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December 20, 2008

The Best Of 2008: Top 5 Developers

[Continuing big sister site Gamasutra's year-end retrospective, Editor At Large Chris Remo looks back on 2008's top five developers demonstrating outstanding achievement this year, from Bethesda Game Studios to Media Molecule and beyond -- also including ten honorable mentions along the way.]

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: 2008's top disappointments, downloadable titles, overlooked games, gameplay mechanics, indie games, surprises, PC games, trends, and handheld games.

Next, we'll look at this year's top five development studios and ten honorable mentions. Included developers released at least one title during the 2008 calendar year.

They also demonstrated uncommon achievement with that release and/or exhibiting significant dedication to community, innovative business models, frequently-unheralded genres, or other noteworthy areas. Only specific development teams, offices, or divisions were eligible; entire publishers were not:

Top 5 Development Studios of 2008 (listed alphabetically)

Bethesda Game Studios (Fallout 3)

As a developer, Bethesda has carved out a remarkable role for itself, spending years to create massive, open-world, single-player RPGs -- hardly a booming genre in the industry at large -- to great success, bringing a once-niche PC genre to a broad multiplatform audience.

And after over 15 years of developing its own Elder Scrolls fantasy universe, Bethesda has become the custodian of Black Isle's Fallout, successfully transitioning that legendary property into the modern era.

And continuing its tradition of delivering new material post-release as it prepares to ship new story content next year, Bethesda has made available the world editor for Fallout 3 on PC, continuing a practice it carried out for years with The Elder Scrolls Construction Set.

Media Molecule (LittleBigPlanet)

Young UK-based studio Media Molecule practically oozes enthusiasm. Founded by four Lionhead expatriots, the small studio's first game LittleBigPlanet immediately grabbed the attention of the development and enthusiast communities for its lighthearted emphasis on user-driven content and systematic focus on physics and cooperation.

Upon release, LittleBigPlanet was hailed for delivering to gamers the same powerful level creation tools used by its own designers, offering accessibility without sacrificing depth.

And Media Molecule set itself apart by creating a unrestrainedly joyous gameplay experience that somehow manages to elevate goofing around with friends (or strangers) to a level rarely seen in major game releases.

Ubisoft Montreal (Far Cry 2, Prince of Persia, Assassin's Creed [PC], Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2, Shaun White Snowboarding, Lost: Via Domus)

With the number of titles produced by this ever-growing studio, it admittedly becomes harder and harder to single it out as one developer in the same sense as some of the other entries on this list -- and some of its 2008 releases, like Lost: Via Domus didn't exactly make the biggest splash.

But over the last decade, Ubisoft Montreal has become the crown jewel in Ubisoft's extensive development stable, and it consistently manages to turn out innovative, risky titles alongside its safer bets.

Like last year's Assassin's Creed (released this year for PC), Far Cry 2 generated strong discussion (and disagreement) among gamers due to often interesting and unusual design choices.

Employees of Ubisoft Montreal have become known for espousing the belief that it is important to attempt new types of gameplay and design systems, even if they aren't executed perfectly the first time out -- an unusual ethic for such a major division of a large, mainstream publisher.

Valve (Left 4 Dead, Portal: Still Alive)

Valve continues to be one of the shining examples of a successful independent studio that has diversified to the point that its fortunes never hinge on the success of any single major venture.

Over the last few years, it has broadened the scope of game experiences it develops, and this year delivered the creative and brilliantly executed Left 4 Dead after having picked up the game's developer Turtle Rock Studios

With Steam, Valve has invested not just in its own IP, but in PC gaming at large. On a seemingly constant basis, new developers and publishers of all sizes are signing up to the service to host their back catalogues and release new titles.

And Valve has used its growing position of influence to speak up for the virtues of the platform, becoming a visible and vocal proponent of PC development and gaming in a financially-justified way virtually no other individual studio can.

Independent Game Developers

In a year that has increasingly seen layoffs, salary reductions, and studio closures across every segment of the industry, it is worth recognizing the collective efforts of independent studios worldwide, including those not explicitly listed here.

With economic uncertainty lessening available funding and causing speculative cost reductions even as industry revenue continues to grow, those studios that continue to operate self-sufficiently, despite the difficulties and dangers often inherent to that model, deserve credit.

Development Studio Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically)

2D Boy (World of Goo)
Atlus Co. (Persona 4, Persona 3 FES, Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2, Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard)
Black Rock Studio (Pure)
Blizzard Entertainment (World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King)
Criterion Games (Burnout Paradise)
Epic Games (Gears of War 2)
Firaxis Games (Civilization IV: Colonization, Civilization: Revolution)
Ironclad Games (Sins of a Solar Empire)
Q-Games (PixelJunk Monsters, PixelJunk Eden)
Telltale Games (Sam & Max Season 2 [Episodes 2-5], Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People [Episodes 1-5])

COLUMN: Bell, Game, and Candle - 'The Top Fifty Press Release Quotes Of 2008'

['Bell, Game, and Candle' is a regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column by writer Alex Litel, discussing stuff that happens - or doesn't happen - in the game business. This time, he is here with his own year-end round-up.]

Here is my contribution to the reflective canon, a look back at the best in things said in press releases in this fine year.

Over the past few days, I have scoured through more than 1,500 press releases, and I am certain that I have found the very best of the best.

Also, I should probably note I have excluded Mark Jacobs, as his contributions are so far and beyond anyone else that his inclusion would simply turn this into a countdown. In his absence, the top quote will be awarded an award with his namesake.

(Really, including statements like "We want any and all interested players to be able to join the ranks of Order and Destruction, regardless of location or language. The battle between Realms can only get better as more warriors join the fight for the Age of Reckoning." or "In three days the real battle begins -- we have declared September 18th the 'Day of Reckoning,' and WAR will soon be upon us!" would make things unfair.)

The Mark Jacobs Award for Corporate Communicative Achievement

“The game All Star Cheer Squad was designed with the growing number of girls on Wii and Nintendo DS in mind. We strived to deliver an authentic cheer experience for those players and believe this partnership with CoverGirl is a unique opportunity to do just that. The CoverGirl brand and its spokespeople are instantly recognizable among our target demographic and will further immerse players in the competitive cheerleading world.”
Jim Huntley, director of global brand management, THQ

Expressing approval of indoctrinating imperfection into malleable minds without inciting even the slightest indignation in the blogosphere is nothing short of top-flight cunning. If I could give this award to more than one person, I would give it to all the those in the industry—seemingly universally male—who have used their empiricism to speak on the interests of young girls. But I cannot, so I honor the sheer epitome.

Read on for the next, uhh, 49 quotes:

2. “Any band that can go from 'Don't Want to Miss A Thing' (Aerosmith's #1 smash hit) to the ass-kicking 'Sweet Emotion' to the cheekiness of 'Love in an Elevator,' to the classic ballad 'Dream On' shows why Activision chose us to headline this game based on the diversity of the Aerosmith catalog. Not only is songwriting a bitch, but then it goes and has puppies.”
Steven Tyler, Aerosmith

3. “This is the first time Pitchfork Media has partnered with a videogame publisher, which is exciting since we share the same dedicated passion for highlighting new artists and being involved in independent music. We've always respected their impeccable taste and no-holds-barred voice in the music industry because it complements our approach to games - we both want to push our respective industries further by supporting independent substance over mainstream smoke.”
Tim Rosa, director of brand and lifestyle marketing at 2K Sports

4. “Our goal was to create an entertaining game that also embraces the rich history of Dairy Queen and its place within the community.”
Brian Kirkvold, Executive Producer for GameMill Entertainment

5. “This is not just another run-of-the-mill, licensed Hollywood knock-off. Wheelman features revolutionary new game design mechanics like cinematic super moves and vehicular combat. Once you experience Wheelman's Vehicle Melee, you'll never want to play another driving game without it!”
Matt Booty, president and CEO, Midway

6. “Interscope has the perfect roster of gaming rock and rap artists to provide the playlist for this year’s show.”
Casey Patterson, executive producer and senior vice president of Spike TV talent development & studio relations

7. “As marketers, we’re always looking for inventive ways to keep the brand cool and relevant with our audience.”
Vinay Sharma, senior brand manager, Capri Sun

8. “No other game has over 250 feature changes and additions focused on improving core gameplay.”
David Rutter, Producer of FIFA Soccer 09 on the PLAYSTATION 3 system and Xbox 360

9. “What surprised me about Deadly Creatures is how it looks...like watching a movie. The scorpion and tarantula are like two actors meeting up for a gun fight.”
Billy Bob Thornton

10. “His experience in portraying tormented characters on-screen translates incredibly well to the tortured character of Hayden Tenno in Dark Sector, a true anti-hero who makes no excuses for his actions. The combination of his voice talent and the compelling storyline of Dark Sector will offer a truly immersive experience for players.”
Peter Andrew, vice president of product development, D3PA

11. “The game gets players jamming through the decades of rock 'n' roll alongside era-defining artists such as Fall Out Boy, Linkin Park, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bon Jovi, R.E.M. and Queen.”
Dusty Welch, SVP and Head of Publishing for Guitar Hero Franchise at RedOctane

12. “Activision's brands are at the forefront of entertainment and popular culture today, and this opportunity is a perfect match for my creative philosophy and approach, which is to truly engage and inspire consumers in new ways delivering compelling content which people actively engage in – mirroring the success of Activision's core business today.”
Brad Jakeman, Chief Creative Officer, Activision

13. “Blood on the Sand has non-stop action and exclusive music tracks from me and the G-Unit that you won't find anywhere else. Plus our fans will be able to play together with online co-op, and maybe even join me or one of the G-Unit online.”
50 Cent

14. “What would Monster Jam fans do if they could unleash the raw power of the world's biggest and baddest monster trucks in an urban setting, however they liked? Monster Jam: Urban Assault is our attempt to answer this question. We are confident Monster Jam fans and all gamers will enjoy doing things like crushing a NYC cab or smashing through one of London's famous double-decker buses.”
Dave Oxford, Activision

15. “‘You’re in the Movies’ gets you off the couch and into a rich, interactive movie experience for movie lovers everywhere, exclusively for Xbox 360. Xbox LIVE is home to the best movie games, more than 400 high-definition movies available for download, and with the New Xbox Experience, Xbox LIVE now offers thousands of instantly watchable films from Netflix, including over 300 in high definition.”
John Schappert, corporate vice president of the Interactive Entertainment LIVE, Software and Services Business at Microsoft Corp

16. “Madden NFL Football and Brett Favre are sports icons who have set the standard and revolutionized their positions within their respective genres.”
Madden NFL Executive Producer Dale Jackson

17.“We know that Guitar Hero fans love David Cook and David Archuleta too. So, for us, these ads were about delivering two fan-favorites in a fun and memorable way. And with a creative director like Brett [Ratner], it was a perfect match that could be made only in Hollywood.”
Robert Kotick, Chairman and CEO, Activision

18. “Our relationship with EA has been instrumental in bringing the Nissan brand to a passionate and unique audience. By launching the all-new 2009 Nissan Z(R) first through Need for Speed Undercover, we also gain the spirit and energy that EA gamers experience so strongly. Together with EA, we have truly integrated the all-new 370Z in the overall game experience in a meaningful, multi-layered and profound way.”
Christian Meunier, Vice President, Nissan Marketing

19. “As part of the LITTLEST PET SHOP game development process, we conducted extensive focus group testing, which tapped the insights of more than 1,000 young girls. The feedback was loud and clear -- girls want games that better suit their interests and gameplay styles. We're truly excited to deliver LITTLEST PET SHOP to this demographic as we know that it will meet girls' wishes and demands on so many fronts from the rich graphics and animations that bring the pets to life to the exciting adventures and mini-games that will keep them exploring, collecting, nurturing and playing for hours.”
Chip Lange, General Manager and Vice President of EA Casual Entertainment

20. “Working with the PS3 System Software, R&D and game development teams at Sony Computer Entertainment, we made a great effort to develop the most compelling headset for the PS3 community and are excited to bring it to market with the launch of SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Confrontation. With the new headset, we were able to implement new game features such as proximity chat which utilizes high quality voice chat play back within the game in full surround sound with reverb and sound occlusion to match all of the sound effects and VO in the game; providing players with the most immersive voice chat experience seen in any game title.”
Seth Luisi, director of development, SCEA

21. “To our team the original game was just a tease, the appetizer to the ‘Gears of War’ characters and new style of gameplay. We were so amped to get to the next chapter, and dig deeper into the universe of this franchise. ‘Gears of War 2’ is an even bigger, better, and more badass experience than the first game, and we can’t wait to get it in the hands of eager gamers this November.”
Cliff Bleszinski, lead designer for Epic Games

22. “Gamers have come to expect a certain level of realism in video games and by collaborating with key brands in the industry we're able to deliver with Guitar Hero World Tour. With the most advanced wireless instrument controllers, the in-game likeness of multiple multi-platinum recording artists and authentic on-stage gear, the game offers the ultimate rock and roll experience.”
Dave Anderson, Head of Business Development for Activision

23. “The cops and robbers mode will thrust players into adrenaline-pumping battles as they utilize the Heroic Driving Engine to deliver or prevent the delivery of the package to the safe house.”
Bill Harrison, Executive Producer at Black Box

24. “Imagine being rushed by an eight-foot tall, nine hundred pound grizzly bear. You are not thinking about stuffing the bear and placing it in your mountain cabin. Your only instinct is avoiding death.”
Dave Oxford, Activision

25. “We were looking for a left-of-center band to connect with a great soundtrack opportunity, and From First To Last is the ideal act to showcase in this game. Add in their new album, their upcoming Warped Tour appearances and a few surprises still to come, and you've a 360 degree partnership that totally 'gets it'. Simply put, we've matched the new with the new like never before. The dual impact of FaceBreaker and FFTL is going to be undeniable.”
Steve Schnur, worldwide executive of music and marketing at Electronic Arts

26. “The popularity of music rhythm games is at an all time high, but to date the games have primarily featured hard core metal, classic and alternative rock music. With popular songs from today’s top pop artists, PopStar Guitar is a game the whole family can enjoy. We’ve also created a dynamic new air guitar game play experience with our AirG peripheral for the Wii, allowing players to have a blast as they unleash their inner pop star.”
Steve Grossman, chief executive officer of XS Games

27. “I was stoked when EA committed to putting our etnies Goofy vs. Regular event in their new game! GvR is one the best skate contests of the year and has created some of the most hype and friction over the past 5 years.”
Don Brown, senior vice president of marketing for Sole Technology and goofy footed skateboarder

28. “As an artist, Wyclef Jean is a great match for the PlayStation brand, and SCEA is excited about working with him on this music video because it showcases our platforms in an organic way that's relevant to our audience.”
Peter Dille, senior vice president, marketing and PLAYSTATION®Network, SCEA

29. “Ubisoft Montreal and I have worked together for over two years to create something I would be proud to put my name on. I feel like we’ve captured the true essence of the action sports lifestyle and brought it to players around the world.”
Shaun White

30. “Players will get the chance to reap the spoils of war this summer as they annihilate the enemy and search for gold in the dark, character-driven, single player storyline while returning Battlefield fans will love the intense and vehicle-heavy multiplayer.”
Karl-Magnus Troedsson, Senior Producer for Battlefield: Bad Company

31. “For Go, Diego, Go!: Safari Rescue, we've created an entirely new interactive experience for preschoolers that is only possible on the Wii. Nickelodeon's intensive study of how two through six-year-olds experience the new technologies offered by the Wii helped us create an all-new play pattern that extends beyond current games. Physical activity is an integral part of the fun and the new title is perfectly suited for the younger gamer.”
Steve Lux, Vice President of Business Development for 2K Play

32. “My Horse and Me is a great success story for Atari as it brought something special to equestrian gamers with its realistic depiction of the horse riding lifestyle. We are taking the realism and entertainment of the original game even further with the sequel. Our goal is to establish My Horse and Me 2 as the leading equestrian gaming brand and give players the most authentic and entertaining way to enjoy the horse riding lifestyle in a game.”
Cyril Voiron, VP Brand Management, Worldwide Publishing, Atari

