lowered share values, sales declines or profit gaps that might be statistically insignificant to them can be outright punishing to smaller or more challenged companies.

In the end, nobody likes reporting on layoffs, but we did quite a lot of that as the whispered word "recession" grew into a roar, and the industry indeed felt the impact from the bottom to the top. Companies like Electronic Arts, THQ and NCsoft tightened their belts and terminated projects and staff.

Midway now threatens to buckle under the weight of its backers' credit crunch, and many smaller studios were jettisoned, acquired or shuttered. Those that remain face major challenges -- a credit crisis can spell the end for promising venture-backed startup studios who may now never see their projects get off the ground.

So it'll likely be another successful holiday for the video game industry, even more impressive and positively portentous considering what it's up against. But even when products sell, when people are hurt, "recession-proof" is the wrong word.

Rather than parrot the gratifying refrain, it may be wise to prepare to consider how the displacement of talent and the climate of increasing risk aversion will affect the creative direction of the industry in the coming years.

[Do you agree or disagree with these picks? Feel free to comment below. We'll pick the best reader comments on each list for our final retrospective, to debut on Gamasutra close to the holidays.]

Best Of FingerGaming: From Raptor Copter To Hour Of Heroes

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

This week's notable items in the iPhone gaming space include Flashbang Studios' Raptor Copter, Gameloft's Brothers in Arms port, and the top ten most popular iPhone games for 2008.

Here are the top stories:

Flashbang Announces Raptor Copter, !Rebolt!
"Following up its wonderfully titled browser/dinosaur-based games, Off-Road Velociraptor Safari and Jetpack Brontosaur, Flashbang Studios pulled the curtain on Raptor Copter, a game in which players pilot what looks like a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, picking up errant raptors, dropping raptors off at packing centers, and transporting crates of raptors."

Brothers in Arms: Hour of Heroes in App Store
"After revealing the game just two weeks ago, Gameloft has released Brothers in Arms: Hour of Heroes. Players use a virtual directional pad to move around their character, swiping the touchscreen to look around and aim (alternate controls are provided). Elements like ducking for cover and jumping over obstacles are handled automatically by the game."

Apple Releases Top Ten Lists, Promo Codes
"With 2008 soon coming to a close, Apple has released top ten lists for the App Store’s most downloaded games and applications, free and paid, since the iPhone and iPod Touch store launched in July."

Dr. Awesome in App Store
"ngmoco released its puzzle/surgery game Dr. Awesome, Microsurgeon M.D. As with arcade classic Qix — or its iPhone clone Bix — players section off the playing field, trapping bacteria and viruses."

Metismo Releases Vektrax Source Code
"Developer Metismo released its source code for 3D shoot’em-up Vektrax to current and new licensees of its Java-based mobile middleware Bedrock. The studio believes that the fully commented code will help demonstrate to licensees how they can develop a 3D title in Java and deploy it to a native application on a range of target platform."

Sega Updates, Marks Down Super Monkey Ball
"Sega Mobile announced an update for Super Monkey Ball, adding a “Tilt Meter” that gives players a visual cue as to how balanced their on-screen monkey is when rolling through the game’s courses. Though Super Monkey Ball has been a huge success on the iPhone, with over 500,000 downloads as of November and a spot on the App Store’s top ten most popular paid games list, many have complained about the game’s overly sensitive controls."

Space Tripper Coming 2009
"While developer PomPom Games already has Astro Tripper — a remake of its own PC/Mac game Space Tripper — coming to Europe’s PlayStation Network service next week, the studio also plans to bring the original Space Tripper to iPhone next year, too."

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': The Three-Act Play

Benmergui.png['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Dan Benmergui's "Storyteller" experiment and what it suggests about game narratives.]

Storyteller is a charming toy by Dan Benmergui. It gives the player three windows onto the same events, a vertical triptych. The player manipulates the first two scenes, moving characters around in a way that indicates their alliances. The third panel reflects the outcome, the result of the player's manipulations.

This is not a game, because there are no goals. I hesitate to say that what it produces are really stories, either: at best, we wind up with a somewhat terse comic strip in which most of the linking explanation is left to the player to choose for himself.

Despite that, the elements of narrative are here. There is a beginning, and it determines future character: people who grow up in the castle turn out good, while those who grow up impoverished in a hut turn out bad.

There is a middle, the crisis, where the most fluidity is possible. Characters can be locked up, can kill one another, can stand around peaceably; it all depends on whether their mores are in conflict at that point, and on who has the physical advantage.

There is an end. Those who were killed in the previous scene now are dead (represented by small tombstones). Those who rescued, or were rescued, may now be in love. (Shared hardship is, evidently, a great determiner of affection.) Good or evil may rule the land.

Out of the simple combinations come a range of amusing outcomes. For instance, the game's story-logic doesn't care about gender; there is nothing to stop you from setting up a gay romance in which the female character grows up to be an evil wizard and one male character must rescue the other.

