« December 28, 2008 - January 3, 2009 | Main | January 11, 2009 - January 17, 2009 »

January 10, 2009

Opinion: Print Game Media - [Still] Not Dead, [Maybe] Getting Better

['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. Following his initial report on EGM's closing earlier this week, Kevin returns to discuss the state of video game print magazines in North America.]

P1010636.JPG

Have you ever been around the offices of a magazine just after it closes? I highly recommend it. It can be fun sometimes, particularly if you were well aware the day was coming soon. Such was the case for PiQ.

While I'm sad the mag failed, I still heralded PiQ's closure with open arms, 'cos it meant that I didn't have to report to work at 9am and deal with irate ex-Newtype USA subscribers any longer. A definite boon, and a very practical one for my sanity as well.

The picture above is from that fateful day when ADV laid everyone off, but the mood was ebullient 'cos everyone had already made plans for their next job anyways. I imagine things were a tad more muted in San Francisco earlier this week.

As you've likely noted, the past few days have been dominated by news about the game media, mostly bad. Ziff Davis Media's game division is no more; now it's UGO's recently-downsized San Francisco office.

Game forum honks don't like it -- though there's not much they really like about professional game media, when you get down to it -- and nostalgia for 1UP podcasts is spreading like a storm across the Internet.

The final issue of EGM is being published online piece by piece, reportedly, including the massive boffo 20th-anniversary retrospective I wrote for it. (So read it, you ingrates!)

Meanwhile, Hardcore Gamer magazine is trying to sell itself on eBay. No takers yet for the $42k minimum bid, despite promises of "hav[ing] your editors invited to press junkets in Japan, the UK and all across the US". Couldn't guess why.

So, nothing but terrible news for print media worldwide in '09, huh? Ziff goes from six game mags to zero in the space of a few years; Game Informer barely manages 90 pages in its latest issue; GamePro's circulation drops to over half of what it was during the early 2000s; freelance budgets are down everywhere.

The worst part of it all: on all the blog posts about EGM's closing, the prevailing response was either "Good riddance" or "What am I going to read on the toilet now?!", which suggests to me that constipation must be epidemic among console owners.

But, hang on -- Future Publishing, now undeniably the torchbearer for print game media worldwide, had a pretty good 2008 overall, with growth particularly pointed over at Nintendo Power and PlayStation: The Official [US] Magazine. What gives?

In the MCV interview linked to above, CEO Stevie Spring sees it as a simple reflection of the burgeoning console game scene, seemingly oblivious to the fact that her company is the sole exception in a year full of bad news for print game media. (The fact that Spring calls Nintendo Power "Official Nintendo Magazine" in the interview indicates that she may be a bit hands-off with the US side of the business.)

There has to be more to it than "the strength of the console video games sector," as MCV suggests -- otherwise, EGM would have been viable, for one. But what's Future's secret? If you asked me, it's twofold: Future knows how to keep its costs deadly-low on the print business, and they're still satisfied with making a little profit instead of a ton of profit.

That, coincidentally, is likely what keeps mags like Play alive, too. Play is not a name on tips of gamers' tongues. Very few people profess to reading it at all. But they're still around -- because they have a dedicated, rock-solid, and above all predictable audience.

To me, EGM's folding doesn't prove that print magazines are dead. Instead, it proves that the era of media we've enjoyed up to now -- one where magazines sold deep-discount subs and expected to rake in the dough on advertising -- is gone, and a new one is about to take its place.

What is that new era? I talked a bit about my idea for Your Game Mag of the Future nearly two years ago, and I don't think that idea's changed much since. If advertisers cannot be relied upon as a primary revenue stream anymore, it follows that the readers have to take up the slack -- which suggests a highly polished, highly collectible, probably expensive publication is the way to go.

With some of its more recent specials (such as Guitars and Gaming), Future US has been getting pretty close to this idea. Future UK's plunged all the way in with its CVG Presents line, about the closest thing in reality to my two-year-old concept (except for that strategy guide roundup issue -- lordy).

It doesn't take a psychic to see that the print mags that survive will go more and more in this direction -- a path EGM itself was taking under EIC James Mielke, although the magazine was already in too harsh an environment to survive for long by the time he took over.

Is this future for print mags very attention-grabbing? Fabulously profitable? Is it something that the vast majority of gamers will even care about? No. But, at least, it would exist and remain exciting for the dedicated group of gamers who would follow it.

[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.]

In-Depth: Behind The Scenes Of Twisted Pixel's The Maw

[As it happens, it's just become an IGF finalist, but before that announcement, Game Developer magazine published an article on the neat-looking XBLA/PC action title - and here's some fun highlights from the postmortem.]

The latest issue of sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a creator-written postmortem on the making of Twisted Pixel's The Maw, the imminently released extraterrestrial action-adventure game planned for PC and Xbox Live Arcade.

These extracts reveal how the Austin-based start-up behind the game faced the obstacles of succeeding as an independent development house, while setting up a decent physical space and dealing with difficult time constraints.

Twisted Pixel co-founder and CTO Frank Wilson crafted the postmortem of the self-published game, which was introduced in Game Developer as follows:

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

Getting a Nice Office Space

A comfortable, functional office space is crucial for day-to-day operations of a development studio. Wilson explains:

"While it may be a given to most that any company should have a nice office space, sometimes as a very small startup there are costs that just aren't worth it quite yet.

When we started the company, there were only 3 of us, and we started out using half of a warehouse as a temporary office space. This building had a concrete floor, cinder block walls, and a minimal amount of heating and air conditioning. The other half of the building was occupied by craftsmen who were working on the space so most days we worked to the tune of circular saws.

There were many days where we had to pray that the saws didn't start up during some of our most important phone calls. We had to wade through piles of sawdust to get to the rest room which was inconveniently located in the other half of the warehouse.

We started looking around for office space, and it turned out that our lawyer had some space available in the basement of his building that was formerly occupied by a urologist's office.

Due to the office's history we certainly had some modifications to make like removing sinks from every room, but it also had some things that worked out very well for us as we started hiring people over the next several months. The former patient waiting area was perfectly suited for a conference room and lounging area. After removing the glass window and built in desk, the receptionist area was perfect for fitting the gameplay team together in one room.

"We learned very early on that we shouldn't underestimate the positive effects of working in a nice environment and having multiple bathrooms."

Fitting the Game into the Required Space

Since one of the game's versions is for Xbox Live Arcade, Twisted Pixel had to contend with a strict download size limit, which was facilitated by various develompent decisions:

"Coming from our background in retail development, we typically didn't need to worry about reducing the amount of disk space used by the game. It was more often the case that we would have so much disk space available that we would duplicate the same data multiple times on a disk in order to decrease load times.

The final game ended up having over 850 animations, 25 music tracks, over 1000 sound effects, over 200 visual effects, and over 150 character and object models as well as lots of other data that contributes to the disk space used. So, our efforts for reducing disk space usage were certainly needed and definitely paid off.

The biggest boon to accomplishing this was Granny 3D, our middleware choice for animation and mesh compression, and animation playback. Granny uses some very clever methods to reduce the amount of disk space and memory used by animations. The extensive set of export settings that Granny provides allowed us to set the compression level on a per-animation basis or even on a per-bone basis.


From the beginning of our engine, we built all of our data driven components so that they could load data from both an easy to read XML format and from a binary format that would allow superfast load times. With the help of the Granny preprocessor toolkit, we were easily able to convert this data from XML to binary with minimal effort and get the benefit of using compressed Granny files."

Too Little Time

The studio planned for a compressed development schedule from the start but, as is so often the case in game creation, more time could have allowed for less stress:

"We knew that in order to make The Maw be the game that we wanted it to be in the budget that we could afford, we would have to work some pretty crazy hours to make that happen. We were very aware of this from the very beginning.

We basically just had too much work to do in too little time. We were developing our own engine and game editor while also trying to develop the game, so there were many dependencies on the order in which specific tasks could get done. Several tasks that we would have liked to have completed earlier in development had to wait until the feature was implemented in the engine before they could be completed.

Luckily, we were able to get enough of the engine up and running early enough that designers could set up many aspects of levels without too many issues. We worked very hard to get the first level up, running, and to a somewhat polished state pretty quickly. This gave us a pretty good test of the features of the engine. For most features, we implemented support in the engine for the data files early on with support being added to the editor later so that designers could still use those features by hand-editing files without being blocked by editor development.

We were diligent throughout the project about cutting features that just weren't working or that wouldn't add much value to the game. But we were careful to not strip the game of things that make it fun and give it the personality that we wanted it to have. Despite all of this, by the end of the project, everyone was working some pretty crazy hours in order to polish up all of the features that we had.

As a company, we need to make sure that this timeline is not the norm. Moving forward, it's looking like it won't be."