33. “God of War is one of the biggest PlayStation franchises, and with its portable premiere on PSP just around the corner, we wanted to offer something special that would appeal to both loyal God of War fans and non-owners who want to enjoy PSP’s multi-functionality. This bundle delivers great value, starting with the ‘Deep Red’ PSP – one of the most highly sought-after colors based on our consumer research – and the Kratos silkscreen. We’re also showcasing the diverse entertainment experience PSP offers, centered on a UMD game in God of War: Chains of Olympus that’s every bit as impressive as its console sequels, a free download of the award-winning Syphon Filter: Combat Ops, and a box office hit movie in Superbad.”
Scott A. Steinberg, Vice President, Product Marketing, SCEA

34. “The Ener-G games will not only satisfy parents, but they also give tween girls a new outlet through which they can express their creativity and love for sports.”
Tony Key, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Ubisoft North America

35. “We are excited that Eco-Creatures now joins the ranks of Cooking Mama, Cooking Mama 2: Dinner with Friends and Cake Mania as a phenomenal game launching with the support of a great demo available through the Nintendo kiosk program. We are confident that anyone who tries Eco-Creatures will be compelled to pick up the full version once it ships and help save the world from ecological disaster.”
Gui Karyo, Executive Vice President of Operations, Majesco

36. “Set on a vast oil-rich island, located off the eastern coast of Russia, north of Japan, Operation Flashpoint 2: Dragon Rising’s fiction occurs during a time of tension between Russia and China over the island’s disputed ownership. The game will open as Chinese forces launch an offensive and, referencing the title, as the dragon rises over the island, players will find themselves in a situation that is set to flare up into a flashpoint like never before.”
Andrew Wafer, Brand Manager for Operation Flashpoint 2: Dragon Rising, at Codemasters

37. “Need for Speed Undercover features a deep and engaging story of spectacular Hollywood-style live-action that will transport players into the fictional world of the Tri-City Bay Area. Working with talent the caliber of Maggie Q allows us to deliver an unparalleled level of storytelling that will keep players engaged in between 180-mile an hour races.”
Bill Harrison, Need for Speed Undercover Executive Producer

38. “This is a new and highly innovative use of dynamic in-game advertising and really demonstrates the creativity and marketing power of this medium.”
Cory Van Arsdale, CEO of Massive

39. “Mama has become a certifiable icon since her original introduction in Cooking Mama DS. Her first brand offshoot captures those features that made the Cooking Mama series a best seller--an innovative concept, full Touch Screen control, approachable gameplay for everyone and, of course, a charismatic mentor who pushes you in her own endearing way to give a gold medal performance every time.”
Jesse Sutton, Chief Executive Officer, Majesco

40. “We created a very deep piece of fiction for the game and really pushed the boundaries on the violence, gore and psychological terror needed to produce a high quality horror entertainment product. We think that people will love the universe that we created and have a lot of fun with strategic dismemberment.”
Glen Schofield, Executive Producer on Dead Space

41. “Our goal was to create the ultimate digital game closet of favorite board games that would rally families to gather, play and make memories together. Hasbro Family Game Night is a video game that people can gift with pride and is sure to become a family tradition right alongside tossing the football after the big holiday meal.”
Chip Lange, EA Hasbro Vice President and General Manager

42. “Xbox LIVE is the world’s fastest-growing online social network on TV.”
John Schappert, corporate vice president of Interactive Entertainment LIVE, Software and Services Business at Microsoft

43. “We are excited to inject the marketplace with Haze and its Nectar-driven twist on the classic shooter genre. Today, gamers everywhere can fight the good fight as they get their hands on the next big PLAYSTATION 3 system exclusive shooter.”
Tony Key, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Ubisoft

44. “This has always been a game with global underground credibility, and our responsibility is to always take its music to the next level. For FIFA Street 3 we've created a soundtrack that digs deep into hardcore electronic culture, bringing together the genre's most radical breakthrough artists from more than a dozen countries. It's more than just the world sound of the streets; it's the sound of FIFA Street.”
Steve Schnur, Worldwide Executive of Music and Music Marketing at EA

45. “Although an incredibly successful PC genre, the hunt and find adventure category has yet to be introduced on Wii. Escape the Museum's online success coupled with category opportunity and an attractive price point make this an ideal title to bring to market.”
Liz Buckley, Director of Marketing, Majesco

46. “Sonic and the Black Knight is a stunning adventure into an epic land and story that no gamer can resist. Gamers will experience all the excitement of mastering a sword and true knighthood, as well as the classic, speedy, 2D/3D gaming action that Sonic is famous for.”
Sean Ratcliffe, Vice President of Marketing, SEGA of America

47. “Bangai-O Spirits was named Best DS Shooter of E3 2008 by IGN.com, and was nominated for Best Nintendo DS Game of E3 2008 by GameTrailers.com. This is a high quality game.”
Bill Anker, vice president of business and licensing, D3Publisher

48. “The fundamental link between video games and music, namely the emphasis on creative spirit, is something that cannot be ignored. By developing this contest, with Korn and our partners at GameTrailers, we have found a way to let amateurs try their hand at playing producer, and really bring their passion for both industries to light. We’re looking forward to seeing the submissions and anticipate having to make a tough decision in declaring a winner.”
Tony Key, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Ubisoft

49. “There is a rich history to the Civil War, especially in terms of covert military tactics. American warfare in the 1860's was brutal yet surprisingly sophisticated, so it was essential for us to capture this duality.”
Dave Oxford, Activision

50. “We're already deep in development on Project RedLime and the team at EA is giving us the time we need to perfect our vision. We're excited to bring a new perspective and gameplay innovation to this beloved fiction.”
Johan Kristiansson, CEO of Starbreeze Studios

Disagree with any of my choices? Anything I overlooked? Please opine in the comments.

[Alex Litel can be reached at [email protected] and occasionally found at alexlitel.blogspot.com. His intent is to celebrate, not mock.]

Best Of Indie Games: Raging Minotaurs and Evil Ronins

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

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

The delights in this edition include a time-management game from Flashbang Studios, an original game with C64-style sprites and music, a remake of The Graveyard, a puzzle game inspired by Daniel Benmergui's I Wish I Were the Moon, and a visual novel recommendation by colleague Brandon Sheffield.

Here are the picks:

Game Pick: 'Devil Ronin' (Howard Kistler, freeware)
"An original C64-style game created for the Retro Remakes 2008 competition, where players assume control over a rebel oni who has sided with humanity and seeks to rid Japan of the demon scourge plaguing the entire country. This will involve travelling from one prefecture to another as he makes his way north for the final showdown with the Demon Shogun."

Game Pick: 'Minotaur China Shop' (Flashbang Studios, browser)
"A new physics-based time management game from the folks who made Off-Road Velociraptor Safari and Jetpack Brontosaurus. In it, players can choose to either serve the needs of their customers by fetching the goods they request for, or destroy as many fragile objects in the shop as they can before the local enforcement arrives to arrest our protagonist for misbehaviour."

Game Pick: 'I Fell in Love With The Majesty of Colors' (Gregory Weir, browser)
"A short puzzle game created by GameSetWatch columnist Gregory Weir, where players can arrive at any of the five separate endings by experimenting with different action (or inaction) for each scene."

Game Pick: 'The Eggyard' (Yxxa Zu and Monochrome, freeware)
"A single-screen art game mashup of Custer's Revenge featuring Dizzy as the main character. In it, players attempt to guide our old buddy to the end of a short level without being hit by coffins falling from the sky."

Game Pick: 'Crimsoness' (Porn, freeware)
"A visual novel which tells the story of a girl with plenty of bottled up rage caused by pressure of studies. A tense exam pushes her over the edge, and players are given a total of three minutes to help our protagonist with crucial decisions on how to go about wrecking havoc in her school premises."

December 19, 2008

The Best Of 2008: Top 5 Handheld Games

[Yep, we're still going with big sister site Gamasutra's year-end retrospective, and this time, our own Eric Caoili looks back on 2008's best handheld games across all portable platforms -- from The World Ends With You to Patapon -- along with ten notable handheld titles 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: 2008's top disappointments, downloadable titles, overlooked games, gameplay mechanics, indie games, surprises, PC games, and trends.

Next, we'll look at this year's top five handheld games and ten honorable mentions, the portable titles that managed to overcome their small-screen limitations to steal a big chunk of our time. The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the handheld titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date.

Here are our choices:

5. The World Ends With You (Square Enix/Jupiter, DS)

On a system that seems to receive a new forgettable Japanese RPG every other week, it's invigorating to see an original title like The World Ends With You, a game unique not only in its modern Shibuya (Tokyo district) setting and character designs, but in its story, which serves as a commentary on Japanese youth and hikikomori.

And it's from Square Enix, no less -- a studio recognized by most for its reliance on rehashes and spin-offs of established franchises, not for its catalog of peculiar and risky titles, which is an apt description for TWEWY. And while it's a surprise to see such an oddball title from the Final Fantasy publisher, it's even more astonishing that the company brought such an overtly Japanese game stateside.

TWEWY's bizarre combat system alone demonstrates how much effort the studios must have put into the game to make everything work -- players have to manage battles on two screens with two different input methods, also yelling into the oft-maligned microphone for some attacks. This shouldn't be fun at all, but somehow, it's one of the most enjoyable experiences on the Nintendo DS.

4. Aurora Feint (Danielle Cassley/Jason Citron, iPhone)

The most common reaction you'll see from players who've downloaded and played Aurora Feint -- besides mistaken accusations of the game acting as spyware -- is their surprise that this downloadable title is available for free.

Created in ten weeks by only two programmers, this addictive hybrid of RPG elements and Panel de Pon/Bejeweled-styled puzzles is more than just an iPhone clone of Infinite Interactive's Puzzle Quest; Aurora Feint's emphasis is on crafting instead of battling fantasy monsters. The game also adds an interesting twist to the formula by using the iPhone's accelerometer to tilt the board and puzzle pieces, as well as the system's multi-touch capabilities for pulling in additional puzzle blocks.

The game's more ambitious but less free follow-up, Aurora Feint II: The Arena, released just a month ago, adds new classes, leaderboards, and "asynchronous" player vs. player dueling. Gamers who prefer the original, however, can look forward to an inexpensive upcoming update adding chat and social networking features.

3. Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (Chunsoft, DS)

Considered by many in the know to be the finest Eastern-developed roguelike, Shiren the Wanderer finally made its way to the States after enjoying 13 years and now eight releases in Japan. This is probably one of the most hardcore and niche titles on any platform -- certainly a lot less accessible and yielding than its Pokémon Mystery Dungeon counterparts -- but someone had to give Shiren its due (and properly thank Sega for bringing over this game that hardly anyone bought)!

Though insanely difficult, punishing heedless adventurers at every turn and sending them back to the beginning town without any of their equipment or XP, Shiren is also immensely rewarding to those who can survive the game's trap-filled dungeons and monster-choked corridors. You'll need the resourcefulness of MacGyver, the preparation of Batman, and the prescience of Ender Wiggin just to make your way to the main dungeon's final boss, but you'll also feel as accomplished as all three of those fictional heroes when you finally get there.

2. Patapon (Pyramid/Japan Studios, PSP)

Part RPG, part real-time strategy game, and part rhythm game, Patapon is absolutely adorable, from its chanting, peppy eponymous tribe, to their catchy "pata-pata-pata-pon"s sung as they march towards enemies and intimidatingly large bosses.

Despite its jaunty characters and inviting, silhouetted environments, the game can be exceedingly difficult, demanding that players time their button presses perfectly to the beat for several minutes at a time, and that they watch out for subtle visual cues from enemies and their tribe to decide whether to retreat, defend, or attack.

Like Shiren, though, mastering the art of commanding your troops with simple drumbeats, and then successfully leading them against their mighty foes brings a cheerful sense of reward that will have players tapping their foot along with their tribe's steps.

1. Space Invaders Extreme (Taito/Gulti, DS/PSP)

It was a big year for Space Invaders; celebrating its 30th anniversary, the franchise went extreme, got even, and made plans to further mutate with an Infinity Gene.

As with Namco Bandai's 2007 re-vamp Pac-Man CE, Space Invaders Extreme retains all the fun and challenge of the original arcade game, but modernizes it with a stirring techno soundtrack, clever boss fights, an interesting power-up/level-up system, new enemy types, and branching stages.

While the game is excellent on both the PSP and Nintendo DS, we prefer the latter version for its online multiplayer and leaderboards, support of the import-only paddle controller, more pleasing soundtrack, Mr. Esc (from Exit) cameos, and single-cart multiplayer. An Xbox Live Arcade release is also planned for next year with four-player co-op in the arcade mode and with background visualizers created by Llamasoft's Jeff Minter (Space Giraffe).

Finally, honorable mentions for some of our favorite handheld games in 2008 that didn't quite reach the top five go to: Soul Bubbles, God of War: Chains of Olympus, Chrono Trigger, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Trism, Lock's Quest, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, Princess Debut, and Bangai-O Spirits.

[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.]

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of December 19

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 Rockstar San Diego, Mind Control Software, Namco Networks America, ArenaNet, 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

Rockstar San Diego: Animation Programmer
"Rockstar San Diego is looking for an energetic programmer to help increase the features and capabilities of its animation technologies as a member of RAGE, Rockstar's cross studio central technology team. RAGE develops the proprietary engine and shared technologies used across Rockstar for its Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC titles. The RAGE technology and special support from the RAGE team have powered Grand Theft Auto IV, Table Tennis and Midnight Club Los Angeles."

Mind Control Software: Community Manager
"We are a rapidly growing, award winning game developer, looking for an experienced community manager who is ready to take the lead on building a top-notch virtual community from the ground up. If you love to build virtual communities and keep up-to-date with the latest emerging social communication technologies, we look forward to hearing from you."

Microsoft Game Studios: Software Development Engineer
"The Xbox division is continuously looking for the next great end-to-end experiences that will (re)define gaming and on-demand entertainment in the future. Would you like to be part of the team that is actively looking for those experiences? The Xbox Incubation team is looking for a seasoned, Senior SDE that will help us find that experience."

WorldsInMotion - Online Game Jobs

ArenaNet: Senior-Level Graphics Programmer
"ArenaNet, located in Bellevue, WA, is a wholly owned subsidiary of NCsoft Corporation and is the creator of the block-buster RPG, Guild Wars. ArenaNet has built a state-of-the-art, interactive game network and develops premier multiplayer online games for dedicated game players. ArenaNet's first title, Guild Wars, is a global online role-playing game that allows gamers to play with anyone, anytime and anywhere in the world."

GamesOnDeck - Mobile Game Jobs

Namco Networks America: Senior Game Designer - PC and Online Games
"Namco Networks America is looking for experienced Senior Designers with the desire to create games for the ever-expanding casual PC and mobile markets. The Senior Designer will be required to form the "vision" for the game and communicate that vision to the entire team. An important part of the role is ensuring that the team has a clear understanding of their specific goals and the implementation of their work."

Serious Games Source - Serious Game Jobs

Total Immersion Software: Lead Tools/C# Programmer
"We are looking for highly skilled, self-starters to help build our next generation technology and product offerings. Our platform engine, RealWorld, will enable us to develop AAA titles with unprecedented speed and realism. The cutting edge technology that is the focus of our development empowers us to create blockbuster titles in the entertainment and serious game markets."

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.

COLUMN: Pixel Journeys: The Magic Of dnd5

Pixel Journeys thumbnail['Pixel Journeys' is a new GameSetWatch-exclusive monthly column by @Play creator John Harris, discussing games with unusual design attributes that have lessons to teach modern game designers.]

Subject: dnd, a.k.a. "The Game of Dungeons," a remarkably devious game that also happens to be one of the first computer RPGs made.

Welcome class, if you'll be seated....

dnd2.pngBefore we discuss the game of dnd, allow me to describe the old networked computer system known as PLATO. It's strange, really, how little-known it is today*. While UNIX systems, buoyed by the strength of its foremost ambassadors Linux and FreeBSD, are, numerically-speaking, more popular than they've ever been, its early contemporary PLATO lies mostly forgotten except by those who used the system in the day.