But still: at the end of the day, it isn't a game; it's a toy, and a small one. Benmergui casts it as an experiment. It's less lyrical than I Wish I Were the Moon, or The Night Raveler and the Heartbroken Uruguayans, both of which explore characters who long for connection, and grant the player godlike powers to allow or destroy this connection. Where "I wish..." and "Night Raveler" explore the unlikely through poetic imagery, Storyteller works through and because of its clichés. Does it have anything to tell us about interactive storytelling?

If so, what it has to say is probably this:

Explicit structure matters.

Storyteller allows us to change almost everything about the outcome of its storyworld, but it contrains us to three episodes: set-up, crisis, outcome.

This is an approach that can be applied productively in less constrained kinds of interactive storytelling. It's a different model than the model of narrative that branches according to player choice (a model which requires sometimes unrealistic amounts of content-production).

It's different from a generative model like Facade, which (while ambitious and brilliant) can produce shapeless-seeming results for the player. The structure-first model of interactive story-telling is one in which the author designs for a certain number of important episodes, but allows for each of those episodes to contain a great deal of procedural variation depending on the player's choices. It allows for freedom and agency without sacrificing form.

And note the word "explicit". Façade has a model that internally tries to design for building action, crisis, and resolution (at least as I understand it) — but that model is not visible to the player, which means that a playthrough of Façade can seem a bit formless. Clues to structure — even if they're as generic as marking that the first act is now over — help the player understand the story as something with a definite shape. They can even give a bit of guidance on how the player should be acting now.

I've written a structure-first game myself: it was a re-envisioning of Sierra's "Mystery House", an illustrated text adventure in which you and several other legacy hunters are alone in a house with a killer. Bodies pile up rapidly while you hunt for the heirloom jewels and try to work out who is responsible.

The original game doesn't allow for any variation in who the killer is, and there's not much you can do to stop the carnage. In my version, "Mystery House Possessed", I was interested in introducing some randomization in the mix: the killer is picked at random at the start of play, and clues are selected partly in response to the killer's identity and motive.

No matter how the player acted, the play would be punctuated by death scenes until the player was alone with the killer. The only way to change that narrative shape was to bring it to an early end by identifying the murderer and winning. On the other hand, the details of those scenes could change materially, depending on who the murderer was, who was still alive, what clues had been left behind, and what relationships existed between the player and the characters.

I bring up this example not because I think "Mystery House Possessed" is the best possible execution of the structured model — the same thing could be done a lot better than I did it — but because I found it remarkably freeing to write in this mode. For any given scene, I could ask not "what happens now as a result of player actions?" (which is scarily broad) and not "how can I shoehorn the player's actions so far into my story?" (which often produces hacky results) but "given the current world-state, who is best to play the important roles in this scene, and how would that person perform that function?"

I don't want to oversell this. There are lots of different models how to generate a good story, which go in and out of vogue as people try them out and discover their problems. The strengths of the structure-first model can also be weaknesses. On the first play-through, the player sees the story unfolding apparently organically; on the third, he's pretty well worked out how the bones of the story are arranged, and the whole trick seems considerably less clever.

Nonetheless, the advantages are real. You get to constrain your design problem a bit, which makes it easier to solve. You get to tap into the player's inherent story-telling ability by giving him a shape to work with. You get to focus all your procedural-content-generating energy on producing compelling variations within that structure. And Storyteller makes an appealing short-form demonstration of how it's done.

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

GameSetLinks: No Quarter For Zork's PDP Expensive Scan

A new week doesn't mean any let-up on GameSetLinks, and we start out with the Gish folks' intriguing new indie title, which mashes multiple retro games (including that one with the clone Hitlers?) into one delightful compilation - and yes, the screenshot to the left was the one submitted to the IGF, for dark style points.

Also in here - Jason Scott comes zooming back into blog view by starting up his Get Lamp blog with much panache, and there's also discussion of the Dreamcast, adventure game puzzles, Japanese charts, a F.E.A.R-related ARG, and much more besides.

Roe roe roe:

Cryptic Sea: No Quarter
As entered in the IGF: 'In early 09 Cryptic Sea (that's us) is releasing an "album" of retro inspired games that will play kind of like tracks on a cd, the project is called No Quarter.' Sounds fascinating, a bit Everyday Shooter-esque.

Adventure game puzzles: unlocking the secrets of puzzle design - Feature - Adventure Classic Gaming
Nice theoretical piece: 'Even as the basic forms of these puzzles have begun to seep into other game genres, the adventure genre still represents the most interesting exercise of that form, offering up challenges in both deciphering and designing elegantly conceived puzzles.'

chewing pixels » Requiem for a Dream
On the 10th Anniversary of the Dreamcast: 'This was the system on which Sega’s various development teams demonstrated unrestrained creativity and inventiveness.'