Additional Info

The full postmortem, including a great deal more insight into The Maw's development, with "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" reasoning, is now available in the December 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes a compilation of Game Developer-exclusive postmortem excerpts from throughout the current generation, highlighting common development stumbling blocks. Plus, Sega design legend Yuji Naka speaks about his upcoming Wii games.

As usual, there is Matthew Wasteland's humor column, as well as development columns from Power of Two's Noel Llopis, Bungie's Steve Theodore, LucasArts' Jesse Harlin, and BioWare's Damion Schubert.

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

GameSetLinks: Time For A Triple Flashback?

[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.]

Yeeks, our whole GameSetLinks rigmarole seems to be getting a little more random still - with this set bouncing wildly between retro goodness, post-modern oddness, and insider biz workings.

But hey, if you don't like the look of a link, you don't have to click on it - and if you don't, you won't learn about exactly what the Atari Flashback 3 was all about, or alternatively the best stetson to wear to the office to cheer up your employees.

Don't say we didn't warn you:

BREAKING: NEW GAMES JOURNALISM DEAD AT AGE 27 « Hardcasual
This is silly. Yay.

A Tree Falling in the Forest: Game Marketing: The Proctologists are Doing Brain Surgery Edition
Another fascinating, wonky rant on the state of the game biz from dealmaker/game exec Keith Boesky.

Final Fight: Seven Sons [PS2 - Cancelled] | Unseen 64: Beta, Unreleased & Unseen Videogames!
Very interesting: 'FF: Seven Sons was a prototype for a new Final Fight game that was in development at Capcom Studio 8 before FF: Streetwise. In fact Streetwise was the second attempt for a Ps2 Final Fight. The original FF project for the PS2 was know as “Final Fight: Seven Sons”, but it was never released.'

The Making of… Prince of Persia | Edge Online
An always-nice Edge print mag making-of pops up on the online site, hurray.

RetroBlast! - An Interview with Curt Vendel
The scrapped Atari Flashback 3 sounds super awesome: '... a hand held 2600 compatible game system that would work exactly like an iPod/iTunes.'

Anthony Castoro’s Website » “In the Groove” vs. “In a Rut”
Heatwave's Anthony seems to be motivating his game developers using Michael Scott-like methods. Such as dressing up like a cowboy. Awesome.

January 9, 2009

COLUMN: Bell, Game, and Candle - 'A Primer on the Future of Games as Art'

['Bell, Game, and Candle' is a regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column by writer Alex Litel, discussing stuff that happens - or doesn't happen - in the game business. This time, he tells a horror tale of what happens when games become a socially accepted as an artistic medium.]

As you may have read, I recently traveled a few months to the future, but I did not really venture beyond the couch where I typically type my illustrious prose and MacBook Pro (which has the Time Travel widget I use for temporal exploits) I typically utilize to type my illustrious prose.

Going to a couch three months in the future is hardly time travel; it is more like hibernation for the lazy, asocial sorts.

And since this is a Mac, the widget was sadly only limited to two options— “Williamsburg” and “Silver Lake”—because people assume only hipsters use Macs (not true, shallow people verisimilar to hipsters like me and Bay Area residents use Macs too).

By the way, I chose “2019” because I was curious to see how accurate those predictions from the Superstruct are. And as a semi-Angeleno, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in the accuracy of Blade Runner.

The process of time-travel is relatively simple: set the options, click “ok” on the widget and wait a few minutes (and don’t shut or disconnect or interrupt the computer, otherwise you might mess up your keyboard and get permanently stuck in the famed white room where Mark Mothersbaugh is on loop).

Yes, in the future you have to carry around the computer if you care to get back, but one does not have to keep the laptop open.

***

After a few minutes of ambulation, it is salient that the Silver Lake of 2019 is the same as that of a decade prior—no visible gentrification, same lampoonable facial hair, and same MacBook usage.

Okay, one exception to that “no visible gentrification” thing—this minuscule exemplar of bastard postmodernism that looked from the outside in like one of those sparse shops on Melrose that only has eight articles of clothing. And maybe one of those eight articles will be an awesome hat.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed an array of screens and some twentysomething hipster sitting on a Mr. Nilsson sofa appearing to play some portable gaming device. If that hunch proved true, I had the next “Bell, Game, and Candle” column by just talking to a guy about games.

“Pata-pata-pata-pontificate,” roared his sleek portable device that bore the lettering “two” on its backside. “We’re not indoctrinating; we’re just improving nations. No such thing as moral relativism; your appalling, archaic way of life is our much-needed cataclysm.”

He threw the device to the other side of the couch and leapt up. “Helloha there, I am Alex,” he said with a dash of excitement. “Your name happens to be?”

“Oh, my name is Alex Litel and I’m an extraordinary extraordinaire,” I muttered to dissociate myself from established hipster enthusiasm.

“That ironic,” he intoned visibly mindblown. “Alex Litel is that is my name, too.”

Christ fucking Jesus, it should have been obvious with his gymnastics and incongruous yet expensive style that that was me in the future, and likely fate trying to teach me some sort of lesson.

“I think you are me, “ I skittishly suggested. “In other words, we are the same person.”

Confused, future me inquired exactly how such a thing could be possible. So much for temporal technological improvement.

Although cognizant of how ridiculous it might sound, I did describe my situation.

Future me seemed concerned. “Wouldn’t that mess up time? Like the butterfly effect?”

“Do I see that movie in the future?” I asked with a tone that implied it was the most important question I could possibly conceive.

Future me denied such and explained some acquired dislike of Ashton Kutcher.

“What is this place?”

“An art gallery.”

“Oh, what happened with the whole writing thing?”

“I did not want to be amongst a litany of aeolists penning adoxography.”

“What about my Great American Novel?”

“Well, I realized it was too commercial and mannered; it was not myself.”

“Not even a peculiar screenplay?”

“Again, too commercial and mannered.”

“You settled for working at an art gallery?”

“No, this my art gallery.”

“You became an artist?”

“Yeah, I just did a painting one days—‘Steven Seagal in Cosby Sweater’—and it ended up selling for $2.4 million. I was inspired by The Neo-Pen & Pixel Aesthetic employed by Ubisoft in promotional materials for their Imagine series”

“What does that even mean? Who would pay for it? And that much?”

“Explaining yourself is for teenagers get home past curfew; proselytized coherence is nothing short of artistic extirpation. Some rich hipster.”

I wanted to be Thomas Pynchon or Donald Kaufman, but became Julian Schnabel; I turned from elaborate dilettante to deliberate elitist.

“There seems to be a lack of paintings or sculptures or traditional art stuff.”

“Yeah, I am in my game simulation phase—game simulations that can be played on devices like those you see throughout the gallery. Would you like a tour?”

“Sure.”

Tandem stations, one with a microphone and the other with headphones.

“Public Radio Station Pledge Drive Simulation” the caption read.

“You know public radio pledge drives, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You know how they incredibly irritating?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I was driving around one day and my Morning Becomes Eclectic was being interrupted by this pledge drive—and the idea struck me to simulate the feeling that pledge drive incites in the average listener.

One player performs as the pledge driver and the other as the listener, but given the necessity of these for public radio funding, it is possible to do this and win depending on the player or if you are convincing enough.”

“What are the screens for?”

“One player reads the text off screen, you couldn’t really expect players to improvise this stuff, right? The text is culled from actual transcripts of public radio drives and the selected text is procedurally generated. For the second player, it is used as an input of whether the listener wants to contribute or switch the station.”

“What’s next—a crenellation simulation?”

“No and yes, I don’t have on display here, but Crenellate Me, Cornelius a collaboration between Keita Takahashi and Nintendo for WiiWare Next-Gen. I have it on the Wii in the back if you want to see.”

A fairly large flat-screen television and a few Pastil Chairs.

“Watching Hope Floats Simulation: Can You Believe Forest Whitaker Directed This?” the caption read.

“How is this a game or a simulation?”

“It is a both in their most absolute form—a competition for the willing—and you are really experiencing it.”

“So, you just sticking people in front of a TV and having them watch a movie? That’s not a game or a simulation.”

“That’s shoddy pedantry, this is absolutely a game simulation.”

“Well, have you completed it?”

“No, it is a very difficult challenge.

And I did not get a chance to explain my inspiration. I was looking through Forest Whitaker’s IMDb page and noticed that it claimed he directed this film, and the Litelbulb went off.”

“Litelbulb, really? Are you, like, encouraging people to mispronounce the last name? They have a hard enough time as it is.”

“No, you are injecting mutually exclusivity where the is none.”

Some sort of electronic glasses hooked up to a computer and a Wiimote.

“Andy Rooney Simulation,” the caption read.

“The guy at the end of 60 Minutes?”

“What other Andy Rooney is there?”

“So, I have always been impressed by his keen musings and I wondered what he would observe in various environments, so I collaborated with Ray Kurzweil to create an authentic digital recreation that shares his vocality and mental process.