PLATO systems did many things that most PC users didn't get until 1993 or later. Online bulletin boards? Had them, in the form of notesfiles. Email? Personal notes. Chat? Talk-o-Matic. Instant messages? Term-Talk. MMORPGs? Surprisingly many, most of them older than MUD.

Our focus this month is not a MMORPG, but it is an RPG, one of the first computer RPGs ever created. It is called dnd, and if its title seems a little generic, it should be remembered that, at the latest, its first version was created in 1974, the same year Dungeons & Dragons itself saw publication.


(NOTE: Some of this information comes from the dnd history file, which its author Dirk Pellett states may be incorrect in places. I have not found anything to contradict the information stated here.)

dnd1.pngdnd is not, to be clear, the first computer RPG. According to the creators of the game and the regulars on cyber1, an emulated PLATO system that accepts new users to this day, that game may well have been called "m199h." Its title was likely selected to be inconspicuous. Most PLATO systems were used for educational purposes in that day, so administrators frowned upon non-educational uses. A number of dungeon games were created, created by users with authoring access, and as soon as their existence became known to administrators they would be deleted. This is why we don't have a copy of m199h.

dnd's history file has it that soon after m199h's disappearance another game was written called pedit5. It, too, was deleted, but a copy was saved and eventually restored. It is often hazardous to make assertions, in gaming, about what came first; recently, it became known that Dungeons & Dragons itself may not have been the first "role-playing game," although that term probably didn't even find currency until a later printing of Basic D&D. But given the age of both computer gaming and D&D at the time, it seems safe to say that pedit5 is the oldest computer role-playing game which survives to this day.

dnd also hails from that age. It was probably written in the same year as pedit5. The version described here is dnd5, which is not the most recent version. (That's the considerably more advanced dnd8, which is interesting for its own sake, but not the focus of this article.) It is the closest we have to the game's creation, however.

Playing the game

For starters, you have to create a character. This is a matter of sitting and watching a column of five numbers, pressing a key repeatedly until they meet your approval. Rerolling has been part of D&D since the beginning, and admittedly it kind of sucks. dnd's dungeon is an incredibly, ridiculously hazardous environment, so even a character with all 18s (the highest stat) will die very soon unless played carefully, but if the player knows what to do it'll make the dungeon more survivable in the long run.

The stats in the game are Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity and Hits. Hits is the easiest stat to raise (slight understatement there, you'll see), but Strength can be increased by drinking the right sort of potions. The only method for raising the others can also lower them, so it's for the best if they're as high as possible beforehand.

When a character enters the dungeon for the first time, he is immediately in grave danger. At this point, fighting a single monster will almost certainly leave him with so few hits that another fight will kill him. He also begins with one magic spell, and one cleric spell. (The player knows all spells at the start of the game, but only has one use of each type.)

dnd10.pngFighting in the game is a matter of choosing to evade, fight, cast magic or cast clerical. If magic or clerical is used, the player also gets to decide which spell is cast. That is the extent of player interaction; if the spell doesn't kill the opponent, then its remaining hits are put up against the player's in a fight. This also happens if he fails in an evade attempt.

Then the player automatically takes damage relative to the monster's remaining strength, and if he isn't dead at this point, the monster is slain. It's a very quick system, which helps greatly in maintaining the game's incredibly rapid flow, which allows fights to end in seconds. No load times, no protracted engagements, no fuss. Not much strategy either, but the pacing, at least, is excellent.

Back to our starter character. With a few hits and his two spells, he has enough resources to handle three monsters, maybe four if he's lucky in his first fight. Healing in the dungeon is extremely rare and not to be relied upon, and the torrent of monsters is often unceasing. In the maze featured on cyber1 (different installations of the game had different maps, editable by the operator), there is an exit near the entrance although it must be searched for. Exiting the dungeon heals the player and restores his spells, a vital resource to the player in this phase of the game.

To say that characters tend to die a lot is an understatement. Probably more than 90% of dnd characters die in this phase. In order to become more survivable, the player has to do one of these things: find a magic item, collect 4,000 gold pieces, or get 10,000 experience points. The first is rare, and is likely to be trapped and do far more damage to him than he has to spare at this stage. The other two, at the rate a new character is earning them, a few steps at a time, will take a while.

(Keep in mind, all this assumes that the player knows of the exit. The dungeon doesn't change between plays, but neither is it mapped out for him beforehand. It's usually a good dozen or so deaths, including a few inadvertent, fatal forays into level 2, before a good route is found.)

dnd11.pngThere is a shortcut to character improvement. Once in a while on one of those jaunts the player will find a treasure chest. If it's trapped, opening it will probably kill the player, but if it's not then he'll be the recipient of a veritable windfall of loot, possibly over 20,000 gold pieces and a good amount of experience to boot. Two or three of these, and the player will nearly be able to tackle the whole first level without much danger.

Why are these things important? Gold isn't used to buy anything; it's basically just a score, a measure of achievement, but every 4,000 pieces harvested from the dungeon earns the player one additional maximum hit point. Also, every 10,000 pieces grants another max magic spell, and 16,000 is worth another cleric spell. So that 20,000 windfall is worth three more spells, and thus another three monsters that can be killed each trip.

It also adds another five hits to the player's total, maybe enough to get in a second fight. The experience is also useful; it reduces fight damage and makes spells more powerful per every 10,000 earned, shortening the time before the player can explore deeper levels.

But it would be dishonest to sugarcoat the fact: getting started in dnd is one of the hardest things I've ever seen in an RPG. Until that lucky chest is stumbled upon, only the slightest of trips through the dungeon can be risked. But the tremendous severity of the start makes the next phase incredibly gratifying. You see, that 4,000 gold price for a maximum hit point? That never increases. Throughout the entire game, every 4,000 gold taken through a dungeon exit is another maximum hit point, with no known limit.

dnd15.pngOn the first level of the dungeon, the player might find up to 60 gold in a single pile, and visiting every space may net around 900. On the second level, piles go up to around 260. On the third, they can be over a thousand. Gold values keep going up like that throughout the 20-level dungeon. On level six, piles of over 10,000 are common, enough for two maximum hits all by itself, and there are many piles to be found.

After sweating through the game to get that first hit point, being able to find 12,000 or more in a single trip, and getting 30 hits from it, is a wonderful feeling. People remark upon Disgaea's powergaming design, but it has nothing at all on dnd, written way back in 1974; winning characters often have tens of thousands of hit points. Spell costs similarly don't increase, but their capacities are limited at 25 each.

There is another interesting dynamic at work in this game, one that helps to rein in the ever-escalating rise in hit points: the monsters "know" how much gold the player is carrying on his trip through the dungeon. As the player begins to collect loot on a foray through the vaults, the monsters get harder. The more gold the player is carrying, the harder the monsters become.

Magic spells, if chosen well and the player's stats are good, can wipe out most monsters, but eventually opponent levels will rise so high that even spells won't destroy them outright. Exiting the dungeon resets both the gold carried total and the monster difficulty, but as the player delves deeper and finds even stronger monsters and bigger piles of gold, the onslaught becomes ever more perilous.

Part of this is the result of the player's own expectations. If you have 18 hits (the most you can roll up at the start) then even one additional is a good advantage, and the cost of a single additional hit point never rises. But when the player has 600 hits, gaining one more isn't so useful. The marginal utility of each additional hit point is less than the previous one.

In the same way, a player with 600 hits will find 30 more a good improvement, but a player with 6,000 not as much. The more impatient the player is with his growth, the sooner he'll wish to dive to the lower levels, but tougher monsters hang out there. Conversely, he can play it safe by lingering longer on the upper levels. The balance between the player's impatience with his character's advancement and the strength of the monsters he faces, the dive into danger and greater rewards vs. the frightened cower, this is at the core of dnd5.

Beneath the surface

dnd13.pngAlso serving to limit the truckloads of loot the player can bring in are the hard spell caps (25 each), the fact that carrying lots of gold decreases the player's evasion ability, and that he can't carry more than 100,000 times his strength at once. Although with a bag of holding that figure goes up a hundred-fold, allowing the exponential rise to continue a bit longer, it doesn't prolong it indefinitely.

In most cases, the most spells the player can ever have is 25 of each. They're good for more than safely killing monsters in one shot, too. One magic spell can be expended to cast a passwall spell. When one of those trecherous objects is found, the player can get a chance to identify if it's dangerous or not at the cost of one cleric spell. (They should not be touched unless the player knows they're safe, for the damage done by booby-trapped items skyrockets deeper into the dungeon.)

At the cost of two magic spells and one cleric, the player can attempt to teleport one level up or down. This is the kind of thing that should only be used when the player is relatively safe, or in the direst of emergencies, since one time in ten it'll send him a level in the wrong direction instead.

At some point, the player will have to content with the logistics of a dive to level 20. That's where the Orb is, guarded by the Dragon. The instructions state that the Dragon can do up to 100,000 hits to the player, but that he can choose to cast a "dragon" spell at it, killing it instantly but at the cost of most of his magic, leaving him to make a dangerous trek up the maze without most of his arsenal.

Plus, when the Orb is finally collected, the dungeon residents go into overdrive, meaning those spells will quickly become necessary. The player can choose to drop the Orb at any time, resetting the opposition to its base difficulty, but then the player will have to go back and fight the Dragon again to get another one.

dnd14.pngDoes this sound to you like a game people would obsess over? How much play do you think such a game got back in the heady days immediately after Dungeons & Dragons hit the national scene?

A groupnote from Dirk Pellett provides some perspective. The backup tape off of which dnd5 was scavenged also bore the game's record of how many times it had been played. Its counter listed over two million games since it was first made available on PLATO. Keep in mind, this only counts plays on that installation, and PLATO, although popular among those who knew about it, never had what one might call a wide release. And this backup was not the last; it's certain it rang up many additional games after the backup had been made.

Of course the great majority of those games ended before obtaining their first 4,000 gold pieces, but according to Pellett, over 150 characters were registered on the backup tape's victory board. The game on cyber1 now has been running since May 21, 2008, and at this moment has registered 40,200 games and seven victories. (I personally remember it being less than 40,000 last week; it's possible many of those games are mine.)

Nowadays, the bright lustre has worn off of the bare concept of a dungeon exploration game, for the general gaming public at least. Adventurers no longer stalk dark corridors with no aim other than personal enrichment; they must always have some quest now, usually involving saving a world, which means it's never "just" a dungeon anymore, it's always some dire demonic place. The stakes have increased, all in honor of the dark god immersion.

Yet, put bluntly, most RPGs' attempts at immersion suck. What they have for stories would only make it into print as the worst trash fantasy, and their basic design shows less thought than games like dnd5 showed mere months after the release of D&D's original boxed set. There is sometimes a sense that they are chasing a false idol, abandoning strong design for flashy effects, and probably overuse of the word "corruption." Playing dnd5 may first seem like reaching one's hand into a box of snakes, but it is certainly an educational experience.

What can we learn from dnd5?

dnd12.pngFirst, that an amazingly old game can still have the potential to be interesting. Computer games don't get much older than this, yet it's still possible to enjoy it. Back in its day, it was known to be extraordinarily addictive. Its graphics may have been lapped repeatedly in the race towards photo-realism, but gameplay does not go obsolete.

Second, it teaches us the joy of manual mapping. The ultimate fun of mapping, I believe, is that of personal creation. To use one's wits to produce a document with which to conquer a game, then getting use out of it. The rise of GameFAQs has done much to destroy this joy, but the mazes of the dnd games can be edited by the operator, which may help to keep the game interesting over longer periods.

Third, it has a deceptively elegant set of limits. When the player discovers that gold values increase exponentially and there is no limit to the maximum number of hit points he gets the sense that the game is broken and sets about taking advantage of it. (There are few joys in life greater than exploiting such an advantage.)

But it's not broken at all: the spell caps, the carrying limits, and especially the monster power increase in response to carried gold all serve to check the meteoric rise to godhood. The modern approach to this would be to just lower gold values, or increase the amount needed to gain hit points, showing that, while the time developers spend on graphics has skyrocketed, they spend far less time in cooking up the rules.

Fourth, and the secret source of the entertainment it provides, is that old human failing: it rides heavily on the urge to gamble. That's what dnd5, and original Dungeons & Dragons, basically are all about. Every trip is a risk, every additional pile of gold raises the stakes and the chances that the next monster will be too strong to beat. Will the magic book increase a stat, or lower it, or even inflect Massive Damage? There is no way to know! (Actually it may be too much of a gamble.

Later versions of dnd give the player more ways to detect if an object laying on the floor is useful or booby-trapped, and I can't say that's a bad thing.) One of the most iconic D&D items is that potent slayer of PCs, the Deck of Many Things, which is simply a deck of cards, each with its own effect. There is no strategy to that, its just a spin of the wheel, either amazing riches or sudden, permanent death. The rational approach to that situation is to not draw, for no possible reward can make up for dying. but really, who in such a situation will fail to pull a card? Casinos exist on that margin, the irrationality of man. dnd rests there too, but no money is lost in its playing, just the life of an imaginary person.

Supplemental information

If you'd like to try this game, or the rather more complex (and strategically interesting) later version, dnd8, up until May of this year you would have been out of luck. It was only on May 16th that both games were rescued from oblivion.

Even so, the only known playable copy of these games is on the cyber1 system, an emulated PLATO server which offers free accounts for the asking. There it is available for play, along with a number of other interesting games from the earliest days of computer gaming, including a few of those early MMORPGs. (The most popular of these is avatar, which still sees somewhat frequent play today.)

Registration for an account can be done here. Keep in mind, new registrations are processed on weekends, and since they're all handled manually it may be some days before yours is approved.

* In actuality, it's not really that strange how obscure PLATO is. Unix's current popularity can be tied, in large part, to the success of Linux and other free work-alikes. PLATO systems have no such work-alike. The only emulator of its hardware appears to be dtCyber, on which cyber1 runs. I have heard it is open source but the extravagant licensing fees on its website speaks against that possibility.

GameSetLinks: Back Once Again, Unwell Behavior

Well, you may have noticed a slight lack of GameSetLinks this week, and plenty of cross-posting, to boot. This is because I've been at the Global Online Game Awards in South Korea, and only just got back yesterday.

There will be a picture-laden 'this is what South Korea is about re: gaming' post in due course, but in the meantime, we'll be massively catching up on RSS feeds. Thus, here's some transitional links, including Takahashi, soundtracks, Carroll prescience, and lots more.

Hat brim top:

EA: Henry Hatsworth official website
The downloads section for Kyle Gray's 'indie'-ish EA Tiburon DS title (pictured!) has the entire OST available for download, a GSW reader points out - v.neat!

Noby Noby Boy Preview for the PS3 from 1UP.com
Keita Takahashi is as clipped as ever, but hey, it's interesting. Namco aren't exactly gonna make much money off this title with 3+ years of development and being sold for <$10, tho!

chewing pixels » The Best Games Writing of 2008: Part 1
GSW columnist Simon Parkin's excellent, heartfelt thoughts on the best game writing this year - here's Part 2.

NeoGAF - View Single Post - Gamasutra's top 5 surprises of 2008
The interesting part of this thread points out that Reflexive/Amazon's Russell Carroll was eerily correct back in 2005 in predicting the Wii's success. He's a smart cookie!

Kotaku: 'Farewell: Maggie Has Left the Tower'
Sad to see that Maggie Greene left Kotaku - her weekend posts were always some of the most erudite on the site, and we definitely appreciated all the links along the way. Look forward to seeing her post-Kotaku output, tho!

2008全球最强游戏制作人大排榜-levelup.cn 游戏城寨 | PS3 PS2 PSP X360 Xbox Wii NGC NDS GBA PC
About the 'Top Deck' from Game Developer we ran on Gamasutra recently, from a leading Chinese website: '结果,硅骑士公司的Denis Dyack,由于公开在欧美游戏圈最有影响力的论坛NeoGAF'. Nuff said!

Wolfire Blog - Gish design tour
These are very neat - this is the third in the series.

While !Finished » The Importance of Leadership on Gaming Websites
'The point of all of this is that, despite claims by games bloggers that they have no control over what random people say on the internet, they actually do have a lot of control over the community on their sites, without even getting into moderation: it’s all about tone.'

