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January 3, 2009

GameSetNetwork: The Best Of The Week

Time to look at the notable features posted on big sister site Gamasutra and some of our other notable sites such as Game Career Guide this week, headed by a neat PopCap interview with CCO Jason Kapalka - his disdain for hex-based puzzlers is v.cute.

Also in here - our gigantic year end round-up with reader comments, plus that rare interview with Sonic co-creator Yuji Naka about why he left Sega, his new Let's Tap game, and lots more, plus some Game Career Guide design challenge winners and new challenges.

Apple of eye:

Casual Game Design: PopCap's Jason Kapalka and Bejeweled Twist by Brandon Sheffield (Gamasutra.com)
"Seattle's PopCap is heading for $170 million in sales this year, and Gamasutra sits down with CCO Jason Kapalka to examine clones, Bejeweled Twist, and why hex squares in puzzlers are "repellent"."

Gamasutra's Best Of 2008 (Gamasutra.com)
"Ending out 2008, Gamasutra puts together the definitive compilation of our year-end lists, from surprises through game of the year and beyond, with bonus reader feedback."

Yuji Naka On New Beginnings At His Studio, Prope (Gamasutra.com)
"Gamasutra presents a rare interview with Sonic The Hedgehog co-creator Yuji Naka, with the famed designer discussing why he left Sega, his new studio Prope and the innovative Let's Tap."

Results from the Game Design Challenge: Collector's Edition (GameCareerGuide.com)
"One of the most fun jobs a game developer can have (or so we've heard) is to be able to come up with all the goodies in a special collector's edition of a game. If you were in charge of such a task for a Terminator game, what would you put in? We asked, you answered, and the best ideas are featured here."

Ask the Experts: I Do Not ‘Heart' Teamwork (GameCareerGuide.com)
"A reader confesses to the Ask the Experts Advice columnist that she can't stand working on a team. Does this mean she can never work in game development, which relies so heavily on teamwork?"

GameCareerGuide.com's Game Design Challenge: Dress My Sackboy (GameCareerGuide.com)
"Don we now our gay apparel. Sackboy needs a new pair of shoes ... and maybe some new trousers, a hat, and an ascot, too! For this Game Design Challenge, design some new clothes for the beloved LittleBigPlanet character. How outlandish, imaginative, or thematic can your designs be?"

2008 In Games, July-Sept: Major Deals, Xbox Steals, EA Yields

[Since 2009 has only just begun, big sister site Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander has been doing a gigantic round-up of the top game news of the year, as we reported them - and we're reprinting here for GSW readers' inevitably micro-nostalgic reactions. We've now made it to July to September, hurray.]

As 2009 starts out, Gamasutra has been reflecting on the year's major stories, one quarter at a time.

Into the new year, we'll be rounding up a news summary aimed at providing a solid look back on 2008's memorable events.

Following our round-up of January to March and April to June, we look at July through September 2008.

This packed quarter that saw a couple of large announcements from a very sparse E3, one successful merger (and one major failed one), some significant publishing deals, and the high-profile disbarment of controversial attorney Jack Thompson:

July 2008

Electronic Arts' partnership with Hasbro produced their own official Scrabble game, which would prove to have legal implications for popular Facebook Scrabble clone Scrabulous. In other Web issues, Google announced it was throwing its hat into the online worlds ring with Lively, an effort that would prove short-lived.

Those weren't the only eyes shifting Web-ward, as a matter of fact; The Witcher creator CD-Projekt launched its Good Old Games online portal for DRM-free classics.

2008's muted E3 Business Summit got a tepid reception, and the scaled-down show had few major announcements of note were made there, but there were a couple of kickers. Electronic Arts revealed it was partnering with id Software to publish the Doom and Quake creator's next game, Rage, via its EA Partners label. John Carmack talked about overcoming "outdated prejudices" to sign the deal with EA.

Even more spectacularly, Square Enix apparently also overcame its old allegiances with the biggest surprise to come out of E3: Final Fantasy XIII would release on Xbox 360 in the U.S.

August 2008

Following a summer plagued by questions about the Entertainment Software Association's usefulness amid publisher exits and a widely-criticized E3, the ESA went to bat against the state of California regarding its unconstitutional anti-game law. The ESA collected some $282,794 in attorneys fees from the state once the law was overturned.

Problems continued for Midway, as its losses continued to mount. Several high-ranking employees, including Chicago studio head Mike Bilder and marketing VP Mona Hamilton, resigned from the company.

Elsewhere, GameTap parent Turner revealed its wish to pull out of the subscription gaming space, as the company said it was seeking a buyer for its GameTap digital distribution service.

Struggles in the Austin development scene also became evident with layoffs at NCsoft's offices there and significant" staff reductions at Midway Austin.

EA Partners continued its high-profile streak with the announcement of a Grasshopper Manufacture publishing relationship for a horror title produced by Resident Evil's Shinji Mikami -- alongside a publishing deal with Epic for a new multiplatform title by Painkiller devs People Can Fly.

As for its ongoing Take-Two acquisition bid, EA finally let the long-standing, oft-renewed offer lapse. This move was in order to talk behind closed doors with Take-Two and hash things out, as the FTC gave the increasingly unlikely merger the thumbs-up.

Microsoft began to gain some much-needed traction in Japan with the release of Tales of Vesperia, which sold out console stock across the nation. The company would soon follow up in the beginning of September with a price cut for Japan -- a prelude to U.S. reductions.

September 2008

Just a few days after the Japanese price reductions, Microsoft applied similar reductions across all of its SKUs in North America, which meant its family-oriented Arcade SKU was now less expensive than the Wii.

The move would prove to be a major boon to the company, as the economic downturn spread potential shadows ahead of the key holiday shopping season.

Tecmo settled the overtime lawsuit brought by some of its employees earlier in the year, and revealed itself to be in merger talks with Koei -- snubbing a bid from Square Enix, in favor of joining with a company closer to its own size and philosophy.

This month also saw the news that, after nearly a year's worth of attempts, there would be no EA-Take-Two merger after all. After examining Take-Two's due diligence and failing to negotiate for an agreeable per-share price, EA at last surrendered on a quiet Sunday evening just before the Austin Game Developers Conference kicked off.

During the event itself, three principal devs on the Metroid Prime series revealed they had formed a new studio, Armature, and scored a publishing deal with EA.

Toward the end of the month, longtime anti-game attorney Jack Thompson, a wildly popular target for controversy, was permanently disbarred by the Florida courts largely as penalty for his barrage of illustrated correspondence to the court and his general conduct.

[Stay tuned for the year-ending game business news summary, spanning October to December.]

GameSetLinks: The Fl0wer Of My Eye

[GameSetLinks is GameSetWatch's daily link round-up post, culling from hundreds of weblogs and outlets to compile the most interesting longform writing, links, and criticism on the art and culture of video games.]

Time for a few more GameSetLinks in the cold light of January, then, and we're rounding up some of the year end countdowns (Japanmanship, Andy Schatz!) that we missed, alongside other notable pieces.

There's also a new preview of Fl0wer, hence the pretty picture or the floating petals - and as far as I'm concerned, the more Zen-ish gaming, the better, hurrah.

Links links links:

Japanmanship: 2008 Japanmanship Awards Listpost
'The awards I'm dishing out today are the "Japanmanship Nugatories", recipients of which get exactly nothing other than a mention on a middling-to-irrelevant blog.'

Hit Self-Destruct: In The Future We Will Play, Part I: Indiana
Incredibly good, detailed piece on The Brainy Gamer's Michael Abbott and his work about the culture of games - here's part 2.

8bitrocket:Merry Christmas: A Stocking full of guilt free and legal retro game roms
A nice round-up, here: 'While I am fully aware of all the places you can obtain nefarious copies of all the best retro games in digitized disk or rom format, but I also know of a great big stocking full of free and legal games that will blow your mind.'

Flower Preview for the PS3 from 1UP.com
Neat Kellee Santiago interview: 'It's as though the dreams in Flower occur in an imaginary place in which flowers make music, and the environment around you is singing.'

Ton of Clay: TA-ncient History #11: Ganz Vernichtung!
DeathSpank's Clayton Kauzlaric on localizing Total Annihilation. And it's actually fascinating, too!

Top Ten Indie Stories of 2008 | Pocketwatch Games
Andy Schatz, who made Venture Arctic and co-presents the IGF Awards for us, counts the indie game trends of 2008 down in style.

January 2, 2009

COLUMN: @Play: Cause For Incursion

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. This time, a look at the roguelike Incursion with a side trip into Vancian Magic.]

This column has been requested in comments several times now. While not one of the better-known in its genre, the freeware roguelike Incursion seems to have a fairly rabid community, and examination shows it to have some rather addictive play, a good attention to detail, and one of the most "realistic" dungeons yet seen in the genre..

incurtitle.png (To clarify something I see as important.... In this column I refer to the game as "Incursion," because it seems to me to be the best thing to call it. It is projected, however, that this game is actually a prototype for an even-more-ambitious roguelike, which will be called "Incursion: Return of the Forsaken.")

For starters, Incursion is the only roguelike of which I'm aware which follows D&D 3rd Edition rules. Well technically that's "Open Gaming License" rules, the format by which Wizards of the Coast, custodians of the D&D brand, made them available for others to build their own products off of.

Of course, most roguelike games have always been based off of Dungeons & Dragons, though usually a much simpler, older version and not "officially." 3rd ed. D&D does have its interesting aspects that lend interest to such a game, and there is nothing in the third edition rules that prevents it from being used in an old-school, roguelike dungeon-crawling context.

incurdie.pngThe basic premise itself is fairly ordinary, go-to-this-level and defeat-this-monster. The fun comes from the journey. The random dungeon is perhaps the most complex yet seen in a roguelike; nearly every room is special in some way, and the game even prints descriptions the first time a type is encountered.

There are non-rectangular rooms, caverns, partitioned rooms, complexes of rooms, summoning rooms, polytheistic temples, flooded rooms, frozen-over rooms, and lots of other types too. Roguelike dungeons tend to be interesting mostly for the shapes of the terrain they produce more than the actual places; the plethora of special types is a great innovation, and does a lot to flesh out the game's sense of place.

Another thing about it is that Incursion's dungeon, unlike the dungeon in every other roguelike I'm aware of, is spatially-consistent in its levels. If you go downstairs, travel 30 spaces north-east to an upstairs, then climb them, you'll be back on the previous level 30 spaces north-east of the original downstairs. This may seem like a minor thing, but it's almost unheard-of in this field, and can be surprisingly difficult to implement when dungeon levels are generated on demand instead of all at once.

(Think about this: what would happen if the player found a way to explore the levels out of order, and after going down from 1 to 3 then returning to two, two sets of stairs needed to be generated on the same space?) Chasms, too, may extend through multiple levels, so falling into a crevasse on level three could send the player deeper than level 4, in a realistic way.

incurdesc.pngInexpensive Timeshares Now Available in the Caves of Carnage

The game uses a unique, for roguelikes at least, expedition paradigm for trips into the caves. Lots of roguelikes treat the entering of the dungeon as something that must be done only once for a character. Hack, Nethack and Crawl all call the adventure completely over when the player goes upstairs from level one. (Players who escape with one of Nethack's "plastic imitations of the Amulet of Yendor" rue this feature.)

Original D&D, the version of that game that roguelikes take the most after, allowed for trips to town to rest up and restock provisions. The three games listed are all designed around not allowing for such trips, which is further proof that roguelikes are not necessarily mere D&D recreations.

But the other major roguelikes that do allow leaving the dungeon without ceasing play (Angband, town level; ADOM, overworld) do it by effectively making those areas also part of its "dungeon." They're not safe havens at all. ADOM's overworld in particular is often more dangerous than the early dungeon levels. In Incursion, the player can leave the dungeon and rest up in town, tackling the caverns afresh after a stay in the inn. This gives low-level players the ability to use the level one upstair as a base of operations, an interesting dynamic for one of these games.

Missing Fingers Surprisingly Reluctant to Grow Back

The regaining of hit points are handled differently from roguelike norm as well. Healing in roguelikes has always been kind of iffy, from a realism standpoint, a way to keep up the pace of the game. Even Conan couldn't go from almost dead to unhurt in the space of what amounts to a couple of hours, but most roguelike players do it regularly. But then, the only major game that doesn't, ADOM, goes maybe too far in the other direction.

incurmap1.pngIncursion's hit system takes after traditional D&D, and it works fairly well. No hit points are regained just from passing turns, but the player can regain them all by using a rest command ("z"). Resting restores all the player's hits and magic. It is balanced by it using a lot of food (about half of a full stomach) and because resting in the dungeon provides a chance to get attacked by wandering monsters, giving them free hits at the player at his most vulnerable.