You are inserted to an environment procedurally generated culled from Google Maps data, and you put on the glasses and things flash that Andy finds interesting and you point your Wiimote over them and collect them. At the end you get a Rooney commentary generated from your collecting.”

“I don’t think that is a game or simulation eith—nevermind, nevermind, but it is sad to hear he died.”

“Oh, he’s still alive, but he wouldn’t contribute to the game simulation.”

My experience of Andy Rooney at the Summer X-Games was fairly accurate, until he started going wonky and ranted on about LSD use in the 1970s.

A dimly-lit room with a stool and an electric acoustic guitar.

“Hope Sandoval Simulation,” the caption read.

“This one is based of the source code of Harmonix’s Soft Rock Band that they released into the public domain a few months ago.

It’s from the first-person perspective and you are playing your songs at the Hotel Cafe.”

“Sounds interesting.”

I played, and I noticed something unusual.

“Why can’t I win at this game?”

“That’s intentional, you cannot win because you—Hope Sandoval—make terrible music.”

“It’s music criticism under the guise of a music game mod?”

“I guess.”

As we walked out of the dimly-lit room, I noticed someone else walking into the gallery.

“Woah, Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene.”

“That’s not him.”

“Oh, Chuck Klosterman.”

“What would Governor Klosterman be doing here?”

“Governor?”

“Yeah, of North Dakota.”

***

Future me greeted the man, “Yoloha, Mike Moose.”

“Well, who is that?” I demanded with all of the indignation of a commenter on a gaming blog.

Future me gave a reply that took a few minutes to parse, “Michael ‘Moot Moose’ McWhertor.”

“I’m Alex Litel from 2009,” I told Michael.

Michael greeted me and seemed not at all off-put to the ridiculous truth, as if a career of writing about games accustomed one to expect fantast in reality.

“So, are you still at Kotaku?” I inquired, despite an unimpeachable hunch that no one would stay on staff at a blog for ten years.

“No, I did not want to be amongst a litany of aeolists penning adoxography,” he said. “I am fashion designer full-time.”

“What is the last thing you played?” I asked in a reckless attempt to make small talk.

“The last thing I played was this seriously depressing game from Quantic Dream called Hurray, I am on the precipice of something lavish that is about this cube who travels ten years into the future and meets himself and discovers he becomes a sphere—the exact opposite of who he is,” Michael answered as if he were giving an embarrassed confession.

“That doesn’t sound like much of a game, or at least something that could sustain itself for very long,” I countered with listless cunning.

“But I only played the first twenty minutes,” Michael admitted.

The ending I intended

I got it.

“Have you ever thought of a ‘Huell Howser Simulation’?” I asked my future incarnation.

“I think that would be pretty awesome and a great idea,” I continued. “He would, like, be constantly amazed and constantly ask if he could get a shot of something.”

The ending of futility
Fuck, I should have just written some more fake press releases or some shit that is less time-intensive.

Like, super-duper-duper meta and canonical press releases.

The ending with an elephant

An elephant appeared out of nowhere and collapsed.

“I have to perform CPR on that elephant!” Michael urged, as if bureaucracy’s challenge was obscuring him.

He gallantly leaped to the fallen animal while somehow slowing down time in a manner that even Mitch Buchannon would envy.

The ending with pies

“What exactly is Michael doing here anyways?” I asked future me.

“We are conceiving the twenty-fifth issue of Pie Quarterly Review and preparing for the Eleventh Annual Pie Writing Symposium,” future me explained.

“Pie Quarterly Review?” I inquired in salient bewilderment.

“Yeah, a quarterly that critically dissects pies, the culture around them, the pastry press and whatnot; Michael serves as publisher and I am editor-in-chief,” future me clarified.

“Present Alex, any ideas for the issue?” asked Michael.

“Pie writing shouldn’t be about pies!” future me trumpeted.

I felt betrayed, and complained, “I thought you said that you didn’t doing writing anymore.”

“I never said that, you just inferred it,” future me admonished.

The ending of simultaneity

A large, gridded touchscreen.

“Tic-Tac-Toe Simulation,” the caption read.

“Isn’t that redundant?”

“No.

Once I was playing Tic-Tac-Toe against myself and I lost.”

“How do you lose against yourself at Tic-Tac-Toe?”

“It was a rather heated game.”

“Wouldn’t you have won the game too?”

“Yeah, this simulation is intended for one person, and to show them the experience of winning and losing at the same time.”

The ending of inevitability

This is the most pretentious thing I have ever read; it makes no sense. This hack defames GameSetWatch name and standard of quality with his self-indulgent garbage.

Posted by: George | January 9, 2009 2:58 PM

Absolutely awful, atrocious even.

Posted by: Steven | January 9, 2009 4:31 PM

[Alex Litel has posted a semi-deconstruction on his personal blog. He can be reached at [email protected] and occasionally found at alexlitel.blogspot.com. Also, the portrayal of Michael McWhertor in this column is in no way a reflection of the author's feelings toward Michael McWhertor.]

Bosslady Blog: GDC Adds Brutal, Far Cry, Killzone, Fable Lectures

[In her latest Bosslady Blog update, which we're also carrying here on GameSetWatch, Game Developers Conference event director Meggan Scavio discusses some of the newly-confirmed lectures, revealing the art and science of games like Killzone 2, Brutal Legend, and the newest Fable and Far Cry titles.]

Happy 2009, everyone! While the holidays tend to disrupt the workflow of a good portion of the world, the Game Developers Conference team never takes a break. It’s like a coal mine over here. In a good way! A good coal mine.

So what have we been working on? More sessions, of course, and here are some of the newly-confirmed highlights coming to our March 23rd-27th event:

- Freshly added to the Programming Track is 'The Rendering Technology of Killzone 2'. Michiel van der Leeuw and Michal Valient from Guerilla Games will present an overview of the extremely pretty rendering techniques used in their highly anticipated 2009 PlayStation 3 shooter. As they explain in the session description: “We put the main focus on the lighting and shadowing techniques of our deferred shading engine and how we made them play nicely with anti-aliasing.”

- The Production Track has added “'Producing Fable II', presented by Louise Copley and Jonathan Taylor from Lionhead Studios. This likely to be enlightening postmortem looks into the timeline, production methodology, team structure and organization of one of 2008's best-received games, revealing what went right, as well as their biggest challenges building the major project.

- Just announced in the Game Design track is a talk from Ubisoft Montreal’s Patrick Redding, who was most recently narrative designer on the critically acclaimed Far Cry 2. It's entitled “'Read Me: Closing the Readability Gap in Immersive Games'. His lecture argues, provocatively: "Game output appears information-rich, but how much of that information can the player actually use to play better, and how much of it is just there to be spectacular or cinematic?" - and then goes on to suggest some solutions to make games more 'readable'.

- To round out this week's update, we head down the street to Double Fine Studios to bring you 'The Brutal Art of Brütal Legend', as part of the Visual Arts track. Double Fine art director Lee Petty gives us a behind the scenes look at creating the art for their (pictured) "lovingly-crafted", Jack Black-starring original IP. He'll also touch on how the Tim Schafer-headed small, independent studio has evolved with the current generation of game development.

More soon!

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

That Tecmo Flavor: Kikuchi And Shibata On Surprising The Audience

[As always, we'll reprint interviews from Gamasutra over here on GSW if they're sufficiently leftfield, different and suitable. Christian Nutt's talk with Tecmo's Team Tachyon is one of those, esp. because Quantum Theory might actually be the most interesting game of 2009 you're not paying attention to. Or another odd Tecmo game - we'll see!]

Tecmo's Fatal Frame and Rygar producer Keisuke Kikuchi has been at the company for years now -- and his team, Team Tachyon, is now looking to increase its profile to the level that Team Ninja successfully did under the leadership of the idiosyncratic Tomonobu Itagaki.

But Kikuchi is a quieter, more subtle man -- and as this interview reveals, his chosen tactic is to challenge his team to produce top-quality titles that counter audience expectations -- most notably, the company's 2009 PlayStation 3 exclusive third person shooter Quantum Theory.

Team Tachyon Producer Kohei Shibata is on the same page -- here he speaks about the inspiration behind his title Undead Knights, which has a surprisingly unrelenting dark theme. The game is also a PSP exclusive -- rare, these days.

Shibata reveals that the current Tecmo has a quietly creative, left-of-center view of how to approach the marketplace, that allows for the balance of business needs and creative inspiration.

Here, we present our in-depth discussions with the two men, who were joined by Tecmo U.S. vice president John Inada and PR manager Kyoko Yamashita.

Keisuke Kikuchi -- Delivering the Unique Tecmo Twist

I really do want to talk about Quantum Theory... Because it really looks like an interesting concept [a recent GamesRadar preview explains its 'living game world' underpinnings], and the genre -- the third-person shooter -- is also unexpected, for Team Tachyon.

