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December 27, 2008

IndieGames' Best Of Highlights: Freeware Games By Cactus 2008

[From now until early January, our sister site IndieGames.com: The Weblog will be counting down the best indie titles of 2008, and we'll be reprinting the best here on GameSetWatch for your viewing and playing pleasure.

First up are a pair of novelty but amazing countdowns - alongside a Top 10 for Jesse Venbrux of 'Karoshi' fame that you can only read over on IndieGames.com, this Top 20 consists ONLY of delightfully messed-up retro art games made by Jonatan 'cactus' Söderström this year -- crazy productivity alert.]

For this particular 2008 Best Of Feature over at the IndieGames.com.blog, we're proud to present another slightly novelty -- and pretty insane -- chart, in the form of twenty of the best freeware games released by cactus in 2008.

Known for his broad variety of freeware games, Swedish designer Jonatan 'cactus' Söderström says that much of his work are small experiments dressed up as games. Nonetheless, he has made more than twenty of them over the last twelve months.

So we're presenting you with a selection of his best works released this year, for your gaming pleasure:

Freeware Games by cactus 2008

  1. Ad Nauseam 2
  2. BlockOn
  3. Cactus Arcade
  4. Deep Wing Break
  5. Kryzta
  6. Life is a Race
  7. Lovecraft Game
  8. Minubeat
  9. Precision
10. Protoganda 2
11. Psychosomnium
12. Retro 4
13. Seizuredome
14. Shotgun Ninja
15. Stallions in America
16. Stench Mechanics
17. Vicious Cycle
18. Xoldiers
19. xWung
20. Unfinished Games

[Got feedback? Reasons to disagree? Post a response and we'll do a special 'best of reader comments' round-up at the end of our chart countdowns.]

Interview: Lorne Lanning On Keeping The Oddworld Archive Alive

[A little while back, Gamasutra and Game Developer's Brandon Sheffield chatted to Oddworld's Lorne Lanning about his company reboot and bringing classic Oddworld-ian titles to Steam - and here's the delightfully pleasant result.]

Oddworld Inhabitants has been largely off the radar for the past few years, having publicly departed from the mainstream games industry following the release of 2005's Stranger's Wrath.

But reports from earlier this year suggest the company is getting back to game development.

The studio followed that up by releasing its first two games -- 1997's Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee and the followup Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus -- to Steam and now CD Projekt's Good Old Games.

In addition, Oddworld Inhabitants got a new president, Brash CCO Larry Shapiro, last month, as part of a plan to "break the model of where games are today in a unique and entertaining way."

Gamasutra recently caught up with co-founder and creative director Lorne Lanning to discuss the decision to publish via Steam, the freedom of digital distribution, and the future of Oddworld:

Why go with Steam and GOG at this stage?

Lorne Lanning: We’ve long been big believers in the digital distribution promise, but only with Steam did we see the manifestation offered through a model that worked best for us.

The “us" in our case is passionate creators that own their own IP and are looking for reasonably fair terms in getting to the customer. Comparatively, it’s night and day from the retail environment.

Not to sound like an advertisement, but the following is true: With Steam, not only are the distribution terms fair and the delivery system reliable, but they have the world's largest network for digitally delivering big data games.

It's a robust and easy-to-monitor system [that] has been built by brilliant minds that have taken the time to envision, invest, and also work out the kinks. Steam is indicative of the digitally distributed landscape that is inevitably going to be the de facto content distribution model for all electronic entertainment.

When you compare the cost of digital distribution to conventional channels, it’s a hard decision not to make. It's also obvious to us that people will be buying games at the same place they are increasingly buying the rest of the consumer goods in their lives -- which is, of course, on the internet.

We have all come to expect that whatever we want can be bought easily through the internet, so anything that is selling outside of the internet is often through an old-school -- and soon to be outdated -- model. Physical distribution is endangered for many reasons, but most importantly, the cost of bringing physical goods to physical locations is killing it at the moment.

If we look at it globally, we’re witnessing unsustainable increases in the cost of distribution of all consumer goods due to our increasing energy prices.

There’s petrochemical manufacturing for the DVD jewel cases, fuel for the container ships bringing goods over seas, trains and trucks taking games to the retail shelf, forklifts in the warehouse, paper for the hint guides, labor, facilities, etcetera.

Every one of these costs has increased, and will continue to, but with Steam, these costs no longer exist. And that’s great, because none of those [distribution costs] has ever brought any additional value to the actual gameplay experience, but has doubled the price of a game by the time it hits the shelf.

What is your benchmark of success for digital distribution of older titles like this?

LL: The beautiful thing is that if you own your library and your games were high-quality and originally on PC, then you really can’t go wrong.

Our measurement of success is no different than everyone else's; it is relative to our financial investment and overall risk. Considering that we own the Oddworld library and the initial games on Steam were already ours, our current investment was next to nothing.

With an investment of next to nothing, we’re still able to reach the global gaming audience with titles that are ten years old. We even see them get a little time on Steams top ten sales list.

What’s incredible is that with zero dollars in marketing, zero advertising, zero manufacturing, and zero licensing fees to console manufactures, we are happy with the sales.

That’s a lot of reduced financial risk we didn’t have to take on or have held against our returns. It’s the breath of fresh air we’ve been waiting for and, quite frankly, Valve is doing it right.

As for how we feel about the Oddworld titles that are currently on Steam, we couldn’t be more thrilled. For us, it's not only a venture, but it's a learning experience.

Not only are we able to witness how a robust digitally-distributed business behaves, which is huge to us at this juncture, but its also exciting to design towards because its an entirely new creative business paradigm to be explored.

The basic assumptions toward what constitutes competent game design shift dramatically once you begin to explore how to best maximize and grow a digitally-distributed universe.

What’s going on with Oddworld these days? Anything outside of games? We've heard hints.

LL: We’ve got the Citizen Siege film in development. And we now have an even better idea of why they call it "development hell."(laughs)

We’ve still got secrecy around another "Hollywood meets gaming" project that we’re very excited about, and while it's taken us a while, we’re also working on something new for Oddworld.

We still don’t want to get into any details on at this time but from my previous answers you’ll likely have an idea for where all this is heading.

Now that more casual and adventure-style games are making something of a comeback on PC and DS, do you have any plans to revisit the older style of Oddworld games?

LL: We're open to exploring how to best maximize our existing library, but haven't been focused on creating huge story games with 40 hours of linear gameplay recently.

We’ve been focused on a slightly different chemistry that we believe will prove appealing to gamers and Oddworld fans alike, but it's a big risk because it's way outside the box.

And that excites us. In some ways it will be very alien to Western gaming, but it's in this direction that we believe the excitement will be. Hopefully, not too much longer.

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

Even though it's Christmas week, we've still been posting some neat stuff over the past seven days -- both before and following Xmas dinner -- over at big sister site Gamasutra and educational site Game Career Guide.

Here are some of the fruits - including a fascinating postmortem of last holiday's awesome Ratchet & Clank title, an Ian Bogost analysis of Mirror's Edge, a neat interview with Mother 3 fan-translator Clyde Mandelin, and other fun GCG design articles and bizarro Tommy Refenes multi-threading relationship sponsored pieces.

Journey to the center of the Earth:

- You Say Tomato: A Pro on Fan-Translating Nintendo's Mother 3 (Gamasutra)
"Gamasutra talks to Mother 3 fan-translator Clyde 'Tomato' Mandelin on the unofficial translation of the Nintendo classic, his day job in translation, and his localization heroes."

- The Megatrends of Game Design, Part 4 (Gamasutra)
"Veteran game designer Pascal Luban (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory) concludes his fascinating series on major game industry trends by tackling user-generated content, player aging and emotion."

- Persuasive Games: Windows and Mirror's Edge (Gamasutra)
"In his regular Gamasutra column, author and game designer Bogost analyzes EA DICE's Mirror's Edge, suggesting just why the title "presents a new view of our own experience of the world"."

- Postmortem: Insomniac's Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction (Gamasutra)
"Reprinting one of Game Developer magazine's most acclaimed 2008 postmortems, Insomniac exclusively details the creation of the iconic PlayStation 3 platformer Ratchet & Clank Future."

- Sponsored Feature: How to Start a Multi-Threading Relationship (Gamasutra)
"In his own inimitably amusing fashion, Goo! programmer Tommy Refenes tackles the serious subject of creating and managing efficient and effective multi-threaded relationships for this Intel-sponsored Visual Computing feature."

- GameCareerGuide.com's Game Design Challenge: Eco-Racing Campaign (GameCareerGuide)
"In this weekly edition of the Game Design Challenge, you're in charge of designing a marketing campaign for a new (fictional) game called Eco-Racing Wars, a racing game with user-generated eco-friendly vehicles."

- Characteristics of Successful Game Designers (GameCareerGuide)
"The video game industry is still a meritocracy, where game designers are valued and hired for what they can do and create. And those who ‘do' and ‘create' typically share some basic characteristics, as Dr. Lewis Pulsipher, a game designer and educator, explains in this article."

December 26, 2008

Analysis: The Heartbeat Of A Game Project

[In this technical analysis, originally printed in Game Developer magazine earlier this year, former High Moon Studios programmer Noel Llopis provides a guide for setting up your own build server to quickly and reliably compile code for various platforms or ensure assets and levels load correctly, leaving you to work on what's really important -- the game.]

Have you ever given some thought to why you decided to become a game programmer? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t to do mundane, repetitive tasks.

Yet sometimes we find ourselves spending a significant portion of our time making sure that the code compiles for all platforms, or that there are no potential bugs lurking in the depths of the game, or even building the assets for each level and running them to make sure they load correctly.

Clearly, those are all things that need to be done, but if they are so repetitive and mindless, couldn’t we put some of the computers around us to good use and have them do the job for us?

A build server will do all that and more, much faster and more reliably than we could, and it will free us to work on the thing that made us fall in love with this industry in the first place: the game.

Getting Off The Ground

Before we can start thinking about setting up a build server, we need to be able to build the game with a single command from the command line. No clicking around, no GUI apps, no multiple steps, no magical incantations that only work during a full moon. Just type a command and the build for the game and all its libraries starts.

This is not just a necessary step to set up a build server; it’s a very good engineering practice. So if you’re not there, spend some time on it right away and you’ll be glad you did when candidate submission time comes around.

Building the game with a single command should be fairly easy, but the specifics will depend on your environment and build system. If you’re using Visual Studio, you can put the game and all the libraries in a single solution with the correct dependencies.

Then you can invoke the devenv.com command line program specifying the solution and configuration you want to build: devenv.com mygame.sln /build Debug. You can wrap that up in a single batch file buildgame.bat for extra convenience and you’re done.

If you’re using another build system, such as make or jam, you can probably already build it with a single command. If you’re using a bunch of mode-made scripts, at least wrap them all up in a single script file so they can be run with a single command.

Just building the game with a single command isn’t enough. We must have a way to automatically detect whether the build succeeded or failed. Fortunately, most build systems (including devenv. com and make) return an error code when the build fails. If you’re rolling your own build script file, make sure to capture build failure and return an error code as well.

Setting Up The Build Server

A build server should be a dedicated machine with access to version control. Whenever a new build is needed, the server syncs to the latest version in version control, starts a build, and notifies the team in case of any errors.

That’s a fine start, but we could make things much better. For example, we could include the error message in the notification email so programmers can see right there what the problem was instead of being forced to sync and build the game themselves.

We could also trigger a build in different circumstances (for example, code checked-in, forced by a person, or some other event) instead of only at fixed intervals. We might want to distribute the build across multiple machines, or keep logs and make them available on a web page, or format emails better, or use more direct notification methods …

Put away those Python reference manuals because fortunately, someone has already done all the work for us: CruiseControl (and CruiseControl.Net). It’s a free, open source build server program with all the bells and whistles that you could possibly want. And did I mention it’s free?

There are three main parts to it:

1. The build server. It runs as an application or a Windows service. It’s configured through a very simple XML file that tells it when to sync, where to sync, what to build, and how to report it.
2.The web front end. CruiseControl features a pretty, web-based dashboard showing all the builds, their status, past logs, and other pertinent data.
3. The system tray notificator. This is a little app that runs in the system tray and shows the status of all the builds and notifies you of any changes right away with a message and by playing some sounds. This is my favorite way to keep up to date with the build status. You’ll be up and running in about 10 minutes. The most complicated part is probably installing a web server (if you don’t already have one) and getting the web dashboard running. You’ll spend a few more hours tinkering with it to get it “just right,” and then you’re done. The only time I have to mess with it is to upgrade to a new version every so often. Other than that, it’s virtually maintenance free.

At this point you’ll have a fully featured build server in place. It verifies that the game can be built from the latest checked-in version of the code. It notifies developers of failed and successful builds right away. It increases version numbers, keeps a build history and statistics, archives executables, and emails logs.

CruiseControl and CruiseControl.Net are the two build servers I have most experience with. There are other build servers out there, with slightly different features, integrations with different environments, and so forth. Some of them are commercial and come with full support in case you’re more comfortable with that model.

It’s important to stress that a build server is not intended to be the only machine that builds the game. Every programmer (and maybe every member of the team) should be able to build the game in his or her own machine from scratch.

The build server is there to verify that all the checked-in changes build correctly on a clean machine, and to make sure that all platforms and configurations are building successfully. Any official builds should be created exclusively from the build server, though. Especially any builds distributed externally to publishers or manufacturers. This ensures that the build is clean, was created in a repeatable manner, and is free of any idiosyncrasies from a particular machine.

How Often?

Once the build server is in place and is producing successful builds reliably, the question arises of how often to make builds of the game.

It used to be considered good practice to do a weekly build. The team would start ramping things up on Thursday to try and get a build out the door by the end of the day on Friday. Anybody who has done that knows how stressful it can be and how it can easily become a bottleneck.

Why wait a week if you can do one every night? More teams started switching to the daily build, which is much less stressful because there are fewer changes in each new build. It also gives the team a chance to fix anything that was found broken in the previous day’s build. Soon, teams took it beyond the daily build and started making two builds a day, or even one every hour.

The build server has been very appropriately described as the heartbeat of the project. A “green build” is one heartbeat and one small step forward. A “red build” is done when something is wrong and needs to get fixed as soon as possible. If you have a red build several days in a row, the project is in serious trouble. The more often you make a successful build, the better. You’ll find fewer surprises and stay more on course that way.

My favorite approach is continuous integration. With continuous integration, the build server starts a new build as soon as there’s a new check-in. If multiple check-ins come in while the build is in progress, another build starts right after it’s done, with all the new changes queued during that time.

When following this practice, programmers sync to the latest version often, make small changes, and check-in code frequently, rather than batching many changes. Very conveniently, Cruise Control has a setting to start builds whenever anything changes.