The ability to leave the dungeon to rest, and the presence of safe zones further down, pulls the balance back into a reasonable zone. This means that food limits provide more of a barrier to resting than turn count. Resting in the Inn does cost food; they provide room but not board, it seems.

Not Exactly a DM's Guide Put Through a Compiler....

While the game covers the spirit, and often the letter, of D&D Third Edition rules fairly well, it knows when it's best to depart from them. The need to identify stuff, dating to D&D's earliest days, is close but not quite the system used in Rogue. In this, Incursion follows D&D in item generation probabilities but Rogue in its general magic stuff, which is to say that magic items are related according to their descriptions. (Stock D&D purposely includes bad items that exactly resemble good items.) I haven't noticed any particularly bad items in my playing, but there do seem to be a good variety of things.

Another place where the game leans away from 3rd Edition is in eschewing Vancian magic, the memorize-cast-forget cycle spellcasters in D&D have long used. This isn't meant to imply that this couldn't work in a roguelike game, at least if that game had spells that mirrored their use in the fantasy novels they were inspired by (Jack Vance's Dying Earth), but it might require more of a rethinking of roguelike concepts than one might expect. (More on this matter is left, for interested readers, for the end of this column.)

Treasure finds tend to follow the traditional D&D model. In roguelikes, items are something that randomly appears on the floor. Incursion has some of those, but most good treasure seems to be found in chests, in the possession of monsters (who know how to use them), or, later, in vaults.

The result is that the player must typically defeat a monster to gain loot instead of just happen upon it, a change that could be called slightly more realistic, if trapising your enchanted elf around throwing fireballs at cave pelicans isn't realistic enough for you. (Yes, cave pelicans, their feathers black as night, their floppy bills filled and dripping with the blood of the innocent.)

incurmap2.png15 Minutes to Roll Up, 5 Minute Life Expectancy

One of the biggest... well, let's not call it faults but annoyances, is how excruciatingly long character creation can be. This is the place where adherence to 3rd edition D&D harms Incursion the most; while characters are lots faster to roll up than 2nd edition AD&D, maybe even 1st edition, the options do take many minutes simply to sift through, while Rogue, Nethack and Crawl characters are running seconds after they are invoked.

It should be said, however, that Incursion offers a way around this start-up time, by offering the chance to start over from scratch with the last character generated. (This could be abused mind; a player beginning with unusually good character stats could potentially keep them forever with this system.)

The game includes an autoroller that attempts to find good stats for your character, but stats are determined after race and class, and the autoroller appears not to take either into account when rolling. This sometimes results, for instance, in choosing to play a mage but then having to go with a score of 15 for Intelligence.

Neither is character creation easy to abort at this point. The game's solution is to offer the opportunity to switch to a point-buying system, which can be found annoying for its own reasons. These problems are far from a deal-breaker with Incursion, but they are a little head-scratching.

Another bizarre aspect of character generation in this game: it doesn't allow the player to decide on his name. I don't consider this to be a great drawback (I'd probably just name him "Rodney" again), but some people might be taken aback by this. Anyway, it's another strange decision. Of course, many computer RPGs don't allow players to name their characters at all, but among roguelike, which are among the most simulationist of all fantasy games, it's highly unusual.

incurplay1.png"The key does not fit that horse!"

One of the most frustrating things about it is that the interface has been changed just enough from roguelike standards to bring the learning curve back to old-hand roguelikers. It may first seem a positive thing that the game doesn't rely on a bunch of shifted, ctrl-ed, even alt-ed key combinations to access commands, but the solution arrived upon takes a bit of getting used to.

The worst example I encountered: the 'm' command to cast magic makes it easy for a Paladin to find the "Mount" spell to begin riding, but dismounting requires first pressing the 'y' key, then finding which one of the 63 options provided will do the trick. Some other class abilities are hidden under another menu brought up by the 'u' key. Some commands, such as buying things in a shop, are harder to abort than they should be. (The standard is to always allow Esc to return from a menu selection at any time.) And the equipment and container management functions take more than a little getting used to.

As the game stands, there are still a good number of unimplemented abilities that are present in the game but don't actually do anything. The game does mention some of these in the ability descriptions when characters are created, but they aren't marked as useless on the selection screen itself, and it's disheartening to see some wonderful power listed only to be told, effectively, "never mind" when it's highlighted.

"Congratulations, mortal! You have won thBRRGG^^&#-GENERAL PROTECTION FAULT AT $0CFF3E"

The worst thing though, which should thankfully be temporary. is that the game is still alpha software and has lots of bugs. A list of these (some with workarounds) can be found here, and is essential reading.

Unfortunately, Incursion's development pace has slowed considerably in recent months. The game autosaves often but the save code itself is a bit buggy, and an autosave crash killed my first decent game. The game does keep a backup of the previous save, thankfully.

The game's balance could also use a little work. As an example, here's how that first decent game ended. The furtherest I've ever gotten is a dwarf paladin who got to experience level three. He was bopping along okay when he encounters a hostile human priest. After smacking him about a bit, he began to flee. Okay by me, I smack him again and am told, in purple letters, "You feel guilty!"

Evidently this is a result of either being a paladin or lawful good alignment, but the guy had already summoned a water elementals so it seemed a good idea to take care of him now. (Previously, I had spared monsters when asked "Attack fleeing opponent?", with the result that, the next trip into the dungeon, they once again tried to take a piece out of me. A lizardman chieftain went through this cycle four times by the time I offed him before he began to flee.)

incurshop.pngIn any case, the attack doesn't kill the human priest, but something weird happened in the fight that I missed in the flurry of messages. (Incursion does love to throw messages at the player.) As a result, several turns afterwards, my used items started disintegrating, with no explanation as to why. Ring of Good Fortune +2? Poof. Eventually my weapon crumbled as well, and Incursion has a horrible mis-feature that, if you aren't wielding a weapon, you will be told every turn, in a red-bordered box that must be dismissed, "You are empty-handed!" Over and over again, until you wield something.

I switched to my backup weapon... and it disintegrated a few turns after. Nothing left to wield, I was faced with a long trek through the caverns looking for something to hold in my hand in order to stop the box from appearing, which would probably itself disintegrate a few turns afterwards. I quit the game soon after.

As roguelike games get more ambitious, they get longer. As they get longer, the sense of loss when the player dies increases. As that happens, the player gets more likely to quit forever out of frustration. Designers, seeing this, make the game easier, which removes the challenge, the whole reason for playing a roguelike game in the first place.

To Incursion's credit, it seems to recognize this. While its premise as a D&D 3rd Edition roguelike imposes an unavoidable complexity to startup time, the ability to use "reincarnated" characters cuts down on this drastically. The dungeon is unusually atmospheric for a roguelike, and the array of treasure and opponents seems to be above average. While there are problems to be found, some serious, we have every reason to think they will eventually be fixed. Incursion, and its expanded sequel should that ever see our hard drives, are unquestionably games to keep an eye on.

Incursion: Halls of the Goblin King homepage
The game has a wiki here.
On the wiki is an HTML version of the game's manual. On there is a section of tips for players of other roguelikes, which may offer some useful tips to @Play readers.
Additionally, the FAQ page on the Wiki makes for interesting reading. For example: apparently, many of the skills the player can learn have special applications. The Climb skill, it turns out, can be used to scale crevasses and cross lakes and lava by crawling along ceilings!

Supplemental: What is Vancian Magic, and how does it apply to Dungeons & Dragons and/or roguelikes?

Gary Gygax was widely read in the literature of fantasy, especially pulp fantasy such as H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, and Dungeons & Dragons drew from an astonishing array of sources. Lots of people have remarked that the games borrowed heavily from Tolkien, but it should be noted that most of those borrowings were superficial. The game borrows some items and races, the Ranger class is pretty much a direct carry-over, and there are a few other things.

But the mood of the game is antithetical both to Tolkien's world and worldview. Dungeons & Dragons characters (and roguelike characters too), in their original form, are all adventuring rogues. The thief class wasn't introduced until the first supplement of the original books, probably because it hadn't occurred to Gygax and Arneson to codify that role into a character class. Why? Because all characters were thieves! They're venturing into dark tombs in order to take treasure away from those who currently own it. What else could they be?

incurmap3.pngAnother strange thing about the old days of D&D is the way that wizards used their magic. Few wizards in fantasy literature are able to call upon their powers without limit. Even Gandalf became fatigued if he sent out too many fireballs.

The simplest way to simulate a limited resource is to assign a number to it, one that goes down when expended, and refilled when refreshed. Hit points are the most obvious example of this, an abstraction of damage that makes little realistic sense, but has become so pervasive that few people question it. (Aside: popular fantasy game Dwarf Fortress does question it, and its developer Tarn Adams has some quite pointed things to say on the subject.)

Most RPGs, roguelikes included, also use a straight number to simulate access to reserves of magic power, presenting them as either "MP" or "PP." But this is innovation; Dungeons & Dragons did not use such a concept. Instead, it took the opportunity to add in yet another flavorful borrowing from fantasy literature, a magic system inspired by Jack Vance's Dying Earth books, and thus most-often called Vancian Magic.

It is a decision that has caused many gamers who have not read those books to scratch their heads; it seems like such a complicated way to do things. What a player would most like to do is allow his wizard to draw upon a fireball spell whenever he wants, to the limit of his store of power.

Instead, what he must do is decide, at the beginning of each day, what spells he wants to carry around with him and memorize those. He can memorize multiple copies of a spell, but if he hasn't memorized it, even if he has the spell written down in his personal spellbook, he can't make use of it. And when a spell is cast, that copy vanishes from memory.

The result is, if a player gets poisoned but the mage hasn't memorized Slow Poison, then it's as if the spell was never known in the first place. A D&D party may end up encountering all manner of strange things in a dungeon. A wizard must be able to anticipate what kinds of dangers he will encounter that day if he's to make a good choice on which spells to take with him, and sometimes he just won't have the right thing handy.

The spell Feather Fall is great if the player falls into a deep pit, but who, waking up in the morning, says to himself, "I think I'll plummet into a hole today. Better take that one along!" It doesn't help that low-level characters have a pitifully small number of spells to choose from; unless he receives a bonus from somewhere, a first-level magic user can only remember one spell at a time! Bonus spells, thus, are highly sought-after by players of novice wizards.

Compounding this is the fact that, by a good margin, wizards are physically the weakest characters in D&D. The least likely to have good constitution scores, the type most restricted in armor and the least proficient in weapons. The most hit points a wizard can start with, assuming no Con bonus, is 4. 25% of the time, they'll have just one. Magic is their trick, the whole reason to play a wizard. So to be useful in combat, that most common activity of adventuring parties, a first-level wizard can't take any of those utility spells that only might come in handy; it'll probably be good ol' Magic Missile, once again.

incurweapon.pngLots of players, over the years, have wondered what kind of bizarre design point Gygax was trying to make with this. Mages do become the most powerful characters in D&D at high levels, but at low levels keeping them alive was extremely difficult, although keep in mind, no character had a great chance of survival in the early days. There was a strong sense that a powerful wizard was the reward for a player that had "paid his dues," surviving with such a weakling for so long.

The answer snaps into focus, however, once one reads The Dying Earth. Gygax must have been entranced by this vision of magic. But Vance's magicians are anything but weaklings: they are potent individuals, some with formidable physical skills. Your choice of class in D&D, unless you multiclassed which carried its own drawbacks and didn't exist until AD&D 1st edition, precludes having many hit points or the use of protective equipment. Vance's creations would not be so restricted.

In the original D&D books, the only real restriction on wizards in combat is having to go without armor. They receive the same hit points as the other classes (d6), and are capable is wielding weapons just like any other character, and all weapons do d6 damage anyway. Even if they were restricted in choice of arms they'd be just as effective in straight battle as a Fighting Man. Only the lack of armor restricts them from participating directly in fights, and in D&D armor reduces the chance of being hit, not the damage done, so most characters will probably die from damage unless they take great pains to avoid it anyway.

incurdocs.pngSo what does this have to do with roguelikes? They present a generalized dungeon, randomly created. A roguelike adventurer has little chance to determine the nature of the areas he'll enter in a day, and just as little control.

A Vancian magic-user would be forced to make due only with general-purpose spells. (If the game is larger than a single dungeon, maybe with branches or an overworld, then this is less onerous.) Also, a physically fragile character (such as most roguelike wizards are) will have to make up for his weakness with combat magic to have a hope of surviving; as noted above, if the character can do things other than just magic then this is much less of a problem.

But in the case of a hypothetical, default roguelike, as monsters get stronger, wizard combat ability wouldn't keep pace, so combat magic would be the overridingly most-memorized spell. Most other magic would simply lie unused.