December 18, 2008

2008 Game Developers Choice Awards Opens Nominations

[Over at big sister site Gamasutra, we've just opened nominations for the 2008 Choice Awards, so if you're a developer and would like to vote on the best games of the year, with winners showcased at the big GDC ceremony in March - now's the time.]

The 2008 Game Developers Choice Awards has now opened nominations for the best games of 2008, with awards given out at GDC 2009 and Gamasutra members able to help decide nominees.

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.

The Choice Awards, the most prestigious honors in video game development, are now available for you to nominate, after logging on with your main Gamasutra.com user ID. (You can register for free if you do not currently have one.)

The Game Developers Choice Awards recognizes excellence in the art of game creation in any genre or platform. Last year's event saw Valve's Portal the recipient of three major honors, including Game of the Year, with three awards also going to 2K Boston/2K Australia's BioShock.

The 2009 award categories currently open for nominations until January 5th, 2009, are:

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

In addition, the first part of this year's voting process, three special Choice Awards - the Ambassador Award, the Pioneer Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award - is still open for nominations for a limited time. Ralph Baer (Pioneer), Jason Della Rocca (Ambassador), and Sid Meier (Lifetime) were the Special Award winners for 2008's ceremony.

The Game Developers Choice Awards are unique in that nominees and winners are voted on entirely by game professionals, and there are no entry fees. It is produced by the Game Developers Conference and presented by Gamasutra.com and Game Developer Magazine.

The nomination ballot and further details about the Choice Awards are now available online at the official Game Developers Choice Award website. For further information and to register for GDC, please visit the official GDC website.

GameSetInterview: Kplecraft & luvtrax's Retro Game Chiptune Madness

[Our latest Japanese video game-related music interview from Jeriaska chats to a chiptune video game techno duo including quad/luvtrax and Kplecraft - who actually and coincidentally released an EP on my net.label a few years back. And hey, Gradius chiptune remixes!]

Kuske of the Tokyo-based chiptune group Kplecraft and quad of the sound studio luvtrax performed together at the 2008 EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event.

Their sets involved techno arrangements of classic videogame series like Gradius, accompanied by vocal performances and 8-bit console sounds. Both musicians work in chiptunes and their songs will be appearing in the XBox 360 port of the sidescrolling shooter Otomedius G.

Luvtrax is a music production studio run by quad, who has written NES-style music along with compositions for acoustic instruments that have been featured in videogames and anime titles. An experienced sound designer, he has mastered a number of videogame soundtrack albums for 5pb Records, including the 2007 EXTRA Live album, Etrian Odyssey II Original Soundtrack, and Yuzo Koshiro Best Collection Volumes I & II.

Kuske specializes in chiptune music, employing Famicom sound cards and Game Boys, accentuating these retro sounds with saxophone accompaniment. He has collaborated with the chiptune collective 8bitpeoples and has performed at the Blip Festival in New York.

This interview, taking place the night of the EXTRA event, touches on the cultural differences between the videogame industry and the chiptune music scene. In the views of the two musicians, there may in fact be fewer cultural factors separating the music of East and West as there are barriers to the integration of videogame and chiptune music scenes, regardless of location.

Interview by Jeriaska. Translation by Ryojiro Sato. This article is available in Japanese on Game Design Current.

Vocalists of the Famison 8bit [email protected] series performing at the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event

GameSetWatch: Thank you for joining us for this discussion of your chiptune music and various contributions to videogame soundtracks. Could you offer us an introduction that explains a little about your chosen styles of music?

Kuske(kplecraft): My name is Kuske, I make 8-bit style music.

quad: I'm quad. Normally I write techno, trance and chiptune music, while also working as a recording engineer.

Kuske(kplecraft): In the past, quad has worked with me on mixing various songs of mine, but this concert marks the first time we have appeared onstage together.

quad: You're right. It hadn't even occurred to me. Even before we started working together we had known each others' names from appearing at chiptune events.

GSW: How long have you been involved in writing music for the [email protected] series?

Kuske(kplecraft): We have been working on the sound for the Famison 8bit [email protected] series for about six months.

GSW: For the arrangements you performed at the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event, what was the source material?

Kuske(kplecraft): There were two different sets. The first one was a medley from Otomedius G (Gorgeous!).

quad: These are arrangements from the original Gradius, such as the first stage tune, called "Challenger 1985." The fourth stage music is titled "Free Flyer." There is also an arrangement from Gradius III titled "Sandstorm."

Kuske(kplecraft): I performed a song from the third stage of Gradius III called "In the Wind" and two songs from Gradius Gaiden: "Snow Field" and "Black Hole." They have been remixed in an 8-bit music style.

GSW: Not all chiptune musicians are terribly interested in videogames. As industry musicians who work with chiptunes, what are your thoughts on gaming?

Kuske(kplecraft): There have certainly been times when I have played a lot of games, but then there are times when I do not play at all. Right now I'm so busy that it's hard to find the time.

quad: I've been playing the Famicom since it first was released, so titles like the original Donkey Kong are the ones I am most familiar with. While today I am working as a musician, my original ambition was to design games, and that was primarily influenced by the Famicom.

GSW: What is it that compels you to keep returning to chiptune music?

Kuske(kplecraft): That might take some time to answer. Everybody seems to have a different interpretation of what makes chiptunes special. Most people simply remember it from their youth and value it for that reason. In my case, I find it a challenge to make this music, because there are limits to the number of sounds you can use. That forces musicians to put a great deal of care into the melody and arpeggios. Those limitations can actually open the doors to a new appreciation for musical forms. I might be alone in that contention, but I find it to be a compelling way to arrange videogame music.

Kuske of the chiptune music group kplecraft
8Bit Goa from KNMS-001 [mtk146] mp3 sample

GSW: What are your opinions of some of the chiptune festivals that take place outside of Japan?

Kuske(kplecraft): I've attended Blip Fest. To tell you the truth, music concerts like the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event and the Blip Festival, which focuses on chiptunes, belong to two entirely different cultures. While I am not too familiar with the situation in the States, in Japan videogame enthusiasts and chiptune enthusiasts mix like oil and water. I know people that frequent both events, but they belong to different crowds. In Japan it feels like there are many barriers to integrating these genres and uniting these different fanbases.

quad: I would have to agree. In Japan, videogame music has a unique history that developed largely independent of other media. When you talk about chiptunes existing outside of that context, some people find that disorienting.

Kuske(kplecraft): Chiptune events outside Japan have gotten their fare share of publicity, but not a lot of people here even know about the genre.

GSW: How would you describe the mood of the attendees of the EXTRA event? The turnout was exceptional.

Kuske(kplecraft): The audience was very excited. I would say that we don't really have a party culture here in Japan, so you don't see a lot of people dancing at this kind of event. On the other hand, when something interests us, we really focus on it intently. At today's event there were people in the front row who were totally uninhibited about their excitement. However, these are people who love videogames. They aren't the kind of folks who would go out to a club and dance. At EXTRA, the audience is made up of videogame enthusiasts, so that is a marked difference from events like the Blip Festival.

GSW: What has been your experience working with international chiptune and nerdcore collectives?

Kuske(kplecraft): I've released a song for 8bitpeoples. Two other Japanese musicians have participated, namely USK from Fukuoka and Xinon from Gunma. I'm mostly involved in videogame music, but these two specialize in chiptunes. Again, it's just a different culture. It's really difficult to explain, but hard to ignore.

quad: Japan doesn't have much interest in demoscenes like Mega Demos. I think the origin of chiptune culture emerged from that environment. In Japan, hardly anyone knows about Amiga Mega Demos. It has always been a cultural import.

Kuske(kplecraft): There is also a difference in style when you look at 8-bit in Japan and in the US.

quad: That's true. The prominence of the Commodore 64 in the States leads to different sound styles than in Japan, where the Famicom dominated. The high speed arpeggios are clearly an NES influence.

Kuske(kplecraft): 8-bit music in Japan focuses more on melody. There isn't so much concern with chords.

quad: That's true. Chords were not the central idea.

Kuske(kplecraft): When speaking of videogame music, Japanese listeners seem to appreciate the melody more than anything else. Maybe it's because deep down we are lovers of melodies.

quad: Videogame musicians have always faced steep challenges required by the 8-bit sound source and its limits on the number of simultaneous notes. Like, what the hell can you do with just three notes? There are people who managed to figure out a way on their own through the use of various techniques, and that is actually the root of VGM in Japan.

Quad of the sound recording studio luvtrax

GSW: There are dozens of gifted chiptune artists performing outside of Japan, and I imagine you have had the chance to hear any number of them, but are there any you might mention offhand as having impressed you?

Kuske(kplecraft): Anamanaguchi is up there. I was shocked to hear their age. They're still in their teens, so why would they even care about Famicom music, you know?

GSW: Outside of chiptune music, what other genres do you enjoy creating?

quad: I work in techno and pop. Some time ago I used to do some simple programming, so when everyone became excited about 8-bit music, I decided to try it for myself. I used to make games on 8-bit computers using assembly language. That was my route to the 8-bit music movement---by building a program for myself that operated like a music driver. I've done that kind of thing in the past and posted my work on the internet, though these days I have not spent much time programming. I want to work on that again, when I get the chance. I actually know Nullsleep. I was chatting with him on IRC the other day. I've sent him some software I designed and met him when he visited Japan.

Kuske(kplecraft): quad has made some really cool music outside of 8-bit tunes. I was watching anime on television the other day and heard this great ending theme. I checked the credits, and guess who was the composer? I was so surprised.

quad: Still, I have to say that videogame music is my background, and it still influences all my music projects today.

GSW: What would you want to communicate to listeners in English-language territories who enjoy your music or are interested in hearing more of it?

Kuske(kplecraft): I think you can order the 8bit [email protected] CDs through Amazon, but all the liner notes are in Japanese.

quad: The upside is, there's a lot of pixel art. 

Kuske(kplecraft): I'm certain there are people living outside Japan who are into the 8-bit tunes and techno remixes of NES themes. Those are found on the album.

quad: If you want an idea of what's currently going on in Japan, it's something to listen to.

GSW: Before we go, is there any way for your listeners in English-language territories to drop you a line?

Kuske(kplecraft): I'm on myspace, under Kplecraft.

quad: Me too, as quad.

Kuske(kplecraft): ...Oh yeah? Remind me to send you a friend request later. 

[Images courtesy of 5pb Records, kplecraft and luvtrax. [email protected] albums volume [1], [2], [3], [4], [5] can be imported from Amazon.co.jp.]

Kplecraft / Hamlin intro | 8-Bit PV

The Best Of 2008: The Top Trends

[The latest countdown on big sister site Gamasutra, and this time it's Christian Nutt and the other editors banding together to work out the top trends of the year - with 5 listed here, and 20 if you click through to the full feature. Fun!]

It's been a year of exciting evolution for the game industry that can only be expected to continue. In fact, there are so many changes going on that Gamasutra was hard-pressed to choose just 20 major trends.

The final list was pared down from an initial selection of over 40, and we probably could have thought of many more -- especially as the industry expands to encompass everything from casual online games to Facebook apps, alongside three dedicated consoles and two handheld platforms.

There's so much diversity that choosing isn't simple, but we've identified and explained 20 trends that have risen to the level that they cannot be ignored -- and here are just five of them:

1. The Continued Rise Of Outsourcing

Speak to any number of developers these days about asset generation, and the topic of outsourcing is never far from the discussion. Some companies, such as Alex Seropian's Wideload Games and American McGee's Spicy Horse Games, have built their business models around a "core" team, while using contractors for much of the process.

Whether or not you do, however, it's becoming increasingly relevant in these cost-cutting times. Major publishers, like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Konami, among others, maintain their own fully-owned outsourcing studios in China, which primarily handle art requests.

Though it's most prominent, it's not just Asian outsourcing that is necessarily the most relevant. Wideload's model suggests finding the most talented and experienced practitioners to produce the components of the game.

For example, in the case of Hail to the Chimp, the creators found a firm that had worked on actual news programs to do the game's faux-newscast motion graphics. In this sense, it's as much about talent and relevance as it is about savings, and points to another sign of the "Hollywoodized" future at which the industry continues to hint.

2. Casual MMOs? For Kids!

This market, which began under the radar and burst into headlines last year with the $350 million (plus incentives) acquisition of Club Penguin by Disney, continues to maintain its relevance in important ways.

Chief among them: MMO mavens' firm belief that the kids playing Club Penguin and other kids' MMOs today will demand services that offer similar (but improved) functionality as they outgrow these sites.

When their first taste of the power of social gaming technology is a Disney online world and not a Wii or Xbox 360, the expectations that drive the industry's possibilities for online interaction are being set outside of what is often considered the "norm".

Daniel James, president of casual MMO developer and publisher Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates) puts it this way: "People talk about the digital generation or whatever you want to call them... but I think there is a genuine shift when you have access to something at a young age. It changes your way of looking at the world."

With perhaps a glut of cute, original IP, venture-funded kids' worlds out there alongside a number of major brand-based and consumer-friendly projects (FusionFall from Cartoon Network, Gaia Online's zOMG!) yet to completely launch, it's a space that's still rapidly expanding.

3. You Don't Want DRM - You Want Services

As piracy grows ever easier, and as users become more and more vocal about the measures publishers take to try and stop it -- witness the Spore DRM controversy -- the appeal of user-friendly DRM lumped into a subscription service seems like the best solution.

After all, very few players complain about the fact that World of Warcraft is tied to a unique account that costs a constant $15 per month fee to keep playable -- because that's the very point of the game.

But even for games that don't require online interaction, the tied-to-an-account model can work a charm: Valve's Steam service is typically extremely well-regarded, thanks to its selection of games, its appealing community features, and most recently, the addition of its Steam Cloud service.

This makes online integration all the more relevant, as user data is stored on servers and accessible on any PC the player logs into. Surely, providing a tangible benefit for users to tie themselves to a verification system is the way to make to help the copy protection-related medicine go down?

4. Downloadable Content - A Cure For All Game Ills?

Whether or not GameStop's management wants to admit it, many developers and publishers consider the used game market to be, well, less than benevolent. Whether it should or can be stamped out completely is not the issue; few would disagree that at least discouraging players from selling games back quickly is a good idea.

One of the best current tools for doing so is downloadable content -- or as Xbox Live group program manager Alvin Gendrano put it at Microsoft's GameFest this year, "Using [premium DLC] we can keep your games being used over a long time. The longer your users play your titles, the less chance they give those titles away to retailers and sell them for used."

Moreover, stats Gendrano released suggest that games with strong DLC retain their market value for longer: "Games with PDLC were still selling for $59 in [the second quarter of their release lifespans]; those without were selling for $56." And Microsoft's Gears of War 2 recently took a new tactic; it shipped with one-time-use coupon for free DLC that can only be downloaded by the initial purchaser.

Perhaps the boldest mover in this space, however, is EA's Criterion studio, which has launched the "Year of Paradise" initiative for the company -- its Burnout Paradise, first released in January, is still receiving substantive free DLC on a regular basis, with its first paid pack, Big Surf Island, coming approximately one year after the game's retail release.

5. The Inevitable User-Created Content Entry

LittleBigPlanet is generally viewed as the watershed moment for user-created content in console games. It's true that the game invites and champions it, and has a flexible environment for its creation.

But it's not the only example, and it's sure to be far from the final one. Heck, Microsoft's XNA Community Games experiment, while flooding its Xbox 360 channel with games that are difficult to sort through at times, at least shows the potential of handing console game creation over to high-level hobbyists -- another win for UCC.

And for conventional retail games, as professional creation of content gets ever more expensive, as the economy worsens, as the YouTube generation comes of age, the need to extend the lifespan and interest of titles continues to grow -- for retention and acquisition reasons.

Can there be any doubt that user-created content will become bigger and bigger? With the advent of the form -- big on PCs in one way and another for years -- on consoles in a truly user-friendly, 21st century way, it's going to drive the direction of the medium as much as any other recent innovation.