The main benefit of continuous integration is that you are notified as soon as a check-in breaks the build—not a day later, or even an hour later, but minutes later. It tells you, “The last build was good. This one is not.” You can look through the last couple of check-ins that happened during that short time period and quickly narrow down the problem and fix it. Imagine trying to narrow down an elusive crash bug from all the check- ins for a full day or two!

Another benefit is that all programmers are working on a version very close to the latest one. This means that there are fewer source code conflicts when checking-in code, and fewer surprises lurking in the code. The flip side of that is that working on the latest version is living in the proverbial bleeding edge.

It’s not unusual for someone to check-in code that has some accidental bad side effects. As long as those bad check-ins are limited, and that whenever they happen they are fixed right away, I have found the benefits to outweigh some instability in the main branch. Some of the ways to minimize disruptions when working with continuous integration are:

- Make sure that any code compiles before checking it in (that should go without saying!)
- Execute a fast set of unit tests to verify that basic functionality is working correctly, and
- Have the build server notify everybody as soon as there’s a broken build so it can be fixed and so that nobody else syncs or checks-in any code while the build is broken.

Need For Speed

Ideally, I’d like to check in some code and see whether the build server found any problems right away. In the real world, things can be much slower. After all, the build server needs to sync to the latest code, kick off builds for multiple platforms and multiple configurations, and perform some other time-consuming steps.

Even so, there is work we can do to get feedback as soon as possible. Perform incremental builds during the day, so only the affected sections of the code need to be built. It’s still a good idea to do a full build at least every night to make sure that everything can be built from scratch.

Set up each platform and configuration as separate builds. That way you get feedback as soon as one of them completes. The only downside is if an error makes it through that causes all the builds to fail, get ready for lots and lots of broken build sounds playing all over the company. Speed up build times through good physical dependencies, modularity, precompiled headers, and good use of forward declarations.

Split up different builds and configurations in different machines. The easiest way is to set up one machine per platform and configuration (or maybe do a couple of configurations per machine). Cruise Control lets you easily integrate several build servers into the same web dashboard and system tray application, so this is a very easy solution.

Don’t Skimp on Hardware

Get the beefiest computers you can afford. Throw fast CPUs, disk access, and gigabit ethernet. Get multiprocessor cores and make sure your build system takes advantage of them. Does it sound like a lot of money? Not when you take into account how few servers you’ll have and how much time you’ll save all the members of the team.

I have tried several distributed build systems, and even though they can sometimes be beneficial for some codebases, I’m still not a huge fan. I find that you can often achieve the same (or better) results by using multiple processors and good build architectures, and you avoid the complexity and overhead of a distributed build system.

One “gotcha” we ran into when we scaled our build farm beyond about 15 build servers was that each of them was hitting our version control repository every few seconds to see if anything had changed. That wasn’t a trivial operation, and so many servers doing it so frequently definitely slowed things down to a crawl.

To remedy that, instead of having the build servers poll the overtaxed source control server, we had the source control server push out a notification. Whenever there was a check-in, the source control server changed a timestamp in a file located on an internal web server. We changed the build servers to constantly monitor the internal web server for changes in that file, and whenever it changed it triggered a build, which completely eliminated the overhead on the version control server.

Beyond The Build

So far, we’ve only been talking about building the game. But the build server is a great tool that we can put to good use for many other purposes. Why restrict ourselves to just the game? All the in-house tools would also benefit from getting the same treatment. We can even take it a step further and deploy the freshly-built copies of all the tools on a network drive or web page so they’re available to the whole team.

The build server can also double up as a symbol server. That makes it much more convenient for programmers to debug an earlier version of the game and libraries and have all the debugging information available without having to rebuild everything locally.

There’s no reason to limit the build server to just building source code. One of the most useful things you can do with it is use it to build game assets as well. Building assets is usually a slow process. Having a fast asset build system that can correctly perform incremental builds is crucial to keep asset build times down.

Build servers are general enough to perform just about any task. Running both unit tests (small tests on each class or function) and functional tests (tests that exercise a larger module or even the whole game) are perfect uses for the build server. Functional tests can be pretty slow, so make sure that they’re treated as a separate build and not as the last step in building the game.

Nobody wants to wait for hours for all the functional tests to complete before they can see the successful build status after a check-in. The sky is the limit with what the build server can do. We use it to run static analysis of our source code, checking for spots in the code that can lead to subtle and dangerous bugs (uninitialized variables, implicit type conversions, and the like).

Another great use is to run through the different levels of the game, recording frame rate at different points of each level, logging the results, and failing the build if it ever drops below a certain threshold. Having the performance history for specific levels can be really useful to narrow down why a particular section is chugging at 20fps but was running at a solid 60 a couple of weeks ago. For bonus points, integrate all the collected data into easy-to-visualize graphs available through the web front end.

The build server is definitely the heartbeat of a project. Keep those check-ins coming and those builds green, and you know you’re heading in the right direction.

[Noel Llopis regularly contributes articles to Game Developer Magazine and the Game Programming Gems series, and he is the author of the book C++ for Game Programmers. Some of his past titles include The Bourne Conspiracy, Darkwatch, and the Mechassault series. He earned an M.S. in computer science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.]

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of December 26

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 Armature Studio, NetDevil, Sony Online Entertainment, Longtail Studios, 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

Armature Studio: Senior Game Systems Engineer
"The Senior Game Systems Engineer will work closely with the Technical Director to develop innovative software solutions for our upcoming projects. This role will also involve close collaboration with artists and designers as well as helping to direct and manage outside engineering experts. It is expected that this person is well rounded and able to work within multiple game systems."

Blue Fang Games: Game Designer
"Blue Fang Games is dedicated to pushing the boundaries of interactive entertainment, delivering original and compelling experiences that evoke the full range of emotions. We believe in innovation, teamwork, professional development – and having fun making great games. We are looking for a designer to assist in our game design and development efforts. Someone who understands fundamental design principles, can internalize the big picture, and knows how to “find the fun”."

Longtail Studios: Senior 3D Modeler, Senior 3D Animator
"Everything we do aims to achieve two clear objectives. First, create the best games with vivid characters, engaging storylines and superior gameplay. Second, provide our team with a superior work environment, best occasions to excel and unique opportunities to put their imagination and creativity to profit. By working in small teams on short projects, we ensure that everyone can take pride in the fruits of their labors while benefiting from the stimulation that provide constant new projects"

WorldsInMotion - Online Game Jobs

Sony Online Entertainment: Lead Game Designer, Sr. Gameplay Programmer
"Based in San Diego, Sony Online Entertainment LLC (SOE) has an array of games in development at studios in Austin, TX, Denver, CO, Seattle, WA, and Taiwan including The Agency, Free Realms and DC Universe Online. These new titles are being designed to push the envelope of online entertainment quality, innovation and delivery."

NetDevil: Systems Designer, Level Designer, Senior Game Programmer, Producer, LEGO CS Developer Support
"NetDevil’s latest and biggest project to date is the recently revealed LEGO Universe, the first MMOG professionally developed for LEGO fans and supported by community members from around the world. NetDevil is also involved in numerous other projects and explorations, such as Warmonger, the first step in NetDevil's pursuit of a vision that will change the way online shooters are played, and Jumpgate Evolution which is a new game based on NetDevil's first title."

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.

GameSetInterview: The Sweep Of Tilted Mill's Blade

[Continuing our set of Todd Ciolek-written interviews, profiling offbeat or neglected developers and subjects for the benefit of GameSetWatch readers, here's a chat to Tilted Mill, who seem to be hunkering down and adapting to post-digital life as a PC strateg game developer in a most intriguing way.]

Tilted Mill made a name by making cities, or at least by letting players make them. The developer was born from the ashes of Caesar developer Impressions, and its first major PC strategy game projects were all unified by the theme of urban creation -- from the Egyptian simulations of Children of the Nile to the modern SimCity Societies and its Destinations expansion.

Recently, Tilted Mill announced several new games that diverge from city construction; Mosby’s Confederacy is a wartime strategy title based on the exploits of Civil War cavalry commander John Singleton Mosby, and the fantasy RPG Hinterland requires player to develop a village by exploring the land around it and wiping out supernatural threats.

Nile Online, another new Titled Mill title, takes the Egyptian city-building of the developer’s Children of the Nile into a Web-based online simulation. To find out just how the company branched out with these new games, we interviewed Tilted Mill President Chris Beatrice.

Tilted Mill is known largely for city-building games like Children of the Nile and SimCity Societies, but you've recently developed two games, Mosby's Confederacy and Hinterland, that involve strategic combat. How would you compare the development process for a largely combat-free game like Children of the Nile to a title like Hinterland or Mosby's?

Before starting Tilted Mill most of us worked on a wider variety of strategy games, including war games and more RTS-like games (mostly at Impressions). These were similar in scope to Mosby’s and Hinterland. So it’s not at all something we are unfamiliar with.

Like a lot of PC developers, over the past eight or ten years we trended toward fewer, bigger titles and of course that means less variety in a given amount of time. Tilted Mill did three big titles in our first six years, but we’ve already done three smaller titles since June of this year.

In terms of scale, how did your approach to making a city-building game like Children of the Nile differ from your approach to making Hinterland, which could be described as a village-building game that's a bit smaller in scale?

It was a pretty big adjustment going from SimCity Societies to Hinterland. Even though we’d all cut our teeth back in the day on games that were about the scope of Hinterland, it was still a big transition for us to go through. That’s just on the production side.

As far as the actual approach to the game, well, because Hinterland is so unique, we were always walking a very fine line, and running the risk of being a “not good enough” city-building game combined with a “not good enough” RPG, or whatever. Games are tough that way – if you have some strong RPG elements, you’re compared to the very best RPGs. If you have some city-building elements, people expect a full blown city builder.

On top of that, with the game being only $20 (our plan from the get go), then of course there are limits in terms of how robust each part of the game can be. So, on the one hand, it was tough making sure we were always getting the best bang for our development buck, but, on the other hand, working with a smaller team that was more senior overall was a huge advantage as well.

Both Mosby's Confederacy and Hinterland are more focused than their genre standards; Mosby's has the player lead small groups of soldiers instead of an entire army, while Hinterland involves building and protecting a fantasyland village instead of a city or nation. Does this closer focus broaden the games' appeal, or make them more niche-oriented?

Who knows? We’ve always tended to be interested in a more intimate scale of game versus. abstracting huge hordes of people or soldiers. In some genres you need to do that to some degree, and of course we’ve done that ourselves.

But in general we tend to prefer things more up close and personal, at least relative to typical strategy games. There are soooo many games out there now, of all “sizes” so to speak, it’s hard to say what is niche and what is not.

Was Mosby's Confederacy inspired more by the Civil War leader's legacy, or were you already looking to create a wartime strategy game based around a smaller, more detailed theater of operations?

We were looking to make a Civil War game, and Jeff Fiske remarked that he’d always thought Mosby would be a good subject for a game, in part for the reasons I just noted above (you could approach more of a squad-level type of feel, and focus on individual soldiers versus. dealing with massive battles, as well as the generally interesting nature of this particular character).

How did you adapt Children of the Nile into Nile Online? What were your main goals with Nile Online?

A lot of different goals came together with Nile Online. First we wanted to see if we could make a much simpler, much more accessible and less demanding game that still provided a lot of the city building experience, and also looked really great.

This seemed like a huge hole out there just waiting to be filled. As an independent studio, we also wanted to explore a variety of different business models, and felt that the monthly subscription approach was worth checking out.

Lastly, we want to continue to develop and build upon the Children of the Nile brand, because it’s always been our “baby.”

When do you expect Nile Online to finish its beta testing stage?

Oh…pretty soon...I’m not sure how much of a hard line that will be. At some point we’ll feel it’s time to remove the beta flag, but the game will continue to evolve and grow just as it has been doing all along.

You previously mentioned that Tilted Mill titles often do better in Europe than in the U.S. Do you expect that to be the case with Hinterland? Is there a European market for distinctly American wartime strategy games like Mosby's Confederacy?

So far since we’ve been download only we’ve been selling more in the U.S. than abroad. We never expect a Civil War game to have as much appeal outside the U.S. as inside, yet we have seen a fair amount of interest in it from gamers and publishers as well, so I’m not sure...

Do you plan on releasing any of your games on Xbox Live [Arcade] or another console download service?

We do have some Xbox Live Arcade plans in the works, actually…

GameSetLinks: Nightfall Over Theresia

'Twas the night after Christmas, and all through the GameSetLinks, there were a few things still stirring, in the way of random links. Oh dear, that really is poor.

But luckily the links aren't - and include the ihobo folks (in this case Chris Bateman) on casual games, Greg Costikyan's new MySpace social RPG thingie, the distinctly ignored Japanese horror oddness Theresia from Aksys on DS, and Steven Poole on 'cognitive panic' as a gameplay concept.

Hurray yay hurray:

ihobo: The Casual Players Aren't Coming to Your Party
'Here's the most important thing to understand about the mass market for videogames: these players – the ones who aren't even remotely interested in the kind of videogames the hobbyists want to play – have very specific tastes, and when something takes off with them it continues to sell, and sell, and sell.'

» Why I Don’t Own Stock In Game Publishers »Make It Big In Games
Dynamix/GarageGames veteran Jeff Tunnell is right on the money here: 'I have advocated for years that I think making a game is much more like making music than making movies.'

The Plush Apocalypse » Blog Archive » Your choice, and your fault.
EA LA's Borut Pfeifer: 'Maybe if we work really hard, pacing those rewards and punishments as Randy suggests, we might slowly get over everyone’s impression that games are inevitably going to f*ck you over when it comes to your choices.'

Theresia (DS) - Games - Console, PC & Handheld Discussion - FiringSquad Forums
Spotted this in my local Fry's, here's a decent synopsis of the apparently gory DS horror adventure title which has gone completely under the radar in the States.

Nightfall: Bloodlines: Play This Thing! | Game Reviews | Free Games | Independent Games | Game Culture
Costikyan and Meretzky-designed MySpace/social network-based online RPG vampire thing.

Steven Poole: Don’t panic
An Edge Magazine column talking about 'cognitive panic' as a gameplay state, and asking: 'When we experience it in real life, on one of those days where everything goes wrong simultaneously and there seems to be a never-ending hail of demands on your attention, it’s not usually very welcome.'

December 25, 2008

The Best of 2008: The 5 Most Significant MMO Trends

[You thought we were done with year-end Gamasutra countdowns? Hardly! For this bonus end-of-year round-up, MMO expert Michael Zenke looks at 2008's five most notable trends in the online game space, from broadening microtransactions to WoW's clear dominance of the fantasy genre and beyond.]

Throughout December, Gamasutra presented 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, handheld games, developers, controversies, and games of the year.

For one more special bonus, guest MMO expert Michael Zenke takes a look at the year's five most compelling trends in online gaming.