Keisuke Kikuchi: I may have touched on this before, so it may be a little bit overlapping, but -- here at Tecmo we've mastered two genres: the action genre, with Ninja Gaiden, and the fighting genre with DOA. We also have Fatal Frame, a great adventure game.

And, looking at the future, and thinking about what our next challenge was going to be, we actually set from the very beginning that we were going to challenge ourselves to the genre of third person shooter.

We know the genre has a very big user base and an audience outside of Japan -- especially in North America. So, it wasn't something that we forced ourselves into; we knew from the very beginning that we were going to go up against some great games out there, but we are very prepared for that.

From even before this team became Team Tachyon, I've worked on several Tecmo products that have had a unique twist. Every game that we put out there, I think, comparing to similar titles in that particular genre, have had something very unique and special about them -- a new discovery. And so, with Quantum Theory, what we wanted to do was continue on that path.

When you think of third person shooter, most people think in terms of military warfare games, the same environment. But the approach that we're taking, as you saw in the trailer, with the visuals -- what you see from the very beginning -- it's very different. It's almost like we want to portray an action film in a game, with a hero and heroine; and we think that that's a very unique point in that genre.

It sounds like a technically ambitious project. It's a high-level next-gen shooting game alongside an evolving world. Can you talk about your technological process, and how you feel it's going?

KK: So, at this day and age, we can't really have restrictions and limitations on who works on a certain process of development, and who works on a certain stage of development.

So Tecmo, just thinking as whole, Team Ninja has already put out a game, Ninja Gaiden Sigma, on the PS3, and internally we've already shared the knowledge, and the know-how, and we're very aware of the technological challenges that they had. So, in a way, we have already been exposed to that.

And moving forward, we think that we can push it to the next level with Quantum Theory. So it's not like we're completely starting from scratch, but the luxury of having a team, internally, that has already worked on a PS3 title, definitely has been a help.

Isn't that something of a rare situation? Tecmo always shared engines for PS2 titles as well, but there's still a dividing line. And in Japan, even contemporary developers hide what they're working on, between teams, which is just unthinkable in the West. So, I'm interested to hear about that.

John Inada: I would say that, you know, a few years back, that's how we were. We created healthy competition amongst ourselves, and separated the teams apart, and they wouldn't share anything. In fact, we had to put them in different buildings so they wouldn't start fighting, you know?

But we're changing our way, and our new strategy allows everybody to collaborate with each other; and sometimes if you're on one team, you might be the recipient of such a new relationship, and sometimes you could be on the other side. And so, you know, I think it's a good thing.

JI: The technology is owned by Tecmo, and not by each team, so, it would be silly...

KK: So, continuing on that thought about traditionally Japanese developers -- and even maybe non-Japanese developers -- when you're in a team, and there's a team formation, the staff members, if you're part of a certain team, you were fully dedicated, and there was really no sharing of knowledge, or even switching over, here and there.

But, in the case of our teams,[Team Ninja's new lead, producer] Hasagawa-san, whom you >interviewed earlier, we had already worked on Fatal Frame 2 for Xbox; we worked on it together, collaborated. So, there's a sense of open communication between the teams, and also with some external development teams that we are working with; Grasshopper, for example, for Fatal Frame 4.

Working with Suda-san. You know, we share very similar ideas in how to make a compelling title that has global appeal, and the most respect for some of the ideas and concepts that he has, and his philosophy.

So, yeah, we're at a time and age where shifting ourselves to a certain way may actually work against us -- obviously there are a lot of elements that we want to keep to ourselves. But at the same time, sharing that with your partners will only make something into a better product. So, that's the stance that I'm taking right now.

Something else that struck me is the "inspiration from within" style that Tecmo seems to be pursuing with its creators; to give the ability to have their own inspiration -- we talked at TGS about how Quantum Theory is Makoto Shibata's idea. Is that a key to Tecmo right now? Is allowing the inspiration to bubble up from within allowing the games to reach their potential?

KK: It was said that the idea came from Shibata-san, but that's not 100% accurate. It's not from bottom-up or top-down; it's more great teamwork, and a combination of producers and directors.

So the producers can come up with the strategy of where we should be going next, and what we should be targeting next, in terms of game concept, or genre, or ideas, but without the directors that can implement and execute that, it would be unbalanced and one-sided.

So, I think Tecmo has the talent in both producing the game, and also directing it so that it provides new content, taking it to the next level, and coming up with original IP and ideas. And so, having that from within definitely is something that Tecmo is proud of, and is known for, and we'll continue to work in that manner.

That reminds me of something that you said a few years ago -- we were talking about Fatal Frame 3 -- which is that Shibata-san believes in ghosts, and you do not believe in ghosts.

(laughter)

JI: If they both believed in ghosts then they'd have an unbalanced product, huh?

Yeah, exactly; the idea was that Kikuchi brings an analytical understanding of what's necessary to make the game, and Shibata-san brought the belief and inspiration. Each side is required to make the game work.

KK: Yeah, it's funny that you brought that up, because if both of us believed in ghosts, it probably would've turned into a very unbalanced product, in terms of a game, and providing an experience that was the core idea and philosophy behind the product. It would've been very lopsided if both of us believed in ghosts.

So it's almost like I can be always hand-shaking Shibata, but at the same time we're always arguing and punching with each other. So, you know, it's that balance that's necessary.

There needs to be a party on both sides [of the process]; if you both look at it from the same standpoint, then it's just going to go in one direction. And so, going back to having a producer and having a director that can come from both sides and then meet halfway would make a perfect combination.

Developers are still trying to create characters that have a meaningful function to both story and gameplay. In that context, can you talk about Quantum Theory's action film-style dual main characters, and how they function effectively? As an example, I'm thinking of Dom and Marcus Fenix in Gears of War.

KK: I think it goes along the lines of, how you explained in Gears of War, how that's the really key element in trying to move the game forward. So, in designing Quantum Theory, obviously we have similar ways, and we know that it's very important to balance out both of the elements; if it were strong on the one side and weak on the other, then it wouldn't make a successful game.

So, we're making sure that the world and environment, balance out your character. So while we can't go into details of what exactly the male and female character will do, we know that it's a key ingredient to the success of the game.

America, Watch Out -- It's Kohei Shibata

So, is Undead Knights your only project, or simply your main project?

Kouhei Shibata: My main project is Undead Knights, but I'm working on another, unannounced project.

We talked about how Undead Knights [a zombie-controlling third-person action game] came from your love for the PSP and your desire to make a good action experience on it. But Kikuchi-san was talking about the importance of balanced goals -- how are you managing that?

KS: Well, obviously, I didn't come up with this idea just because I love the PSP and I wanted to make an action game. Action games are available on all platforms.

Looking at the Xbox 360, yes, you have the core action gameplay elements that can be executed very well; and then, going to the portable experience, with the PSP versus the DS, it just seems like the DS lends more toward the casual gamers, and I'm not sure if the real gamers are there [wanting] an action gameplay experience.

So, from that, we looked at the market, we thought that the PSP was the way to go for this project, so that's one of the main reasons why we came to this project.

And the most important thing, I think, is to be able to deliver a gameplay experience that's not just your typical action hack-and-slash, "kill your enemies and move forward" game; there needs to be some sort of twist to an action game.

There are plenty of action games out there that offer that experience, so it's going to be very important that we have something that's more appealing than that.

Undead Knights' main character [trailer] seems really demonic and evil looking, whereas it seems more common for Japanese games to feature a sympathetic character, while Western design seems more outside-in.

JI: I don't know if you know that the Tecmo U.S. office now has a small group of producers. So, in fact, I think it's okay to say that our Tecmo U.S. studio, and someone specifically like [producer] Ray [Murakawa], worked closely with them on character design, and back and forth, and that's probably where the American influence is coming from.

KS: Because the game will obviously also come out in Japan, you know. It's not going to be entirely, "Okay, this is what we think is going to work for America!" We're coming up with ways to balance that out, as well. But that'll be something that we can talk about later on.

I have to say, and you can tell me I'm completely crazy, but it reminds me of [older Tecmo series] Deception. Not the gameplay, but the fact that it's so evil.

(laughter)

I was wondering if there was any connection. Because I remember that I talked to Kikuchi-san about Trapt, the last Deception game, for the PS2. It seems like Tecmo has been returning to this "evil main characters" situation.

KK: Well, both Shibatas like evil; Makoto Shibata and Kohei Shibata, they like evil. I balance it out because I'm the good. Kohei is evil! American gamers watch out!

(laughter)

Of course I'm kidding.

(laughter)

Where did the idea come from, to make an evil main character? Because, obviously, just like we were saying, it didn't just come from trying to appeal to a Western audience? It's not a cheap idea; it's obviously your inspiration. I think, even in a Western game, it's still pretty rare to have a full-on demon main character.