Want the rest of the list? The full feature on Gamasutra's Top 20 Trends Of 2008 is now available, extensively evaluating the major currents of 2008 that will continue to reverberate into the year to come, complete with examples and links to relevant news (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

December 17, 2008

In-Depth: Building IncrediBots With Some Grubby Geezers

[Starting out a new series of GameSetWatch interviews on buzzed about and/or overlooked games and personalities conducted by the excellent Todd Ciolek, we talk to the Grubby Games folks about their excellent Flash-based physics sim IncrediBots.]

Calling IncrediBots a “physics game” may sell it a little short. True, Grubby Games’ new Flash-based title revolves around building and maneuvering machines in a 2-D world where everything reacts with realistic motion. Yet it’s also a puzzle game, a movie-maker, and anything else that players can pull off within the game’s highly versatile confines.

IncrediBots walks first-timers through the art of crafting various simple machines, and it's easy to turn them into robots, cars, Rube Goldberg contraptions, obstacle courses, and, using the game's movie-recorder, short films.

Everything is made from basic ideas and simple visuals, but IncrediBots has proven popular enough to overload three servers since its beta launched in November. It’s not the first success for the Grubby Games developers, as their Professor Fizzwizzle PC puzzle game was the 2005 GameTunnel Casual Game of the Year and a finalist for the 2006 IGF Seumas McNally Grand Prize.

We interviewed IncrediBots designer Ryan Clark to find out where IncrediBots came from, where it’s going after the beta, and just how far its user base has taken it:

What inspired you to create IncrediBots? Did it grow out of Professor Fizzwizzle? Did you look to The Incredible Machine series or any other older games?

Ryan Clark: The Incredible Machine definitely had an impact on my brain when I was young, and games like Armadillo Run and Toribash have more recently rekindled my passion for physics games.

IncrediBots didn't grow out of Professor Fizzwizzle, no. Although we did have an early prototype of Professor Fizzwizzle that was more physics-based. We scrapped that idea in favor of discrete tile-based movement, as the physics-y version felt more luck/tweak-based, and less puzzle-like.

IncrediBots actually grew from another physics game idea we had, that we ended up shelving for various reasons. Working on the concept for that game got me interested in the various pre-built 2-D physics engines that were available. During my research, I saw this. I couldn't believe how much fun I had with that simple program! And I wanted to construct other bots and play around with them. IncrediBots was born.

How did you develop the game's physics engine?

The game's physics are handled by the amazing Box2D physics engine. It's the same physics engine used by IGF winner Crayon Physics Deluxe, and many other excellent games. We've made some modifications to the engine, but the bulk of the code is the same.

You've mentioned that you created multiple prototype versions of Professor Fizzwizzle. Did you do the same for IncrediBots?

No, actually! We didn't create any prototypes. The design of the game seemed pretty foolproof, so we just went for it. How can you go wrong when your design doc just says, "open-ended physics sandbox game!"?

IncrediBots is currently in its beta form. What more can we expect in the final version?

We're currently having some server problems (due to higher than expected traffic volumes), and we still have some issues with replays behaving differently on different machines, causing stutters/jerks. These, plus a few other minor bugs, will be fixed.

We also plan to add new features like mirroring, scaling, a "challenge editor" so people can make their own challenge levels, thrusters so you can make flying bots, and more!

I don't think there'll ever be a "final" version. If the game is a financial success, I hope we can keep improving it forever! The community has already come up with a number of amazing ideas for new features...there's always more we could add.

How will the final version of IncrediBots be offered? Will fans have to pay for the final version?

So far we're not quite covering our costs, but that may change as traffic continues to grow. If we can't cover our costs we may go to a "donate and get some extra features" model, where donators would also be able to play a version of the game without advertisements. We definitely want to keep it as free as possible, while still making enough money to pay for our servers and continued development.

Do you plan on putting it on Xbox Live or any other online console game service?

We hope so! We're in talks with publishers, but nothing has come to fruition just yet.

What are the advantages of offering a game like IncrediBots online? What are the disadvantages? Do you think the market for browser-based games is getting too crowded?

The main advantage is that you have the widest possible audience. Pretty much everyone who is connected to the Internet is a potential IncrediBots player! Being online also allows IncrediBots players to share their robots and replays, which helps virally spread the word about the game.

The main disadvantage is the difficulty of monetization. Ads certainly make us some money, but the amount of traffic required to cover our costs with ads alone is enormous! For a traditional try-buy shareware game, you only need some thousands of sales to cover your costs. For a complex web game like IncrediBots you need millions upon millions of players!

I definitely don't think the market for browser-based games is too crowded. It's obviously very competitive, but that's great if you're a gamer!

The movie option in IncrediBots goes beyond what you'll find in the majority of other machine-building games. What inspired it? What's the most impressive thing you've seen a user do with this feature?

I'm not really sure! Perhaps it came from our roots in Professor Fizzwizzle. Our PF games both have a "show solution" option which allows you to view a replay of the author solving the level. We have always received praise for including this feature in our games, so that may have influenced our thinking.

But the feature also just seems to make sense. If you spend hours designing an awesome robot, you're probably quite proud of it, and would like to share it with the world. What better way than recording a replay to show off your skills?

Are you aiming IncrediBots at any specific age group?

We generally go for an "all ages" audience with our games, and IncrediBots is no exception. The game itself is obviously fairly non-violent and colorful, but some of the user creations can indeed be violent or crass. We've had to delete quite a lot of...inappropriate...content, let me tell you!

The Best Of 2008: Top 5 PC Games

[Continuing to cross-post the 'best of the year' pieces from our big sister site for GSW readers' delectation, in a year which saw the PC become his main gaming device, Gamasutra's Chris Remo takes a look at 15 of 2008's notable PC releases.]

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, gameplay mechanics, indie games, and surprises.

Next, we'll cover this year's top five standalone (non-expansion) PC games and ten honorable mentions, highlighting fifteen standout titles from 2008, including both exclusive titles and multiplatform or ported releases. 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.

This was an encouraging year for gaming's longest-running platform. Despite quite a few online explosions surrounding piracy and digital rights management controversies, the PC continued picking up more multiplatform support from major publishers, and produced a number significant exclusives.

Perhaps most rewardingly for longtime PC gamers, 2008 spawned many games that seemed to build heavily on the PC's heritage of game design built around player freedom, as seen not only in exclusives like Crysis Warhead, Spore, and Sins of a Solar Empire but also multiplatform games like Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3.

And as GameStop and other specialty retailers progressively marginalize PC shelf space, the ongoing growth and substantially increasing relevance of digital distribution platforms like Steam and Impulse has been welcome. Here's our countdown:

Top 5 PC Games of 2008

5. Crysis Warhead (Crytek)

Sometimes derided as nothing more than tech demos, Crytek's Crysis games indeed demand capable rigs and generate some of the most impressive real-time rendering in the medium -- but they are much more than that simplistic characterization suggests. Few non-simulation shooters have been as uncompromising in their willingness to let the player explore the world at will and carve out a particular tactical approach (with one exception in Far Cry 2, below).

Even Crysis Warhead, which consciously takes a few steps back from last year's sometimes overwhelmingly wide-open Crysis, offers leagues more freedom than the rest of today's on-rails shooter experiences in the vein of the Half-Lifes and Call of Dutys (great games in their own right). What Warhead trims in terms of scale is balanced out by a greater attention to pacing and sensible gameplay variety, as well as level design that seems more tuned to the game's unique (and enjoyable) combat and suit mechanics.

Finally, the "tech demo" detractors do have the right idea in one respect: Crysis Warhead is gorgeous, declining to make a statement with nontraditional rendering techniques and instead allowing the composition of its sprawling natural vistas to speak for itself.

4. Sins of a Solar Empire (Ironclad Games)

One of the year's great success stories was this space strategy title from Vancouver-based Ironclad Games, which put the small developer on the map and scored another hit for its increasingly influential publisher Stardock. Ostensibly a member of the "4X" genre of domination-oriented titles, Sins of a Solar Empire, with its explicit focus on battles and its real-time nature, is more like an RTS with 4X scale.

A game of Sins methodically unfolds, blossoming into an epic galactic conflict where tiny fighters zip around huge capital ships, which sail between massive planets -- all of which is dwarfed by the size of the overall battlefield, which can be easily surveyed thanks to the smooth-zooming scroll wheel mechanism that is becoming increasingly popular among PC strategy games. That feature is as useful a staple of gameplay as it is a showcase for the game's attractive visuals, which smoothly transition from ant's-eye views of individual craft out to map-like surveys of the surroundings.

Paradoxically, despite the constantly frenetic nature of the game, in which there is always something that can demand your attention, it rarely feels unduly overwhelming, avoiding the overly micro-heavy pitfalls of many smaller RTS games.

On a final note: Sins of a Solar Empire also deserves some kind of award for one of the most clever and alluring titles in gaming.

3. Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal)

Few games of 2008 have been as polarizing on the online forums as Far Cry 2 -- it has been understandably criticized for a repetitive mission structure and sometimes aggravatingly frequently-respawning enemies. But it is also one of the most progressive shooters this year, and for those with whom it hit home, it has been a rare joy.

Ubisoft Montreal took an admirably systemic approach with Far Cry 2 in a genre increasingly defined by scripted experiences. It doesn't ease the player into a difficulty curve so much as it drops the player headfirst into a brutal warzone where scavenged weapons fall apart and everyone is hostile, save the arms dealers looking to make a buck. For those willing to invest themselves into such a world, Far Cry 2 -- with its fire propagation, its recurring malaria, its beautiful open landscapes, its subtly dynamic buddy and mission system, essentially its total dedication to its own rather unusual gameplay premise -- can be immensely rewarding in a much different way to a straight, linear shooter.

Memorable moments abound, both in the ways combat plays out, as well as in the interactions with the environment. There is enormous attention to detail in Far Cry 2's Africa, not so much in terms of discrete content as much as in the way its systems are modeled. Legitimate flaws and all, Far Cry 2 often feels ahead of its time.

2. Left 4 Dead (Valve/Valve South)

There may be no other game released this year that can promise as consistently a thrilling and hilarious multiplayer experience as this. Out of Valve's ongoing attempts to bridge the gap between its highly-tuned single-player titles and the necessarily chaotic nature of multiplayer gaming comes Left 4 Dead, whose AI director and tight four-player cooperative play create a team-based atmosphere that is both coherent and unpredictable, even upon multiple playthroughs of the same campaign.

Hitting the right notes between necessary player-to-player interaction and the independence demanded by a first-person shooter, Left 4 Dead is possibly the most accurate video game representation of the classic cinematic zombie invasion to date, even as its antagonists operate quite differently to their traditionally sluggish filmic counterparts. Much of this is due to the group dynamics that the game fosters, coaxing out emergent archetypes like "that idiot who accidentally makes a noise and alerts the entire horde" or "the sole survivor who somehow staves off wave after wave and makes it to the chopper."

On top of that, the seemingly endless supply of brief character quips continues Valve's recent trend of summoning up surprising depth to characters who exist outside of any substantial defined narrative.

1. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios)

Bethesda's Fallout 3 not only outshone the studio's previous game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in just about every way, it accomplished the impressive task of satisfying most non-extremist-level fans of Black Isle's venerable Fallout series. Creating a vast world that is a convincing representation of a dismal, post-nuclear wasteland while also being consistently compelling is no mean feat, but here it is.

The sheer amount of content in Fallout 3 is extremely impressive, considering what a consistent level of quality it maintains -- and how much of it a player is likely to completely miss, based on the choices made, the NPCs killed, the routes traveled, and any number of other variables. The main storyline pales in comparison to the larger breadth of experiences to be had throughout, and the vast wasteland begs to be lived in.

To sweeten the deal for PC gamers, Bethesda has also released the G.E.C.K., an end user editing tool that can author any type of single-player content featured in Fallout 3 -- which will surely extend the title's already-considerable shelf life.

Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically)

Civilization IV: Colonization (Firaxis Games): This standalone remake of the 1994 original takes Firaxis' ever-addictive strategic gameplay and focuses in a specific crucial moment in history.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (EA Los Angeles): This satisfying sequel adds an unexpected co-op component to otherwise old-school RTS design and gloriously cheesy FMV.

Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores): This vaguely System Shock 2-esque action game feels more at home on the consoles, but is a tight, engaging experience nonetheless.

Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar North): Major technical problems at launch nearly kept this port off the list completely, but for those who get it working it's still one of the year's standout game experiences.

Hinterland (Tilted Mill): This clever, stripped-down mix of action RPG and basic town-building wears its indie production values on its sleeve (sometimes to its detriment), but it drains the hours away very enjoyably.

King's Bounty: The Legend (Katauri Interactive): It was overlooked (decades-old IP didn't help) and undeniably old-school, but that's never been a big problem for tactical RPGs, and this is a good one.

Mass Effect (BioWare/Demiurge Studios): Demiurge Studios took its time to get BioWare's sci-fi RPG onto the PC, but the effort shows with significantly improved interface and more.

Penumbra: Black Plague (Frictional Games): The second entry in the sort-of-episodic series, Black Plague continues to subvert both the adventure and survival horror genres with its fresh approach.

Spore (Maxis): Though it wasn't all it could have been as a game, with extreme inconsistency in its various stages, those interested in game design owe it to themselves to give this absurdly ambitious effort a playthrough.

World of Goo (2D Boy): Brilliantly simple physics-driven gameplay is complemented by endearing, low-key production values -- and it was made by two guys!

[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.]

Idle Thumbs: A Gamer's Songbook - Stop (Doing Interviews)

[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!]

For today's installment of this new series highlighting songs from the Idle Thumbs podcast, I'm plucking out "Stop (Doing Interviews)" from the relatively recent Idle Thumbs 7: Stop Doing Interviews.

Enjoying this piece is heavily contingent on being aware of this blog post by Infinity Ward communications director Robert Bowling, who expressed his frustration with Activision producer Noah Heller for relying too heavily on calling out Infinity Ward's own Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in press interviews regarding Call of Duty: World at War. (It is also slightly contingent on an in-joke from the podcast about the misinterpretation of "senior" as "señor.") The song is sung from Bowling's perspective.

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

Stop (Doing Interviews) (MP3)

"Señor Super Douche,
stop doing interviews

And if I see one more
Google alert for Call of Duty 4
because of an interview you did,
I'll flip my lid

Please, Señor S. Douche,
stop doing interviews

Seriously man, you're killing me
(you're killing me)
Interview about your own game, not ours
(not ours)
Call of Duty: World at War can stand on its own merits
(on its own)
Leave ours out of it
Like this gem of a quote from today's article on CVG:
(on the internet)

'In the previous Call of Dutys
it might take three or four shots
from a bolt-action rifle'

And what the fuck are you talking about?
'In previous Call of Dutys, blah blah blah'
You didn't work on previous Call of Dutys
So don't talk as if you're...
(just shut your face)
As if you're down with how slash why
things were designed the way they were
(you don't know anything about my shit)
And secondly, you're completely fucking wrong
(oh snap)

And to the press, please stop talking to this guy
Talk to someone on the team
Or your interviews will be full of lies

Señor Super Douche,
you're pulling shit out of your ass

And here's the growing tally of amusing alternate URLs for Idle Thumbs, some of which have been kindly donated by listeners based on jokes from the show:


December 16, 2008

Interview: 8-4 & The New Potential For Game Localization

[Another interesting interview here from Christian Nutt - this time focusing on 8-4 and their work localizing a lot of major Japanese RPGs for the West. What can be done to bring the two cultures closer together? Some ideas below...]

Could localization be the key to bridging cultural gaps between Japanese and Western games?

We asked Tokyo-headquartered firm 8-4, who has provided localization services to major companies including Bandai Namco, Nintendo, Sony, and Konami -- partners John Ricciardi and Hiroko Minamoto also work as Japan correspondents for consumer site 1UP.

But Ricciardi and Minamoto see their role as more broadly useful than simple interpretation and translation.

As the team's just passed its third anniversary, and as Japanese companies begin turning a more serious eye to ways they can better address Western audiences, the 8-4 duo has a lot of insight on the divide between Japanese and Western audiences -- and how localization can help.

You guys had your third anniversary in October. Before that, you were doing localization with another company, so you two have been doing localization for about how long now?