The world of MMOs is an enormous business, and a huge opportunity for the game development community at large, from World Of Warcraft's $1 billion yearly haul to microtransaction-based firms like Nexon that make tens of millions yearly in the West.

Here are the biggest stories of 2008 in online gaming - and just maybe some hints as to next year's top titles and trends:

The AAA Fantasy Game Is A Solved Problem

Two multi-million dollar epic fantasy MMOs launched this year, and by the standards of both of the companies that made them they are simply not successful.

Funcom, the developer of Age of Conan, has admitted as much in interviews. Game director Gaute Godager stepped down as a result of the game's post-launch failure, and the company is now focused entirely on restoring good will with the title's diminished playerbase.

Warhammer Online developer Mythic Entertainment hasn't admitted anything, but by the standard of comments made by company head Mark Jacobs they haven't achieved the success they were looking for. Pre-launch statements had him saying that if a company is closing or merging servers within a few months of a game's launch, there are problems. Warhammer has merged several servers in the days since its release.

Meanwhile, Blizzard's launch of Wrath of the Lich King has completely reinvigorated the World of Warcraft community. More than simply 'ten more levels', Blizzard has made significant improvements on the game's basic design. A more casual-friendly leveling experience and technology-rooted storytelling advances have made WoW players completely reassess what the IP giant is capable of.

Burning Crusade may have offered entry-level content more appropriate for a new player, but Wrath of the Lich King has given new players an actual reason to play: high-end content of a quality previously unseen in the MMO space.

Successful expansions for both Lord of the Rings Online and EverQuest II are also well worth noting, as these high-quality games reinvigorate their own dedicated playerbases. Their internal success only serves to highlight the stark reality 2008 has borne out: the AAA fantasy MMO is a solved problem.

The inn is full, there are no seats left at the table, the plane door is closing... whatever metaphor you want to use, AAA fantasy games are a niche in the games industry that is now nearly impossible to enter. Existing market players (Blizzard or otherwise) are going to continue to have a high rate of success with retaining and pleasing their users, while new entrants onto the scene are going to face nigh-onto insurmountable odds.

The half-dozen or more Western developers currently working on their own fantasy games are well-advised to note the challenges of 2008.

The Microtransactional March To Victory

More than anything, 2008 signaled a death-knell for the future of subscription-based online gaming. In ten, maybe even five years, paying a monthly subscription for an online game will sound as archaic as paying a play-by-the-hour fee does now.

The microtransaction model has been gaining in popularity here in the West for years now, but 2008 truly highlighted the waning power of the subscription model. From the rollout of Sony Online Entertainment's Station Cash program to the blockbuster success of companies like Three Rings and Nexon, Western players have made it abundantly clear that they're very comfortable paying smaller amounts of money over time to get the services they want.

Compound that with news of MT plans for upcoming products and the growing popularity of even formerly-reviled Eastern online imports, and it's clear that there's been a substantive shift in consumer thinking about online content.

At GDC this year, Rob Pardo of Blizzard described the microtransaction question as an East vs. West issue, but increasingly, commentators have noted that's simply not the case. Microtransactions may have taken off as the business model in Eastern markets, but Western consumers are quickly adopting the free-to-play pay as you go mindset.

The gains in popularity and mass-market appeal online gaming have achieved in recent years are almost certainly the root of this transition. Shifting demographics have helped this along as well, as younger players will eventually force this kind of change through to 'older' games. It's all about perspective: most of the kids playing Runescape right now aren't going to want to pay a monthly fee when they graduate to a different game.

The tantalizing hint Jon Riccitello offered about the future business strategy for BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic may be the strongest indicator of Western microtransaction adoption yet. Though EA tried to take back the comment, though they may not have 100 percent solid plans for the title yet, even the indication that one of the West's biggest publishers is considering that kind of market strategy is a sea-change in MMOs.

To see the front-lines of this change, you need look no further than your local Target. The gaming section of the electronics department is dominated by a display of 'cash cards' for everything from Eastern games-gone-Western to Blizzard's World of Warcraft.

The vast majority of the world's population not only doesn't have a credit card, they don't even have a bank account. Addressing that market, be they 6 or 60 years old, is a big change – perhaps the biggest change - for online gaming.

The Heroic Position Of Middleware

Though it went largely unnoticed by the gaming public, ongoing advances in MMO middleware have quietly been working to change the face of online game development. There are now four different competing products all working to capture the title of "MMO in a box". BigWorld, the Icarus Platform, Multiverse, and HeroEngine are all directly targeting companies looking to make massively multiplayer games, and each has their claim to fame.

The 'browser approach' used by Multiverse combined with high-profile connections to properties like Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has made that company quite noteworthy in certain circles. The Icarus platform showed off an iPhone in-world browser at AGDC this year, and their post-apocalyptic MMO Fallen Earth looks to capitalize on the no-show status of the Fallout online game sometime soon. BigWorld, too, has had some quiet successes connecting with in-development titles like StarGate Worlds.

And then, of course, there's the folks at HeroEngine. Two years ago they quietly made the announcement that they were collaborating with BioWare on an unannounced title. Today, they're the drivers behind one of the most highly-anticipated MMOs in development. As if backing Star Wars: The Old Republic wasn't enough, they're also connected with the developers at Stray Bullet games, Colony Studios, and Zenimax Online.

Whether the average online player has heard of these companies or not, their successes in 2008 may very well shape the future of Western MMO development.

The MMO Gold Rush Takes A Left Turn

Despite the economic slowdown affecting most of the industry, more companies and intellectual properties than ever seem to be interested in jumping onto the online gaming bandwagon.

Even as existing MMO developers make cutbacks and layoffs, new developers are continually seeking to enter the space and additional projects are announced. Despite the dangers inherent in the space, despite the ‘lessons learned’ from the fantasy genre, most of the year was spent in a mad rush towards online gaming.

Most compelling (or appalling, depending on your point of view) was the notion of connecting the unique offering of gaming in an MMO space with the very traditional medium of television. The announcement of a Sci-Fi channel television show somehow ‘hooked into’ a massively multiplayer game is almost certainly the most ambitious of these online space gold rush projects.

Trion World Network is the harbinger of many gold rush elements, not only heading up the Sci-Fi channel project but an MMO capitalizing on the Heroes of Might and Magic series as well. Many such games were announced in 2008, with perhaps-wisely cancelled projects like the Halo MMO further highlighting the appeal of this space.

The desperate downturn the online games industry has seen in the last few months may have finally curtailed that charge, but online gaming continues to be seen as one of the most lucrative elements of the industry. As soon as venture capital money begins to flow again, expect a return to the mad rush towards online gaming.

User-Made Content Marches On

The developers say ‘why not make your own content?’ While -– just yet -– the user-made content movement isn’t quite as big a deal as microtransactions, it’s getting there. Several different initiatives came to the foreground this year offering users the chance to not only play games but make their own, customize an online space, even roll their own MMO entirely.

The two most important are undoubtedly Metaplace, which is now in Beta testing, and the now-commercially launched Whirled from Three Rings. Both are abandoning the field of AAA games, multi-million dollar dev cycles and incredibly costly content to embrace the quick-and-dirty ethos of Web 2.0.

As Metaplace co-founder Raph Koster puts it, people just don’t care about high-rez 3D images if the fun is there. Metaplace is banking on this by providing the tools to create seriously tricked out MMOs in a 2D space.

Participants only need to know how to make use of the LUA scripting language to make full use of the project, and even participants that can only make use of a GUI will be able to pick-and-choose from pre-built components.

Meanwhile, Whirled, from the makers of Puzzle Pirates, brought the flash gaming craze to a persistent online peak. A disjointed world of player-made rooms and games, Whirled actually allows users to upload their own content for resale using a meta-currency.

Offering a business model that supports not only the company but content contributors, Whirled looks to capitalize on the creativity of its users much as Metaplace does, but with even less up-front preparation required.

The modest successes of these projects in 2008 will give way to their real potential in 2009. Their success or failure will most likely pave the way for the integration of user-generated content and online gaming in the Western world.

GameSetInterview: Sega's Mitsuyoshi On Giving Voice To Arcade Classics

[The latest in a series of Japanese game music interviews from Jeriaska, this time he chats to classic Sega composer Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, with insight on his history in the game biz and his contributions to the EXTRA Hyper game concert held just after Tokyo Game Show this year.]

Takenobu Mitsuyoshi has written music for such Sega arcade series as Daytona USA, Sega Rally and Virtua Fighter. He was also involved in composing music for the soundtrack to the acclaimed Sega Dreamcast title Shenmue. In 2003 he created the album "From Loud 2 Low ~Takenobu Mitsuyoshi Works~." Published by Hitmaker Records, the selections include arrangements from various Sega titles, featuring the musician's participation as a composer and performer.

Mitsuyoshi has performed his videogame music live on stage in various contexts. He sang at this year's Games Convention in Leipzig, Germany and attended the Montreal Game Summit.

For the past two years, he has participated in both EXTRA Hyper Game Music Events in Tokyo, hosted by 5pb Records. Singing vocals as part of the Sega Sound Team, dubbed "H.," their set included rock remixes of classic Sega titles including Fantasy Zone and Space Harrier.

Following the game concert, we had the chance to hear from the musician on the challenges inherent in arranging Sega arcade songs for live rock and roll performances. The discussion offers some insights into Mitsuyoshi's unique path in the videogame industry and how it intersects with the Sega sound team's enthusiasm for rock music.

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

GameSetWatch: First of all, congratulations on H.’s pulling out all the stops at this year’s EXTRA Hyper game concert.

Takenobu Mitsuyoshi: Thanks for mentioning it, on behalf of H.! This performance marks our second year at the EXTRA event, and it was a thrill to witness the excitement of the packed audience as we got up on stage to perform. The first song we played was from Space Harrier, the drummer keeping time without a click track, and I was impressed with how well it captured a genuine rock sound.

GSW: This is your second time performing at the concert. Do you find it useful to take a break from writing music every so often and sing for a crowd of pumped videogame fans?

Mitsuyoshi: Normally I’m in front of my desk, typing away at my PC, so definitely yes! I work on songs and sound effects, so my work is related to music, but it’s a different kind of relationship. Our jobs at Sega allow us the time to really study music, and to a certain extent it enhances our motivation to work together to create something for a live event like this.

GSW: We spoke with composer Hip Tanaka after the show, and he said that his only qualms with the concert were the number of men there to see the 8Bit Idolm@sters perform.

Mitsuyoshi: That’s Tanaka-san’s sense of humor. Truth be told, it’s men that make up a large percentage of videogame music enthusiasts, for whatever reason. This is actually a really old discussion that goes at least as far as back as when I joined the SST Band. The ratio of men to women hasn’t really changed much. In fact, this time around, the popularity of the Idolm@ster vocalists has led to the number of male fans multiplying out of control, I’m afraid. That’s just a given, considering the circumstances. Gender aside, we can in all honesty express our gratitude to the 2000 attendees who turned out to listen to our videogame music.


Performers from the Famison 8-bit Idolm@sters series on stage at the 2008 EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event.

GSW: Last year was the first ever EXTRA. How did you and your fellow band members at Sega decide which songs to perform for the show?

Mitsuyoshi: As with last year, the concept behind the EXTRA series was to summon up memories of the good old days of arcade music as an affirmation of its significance to us. With that premise in mind, H. was allotted the role of transforming slices of Sega’s classic game themes into a musical performance. We brought this combination of the established melodies and altogether new ideas, and the audience was genuinely delighted with the results. It was all grounded on the basis that these were pieces of music that they remembered listening to in the arcades. To make it a novel experience, we have the live drums on hand, for instance, and all the music has been arranged once more from the ground up.

GSW: Do you find it difficult coming up with lyrics to games like Space Harrier and Fantasy Zone, seeing as dialog is not a prominent aspect of the experience?

Mitsuyoshi: Well, one of the songs features the refrain “YA-DA-YO!” (”What are you doing to me!”) I think this phrase pretty much sums up the player’s frustration when facing certain bosses. “Let’s Go Away!” is another one, which relates to the desire to lose yourself in the game world. You could say the lyrics change depending on the character of the game that is chosen as the subject of the arrangement.

Takenobu Mitsuyoshi and percussionist Rony Barrak riff on the theme from Daytona

GSW: When did you start working on the songs from for this year’s concert?

Mitsuyoshi: We received word that we were invited to this year’s EXTRA about two months before the performance, though it took a month before we had arrived at all the particulars of our plan. We were fortunate enough to need less time to prepare, seeing as it was our second year in succession, though there were difficult passages, including a ten minute medley, and the songs were new as well.

GSW: Are there any notable differences between this year’s selections and last year’s?

Mitsuyoshi: I would have to say that the most significant change was having live drums. Last time all the drums were recorded, which makes for a huge difference. There was a much stronger sound to the band this time around. You might have difficulty believing it, but our drummer was an 8th grader! Our set was ten minutes shorter in duration than it was last year, so we were a little worried about that. We kept the idea of the medley, this time including one from Fantasy Zone, but had to cut the ballads from the set list out of consideration for the time constraints.

GSW: What would you say were some of the highlights of the show for you?

Mitsuyoshi: I would have to go with the Korg DS Trio. The idea of performing live on a really practically priced piece of equipment has been something that people have talked about for awhile, but I think it was finally demonstrated on stage with tremendous impact. I thought, this surely was pure videogame music, from the instrument down to the conception and composition.

GSW: Nobuyoshi Sano of the Korg DS Trio often goes by the name Sanodg. In terms of your own career as a videogame composer, you are sometimes listed as R. Saburomaru. Is there a story behind the pseudonym?

Mitsuyoshi: When I was first hired to write music for Sega, the company was working on a competitive bike racing game called “GP Rider.” At that time there was a dedicated cabinet released called the R360, which had both vertical and horizontal rotation. They created a game for the cabinet called G-LOC, which they asked me to write music for. After that, I became a member of the SST Band, and everyone there was named after a Sega title.

I had long hair in those days. Though it wasn't like I wore it in a topknot like a samurai, I liked the idea of that kind of image. I took on the nickname R. Saburomaru (”三郎丸” being an antiquated way of saying “360"). At the time, Sega didn't list the names of musicians on CD liner notes, so I was credited as “R.三郎丸.”

GSW: You come from Fukuoka originally. Was working for Sega something that you had always planned on doing, or did circumstances take you by surprise?

Mitsuyoshi: It's no mistake that I was born in Fukuoka, but at three years of age my father, who was a businessman, was transferred to Chiba Prefecture, and our family changed residences. I have no trace of a Fukuoka dialect. In high school and college I worked hard to maintain my musical craft, majoring in economics before deciding to pursue a career in music.