For these reasons, it's probably for the best that Incursion goes with a point system rather than Vancian magic. But it's difficult to read through They Dying Earth and not feel, like Gygax must have, that this is a system that would be marvelous to play in a game. If it's to be a roguelike game, however, then great care must be taken as to its implications.

I am indebted to Jeff's Gameblog for his remarks on D&D's Vancian magic system, and for cluing me in to the Dying Earth books.

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of January 2

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 Planet Moon Studios, Microsoft Game Studios, and Blizzard Entertainment.

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

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

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

Gamasutra.com - Game Industry Jobs

Planet Moon Studios: Senior Game Programmer
"Planet Moon Studios, a leading developer of original videogames (MDK, Giants: Citizen Kabuto, Armed & Dangerous, Infected, Smarty Pants, Battle of the Bands) since 1997, is seeking a Senior Programmer for the development of cutting edge next-gen games paired with top-tier publishing partners."

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

Blizzard Entertainment: Lead 3D Character Artist - World of Warcraft
"Blizzard Entertainment is looking for an exceptionally skilled lead 3D character artist to work on the award-winning World of Warcraft. The ideal candidate has extensive experience modeling, texturing, and illustrating a diverse visual range of characters and creatures, as well as strong familiarity in related tools -- 3DS Max and Photoshop."

WorldsInMotion - Online Game Jobs

Sparkplay Media: Content Designer
"Sparkplay Media is a small but well-funded start-up developing casual-ish MMOs. We're working outside the publisher system and are backed by the same investors that funded TIvo and NetFlix. We have a great team including people from Blizzard, Valve, Iron Realms, LucasArts, Sony, Rockstar, and more. The team attitude is one of laid-back productivity. If you're interested in being part of a fun, independent team with stock options, get in touch with us."

Namco Networks: Flash Game Engineer
"Established January 1, 2006, Namco Networks America Inc. is a subsidiary of Namco Bandai Holdings (USA) Inc., a worldwide leader in the high-tech entertainment industry. Namco uses cutting-edge technology to provide fun, quality entertainment to mobile consumers throughout the Americas... Flash Game Engineers are responsible for developing and localizing content in Adobe Flash for online PC games. We are looking for Mid-level candidates."

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.

2008 In Games, April-June: MGS4 Helps PS3 Thrive, ESA Stumbles

[Since 2009 has only just begun, big sister site Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander has been doing a gigantic round-up of the top game news of the year, as we reported them - and we're reprinting here for GSW readers' inevitably micro-nostalgic reactions. Next up - April to June!]

As 2009 starts out, Gamasutra has been reflecting on the last year in games, one quarter at a time.

Into the new year, we'll be rounding up a news summary aimed at providing a solid look back on 2008's memorable events.

Following January to March 2008's round-up, we look at April through June 2008 -- from growth signs for the PlayStation 3, thanks to Metal Gear Solid 4, through notable departures from the Entertainment Software Association trade body:

April 2008

Many game companies ramped things up this time of year. Ubisoft proliferated in a big way on Steam with 40 new titles, THQ began to eye casual markets, and the marketing budget for Wii Fit was pegged at $40 million ahead of its launch in May.

Many speculated that Wii Fit's launch would cause a new hardware boom for the console. Plus, WiiWare was fast beginning to look like the new hot platform for expanded, smaller-size offerings like Strong Bad and World of Goo as it prepared for its U.S. launch.

The GTA ex-creators at Realtime Worlds picked up $50 million in funding for its promising mayhem MMO All Points Bulletin, while online game veterans Turbine gained a $40 million investment.

Meanwhile, the FTC began to take an extra-close look at the proposed Electronic Arts/Take-Two transaction, while early rumblings began to build for Grand Theft Auto IV's month-end launch, predicted to be a record-smasher.

May 2008

The industry looked to be solidly thriving as many companies reported impressive sales growth, like THQ and Viacom (thanks to Rock Band). Activision's revenues were up 92 percent on the year. This is when the "recession resistant" talk for the game business began to pick up pace.

It was a strong month for Western news, as Nintendo launched WiiWare outside Japan, Marvelous and X-Seed cemented their U.S. co-publishing agreement, and the Xbox 360 became the first among the current generation of consoles to reach 10 million units sold in the U.S.

The Entertainment Software Association trade body began to see some headaches, too. With E3 not too far off, LucasArts, Activision Blizzard and id Software decided not to renew their memberships or present at the event.

June 2008

The battle between EA and Take-Two went on alongside yet another deadline extension, while the latter company still had a few cards to play. Take-Two doubled its profits and revealed its plans to make a BioShock film -- in the process, hinting that it expects to release BioShock 3 alongside it.

In other Electronic Arts news, Blueprint studio head and longtime company veteran Neil Young forged out on his own to launch mobile game company ngmoco, whose Rolando would go on to receive year-end acclaim.

The PlayStation 3 looked to be seeing a strong growth period, and the increasing likelihood that Blu-ray would become the standard format seemed to boost the console's chances of a strong performance in the current gen. This was only accelerated by the long-awaited launch on June 12 of Metal Gear Solid 4, which topped the charts and was believed to drive new console sales.

Ubisoft went on expanding too, opening a studio in Brazil and creating a Wii-exclusive minigame division as it claimed a $1.2 billion war chest and hinted at further expansion plans.

Though many game companies were posting gains and seeking new studio locations, the news was not so good for Hellgate London and its developer Flagship Studios, as it began to see employee departures and public struggles around the troubled PC MMO that would eventually lead to the studio's closure.

[We and Gamasutra have previously covered January through March 2008 in review. Stay tuned for more game business news summaries from 2008, spanning July to September, and October to December.]

2008 In Games, Jan-March: 'Optimism, Takeover Bids And Smash Successes'

[Since 2009 has only just begun, big sister site Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander has been doing a gigantic round-up of the top game news of the year, as we reported them - and we're reprinting here for GSW readers' inevitably micro-nostalgic reactions. First up - January to March!]

As 2009 starts out, Gamasutra has been reflecting on the last year in games one quarter at a time.

Into the new year, we'll be rounding up a news summary aimed at providing a solid look back on 2008's memorable game industry-related events.

This first round-up looks at January to March, from World Of Warcraft and Super Smash Bros successes, through trouble for Myst Online... and that EA/Take-Two takeover bid:

January 2008

Starting out a brand new year for the game business, retailers announced record-breaking Christmas sales for 2007, and analysts looked bullishly ahead to 2008 to predict double-digit growth.

As watchers wondered whether Microsoft would change horses to Blu-ray and movie studios like Paramount, New Line and HBO began to state their allegiances for either Blu-ray or HD-DVD -- and the disc format war began to gain buzz for its potential implications in the console war.

The serious issues that would plague publisher Midway throughout the year had only just begun with the resignation of two major executives, and SCi/Eidos, at that time the subject of acquisition rumors, saw its stock slump and forced removals of key team members

Also in the month, World of Warcraft hit 10 million subscribers, Funcom's anticipated Age of Conan saw another delay, and the ratings drama that would surround Manhunt 2 began with the title's classification rejection in the UK.

February 2008

As the Activision-Vivendi merger moved into finality, the companies' SEC filings showed just how tricky the deal had been to seal. Electronic Arts opened its low-profile Blueprint division with a focus on social media, and Atari stumbled into the red thanks to its mounting restructuring costs.

Microsoft launched the mainstream-focused "Arcade" SKU in Japan, where at the same time, Super Smash Bros. Brawl for Wii executed a coup on the charts. In the U.S., Capcom launched Devil May Cry 4 to a decent reception and 2 million units in the month, and Spore finally received a September release window.

In the first of what would prove to be a series of disheartening announcements from online distribution service GameTap, the company said it would close the doors on Myst Online: Uru Live.

The big surprise came at the end of February, when EA launched its bid to buy Take-Two for $2 billion. At the time, most analysts predicted EA could easily win.

March 2008

Mournful news began the month with the passing of Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax and the bankruptcy of 1UP and EGM parent Ziff Davis. Midway's stock fell and CEO David Zucker stepped out, to be replaced by Matt Booty, who'd hold the "interim" role for the majority of the year before going official.

Infogrames made its bid for the already affiliated and struggling Atari, while EA and Take-Two continued to clash. Take-Two teased BioShock 2 to show its muscle and implemented a buyout severance plan, and, fed up with the standoff, EA's bid went hostile.

Indie music title Audiosurf achieved a feat as the top title on Steam, Resident Evil Wii shooter Umbrella Chronicles reached 1 million units shipped. Manhunt 2, now with less-gruesome kills, was cleared to release in the UK, while Smash Bros Brawl smashed sales records for Nintendo, selling 1.4 million in only a couple of weeks.

[Stay tuned for more game business news summaries from 2008, spanning April to June, July to September, and October to December.]

January 1, 2009

IndieGames' Best Of Highlights: Best Freeware Remakes 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.]

The fifth of the 2008 Best Of Features over at the IndieGames.com blog, we're proud to present ten of the best freeware remakes released in 2008.

From upgraded remakes with painstakingly redrawn and recolored graphics, to the most retro of downscaled remakes with blocky pixel art and noisy chiptunes, IndieGames.com has rounded up ten remakes of classic games that you should not miss the second time around.

Here's the top freeware remakes (and demakes) of the year:

Best Freeware Remakes 2008

  1. Soundless Mountain II
  2. Voxelstein 3D
  3. 3D Starstrike
  4. Left 4k Dead
  5. Guru Logic Champs
  6. Rock Boshers
  7. Ultimate Bruce Lee
  8. Kung Fu 2
  9. The Eggyard
10. Scramble

[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.]

Previewing GDC 2009: Inside The Audio Track

[In the first of a series picking out the most notable Game Developers Conference 2009 lectures, sister site Gamasutra examines the Audio Track, which includes talks from the sonic creators behind LittleBigPlanet, Fable II, and the Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy series.]

Game Developers Conference 2009 (organized by Gamasutra parent company Think Services) is due to take place in San Francisco's Moscone Center from March 23 to 27, 2009.

With over 230 sessions already confirmed for GDC 2009, we'll be taking a track by track look at the conference's line-up over the next few weeks.

First up is GDC's audio track, which "looks at the game development process from the standpoint of developing dynamic video game sound, and offers direction for developers who wish to understand complex sound composition strategies."

Notable highlights thus far announced for this track, which takes place on the main Wednesday to Friday of GDC (March 25-27), are as follows:

- Media Molecule's Kenneth Young will present 'User Generated Content - LittleBigPlanet's Audio Approach', highlighting the unique challenges of the PS3's signature holiday 2008 title, and focusing on "the thinking and methodology that lie behind its use of sound and music in the challenging landscape that is user-generated interactive entertainment."

- In 'The Audio of Fable 2: Large Scale Collaboration for Next-Gen Games', Microsoft Game Studios' Kristofor Mellroth will discuss the creation of the audio for Lionhead's latest game, explaining how there were "teams in Guildford, London, Redmond, Tokyo, Dublin, and Los Angeles collaborating on the audio design", and discussing how developers can "leverage their publisher's capabilities to help them without losing control of the vision."

- Norihiko Hibino is the key composer supporting Harry Gregson-Williams, and behind much of the score for Metal Gear Solid 2, 3 and 4. In 'Metal Gear Solid Series Audio Postmortem', he'll focus on Metal Gear Solid 4's audio production, and the "specific challenges that were presented by the large size of the audio team and the 5.1 surround sound requirements."

- In 'Far Cry 2: Creativity and the Musical Challenge', Marc Canham will discuss the creation of the score for Ubisoft Montreal's signature 2008 title, explaining how, with a "string sextet recorded at Abbey Road, a legendary vocalist, live percussion and electronica we embarked on this challenging interactive soundtrack."

- Seminal Japanese composer Hitoshi Sakimoto is best known for his groundbreaking scores for Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII, and he'll be presenting 'Experiences and Rare Insights into the Video Game Music Industry', in which he'll talk about the past and present state of video game music - and just where we're going - from a Japanese perspective.

- In his lecture 'How High Dynamic Range Audio Makes Battlefield: Bad Company Go Boom', EA DICE's Anders Clerwall will discuss how "real-world sound level approximations and an adjustable dynamic range transformed the usually tedious and time-consuming act of mixing the game into an enjoyable play-through."

- Sony's Ken Felton and Slant Six's Paul Martin will speak on 'Audio Adventures on the PS3 - SOCOM Confrontation - Online Audio for 32 Players', particularly referencing first/third-party collaboration and the successes and challenges in creating audio for a 32-player multiplayer-only online game.

In addition, the full Audio Track line-up to date includes many more notable lectures and roundtables, including discussions on voice acting, runtime audio DSP, music copyrights, recording dialog, audio testing, and mixing techniques.