ARGNet: Alma's Back? Armacham Corporate Website Goes Viral
A new ARG for F.E.A.R. 2? 'Something wicked is stirring at Armacham Technology Corporation, a well-known organization from Monolith Productions' survival horror title, F.E.A.R.'

A Tree Falling in the Forest: Used Games: People Are Waking Up
The ever outspoken Boesky: 'We have to treat the disease, not the symptoms. We cannot accept used games as a fact of life. We must take a stand against it.'

Garaph - Japanese game chart database site
Matt Matthews pointed this out to me, it's obscure but a useful dive into public information on Japanese game charts - with direct database access, natch.

PDP-11 Zork Manual: Save $2,348.31 - Taking Inventory
Nice, Jason Scott now has a blog around his upcoming Get Lamp text adventure doc - the winner of the $2,300-ish Zork PDP manual scanned it for him, too! Other neat entries: Meretzky's collection, books, more!

Bethesda Blog » Blog Archive » What we’re reading….
A couple of observations: firstly, Bethesda staffers are pleasingly widely read. Second, nice to see Gama, SVGL, and even GamerBytes (yay) crop up.

December 8, 2008

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 12/6/08

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


My love affair with PC Zone continues unabated during these cold evenings, a torrid romp I began during puberty in 1993 and rekindled after finding a reliable local source for the British title a few months back. I think that if any Brit-mag is keeping up the tradition that all the really good ones of the distant past built (I'm thinking about Your Sinclair, Zero, Amiga Power despite how shrill it got sometimes, that sort of thing), this is the one.

The mag celebrated its 200th issue last month -- top congratulations go out to all involved! Buy a copy and make some financier at Future UK happy for a change!

This fortnight's update brings a bumper crop of mags and specials, so click on and be entertained for at least ten or so minutes:

Edge Christmas 2008


Cover: Miyamoto unplugged

This is the first general-purpose Miyamoto interview I've seen in the print media for a fair while. Hardcore Gamer does a similar interview in their latest issue (see below), but that's purely a text affair, while Edge has the design sense to snap a few pics of him doing humorous things in front of a white background. The interview's already been placed on the net and is fun to read, as Miyamoto never gives a pat PR-ese response to questions -- even when he doesn't have anything to say, he still gives you something substantial to play around with in your mind. It's like interviewing your dad at this point, really.

Further thought-provoking bits on EA's hiring practices and the terrible state of iPhone games round out the feature well, giving way to a massive review section that's already Internet-famous for its generally grumpy disposition. 5 for Mirror's Edge, 6 for CoD: World at War, 6 for Resistance 2, and a remarkable 3 for EA's triple-A-ish holiday title Need for Speed: Undercover are all notable, especially since the text on all of 'em reads a lot more scathing than even the number at the end as it usually does in Edge-land. I'd consider Tomb Raider outscoring Fallout 3 another example of British developer rah-rahing, but Tomb Raider isn't even a British production any longer. What the hey?

PC Zone December 2008


Cover: Deus Ex 3

I'm a bit surprised that Game Informer didn't leap on a Deus Ex 3 cover-exclusive by this point. PCZ's feature has tonsa art and in-game renders and everything, and the text is at least as good as the GI hotsclusive standard. Warren Spector and Harvey Smith even spend two pages discussing the past and apologizing for Invisible War and everything.

This is PCZ's 200th issue, and there's the required feature inside where all the old editors contribute their favorite memories and so on. I have the impression I missed out on some mighty good times, including one "pulled from the newsstands" scandal in 1998 and the simple fact that Terry Pratchett's daughter wrote for the rag from 2000-03 (and, OK, is a good game scriptwriter in her own right these days, too). There's even a new Mr. Cursor back-page column from Duncan MacDonald, the direct inspiration for the back page of PiQ that nobody read because the thing lasted for only four issues and smelled like elderberries. I'm amazed (and elated, of course) that a mag like PCZ gets to last for 200 issues, to be honest.

Official Xbox Magazine January 2009 (Podcast)


Cover: Halo now!

I wonder: could this cover be better if it were simply some 20-something hipster gettin' air on Weta's Warthog, blue sky in the background, no text? The feature inside on the experience is way more fun than the bits on Halo Wars and the rundown of the Recon trailer, especially since it's written by a man named Alistair Wallis who I mainly know for his work on Game Developer's salary reports and therefore imagined as a man with slicked-back hair and an alligator-skin briefcase. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Although he did do some altogether neater/weirder stuff for GameSetWatch, aha.]

Also noteworthy in this 2009 opener issue: a quick spread on recent well-known 360 games and how active (or non-) their Live component is. It surprised me how dead GTAIV is online already, too. Just encourages the stereotype I have in my mind of the general public buying each GTA, then selling it back to GameStop within a month for Bratz money.