I started learning classical piano when I was in my second year of high school. At that time, a friend of mine introduced me to Galaxy Force. I was surprised at how different the sound was from what I thought of as typical videogame music. At that time I was in a band, and I wondered whether this might be relevant experience to the videogame music industry. I eventually applied for a job at Sega, hoping that I would be chosen as a member of the SST BAND. While many things came about by happenstance rather than by design in my winding up applying for a job at Sega, since then I can honestly say that my life has headed in a direction that I feel I have determined for myself.

GSW: You have participated in the development of some rather historic arcade game series. Were you always a fan of the arcades? What was it like making songs for Daytona USA?

Mitsuyoshi: I am honored to be a part of the history of arcade music, knowing there are many others who have contributed to its development, so thank you for your mentioning that. My first encounter with a games was through the PC. I had an NEC PC-6001 mk2 when I was in high school and I was into games like Mappy, Xevious and Pac-Man. Space invaders was another favorite of mine. In college I occasionally played the NES, but not so many arcade games. It was not until I entered the game industry that I discovered the arcade titles of Sega.

During the development of Daytona USA, Namco released Ridge Racer. We received executive orders from Sega that we had to make something better than Ridge Racer, so the team really hunkered down, taking on the spirit of a sports team, to create the best possible graphics and music. I was working on sound for the game, so we put lyrics to the music, added the noise of a V8 engine, along with a CD quality audio system. Ridge Racer had none of these features. It was a big success.

GSW: How did you become involved in the Shenmue project?

Mitsuyoshi: It took a long time to develop Shenmue. It was my tenth year at Sega when the game was released... but it didn’t feel that way because half of that time had been spent on the soundtrack to Shenmue. My job as a sound director was to give instructions to staff regarding the music, which required understanding the setting and scenario, avoiding the mistake of letting the soundtrack wander too far outside the thematic concept of the project. I was involved in discussions with designers and programmers, while collaborating with Yu Suzuki. It was more of a directorial approach than has been the case with other projects… and there were a lot of meetings.

GSW: This is a game series that many players look back on with great fondness. In terms of your own experience writing music for the game, what do you remember most vividly about the Yokosuka chapter of the series?

Mitsuyoshi: The main theme of Shenmue stands out in my mind. You might have heard this already, but at first Yu Suzuki gave me an overview of the storyline before asking me to start writing the music. I then proceeded to compose one song, purely based on my impressions. While it did not become the main theme for the game, that song has gone on to be played by many orchestras worldwide. Another memorable musical theme from the game is Ryuji Iuchi’s “Earth and Sea”. This piece of music for me conjures up the “will to battle,” which I think is a significant motif of the game.

GSW: Another memorable music project that you participated in is the Street Fighter Tribute album. How did you become involved in the arranged music project, and what was your experience remixing the famous Ryu stage theme?

Mitsuyoshi: When I was first asked to work on this arranged album, the videogame industry was just beginning to experiment with venturing beyond the perimeters of individual companies on a given music project. I was really interested in the idea of Shinji Hosoe inviting many sound creators to work on it together. I had also spent a lot of time playing Street Fighter with my brother on the PC Engine, so I felt no hesitation in joining the team.

Working alongside so many well-known sound creators, my task was to make a remix that was unique, so I decided to incorporate a vocal track, knowing it was my particular strength. I also had the idea that since I was a member of the project, I had might as well work on a tune for a major character in the game. I submitted my request and luckily I was able to work on it. Initially I had in mind that I would write English lyrics, so I chose an 80’s American pop style with a fast-pace. The only thing I regret is using the direct translation from an online service, so the words themselves do not quite manage to express what I had in mind.

GSW: We only had time to briefly touch upon your many original and arranged videogame music projects, but is there anything you would like to say to those in English-language territories who enjoy your music?

Mitsuyoshi: Recently I have had many chances to visit other countries, meeting listeners in person to hear their feedback. It has been a chance to discover directly that there are a lot of people who enjoy my work. I’m touched by the enthusiasm of gamers, and the particulars of their language, ethnicity, age and gender are not an issue. Because my music uses the game as a medium to connect with the player, the experience is universal. Right now I am thinking about game players outside of Japan more than ever, and I feel more motivated to do good work. Following the experience I had with Daytona, I hope that when people hear the name "Mitsuyoshi" they will think of the drive to make memorable music.


H. at the 2008 EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event in Shin-Kiba, Tokyo. From left to right: Mitsuharu Fukuyama, Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, Takehiro Kai, Hiroshi Kawaguchi, Eisei Kudoh, and Hidenori Shoji.

[Images of Idolm@ster and EXTRA Official Compilation courtesy of 5pb Records. Photos of H. by Jeriaska.]

GameSetLinks: Like, Totally Happy Christmas

You know, it genuinely appears to be Christmas-time, so while I'm knocking back the eggnog, I'd like to thank all GameSetWatch readers, commenters, and contributors for the entirity of 2008.

Rather unbelievably, we've been operating since late 2005, and we're still piling on RSS readers and (reasonably) appreciative fans for what we do nowadays, which is, we've decided: "In-depth articles, interviews & opinions from the Gamasutra Network, plus industry jobs, exclusive alt.gaming columns and link round-ups."

So - thanks, you awesome folks, and I hope you have a beautiful Christmas Day. We'll be around, posting random stuff, of course. Here's some links:

Tale of Tales» Blog » Not to be forgotten aspects of videogame design
The folks behind The Path make a good list of game items that people sometimes don't pay attention to - and should do!

Tiny Q&A: Lock's Quest and producing artwork for DS, Part 2 - Tiny Cartridge
I was just discussing how 5th Cell's title was under-rated, too - nice chat about the alluring pixel art.

Lost Garden: Fishing Girl Prototype results
Daniel Cook's prototype competition spawns a successful Flash game, sold for real money. Impressive.

Games and Men: The indie game developer's start-up cost
A nice idea, if a bit fixated on fixed costs, perhaps: 'This article is a free exploration on the cost of starting an indie game business.'

T=Machine » Does It Lose Money When You Do That? Don’t Do That
Ex-NCSoft-er Adam Martin is obnoxious _and_ opinionated to all heck, but it turns out he's pretty smart, so I guess it's OK? Here's some discussions of MMO failures.

Experience Points: A Touchy Subject
You know, this is a really good point, and one I hadn't considered: 'Outside of cut scenes, people rarely touch in videogames.'

Banana Pepper Martinis: Feedback on Feedback
Further discussion on the Shawn Elliott reviews symposium, rounding up backlash and un-backlash, including the still ARG-like (but apparently forgiven!) PixelVixen707.

Llamasoft's Jeff Minter Interview - Eurogamer
I'm delighted that Jeff Minter gets it now, albeit reluctantly: 'As far as I'm concerned, I like to do things cheap, but ever since I did that on Live, loads of people have been telling me I was trying to sell it too cheap! There's this thing called 'perceived value' I suppose, so I'm now just trying to be in line with what other independent games are like on PC, really - roughly the same ballpark, I think.'

December 24, 2008

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Drill, Baby, Drill

Oil1.png['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she considers MolleIndustria's social message game Oiligarchy as an example of persuasive narrative -- as opposed to persuasive simulation.]

Oiligarchy might (at first glance) seem like an odd game to mine for narrative content. It is a game written for political persuasion by Molleindustria, whose previous works included a ruthless dark satire on McDonalds, and a disturbing game about concealing pederasty within the Catholic Church.

Oiligarchy sets up a scenario in which, as oil tycoon, you can only perpetuate your play by buying politicians, pushing for wars, and pillaging the planet to the point of apocalypse. The goals of the game are simply incompatible with a sane environmental policy or a legal relationship to elected officials.

Is this a fair piece of propaganda? Not really, and I say this as someone who strongly supports a more environmentally responsible agenda and a reduced dependence on non-renewable energy. There's no doubt that big oil has caused serious problems, but I don't hold oil corporations solely and uniquely to blame for our problems in the middle east, nor do I imagine that no one in the oil industry has a conscience.

But Oiligarchy doesn't have time for such caveats. It works, essentially, by saying -- as the McDonalds game did as well -- "Look, people in this position have every self-interested reason to behave like villains; thus we may conclude that, in fact, they do."

For added impact, Oiligarchy juices up your interactions with hilariously cruel pictures and sounds. When you build a new oil pump, it clangs and drums like an instrument from hell's orchestra. Put a new building in the wilderness, and you get to watch trees fall, caribou disperse, tiny birds scatter into the sky. In third world countries, the inhabitants peacefully enjoy life around a campfire, until you build over their village and hire their own government to oppress them.

There is even a happy whale swimming in Alaska's waters-- until you come along and set up your offshore rigs. It's basically the same message as the one implicit in the interface of Electrocity, only amped to be considerably more extreme: nature is good because it is pretty. Industrial development is bad because it is not pretty.

Never mind that nature sometimes produces things like forest fires and volcanoes and earthquakes and tsunamis, all on her own, that turn the landscape into a twisted smoking wreck. But Electrocity is responsible enough to offer some perspective on the gains and costs of different kinds of infrastructure. Oiligarchy doesn't bother with any balancing points.

Oiligarchy has a beautifully smooth, responsive design, too. Naming no names, I've played several persuasive games whose authors were banking so heavily on the value of their content that they didn't bother to make the gameplay smooth, fast, or comprehensible. The slickness of Molleindustria's work adds substantially to its appeal, and to my willingness to replay.

But all these trappings, on top of the already biased model, make Oiligarchy feel so extreme that even people who sympathize with some of its message are likely to find themselves muttering "oh really" from time to time.

So it's a little hard to take the game seriously as a piece of persuasion.

It's outright impossible to take it seriously as education, because it doesn't even pretend to deal in real numbers and facts, or the real tradeoffs at work.

Oil2.pngBut in another way I found Oiligarchy compelling, and that has to do with how it works as a story -- a dark, angsty fan fiction of reality. In fiction, there are always some characters who are on the sidelines, unexplored or simply not understood by the viewpoint character.

Fan fiction goes back in and explores the motivations of those people; it stitches together the pieces we know about (from the canonical work from which the fan fiction is derived) with the pieces that we can only imagine.

In its black-hearted way, Oiligarchy is doing that with recent history. As you explore and drill, corrupt politicians and start wars, the game throws up headline after headline that suit the situation but which are... disturbingly familiar. The old same narrative spools out from a new point of view.

Greenhouse effect? It's the oil industry's fault, of course. Invasion of Kuwait? Oil. 9/11, Iraq, Hugo Chavez, instability in Africa and Iran? All oil. Anthrax scare? Oil industry messing with our minds. Homeland Security's stupid color codes? That was Oil too. And then it goes over the top. What's next? Widespread civil unrest. Cannibalism "in some southern states". Population control. Eventually, nuclear holocaust.

On the flip side, if you just stop meddling, the politicians and the people of the US will Do The Right Thing, embrace train travel and sustainable living, pass virtuous laws, and clean the planet! Peace and prosperity will prevail!

It's funny, in a horrible way -- just as The McDonalds Video Game is funny. But it goes way further than the McDonalds game away from the realm of simulation (where you can bring about diverse results by manipulating the world model) into the territory of story-telling (where you encounter just the results that the author wants you to, though they're presented as the consequence of your acts).

Game play is simple, which appears at first to be due to admirable design, but on replay proves to be a clever constraint that prevents the player from going too far off the storyline. It's possible to wind up with a couple of different outcomes, depending on how ruthlessly and for how long you practice your Oiled ways -- but not the wealth of nuanced end-states that one gets out of a well-honed simulation.

I don't know that that's a flaw. Campaigns are all about "establishing a narrative" these days. What may confuse people is that Oiligarchy has some of the trappings of procedural persuasion -- getting the player to accept a world model, then demonstrating via that world model that certain principles hold true. What it's really doing is persuasion-by-narrative, which is much more about personalities and trends and motives. Persuasion by narrative can get away more easily with blatant bias.

Satire does not, as a rule, pretend to be fair.

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

IGF Mobile Announces Judges For 2008 Competition

[Still blasting with IGF Mobile in its second year, thanks to organizer Mathew Kumar, and here's who we have judging the cellphone, iPhone, 'homebrew'/indie PSP and DS competition this year.]

Organizers of the Independent Games Festival Mobile have named the judges for the second annual Independent Games Festival Mobile.

IGF Mobile (created by Gamasutra parent company Think Services) is the event which celebrates innovation in games for cellphones, the iPhone, and other mobile devices, including Sony’s PlayStation Portable and the Nintendo DS.

This year, the event is proud to announce that the list of judges will consist of independent mobile game developers -- including several winners of IGF Mobile awards -- and leading journalists working within the mobile games industry.

They are to help award $30,000 in prizes -- including a $10,000 Best iPhone Game award -- at this sister event to the IGF, and to take place at Game Developers Conference 2009 next March in San Francisco.

Confirmed judges for the second annual IGF Mobile event are:

- Kris Piotrowski, Creative Director, Capybara Games
- Paul Farley, CEO, Tag Games
- Tommy Palm, Research & Development Manager, Jadestone
- Brandon Boyer, Editor, Offworld
- Alan Yu, Vice President, ngmoco
- Stuart Dredge, Writer, Pocket Gamer
- Neil Trevett, Vice President Mobile Content, NVIDIA
- Steve Palley, Editor, Slide To Play
- Blake Patterson, Editor, Touch Arcade
- Liz England, Designer, 5th Cell Entertainment
- Beth Marcus, Senior Vice President, Zeemote
- Tobin Lent, CEO, Punch Entertainment

Full biographies and details of the judges are available at IGFMobile.com.

Like the main IGF competition (part of Think Services, as is Gamasutra), the IGF Mobile will have its own pavilion featuring the finalists on the show floor at the Game Developers Conference 2009 next march, and all finalist games will be available to play at the pavilion.

Winners are to be announced at a ceremony during the GDC Mobile conference and honored during the main IGF Awards on March 25th, 2009.

Best Of 2008: Top 10 Games Of The Year

[Wrapping up big sister site Gamasutra's year-end retrospective, our entire staff looked back on 2008's top ten games, determined and ranked things collaboratively, from Persona 4 to LittleBigPlanet, added individual editor picks, and... hey presto! Hope you guys enjoy.]

Throughout December, Gamasutra presented 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, handheld games, developers and controversies.

Now (finally!), we look at this year's top 10 games, collaboratively chosen and ranked by our staff. Each member of our team also highlights his or her own personal picks that didn't make the group list:

10. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Konami, Nintendo DS)

Order of Ecclesia isn't dramatically different from any of producer Koji Igarashi's other Castlevania titles -- almost every release follows Symphony of the Night's template -- but it adds and changes enough to make this latest refinement of the "Metroidvania" formula an easy addition to our year-end list.

Ecclesia thankfully casts out the juvenile and generic anime character designs that blighted the previous two DS games, in favor of Hirooka Masaki's more fitting "gothic" art direction. The game also replaces Portrait of Ruin's clumsy two-character gameplay with a strong, graceful heroine, Shanoa, who takes on Dracula and his minions just fine without the help of a Vampire Killer whip.