KS: Well, obviously, you always want to stand out when you want to create something. In gaming, you're in the same genre, competing with other action games, and if you don't have an element that's going to really stand out, how are you going to be able to compare yourselves with other games?

And so, in that case, we thought that making the biggest difference with your character that you control would step up the gameplay experience. And we may have a thing about wanting to be known for making something quite different, even if it's within the same genre. So, we do want to keep that element going -- so that we're known for something different. And we will continue to push that.

This is just a personal preference, but playing a good hero, and doing the good... It can be okay, it's pretty much just okay. I mean, you expect that from a hero. But when you have an evil character, and you can do good and evil, and being able to manipulate that shines well, and it stands out better than just an ordinary hero doing good.

Something that you just said reminded me of something: At the 2008 D.I.C.E. summit, the director of Pirates of the Caribbean movie series, Gore Verbinsky, spoke. What he said is that Disney wanted him to make a very typical movie, and when they first saw the first dailies of Johnny Depp's performance in the movie, all of the executives started freaking out: "What's wrong with him? Is he drunk? Is he gay? What is going on there? You're making a movie!" But, of course, it turned out to be the key; the success of the entire franchise is Depp's performance.

So, saying that you have to have an item that stands out, to make the game have meaning, or "ties it together" is the way that he put it. Is that a concept you're relating to here?

KS: So, you playing the evil and dark hero in Undead Knights -- we're pretty confident it's going to add flavor, and it's going to be quite unique for an action game. But we still are making an action game, so we will make sure that this game executes as a very good action game -- but, adding that unique twist is definitely going to help in pushing that perception of what an action game can actually do.

And, in a way -- I may be exaggerating a little bit, but -- if the game didn't even have a Team Tachyon or a Tecmo label on it, I'm hopeful that people will thinking that this does feel like a game that, "Maybe I've had a similar feeling or a similar experience of in the past." Like, it has its own Tecmo flavor to it.

So, that being the ultimate goal, we'll integrate and use elements that will give it that flavor. But, yeah, the analogy that you used is something that is agreeable; I agree to that.

GameSetLinks: The Slightly Cynical One

[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.]

Well, it's getting towards the weekend, thankfully, but that doesn't mean a steaming cup of GameSetLinks isn't awaiting you all the same - headed by an Adventure Classic Gaming article on death that it was necessary to poke fun at minorly, hee. Good piece, though.

Oddly, the rest of the links in this particular batch are me being a little whinier than normal. But everyone involved should be aware that you have to be interesting in the first place for me to notice and kvetch, so there. (Oh, but Andy Schatz's new game is announced. That's an upper!)

Gloom and doom:

Death in adventure games - Feature - Adventure Classic Gaming
Gotta love an article with the subhead 'Is death necessary?' :)

Eulogizing 1UP and EGM, sort of » Infinite Lives
I know there have been a lot of these, but his one sings to me as a piece of writing - thank you, Jenn Frank.

@ CES: Recession? What Recession? Game Industry Execs Believe Ad Dollars Will Keep Flowing In ‘09 | paidContent.org
Bleh. Ad dollar increases are easy when they're at miniscule amounts to start with, and Geoff Keighley's summarized comments are a little hype-y, to say the least - hopefully lost in translation.

Announcing Dinosauria | Pocketwatch Games
Nice, Andy Schatz's new game (from the Venture Africa/Arctic series creator and IGF Awards presenter) goes all Jurassic retro.

Spring in her step | Gaming Industry | Interview by MCV
Future's CEO on why doubling down on print in the U.S. makes sense to them: '[Nintendo Power] has been up 29 per cent since we took it over, with OPM up 50 per cent.' Not sure what metric, mind you, but it's always fun to see justifications.

The Escapist : Video Galleries : Unskippable : Eternal Sonata
I don't understand the monetization angle on video-heavy online game sites, given what I know about CPMs and boring stuff like that. But hey, this 'MST3K with games' series from the LoadingReadyRun folks is rather awesome.

welcome home | dailyradar
Interesting, Future has brought the "Daily Radar" name (once loved as a game news site) back as an auto-updated aggregation site for all their properties, by the look of it. Is this fairly new?

January 8, 2009

Interview: EA Korea Studio Head Talks Transitions, Challenges

[Conducted as part of Game Developer EIC Brandon Sheffield's visit to the G* event in Seoul late last year, here's the first of a few intriguing interviews with notable players in the South Korean game market. After all, it's a locality perhaps under-discussed in the West - if not by us.]

Electronic Arts is currently invested in expanding its presence in Asia and exploring free-to-play business models in the region, including Korea, where it recently acquired online developer J2M.

EA partnered with Neowiz in Korea to launch FIFA Online in 2006, which has since seen tremendous success in the regions with over 4 million subscribers. A year later, EA invested $105 million in Neowiz, planning to co-develop four online titles together.

Finally, EA opened its own $20 million Korean studio early in 2008 to focus on developing online games, starting with versions of the NBA Street and Battlefield franchises for the Korean market.

Gamasutra recently caught up with EA Korea studio head Danny Isaac to learn more about the challenges inherent for a Western company tackling the Korean market, an audience well-acclimated already to free-to-play PC gaming and high levels of mobile functionality.

Isaac discusses why Battlefield Heroes might be a less-than-ideal fit right off the bat for the Korean audience, cultural differences in doing business, and his own adjustment process as a game developer in a new territory.

Did you anticipate that sports would be this successful in the online space?

Danny Isaac: Yeah, I think so. I mean, sports is one of those worldwide things that just translates pretty well. Depending on which type of sport it is, it would depend on how well it does.

Obviously in Korea football -- or soccer -- is very big. When we originally launched FIFA, we got it just at the right time, with the World Cup coming out, for a new product. I guess one of the advantages that EA Sports has... I used to build sports games, and they're quite honestly one of the hardest things to build.

They look simple from the outside, but everyone has an opinion of them, because they go out and play with a football on a Sunday morning, or they watch it on TV, and they know that a half hour is a winning run or whatever.

So, to recreate that in a game is very tough compared to driving a Ferrari, or shooting a gun on the D‑Day landings. You only have a movie-esque view of what that is.

I'm not overly surprised. We knew we had good products, but I think Neowiz have done a good job of translating those games over for that market.

What do you think of the Korean market right now from a Western perspective? Firstly, the free-to-play market, which is obviously really crowded, and secondly, the console market, which is obviously really small.

Danny: Yeah, I'm actually quite surprised about the console market. When I interview people, I always ask everyone no matter what job, whether it was HR or legal, or development, "Do you play games?"

I'm actually quite surprised that a lot more people here than I thought actually play console games. That's actually our hardcore group. Obviously, you can see why the console isn't catching on as much when you get so many free‑to‑play games through the PC. They're not like they're these cheap little web games that people get -- they're big, fundamentally strong products.

And here more than anywhere, it seems like playing games is more of a social event. In the West, we see it as a social event where you get a couple of guys around, you crack open some beers, and you sit down and go mad, that's what you're doing. Here, a lot of people go out and have a nice meal, drink some soju, and afterwards they get to the PC bag and go out and play games together in a room. Very much their culture here is to gather into one place and do things together.

As for the free-to-play model, it's becoming very difficult, because it is so saturated, to start making a noise in this market. Any time you give something away for free, and you give a lot of it, people then stop seeing the value of that, and they flitter out very quickly.

If it doesn't grab their attention, then they're going to move on to something else. If they've paid 60 bucks for it, then maybe they would have spent more time getting to the depths. It's a challenging model. It will be interesting to see how much it comes into the Western market as well.

It's kind of getting there now.

Danny: Yeah. I don't know yet how successful it's going to be, because [the Western] console market is so ingrained and strong. It's going to be difficult for us to develop similar‑quality products to make console players pay for one and then everyone else gets it for free.

Here, as this is the only real tangible market, if they're free-to-play or subscription model, then everyone puts their efforts into putting the best thing they can for that particular market.

With Battlefield Heroes, Neowiz is also working on it with EA, is that correct?

Danny: No. Battlefield Heroes is independent of Neowiz. We actually have another product. We're actually taking Battlefield, the original product. We're discussing whether Heroes is right for the market here.

One of the interesting things I've said to one of my guys about Heroes is that the cartoony graphical style was very much like some of the earlier Korean games, so it is perceived as being somewhat older. I still think it's a great-looking game.

It's fantastic, for free, very high quality. But Koreans would see that kind of cartoony style and think it's a little bit older.

The other thing is that all the Korean men, at least, do national service here. So they know what an M16 looks like, they know what an M1 tank looks like. They're very hardcore into the military side of things. A World War II shooter is maybe not as appealing as a hardcore, modern combat type of product.

So, with Neowiz we're working actually on the Battlefield franchise. We're taking a Battlefield II engine and we're converting it to a free-to-play model.

So you do see Battlefield Heroes as a Western-focused product? I assumed that, given that it was free-to-play, it was intended to go more global, to China and other Asian territories where that model is popular.