GameSetLinks: Happy New Year

[GameSetLinks is GameSetWatch's daily link round-up post, culling from hundreds of weblogs and outlets to compile the most interesting longform writing, links, and criticism on the art and culture of video games.]

Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year.

Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year.

Happy New Year:

Yoshiki Okamoto Explains What's Up With Game Republic: News from 1UP.com
Fun, and ultra ultra-freeform Mielke interview, but I have to say that Okamoto comes off a bit creepy re: PR person-harassing, doesn't he?

2008 Top 10 Games of the Year by Game Tunnel
Aha, the ultimate countdown - congrats to World Of Goop, heh - also, lots more good countdowns in sometimes neglected genres at the bottom of the list.

A Tree Falling in the Forest: Microsoft is Cable: Part Three Edition
'There is no question Microsoft is the hands down leader in set top boxes, they just haven't told anyone yet.' Keith Boesky out on a limb again, heh.

Video Game Holiday Card Roundup from 1UP.com
Didn't get round to doing it this year, so glad to see 1UP did - as did Joystiq.

insertcredit.com: 'Gackt's latest game: Bounty Killer'
Further evidence of GDMag EIC Brandon Sheffield's return to glorious Insert Credit posting, this is as Sheffield-ian as it gets - a link-packed Gackt pachislot machine analysis!

Denki Top 100 // Press Release
Boy, Go! Go! Beckham (and upcoming XBLA title Quarrel) creators Denki are sure doing some silly press releases nowadays. Love it.

December 31, 2008

Interview: SOE's Yanagi Talks DC Universe Online's Birth

[Wow, it's just about the last GameSetWatch post of 2008, so we go to Brandon Sheffield's formerly Gamasutra-published chat with the DC Universe Online creators - it's going to be interesting to see what SOE make of what should be a big deal for superhero underoo wearers worldwide.]

Sony Online Entertainment's upcoming DC Universe Online is a key project for the Everquest publisher, which has latterly been trying to push into more casual markets with its FreeRealms title.

The game is a PlayStation 3 and PC MMO which will feature dozens of characters (from Batman through Superman to Lex Luthor) and settings from the DC comic book universe, as well as customizable superhero or super-villain characters created by users.

DC Universe Online is believed to be due out some time in 2009, and earlier this year, Gamasutra sat down with DCUO senior producer Wes Yanagi to talk about the project.

During the course of the chat, Yanagi discussed the contributions of venerated comic book artist and executive creative director Jim Lee, possible revenue models, and how the studio playtests and balances a game with such diverse characters and environments.

How large is the [Sony Online Austin studio] internal team now?

WY: We're above 70 folks now.

I was just talking to [DC Comics veteran and game consultant] Jim Lee, and he's been on the product since the very very beginning. How, from your perspective, does he work into the pipeline?

WY: Jim and his team, they do a really good job setting the art style and art direction of the product, as you can probably see from the videos and the things that we've shown so far.

The entire world and all the characters are very cohesive, and that's something that can be a challenge on other games without any kind of IP or any kind of art direction from someone like Jim, in which you have a bunch of different pieces that get put together, and they don't necessarily coalesce as a whole.

I know you can't say when it will be released, but how do you anticipate the entire development process? How long has it been in development so far?

WY: It's been in development for about -- I started about two and a half years ago, and I think it was a few months before I started that it officially got kicked off. So, [around that long]. [laughs]

Yeah, it's been a real long time coming, it seems. Are you going to immediately work on expansions afterward? How long do you anticipate this development tale going?

WY: We're still trying to formulate our plan on that aspect, as we're still technically in pre-alpha right now. I imagine that we'll have a portion of our team doing the live events and any kind of live content, and then we'll have a portion that will be dedicated to the expansion pack.

Do you all the customer service and support internally at SOE?

WY: Yeah, SOE has a great customer service staff, and of course, the benefit of working at SOE is there's a lot of MMOs in the pipe. And so, everything from customer service to the platform –- you know just getting the executable out to people and patching -- all that infrastructure is all in place.

How many people do you have working in those departments, if you know?

WY: I really don't know. I can't say.

I'm always curious because usually it completely dwarfs the development team.

WY: Yeah, I'd imagine.

I talked to Blizzard a year and a half ago – they probably have way more now – they had twelve hundred.

WY: Twelve hundred?! Wow, that's pretty insane. That's a lot of guys. But then they have to support ten million folks.

You must have the network infrastructure pretty down at this point, since you've had many many years to air it on this stuff. Do you anticipate any difference for this title or is it going to be using your similar network infrastructure?

WY: We have a standard infrastructure that we share across a lot of the games, and we're really leveraging a lot of that, because it's pretty robust and developed. The demos that we've been showing right now at Comic-Con or at FanFare, those demos were all running off of a client/server environment.

We've even been playtesting over between Austin and San Diego, testing independently and seeing lag to see how that affects the action combat. So far, we've been really really happy with all the results.

With Jim Lee, there's been a lot of back and forth on getting character models to look like how he wants them to look in the comics. Where is the line on what you can do -- obviously there are budgetary concerns -- and how can you really determine what you can take and what you can't?

WY: Generally speaking, we try to get the essence of what he's talking about, if at all possible. And we'll bend over backwards to get that look because that's what his style is known for and it's an awesome style that resonates with a lot of people.

Where we can draw the line is when it runs into a technical issue, where we have something where there's too much detail, or the textures might not fit with the parameters that we have or something like that. When we run into technical issues, we'll discuss that

with him and go over what our limits are. Usually, he's understanding about that and goes, “Okay, I understand,” and moves on to the next thing.

When I was talking to him and hearing him on the panel, it sounded like he's really coming from a good artistic perspective. He seems to have more of an idea of what you can do and not do, when compared to say, directors that come in and are trying to associate themselves with a game product. Have there been any challenges in terms of what is physically possible?

WY: Not really so much a challenge, I wouldn't say challenging. Jim's a really smart guy, and once we walk him through what the issues are, he picks up on it really fast. So, there really hasn't been any issues that way. Maybe some of the more arcane technical server issues might be harder for him to understand, but for the most part, he gets everything and is very accommodating in that respect.

What kind of things are you looking at for dealing with RMT -- real money trading? Is that going to even come up in the game?

WY: We've been talking about some ideas, but those things haven't been solidified yet. We're definitely going to be talking more about that in the future.

And are you guys going with a subscription or item type model?

WY: That's the same thing as with the RMT. All the business side of it we're still trying to figure out. Right now, we're focused on making our core game, making that fun and then figuring out how the business works on top of that.

You kind of have to have it figured out in advance if you're going to go with one of those models or the other, but it's okay if you can't say what it is. [laughter] Because you can't really just build the game, and then put the business model on top of it. But anyway, what do you think of the free to play model?

WY: I think that's a huge potential, especially for a more casual market. You know, just getting lots more eyes in on whatever product or whatever game.

I think so many things have happened in the past through shareware -- Wolfenstein and Doom were huge hits based on that model, and I think that there's lots of potential in that market.

SOE is trying to do that with Free Realms, as you're probably aware of, and I think that that has a huge chance of being a successful product.

I don't think a lot of teams making MMOs have used Scrum. How does Scrum work into that pipeline? Because the big thing about Scrum is that you can meet milestones easier. You don't necessarily have those same kinds of milestones in MMOs. So, how does that work?

WY: For us, the philosophy that we're taking is publishing it internally to the team. We try to take the mindset we're live already and we have our infrastructure in place earlier on where we have our daily builds. They get kicked out, you run the patcher. When you log in, it sees if there's a new build up there and puts it up there.

On an everyday basis we have playtests. All the different Scrum teams -- we have a combat team, a content team, an environment team -- they all do their playtests, and they can see what the other teams are doing, and see how their piece fits into the whole.

I think that's one of the biggest challenges that I've seen in MMOs in the past, that they're so big and they're so massive, and in traditional development processes that I've worked on in the past, you'd have all these teams working independently.

At some point, maybe a year or two between each other, between milestones, they would try to integrate everything, and things would fall apart horribly.

For us, it's really on a three week basis they have to have a demonstrable portion of the game and all the pieces have to fit. And so they're working together really closely on a day to day basis.

It sounds slightly different from the vertical slice thing, in which you make this section and then you go on. But you're a little more compartmentalized and then integrating quickly, that's how you're doing it?

WY: Yeah, so for instance, in the demo that we showed at Comic-Con this year, we built what we're calling a world event, where there's a portion of Metropolis and Brainiac's invading. That involved a lot of different teams working together to build that scenario.

The cool thing about it was that it told us a lot about how our game should be developed, or built, from a combat point of view, you know, where are the issues that come up between, say, fliers and people that are running on the ground.

The other part of it is that the environment guys were really able to push; you know, what do we want our look and feel to be for the end product? And getting all those together in one demo was huge for us.

How do you reconcile that world? You mentioned people with different powers. You got the fliers and the people on the ground. How do you build that universe and not have it break? You got people who can do a lot of different things.

If you've got Aquaman, do you have to have the sea and how do people get into the sea? You've got the air, do you have to have the ceiling past which they can't fly, and that kind of stuff. How are you dealing with those considerations?

WY: Trying not to get into specifics and generalizing that question a little bit more -- a lot of those come out of our daily playtests. We'll put in a certain power set or certain movement type, and then because we have PvP heavily developed in this game, that encourages people to almost exploit it because people are competitive in a PvP environment.

So, pretty quickly you see the exploits come up, and then we have these notices that are on our playtest machines, "Ice powers banned today" or something like that, until the designers can go back and resolve what those issues are.

Again, using agile is great because, as those issues pop up from that Scrum team's perspective, if they're focused on balancing or getting all these powers working together, that can be their highest priority that they have to deal with.

It seems like balance is one of the biggest issues in MMOs. Like you said, there will probably always be exploits, it's impossible to root them all out. It seems like it requires way more playtesting than other game types. Do you have everyone playtest?

WY: We do have everybody playtest just about every day. Our daily routine is we have our daily stand-ups in the morning. While one team is doing their stand-up, another team is in the little play pen that has all our playtest machines. There's a group, they're playing the game, one person's taking notes as people are just chiming in with comments. When they're done they do their stand-up, another group comes in and does their playtest.

I think there's a tipping point in game development where when you still have the core mechanics being built, the game isn't quite fun yet, you have to almost force people to playtest. And luckily, we've finally got to the tipping point where our core game is fun enough that we just have to schedule it and people come. So that's a good position to be in for us right now.

Yeah, you don't have to strongarm anyone anymore. A lot of MMO making companies have a tendency to use the beta as the final QA period. Do you think that's a good thing or a bad thing?

WY: I think that's fine and good from a standpoint. There's only so much that you can balance on a smaller scale with a smaller team. Even if you have like a hundred, two hundred people on a team, you can only do so much balance. Once you get a thousand, two thousand people, then the game dynamics change that much more.

The problems that I've seen on projects that I've worked on myself is that, a lot of time you spill some of your game development and feature development into your beta time frame. At that point, it's really difficult to manage between the priority of getting a feature done versus clearly a major flaw in your game that you have to address that came out of beta, or even just dealing with bugs.

Our goal is to make sure that when we get into our beta phase, that all of our features are done so we don't have that conflict between the two. If you have to redo a feature because of gameplay feedback in the beta, then that's okay, but you don't want to be building something that you knew you had to do out of time.

It seems like it's really tempting, since you know that MMOs are never done. They're never finished, so you're always developing. At the same time, when you do that, you run the risk of showing people a game like Hellgate London. The beta didn't go that well, and people weren't really feeling it. By the time the game was actually really fun, everyone had already been like, "I already played that and I didn't like it." So that's a real danger with a beta. But I guess that's where all the internal QA comes in.

WY: Exactly, exactly. And I think even internally, we want to be really sensitive to that. For us, we're playing it with the team, with our team. It's kind of our product, our baby, and so it's always “the best product ever,” and then we can keep playing on that.

But once we release it internally to other parts of SOE, we want to make sure that there's another level of polish there, so that people are excited about that and then going on to the next step of any kind of closed beta.

About the HUD and management of items and powers and things. For me, what turns me off from a lot of these games is how complex it is. There are all these icons, and I've got to remember what all the buttons do, like hotkeys. How do you figure that out, what's acceptable for people, how much they can actually stomach?

WY: I think there's a combination of things that get based on the gameplay. The game that you're building, the game that you have. I think that a lot of it is, how many decisions do you provide the player at a time.

We give more decisions on where you should be moving and how you're controlling your character because we're a much more action-based game. And strategically, what powers you fire off if you're hiding behind something, if you're picking up a bus, or if you have to dodge a bus.