PC Gamer January 2009 (Podcast)


Cover: Left 4 Dead

Eight pages out of 100 are devoted to reviewing the cover game, and four-ish more to GTAIV -- they reserve a final verdict on the latter until they have a chance to try out multiplayer, the same multiplayer that's already dead on the 360 version. That, along with the rest of the reviews and a very quick tech discussion with John Carmack, rounds out the issue nicely.

The EIC discusses in his letter how PC Gamer will change its review policy to work on "reviewable" burns instead of ready-for-pressing "gold" copies. I honestly didn't realize they had such a stringent policy on this sorta thing before now. No wonder their reviews tended to be pretty behind over most of this year.

Beckett Massive Online Gamer January/February 2009


Cover: Two guesses

Yep, the same opaque MMO coverage as always. I'm surprised at the total lack of a Blizzcon report, with tons of spreads instead given to yet more interchangeable free Korean games that I can't tell apart.

Tips & Tricks January/February 2009


Cover: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

T&T Video Game Codebook is still going strong over a year after the "real" T&T folded -- and despite the fact that the only paid advertising is a page and a third from the ringtone overlords at Jamster. I'm shocked, to be frank. It must be doing seriously (or at least tolerably) well at the newsstand, despite all its disadvantages. Must be the pencil puzzles.

This one has a ton of Madden content, a bit late but hopefully useful to readers.

Hardcore Gamer Winter 2008


Cover: Street Fighter IV

It may be seasonal and only 68 pages, but Hardcore Gamer's clearly in its element with this issue, covering SFIV with the panache and attention to detail that only GameFan and EGM gave to fighting games back in the day. (In fact, this coverage reminds me of the old UK mag Maximum if anything; it's got that same sort of design, where reams of text mix with Capcom's character designs in pure, reference-caliber harmony.)

There's also an amusing holiday game guide that covers the most expensive classic-era games you could possibly get for your nerdy lover.

The Ultimate Guide to Gears of War


Quite a bit fewer man-hours went into this special than I anticipated -- basically, there's expanded reviews, a bit of strategy, some OXM reprint stuff, lots of big art, a novel excerpt, a comic excerpt...you get the idear. I much prefer CVG Presents' approach, but I'm also fully aware of how much painful work goes into each issue of CVG Presents.

Beckett Massive Online Gamer Presents Ultimate Guide to World of Warcraft Issue 2


The second in this series of newsstand exclusives. More Beckett MOG, really -- that's to say, more really dry MMO strategy and stuff way over your head if you are anything besides someone who raids more than he sleeps.

PC Gamer Presents the Ultimate Guide to Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning


The same deal as Future's previous Age of Conan special -- dev interviews, strategy, lotsa art, another book excerpt (Future US loves book excerpts), something nice to strum through for a bit. I particularly liked the comparisons between in-game NPCs and their cinematic-render counterparts.

It amuses me no end, by the way, that the senior game designer of Warhammer Online is named Dan Enright...but that's another obsessive-nerd-hobby entirely.

[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 2009 Reveals Inaugural AI Summit Details

[Here's the latest announcement for my colleagues' upcoming GDC, which sounds particularly neat if you're an AI freak. Remember to subscribe to the conf news RSS feed should you wish to get this info direct from the GDC news blog, too.]

The organizers of the inaugural AI Summit at the 2009 Game Developers Conference have announced initial speakers and sessions for the landmark two-day artificial intelligence summit, including notables from EA Maxis, Ubisoft Montreal, Rockstar Leeds, Nintendo and more.

The event, which is taking place on March 23rd and 24th, 2009 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco as part of Game Developers Conference, promises to give attendees an inside look at key AI architectures and issues within successful commercial games.

Key speakers already announced for the Summit include EA Maxis' Soren Johnson, AI programmer/designer for Spore and AI professionals from EA Montreal and Ubisoft Montreal, as part of a panel "exploring ways to manage the gap between designers and AI programmers to help establish better practices for this important (and inevitable) collaboration."

Another notable lecture features Rockstar Leeds' Brett Laming, discussing 'From the Ground Up: AI Architecture and Design Patterns', and focusing on the "multi-title, multi-genre architecture that now adds GTA Chinatown Wars to its history."

Other sessions include Crystal Dynamics' Daniel Kline alongside EALA's LMNO lead AI programmer Borut Pfeifer and others, discussing "practical approaches to pushing the boundaries of character AI, past successes and ideas for the future", plus former Halo 3 AI lead Damian Isla and MIT Media Lab's Peter Gorniak on 'Beyond Behavior: An Introduction to Knowledge Representation'.

The principal advisor and a speaker for the AI Summit is Nintendo's Steve Rabin, who explains of this inaugural summit: "What's truly exciting is that AI has the greatest potential of any technology to create brand new gameplay experiences and to broaden the market. With unparalleled AI industry experience, the AI Summit at GDC is an insider's look at how AI will impact the future of game development."