Adding to our enjoyment, Ecclesia is probably the hardest Castlevania title since the franchise's NES years, requiring quick wits and a lot of boss pattern memorization, much to the appreciation of series faithfuls (and the chagrin of softer gamers). As a fan once succinctly described the game's difficulty, "This ain't no Casualvania."

9. Valkyria Chronicles (Sega, Playstation 3)

The Japanese have a reputation for being the most conservative market in game development -- and whether or not it's truly deserved, it's heartening to see an example of a development team starting with a rigid, conventional idea and tossing it aside in favor of a spirited new evolution of a genre.

While Valkyria Chronicles began its development cycle as a top-down strategy title in debt to classics like Final Fantasy Tactics, it was released as a genre-defying, engrossing new blend of realtime and turn-based strategy, with a perspective that has more in common with Gears of War than Square Enix, but retains the pleasingly crunchy tactical depth Japanese games are best known for.

Add in a surprisingly mature story and beautiful watercolor visuals and you get a cult classic that is getting nowhere the attention it deserves from gamers this year, and one of the strongest exclusives on Sony's platform.

8. Braid (Number None, Xbox 360/PC)

Jonathan Blow and David Hellman's Braid is likely one of the most-trumpeted indie games of all time - partly due to it winning an IGF prize all the way back in 2006, before an extensive graphical rehaul and its subsequent debut on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008. But try to shut the hype out, and you'll find something special.


Specifically, Braid is a title with carefully thought-out, ingenious puzzles, David Hellman's evocative art, and an underlying story that doesn't lack soul - however many different interpretations you might have of it.

It's a game that makes you think and one that you care about, ultimately - and its rapturous critical reception reflects that.

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

The simple majesty of Geometry Wars 2 is easy to grok, of course. The first Xbox Live Arcade version of Geometry Wars, itself following up a programmer-created homage to classic '80s twin-stick shooters like Robotron, re-ignited the genre.

It also raised an interesting question. When you've been to 10 already, where is 11 in the world of abstract shooter gymnastics? That would be Geometry Wars 2, then -- particularly to be praised for the ingenious 'side stories' that make clever alternative use of the gameplay.

When you have glorious variants like 'King' and the fiendish 'Pacifism' being, plus robust online score integration and the perfectly thought-out 'Sequence' mode, you end up with an adrenaline-bespattered winner.

6. Persona 4 (Atlus, PS2)

Modern, hip and overtly Japanese, Persona 4 is proof positive that the Japanese RPG can evolve for a broadening audience. The game sheds dated conventions and implausible fantasies in favor of a stylish, immensely thought-provoking and surreal self-discovery story set in a rural-area Japanese high school.

Though many JRPGs hinge on the stories of teenagers, Persona 4's themes focus on the perils of self-denial and the necessity of facing one's inner self, particularly poignant and useful in the context of the characters' believably confusing life stage.

Persona 4 is a game that requires no small measure of patience. The reward, however, is character and story growth via an intriguing system of social and behavioral rewards that perfects the promising formula introduced in Persona 3.

5. Left 4 Dead (Valve/Valve South, Xbox 360/PC)

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.

Its 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, partly due to the group dynamics that the game fosters.

During a given game, 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" begin to appear.

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.

4. No More Heroes (Grasshopper Manufacture, Wii)

At first blush, it's a bizarre and comic-bookish send-up of the American otaku. But No More Heroes quickly reveals its charm -- amid the mashed-up game homages and lewd humor is a surprisingly classy and vaguely disturbing allegory for the video game hero.

Travis Touchdown, of the fluorescent-lamp lightsaber and implausible fantasy motorbike, isn't nearly the smooth operator he thinks he is.

This makes his strikeouts in love just as weirdly poignant as his confrontations with unlikely assassins -- including a viciously intoxicated teen queen, a batty old lady with a shopping cart, and a crooner with a handlebar moustache.

Of course, famed director Goichi Suda's savvy act of holding up a mirror to his audience and his industry might just be a bit of forgettable cleverness if not for how brilliantly it uses its controls.

No More Heroes is that rare title that aptly leverages the Wii remote appropriately at every madly joyful, blood-spurting, coin-jangling turn.

3. LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule, PS3)

What is perhaps most surprising about LittleBigPlanet is that it lived up to the creative promise that was initially made (contrast Home, which debuted simultaneously). Anyone really can make whatever they want and share it with the world, and that's crucially important to the appeal, longevity, and landmark status of the game. Anyone can become a designer.

There have been stumbling blocks, but they have mostly been vaulted with finesse: ropey server stability at launch and a black box review process for standards-infringing levels have given way to the free-for-all promised. And while the game has not sold as well in Japan or North America as hoped (we think Europe went better), it has made an impact.

But more importantly, perhaps, and often forgotten when discussing games, is the way LBP so expertly catches the now in the most appealing way. It's a beautiful, inviting, vital, charming land of zeitgeist that defines a new visual, aural, creative language for platformers.

Most importantly, Media Molecule's game finally follows up the Mario aesthetic and ethos with something as aesthetically, conceptually, and socially compelling.

2. World of Goo (2D Boy, Wii Ware/PC)

After leaving their jobs at Electronic Arts, Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel founded development studio 2D Boy (it's just them, and there's not really a physical studio) and spent two years making World of Goo, a physics-driven puzzle game for PC and WiiWare.

The risk paid off -- World of Goo was adored by gamers and the press, and was seen as an inspiring indie success story in a year that has not wanted for inspiring indie success stories.

World of Goo works by marrying gameplay that is outwardly simple in scope with an underlying physics system that allows for solutions to challenges that are neither random nor overly restrictive in approach -- a rarity in the puzzle genre. And it's all wrapped in a clean, coherent visual theme and accompanied by a lovingly handmade score that is epic and nutty in equal measure.

1. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)

Perhaps the greatest argument to date that games are about more than wish fulfillment -- for who'd wish to be a vault exile in an expansive, exhausting wasteland? And yet Bethesda's vision of the American dream languishing in nuclear post-apocalypse is as compelling as it is haunting.

The bar was high for Bethesda after the much-vaunted Oblivion, lauded for its freedom of choice -- and Fallout 3 topped it, offering an unprecedentedly exhausting array of options and a rarely-seen level of subtlety.

There's just so much to do and see that Fallout 3 becomes that rare game that asks the player to wonder what life would feel like in such ruthless circumstances, offering an impressive level of immersion and placing the burden of careful thought -- and, sometimes, emotion -- behind every tactical selection and progression decision.

Despite its flaws, the larger swath of experiences to be had throughout dwarfs the main storyline, and the vast wasteland begs to be lived in.

Staff Picks

The individual staff of Gamasutra and its sister publication, Game Developer magazine, each chose our personal favorite titles that didn't make our team top 10.

Leigh Alexander (News Director, Gamasutra)

Metal Gear Solid 4 (Konami, PS3) Tying up all those loose ends was a feat in and of itself, while so many moments of gameplay brilliance went overlooked because of the format.

PixelJunk Eden (Q Games, PS3) Compelling, frustrating, utterly satisfying audiovisual genius.

Chrono Trigger DS (Square Enix, DS) The RPG genre's most venerated installment gets perhaps the best remake ever seen on DS.

Eric Caoili (Associate News Editor, Gamasutra)

Space Invaders Extreme (Taito/Gulti, DS/PSP) An arcade classic with new mechanics, new audio and visuals, and new life breathed into it.

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (Chunsoft, DS) Only for gamers who love a challenge, Shiren the Wanderer is the finest Eastern-developed roguelike, finally brought to the West after 13 years of dungeon crawling in Japan.

I Wish I Were The Moon (Daniel Benmergui, Flash) "I still look for her as soon as the first sliver appears in the sky, and the more it waxes, the more clearly I imagine I can see her..." from Italo Calvino's "The Distance of the Moon," the short story that inspired I Wish I Were The Moon.

Simon Carless (Publisher, Gamasutra)

Fable II (Lionhead, Xbox 360) A wonderfully realized living game world, with plenty of quirks, but even more heart.

N+ (Metanet/Slick, Xbox 360) Delightfully pixel-perfect retro action, with super-addictive online scoreboards.

Pure (Black Rock, Xbox 360/PS3/PC) Marauding into the ATV-drivin' genre and showing its predecessors the super-addictive gameplay they missed.

Jeffrey Fleming (Production Editor, Game Developer magazine)

Korg DS-10 Synthesizer (AQ Interactive, DS) Cheaper and more powerful than the original all-analog Korg MS-10 (circa 1978) and thankfully free from any "gameplay".

Lost Odyssey (Mistwalker, Xbox 360) Delivers the same shivering intermingling of wonderment and melancholy that we remember from the old days without pandering to childish nostalgia.

Siren: Blood Curse (SCE Japan, PS3) The reduced difficulty level and Americanized presentation of Blood Curse makes it easier for the uninitiated to discover what the rest of us already know: Siren is the raw horror of seeing our own tangled neural pathways externalized.

Christian Nutt (Features Editor, Gamasutra):

Yakuza 2 (Sega, PS2) The underrated and overlooked gem of Sega's current development efforts returns with another compellingly adult and sophisticated tale -- with visceral punchy-kicky and unmatched verisimilitude, particularly for a PS2 title.

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (Square Enix, PSP) You say fan service, we say "brand extension done right" -- a compelling prelude to the original game, and, perhaps more importantly, gameplay design that's perfectly tailored to the PSP platform.

Gears of War 2 (Epic, Xbox 360) More of the same? More or less. Expanded in scope, and with expert polish and great gusto, boldly reminding us the value of dialing in your focus and embellishing only what you know you can get right.

Chris Remo (Editor At Large, Gamasutra)

Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal, Xbox 360/PS3/PC) Its gameplay can be unfriendly at times, but Far Cry 2's design is appealingly risky, and the experience pays off player investment in spades.

Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar North, Xbox 360/PS3/PC) It's not revolutionary after its last-gen predecessors, but Rockstar North's latest provided plenty of sandbox fun, a compelling plot, and heroic attention to detail.

Sins of a Solar Empire (Ironclad Games, PC) With its debut effort, Ironclad successfully balanced RTS and 4X gameplay to make a game that is both of massive scale and eminently playable -- no mean feat.

Brandon Sheffield (Editor-in-Chief, Game Developer magazine)

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin (Nintendo, DS) Slickly presented, this iteration finally took its audience into account, aged up a few years and maintained the same precise gameplay -- with a hint of luck -- that the series is known for.

Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix (Backbone, Xbox 360/PS3) Unattractive looks aside, the heart of SSFIIT is beating stronger than ever.

Mortal Kombat Vs DC Universe (Midway, Xbox 360/PS3) I never considered Mortal Kombat a "real" fighting series, but the system differentiates from existing 2D-oriented fighter -- and this game in particular emphasizes arcade-style fun over everything else.

[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: The Chore Persona

With Xmas Day rapidly approaching, I hope GameSetWatch readers have worked out if they're naughty or nice in time for the presents to arrived (or not, as the case may be!)

Luckily, here's some link-based presents to help you out, including some good Id and Quake history posts, a Persona 4 critique, inside LittleBigPlanet, too much game design documentation, the awesomeness of Chore Wars, and more.

In the hangar:

Daniel Primed:: Gaming Analysis, Critique and Culture » Quake and the Feeling of Nightmare
An excellent design analysis of Quake, also teamed up with an early history of id that's well worth reading.

Crispy Gamer - Feature: A Kiss on the Blips
Another excellent write-up of the New York chiptune scene's mega-fest.

The Brainy Gamer: You're not the boss of me
Some nifty Michael Abbott writing on Persona 4: 'If you're willing to accept the game on its own terms and allow it to define itself in its own way, you are in for a rich and stimulating RPG experience that will dispel the bad taste that some recent JRPGs may have left in your mouth.'

chewing pixels » UGC: Restoring our Sense of Wonder?
Simon Parkin on LittleBigPlanet: 'Now we’re a few weeks post the game’s release, I thought I’d survey the most popular UGC levels, not in terms of in-game downloads, but rather in terms of viral interest on the internet, to see if there are any common characteristics that have driven their popularity.'

Avant Game: I am on a ninja quest (to clean my apartment)
Jane McGonigal recommends Chore Wars, which appears to be a website where you gain XP by doing real-life chores - conceptually adorable.

My Uncle’s Box Of Pirated Games: Pandora, Floor 13, Conflict | brilli.am/writes
Fun time capsule-like reviews of overlooked Commodore Amiga games: 'Let me be bold for a moment: Pandora deserves to be incredibly important. It delivers what might be the best version of a mystery narrative within a game I’ve ever seen. In a nutshell, the game drops you inside a sentient, evil starship bent on destroying Earth.'

gameslol » Blog Archive » Game Design 101 Rant: Over-Reliance On Documentation
'You can’t design something just by writing 100+ pages about it. Game design isn’t about precisely predefining everything in a set of blueprints like an architect and then building it to spec. It’s a highly dynamic process.' As a (thankfully) ex-designer, I agree completely.

Broken Toys » In Eve, Even The Dupes Are Massive
Fascinating EVE Online exploit - as a commenter points out: 'The exploit basicly makes it so that the starbases that make the components don’t need any resources at all.'

December 23, 2008

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Opposing Goals in Minotaur China Shop

Shot of a minotaur in a china shop['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at goals and immersion in Minotaur China Shop.]

Virtually all digital games provide goals. It's a defining feature of the medium. Even games often described as "toys," such as The Sims or Tamagotchi, provide implicit goals that players can choose between. It's through the pursuit of these goals that players experience challenge and interactivity.

When a goal is difficult to achieve, it creates challenge. A game is interesting because of the challenge, but if a game is too hard, it becomes frustrating. Frustration is the enemy of fun and engagement. It makes players detach from the game, and possibly quit altogether. If a game is too easy, however, it can become boring, which also causes the player to give up. Even worse, different players have different difficulty sweet spots; some players want hard games, and some want easy ones.

There are several solutions to this problem. Selectable or adaptive difficulty allows the player to customize the game, and RPG-like experience mechanics allow the player to adjust their character's strength. However, there is another way to address frustration and boredom: offer more goals to the player, in the form of side quests or alternate play modes. That way, when a player becomes frustrated or bored with one goal, she can switch to another.

Flashbang Studios has taken this one step further. In their latest free web game, Minotaur China Shop, they have created a game mechanic that channels the player's frustration and boredom and uses it to add sympathy for the player character and transition smoothly into an alternative, opposing goal.

Shot of Pegasus requesting a cupCustomer Service

In Minotaur China Shop, the player controls the Minotaur, who has finally achieved his lifelong dream of selling fine china. At first play, the game comes across as a simple time-management simulation, where the player must fulfill orders for china by fetching them from the shelves of the shop. However, the Minotaur can accidentally knock inventory off of the shelves, and lose money from breakage.