And that's much different than more traditional MMOs, where it's less movement based and it's more picking a combination of powers or reacting to powers, or watching someone's health go down and then hitting the heal button, or casting the heal spell.

By that nature, since there's less movement, you have to make more decisions or give more choices through the UI or through the HUD. For us, ideally, we have a much more simpler HUD, but the much more complex decisions phase is in running.

To take it to the other extreme, if you look at a first-person shooter, there's a very, very simplistic HUD, but you make a lot of decisions in how you're aiming, whether you're going for the headshot or just trying to shoot somebody, or what weapon you're using.

Do you also try to get some outside views? I don't know if a lot of MMOs actually do playtests, like blind playtests with focus groups.

WY: Yeah, we've actually already started that. We did a couple of focus groups with our Comic-Con build before we went to Comic-Con to make sure the public would be okay with it. I was deathly afraid that our UI and controls might be too complex going in, and so we wanted to make sure that that was addressed.

We have a usability lab in San Diego, where our headquarters are, and they've been bringing people in to play the game and giving us feedback on top of that. And there's other things that we can do with heuristic evaluations and those things. So as we get more UI online we'll be running it through that.

IndieGames' Best Of Highlights: Best Freeware Arcade Games 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.]

The fourth of the 2008 Best Of Features over on the IndieGames.com blog, we're proud to present twenty of the best freeware arcade games released in 2008.

Action games usually involve players assuming a certain profession and carrying out the task they have been assigned with - whether it is taking out bad guys, rescuing cute little creatures, saving the world from certain doom, or even stealing treasure from cave dwellers, we can guarantee that you'll be having a whale of a time doing it.

Here's the top freeware arcade and action games of the year:

Best Freeware Arcade Games 2008

  1. 8bit killer
  2. Rescue: The Beagles
  3. Aether
  4. Calamity Annie
  5. Destructivator
  6. Thrustburst
  7. You Found the Grappling Hook
  8. You Have to Burn the Rope
  9. ROM Check Fail
10. Samurai Railroad Mansion
11. Virtual Silence
12. Cubes
13. Facewound
14. Pro Killer Man
15. Skullpogo
16. Night of the Cephalopods
17. Karateka Mania
18. Devil Ronin
19. Ropor
20. I Was in the War

[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.]

GameSetLinks: Argh Hargh Piracy Again

[GameSetLinks is GameSetWatch's daily link round-up post, culling from hundreds of weblogs and outlets to compile the most interesting longform writing, links, and criticism on the art and culture of video games.]

Rounding up a multitude of only slightly tardy GameSetLinks, this one is headed by Jeff Attwood big upping World Of Goo while examining piracy in a wider software context - and is a good excuse for me to use that Lazytown video in glorious still image form.

Also in here - some late semi-praise for Lips, a couple more end of year countdowns, the Cthulhu indie countdown, and World Of Goo (again!) in a non-popularity popularity contest.

Goo goo goo:

Coding Horror: My Software Is Being Pirated
Jeff Attwood is one of the most well-known programming bloggers, so it's interesting that he takes on software piracy with plenty of reference to World Of Goo in this post.

GameSpot's Best Games of 2008: Best Game No One Played
The press release we got from GameSpot honest-to-god claimed 'World Of Good' won this award, haha. Great typo, but the second problem here is that it's an audience-voted popularity award to determine a game that 'no one played'. Woops!

The Independent Gaming Source: 'Commonplace Book Compo: Results!'
The ever-excellent indie competition reveals the results of its Cthulhu-themed competition, headed by Kyle Pulver.

loonyblog. - random thoughts on games, art, geek culture and living in california. » My games of the year.
Yes, another top list, this time from 2K's Jason 'Loonyboi' Bergman, but worth mentioning because it includes Rock Band 2, a title I think was unfairly overlooked due to its incremental nature, but is brilliant (I had to bump it from my special picks in the Gamasutra countdown to fit in Fable II, sadly.)

Infovore » Favourite Games of 2008
Interesting because it's a non-'mainstream' writer who has GTA IV on his list, breaking my previous observations on the matter.

Game recommendation: Inis' Lips for Xbox 360
Although it has a severe lack of online/replay components and difficulty levels, I really like the basic interface of Elite Beat Agents creator Inis' X360 karaoke game and its weirdass minigames, possibly even more so than SingStar - hopefully they'll be given a chance to expand on it.

December 30, 2008

Best of FingerGaming: From Crystal Defenders to Passage

[Every week, GameSetWatch sums up sister iPhone site FingerGaming's top news and reviews for Apple's nascent -- and increasingly exciting -- portable games platform, written by guest editor Danny Cowan - lots more reviews coming soon after a little drought, by the way.]

This week's notable items in the iPhone gaming space, as covered by FingerGaming, include Square Enix's Crystal Defenders, a port of Jason Rohrer's Passage, and the upcoming release of IGF-winner Crayon Physics for Apple's portable.

Here are the top stories:

Crayon Physics Gets iPhone Port in 2009
"Hudson Entertainment will be bringing the Independent Games Festival Grand Prize-winning Crayon Physics to the iPhone and iPod Touch. The title is scheduled to hit the App Store in early January, and possibly as soon as next week."

Passage Debuts in iPhone App Store
"Previously available as a PC freeware title, Passage comes to the iPhone this week as a direct port with a new touch-based control interface."

Radio Flare Makes Intriguing App Store Appearance
"Radio Flare takes the lock-on shooting mechanic found in console games like Rez and Panzer Dragoon and adapts it to fit the context of a touch-based shooter — one finger moves your ship, while another can be used to target multiple enemies in a single swipe."

Square Enix's Crystal Defenders Makes iPhone Debut
"Console RPG publisher Square Enix has released Crystal Defenders, a Tower Defense-styled strategy game featuring character classes from the Nintendo DS SRPG title Final Fantasy Tactics A2."

i Love Katamari Patched, Features Improved Performance
"The patch arrives in response to widespread reports of sluggish performance and unresponsive controls, which many buyers noted after the title’s release last week."

MSX's Aleste Downloadable Now
"The release is significant, as this new version of Aleste appears to be running via emulation software. All original aspects of the game are preserved — including the original MSX BIOS bootup screen — with an iPod/iPhone-specific control overlay added to the bottom of the gameplay screen."

GDC's 2009 Experimental Gameplay Sessions Calls For Submissions

[The Experimental Gameplay Sessions at GDC, organized by Jon Blow and compatriots, is often one of the highlights of the show, and packed to the gills, so we thought it would be good to highlight his call for submissions for those doing... different stuff.]

The organizers of the Experimental Gameplay Sessions lecture at the 2009 Game Developers Conference are calling for submissions for their yearly showcase of innovative games.

This regular extended GDC lecture, which has taken place since 2002, is organized by Braid designer Jonathan Blow and friends.

It's notable for being an early showcase for a multitude of alternative games and game concepts, including a pre-launch Katamari Damacy and Portal.

As the official Experimental Gameplay Sessions website explains while issuing its call for submissions:

"The Experimental Gameplay Sessions are an annual gathering of innovation-minded game developers, hosted at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

The EGW features many different kinds of games, including prototype demos (such as the Indie Game Jam games), [subsequenty] shipped products (such as Katamari Damacy and MojibRibbon), and student demos. There’s always a bit of lecturing and discussion as well.

If you’re pushing the boundaries of traditional gameplay, we encourage you to submit your work using the entry form. The submission deadline is Monday February 16, 2009."

Other notable projects showcased in early stages at various iterations of the Experimental Gameplay Workshop include Jon Mak's Everyday Shooter, Thatgamecompany's fl0w, Media Molecule co-founder Mark Healey's Rag Doll Kung Fu, Zoe Mode's Crush, and Dylan Fitterer's Audiosurf.

Opinion: Key Principles For Coping With Game Team Meltdown

[In a new opinion piece published on big sister site Gamasutra, Wizardry and Jagged Alliance veteran and game design professor Brenda Brathwaite analyzes how you can stop the rot by "talking up" when game development teams have relationship or management problems.]

Games are intensely personal processes, even if they involve a hundred people. You can’t spend eight hours a day with a work of art and not get connected to it.

That connection is born of intensity, and that intensity can lead to people getting upset with one thing or another. Sometimes, it can lead to team meltdown. Here’s a couple moments from my memory:

- An art team mutinied -- they didn’t show up for work for a few days (it may have been longer, but it definitely wasn’t shorter).
- A team walked out -- the whole team left the office and refused to work until the crunch hours were addressed.
- A lead dished all his issues with the company to those on his team effectively creating a group of angry programmers.
- Two executive producers worked to sack an incompetent VP.

These are extreme examples, of course. Usually, it’s pockets of discontent, but these pockets can completely wreck productivity and make unhappy people out of otherwise content developers. It makes people hate a project, hate their part in the project or, at best, feel indifferent.

For those involved in the trash talking -- and maybe unbeknownst to them -- it follows them throughout their career in several potential ways:

- Teams suffering meltdown don’t make great projects. If they somehow manage to get a good one out, the project is not as good as it would have been if the team had been working well. That game stays on your resume. It lives with you through mobygames.com. Eternity is gamerankings.com and a bad game.
- Bad relationships are built, and bad relationships have a long, long shelf life in the game industry. They stop you from getting jobs. They keep closed doors.
- Patterns are made and history tends to repeat itself.

Clearly, everyone’s not always going to be happy, though. So, you have to figure out a way to deal with it. I was a lead for a long time, and this is the kind of situational training you never get. You pick it up on the job. If you’re a "bridge builder" now, if you get along with everyone, if you can genuinely see a way forward in even difficult situations, be grateful. You will use it dozens of times in your career.

On these issues, a couple things have worked for me:

Do not "disbelieve."

Acknowledge that problems will exist in the future, and develop a plan to deal with these things before they strike. Encourage people to talk with their leads, and encourage leads to listen and not criticize or immediately fix it to death. Sometimes people need to vent.

Talk up, and tell people on your team to do it.

If you have an issue with something, take it to your lead. Don’t trash the waters around you. Give people a chance to adjust things, including your perspective. I recently talked with someone who thought he was getting the run around because his boss wouldn’t level with him about an upcoming contract. “I just want to know if we’re going to make the game or not.” My feeling was that his boss genuinely didn’t know. No deal is done until the money’s in your bank account.

If you have a problem with someone, their work or the way they work, talk to them directly, if that seems at all possible to do. Sometimes, it’s a matter of misunderstanding or needing to clear the air.

If that’s not possible or if there’s a company issue that’s driving you insane, talk to the the person immediately above you (unless it is the person immediately above you). Also, remember that it’s probably about 50 percent less dramatic than you feel it might be, but only time will give you that perspective.

At the time, though, just accept that some part of how you’re feeling is reaction, not reality. If you are the person above another person, remember the "drama modifier," but listen and let them vent it all out without interruption. Venting is a valid and important part of the development process, and a good lead learns how to receive it and handle it well.

So why this emphasis on talking up? If you have a problem with someone and talk laterally or down, you are literally trash talking your own team and killing your own project. I’ve seen it happen one too many times as noted above.

The team quickly loses respect for the chain of command and nothing ever gets fixed since no one in a position to fix it was ever actually contacted. People continue to complain about the lead above them, but the lead - blissfully unaware of anything - keeps right on going. Meanwhile, the team falls apart, morale plummets, productivity drops and the quality of work suffers dramatically. Ultimately, your project sucks, and if it’s a professional project, it’ll follow you around for years.

So, don’t trash your lead to the people below you. Don’t trash fellow leads to other leads. If you have an issue with someone, take it to them directly or take it to the person above you, and do it professionally and without drama.

Ultimately, this is about principles, not personalities. When irritated by someone, ask yourself if it’s their work or them. This is game development, not a reality television show. You don’t have to like everyone. You don’t need to play Rock Band on the weekends. You merely need to work with them well and for the betterment of the project. Develop professional discipline to do this now, and it will go a long way for you.

[Brenda Brathwaite is a contract game designer and professor of game design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She has been in the game industry since 1981 and has shipped 22 commercial titles. An an avid player of games, she currently spends an absurd amount of time studying them.]

GameSetLinks: A Brainpipe Full Of Pie

[GameSetLinks is GameSetWatch's daily link round-up post, culling from hundreds of weblogs and outlets to compile the most interesting longform writing, links, and criticism on the art and culture of video games.]

Hurray, time for another set of delicious GameSetLinks, headed out by the London Review of Books talking about, uhm, video games, in case you haven't seen it - always worth seeing what those august organs make of our burgeoning little culture cactus, I reckon.

Also in here, links out to the (pictured, lunatic) Brainpipe, Simon Waldman on the new digital world, Momus on gaming, Alex Litel on, uh, pie, and a brief ramble about the new Banjo-Kazooie game from myself.