More information on the full line-up for the Summit will be available at the official Game Developers Conference AI Summit webpage in the near future.

Best of 2008: Top 5 Downloadable Games

[We'll be running a whole chunk of Top 5 of 2008 countdowns on Gamasutra over the next couple of weeks, and here's the kickoff one - myself waxing lyrical on the top downloadable games of this year.]

Throughout December, Gamasutra will be presenting a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2008, from the perspective of our position covering the art, science, and business of games.

First up, following up on last year's chart, we take a look at the top 5 downloadable games released in 2008, from World Of Goo through PixelJunk Eden and beyond - with ten other 'honorable mentions' also included.

The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date, with eligible titles spanning both console and PC games. For the purposes of this particular chart, relevant games must be chiefly -- but need not be solely -- digitally distributed.

Here's our list:

5. PixelJunk Eden (Q-Games, PlayStation 3)

Dylan Cuthbert and friends at the Kyoto, Japan-based Q-Games made it into last year's charts with the slightly more niche PixelJunk Racers. But this year, both Monsters and Eden debuted on PlayStation Network to both critical and gamer plaudits.

Eden itself is a charming, borderline psychedelic physics-heavy platform game with a beautiful soundtrack and addictive collection mechanics. More to the point, it has a breezy, enticing style that makes it abstract but pointed, all at the same time. It's a great example of a small-team independent game with original thought behind it.

4. N+ (Metanet Software, Slick Entertainment, Xbox 360)

While the original Flash version of N+ was a charming piece of Web-based minimalism, it wasn't entirely clear that a console version would be necessary, let along essential. After all, a vector-style ninja collecting gold worked just as well on your PC, right?

But once the Xbox Live Arcade version debuted, with wonderfully HD-ized visuals, a plethora of online scoreboards (with replays!), a gigantic amount of levels, and the same terribly addictive gameplay, it made sense. Only Microsoft's nervous restrictions on level sharing spoiled the party, but Metanet's cheap and plentiful expansions helped make up for that.

3. Braid (Number None, Xbox 360)

Me, you and everyone we know are fed up of hearing about Jon Blow's time-bending platform game Braid, of course. This is partly due to it winning an IGF prize all the way back in 2006, before an extensive graphical rehaul and its subsequent debut on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008. But try to shut the hype out, and you'll find something special.

Specifically, Braid is a title with carefully thought-out, ingenious puzzles, David Hellman's evocative art, and an underlying story that doesn't lack soul, however many different interpretations you might have of it. It's a game makes you think and one that you care about, ultimately - and its rapturous critical reception reflects that.

2. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (Bizarre Creations, Xbox 360)

The original Xbox Live Arcade version of Geometry Wars, itself a sequel to a programmer-created homage to classic '80s twin-stick shooters like Robotron, re-ignited the genre. It also raised an interesting question. When you've been to 10 already, where is 11 in the world of abstract shooter gymnastics?

While perhaps not as mainstream as some of the other games on this list, Geometry Wars 2 is a perfectly pitched evolution of the franchise. It particularly succeeds in some of the ingenious 'side stories' that make clever alternative use of the gameplay -- 'King' and the fiendish 'Pacifism' being highlights. Add in robust online score integration for a 'beat your friends' fest, and the perfectly thought out 'Sequence' mode, and you have an adrenaline-bespattered winner.

1. World Of Goo (2D Boy, Wii/PC)

Who would have thought that the best downloadable game of the year would be a practically bizarre strategy game that would have the player building bridges and towers out of... sentient goop? You can feel the amount of careful polish that the two-man 2D Boy put into the Burton-esque dark fantasy setting and ingenious puzzle settings.

The icing on the cake? Intelligent metagame goals such as the World Of Goo Corporation mega-tower, built out of goo saved from your regular levels, and the OCD Flag mode for advanced players. Thsis meant that the game defined the key characteristics of 2008's best downloadable games: short-play, carefully iterated, and cleverly multilayered.

Finally, honorable mentions for some of our favorite downloadable games in 2008 that didn't quite reach the top 5 go to: Audiosurf, Bionic Commando Rearmed, Castle Crashers, Echochrome, Hinterland, LostWinds, MegaMan 9, Rez HD, Ticket To Ride and Wipeout HD

[Do you agree or disagree with these picks? Feel free to comment below. We'll pick the best reader comments on each list for our final retrospective, to debut on Gamasutra late next week.]

GameSetLinks: The Fat Cats Of Atlus

Checking out the latest set of GameSetLinks, including all kinds of fun - particularly tickled by Atlus' faux press release calling out the ESRB for essentially leaking game announcements by releasing details on their ratings website. Oh dear!

Also in here - the neat Flash shooter Fat Cat, the Buck Bumble theme tune, game journalism commentary, me vaguely making fun of strange European sports and/or Americans, and the NME on games and rock and roll.