The twist comes with the introduction of Minotaur Rage. The more damage the Minotaur causes, the angrier he gets. At a certain rage level, Minotaur Rage Insurance kicks in. Suddenly, the player is compensated for any broken china. The game's goal is flipped on its head, and the player is trying to break things to make money on insurance.

The cleverness in this approach is how the Minotaur's emotions mirror the player's own. The controls are deliberately clumsy, and the player is bound to knock a plate or two off of a shelf eventually. If the player becomes frustrated with the difficulty, she can decide to toss away caution and take out her frustration by breaking things. Instead of giving up on the game due to difficulty, the player channels her rage through her character, turning failure into success.

The concept of an alternate goal that is the opposite of the primary one has appeared before. Katamari Damacy had the fiendish Cow Level, where instead of picking up every object, the player must avoid the great majority of things in the level. Messiah incorporates bodily possession as a primary gameplay mechanic, which allows the player to eliminate a powerful enemy by committing suicide. However, these and similar mechanics don't have the perfect balance of Minotaur's opposing goals.

Minotaur's effectiveness is helped along by the simplicity of the game. The game takes place in a limited space, with simple physics-based gameplay. The player can purchase new moves and attributes, but each of applies directly to the primary goals of caution and damage. These opposing goals could easily lose their impact in a more complex game.

Shot of a very angry MinotaurComplete Destruction

There's a broader lesson to take from Minotaur's design, though. The opposing goals work so well because the gameplay is tied to the feelings of the player and the player character. Developers would do well to consider this tie when developing gameplay. When the interaction method supports the setting and story of the game events, players feel more immersed in the game and identify more strongly with their characters.

In the case of Minotaur, the developers recognized the clumsiness and frustration inherent in their physics-based gameplay, and chose to turn it from an annoyance to a feature. When the player is frustrated with her own ham-handedness, so is the Minotaur. When the Minotaur bursts into a rage, the player feels free to cut loose.

The trick is to identify a possible source of frustration, and embrace the player's feelings by flipping the goal around. If the player is having trouble achieving a certain goal, she might prefer achieving the opposite. Because this transition point between goals is different for each player depending on their preferred difficulty, it's a clever way to resolve the issue of differing player skill.

Best of FingerGaming: From Metal Gear to I Love Katamari

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

This week's notable items in the iPhone gaming space include mobile adaptations for the SimCity and Katamari Damacy franchises, the awaited debut of ngmoco's Rolando, and news of Konami's initial iPhone lineup.

Here are the top stories:

Rolando in App Store
"ngmoco's most ambitious iPhone project to date, Rolando, features interactive environments, physics-based puzzles, and a control setup that takes advantage of the hardware's tilt and multi-touch functions."

Equilibrio Developer Diary 4: Screenshot Day
"I can now say that we're in the last phase of the game’s production. We're polishing text and levels, and improving the overall framerate and pacing of the game. We also pushed a version of the game to the IGF. I hope the judges will enjoy it."

Konami Reveals Four for iPhone, Including Metal Gear, Silent Hill
"Konami has announced four new iPhone and iPod Touch titles, including the mystery Metal Gear Solid release recently teased at developer Kojima Productions' website."

SimCity in App Store
"Resembling the 1998 PC release of SimCity 3000 in looks and function, the new iPhone adaptation of SimCity also boasts its own set of exclusive features and control options."

Toy Bot Diaries Entry 3 in App Store
"IUGO Mobile Entertainment has released the final installment in its Toy Bot Diaries series, Toy Bot Diaries Entry 3. The trilogy's finale promises 'a crescendo of challenges, superb levels and an exciting conclusion,' in which the amnesiac Toy Bot confronts his nemesis War Bot and attempts to save the Earth."

inXile Acquires Fantastic Contraption, Announces iPhone Port
"inXile entertainment announced today that the company has acquired the rights to develop and publish mobile and console editions of the online physics-based construction puzzler Fantastic Contraption. An iPhone adaptation is planned for release "in time for the holiday season," according to inXile's press release."

i Love Katamari in App Store
"i Love Katamari follows up on the franchise’s previous console and mobile offerings with a new accelerometer-controlled twist on Katamari Damacy's unique roll-em-up gameplay."

Opinion: Why Immersion Shouldn't Be The 'Holy Grail'

[Immersive realism may be the "Holy Grail" of game development, but should it be? In this opinion piece, author and designer Lewis Pulsipher argues that most players don't want "role-fulfillment," in support of the idea that strong mechanics -- and even player design awareness -- is a more suitable goal.]

"I think a video game is all about articulating a dream." Mark Meadows, as quoted in Virtual Apprentice Computer Game Designer (p. 7)

"Immersive": "generating a three-dimensional image which appears to surround the user” Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English (second definition)

"Grail": 1. A cup or plate that, according to medieval legend, was used by Jesus at the Last Supper and that later became the object of many chivalrous quests. Also called Holy Grail.
2. often The object of a prolonged endeavor. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

Some well-known game industry professionals, especially those interested in establishing video games as "Art" (with a capital "A"), believe that the goal of game-making is to produce a game so immersive, so "real", that it becomes an equivalent to the Star Trek holodeck or the world ofThe Matrix -- a detailed simulation of reality.

A recent representation of this point of view is Steve Gaynor's 'On Invisibility in Game Design'. If I can characterize his point of view, he feels that gamers should not notice the "hand of the designer," so that the game will feel more real and less like a game -- hence the reference to the designer's "invisibility".

Is this "immersive" separation from reality what all designers should strive for? Absolutely not. While immersion may be a worthy goal to pursue, it is not where most game designers should concentrate their efforts if they want to pursue their profession successfully.

'Role-Fulfillment' Versus 'Rules Emergent'

While role-fulfillment is at one end of a spectrum of game types, at the other end is the "rules-emergent" game, one that doesn’t depend on a story (dream?) for its interest; where the interest comes from the interaction of the mechanics with the player(s), and of the players with one another.

Immersiveness is certainly more attainable with video games than with older non-electronic games, though it is easy to argue that pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons provided make-players-cry immersion long before video games could aspire to it.

Yet most non-electronic games are generally not immersive simulations; not "role-fulfillment", not "articulating a dream". Part of this is the limitations of the medium, but part reflects the purposes of the players.

Such games are often social occasions, and if there’s any immersion, it’s with your friends, not within a dream or alternate reality. Such games may be competitions, to see who can work best within the framework of rules and mechanics, and immersion is irrelevant. In these cases, everyone knows they’re playing a game, and the designer need not feel an urge to be fully "invisible".

Some might suggest that games are "progressing" from the rules emergent tradition of early video games to role-fulfillment. But is that the case? Apparently not from the game buyer’s point of view, at least.

Immersion And The Mainstream Audience

Look at popular Wii games, and at casual games. These are generally rules-emergent games, with no pretense of "immersion". Arguably, Nintendo chose not to compete in the technology-driven "realism" field with the Wii, and most casual games are 2D, not 3D.

The high numbers of buyers and players of these games suggests that a significant proportion of the audience -- if not the majority -- wants to play games, not immersive "simulations".

Put another way, is the immersive simulation (Star Trek Holodeck, Matrix) only the desire of some of the hardcore fans? Shooters may be seen as the poster-child for the immersion Holy Grail: known to be popular with young, hard-core, male players, but less so among older males and female players. [Check the recent Pew Survey, question K14: shooters were played less by teens (males and females not separated by gender) than any of 12 game categories except survival horror games.) ]

The core market's criticism of the Wii reflects the "quest for the Holy Grail" of immersiveness. To hear it told, Wii isn’t "next-Gen" because the hardware isn’t up-to-date, because it’s not “immersive”.

Yet as Steven Levy pointed out (Nov 2008 Wired magazine, p. 114), "the Wii, Guitar Hero, and the iPhone have shown us that we can interact intimately with the digital age without ‘virtual reality’ immersion."

And venerated Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto has said: "we want to entertain people by surprising them . . . we are nothing but entertainers." This certainly doesn’t require "immersion".

While casual games are not generally individual big sellers, some of the Wii casual-style games are. And casual games as a whole are likely to be the growth area in video games, not AAA fare. Why?

It seems there's a significant number of adults who want to play a video game for a while to relax, to have their attention diverted from ordinary life. They don’t want to be immersed in some simulation, some dream-fulfillment–if nothing else, they don’t have the time for it!

Perhaps teenagers and 20-somethings, frustrated with a heavily-monitored existence and (apparent) lack of freedom, want to immerse themselves to escape their frustration, but that’s not the norm for gamers. The hardcore male teenagers and 20-somethings are the most vocal -- but the average video gamer is now older than that, and not overwhelmed with frustration.

Hills First, Mountains Later

Developers deeply committed to making immersive AAA games may not notice all the hills around the very high mountain they’re trying to climb to attain the Holy Grail. Climbing the mountain is a worthy goal, but most video games are in the easier-to-climb hills–-easier for players, and more practical for publishers and developers.

While games may not be recognized as "high Art" until we attain the Grail, profitability and employment for thousands of artists, engineers, and designers depends on games that are good games, not High Art or Ultimate Escape.

From a designer’s point of view, the immersiveness of games ultimately depends on technology and large amounts of money, not on the imagination of the designer. If a designer wants to make highly immersive games and is fortunate enough to work for a company that can afford to pursue that quest, well and good. But most professional game designers do not have the opportunity to make immersive games, or do not want to.

In historical board gaming, a related discussion has gone on for decades, posed as “realistic simulation” of warfare vs. “good playable game”. In general, the most realistic “simulations” (realistic in historical terms, not, of course, in personal immersion) have been poor games.

"Immersion" is an illusion of another reality. The danger with this Holy Grail is that we’ll forget gameplay while trying to improve immersion. Games are games: gameplay, not “Art”, is what counts.

Many of the games that go furthest toward immersion do not offer gameplay that interests the majority of game buyer. They are temporary illusions rather than long-term favorite games.

Let’s not make the mistake of equating escape from reality with fun. Games have been enjoyable for centuries, long before escape from reality was a major design component of any game. Video game designers, most of the time, should concentrate on good gameplay, not on extremes of illusion.

[Dr. Lewis Pulsipher comes from the non-electronic side of game design, and teaches video game design at Fayetteville Technical Community College, NC. His most well-known game, Britannia, is among the games described in Hobby Games: The 100 Best, edited by James Lowder. ]

GameSetLinks: The Strong Saints Bad Row Experience

Wow, we really are edging up on the holiday season, aren't we? Along the way, we've got a bumper set of GameSetLinks to unspool this week, starting out with Chuck Jordan discussing how you tell the player what to do in adventure games - always a bit of a problem, to be honest.

But there's plenty of other good material here, include a silly game publishing brand-skewering from 1UP, a neat analysis of the design complexities of Beatmania, a chat to the inventor of the Speak & Spell, and other eruditions from varied RSS feeds of interest.

Take it away:

Spectre Collie » Blog Archive » Feedback’s a bitch
Telltale's Chuck Jordan discusses Manveer Heir's Design 101 article on Strong Bad for WiiWare, since Jordan helped create the game: 'His main observation is dead-on accurate. Adventure games suck at giving feedback to the player.'

g-mixer . mark cooke . blog: Japanese Saint's Row 2 Commercial
Grasshopper's Cooke points out a truly odd SR2 Japanese commercial: 'I'm not sure what market this advertising appeals to, though I enjoyed it.'

Top 5 Silly Names for Game Brands from 1UP.com
How come there isn't a website trying to do timely game news pastiches, like a more direct Onion-y version of this fun Sharky pastiche on the execrably named Surge? Poochie FTW!

Wired.com: Games Without Frontiers: Why We Need More Torture in Videogames
Clive Thompson: 'I'd like to see games that had more torture — and better torture — in them. In this alarming chapter of American history, they might wind up fueling the best public debate yet.'

Welcome to Special Round: The home version of IIDX 15 is completely absurd
A really interesting game design analysis of Konami's Beatmania and its super-high difficulty levels - I haven't seen it explained as well as this before.

Vintage Computing and Gaming | Archive » VC&G Interview: 30 Years Later, Richard Wiggins Talks Speak & Spell Development
Benj Edwards: 'Thirty years ago last June, Texas Instruments introduced Speak & Spell at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago' - and he managed to find and interview its creator for his always excellent VintageComputing blog.

Game recommendation: 5th Cell's 'Lock's Quest' for DS
5th Cell are helping to judge IGF Mobile, too, and I just checked out this 'Rampart vs. Tower Defense' title, which is one of the unsung DS games of late 2008.

Xemu's Long-Winded Game Industry Ramblings :: Bittersweet
Ensemble's Rob Fermier links to Crispy Gamer's Ensemble coda posts, which are excellent, also sighing: 'In the end I actually spent more time working on games that eventually got killed for MS political reasons than actual shipped products (though punctuated with helping get our other games out the door)'

December 22, 2008

The Best Of 2008: Top 10 Controversies

[Are we done with big sister site Gamasutra's myriad of year-end countdowns, yet? Of course not - this time, News Director Leigh Alexander takes a delighful dig through the controversial moments of the year in gaming.]

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, handheld games and developers.

Next, we'll look at this year's ten biggest controversies, the public issues that fueled the big disputes and blog hits, alongside the industry moments that drew enough attention for their impact to resonate into the coming year:

Video Games and the Music Biz: Who Needs Who More?

Activision CEO Bobby Kotick went to war with words against Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman over whether games like Guitar Hero are helping keep music artists afloat -- or whether the games would sink without the songs.

Bronfman stated that, given that band games depend on their track lists, the amount of royalties the industry pays is "far too small", while Kotick retorted that such comments were not "respectful of how much we’ve done to bring new audiences into the market."

Although the long-term outlook for the popularity of band games continues to be in dispute, it's inarguable that neither party can do without the other. Kotick points out, however, that Activision's Guitar Hero: Aerosmith generated more revenue for the band than any individual Aerosmith album.

LittleBigPlanet's Qur'an Lyrics

Media Molecule said it felt "shellshocked and gutted" when its long-awaited LittleBigPlanet was yanked back just at the cusp of its launch, after audio samples from the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, were discovered in the game's soundtrack.

Many Muslims consider the use of the Qur'an in music to be an offense, although the song's artist Toumani Diabate, a Grammy-winning Muslim himself, explained at length the context for the music.

Case of paranoia? Perhaps, but Muslim groups praised Sony's decision to be extra-respectful, while fans bemoaned the extra days' delay.

Electronic Arts' Bid For Take Two

The great big battle royale for the fate of Take-Two went on all year, through numerous bid renewals, FTC investigations, sports monopoly worries, nondisclosure agreements and, ultimately, a surrender.

The hostile takeover attempt drew the attention of Wall Street because of its similarity to Microsoft's languishing bid for Yahoo!. But it also attracted game fans largely thanks to what EA CEO John Riccitiello calls a "personal narrative" -- the visual of two powerful CEOs who both refused to yield their position.