Get to the chorus:

London Reviews Of Books · John Lanchester: Is it Art?
One of these ponderous, New Yorker-style stabs at games as a medium, which nonetheless signifies a lot because the journal in question cares enough to try. Would benefit from more art-game knowledge, though, I suspect. Via Infovore.

December 2008 Indie game Round-Up by Game Tunnel
Aha: 'The 10 games reviewed for December include Soldak's Kivi's Underworld, New Star Soccer 4 from New Star Games and Zompocalypse from Toadtrip.' Neat stuff, as per usual.

The incumbent’s solution: 90% transformation, 10% innovation « Digital disruption
The Guardian's Simon Waldman on how bricks and mortar companies need to innovate subtly to get anywhere digitally. Also pretty relevant to the games business, abstractly.

click opera - Will the games boom birth a new art form?
Momus proves in the comments that he's not up with recent gaming, but nonetheless, interesting: 'Now that computer games are bringing in more income than films and music combined, there's sure to be a rush of talented, ambitious and original people into the medium (along with the moral panics that help make their names).' Via Xian, redux.

Alex Litel's Lackluster Emporium: What happens when you take a Shawn Elliott blog post and change all game-related references to be about pie.
'Question 1: How much is on our minds before we begin eating any given pie for review purposes?' Silly man!

Game recommendation: Rare's Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts for Xbox 360
I can't tell you how odd but intriguing Rare's games have been recently - much like Viva Pinata, this ostensibly kid-oriented title has lots of genuinely interesting, perhaps more adult-suitable gameplay complexity in it (the vehicles) - oh, and it's kinda droll and self-mocking to boot. Worth picking up after the inevitable price drop, perhaps?

Official site: 'BRAINPIPE: A Plunge to Unhumanity'
As I've broadcasted elsewhere, Digital Eel's new psychedelic insanity title, as entered in the IGF, has launched - looks a bit Minter-esque, doesn't it?

The Offworld 20: 2008's Best Indie and Overlooked - Offworld
Nowadays, it's surprising how many lists don't have Metal Gear Solid 4 on them (poor Hideo!), but this is a great round-up of the indie-r, shorter-play stuff out there.

December 29, 2008

IndieGames' Best Of Highlights: Best Browser Arcade Games 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 - my personal favorite here being Top Spinner, the slightly less silly title from the QWOP creator.]

The third of the 2008 Best Of Features here on the IndieGames.com blog, we're proud to present ten of the best browser arcade games released in 2008.

Fancy a 100-metre sprint event? Hit Benzido up. Thinking about dino racing? Get acquainted with Pixeljam Games.

Or itching for some sword action? Babarageo has just the thing for you, in this special round up of the best links you could possibly have as your favorite browser bookmarks.

Here's the top browser-based arcade games of the year:

Best Browser Arcade Games 2008

  1. Cursor*10
  2. QWOP
  3. Top Spinner
  4. Dino Run
  5. Ginormo Sword
  6. Minotaur China Shop
  7. Gravity Hook
  8. Rose and Camellia (Shockwave version)
  9. Maverick
10. Robokill

[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.]

A Year With Mister Raroo: Bidding a Fond Farewell to 2008

Game Time With Mister Raroo logo[Another 365 days has passed, and in an exclusive GameSetWatch article, regular columnist Mister Raroo takes the opportunity to reflect upon 2008 in terms of not only gaming, but his personal life as well -- and as an added bonus, he includes his top 10 games of the year!]

2008: Challenging But Rewarding

It’s hard to believe that 2008 is already drawing to a close, but looking back it was certainly a full and busy year. Between watching my son Kaz develop and grow on a seemingly daily basis, working full time, and taking courses toward my Master’s of Library and Information Science degree, it’s felt like I’ve barely had time to do much else. That said, I always make an effort to squeeze a little recreation into my days, usually in the form of playing video games. It’s important to step back from things and give yourself a break, even if it’s only 15 minutes here or there.

Financially, 2008 was more than a bit depressing. The economy’s instability led to ongoing budget cuts at work, causing both Missus Raroo and me to worry about our job security. Our home, which we purchased last year, continued to drop in value while, at the same time, we had to pump more money into it to fix a few problems that arose. Our cars both needed to have some costly work done on them while other expenses, such as rising daycare costs, just continued to pile up. We’ve managed to squeak out from under these financial weights and stay in the black, but not by much.

Even in difficult financial times, though, things don’t seem so bad when you have people in your life that make each day feel special. I’m very fortunate to have such a lovely wife and wonderful son, not to mention both sides of our families in town. Holidays and special celebrations are always happy times because we are able spend them with the people we love. As trite as it may sound, I may not be wealthy in terms of money, but I’m a rich man when you consider how much family support and love I have. Family can sometimes be stressful, but the good by far outweighs the bad.

Kaz is Growing Up QuicklyAs a parent, 2008 was a particularly amazing year because I was able to watch Kaz grow from being just a cute little guy we took care of to a bona fide member of the family. It’s pretty incredible to think that at the beginning of the year he didn’t know how to walk or say any real words. These days, he’s running all over the place, helps pick up his toys, uses actual words to talk, and even takes on the chore of feeding our dog Howie his dinner. It sounds funny, but Missus Raroo and I often comment that Kaz has finally become a “real person.”

As a whole, I think 2008 was pretty spectacular. There were far more highs than lows for me, and there isn’t much I’d change given the opportunity. My family was healthy, a lot of great memories were created, and even the presidential candidate I voted for won the election, for once! Yep, 2008 was not a bad year by any stretch of the imagination. And when I think about all the excellent games I played during the year, it just seems even sweeter.

Birthday Gluttony

Seeing that I had not only received a generous amount of games for Christmas last year, but was also given a Playstation 3 by my family, I felt a little guilty about my gaming abundance -- and tried to start 2008 off by limiting the amount of games I purchased. Besides, I was officially beginning my MLIS classes and knew that meant I’d have less time to play games, anyway. And, on top of that, once our bills were paid each month I just didn’t have a lot of spending money left over. Thus, I did my best to avoid acquiring any new games from New Year’s Day until my birthday in February. A month and a half is not very long for most people, but for me it was more than a little difficult to hold out!

Thankfully, my family knows darn well that I love video games, and since I didn’t really have anything else that I wanted or needed, on my birthday I was presented with a healthy stack of games as gifts. I’m very grateful for the generosity of my family members, but sometimes being a 30-something guy unwrapping game after game makes me wonder if they look upon me as if were a gaming Peter Pan! The year was still young in February, but thanks to my family I already had so many new games to play.

No More Heroes is perhaps the standout game from my birthday haul, and I had a lot of fun playing it. Particularly, I enjoyed just how bonkers the game was, with strange and interesting boss battles and neat touches like the Wii Remote being used to receive cell phone calls. There have been legitimate complaints about some aspects of the game, particularly in terms of how desolate the city of Santa Destroy is, but all in all I really found No More Heroes to be very entertaining and satisfying.

Shark!On the other end of the spectrum, I was also given Endless Ocean, and I thought it was simply delightful. More of a stress reliever than anything else, Endless Ocean’s beauty is not just in its underwater setting, but in the ability it grants for players to take the experience at their own pace and freely explore on their own. There are small missions and objectives to fulfill, but essentially, all you need to worry about is swimming around and discovering the world that awaits you below the water line.

I have a fear of sharks to the point that I have regular nightmares about them, but in Endless Ocean there is no danger of being attacked by any sea creatures, and sharks will harmlessly cruise right by you. You can even swim up close to snap photos of them, too! With such a laid back atmosphere, Endless Ocean is an ideal game for me to enjoy after an exhausting day.

Not Part of the In-Crowd

For the most part, I tended to hold off on playing most of the year’s blockbuster releases. Bestsellers like Gears of War 2, Fable II, and Fallout 3 will be substantially less expensive in but a few months’ time, so I’ve decided to wait until I see them appear in discount aisles and bargain bins. It’s sometimes tough to know that so many other people are playing a much-anticipated game while I’m not, but it’s also sweet to pick up a copy for a portion of its original price.

Rather than focusing on the chartbusters, I tried to steer toward games that were a little under the radar. I have a soft spot for oddities and underdogs, anyway, and 2008 saw no shortage of strange or overlooked gems. The best part of these types of games is that they’re often released at a lower price point to begin with, so it’s not as much of a demand on my budget to pick up some of the low-profile releases.

Blast WorksEveryone’s eyes were on LittleBigPlanet’s passing of content creation to players, but I thought Blast Works had some pretty amazing player-generated ships, enemies, and stages. One of the nicest features of the game is that it bypassed the Wii’s usual Friend Code route and instead let players select and queue up content to download via an outside website, Blast Works Depot.

I tried my hand at crafting a ship and some enemies, but my meager creations seriously paled in comparison to what some other gamers came up with. It was a series of stages lovingly built by a user named Gryzor that were the most impressive. Gryzor designed the levels with title screens, ship selection, and much more. Thinking of the amount of work that must’ve gone into those stages, my mind is officially boggled.

Bangai-O Spirits was another game that featured a workaround for sharing content without Friend Codes. Utilizing a unique sound load system, the game literally used sound as encryption for data, and plenty of user-generated levels could be found online and uploaded simply by playing the sound into the DS microphone. Holding an headphone ear bud up to the microphone seemed to work best, and before long one could easily enjoy the hard work of clever and creative Bangai-O Spirits players from around the world.

Many of the other games I spent a great deal of time with may not have been massive sellers that reached the mainstream audience to the extent of a game like Grand Theft Auto 4, but they received plenty of acclaim from critics and gamers alike. For example, titles like Patapon and Space Invaders Extreme were both extremely satisfying, not to mention released at a $20 price point, which is certainly a perfect combination as far as I’m concerned!

As a higher number of games are released upon the market, it can get increasingly difficult to keep abreast of all the smaller titles that may not be lucky enough to find shelf space in stores, but the popularity of video games means more developers and publishers have the freedom to release titles that prove to be profitable without having to sell a million copies. There are a lot of niche games such as Prey the Stars and Princess Debut that the average gamer may not even realize exist, but it makes me happy that they do!

Home Delivery

More than games purchased at retail, perhaps the largest chunk of my new games came in downloadable form. From Pixeljunk: Eden and The Last Guy on Playstation Network to WiiWare’s Pit Crew Panic! and My Aquarium, there were a diverse and extensive amount of interesting games to purchase and download, usually for $10 or less per game. Even the costlier downloadable games, such as the $20 WipeOut HD or the $15 Braid, proved well worth the price of admission, not to mention likely cheaper than if they’d been pressed on disc and sent to retail.

No Memory Left!I was pleased to see Nintendo decided to bring over the previously Japan-only game series bit generations in a new form, namely the Art Style games for WiiWare. The games proved to be perfect for my tastes, especially considering they were $5 each and took up little space on the Wii’s internal memory. I ran out of available “blocks” to download new content months ago and having to juggle what’s available on my Wii at any given moment has been more than a little frustrating.

More than WiiWare, though, I spent the most time and money on Xbox Live Arcade games because there were just so many fun and interesting titles. The high-profile releases like Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 and Castle Crashers proved to live up to my hopes, but it was the more humble gems such as N+ and Golf: Tee it Up! that turned out to be my favorites. I also finally got around to enjoying Portal via its XBLA release, and I stayed up well past my bedtime finishing it.

However, as much as I am a fan of downloadable games, the distribution process still has plenty of room for improvement. As much as I’ve come to anticipate Nintendo Mondays, Xbox Wednesdays, and Playstation Thursdays, there is an air of mystery that surrounds each week’s releases, so much so that sometimes nobody has any clue as to what will become available until the online stores are updated. I assume this is related to the nature of digital distribution, but sometimes I wonder if the game companies themselves have no idea what’s going to be released until they randomly select a handful of titles at go-time.

Stuck in the Past

The past year wasn’t all about new game releases for me, and in fact I had a lot of fun picking up some titles that I’d never had the opportunity to play. I’m always on the lookout for any place selling used games, and it’s so satisfying to happen across a great find. Missus Raroo and I regularly frequent the local thrift stores, and I’ve found quite a few winners for a great price.

The Gremlin StoreOne of our favorite thrift stores is one we call “The Gremlin Store” because its mysterious and eclectic mix of merchandise makes it feel like finding a box containing a mogwai wouldn’t be at all out of the question. Unfortunately, I’m not good at haggling prices, and the owners of the establishment often don’t put price tags on their items, so I’ve usually left empty-handed because I don’t want to argue that Batman for the NES should be cheaper than the $13 price they’re asking. Nevertheless, it’s fun to visit from time to time to see what newly-acquired items they’ve got for sale.