Og og og:

Fat Cat review @ Jay is Games
Really interesting 'control two players at once' pixel Flash shooter - 'We were looking at Don Don Pachi and other Cave bullet-hell shoot em ups during development. Fat Cat is child's play by comparison', says the developer in comments. Via K0an.

The Odd Gentlemen Blog » Blog Archive » It’s Official
Further indication that the game is signed by... Sony? That's still my bet, given previous USC/Sony deals.

Siliconera » Atlus Has A Sense Of Humor About ESRB Leaks
“Our experiment has been a rousing success,” said Aram Jabbari, Manager of PR and Sales, beaming. “Allowing information about our upcoming titles to be silently posted on ESRB’s website has been a triumph, and we’ve decided to abandon all direct, overt disclosures of our future games in favor of quietly allowing the posting of new titles onto ESRB.org." Hahaaa.

YouTube - Buck Bumble Theme Song
Someone on eBay is selling a store poster for Argonaut's long-forgotten N64 bee simulator, so then I recalled the completely awesome ragga vs. jungle theme music - and here it is, thanks to YouToob!

PlayStation.Blog » Everyday Shooter blasts onto PSP today
Cute Jon Mak explanation of how it got where it got to: 'Sony was interested in putting Everyday Shooter on PSP. Immediately, the floodgates opened to the stress of so many potential problems sweeping my soul to the faraway depths of darkness where it was then beaten repeatedly at three frames per second before crashing…' But they did it! (With Backbone's help.)

Kotaku: 'Death Of Criticism: The Death of (Video Game) Criticism'
Crecente - an ex-newspaper journo, lest you forget - in an elegy to the longer story, something he's actually been trying to preserve on Kotaku despite the financial reasons not to.

Conspiracy Entertainment Announces U.S. Release of "Ski and Shoot" for the Wii - International Business Times -
'Ski And Shoot' - because 'biathlon' is too complicated a word for Americans! (Kidding!)

NME hails the 'Young console rebels' | Technology | guardian.co.uk
Games aren't very rock and roll in general, it's true.

December 7, 2008

Interview: How Tecmo Targets The West, Cold Case Style

[How to hook that elusive Brain Age audience that has relegated its DSes to the back of the closet? This somewhat overlooked Christian Nutt-conducted interview for big sister site Gamasutra explains one way - a Cold Case-inspired murder mystery game from Hotel Dusk's creators, says Ninja Gaiden creator Tecmo, as producer Koichi Yamaguchi discusses its Western market-focused business.]

Tecmo's best known asset is Team Ninja. This development team, formerly headed by the iconoclastic Tomonobu Itagaki, is respected for its attention to detail, fast-action gameplay, and technical expertise in games such as Ninja Gaiden.

And while Team Tachyon has less renown, it has provided Tecmo with a solid basis for its business: it pioneered the Fatal Frame survival horror franchise, for example.

But while these two internal teams make up the company's highest-profile content, there's another business unit within the company devoted to externally-developed games.

Gamasutra recently had the chance to speak with producer Koichi Yamaguchi, who's in charge of the externally-developed, Western market-targeted games coming from Tecmo's Japan offices, alongside Tecmo U.S. VP John Inada.

Yamaguchi's projects include Again, the company's intriguing upcoming casual, western-targeted DS adventure game, under development by external team Cing (which developed Nintendo's Hotel Dusk).

How does this business unit allow Tecmo to expand its business? How does the company decide which games to bring to the U.S.? And can Tecmo get casual gamers interested in a murder mystery? The answers to these questions and more follow.

Reaching Out to New Audiences

What's the process that you use to work with external developers, and how you determine which games will be sold to the Western market?

Koichi Yamaguchi: The goal of the business unit that I belong to is to expand Tecmo's business, as well as its audience. We already have Team Ninja, Team Tachyon; they've put out franchises, and series of games that have captured a certain user base and audience, but our goal is to expand on that, and showcase titles to a potentially brand new audience.

Within that unit, we actually have the luxury of coming up with concepts and ideas that we believe would work for a specific title, or audience, or what would be the next big hit; what would be the next most entertaining product within a certain genre, or for a certain platform. So, we're not really restricted, in a way, in that we have the freedom to go out and work with and collaborate with external development teams.

There is no restriction on platform; there is no restriction on genre. The only thing that I have to worry about is expanding our customer base: Reach out to people who've left gaming, or who used to be Tecmo fans but are not anymore. So, that's my focus. I am not trying to compete with Team Ninja, or Team Tachyon, or any of that.

With games, as well as with other entertainment products, all it is, is really anything that's fun, and interesting, and entertaining; that is what becomes successful. That is the key to success. So it's not really based on the user audience, or the region, or the territory, or what characteristics are more favorable in Japan or outside of Japan. It really comes down to: "Is it fun to play?" and, "Is it interesting to play?"