Danny: Yeah, I think it will. It will go to China and those places. I think we've got two strategies: We've obviously got the studio here. We've got some of the guys in Singapore. We've got a studio in China. So, we've got a lot of development here in Asia already.

We also want to make sure we get on the ground floor of the free-to-play model in the West as well, so I think DICE is doing great things exploring that and putting some products out. But with some early focus groups we've seen in other territories such as China and Thailand, places like that, Heroes will work there.

But at the moment I think the team, quite rightly, wanted the territories closer to home, because they understand them much better. I think once they get the market running and get these issues out of the way, tweak it, balance it to the level it wants, then it will transfer to Asia much more easily.

EA purchased a mobile company, and so now there's an EA Korea mobile. What do you think about the mobile market? It seems much better here at the very least than in the US for instance.

Danny: Yeah. It's actually amazing. You've been here probably on the underground, the subway system. People sit down and watch TV on their mobile phones. They always have their mobiles around. It's a big part of the culture. So, it is much more viable.

There are other issues, like the business model. The telecom providers take a significant piece of the pie as well. You have to look at each one and whether it makes sense for certain things, But yeah, it's much more viable here than, I think, in the West.

I've been here for seven or so months now. I see over the Internet that the iPhone is picking up, and Westerners are starting to get used to this application which is a phone plus other things, but here, this has been in place for a long time. As I said, people watch their TV on their phone and it's commonplace.

How are you feeling about working here in Korea yourself?

Danny: Good days, bad days. I say to people it's good, but the language can be challenging. Running a studio, people tend to look at you as the boss. So, whatever the boss says, we should do. Whether it's a good idea or a dumb idea, we should do it.

When I was in EAC in Vancouver, my DB would go, "Damn, that's a stupid idea because of these reasons." I'd say, "thanks for pointing out we can't do this." So, it's just getting around that culture thing. Putting the studio together was pretty tough.

A lot of what you accrue here is by networking. So, when you don't have many people in your studio, it's obviously difficult to network. But once we got one or two key people, they were able to bring other people in. And then development practices are very different.

What kind of differences do you see?

Danny: Process. Obviously I was doing sports on a VA. We were very dedicated, and had been driven over a number of years to deliver a product to a certain date. It would be significant if we missed by a week. We had it very process-oriented, lots of checks and balances, very schedule‑oriented, so we could manage, guide, and direct ourselves to get there.

That may be too much in some ways. It stifles creativity a little bit, because you say, "this is the plan and you're going to do it."

Over here, it's like "what are we going to do today?", what direction do we want to go into. As a good thing, it's great to allow you creativity and flexibility to be able to change the direction of your product.

On the other hand, sometimes it's very difficult to report back to the company when things aren't going well. When things slip, you don't get very much warning, because some of the project management isn't as strong. But I think it's a balance.

Here in Korea, teams and companies will have to start getting a little bit better at delivering on time. They have really two distinct selling periods, winter vacation and summer vacation, when kids go on holiday.

What's happening now is that a lot of products in an already saturated market are coming out at that time. So, if you have a new product, you hit winter vacation, because the kid's on holiday, you get your PCU out, get a good buzz, etc.

OK, then you go, "how do I stand out from the noise?" Well, you spend money on marketing. Of course, now if you start having one or two million dollars of marketing spend, you'd better damn well make sure that your game is going to turn up on time. We already committed to that.

So, it's very much like what we had in the West with our console products a few years ago. We got into that regimen of delivering on time when you say you're going to deliver, to get the maximum buzz. I see Korea having to deal with those same challenges as well.

Yeah, I've heard that it's definitely much looser in terms of scheduling and even just pipelines in the process. It's not as process-oriented.

Danny: Yeah. And again, it's got to be expected. I always joke that 10 years ago at EA we thought we knew what we were doing. By the end, someone like that would come to us and look at our processes and say, "Oh my God, what are you guys doing? This is crazy."

And we said, "shut up, we know what we're doing. We're making loads of money, so leave us alone." Even if we looked at ourselves back then, we thought this was archaic. Now obviously with hindsight and experience and what we've gone through, we have very sophisticated processes.

But really, you've got to learn it. You can't just go in like EA with a big book and go, here's how to deliver a game. The tools that we have are good, but it's really the people that execute that's really the key.

Are you trying to get EA Korea to adjust to a different sort of process than they're used to?

Danny: Yeah. So, the studio we've got here, a lot of the people that joined us -- because EA is a big games company -- want to learn how to build games in a different way. They've been intrigued by the way we develop our products, the game development framework, and the tools that we used.

And so we're trying to build that as well. The challenge is that we also have a very different culture at Neowiz, and we've got to interface with that. We can't just say, no, we can't do that feature, because in my schedule here it says it shouldn't be done until next week. If Neowiz needs it, and we need it for the market, then we have to be flexible for that.

So, it's a little bit of a hybrid at the moment, but ultimately we'd like to mimic our other studios and deliver the same sort of quality, on schedule, on time, and on budget, and be proud of that.

Korean development seems unique because it's been going for awhile, yet there are not that many kind of "standout" names of designers like we have pretty much everywhere else. Does that affect the way things are done?

Danny: Working with [notable Neowiz developer] Mr. Chung, everyone knows [he has worked] on some very significant games. Actually, I would say [that culture exists here] more so than in the West. In the West, you see the big guys who the PR people get hold of and say, "Hey, he's the creator of this game." Knowing that there is a hundred and one who worked on it, but this is the one who performed here.

I was quite surprised that a lot of their underground developers [are aware] of what the other developers are doing. And I think a lot of that is that the industry isn't really all that big. There are a few good clients, and people tend to move around from different companies to different companies.

A lot of them, their school networking is very important to them, because a lot of them went to the same school so they know people who have gone to different places. And they share an amazing amount of information.

It's definitely seems to be much more insular here.

Danny: And that's the phenomenal thing, which as I said we struggle with, is that network. You can't break into the network. It's very, very difficult to get into. It's not what you know -- it's who you know.

One of our guys, one of our PPD's, he spends just a lot of time having dinner with people, lunch with people. I'm going, "Why are you having all these expenses? Why are you having all these lunches?" He says, "Well, it's just the way things get done." You take them to lunch. They might do you a favor.

Kind of sounds like a fun job, actually.

Danny: [laughs] Yeah, it's actually quite interesting. I managed to have lunch with one of the guys who worked on MapleStory. Obviously he's a guy I would like to have work for us, but I was more interested in how they built games and he was interested in how we build games. And it's actually quite nice, quite refreshing.

Did you have to learn Korean to come here?

Danny: No, my Korean is very poor. I get by. I've got some guys out here who help me. One of the things we looked at with the Korean team, I've seen the guys that have a good level of English, obviously so I can communicate to them and make sure we're in alignment, but also, w're in the age of worldwide organization. If they would want to grow and do well in their careers, speaking English would help tremendously.

Plus, we're here to learn and to take our learning back to other studios and to other parts of the company.

So I just talked to my guys the other day about one of their objectives -- to do reports on their projects. And that we can go back and hopefully sit down and present at one of their meetings on what it's like developing a game out here. Obviously very difficult to do if you don't speak English.

Yeah, one thing that I noticed is that everybody stares at you on the train.

Danny: Yeah, it's funny. Actually I live in an expat area called Etowah, and gradually as you get closer to the station you get more Westerners -- but otherwise not very many people.

When I moved here I tried to avoid that tourist trap kind of "Western thing", but to be honest, it's quite hard. I've never lived in a country that didn't speak English as its main language. Development's tough at the best of times, but to have to go home and worry about being able to buy a pint of milk or whatever it is, is probably not something I want to deal with -- but it happens. I am quite comfortable with it, actually. It's worked out well.

The RePlay Files: A Trip To The 1986 JAMMA Arcade Game Show, Part 1

[Continuing a series that started last year with a classic Rampage announcement and Atari interview, 'The RePlay Files' is back, reprinting archival highlights of (pictured) seminal arcade/amusement trade journal RePlay Magazine, with the kind permission of the magazine's creators - check out their website for info about subscriptions, news, and the contents of the latest issue.

This final officially-approved extract (before we have to go and renegotiate with them, so yell if you like this stuff!) is a pretty amazingly early look at the Japanese arcade game scene. Specifically, it's an account of RePlay publisher Eddie Adlum's trip to the 1986 JAMMA show, which introduced games like Out Run to the world. It's a long travelogue with many pictures, so we'll be running it over multiple weeks - here's the first one.]

Introduction - West Meets East

RePlay's Publisher Eddie Adlum finally "broke the ice" and made his very first visit to Japan. The occasion was the Oct. 7-8 [1986] JAMMA show in Tokyo and the accompanying story (which he tells in first person tense) should give American people a bit of insight into this Asian land whose culture and work ethic, not to mention its vaunted mastery of electronics, has placed it in the forefront of video game design.