Of course, if there’s a certain game you’re interested in, purchasing it online is probably the best way to go, and around the time of the Dreamcast’s ninth anniversary since its North American launch date of 9/9/99, I purchased a couple games to celebrate. One of these was Pen Pen Tricelon, a game I’d always been curious about but never got around to adding to my collection. Colorful, simple, cute, and jam-packed with wackiness, Pen Pen is a basic but thoroughly engaging racing game that is still a blast almost 10 years after its release.

I also really had a great time with Game Center CX: Arino’s Challenge for the Nintendo DS, which is a loving tribute the Famicom/NES-era of games. Even though all of the games in the collection are new, their vintage design truly makes them feel like they could’ve come straight from the 1980s. However, the pseudo-retro games were developed with some modern sensibilities in mind, so attributes like screen flicker that plagued many 8-bit games are nowhere to be seen. Anyone who grew up during the 8-bit days will feel their hearts warm when they play Game Center CX.

The Next Gamer Generation

Perhaps one of my biggest joys from this past year has been introducing games to Kaz. His original interest in games was more in terms of the playing with the physical boxes and discs than anything else. In fact, his interest in playing with my game collection quickly prompted me to put them out of his little hands’ reach so as to keep him from damaging them.

Kaz is at the point now, though, where he’s very interested in everything Missus Raroo and I do, and he does his best to mimic it. He likes to pretend he’s talking on the phone, tries to change channels with the television remote, and presses keys on our computer keyboard. In fact, he somehow managed to conduct a Google search, although the results were a little nonsensical because his search term was just a bunch of random characters and symbols.

Kaz and Dad Enjoy Mario Kart WiiRecently, Kaz has discovered Mario Kart Wii, and he and I have spent some fun evenings racing through the game’s courses. Kaz sits in my lap and grips the Wii Wheel firmly in his hands, but he doesn’t yet understand that you have to press a button to accelerate and turn the wheel to steer. That’s where I come in. I help Kaz navigate the courses while his eyes are glued to the screen in amazement. Sometimes, when we manage to win a race, he’ll stand up and gleefully dance, copying our character’s post-victory celebration animation.

The irony is that while I’m so excited Kaz is starting to appreciate games now, there will come a time when I’m sure I’ll have to discipline him for playing too much. I’ll have to remember to be a good role model and demonstrate self-control in not playing games when there are other priorities and responsibilities to fulfill first. Still, I’m hoping that Kaz and I have plenty of fun playing games together throughout his childhood and even beyond. Maybe video games will be one of the ways we can stay connected even when he’s an adult and has kids of his own.

Hopes for a New Year

As much as video games are a part of my life, when I think of the upcoming year, it just seems petty to worry about it in terms of gaming. Instead, I’m simply hopeful that my friends and family stay healthy and safe. I always worry too much about everything, but with the instability in everyone’s lives lately, it’s hard not to. However, it’s better to take a deep breath and look at the bigger picture, realizing that it’s important to appreciate the little things in my daily life.

On a more personal note, I’m excited about the joys parenthood will surely bring. Kaz will turn 2 in March, and Missus Raroo and I are definitely thinking about expanding our family. I’m not sure if 2009 will be the year it happens, but I think our family definitely has room for growth. That said, even if we end up never having another child, I feel so lucky for the awesome son I already have. It has been such an honor to be a parent, even during difficult times.
Happy New Year!
I’m also looking forward to continuing my studies towards my MLIS degree. I’m about a third of the way to completion and it’s been very interesting thus far, if at times a little grueling. I do my best to put my family life ahead of my studies, so it can be tricky to find time to dedicate to school work. I’m often up way past my bedtime trying to listen to online lectures or write papers. But my hard work will hopefully pay off and before long I’ll be able to promote to a higher position in the library system I work for.

I’d also like to take a moment to give my best wishes to all GameSetWatch readers for a safe and happy New Year! I’ve appreciated the opportunity to write articles for GameSetWatch and I’ve been grateful for all the kind words I’ve received from readers. It’s been so generous of the GameSetWatch crew to welcome me into their family of amazing columnists and I hope to continue writing more content in the coming year. Happy New Year and thanks for reading!

Bonus Round: Mister Raroo’s Top 10 Games of 2008

Alphabetized and adorned with one-sentence summations:

Bangai-O Spirits (DS)
Tons of missles, tons of challenge, tons of fun!

Burnout Paradise (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)
Driving over a chasm on rickety train tracks while trying to knock other cars to their doom never gets old.

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (DS)
The challenge is a little to steep at times, but it’s beautiful in looks, sound, and execution.

Endless Ocean (Wii)
Put simply, I can get lost in this game, and that’s the way it should be.

Game Center CX: Arino’s Challenge (DS, import)
Confirmation that my recollection of gaming being better during the 1980s may very well be true.

Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds 2 (PSP)
Creative courses, perfect gameplay pacing, and just the right amount of challenge make it a winner.

Travis TouchdownNo More Heroes (Nintendo Wii)
The slower city-based segments can’t detract from the pure fun found in the speedy combat and brilliant boss battles.

Portal: Still Alive (Xbox 360)
I always wondered what the heck gamers were talking about when they mentioned “The Cake,” but now I finally understand… and believe it’s real!

Rhythm Tengoku Gold (DS, import)
It’s packed to the gills with toe-tapping tunes, charming characters, and countless small touches that made me happy to be a gamer.

Wii Music (Nintendo Wii)
The game to hate in 2008 is seriously fun and endlessly replayable if you take the time to truly understand and appreciate it!

Honorable Mentions: (Not Quite Top 10, But Still Great!)
Blast Works: Build, Trade, Destroy (Wii), The Last Guy (Playstation 3), Mario Kart Wii (Wii), Space Invaders Extreme (DS), The World Ends With You (DS)

[Mister Raroo is a happy husband, proud father, full-time public library employee, and active gamer. He currently lives in El Cajon, CA with his family and many pets. His only New Year's Resolution is to keep enjoying the small, wonderful moments that come together to create each day. You may reach Mister Raroo at [email protected].]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': 2008: It's Over

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


It's the last column of the year, and as always, my mind turns to final issues of magazines. (That and drinking beer, but you didn't ask about that.)

I've written about final issues a few times in the past, from famous last words to the swan song of the Official UK Playstation [One] Magazine in 2004. In lieu of repeating myself (and also because I have nieces vying for my attention right now around the Xmas tree), I'd like to point you to what I think is some required reading for any mag-fan: the final issue of Your Sinclair, a British computer mag that influenced the entire print industry there for years to come.

YS's last installment is, in my opinion, the ultimate final issue of any game mag ever published. By 1993, there was no professional software scene for the ZX Spectrum; it was dead in the marketplace and whenever other mags referenced it, it was about how old the machine was or what a wonderful doorstop it makes.

Your Sinclair's circulation was almost certainly in the low thousands, and there was no way Future Publishing would've let that continue for long, so September 1993 marked the mag's last installment. But what an installment it was! The editors raised the price and dumped the cover-tape to fill the mag with as many pages as possible, featuring cameos from nearly all its top contributors and a complete guide to the past, present and future of both YS and the system it covered.

Instead of reading this column, jump over to World of Spectrum and read YS #93 in its entirety online. It'll make you feel warm even if you've never touched a real Spectrum.

[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.]

December 28, 2008

Special: GamerBytes & XNPlay'sTop 10 XNA Community Games Of 2008

[GameSetWatch's sister console digital download info site GamerBytes has been following the Xbox 360's Community Games project since its launch in November, and is proud to present the Top 10 XNA games of 2008, in association with independent site XNPlay.]

For the first time ever, a major console company has allowed hobbyists to create peer-reviewed console games, and publish them directly onto the console for worldwide download.

Thus, Microsoft's launch of its Xbox Live Community Games service in November 2008 has already brought nearly 100 free time-limited, pay for unlimited-play independent games to the service -- and a distinct need for critics and reviewers to seek out and showcase the best.

For this year-end countdown, GamerBytes is handing over the reins to Robert 'Oddbob' Fearon and his staff from XNPlay, an independent website dedicated to bringing you news, views, reviews and previews of games featured on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Community Games program.

Here's their picks for the top XNA titles released onto the Xbox 360 in 2008, all currently available for download from the console's Community Games section:

10. Galax-E-Mail (BogTurtleStudios) - 200 Points

The early '80s arcade game that never was. Galax-E-Mail begins with the bizarre premise that you're an intergalactic e-mail delivery service (which kinda defeats the point of e-mail, don't you think?), and you're charged with guiding a flock of ships from A-B to ensure a safe delivery.

A curiously authentic retro look may put some folks off. But scratch the surface and there's a glorious game lying underneath. It forgoes the usual twin stick arena fare that we've come to know and love -- instead showing an intriguing set of game mechanics melded into a rather sweet maze game.

9. Monaco360 (Cognatus Systems) - 200 Points

Harking back to the 1979 Sega classic Monaco GP, Monaco360 resurrects the almost lost top-down racer genre for the Community Games service. For those weaned on a diet of bloom, realistic cars and cityscapes, Monaco360 may look and feel a tad primitive.

But for those like me who dearly miss the hours spent on games like MonacoGP, Spy Hunter and Road Fighter - Monaco360 is an absolute must have.

8. CaveIn (Johnny Death) - 400 Points

It's certainly far from the prettiest game on the Community Games service. But what CaveIn lacks in the looks department, it more than makes up for in gameplay.

Mixing and matching 3D adventuring with Sokoban and Puzzle Bobble-style puzzle segments over 80 stages provides a fun, if occasionally a little easy, family gaming experience.

7. Star Pilot (jsmars) - 400 Points

Dragging the Tron light-cycles concept into 3D and into space certainly isn't a fresh idea. However, rarely has it been done with as much polish. Star Pilot may not have the brain bending nature of Knot In 3D/Counterclockwise, or indeed any number of older titles.

But it proves there's still a lot to be garnered from even the most classic of game design fundamentals. Throw in an incredibly accessible drawing mode where you get to paint with the light trails, and you've got a winner.

6. Weapon Of Choice (Mommy's Best Games) - 400 Points

This is a flawed gem amongst the Community Games, but one worthy of note, all the same.

Weapon Of Choice is a Contra-style 2D run and gun game, with more than its fair share of bizarre enemies ready to burst forth their innards upon being assaulted with your heavy artillery. Lives are replaced by "operatives", each with different skills for you to take charge of.

It's a loud and brash game that doesn't always achieve the giddy heights it's aiming for. The sheer amount of hand-drawn art is breathtaking and makes Weapon Of Choice look like no other game out there. We're still not sure if the art is a work of genius or if someone threw up a rainbow on our televisions, but we can't help but appreciate the balls-out approach Mommy's Best have taken here.

5. Hexothermic (David Webb) - 200 Points

Lying somewhere between Q? Entertainment's Every Extend Extra Extreme (more so than Omega's original Every Extend) and a color-matching game, Hexothermic is a luscious and aurally pleasing little puzzler.

On first glance, it may feel like it rewards straightforward playing, but hides a surprising level of strategy. Change the color of gems on the board to unleash a chain reaction, aiming to clear the board in just one move. It's relaxing, pretty and incredibly enjoyable stuff.

4. Duotrix (Caffeine Monster Software/Binary Zoo) - 400 Points

The jewel in the crown of XNA puzzlefests to date, and one of the earliest games to hit the service, Duotrix still stands proud. It works due to its compulsive playability, and succeeds where many similar games fall down - actually adding something worthwhile to the block dropping genre.

The main twist, as implied in the name, is that the player controls two sets of blocks at the same time in a mirrored environment. It may sound unwieldy and awkward, but Duotrixmakes it feel like second nature after only a short time. The addition of Zoots (the developer's own achievement system, as seen in their previous freeware PC title Echoes) and multiple game modes helps a lot.

And with visuals clearly inspired by veteran developer Jeff Minter, this is one of the most polished and compulsive titles on the service.

3. Johnny Platform's Biscuit Romp (Ishisoft) - 200 Points

A port of the homebrew DS game of the same name, Johnny Platform's Biscuit Romp is an incredibly pleasing platform/puzzle game with some fine pixel artwork.

Recalling the heady days of 16-bit platformers, JPBR mixes elements of Qwak, Super Mario Bros and even the 8 bit "classic" Exolon together to good effect.

With 55 levels to work your way through, and one of the smoothest difficulty curves we've encountered in a long time, JPBR is proof positive that there's life in the old platforming dog yet. Not that we ever doubted that, of course.

2. Ultratron (Pumpkin Games/Puppy Games) - 400 Points

Ultratron may already be familiar to PC gamers, since the original Windows version having been floating around the internet since 2005 -- but it's fresh out of the wrapping on the Xbox 360 Community Games service.