And one of the initiatives that I am working on right now is the mystery adventure game title called Again, for the Nintendo DS. And we are working on creating the ultimate mystery game, and we are quite confident, in working with our developers. In addition to Again, I am also working on a WiiWare title, called Playshake.

How do you think the DS market is doing? The DS is famous for pulling in non-gamers, but it's unclear whether many of that audience buys games with a narrative structure, as opposed to just sticking with Brain Age, at least in the U.S. Are you hoping Again will be the title that changes that for you?

KY: We're very much aware that Brain Age, even in the States, when it was released, was what sort-of triggered this casual gaming audience, and the DS being accepted as not just a gaming platform, but as an entertainment device. It was very similar in Japan, too; once that game came out, every family member was playing that game, and very similar games; you would see people commuting with DSes in their hands.

But it seems like, after that, a lot of people actually haven't had a chance to play anything that is equally as entertaining, or is equally addicting, so it seems like the DSes are stashed away in their closets. So, hopefully, a game like Again would be something that they would seek out of interest, and from a game concept standpoint, we're trying to have this mystery-solving, crime-solving series.

It doesn't have to be a game, but anyone would be interested in that kind of entertainment, whether it be a novel, or a movie, or a TV series. So, you have a sense of comfort, you know, reading through a series of chapters of murder mysteries. So, hopefully, that concept of Again, which it just so happens we are developing on the DS, would make sense for them to bring out their DSes again -- this time wanting to play an adventure game.

Tecmo's Philosophy: Working With External Teams

You're working with external development teams. Cing has been well-known for making mystery games before, so I was wondering if that's how they were chosen to work on Again.

Y: Tecmo has been working with Cing for a while... They worked on Monster Rancher 1 and 2 for the DS, which won't be coming out to the States. About a year ago, when working on the second one, the director of Cing, and myself, we were talking about a potential new project, which was triggered by a conversation that we had about Cold Case, the TV show that's in the US.

It's not really a series that's known in Japan -- you can't really find DVDs anywhere, but that triggered the whole conversation, actually leading to an idea of coming up with a brand new adventure game that would be... not Hotel Dusk, but a brand new IP, and that's where everything started, and resulted in the project that became Again.

The game's technology has a strong base -- did that all come from Cing, or did you offer development support to them? At least as far as I'm aware, Cing hasn't done anything quite so 3D before.

Y: It wasn't completely a Cing-developed base, or foundation; when working on Monster Rancher 2, we were already offering and collaborating, and talking about some of the possibilities of using the DS. So it's more of a collaborative effort between Tecmo and Cing. And the idea of having that past and current vision just so worked well with what we were capable of doing. So it was just like a perfect match, in executing that for this title.

Is it a normal situation for Tecmo to work collaboratively with an external developer?

John Inada: Well, you know, historically, we've always developed our own games, with an internal studio -- that's always been our stance, for many years, until maybe a couple of years ago, we decided that in order to expand our customer base, like he said, we had to do that. And he can say that what he's doing is quite new for us.

As I understand it, in Japan, usually, when you work with an external developer, you kind of just hand them orders.

JI: It's not work-for-hire. It's not like they came to us with a concept to sell us. He and Cing got together and started from scratch, so...

KY: It probably wouldn't have worked out if it weren't for Tecmo and Cing already working together, and having and sharing the same ideas.

Well, I think it's a good thing, right? Because it's a game that fulfills an interest both from the developer and from the publisher. Usually I would think that games that are just handed down externally, like work-for-hire, doesn't necessarily turn out well.

JI: Yeah, we both have sense of ownership to this game. So, it means that we're going to care about it more than if it weren't.

Do you have an opinion about how that process has been working? Because it's relatively new, and it's also a little bit different than a lot of Japanese development situations. Might it be creating a stronger product than it would've been from one side or another?

KY: Most definitely. By having, like John said, a sense of ownership, and being able to collaborate with the developer and publisher, and just not having that line drawn, saying "You're the developer, you're the publisher." It will make a better product in the end.

Deciding Which Games To Bring to North America

A lot of companies have released adventure games on the DS, and then ported them to America with a varying degree of success. Like, of course, Gyakuten Saiban became Phoenix Wright, with all of the character names changed. I was wondering -- why the thought to make an adventure game targeted toward the Western market, for the DS, when you have the DS Suspense series, which could potentially be adapted?

JI: Well, you know, that's pretty easy, because I was heavily involved in that decision. It's simple, because the selling point of the [DS Suspense: Nishimura] Kyotaro game is his name. He's a well-known mystery writer.

Since he has zero recognition in the U.S., it just made no sense to bring that title over, and pay him an expensive royalty when his name is meaningless and worthless in North America. So it made no sense.