Even analysts wondered if ego didn't play a role in the power struggle somewhere. The coming year is sure to yield some insight on the wisdom of both companies' positions.

Spore's DRM Debacle

Fans had awaited Will Wright's latest project since 2005. But the launch of Spore was met not so much with discussion of its game mechanics, but with a firestorm of controversy around its digital rights management system.

Those who stood in opposition to the title's comparatively rigid DRM fought back, inundating the game's Amazon listings with negative reviews -- and at one point reducing the title's user rating to a single star.

More importantly, the Spore issue brought to light just how complex the issue of game piracy is. And it increased the urgency on organizations like the PC Gaming Alliance to lead the charge in evaluating how piracy's impact on sales can be measured.

Ultimately, BitTorrent news site TorrentFreak claimed that Spore is the most-pirated game of all time, and armchair analysts speculate that the title was made to receive retribution for its copy protection methods.

Mythic's Crediting Controversy

Mythic Entertainment's drew fire when it was revealed that its new MMO, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning would only credit those staff members currently working at the developer, a move the International Game Developers Association immediately called "disrespectful".

The debate was on -- does providing credits to all employees on a project, regardless of their status, remove their incentive to stay with the company until the project's done?

IGDA chairperson Jennifer MacLean called that assertion "arbitrary, unfair and in some cases even vindictive... they simply don't hold up."

In the end, Mythic emerged as a studio on the forefront of thorough employee crediting. It announced its intention to create an online database that will list the names of all staff members who contribute to its projects. The IGDA's MacLean later apologized to Mythic's Mark Jacobs.

Itagaki Takes On Tecmo

Already a controversial figure in part for his vocal criticisms of other developers' work, Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden creator Tomonobu Itagaki claimed he was entitled to a $1.4 million completion bonus from Tecmo regarding Dead or Alive 4.

Itagaki abruptly resigned and filed suit, which might have prompted others to take on Tecmo. Shortly thereafter, 300 other employees raised a class-action suit against the company for unpaid overtime and an illegal "flexible hours" work scheme. Tecmo has yet to resolve things with Itagaki, but in the meantime, has slapped the vocal developer with a gag order.

"Stop Doing Interviews"

A spat erupted at Activision over the Call of Duty franchise, when, promoting Call of Duty: World at War, publisher-side senior producer Noah Heller was apparently too vocal for some tastes on all the shortfalls of CoD4 that CoD5 would address.

Robert Bowling, community manager at CoD4 developer Infinity Ward, posted a rant on his personal blog entreating Heller to "stop doing interviews," to "promote YOUR game" instead of comparing it to others.

He also pleaded with the media to stop interviewing Heller -- whom he now-famously referred to as "Senior Super Douche" -- and speak instead to the development team at CoD5 developer Treyarch directly.

(This controversy was so pungent that Gamasutra staffer Chris Remo recently used his spare time to set it to music, with delectable results.)

Wilson And Romero Revisit The Past

When Doom creator John Romero referred to former Ion Storm colleague Mike Wilson's work with his venture, the now-defunct Gamecock Media Group, as "jackass stunts," Wilson fired back in an open letter to consumer weblog Kotaku, opening an old argument -- who was responsible for those ill-advised Daikatana ads?

"Unlike you, I didn't get to file a federal trademark for my own personal catch phrase, 'Suck it Down,'" dug Wilson, offering many eyes a look inside the long-running dispute.

The public spat featured fairly gruesome mudslinging from both sides, backhanded snark and lots of public airing of unresolved grievances. Ugly.

Salary Cap Collusion in Montreal?

A former Eidos employee reached out to fellow publishers in Montreal to suggest a "collaboration" to "avoid a bid for higher wages which would only benefit the employee."

That employee, Flavie Tremblay, was allegedly let go from Eidos at that time, and it's still unclear the extent to which any Montreal companies colluded on salary caps, if at all.

But Tremblay, who worked at Ubisoft prior to Eidos, was subsequently re-hired by Ubisoft, and the latest information suggests she still works there. Most parties involved are tight-lipped, but is Tremblay's continued employment an endorsement of her efforts?

ESA Sees Mass Exodus

Throughout the year, the Entertainment Software Association saw a slate of high-profile departures including Activision, Vivendi and LucasArts.

The accompanying discussion suggested big publishers were beginning to question the benefit of the association -- and its E3 event, which has struggled to find its groove amid changes to its formula in recent years.

The publisher departures brought a wave of questions about new president Mike Gallagher's leadership, the function and future of E3, and the cost-benefit equation of ESA memberships that may have prompted the association to announce it would try to return E3 to some of its former glitz and glamor in 2009. Next year will be key for the association to answer some of those lingering questions.

Other Controversies: The PSP 3000's unfixable scan lines, GTA IV's PC release, Activision's Kotick wants franchises with the "potential to be exploited", PEGI vs. BBFC war for UK ratings dominance, Microsoft knew about the Xbox 360's disc-scratching problem, Factor 5 employee reveals studio problems.

[Did we miss anything? What issue do you think stirred the pot the most this year? 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.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 12/20/08

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

wing.jpg

Ho ho ho! Are you in a jolly holiday mood yet? No? Well, neither am I, actually, thanks to looming tax deadlines and the thought of dealing with my entire extended family in a few scant days. But even my hearts' frigid cockles were warmed by the above print ad for Nyko's Wing wireless controller for Wii -- a page almost certainly modeled after NES-era accessory ads, one which gave me flashbacks to the Freedom Stick and the seemingly dozens of controllers Beeshu released. Bravo! (I don't mind the cord on my Classic Controller that much, though...)

This is the last Mag Roundup of the year, and it's a packed one thanks to all the specials and such. Let's see what's out on stands right now...

Electronic Gaming Monthly January 2009 (Podcast)

egm-0901.jpg

Cover: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

I'm not sure I like this cover much. It's blown-up and pixelated, Wolverine's right eye looks like it's glowing, and you can't help but wonder if something a bit less in-yer-face (like the very nice-looking prerender of Wolverine in the table of contents) would have been a preferable choice. Maybe the designers thought that would make EGM look too much like a movie magazine cover-wise, though. It's a balance, eh?

The feature inside is straightforward, to the point, and accompanied by two preview roundups: one covering other superhero games, and another on the lesser-hyped games of '09 to watch. That, alongside a whole bunch of reviews, rounds out the mag. The main highlight, then: the front section, laden with interviews (the LittleBigPlanet guys, the Fable II guys, the Tenchu guys, Metal Gear Solid music guy Norihiko Hibino) and industry think pieces. Worth readin'.

Game Informer January 2009

gi-0901.jpg

Cover: Uncharted 2

Hey, remember what I said a month ago about Game Informer seeming to weather the painful print-mag market pretty well? Never mind! This issue, at 92 pages, is the tiniest GI since the early 90s, and also the first one smaller than the corresponding month's EGM in a fair while. The news section is a bit off its game this month, too -- other than another Fable II postmortem and an interview with the Dead Space guy, it's mostly composed of straight (ie., old) news and "what we'd like to see in X"-type pieces. There's a new column devoted to MMO news, but it's nothing too out-of-the-box content-wise.

The twin hotsclusive features inside are both surprisingly meaty, though, even including an interview with Metallica's Lars Ulrich.

GamePro January 2009

gp-0901.jpg

Cover: Resident Evil 5

GamePro seems to specialize in these sorts of "blow out as much info as possible on a game just before its release" cover features. Even if their shelf lives aren't all that long, they're still fun to read and certainly a must if you're a fan of the game in question. This RE5 piece is no exception, and it's joined by a zombie-game preview feature and a few multipage looks at the rest of Capcom's '09 lineup.

It's a Capcom-heavy issue, no doubt about that, although I was saddened to see 4 pages from Brady's Gears of War II strategy guide in the mag as well -- I thought that era was over with for the mag.

PlayStation: The Official Magazine January 2009

ptom-0901.jpg

Cover: F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin

PTOM's superior design shines through again this issue -- the only one this month with a "Top Games of '09" preview whose design I could reasonably call eye-grabbing without having to cross my fingers behind my back. The virtual-whiteboard treatment they gave Heavy Rain was the standout in my eyes, along with the bloody and extremely red-colored cover feature. Two quick spread features, one on PS3 menu system "secrets" and another on top Rock Band overlooked hits, are also fun and prove that good design can take a throwaway news-section piece and make it into a rockin' couple of pages.

Nintendo Power January 2009

np-0901.jpg

Cover: TMNT

This issue comes with a page of Pokemon Ranger stickers, including a very large one of Riolu which is key to slap on your laptop or notepad if you're a furry, a young girl, or just that awesome.

After that anything else would seem anticlimactic, but NP doesn't do too bad in the followup, with a TMNT feature that's mainly interesting thanks to the fairly big-name Japanese folks on the development team. There's also another GTA Chinatown Wars blowout, another MadWorld blowout (NP is revisiting past cover subjects like mad this issue), a piece on Naoto Ohshima, and so on and so forth.

Sometimes I wonder how Nintendo Power has managed to become the "interview" game magazine in the US, instead of -- say -- a publication devoted to a less mainstream subject than the Wii and DS. Not that I'm complaining, of course. Hell no. I'd rather read this than 2000-era NP, that's for sure.

PC Zone Xmas 2008

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Cover: Star Wars: The Old Republic

Top quote from PC Zone this month: "Let's be honest, freeware games that can hold your attention for more than 15 minutes are as common as hen's tits." Aww, reading it is bliss. They also, you know, review Fallout 3 and a lot of other important Xmas titles. Case you're interested.

Retro Gamer Issue 57

retrogamer57.jpg

Cover: Level 9

Level 9 was a British text-adventure company that, like a lot of other Retro Gamer cover subjects, are well-known and gazed upon with teary eyes by Euro game freaks but are unknown to us meat-eating Americans. A lovely feature inside, nonetheless, though US readers will appreciate the making-of for Alien vs. Predator on the Jaguar far more -- that was one of the system's only high points, after all.

Santa's Cavalcade of Holiday Specials

wiihandbook09.jpg   2009gameguide.jpg

None of the specials this time around are worth major attention, being mostly buyer's guides and cheat handbooks, so I'll gather them up and be succinct. Wii Handbook 2009 is a straight-on hardware introduction and capsule-review compilation; quite nice but nothing too fancy. 2009 Game Guide (done by GamePro, though you won't notice this on the cover unless you look hard) is, as you'd reckon, almost entirely preview content, except for a few review rankings and cheats in the rear of the book.

2009ps3cheatershandbook.jpg   ultimateguidetowho.jpg

2009 PlayStation 3 Cheater's Handbook is from the "maker's" (oh dear) of PTOM and features a few neat strategy features which I assume are from one Future UK title or another, along with a GTA4 "did you know" bit and Teresa Dun answering Soulcalibur IV questions. Beckett Massive Online Gamer Presents the Ultimate Guide to Warhammer Online is as opaque as any other Beckett mag -- at least Future's WHO special had nice art!

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Last and never least is Game Developer's December issue, whose cover story -- basically, a compilation of all the really good "What Went Wrong" sections from previously-published postmortems -- is a blast. Really. A blast. I loved it. I am also soooo glad I am not a game developer.

[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.]

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

Finishing up the weekend with the best of last week's long-form posts on Gamasutra and our other Gamasutra Network site which publishes multi-page features, GameCareerGuide.com, we start off with Christian Nutt's interviews providing a neat tech look at Monolith's (pictured) F.E.A.R 2.

But also in here - Matt Matthews dissecting NPD for November, the latest Game Design Challenge results, sound concepting with Spider-Man, the return of Analyze This for year's end, plus an intriguing student serious game interview.

Here we go:

The Technology of F.E.A.R. 2: An Interview on Engine and AI Development (Gamasutra.com)
"What puts the F.E.A.R into game technologists? This Gamasutra interview with a Monolith duo discusses F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin's tech underpinnings, from workflow to AI and beyond."

Analyze This: Looking Back at the Year in Gaming 2008 (Gamasutra.com)
"Ending the year, Gamasutra's regular 'Analyze This' column sees analysts from OTX, Wedbush Morgan and EEDAR looking back on the hits and misses of 2008, from Wii Fit to Too Human and beyond."

Results from the Game Design Challenge: Cut the Cutscene (GameCareerGuide.com)
"Cutscenes provide an easy way for game designers to tell a part of a story or convey information, but they do it in a way that is not integral to playing games. In a recent game design challenge, we asked you to think of ways to give the same information, but through gameplay rather than a cinematic."

Sound Concepting: Selling the Game, Creating its Auditory Style (Gamasutra.com)
"This audio feature has Shaba's Meyer explaining how sound concepting plays a vital role in a game's creative direction, with real-life examples from Spider Man: Web of Shadows."

Inside the IGF 2009: Sneak Peek at De Menezes International (GameCareerGuide.com)
"In this series of interviews, GameCareerGuide is talking to student game-makers who have submitted projects to the IGF student competition. Here, the students at the IT University of Copenhagen who made De Menezes International talk about the serious game, which deals with the anti-terrorism movement."

NPD: Behind the Numbers, November 2008 (Gamasutra.com)
"In this exclusive analysis, Gamasutra's Matt Matthews looks in-depth at November's NPD U.S. results, revealing the real economic picture, Sony's challenges and much more."

December 21, 2008

Interview: Grasshopper's Suda Talks No More Heroes 2, Time Travel

[Game Developer magazine EIC Brandon Sheffield recently caught up with Grasshopper Manufacture boss Suda51, who has a little of the buzz about him recently, thanks to his new projects - here's a fun interview about No More Heroes and targeting the Western market, among other things.]

Grasshopper Manufacture's always interesting CEO Goichi Suda (aka Suda51) has a lot on his plate, what with No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle slated for 2010 and an untitled EA Partners project in the works with Q Entertainment (Lumines) and eminent designer Shinji Mikami.

His company's visually unique titles like Killer7 and the original No More Heroes have kept Suda and Grasshopper in high demand.

In particular, Marvelous Entertainment noted the studio's growing popularity and published a Nintendo DS remake of Flower, Sun, & Rain, one of its older PS2 games, earlier this year in Japan. Marvelous' U.S. branch plans to bring the game stateside next month.

In this candid interview, Suda talks with Gamasutra about where the No More Heroes sequel is going, why that destination isn't away from the Wii, and what he'd tell himself about Flower, Sun, & Rain if he could go back in time:

When we first spoke, you talked about how you wanted to make an open-world game. No More Heroes is kind of along the path to that. Are you going to take that further into the user sandbox environment with the second game?

Goichi Suda: Yeah, we'll once again manage to do what we want to do with realizing the open world, but expect big changes for No More Heroes 2's open world.

Now that there are no more heroes, what happens from now?