A more casual arena shooter than available on the Community Games "big daddy" service, Xbox Live Arcade, Ultratron feels like it's finally found its natural home on a console. A twin-stick shooter with the ultimate goal of defeating the four robots of the apocalypse (didn't you get that memo?), it clearly owes a massive debt to Eugene Jarvis, but is still very much its own beast.

Pumpkin Games have provided a tightly knit package that utilizes the strengths of the service, throwing in their own brand of achievements and new shader effects to sweeten the deal. With a neo-retro graphics style that will outlast many games and a gentle difficulty curve with nary a spike, Ultratron is a fine example of how Community Games can provide an appropriate home for indies more au fait with the PC.

1. CarneyVale Showtime (Gambit) - 400 Points

The well deserved winner of the DreamBuildPlay 2008 competition, if there's any justice in the world, CarneyVale Showtime will be the game that puts the Community Games on the map.

It's a blazingly simple concept. You guide a ragdoll up the screen via a series of rotating grappling ropes, and complete the level by flinging him through a flaming hoop. What makes the game so special is its wonderful show of coherence coupled with joyous arcade-esque thrills.

Hurling your little acrobat through the air, popping balloons as you go is just so much fun. It'd be a hard-faced man indeed who wouldn't raise a smile after a particularly successful run of tricks, the crowd cheering them on as they hurtle through the fiery ring and onto the next challenge.

At the frankly silly price of 400 points, and with 18 inbuilt levels and a level editor thrown in for good measure, CarneyVale Showtime deserves your time. Play it and wonder to yourself why XBLA occasionally drifts into the realms of utter tat, and yet sitting there unattended on the Community Games service lies this gem that eclipses a vast proportion of XBLA games. Then smile and spread the word.

Opinion: You’ve Been Eaten By A Grue - Escaping Game Development’s Dark Dungeon

[Game development involves a lot of uncertainty -- but could inviting professionals from other walks of life help? Turbine and Disney veteran Patricia Pizer shows how an architect, a naval officer and a professional CSM have helped "serve as examples and inspiration" while working as game professionals.]

If you ever played any of the Zork games, you know that being in the dark for more than a turn or so is a bad thing; it inevitably leads to being eaten by a grue. (If you haven’t, go find a copy to run on your phone or PDA; your education is incomplete.)

Exactly what’s a grue isn’t germane here. The important point is that wandering in the dark is a bad thing. You run into walls, you go in circles, you fail; in general, you’re not the highly productive output machine we like to think of as Game Development.

Fact is, we game developers walk around in the dark a lot. We don’t intentionally do this; culturally we’ve just become accustomed to believing that only game people know how to make games. Largely, this is true. We’ve seen some disasters result from coupling the film industry with game development.

More recently, we’ve seen some better entries in this field (such as EA’s recent Boom Blox) but historically, the track record hasn’t been encouraging. Game dev culture is somewhat insular, like gamers and game devs themselves. Why should we ask some other industry how to do what we know and do best?

Occasionally, we decide to hop on the Escalator of Enlightenment and ascend the Ivory Tower. After all, academia offers so much... information. So much research. Surely there are lessons to be gleaned there. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for research.

I firmly believe in user testing, large scale studies of people and their avatars and research in general. For instance, Ted Castranova’s work on Everquest’s economy got game developers actually talking about, studying, understanding and adjusting their in-game and out-of-game economies. This is a Good Thing.

What’s not particularly useful are the ethnographies that are so often the product of academic research; imagine Margaret Mead playing a game as a hard-core fangirl, then publishing her "results" as an in-depth study of an MMO. It’s been done. Plenty.

A number of academics approach games and cyberspace with either the magic dust of fandom in their searching eyes or the complete blindness of a lack of context for why and how games have evolved the way they have over the years.

This research isn’t invalid; it’s merely not as useful as academia would have us believe. Often, the Ivory Tower is presented as the only source of "growing" our knowledge base and improving our games. It seems there must be something useful lying between our deep, dark dungeon of Game Goodness and the sparkling tower of Academic Light.

What, exactly, occupies the Main Floor of this castle and what lessons can be learned from it? Are there industries we can glean from other than the aforementioned pair? Is it possible that these other industries might teach us lessons about the experiences we craft and make them better or make the dev cycle run more smoothly?

Is it conceivable that some other industries could even make games more appealing to more of the market than we’ve garnered with our FPS/RTS/MMO/Sim/Sports offerings?

Yes. Absolutely. We haven’t begun to tap the resources that other industries offer us. Rather than analyze a slew of industries and what they might offer, let’s profile a few real-life individuals[1] who brought great gifts to the game development community – individuals who can serve as examples and inspiration in casting our nets wider as we investigate resources, informational and human.

Case Study 1, Subject M

Oftentimes, game devs show dislike, contempt and outright hostility for players. "If only we didn’t have players messing this up, it’d work perfectly." This is a direct quote from a dev; in fact, more than one dev on more than one project.

It seems that, in the ordinary course of business, the customer is... important. Often revered. "Always right." But all too often, this is not the case in game dev. Somehow, this seems like a Bad Idea. We have "Community Management" and "Customer Service" departments, but neither lends much credit or importance to the Player. You know, the one who actually plays the games we develop.

In light of this, let’s look at M. When a large online gaming service was building a Customer Relations Management (CRM) system and team, a resume from a totally unexpected source came in –- this individual had been managing Customer Service for a global trendy furniture vendor. This was like a lightning bolt to the hiring manager: "But of course!! Why didn’t I think of this before?".

During the interview, the candidate asked the interviewing panel some very difficult questions. "What do you do when you get a bomb threat?" The CRM folks looked at one another blankly or with raised brows. Who’d threaten to bomb a game company? Well, it happens. And they had no answers.

Again the candidate shocked them, "What about suicide calls?" Now, no one assumes that a person making a decision between couches in a furniture catalog pushes even the most unstable individual to contemplate suicide, never mind the time it’s taking to level up to use the uber-armor. However, if the catalog is lying in front of that individual, there’s a good chance your phone will be ringing momentarily.

And how would a team of kids trained to deal with trivial issues like dropped connections, downed servers and player killings deal with such a serious call (this is not to say that servers going down isn’t very serious... but let’s be real here).

Of course, running a global customer-care operation of this type, the candidate had seen pretty much everything any ostensible customer could produce, and on a very large scale. This candidate proved to be one of the best CRM managers of all time -– that team had a handbook that walked them through virtually every crisis that could come up.

They once even used flashlights and lighters to walk through and document the problems and corrective steps as they suffered a power outage so that the future team would know what to do, quickly and efficiently.

Case Study 2, Subject Q

One of the most challenging roles in a solid game dev team is that of Producer. Often, the producer plays Wendy to a gaggle of Lost Boys, trying to get them on the same page and moving in formation.

Add to that the complexities of dependent development items, MS Project, dealing with outside developers, vendors, IP owners and a host of other interested (or involved parties) and it becomes clear why being a Producer can be a nightmare. Very few individuals are "naturals" at this particular type of project management and even fewer have good training.

The luckiest (and best) have held the supporting role of Associate Producer (AP) beside an accomplished, mentoring Producer and have a clue; the rest simply flounder through and have to learn very difficult lessons, often to the detriment of the project and the team.

In light of this, the next unexpected game dev hero in this list is Q, a former United States Naval officer who helped coordinate 1,100 combat aircraft sorties per day from two difference aircraft carriers during Desert Storm. What other jobs in game development could possibly require that level of organization and attention to detail, with the stakes for failure being so high?

If being a Producer, often compared to herding cats, isn’t doing exactly this sort of thing, we’ve missed the point. Driving towards a strategic objective, giving clear orders under pressure, delegating authority, coordinating schedules and getting results is exactly what this naval officer had been doing for many years.

Knowing how to get results out of diverse individuals with tact and respect to each and every one on time is the thing. Q was a master at this. Ever polite but firm, the cats are herded, the ferrets are rounded up and put to work and the job gets done. Thank you, Captain Q!

Case Study 3, Subject L

The final example cited here started out as a professional architect. Architecture provided L with not only the ability to design physical structures but the ability to draw reasonably well (with perspective even!) and turn someone’s "vision" into a concrete structure.

The ability to translate vision into a working model is a rare skill and one designers constantly draw upon. L was hired to be a Content Designer but, more significantly, as Structure Czar, working with each and every designer or artist to make sure that any structure (above or below ground) followed reasonable and consistent architectural principles.

Each building would thematically match others of its type and origin. Every structure would feel as though it not only belonged in this world but that it would be an emotive experience (pleasant, restful, really scary) in keeping with the objective or mission that brought players to that structure. It wasn’t long before L became the Lead Designer of one of our most historically successful MMOs.

This is not to say that we should promptly stop looking at game developers with experience and troll for the odd gem; rather, it’s an indicator that we might consider widening our search when looking for great talent.

What about when you meet someone who so obviously has great talent and intellect, has an aptitude for games but is working in a completely different industry? Try asking if that person has any interest in game development. My Good Deed for 2008 was getting a fabulously talented individual to give up his law practice and enter game design for which his aptitude and passion was obvious. He’s doing a great job, by the way.

Obviously, we’re just scraping the surface here. What about the hospitality industry? Are there lessons there for Virtual Worlds? Publishing of periodicals provided the subscription model of Virtual Worlds. Anthropology, psychology, sociology and other social sciences help us build worlds that are more compelling, pleasant and sticky.

Is it possible that we can get consumers to spend some of that enormous pool of cash that Neal Stephenson claims is mostly "spent on pornography, sugar water & bombs" on our games[2]? Stop and think about it. Try to come up with an industry worth looking at and learning from to make your worlds better places to play. Consider it a game.

1 All names altered to protect the privacy of the individuals in question.
2 Anathem, Neal Stephenson, 2008, ISBN 978-0-06-147409-5

[Patricia Pizer debuted in the gaming industry at Infocom in 1988, making games back when you didn’t even need graphics. Over the next decade, she worked at such studios as Boffo Games, THQ/GameFX, CogniToy and Harmonix Music. Patricia moved into massively multiplayer games as Creative Director at Turbine Entertainment before working on MMOs at Ubisoft and Disney’s VR Studio, makers of Toontown.

After applying her design skills to Alternate Reality Games for 4orty 2wo Entertainment and an unannounced MMO, she returned to Disney Interactive Studios where she designed DGamer, a DS and online avatar SNA service and worked on the recently released Club Penguin DS adventure, completing 20 years in gaming. Mostly though, she just likes to play games.]

GameSetLinks: The State Of Moral Panic

[GameSetLinks is GameSetWatch's daily link round-up post, culling from hundreds of weblogs and outlets to compile the most interesting longform writing, rants, and criticism on the art and culture of video games.]

Having just done some rather complex layout work on another Top 10 countdown (coming soon to this very weblog, countdown fans!), I'm attempting to relax a little by penning the intro to the latest GameSetLinks RSS-trawl.

This time round - a little Insomnlunacy about the state of the game media, Momus on games and moral panic, a Joystiq look at developers' innermost design thoughts, the New York Times on the top titles of the year, and quite a few other fripperies.

Good golly:

Insomnia | Commentary | State of the Gaming Media
Not from the regular source of Insomnia lunacy, but a little ranty, even as it praises Gamasutra, which I appreciate. Some good points buried in there somewhere.

Video Games - With Grand Theft Auto and Left 4 Dead, a Bountiful Year for Gamers - NYTimes.com
It's odd how a lot of mainstream critics love Grand Theft Auto IV a lot more than niche critics. Don't really understand it.

'SSH, Games, Blogs, Passwords' - Hak5 — Revision3
The latest Revision3 video podcast show features a look at some of the IGF Student Showcase entries, rather neatly.

Telling stories: Balancing gameplay v. narrative - Joystiq
Ex-Gamasutra stalwart Dobson tries "asking whether or not narrative shares an equal burden as gameplay in carrying the video game experience" to a bunch of industry folks - with interesting results.

New Indie Videogame Movement - WSJ.com
A nice IGF-mentioning WSJ piece on the indie games scene which I (and apparently the rest of the indie world) was interviewed for, heh, although my remarks are on the cutting room floor, I believe.

click opera - A brief history of moral panics
Quirky pop star Momus: 'To recap, our brief history of moral panics sees a pattern emerging which is not to do with general social standards changing, but to do with the same panic happening at different dates around different media. If we use moral panics as a way to measure how hot a medium is, we get something like this: Books: hot in 1959ish. Pop Music: "bigger than Jesus" in 1965 (vinyl, pop) and 1985ish (CD, rap). Film-in-cinema: peak in power 1976ish. Film-on-VHS: peaks 1984ish. Internet: considered at its most dangerous circa 1996. Computer games: hot and dangerous now, baby!' Via Xian.

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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