That makes a lot of sense. (laughs)

KY: So, Nishimura Kyotaro, who is the writer himself, has no name recognition. But, in Japan, there is also a drama series, Nishimura Kyotaro Suspense Incident on TV, so it already has an established fan base. It only made sense that we'll release it in Japan, but that's not going to translate in any way, and we're not going to benefit if we put that game out outside of Japan. So, the decision was pretty easy.

Something I'm just curious about is Matrix's DS RPG Nostalgeo no Kaze; are there any plans to put that out in America? Or is that still under revision? Or do you think it's not appropriate? Because it wasn't announced for the western market.

JI: Well, as far as if it's going to be published in North America or not, right now we have no plan. We reviewed the game, and we decided that it was not the right game to bring to North America. We might change our mind...

Idle Thumbs: A Gamer's Songbook - The Fable of Love

[Have been enjoying my Gamasutra colleague Chris Remo's Idle Thumbs leisure-time podcast of late, and especially the game-related songs he's been doing for it, so I thought it might be nice for him to showcase a couple of the highlights here. So here we go!]

In my all-too-scant free time, I co-host a podcast with colleagues Nick Breckon of Shacknews and Jake Rodkin of Telltale Games. The name Idle Thumbs is a holdover from the gaming culture site Jake and I founded with some UK chaps in 2004.

One of the duties I have taken up is regularly writing and recording songs for the show, based on games I'm playing or topics that will only be amusing to people who obsessively keep up with gaming blogs and news sites, as our listeners presumably do. (Apparently, this is what a music degree from UC Berkeley gets me.)

This week, Simon suggested I publish the lyrics on GameSetWatch periodically. "I have trouble making them out sometimes," he explained.

For this first post, I'm reaching back to "The Fable of Love," from Idle Thumbs 4: The Fable of Love. It was a reaction to my experiences with Fable II's relationship mechanics, which I also explored in a Gamasutra piece.

The song and podcast can both be downloaded directly from the official site. The lyrics are as follows:

The Fable of Love (MP3)

"Girl, I met you passing through Bowerstone
Why can't we be alone?
Just you and me, without these twenty-three
other villagers standing around?
Don't they have other things to do,
when I'm farting in your face for Peter Molyneux?

Oh, girl, our love is like a fable,
even though it smells like the horse's stable
Because when I broke out in flatulant song,
I went on a little too long,
and I crapped my new sarong that my dog dug up with a condom

But back to you and me, or maybe us three
There's a housewife back in Oakvale I've turned bisexual
My Russian dancing was quite effectual
and I've acquired us a home
by killing the family who lived there before
I busted down the door and let myself in
Yes, I suppose that it's a sin
But I'll just fart around the town until I'm once again renowned

Oh, girl, our love is like a Fable
Even though I seem unable to communicate with you

But with my flexing, my caressing,
with my farts, you will know what's in my heart."

To wrap this up, I will keep a tally of all the various ways our site can be accessed; some of these alternate URLs have been kindly donated by listeners based on jokes from the show:


GameSetNetwork: The Best Of The Week

Even though it's getting closer to Christmas, big sister site Gamasutra and our other delightful websites have been outputting some really interesting articles recently.

In particular, there are interviews with Patapon (pictured) creator Hiroyuki Kotani, the Bionic Commando folks, and the Namco Japan folks behind Pac-Man Championship Edition, as well as design-related articles from Pascal Luban and a really fascinating piece on biometric reactions to first-person shooters.

Here are the highlights:

- A Global Phenomenon: Andersson and Judd on Capcom/GRIN's Bionic Commando
"In a jocular Gamasutra interview, Capcom's Ben Judd and GRIN's Ulf Andersson discuss the companies' key Bionic Commando remake, from reshaping established IP to Japanese/Western contrasts."

- The Rhythm of Creation: Hiroyuki Kotani and Patapon
"Sony's unusual rhythm-strategy Patapon franchise is one of the PSP's critical standouts thus far, and Gamasutra sits down with creator Hiroyuki Kotani to discuss its inspiration and creation."

- The Megatrends of Game Design, Part 3
"Veteran designer Pascal Luban (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory) continues his series on the "megatrends" of the gaming industry, this time tackling multiplayer - from co-op and griefing to addiction."

- Shoot to Thrill: Bio-Sensory Reactions to 3D Shooting Games
"How can you measure player reaction to games? From Half-Life 2 through Gears Of War, this Gamasutra article compares engagement levels via brain, heartrate, and temperature checks."

- Reawakening The Sleeping Giant: The Pac-Man CE Interview
"Namco's Pac-Man Championship Edition for XBLA is an inspired update of the seminal franchise -- and Gamasutra has a rare interview with the Namco Japan creators behind it and Galaga Legions."

- Results from the Game Design Challenge: Insomnia
"If you were to design a card game on the theme insomnia, would you call it ‘Counting Sheep?' About half the submissions to a recent Game Design Challenge did! But a few of the games stood out from the pack, despite the inauthentic name."

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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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

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