HM: Well, when did you have your first project?

JR: Well, I first worked on a Saturn game with Victor Ireland, like back in, what was that, 199-something; the Saturn game, Magic Knight Rayearth. That was my first dabbling in localization. And then I came to Japan at the end of 2000. So, I started getting more into it again back in like 2002, I guess? Or 2003.

HM: Actually, if I think about it, my first project was when I was in my first company, which is... back in the day.

JR: Really?

HM: Well that was some European language to Japanese. So it's not quite the same as what we do now.

JR: You were 18 or something then, right? Or 20?

HM: 20, yeah.

JR: Yeah, so we've been around, I guess.

Now, your primary business is localization, but do you work on other projects, or do other things?

HM: Yes we do. We work for [consumer games site] 1UP; we're their Japan correspondents, so we do a lot of 1UP stuff. We cover events for them in Japan, and then whenever their people visit Japan, we coordinate interviews and such for them, and interpret them.

We also do some interpreting work for our [Japanese] clients, and occasionally some other sites and magazines as well. We helped out with gathering Japanese speakers for last year's Game Developers Conference, too.

Had you guys been doing any consulting work for companies, or stuff like that?

HM: Actually, we haven't, but we are looking into moving in that direction. And I guess, through localization, we kind of do some consulting, right?

JR: Just by virtue of the process of localization, we end up making lots of little suggestions to the developers that we work with about how they can slightly improve things for the western market.

I mean, it's very minor stuff, but in a way it is like consulting, because it's things they don't know that we know just from having had so much experience with western games; how they can make little tweaks to improve things and such.

HM: And also, these days, a lot of major companies are trying to do simultaneous releases, so, because of that, we get more involved with projects at an earlier stage, which gives us more opportunities to give out advice. So I think we're going to get more involved with consulting in the future.

JR: Yeah, that's true.

What are you currently working on that you can talk about publicly, at this point?

JR: Well, most recently, there were a bunch of Namco Bandai projects that hit within a span of three or four months. First there was Tales of Vesperia, which had a massive script.

Then, we worked on a bunch of Soulcalibur IV -- we didn't work on the voice script part, but we did a lot of the other stuff, like the story bits inside the game and the character backgrounds and such.

We did Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World for Wii, which just came out not too long ago. And then there was the PS3 version of Eternal Sonata, which has a bit more story content than the 360 version. Ah, and we also worked on Castlevania: Judgment with Konami.

Those are the most recent ones. We worked on a few games with Ubisoft, including the next Tenchu game for Wii and a couple of DS titles. We worked on Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon with Nintendo -- which was a really awesome project. We're currently wrapping up Star Ocean: The Last Hope with Square Enix, which we're really excited about.

And then we're working on a big project with Sony, which...

HM: That's gonna be a bit 'til we'll be able to talk about, but we have been working on it for a while.

JR: Yeah, we've been working on it for about a year. So, probably, people who know the games we've worked on in the past might be able to guess what that is, but I'm not allowed to say yet.

HM: (laughs) And then we are currently working on another one...

JR: ...We are?

HM: With the interesting text...

JR: Oh, yeah... I'd love to talk about that one because it's pretty interesting, but I suppose it's too early.

You mostly end up working on RPG titles, which makes some sense because they have a great deal of text. When you talk to publishers about localizing titles, do they favor you for any particular genre, or is it just that those titles get localized more frequently?

JR: I think, generally, a lot of our games end up being RPGs because with the smaller titles, some of these companies can just do them in-house, or they don't need to outsource them. Generally, when you can handle it yourself, there's no need to hire someone like us, so we end up getting a lot of RPGs.

But the fact that we've worked on so many RPGs in the past, now -- I mean, we've worked on quite a few, in different genres too, like sci-fi and fantasy and whatnot -- thanks to that, we're getting known for our RPG work. But I think that, in general, those are just the games that require outsourced translation the most.

Where do you see the health of the market right now for games that are being localized and sold in the U.S.? Do you think it's a healthy market, and do you think that the titles that are coming from the Japanese companies are satisfying the fans the same way they used to?

JR: Hmm. I would say that my impression is that they're not satisfying people the way they used to. I mean, it seems like Western games are getting more and more popular -- but I do think there are still a lot of really awesome games coming from Japan.

And we talked a little bit about this recently with [8-4 executive director] Mark [MacDonald], as well, but I think that the market is not dying. People seem to think that Japanese games are going away or something. That's not the case. They are trying to learn, and they are working really hard to catch up.

I don't think they're going to catch up completely with the West, but I do think they're finding more ways to make games that are appealing for a worldwide market. And I think that you're starting to see that.

We're starting to see, from an internal level -- just the people we know in the industry -- a lot of these companies are having more Westerners, like Western programmers come in. And they're trying to use the Unreal Engine, and everything else. I don't see it dying, but I don't see it, necessarily, being extremely healthy for a little while longer yet, either.

And, there's also a split between the titles, for the Wii and DS, and the PS3, and Xbox 360 -- casual games on Wii/DS, hardcore on PS3/360; are you finding it still the case? You have a little bit of a head view, working on games that may not even be announced yet.

JR: As far as I can tell, it seems to me like the casual thing is still growing and growing, and the hardcore thing is still shrinking and shrinking out here. So, I don't see that necessarily changing.

HM: Although, you know, the Wii titles and the DS titles that we've recently been working on are "game" games -- real games. Hardcore games.

JR: Yeah, but they're just so few and far between.

HM: That's true.

JR: In fact, core games are becoming so rare, it's at a point where if you list all of the core games out, a chunk of them are games we're working on right now; because there's just not that many left.

HM: That's true.

Do you find, when you have discussions with companies that you've been working with, that they want to bring you into the process sooner so they can get your feedback? Or is it a natural consequence of the fact that they want to get the games out sooner in Americ, and therefore have to bring you into it sooner?

HM: Actually, well, I think it's both. Like we said in the beginning, we've been around for three years, so the clients that we've been working with, they're clients that we've been together with for several years now.

So, I think it's come to a point where people have more trust in us, and are a little more open to our opinions. Like, the project we mentioned earlier with the 'interesting text' -- that client is more willing to listen to us and our opinions; not just to translate, but be more involved in the creative process. So, I think it's a little of both.

I think there's a lot of pressure on the Japanese companies to create games they think will appeal globally -- but that's a challenge. There are a very small number of games that can appeal in Japan, the U.S. and Europe.

JR: I do think localization should play a more important role in that. I've been thinking about that a lot lately. I wish there were some way I could go give a presentation to the entire Japanese market, of, like, "This is how it needs to be."

I'm not quite sure what that would be yet, but I have been thinking about it. It seems to me like Japanese developers do make really awesome games, and they still have some really unique talents. I mean, the art is amazing; design sense, they're really detail-oriented; their music is generally very good.

They're lacking in other areas, but I think that from a localization side, you can kind of hide some of that stuff. If you involve people like us from the beginning, you can have more natural writing, and we can tell you things like, "This is too corny," or, "This 12 year old girl in an S&M outfit is not gonna fly in the West," and such.

If they had that kind of feedback from the beginning, maybe they would understand better. Because I think they're innocent; I don't think they're trying to go against the grain or anything. I think they just genuinely don't understand the Western market.

What kind of things would you say? You just talked about appropriateness of characters, but if you were to give a base-level presentation about some key points, to Japanese developers, can you think of anything you'd say?

JR: Well that's what I'm trying to work out.

HM: (laughs)

JR: But, I mean... I can't -- I don't know if I can mention specifics, just because I don't really know right now, but I do think that it could be two sections.

There would be general content stuff, which is more like the game consulting side: "Here, we've been reviewing games, and we've been involved in games for years, and this kind of stuff is good; this kind of stuff is not. This kind of interface is very clunky." You know, those kinds of things.

From a technical side, as far as localization goes, there are also a lot of ways, at least from our perspective -- which I guess the end user doesn't really see -- in which the localization could flow more smoothly.

For example, there could be preparing more resources ahead of time, organizing files in a more efficient manner; things that will allow us to more clearly see and understand the vision for the game from the get go, which in turn leads to a better localization.

If we could see the text that we're writing, on the screen, as we're doing it -- which is possible, when developers actually take the time to make tools -- we can actually make the game better that way.

We can save time, we can save money, and we can actually see what it's going to look like, figure out how it's going to affect the player while we're working on it, instead of having to wait until after the fact, when we're always in a crunch and there's no time to fix things.

There are lots of different things that could be fixed about the processes that we would love to talk to them about.

Do you find that different clients have really different demands, or different attitudes toward working with you?

HM: Oh, yeah, totally.

JR: Definitely. Each client is very unique.

HM: Very unique.

JR: Some are very businesslike, like, "Boom, we need A, B, C, by D, and that's it." And then there are others that are involve us very heavily in the process -- and, of course, we prefer to be very heavily involved, but we understand that not everybody can do that.

HM: When we first talk with clients, what I usually tell them is that we are not a normal translation company; we will have lots of questions and comments, so if you guys aren't interested in involving the translation company that much, then we might not be a perfect match for you guys.

Just observing the Japanese market, are there any trends that you think people are missing out on, or aren't seeing yet?

JR: Hmmm... It's tough to say. I often question myself, as far as that goes, because I'm so stuck in it here -- things that I see that are starting to make sense to me wouldn't make sense in the West.

For example, games like Monster Hunter are so popular here, and that's only because of the way things work here. It's not weird to go outside, and turn on your PSP in ad-hoc mode, and find other people to play a game with, whereas in America, that would never happen. Those kinds of things strike me as the current trends here, but they don't translate over to the West, so...

Capcom has been really outspoken about the fact that they'd like to see Monster Hunter catch on in the West, but I don't think that's possible. What about you?

JR: I don't think it's not possible, but I don't think they're doing it right. Or, at least, not yet. To be fair, the last time the director said that, a new game hasn't been out since then, in America. So we've yet to see, and I really want to see, what they do with Monster Hunter 3, to bring it over.

I think it could've had, and should've had, that kind of boom that Phantasy Star Online had, back in the day. I mean, there's a big hole left where that was; remember how amazing that was? Everybody was into it. They could easily have filled that hole, but it wasn't really marketed properly; I don't think it was localized entirely properly.

There's a lot of things about that that could've been done better, and it needs to be online in the West. Well, it is going to be online in the West on Wii, so we'll see, maybe that will help. But you can't do a PSP game, ad-hoc only, and expect it to be popular; it's just not gonna happen there.

I wonder if the Wii is the right console for it in the West, though. I wonder if it's the right console here, actually.

JR: I think here it makes sense. Again, to bring up Mark, who would be here right now if he wasn't leaving for LA today; he mentioned this on [podcast] 1UP Yours. Basically, it's very likely that they're making the game for Wii first because they can easily put it on PSP; they'll port it to PSP after, and sell another kazillion copies.

So, I don't know if that's just an attempt to appease the Western market, or if that's because Nintendo said, "Hey, come do it for us." I also remember hearing, back when it was first announced, just the cost of creating assets for PS3 and Xbox 360 is too expensive, and it doesn't really make sense.

They can make [a lot of money], and if that game was even on DS, they could still sell a gazillion copies, so why put out the effort to make it on a next-gen system, when you can do it on Wii?

Square Enix decided to kill Final Fantasy Agito XIII and Parasite Eve: The Third Birthday, its games for DoCoMo's next gen cell phones, and put them on PSP, because they were getting to the point where they were heavy 3D games, but they could only sell them in one territory. Do you think that, as game development on mobile phones gets more and more expensive, people are going to have to look at ways to sell them globally, and it might affect the market?

JR: Well, definitely, but I wonder -- I mean, we all know that that divide between cellphones is not going to change, just because of how unique the Japanese cellphone market is, but I wonder about the iPhone, because the iPhone seems pretty popular here.

I mean, I don't see the numbers, but I do see them everywhere. I've seen a lot of people have iPhones that I didn't think would normally have them, and the iPhone is a platform on which games could be made in Japan and then localized to the U.S., no problem.

HM: Yeah. It almost seems like an entirely new genre, doesn't it?

JR: Yeah, that seems like one way that this can happen. But yeah, I think it's going to be PSP games, and DS games, and whatnot, because yeah, you can't sell those Japanese cellphone games overseas. There are a lot of really good Japanese cellphone games, but they'll never come out in America, because there's no platform for them.

And if there's no platform, you can't sell them in Japan and America, and you can only make roughly one third of your potential profits. I mean, roughly; obviously, depending on the game, it might make sense only to release it in Japan, period.

JR: Sure, sure. Right. But Final Fantasy IV: The After -- which is like a sequel to Final Fantasy IV -- I think would have been really popular in America, but not in its current form. They're going to have to port it to DS or something.

The Best Of 2008: Top 5 Surprises

[Continuing big sister site Gamasutra's year-end retrospective, Leigh Alexander takes a look back on 2008's biggest surprises, recalling some of the year's most talked-about news stories -- from the Rock Band creators' Beatles deal to Microsoft's E3 Final Fantasy XIII kicker.]

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: 2008's top disappointments, downloadable titles, overlooked games, gameplay mechanics and indie games.

Next, we'll cover this year's biggest surprises, recalling some of the year's most talked-about news stories, listed with no particular ranking imposed on importance -- "surprise" is subjective, after all!

Wii Sold Over 2 Million In November. Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising -- we always suspected that Nintendo's adept address to the mainstream consumer was an enormously powerful strategy. But in the same month that people finally began to use the word "recession," two million people turned out to buy a video game console -- a record-breaker for any non-December month.

And thanks to the recent Xbox 360 price cuts, Wii isn't even the cheapest console on the market, so its sales juggernaut is something of a monument to the industry's resilience -- or Nintendo's, at least. The company boasts that it's carried 198 percent of the industry's year-over-year U.S. growth on its shoulders.

But the most interesting revelation to derive from Wii's eyebrow-raising performance isn't that Nintendo's console sells like hotcakes. We knew that already. The company's November numbers provide incontrovertible proof of a nagging suspicion that longtime traditional game fans have quietly nursed over the year -- they are now officially a niche, and the majority of "gamers" comprise an audience they hardly even knew existed.

Phil Harrison Becomes Infogrames President. The news for Atari hadn't been good for quite a long time. The company went into debt as it struggled to restructure, received numerous NASDAQ delisting warnings, and finalized its merger in full with French parent company Infogrames, who seemed likely to turn the once-noble Fuji into a distribution house.

But then, Phil Harrison left a prominent post as Sony's head of Worldwide Studios, where he'd become a recognizable face behind the PlayStation strategy. His new role? To head up, in the words of the surprising announcement, a "transformational leadership team at Infogrames that will grow the Atari brand into a leading online game company."

And the transformation seems to be underway. Under Harrison's direction, Atari gathered up some of the promising orphans from the Activision-Vivendi merger, Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena and Ghostbusters from the newly-merged Activision Blizzard, along with kid-friendly film game The Tale of Despereaux dropped in the Brash Entertainment collapse.

Just recently, the company picked up City of Heroes/Villains creator Cryptic Studios, thereby gaining the team's upcoming Champions Online. Here's to more surprises from Atari in 2009.

Rock Band: Beatles. "We're not in the business of producing standalone games for every artist that's out there," said Van Toffler, MTV Music, Films and Logo group president on a surprise conference call -- but the Beatles are not just any artist.

It was revealed that an exclusive partnership among Apple Corps, MTV Games and Harmonix would bring one of the most venerated bands of all time to the world of video games through a single Rock Band title devoted to Beatles music.

It wasn't only an exciting announcement for fans of music and games both, but it was a serious testament to the power and reach of the Rock Band brand, and the real relevance it increasingly holds for musical artists of all kinds.

EA Partners With Grasshopper Manufacture. Renowned designer Suda51 and his Grasshopper Manufacture have earned acclaim for risk-taking, creativity and a distinct style -- but not so much for high sales and big profitability numbers. That's why it came as a surprise to many that Electronic Arts announced a publishing partnership with Grasshopper for an upcoming horror title -- Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami as producer was the icing on the cake.