As Eddie's friends know, his language may be English but his attitude is "Bronx" - a pragmatic, tongue-in-cheek combo that approaches the amusement business from both the "amusement" and the "business" side. So. if anyone might possibly be offended by any of his remarks or observations, please rest easy. This is the way some people talk in his "part of the world."

Accompanied by his wife and partner Tippy. Eddie toured the JAMMA show (Japan's "AMOA Expo"), hit the evening parties attendant upon that annual event in the glamorous Tokyo hotels and then took the Bullet Train down to Osaka for a visit with the Capcom people to get an "eyes on" view of their much-publicized R&D engine As you'll learn, he also enjoyed a bit of the icing on the industrial cake, courtesy of Kenzo Tsujimoto, Capcom's owner, and the "quiet giant's" staff members.

The whole thing began a couple of months ago when Eddie was having lunch at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills. Calif with Sega USA's Dave Rosen and Tom Petit. Dave said something like "It's time that a person like you who puts out a magazine like RePlay come to the Tokyo show.'' Petit added his push (he has very intimidating eyeballs) and the decision was made. Considering that Eddie never likes to leave Los Angeles during a heavy deadline (the AMOA issue in this case), it was a marvel that he said "yes." But, from a simple yes. the wheels began to turn.

Rene Lopez and Tim Jackson from Romstar said if Ed was coming, they'd include him and his wife in on some of their activities. Since Romstar is closely allied with Capcom. that invoked the appearance of the great eminence Bill Cravens, who simply intoned "you're coming!" And so the RePlay founders buttoned up the house, left their son Kenny in charge during their absence and scooted down to Los Angeles International Airport. Here's what followed:


Eddie Adlum performs his immortal Atlantic Records single 'You Can Get Him, Frankenstein' by machochistic demand of (from left in kimonos) Mr. Akagi ('Amusement Press' Publisher). Capcom's Bill Cravens. Tippy Adlum (sneaking up from rear), Mary Ann Henderson (crooning harmony) and a geisha girl plunking rock on her three string banjo. Scene was Capcom/Romstar dinner at an Osaka spa held after the '86 JAMMA.

Bronx Boy Makes Japan Ice Breaker

I'm careful with a dollar. I mean. I'm one of those guys who pick paper clips off the floor and keep them in their back pocket. The whole idea of going to the Japanese show is downright frightening to someone like me. Visions of $6 00 cups of coffee, plus huge crowds of people and a language that brings new meaning to the word "foreign" kept me away from the "fountainhead" country of video game design for years. But I broke the ice (as we say in New York) and I'm glad I did.

Dave Rosen and Tom Petit (Sega) talked me into it. Maybe they thought my stories didn't adequately reflect proper knowledge of the Japanese influence on today's business. I don't know. Maybe they were just being nice. However, after a lunch with them. I decided to take the plunge. Thanks to Rene Lopez and the guys at Romstar. I lucked into a package that began at Los Angeles Airport Sunday morning. Oct. 5.

Tippy and I put our 16-year-old son Ken in charge of the house (after issuing stern instructions, most of which were ultimately ignored) and bit the airport. We joined up with Joe Cinllo and Peter Betti from Betson's organization, Rene Lopez. Mary Ann Henderson (Steve's wife), Chris Mathews (Shorty's wife) and our good friends Jon and Gwen Brady. After a drink at the airport, we boarded a JAL flight along with several platoons of Japanese troops (who were probably returning home after training at some SoCal base) and had the time of our lives on the way over.

We arrived the "next day"... literally. The international date line crossing is perplexing... you have to take it on faith that it's the "next day" even though the sun never went down. After a horrendously frightening cab ride to the Tokyo Hilton (we are convinced that we couldn't have slipped a sheet of loose leaf paper between the cab and the cars it "passed"' along the way), we checked in and immediately headed off to the Sega dinner party at the Courvoisier we'd been invited to in advance.

Another "cab ride" (they drive on the wrong side of the street, by the way). Sega was half finished with their dinner party, but we were welcome anyway. They knew the flight was late (people over there seem to know all things.) Everybody who is anybody on the international coinbiz circuit was at that dinner party. Key dealers like Bob Deith (U.K.), Hans Rosenzweig (W. Germany), Mai Steinberg (Australia) and Hank Grant (Belgium) were joined by others from New Zealand, Finland, and, well, you name it. AAMA's Dave Weaver and Bob Fay (the latter being the golden boy for anti-infringement) were there as well.

Figure that one torpedo sent into that restaurant could have wrecked the international market and you've got the picture. Sega's Japanese Chairman Isao Okawa, Rosen, Mr. Nakayama (Japanese people prefer "Mr.'' to their first names), Vic Leslie and Petit were hosting. Foreign languages were rampant in the air (Tippy does okay in a couple). Gifts were passed out and whispers about the new Sega driving game called Out Run were shared.


Arcades and pachinko palaces combine to evoke a 'Las Vegas' atmosphere on an Osaka street. Cocktail videos dominate the setting inside the many game rooms, Vending machines out on the street vend both Western and native soft drinks (including our favorite "Plussy").

We departed in a Sega-hired taxi with Pete Betti back to the Hilton, landing at the Capcom suite where Bill Cravens was in robust attendance. Capcom chief Kenzo Tsujimoto was there along with some of his key people, and we had fierce fun this first night in Tokyo. My favorite drink is Budweiser and Tsujimoto-San had it in the hotel for me (my first clue about Japanese hospitality was that they actually "anticipated" what a guest might want). Suffice it to say, we were comfortable, even after some 18 hours of traveling.

The odd part of it was that I didn't even feel like I was in a foreign country. Even though Tokyo is an uncomfortable maze of gray buildings, poorly-named streets and houses whose street numbers state the year they were built rather than the normal number as we know it. I just enjoyed it all, leaving it up to the taxi guys to get me to where I was going. And get this: they don't expect a tip!

Nobody tips in Japan, except if you're super-generous. Even at the restaurants. Even with the baggage handlers. Now ain't that neat? However, prices are generally steeper for just about anything you buy. So even without tipping, you're going to have to pay! And, when you visit Japan, you're also going to have to find an alternative way to converse (most Japanese, in fact, do not speak English). Sign language works most anywhere.

Next morning, we cab out to the Ryutsu Center for the opening of the JAMMA show. Only a cabbie who's been living in Tokyo for 50 years can find this place. Once there, we sign in and enter a maze of rooms swarming with Japanese trade people jockeying to get into proper view of the new equipment on stage (much of which are rides and other non-video attractions). The place looked something like the hills and turns on Marble Madness. "Confusion" is a mild word to describe the scene.


It was hard to get a clear shot of the Sega Out Run at JAMMA, as the unit was almost always crowded. But, you'll see it at the AMOA.

For example, Tippy and I foolishly tried to make our way back to the Taito exhibit after an hour of touring and ended up behind glass doors looking in but locked out. The place was a beehive of Japanese people with the American contingent inside clustered on another floor commiserating about who would take Shane Breaks' job at Atari when he leaves for Europe and whose new game might score on the American market.

This newcomer found the trade show floor troublesome. I mean, you couldn't exactly "ask" just anyone where Konami is, for example; you had to find it. Maybe foreigners find the three-room AMOA Expo I just as confusing?


Konami's WEC LeMans 24 swivels left and right on raised platform In concert with the action on the monitor. An outstanding piece!

At any rate, we did get a look into most of the appropriate exhibits and like most of the Americans present, came out with the conclusion that a lot of I "testing and tweaking" was still going on with respect to the new videos destined for the AMOA market and the market afterward, As more (far more) than one American put it: "The only two games that really stood out at JAMMA this year were the drivers from Sega and Konami."

[Next up, a look at all of the titles that kicked ass and took names at the 1986 JAMMA expo, and a trip down to Osaka to visit the Capcom game factory and look at arcade and pachinko culture.]

GameSetLinks: Indie, Indie, Indie

[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 to return, in the wake of the IGF announcement, and oddly enough, this set of GameSetLinks is dominated by various random thoughts about independent video games and the wonderful world of them that we live in - including IGN coverage and a massive IndieGamer thread.

Also hanging out in here - Game-ism on Prince Of Persia, plus a new iPhone developer is birthed from High Moon, and the ever-avuncular and awesome LucasArts veteran Hal Barwood gets interviewed by the ACG folks.

Combine harvester:

IGN: Independent's Day Vol. 15: Mad Science
Some good delving through the IGF entries here, in this excellent indie column which is somewhat buried on IGN's site.

Hal Barwood - Finite Arts - Interview - Adventure Classic Gaming
Looking forward to checking out the English version of Mata Hari, since it's very LucasArts homage-y.

The end of indie? - Indiegamer Developer Discussion Boards
A really interesting thread about the PC indie and casual game scene and monetization. Of course, awesome stuff will still ensue even without monetization working, but...