GS: Actually, there are still some heroes left. (laughter)

I thought maybe it should be called No More Heroes More, or Some More Heroes.

GS: We'll probably have to change it as we go ...

Before, Grasshopper developed games one at a time, finishing one and starting the other. Now that you're working on multiple projects, do you have to have a multi-team structure within the company?

GS: Right now, Grasshopper has two development teams. They've been in alignment.

Is it different, having to manage that? I know you have a lot of creative input yourself on all of the projects, so are you having to share directorship with other people and things like that in order to make these two flow?

GS: For No More Heroes 2, I'm going to be credited as executive director. I'm just going to take care of the character script and the scenario, but the director's going to be someone else. We actually have set a director at Grasshopper -- a young one.

Are you going to be grow more in the future, as you work on more projects?

GS: In my mind, the studio would like to keep the team under one of the people.

Each team, or the whole of Grasshopper?

GS: The whole of Grasshopper.

Maintaining smaller sizes probably helps keep a consistent creative vision. What are the things that you feel you still need to accomplish with the No More Heroes universe? You haven't really made sequels before at Grasshopper. What do you feel you still need to get across with that game and style?

GS: The world of No More Heroes should have more parallel stories running at the same time. The evolution of Travis -- I still have some stuff to write about with him and his growth.

So are you anticipating doing that kind of parallel story stuff in No More Heroes 2? Is that possible to do with one character?

GS: In the case of No More Heroes 2, it's just going to be one story again that takes place after No More Heroes 1.

Why target the Wii with this game when there are a lot of action games on the Xbox 360?

GS: One of the main reasons why we're back on Wii is because of the controller. When we released the first one on Wii, you had this feeling just finished with moving the controller; it was really good.

So, if we released it on Xbox 360, for example, we'd have to rethink this feeling. I wanted to keep the game's controller gimmick, so that's why the fighting was more fitting on Wii, rather than on other platforms.

More Japanese companies nowadays seem to be targeting the North American market as the first, primary market. I feel like Grasshopper's games do this as well. Are you specifically targeting North America first?

GS: Yes.

As a company in Japan, how are you going about targeting the Western market first?

GS: First, we check all of those games that set a standard, for example, in the FPS style in the U.S. We always want to make new stuff and new games, and try to create something innovative there, because there's always a market there for people who are tired of playing this style or level.

Would you ever consider doing something like an FPS, in order to gain more of that market? It's kind of flooded right now.

GS: Definitely, if it's for our audience. If we need to make an FPS to get into this market, we will.

I'm curious to know how you feel about Flower, Sun and Rain finally coming out in the West on the DS now. Traditionally, these games come out in sequential order, in terms of when they were released, but in the case of your games, it's more like now that Grasshopper is more popular, some of the older games are able to come out in the West.

What do you think about people now playing games that you made previously? Obviously, you're continuing forward with your game design and creation philosophy. What do you think about people playing the older games now, perhaps not knowing that they're actually older?

I'm just happy about that, because we had these games that were made eight years ago that I couldn't really sell outside of Japan. And now, because I have Killer7 and No More Heroes, and I have some working conditions outside of Japan, too, people are really enjoying this project.

When I developed Flower, Sun, and Rain on the PS2 all those years ago, it was one of the most difficult times at Grasshopper. I would like to jump into a time machine, go back to eight years ago, and tell myself not to worry, and that things were going to be all right, and that we were going to release this title on the DS, too.

But if I told myself that the game was going to be released on a handheld with two screens, I wouldn't believe it. (laughter)

If you're going back, you should convince your old self to patent the idea.

GS: (laughter)

You'll be rich! I actually really liked Flower, Sun, and Rain. None of the characters spoke properly. Actually, I thought my copy was defective, because they had the...

GS: (laughter) Don't worry, because when we released it on the PS2, we got some comments from Japanese users saying, "There's something wrong with my copy. The voices aren't working for me." So it's not just you.

BS: I think it's because it had the subtitles. Do you think that maybe Silver Jiken [PS1 and now DS murder mystery The Silver Case] would come to the West? Many people have said it's one of the top games from Grasshopper, story-wise.

GS: It needs time. Presently, I'm really busy with No More Heroes 2.

I was wondering how having foreign staff was working for you.

GS: It's good. Of course, nothing is perfect. Sometimes we have issues with foreign staff, but we always try to solve and fix them. It's not really a problem of nationality with foreigners. We just have issues with communicating with employees, too.

How important do you find it for them to be able to speak really good Japanese to fit in?

GS: It would make things easier if they could speak decent Japanese, but even if their Japanese isn't great, I can still, to some extent, manage to explain what I want them to do.

Does it help with trying to release games that are targeted to the Western market? I assume it would.

GS: Yeah ... When it comes to designers and programmers, [they bring] some know-how that we didn't have here. Even if [they weren't] here, we'd be trying to think of strategies on how to get into this market, but it would never beat an actual, real foreigner who's coming to the company and doing stuff himself.

Do you consider No More Heroes as a continuing series for you? Will it keep on going, or is 2 it?

GS: That's something I don't really think about -- the future or the sequel. I'm just focusing on each title, so now I'm focusing on No More Heroes 2, and then we're going to see later.

GDC 2009 Announces Molyneux, Harmonix Sessions, Summit Keynotes

[As we wander into the holiday season, our buddies at GDC just announced a lot more interesting lectures for the March event. We'll be covering this more track by track soon, but in the meantime, here's a basic, delicious overview.]

Game Developers Conference organizer Think Services announced several speakers and sessions for next year's GDC event, to be held in San Francisco's Moscone Center from March 23 to 27, 2009.

As part of the Game Design track, Lionhead Studios CEO Peter Molyneux will present 'Lionhead Experiments Revealed', a lecture on a range of experimental ideas and technologies at his company, and how they might might be incorporated into new Lionhead projects.

Other highlighted design sessions include "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Design Lessons Learned from Rock Band" with Harmonix senior designer Dan Teasdale, and "Player's Expression: The Level Design Structure Behind Far Cry 2 and Beyond?" with Ubisoft's Jonathan Morin.

Other notable speakers in the Production track include Maxis producer Caryl Shaw on 'Spore: Fulfilling the Massively-Single Player Promise - How'd We Do?', Bungie producer Allen Murray presenting "a brutally honest look at the evolution of production at Bungie from Halo-s 1 to 3".

In addition, the Business & Management track features Demiurge Studios CEO Bill Reed and studio director Albert Reed on "proven strategies that can help small studios run a stable business in an unstable industry", and a number of other newly announced lectures.

Elsewhere, Electronic Arts' International Development Services VP Jaime Gine will deliver a keynote at GDC09's Localization Summit, while alternate reality game specialist Jane McGonigal will do the same at the conference's IGDA Education Summit.

For more information on the scheduled speakers and sessions, or for details on registering for Game Developers Conference 2009, please visit the event's official site.

COLUMN - Chewing Pixels: 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'

['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin.]

“Wow. This is excellent wine.”

She is exactly right. This is excellent wine.

In fact, that’s not the half of it. This is an excellent restaurant. The excellent food we are about to order will have been cooked from excellent ingredients by an excellent chef and we’ll eat it to the soundtrack of an excellent jazz trio (whose standards we’ll pretend to know by name).

The waiters, perfectly poised between attentiveness and professional detachment will provide us with excellent service. The loud bits of conversation that float over from our neighbours’ tables will be spoken by an excellent clientele, one that brims with that cozy warmth that comes from relaxing in excellent surroundings.

Outside it is cold and slush, a city returning home from a day’s Christmas shopping, shivering and spent in service to capitalism. But inside, here at this table, in this glass, all is peace and excellence.

I am the unknown quantity, the dark spot on the otherwise blemishless potential of the evening. Still, my hope is that, even if my performance is only satisfactory, the excellence of everything else will make this an excellent date nonetheless. This will be an excellent first date, I tell myself again. This will be an excellent first date.

“Yes. It is rather good, isn’t it?”

“So, where did you hear about this place?”

“Oh, er. A friend recommended it to me. Said they do an excellent tuna steak. Um, I mean, I don’t know if you eat fish but…”

“Yes! Fish. Lovely”.

She smiles for a beat, then her gaze retreats into the menu, lips parting as her head bows. Oof. She’s done this before.

We’ve both done this before. This is excellent wine.

“So, I think this is going pretty well...” I remark. We both laugh a bit.

“Yeah. You’re doing good. So, tell me a bit about yourself. Your advert said you like music and films and that you’re friendly, et cetera. All the usual stuff. Not much to go on though. I mean, who doesn’t like films and music? Also, nobody’s going to advertise themselves as a grumpy serial killer with a terrible sense of humour, right?”

“I guess not and you’re right: I don’t know why I wrote that. Blanket tastes are so dull. Like, when you ask someone what music they’re into and they say: ‘Oh, you know, a little of everything!’. I hate that. Saying that you like a little of everything is the same as saying you love nothing at all. I think you have to hate something if you’re to love something else. When it comes to music and films, at least. Possibly ex-girlfriends, too."

“Haha.”

Her eyes twinkle with an agreement that goes beyond mere politeness. She is beautiful. Also: phew. Risk reward and all that.

Then she asks: “So other than dismissing people who don’t polarize their tastes, what‘s your hobby? What do you do to relax?”

Oh God. The question.

I can’t tell her. I won’t blow it all again for the sake of Pacman. Sure, playing games for a living and a pastime makes you a hero to every twelve-year-old boy, but the flipside is harrowing, all encompassing disdain from society at large.

The confused looks at dinner parties, the conversations cut short, the parting shot glances of pity. Not here, not now.

Sure it won’t be like this forever, but at this moment in history, saying you review games is like saying you critique Enid Blyton for a living. You are the boy who never grew up, the man-child who plays with himself (or worse still, with strangers, over the Internet) and for a woman that picture’s never going to be anything but a deeply, deeply unattractive one.

Her mind will race to the future, to when we’re married and she sits neglected, night after night, knitting on the sofa while her husband hunches cross-legged on the floor, barking orders into a headmic. Oh God. There’s me in a headmic. I am wearing a headmic and I am talking to teenagers over the Internet.

Then, the horror of the image fully digested, her mind will race back to the present and she will run far, far away and never look back.

But wait. What if I took the offensive here and, instead of mumbling apologetically into my soup about Mario and Master Chief, stood ground, raised my game and went for a conversion? Games are more than endorphins for tiny victories, right? There’s more to gaming than endless faithful model replicas of AK-47s and racing cars, surely. Where’s my ambition?

OK, let’s see. I need an argument, a pitch, a sell. Survival horror teaches us about how to cope with a scarcity of resources. Yes. That’s good. The Resident Evil series is basically an allegory for our inevitable dystopian future. Mhmm. The zombies represent nuclear meltdown and the intermittent SMG rounds and health packs are our food and clothing.

Hmm. Too much ambition, perhaps. What about MMOs? These giant social experiments teach us on a microcosmic level about our macro characteristics and challenges; they reveal the transient nature of society and the power of community via the medium of strangers coming together to beat on a swamp rat…

Er, what about Desktop Tower Defense, a game that teaches us how to simultaneously juggle the demands of the present and the future? Or Braid, whose four-dimensional puzzles are something that could only have been constructed and presented in a videogame. Surely there’s some merit in uniqueness.

Oh gosh. I am a terrible gaming evangelist. Every time I think I’m onto something my mind’s invaded by Marcus Fenix and his sweaty, homoerotic pecs, by Cloud and his implausible sword and cod-philosophy and, most poignantly, by me, in my pajamas aged nine playing Tetris on the toilet and by me, in my pajamas aged twenty-nine, playing Tetris on the toilet.

Who are we kidding? There's not one Schindler's List amongst our eight thousand Pearl Harbours. We’ve nothing of worth. Even if we do have something to say to the world, I’m not sure we’ve come close to articulating yet.

The band strikes up a melancholy carol.

Silent Night.

She’s looking up expectantly.

Holy night.

Now I don't know what to say.

All is calm.

Here goes.

“Um. I like to play video games”.

“No way! Me too.”

All is bright.

GameSetLinks: The Parallel Peggle Problem

The weekend is upon us, and in between watching slightly dodgy CG whales play volleyball on the reliably chilled Mixmasters DVDs, we're whacking through the latest RSS-impelled GameSetLinks for your reading pleasure.

Some of the notable ones in here - Tuna Technologies on the appeal of Peggle, Matthew Wasteland on the PS3's odd journey, Mark Cooke on Linger In Shadows, a cute Atlus production diary, and other things that seem to fit into our 'smart games writing you maybe didn't see' remit nowadays.

Space invaders smoking:

Serial Missteps on the Parallel Road (Magical Wasteland)
Game Developer mag columnist Matthew Wasteland wanders thigh-deep into the history of the PS3: 'One day, deep in crunch, I finally realized that PlayStation 3 games would be about as good as Xbox 360 games, in the grand scheme of things– that there were more similarities than differences in the two consoles’ relative power for typical video game software.'

g-mixer . mark cooke . blog: The significance of Linger in Shadows
Cooke on Sony's PS3 demo-scene crossover neatness: 'The two significant and unusual things about Linger in Shadows are first, that the group was funded and published by Sony, and that second there are a number of interactive elements in the demo.'

Constance Steinkuehler» Blog Archive » NYT article & funny backstory
Cute piece about stolen credit cards and gamer nerds, and not what you might think.

Tuna Snax Features - Peggle, it's a love hate thing
Intriguing design analysis of PopCap's awesome psychedelic pachinko sim: 'I’m a terrible chess player, but I’m aware of the need to look ahead, and make presumptions about actions and reactions. Peggle is not that different; it’s not a case of firing your ball at a single peg and then letting fate decide the rest, it’s about trying to direct the ball into a series of events that benefit you.'

auntie pixelante › tower re
Anna Anthropy continues to be the premiere anthropologist of the ROM hack subculture: 'Seemingly modelled after the tower that connects the earth and sky of super mario bros. 3’s fifth stage... tower re is organized into twenty floors of abstract platforming.'

Shawn Elliott: Symposium Part One: Review Scores
It's.... long. And much-discussed on the Internet already. But, as an attempt by 2K Boston AP Elliott and an all-star pundit cacophany to work out where things are going, I think it's worth looking at.

Andrew P. Mayer » Blog Archive » The Edges of the Sandbox
An interesting piece on gamers breaking through in-game boundaries: 'Gaming is about turning thoughts into action, and if you’re not keeping them busy with planned entertainments they’ll always find a way to overcome the limits of the system.'

:::: Atlus.com :::: Production Diary fun from a U.S. translator.
Amusingly twisted stuff: 'We don't have to deal with all of the headaches that a project lead has to deal with, so we are pretty stress-free. After translation is finished on one game, we get put on another project, or shred CDs in the warehouse, or dance through the aisles, so work is pretty versatile.' Via NichM.



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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