Of course, it's up for debate which part is more surprising -- that EA, a Western publishing giant with a past reputation for putting profits ahead of just about everything, would see the potential in Grasshopper; or that Suda51, who describes his studio's games as "punk style", would hitch his star to EA, who's had a bit of a checkered past when it comes to properly valuing talent.

Still, this was the year that EA's reformation efforts finally began to gain attention thanks largely to the overtly repentant attitude of CEO John Riccitiello and publishing relationships with well-respected studios like Valve and Harmonix. The Grasshopper announcement was the moment, though, when the publisher drew a line in the sand and made it clear to industry-watchers that it really seemed to mean what it was saying.

Final Fantasy XIII To Hit Xbox 360. Think Final Fantasy, think PlayStation? Not anymore. In a year with few big reveals coming out of an ill-timed E3, Microsoft's announcement that the upcoming FFXIII would cross sanctified platform lines was nothing short of a shock.

Sony's Jack Tretton said that "disappointed is clearly an appropriate term" regarding Microsoft's efforts to "curry favor" with third parties, while Square Enix corporate executive Shinji Hashimoto said the objective behind the move was "to provide FFXIII to as many fans as possible in the world."

Microsoft kept the deal's only shortcoming close to its chest for as long as it could -- that it covered only the game's Western release, and did not apply to Japan, where Xbox 360 was at the time desperately in need of traction. Turns out Tales of Vesperia made strides to help the console out there -- but if the PS3 continues to be widely outpaced by its rival in 2009, the FFXIII decision may turn out to be a black chapter in Sony's history book.

[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: It's All About The DQ Blizzard

A little more GameSetLinks for the early week, starting out with Andrew Mayer's fun post about Burning Man and Fallout 3 - one of the few posts on the post-apocalypse that ties it to current day events, scarily enough.

Also in here - the Minotaur China Shop madness, 24 comes to Japan on PS2 finally, a good Blipfest report, and info on the DQ Tycoon game, possibly the yummiest Tycoon title released in, say, the last couple of weeks.

Losing to Jens Pulver:

Andrew P. Mayer » Blog Archive » 10 ways that Fallout 3 is like Burning man.
Cute - very cute.

Minotaur China Shop Is Live, We Talk To Flashbang | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
I maybe don't talk about Flashbang enough because they help organize the IGF with me, so I forget to call them out - but here's RPS pointing out the Blurst expansion, and the super-funny Minotaur China Shop.

Jeremy's 1UP Blog: '...A Dragon Quest X-inspired rant'
Interesting and perceptive, though from the Japanese game-loving perspective, sure - but maybe that makes it more interesting still? '2008 was the year I stopped caring about AAA releases.'

Fort90 Journal » “OMG, Chinese ROM Hack X 2 FTW”: Blip Fest 2008
Absolutely insanely gigantic BlipFest write-up from Fort90, Click-Stick and DMauro - good job, lads.

XBLA Sales Charts - Week Ending 11/22/08 | VG Chartz.com
Ah, the latest one of these, with total and reaaasonably accurate extrapolated stats for Xbox Live Arcade titles - always interesting.

大都技研公式パチスロシミュレーター『24 -TWENTY FOUR-』 PS2
Interesting, they only JUST released the ancient PS2 game based on 24 in Japan - I've heard the show is quite big for a Western TV series there, hence the, uhh, 24 pachinko. [UPDATE: Colleague Christian Nutt just worked out that this new PS2 title is actually a pachinko machine conversion, not the old Sony title. Even crazier!]

YouTube Videos Pull In Real Money - NYTimes.com
'Mr. Williams, who counts about 180,000 subscribers to his videos, said he was earning $17,000 to $20,000 a month via YouTube. Half of the profits come from YouTube’s advertisements, and the other half come from sponsorships and product placements within his videos, a model that he has borrowed from traditional media.' V. interesting metrics, tho he is super high-end (he's in Top 20 most-subscribed.)

'Are You Skilled Enough to Run a Dairy Queen?' - MarketWatch
Just got sent a copy of this for PC - 'DQ Tycoon' also comes with a coupon for a free Blizzard! (Shake, not World Of Warcraft developer.) Funny.

December 15, 2008

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': The Mutant Behind the Curtain

fallout3__poster.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom explores Fallout 3's strengths and weaknesses.]

Playing Fallout 3 reminds me of many of the difficulties I faced when playing Oblivion, also an open-world RPG by Bethesda, as well as many of the joys. It also makes the deficiencies of that gameplay model increasingly apparent. While Fallout 3 makes some impressive strides, in certain structural aspects it is so backward that it makes other games look revolutionary. Jedi Outcast and The Witcher take an entirely different approach to their worlds—are much less obviously “open”. And yet, their common gameplay and storytelling goals are actually more ambitious and innovative than Fallout’s.

While Fallout 3 meticulously recreates a desolate, expansive landscape that is strangely full of activity and experience, it does so by a very specific and often narrow-minded method. While most reviewers have said that Fallout 3 is one of the most vast, varied and rich games of our time, it is also possible to view it as flat and lacking in the things that actually make a game deep.

Fallout 3 simulates a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C., complete with subway stations, factories, a ruined downtown area, and many other locales to explore. It is consistently impressive, a game that easily surprises me, well beyond the 10 hours plus gameplay mark. It succeeds through its depth and breadth.

It breaks the quest-structure of most RPG’s by introducing random but persuasive and diverting gameplay opportunities in the game’s main transit-space, the blasted wasteland between cities and quest-locations. You’ll be walking along (and you have to spend a lot of time walking), and be presented unobtrusively with what are several obvious opportunities to follow side-paths, whether in the form of quests, monster-killing, loot collection, or just checking out the often-beautiful level design.

I’ll be wandering through the wasteland, aimlessly looking for raiders to kill for ammo, when I’ll stumble across a toxic waste dump. Luckily for me, I have my radiation suit with me. I pop it on, and decide I’ll just wade through the mess, so I can get to what I hope is a ruined town on the other side. Halfway through, a mutated bumblebee attacks me, and amid the hail of gunfire I use to destroy it, I notice a small concrete building near a factory, on a hill nearby. Inside, I find the schematics to a “Railway Gun.” Right on the other side of the toxic dump, I find another bunker, this one containing a stat-boosting bobble head. And this was just from playing for an hour or two this morning.

Everyone says this, but I’m going to have to echo them on this one: I haven’t thought about the main quest in days of playing. Whenever I do think about it, I convince myself that I need to level up before I head into Downtown D.C.

That's Great, But... Fallout-3-1010.jpg

In creating these brilliant and unexpected moments—rather, in allowing me to create them—the team behind Fallout 3 has decided to leave by the wayside a very important part of game design: Fallout 3 never tries to make you feel like you yourself are doing the things you are doing onscreen. I would argue that Fallout 3 is a simulator, a brilliant way to accomplish various cool tasks in the wasteland. Other games try to make you feel like you understand or enjoy the goings-on onscreen.

Why is this? Fallout 3 succeeds whenever it tries to present you with the blunt, unimaginative side of its activities: you can kill anything, in tens of different ways, as long as you try hard enough. You can harvest enemies for multiple kinds of items and goods, lay live explosives in their backpacks, cripple their legs with poison, listen to the lost travelogues of a doomed family, discover ancient communication towers, and basically soak up the wilderness around you.

However, what Fallout 3 completely fails to do is make any of these varied experiences feel personal, reliable, or “realistic,” to use a difficult term. I’ve never felt a moment of empathy, understanding, or connection with Fallout 3. I am always oppressively aware of the bounds, possibilities and failures of my world. They stare me in the face, never hidden, disguised or integrated into the fabric of the world. This game flaunts its man behind the curtain, whereas other games try to dress him up or explain him away. Fallout 3 presents me with a boundless, versatile gameplay system, but presents a bounded—or nonexistent—narrative system.

When I play The Witcher, the fiddly bits, the minutiae that so entrance me in Fallout 3, are merely part of what makes me like The Witcher, they are not the be-all and end-all of the game. Instead, what attract me to The Witcher are its core mechanics, and the way in which it depicts my journey through this world. It’s the fidelity with which The Witcher tries to emulate moments of visual, emotional and experiential recognition that I love.

Yes, in The Witcher combat is basically a rhythm game, but every style has different moves, every enemy has different animations. I feel that if I met a Drowner or Alp in the wilderness, I could anticipate how they would look or move. Conversely, if you asked me to describe the motions or feel of a Super-Mutant, I might say something about “big, yellow, orc-like guys.” In Fallout 3, the way one differentiates between experiences is always based upon and predicated by its “gaminess,” that particular element’s very nature as a piece of a fake world. Despite being a rather weird fantasy, The Witcher has the air of reality.

I could make the same distinctions between Outcast and Fallout 3, the same distinctions between what I enjoy in both games. In Outcast, I progress so that I can become a more powerful Jedi, but my rewards are the new ways in which I move and fight. My favorite moments by far are those where I accomplish an especially cool or difficult move in combat. The first time I weakened a Jedi warrior with a saber slash, only to throw him into a pit with the Force, was exciting. I wasn’t thinking of the game as a device meant to provide me with this particular combat experience.

Outcast doesn’t wear its desires and goals conspicuously. I’m not constantly aware that I have just been provided with a new way to deal with enemies. Instead, it’s a process, part of becoming a Jedi. It may be artificial and obvious, but it is not intended to be so. Fallout 3 constantly commits this sin: I understand that it wants me to explore and enjoy its world, but its attempts to reveal itself to me are consistently and blatantly ham-fisted.

To an Outcast player, just as exciting as the various pirouettes and flips that my character expertly performs, are the story and characters. Like Geralt, Kyle Katarn and his plight do nothing but reinforce my belief in his world. Try jumping in Fallout 3, or opening a door, or having a conversation with your father, and tell me that any of it reinforces anything but what you are trying to forget: that what you’re playing is a simulation, and a stilted, painfully mechanical one at that. The people I meet are never people, they’re quest givers, sellers, doctors or enemies.

Enemies and friends alike serve no purpose but to talk to you or attack you. Their lives, such as they are, are completely dictated by your every move. Never do they attempt to trick you into believing in their autonomy or self-sufficiency. When you stumble upon a suspicious underground cult of a “Family” in Fallout 3, you stumble upon a bunch of talking heads: they couldn’t be less like the “Family” they’re supposed to be.

Their existence is such a transparent justification for your exploration and gratification that one has trouble caring for their desires or actions: you know that once you complete their quest arc, they will sit in their tunnels, wandering around and saying the same 3 things over and over to each other.

Fallout3A.jpg And Yet It Gives Me All This Stuff to Do

In Fallout 3, it is never the act that excites me, but the overwhelming display of depth and detail. The way one subway station leads me to another, along the way the minor character in the Vampire quest becomes a guy I can sell food to, the way I can constantly upgrade my weapons; these things are my reward. But I would never say that I found Fallout 3 to be a game that made me believe in the genuine tangibility or depth of its fiction.

On the contrary, what is fantastic about Fallout 3 is its ability to create opportunities for me to impress myself, to create my own fiction. I rarely take joy in its art or fluent recreation of human (or other) life, but I am often blindsided by its willingness to give me a ridiculously complete set of my own creative tools. The experience of creating is not like life is, though; the only thing it’s “like,” in fact, is itself—a video game of a very particular kind.

Thus, your appreciation of these two kinds of games stems from what you like more: do you like being provided with an experience to revel in and savor (or rush through), or do you want to be given the tools to create your own experiences?

My argument is not a terribly revolutionary one: Fallout 3, Oblivion, Grand Theft Auto IV, Gothic III and other more freeform games forgo strong narrative and structural boundaries in the favor of player freedom and opportunity. The bountiful variety of their worlds is thought to obviate the need or desire for a world that reacts to my presence and inflicts its will upon me in comprehensible, unobtrusive (upon my sense of immersion) ways.

It’s actually unfair of me to label Fallout 3 lacking in authorial presence or intent. On the contrary, it is a game that in its very openness, freedom and lack of restrictions practically screams out its makers’ intentions.

Perhaps it’s that I’m not as creative as I should be. Some people enjoy taking a more or less blank slate and coloring it in. This is the problem that I had with Dead Space. Despite the fact that its world and plot were very much in line with Outcast’s style of narration and presentation (albeit with cleverly disguised cutscenes in the case of Dead Space), its character presentation and development were more in keeping with a game like Fallout 3. I know that it’s practically a staple now–the silent, barely-seen protagonist–but in some ways it seems like an idea wrongly stolen from old RPGs. We have the ability to flesh out characters as much as, or more than, their expansive surroundings. Why don’t we?

Maybe, in the end, this article is just a companion to my previous entry. In a world where we can depict a ruined, nuclear D.C., or a simulacrum for the ill-fated Sulaco, why must we settle for characters and worlds that makes The Clash of the Titans look fluid and natural? I love choice, and I love expansive worlds that provide me with a multitude of experiences. But more than that, I want people and things that remind me of their real or fictional world approximates, I want a way of moving through and interacting with the world that strikes me as “natural” or “immersive” (problematic words, those, but for me they describe the promises and goals that Fallout 3 leaves unfulfilled).

Again, it comes back to presentation, and the thickness of the wool covering our eyes: I don’t want to see through the deception, even if it means it’s a rather simple or thin deception. I put up with the more unnatural, robotic worlds like GTA IV’s and Fallout 3’s, because I enjoy the opportunities they provide me. People may laud Nico Bellic’s deep and sprawling city, but it’s a city of robots without lives, with talking heads that emerge from their apartments to partake in terrible approximations of socialization. This may be the inevitable consequence of the kind of freedom GTA IV offers, in some cases—could every citizen of Liberty City have a back-story? But that might be a reason to consider the value in the other side of the trade off, the value of more narrative depth. And it might also be a reason to consider cutting down on breadth of simulation, in some cases, for depth of emulation, even if a game has to play fast and loose with the fullness of the gameworld to do it.

Closer to Vizima than to the Capital Wasteland

I don’t necessarily want a brilliantly told story; I don’t need every game to be Mass Effect (a game that offended me to no end with its boring, barren, uninteresting explorable worlds). I just want a little believability, maybe some actual complexity of character (or just character presentation). I’m not talking about Final Fantasy here. 500 plot twists and a guy who could so totally be a triple crosser does not make for a good narrative, or a good character. Likewise, expansiveness and thoroughness of coverage (in the areas of gameplay options especially) do not make for a lived in, convincing world.

Instead, I long for games that go out of their way to trick me when I least expect it, games that go to unusual, “unnecessary” lengths to maintain the illusion of existing in another world. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few examples: NPCs who talk about something besides “gossip” and quests (Oblivion fails in this case, The Witcher succeeds). Or, as in the new Prince of Persia game, main characters that have personalities and odd habits, like any real person. What I really want to do is play a game without having to censor my misgivings and wishes, my better judgment.

Opinion: A Christmas Story: Rethinking The Holiday Rush

[In this editorial, originally printed in Game Developer magazine's December 2008 issue, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield considers the common -- but questionable -- wisdom of publishers' perennial choice to concentrate all their major titles within the same tiny holiday release window.]

By now, you, as game developers, will now have finished your holiday crunch. If you’re not finished, well, I’m sorry for you -- you've probably missed your holiday release. And if you haven’t had to crunch at all, maybe you should write us an article.

Our main feature in this month's issue of Game Developer magazine is about common things that have gone wrong with game development, and most of them tie in to some degree with crunch and schedule problems.

One of these is often the cause or the effect of the rest. It’s easy to see how this ties in to the holiday video game retail meat market.

'Tis the Season to Make Money

Certainly the holidays are a big spending period, so it’s no wonder that publishers, and even developers, want to get their big titles out and in the minds of consumers round about that time. Shareholders, too, want to see or hear things like “holiday blockbuster” in order to keep their investor confidence, and I do think this is a very large part of why we have a holiday glut.

But ultimately, is this really helpful? Consider a game like Dead Space. It’s a good one, certainly, and its System Shock-related pedigree gives it even more street cred. But what it isn’t is a holiday blockbuster.

I want to be very careful with my phrasing here, because I am absolutely not saying it can’t stand toe to toe with the other releases. But when you have a third person game in which the primary action is shooting, it would behoove you not to release it against Gears of War 2. People are waiting for Gears of War 2, and you know that they are. They are not necessarily waiting for Dead Space.

Had Dead Space come out during a softer period, it might have had a chance to be as much of a financial success as it was a critical success. I don’t know its final sales numbers, but I know it wasn’t on the charts long, which is related to another major problem.

One reason that so many companies feel they have to release during the holiday period is because if they don’t, it’s felt that consumers won’t remember the game when that holiday rolls around.

And they’re kind of right, because games don’t stay on the primary shelves for that long, partially because so many games are released during the holiday rush. It seems to me that if major releases were more evenly spaced, everyone would benefit.

You'll Put Your Eye Out

Meeting a holiday schedule has its obvious problems. Unless a game is very specifically planned out to release at that time, there’s a strong chance you’re going to be crunching, rushing, or otherwise cutting corners to get it out the door.

Granted, this can happen in projects regardless, but rushing a product with the specific intent to compete in the most difficult, most cut-throat period of the year is not very healthy for you or for the game.

There are only so many dollars consumers have to spend, and the problem doesn’t just come up during the holidays. Dead Space and Far Cry 2 released against Gears of War 2 and Fallout 3 -- but Dark Sector also released against GTA IV, and that’s got nothing to do with holidays.

Naturally, it’s hard to predict a release window, but the holiday season is a known quantity. You know everyone will be bringing their best and brightest.

The Best and Brightest

I don’t want to sound like I’m arguing against original IP. I could see reading this editorial in that light, and it’s quite far from what I mean, given my love for gameplay experimentation. Original IP is obviously risky though, there’s no denying it.

Returning to the Dead Space example, or even to Mirror's Edge, it does speak well of EA’s new direction that the company deemed its original IPs important enough to launch them against better-understood market movers.

But I do wonder if it was worth pushing them to meet this three-month holiday window. Even Far Cry 2, which was a sequel, didn’t really have the mindshare required to survive in this holiday climate. You shouldn’t have to “survive,” but that’s often what it amounts to when everyone is scrambling for the same dollars at the same time.

Couldn’t the company actually make more money by releasing these games at a different time, all the while increasing quality?

I’m far from a financial genius, so it’s possible I’m totally off-base here, but it seems like a less ambitious release window for original or lesser known IP would yield better results, so long as doing that doesn’t relegate it to lower status within the company.

In fact, it seems to me it could even raise its profile and importance. As per usual, I welcome your thoughts and criticisms.

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

So, the end of the weekend, and time to round up some of the top features posted on our network of sites, including big sister site Gamasutra - started out by Friday's jovial interview with The Behemoth guys about, yes, cartoon animals and their bowel movements.

Also hanging out in here - Game Developer's '2008 Top Deck' feature, including the 52 top personalities (and 2 jokers!) of 2008 in game creation, plus a good article on luck in games, an Intel-sponsored tech article about cloth simulation that's all kinds of nerdy, a big piece on used game reselling, and other neatness.

Go for the win:

- Taunting The Behemoth: Tom Fulp and Dan Paladin Cry Out (Gamasutra.com)
"Fresh from Castle Crashers' XBLA success, Gamasutra sits down with The Behemoth's art and code leads Dan Paladin and Tom Fulp to discuss inspiration, future plans, and... pooping animals?"

- Game Developer's Top Deck 2008 (Gamasutra.com)
"Gamasutra is proud to present, in association with Game Developer magazine, the Top Deck 2008 - the 52 individuals (plus 2 jokers!) who were most important to the game industry during 2008."

- A Matter of Luck (Gamasutra.com)
"In this game design analysis, former Midway and current Kuju designer Todd references titles from Diablo to Minesweeper to examine the use of luck in games."

- Sponsored Feature: Multi-Core Simulation of Soft-Body Characters Using Cloth (Gamasutra.com)
"In this Intel-sponsored feature, Intel senior software engineer Brad Werth explains how multicore CPUs can be leveraged for an efficient method of representing soft-body characters by way of cloth simulation."

- Idea Origins (GameCareerGuide.com)
'To consider where ideas for video games come from is to better understand what will make the game successful once it's built. Game designer and educator Dr. Lewis Pulsipher believes most ideas for new games originate from one (or a combination) of five major sources."

- As Recession Deepens, Used Games Get More Painful (Gamasutra.com)
"Gamasutra goes in-depth on the used game controversy, with analyst stats on top resale genres and Frontier's David Braben weighing in on why the resale market keeps game prices "artificially high"."

December 14, 2008

Game Developer December Issue Showcases Postmortem Highlights, The Maw

[Here's info on the latest issue of sister publication Game Developer magazine, complete with a 'best of postmortems' round-up - or maybe 'worst of postmortems', if that makes sense - plus some other neat stuff.]

The December 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine, the sister print publication to Gamasutra and the leading U.S. trade publication for the video game industry, has shipped to print/digital subscribers and is available from the Game Developer Digital service in both subscription and single-issue formats.

The cover feature for the issue is a fascinating compilation of excerpts from Game Developer postmortems spanning the current generation. The piece highlights some of the most commonly-cited stumbling points that crop up during development, accompanied by illustrative recollections from industry professionals.

Examples include communication problems, overambitious scope, outsourcing, and crunching, and cited studios include Harmonix, 2K Boston, Square Enix, Insomniac, and more:

"Over the years, postmortems start to echo each other. The same problems are encountered, and fixed, or dealt with. Here, we've compiled the 10 most common difficulties of the last three years for your reading (and cringing) pleasure. Just as the Salary Survey is intended to be saved in the face of your boss come raise time (or to hide if you're paid more than the average), this feature should hopefully go part of the way toward fixing some common development missteps."

Also featured this month is a separate full exclusive postmortem of Twisted Pixel's Xbox Live Arcade action/adventure game The Maw, written by CTO and co-founder Frank Wilson and introduced as follows:

"Twisted Pixel went from an under-construction warehouse to a urologist's office during the development of The Maw, and lived to tell the tale. Here, the author discusses the difficulty of Lua and Luabind memory allocations and XML load times, not to mention the difficulty of greenlighting a new project to begin with."

Former Sega designer and co-creator of Sonic the Hedghog Yuji Naka spoke about his past and future in a two-page interview -- touching on his ideas about game design as well as why he left Sega:

"Yuji Naka was once one of the biggest names in Japanese game creators, as the man beind Sonic the Hedgehog. Since his era of prominence, Naka has made a purposeful shift from manager back to creator, and is now launching a series of simple, easy-to-play games for the Wii. In this interview, conducted at the recent Tokyo Game Show, we discussed his new company Prope, as well as his latest work, Let's Tap, which doesn't even require the players to touch the controller."

Finally, our regular columnists contribute pieces on numerous areas of game development: Bungie's Steve Theodore on consolidation in the tools market, Power of Two's Noel Llopis on data alignment, BioWare's Damion Schubert on writing design documents, and LucasArts' Jesse Harlin on compressing audio for iPhone. As usual, Matthew Wasteland contributes his monthly humor column.

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

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Merry Xmas from Magweasel

['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.]


It's almost Christmas time, so how about a few stocking-stuffer-ish tidbits of magazine trivia, picked from the two most recent additions to the collection?

Veteran game-media person Christian Nutt sent me this copy of French magazine RPG Univers the other day. Here's what he had to say about it on his personal blog:

"In August of 2006 I went on a trip to Paris for GamesRadar/Call of Duty 3. At Charles de Gualle on the way back, I found this strange magazine at the newsagent. Beside myself, I bought it. I mean, a whole magazine about RPGs? With Valkyrie Profile 2 on the cover? I can't read French, but it's so hilarious and, well, enviable.

So the magazine itself is entirely feature articles (it doesn't do reviews -- that's left to its sister magazine, Gameplay RPG, with the tagline "Le premier magazine RPG et survival-horror"). We've got huge looks at VP Lenneth (PSP) and VP2 (PS2) as well as a page on Motoi Sakuraba (no interview). There's a Suikoden retrospective, a Golden Sun retrospective, and an article about Norse mythology (which ties in to VP) and one on J.R.R. Tolkien (which ties into nerdface.)

Judging from my good knowledge of magazines and my weak knowledge of French, it's enthusiastic amateur hour -- boring superrepetitive layout, no access (no interviews whatsoever, no implication of any early release code, English screenshots in a French magazine), fanboyism (scans of maps that came with the Japanese versions of Golden Sun, one of which takes up an entire page!). Basically, it looks like the editorial staff is as ultraniche as the magazine itself, which is to be expected."

Mr. Nutt sums up the content pretty well. There's also an introduction/tutorial for RPG Maker XP, with interviews of a couple French designers who've created games with it. Like Christian, I found it a little odd that they used a mix of English and Japanese screenshots to illustrate their Golden Sun feature, 'cos both GBA games certainly came out in French.

RPG Univers was a side-mag from the editors of Gameplay RPG, a monthly title that debuted April 2000 from publisher Groupe FJM Communication & Publications, an outfit primarily associated with French game and lad mags. The title was pretty successful, getting bought by another company after FJM's September 2006 bankruptcy (just after this third issue of RPG Univers was published) and surviving until October '08 for a total of 101 issues, plus assorted specials.

One or two of the old editors moved over to another publisher in 2005 and launched an RPG-specific mag of their own, straightforwardly titled Role Playing Game, which is still in publication today. I don't know anything about that mag, but if it's as hands-off and fanzine-ish as this one, I don't think non-francophones are missing much.

cccard-1.jpg   cccard-2.jpg

Switching gears completely, here is something a little Christmassy for you all -- an original holiday card sent by the editors of Creative Computing, among my favorite mags of all time, to freelancers and contributors. I won this on eBay from Bill Boyle, a cartoonist who had his work published in the title throughout its glory years in the late '70s and early '80s.

Judging by the names on here, I'd say this was sent out either in 1982 or '83. You can see the signatures of:

- David H. Ahl, publisher/EIC
- Betsy Staples, editor, married Ahl in 1988
- Peter Fee, managing editor
- John Anderson, associate editor. He wrote the Apple II column in CC and later moved on to MacUser before losing his life in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake
- Steven Arrants Jr., associate editor
- Andrew Brill, associate editor
- Laura Gibbons, editorial assistant
- Sherrie Von Tyle, copy editor

I'm at the point in my magazine collection hobby where there's very little left that I want to expend the effort to purchase. I have nearly everything published in the video-game field since 1988 (and quite a bit from before then), and I'm even almost done with my Creative Computing collection, with 93 out of 106 issues on my shelf right now. So, it's increasingly stuff like this that grabs my attention. Collecting is an addiction that's hard to shake sometimes.

[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.]

Bosslady Blog: China, Europe, Canada, GDC Lecture Debuts

[In her latest Bosslady Blog update, which we're also carrying here on GameSetWatch, Game Developers Conference event director Meggan Scavio discusses the announcements of GDC China and GDC Europe, and reveals the first lectures from GDC 2009, including Braid's David Hellman, MGS' David Wu and FF Tactics composer Hitoshi Sakimoto.]

There is so much going on around here these days, I don’t even know where to start. I know…reverse chronology.

Let me take you on a journey to the future. Picture it: October 11, 2009, Shanghai. Do you see it? Are you there? You’ll know because you’re at GDC China. That’s right -- we launched GDC China back in 2007, ran into, let’s call them 'hurdles' in 2008, and are forging our way back in 2009. Keep your ears and eyes open for more information. The first GDC China exceeded all expectations -- and without sounding too cheerleadery, I predict the second one will be even better.

OK, now stay in the future, just in the not-as-distant one. Picture it: August 17, 2009, Cologne. That’s right, GDC Europe. Now this gets a little complicated, see if you can stay with me. GCDC, run by Frank Sliwka, was the developer event that was co-located with Games Convention in Leipzig, Germany. Frank is now going to run GDC Europe, which is being presented in conjunction with gamescom in Cologne and is supported by BIU, the largest European publisher trade body. GDC Europe will be a truly pan-European developer conference and will follow the model of the GDC in San Francisco.

Last but by no means least is GDC Canada. Vancouver. May 2009. Be there!

New Sessions Announced

Now we arrive at GDC in San Francisco. March, 2009. Today, we announced our first round of conference sessions, and there are some real gems:

One of the highlights, and a session I’ll be in for sure, is 'The Art of Braid', presented by David Hellman. Braid was a two-man show. Jon Blow, the man behind the Experimental Gameplay Sessions at GDC, among other things, designed it, and David Hellman made it really freaking pretty. Everything Jon touches has multiple layers and deeper meanings, and it will be really interesting to hear (and see!) how David visually translated Jon’s philosophies.

Another one to mention is 'Momentum vs. Character Animation' presented by Microsoft Game Studios' David Wu. David, who you might know from Pseudo Interactive (Full Auto) and the XNA 'Crash' demos, is one of those really smart guys who’s been there, done that and mastered the other. In the world of game physics, he is The Man -- and not in the bad stop-holding-me-back kind of way, more like in the I-want-to-top-the-universe kind of way.

In his own words: “This lecture will cover techniques designed to accomplish the following goal - characters that preserve the personality and style of their animations, seamlessly interact with a physically simulated world and take orders from the gamepad of abusive players and confused AIs.” All in one hour.

Hitting out of the ballpark early are the audio guys scoring (see what I did there?) a talk from acclaimed composer Hitoshi Sakimoto. A pioneer of live orchestra (hi Tommy!), Sakimoto is best known for his amazing scores for Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII.

In his lecture, 'Experiences and Rare Insights into the Video Game Music Industry', Sakimoto will talk about the past and present state of video game music, from a Japanese composers point of view, as well as where he thinks the industry is heading. Expect a real behind-the-scenes look into his long and inspiring career.

Neat stuff, huh? Check out the GDC website for more confirmed lectures and stay tuned for more updates.

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

GameSetLinks: Dead Rising's Queen Moment

Time to blast off some GameSetLinks, even though I'm not strictly here right now (in the middle of flying to South Korea - the delights of timed posting ahead, eh?) - and it starts off with some random Brandon Sheffield-unearthed 'trick videos' that are entertaining in an oddly filmic way.

But there's plenty of other things in here, from, yes, some musings on the lack of a T-Pain (pictured!) game, through Avaloop's unique-looking online world, the L.A. Times on game soundtracks, a scary new Postal bundled retail pack, and lots more.

In dee eeed:

insertcredit.com: Mrwhitefolks' trick videos
Sheffield points out some fun pieces - I particularly like the Queen/Dead Rising piece. Nothing spectacular glitch-wise, just a damn well cut-together, entertaining video.

YouTube - Papermint gameplay video
Gameplay video of Avaloop's super-psychedelic online world, which is just entering open beta - most interesting from a visual standpoint.

Their music for video games depends on play - Los Angeles Times
Good Alex Pham piece on soundtracks: 'In a few short years, as the visual effects and realism of video games have evolved, so too have their soundtracks -- from comical bleeps and annoying loops of ear candy to lush, epic soundtracks that instantly adapt to fit whatever a player decides to do.'

Love Letter | Papermint
Also re: Avaloop - whoa, this is fascinating, in that it documents, in Babsi's words, the long route to publisher apathy on their online world.

Wolfire Blog - Knytt Stories design tour
Another excellent design tour, after World Of Goo.

Game People > Audio Gamer > Review > Wii > Wii-Sports
This is deeply odd, and slightly Dada - via Xian.

Go POSTAL: 10th anniversary Postal Krotchy collector's edition box set
Including, yes: 'POSTALforms! Reinact your favorite video game moments in Paradise with these articulated, peel-away POSTAL characters including The Postal Dude, Champ, Krotchy, Osama and a couple of victims for your weapons and urine streams!' NSFW, needless to say.

YouTube: T-Pain & Lil Wayne - 'Can't Believe It'
So there's a Soulja Boy game coming - how about a T-Pain game? This video shows how iconic the tophatted Autotune addict is. Heck, he could play a lovable loser with a twist, a la Leisure Suit Larry. (I'm somewhat serious - seems like someone should be able to do quick-to-develop hiphop star games for digital download - you might make a mint!)

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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