Game-Ism: 'Tale of Two Princes'
Pseudonymous game biz type Spitfire deconstructs the new PoP excellently, explaining how it's the 'sister' of Assassin's Creed: 'I know we’re not going to get it, but what I wish we could have, with all of my heart, is for Ubi to re-combine these two teams again, and give us Prince of Creed. Assassin’s Prince.'

Fridays With Farzad: Appy Devil « Appy Place
Ah, some ex-High Moon guys have set up a new iPhone developer, intemeresting! Here's how their logo got made...

vector poem » What I Get Out of Indie
An old post from the creator of notable IGF entry Purity (and BioShock 2 developer) JP LeBreton, but I only just found it, and it's v.relevant to the indie/mainstream thing.

January 7, 2009

Interview: Capcom's Nakai On Remaking Dead Rising For Wii

[A migration from Xbox 360 to Wii is not only uncommon, but deceptively complex, especially for a title like Capcom's Dead Rising. Producer Minoru Nakai talks with Gamasutra's Christian Nutt about the process, from reducing polygon counts by hand to adjusting the game's mechanics to make it more approachable to casual players.]

Originally released for the Xbox 360 in August 2006, Dead Rising has players taking on the role of photojournalist Frank West as he fights off zombies and rescues survivors in a shopping mall infested with the undead.

A Wii version, titled Dead Rising: Chop Till You Drop, is due this February, using a modified version of the Resident Evil 4 Wii engine (itself a modified version of the RE4 GameCube engine), instead of Capcom's in-house MT Framework engine used for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC titles.

With the different engine and the system's hardware limitations, Chop Till You Drop now features an RE4-styled over-the-shoulder perspective -- but also loses the original's photography feature and offers less onscreen enemies, according to initial previews.

To find out more about the changes to Dead Rising on its journey to the Wii, as well as Capcom's process for the migration, we talked with producer Minoru Nakai:

So, you're porting Dead Rising to the Wii. Obviously, the big challenge there is that the MT Framework engine isn't available on the Wii. I was wondering if you'd talk a little bit about the process of porting a next-generation game to the Wii console.

Minoru Nakai: This time, it's not really a port so much as it is a remake. We made it from the ground up -- from scratch -- basically saying, "This is what we had in the 360 version, and this is what we want to do, so we're just going to remake it from scratch."

Were you able to bring over most of the content, like assets, models, recording of voices, and other things, or did you have to remake a lot of that for the Wii version?

MN: Things like voice, of course, stayed the same. We were able to use the original versions. But things like polygons ... the Wii can't handle as many polygons, so we took the models from the 360 version and we reduced the polygon count and things like that, and we were able to recycle and reuse them that way.

Did you use an automated process to reduce the models, or did you have to go in by hand and have someone on the team and the art staff manually reduce all of the models using your tools?

We had to have a designer and programmers go in and do that by hand.

Most often, companies make distinctly different versions of a game for Wii than they'd have for the PS3 or Xbox 360 -- as you said, it basically has to become a remake. What other changes did you have to make to the game in bringing it over to the Wii?

MN: For this one, of course the foremost [goal] is making the Wii Remote control fun for users. That was a big thing. The other thing was also making it easier to use and control, for even casual players. We've also included difficulty levels, so you can choose Easy, Normal, and Hard. Those are some new additions to the game that we've made.

Did you actually change the fundamental design of the game at all, either to evolve the original or to tailor for the Wii audience?

MN: We've read a lot of different reports. People said things like, "The fonts are too small. We can't read them. There are too few save spots," and things like that. So, we've taken some of that feedback that we've received from people and taken that into consideration when making this game.

The Wii seems to have a shortage of high-profile, mature action games. Did Capcom decide to port Dead Rising to the Wii because you perceived a void in that market, or did you just think that this would be a fun game to play on the platform?

MN: When we first made the Resident Evil 4 port for Wii, it was a new system, and we thought it might look interesting.

We also felt that it would match pretty well with the world of Dead Rising. That's when we started thinking, "Oh, maybe we should make Dead Rising for Wii."

I see. When it comes to planning a new version of a game and remaking it for the Wii console, you probably had to prioritize what you would need to change. Did you have a good sense going into the project about what could stay the same and what could change, or were there any surprises that you found?

MN: From the very beginning, of course we knew of some things that we wouldn't be able to do, but along the way, we've had a couple of surprises -- things even that we'd looked at and been like, "Oh, we can't put this in the final version." Things like that. Every day, even now, we continue to have new surprises popping up.

Can you talk a little bit about what some of the surprising things that you uncovered as you were developing the remake were?

MN: One thing, for example, is when you have to take survivors to the security room. We had to redo the layout for where we would put the enemies in order to keep it more interactive.

Also, the order in which you have to rescue the survivors, or where the survivors themselves are located. Things like that took a lot of adjusting, fixing, re-fixing, and figuring out how to make it more fun.

So, basically, you're taking the chance of making the remake as a way to put a little polish and balance into the game, where maybe the original version didn't, and try to make it a little more fun basically. It's a chance to rebalance the game?

MN: This time, we really wanted to make it more for the casual users. The original version was much more for hardcore users, so it's just been a transition of trying to make it more fun and easier and accessible, even to casual users.

Did you work on the original 360 version of the game?

MN: I did not participate in the original.

I'm sure you've talked to many people on the team who worked on the original version. Was there any feedback that you guys got from the audience anywhere in the world -- not necessarily just in the West -- that really surprised you and that you were able to act on for the Wii remake version?

MN: One surprising thing was feedback from people who liked the ability to change Frank's costume. So, this time, we've made it so that you can change into more costumes.

I may be wrong, but I believe I read that you guys are actually repurposing the Resident Evil 4 engine for this game.

MN: We are kind of using it, but we've also adjusted it and tweaked it a little to adapt it for Dead Rising.

Something that interests is that Dead Rising was a really good looking game when it came out for the 360 -- better than a lot of the games that came out at the time -- and it had really good shaders.

But the Wii doesn't do hardware effects. Are you trying to preserve those sorts of things, or did you have to create software shaders? Or do you just have to accept the fact that it's not going to be able to pull off the same kind of polish and effects?

MN: Of course, we had to compensate for that with software, and in places that we couldn't, we would do layers and effects like that to make it appear as though it had shaders on it.

If I recall correctly, it's been quite a while since I've played the 360 version, but there wasn't much loading. The mall was very large and you could go through it, but obviously the Wii has a lot less memory. Did you have to reconfigure the maps or write a streaming system or anything like that?

MN: The map size is the same, and we were willing to keep it so that people could still play what they were playing before. The Wii hardware spec itself makes for fast loading times, so it's really largely unaffected.

On one hand, a Wii game should have very Wii-like controls and be very fun to play -- but on the other hand, Dead Rising was originally designed to be played with button presses, which are more precise and faster. Can you talk about how you were able to change the controls and still make the game feel accurate and fun to play?

MN: Last time, with the Xbox 360, we had buttons, and it was very complex. Of course, you could do whatever you wanted at the press of a button, but the controls were very difficult, so they were really more for hardcore users.

For casual gamers, we wanted it to be easier to understand and easier to use, so of course, even hardcore gamers will be able to point and do whatever they want to do very quickly, but this also makes it more accessible for the casual users.

Did you have to do anything to modify the design of the game to incorporate the Wii controls, or was it really just about mapping them directly to what you had before? Or did things have to change, in terms of maybe enemy speed, or their health or anything like that?

MN: We didn't want to keep the zombies too slow, because if we made them too slow, it wouldn't be much of an action game anymore. In that respect, we sped up some of the zombies.

We've also introduced new enemies into the gameplay, and we've also made the map a little bit more maneuverable, so that it's easier to get across the mall and things like that. So, in those ways, we've tried to improve the gameplay.

The original version of the game had really good character animation. I was wondering if anything about the character animation -- in terms of follow-through with an attack, or anything like that -- had to change based on users' reaction time is with the Wii controller.

MN: The motions were taken from Resident Evil 4 and Dead Rising, so those were from the originals.

But we did make it match up to how the player swings the Wii Remote, so if the player's swinging something, then Frank will also be swinging at the same time.

GDC 2009 Reveals Localization Summit Specifics

[As Think Services continues to publish news on GDC 2009 events, we'll be mentioning them here on GameSetWatch as well - this new Summit is somewhat of an important one because localization is still tremendously tricky to get right, both technically and culturally.]

The organizers of the inaugural Localization Summit at the 2009 Game Developers Conference have announced initial speakers and sessions for the innovative two-day localization summit, including a keynote from Electronic Arts VP Jaime Gine and notables from BioWare, Sega, Babel, and more.

The GDC Localization Summit will take place on Monday, March 23rd, 2009 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco as part of Game Developers Conference 2009. Englobe’s Tom Edwards and Roehampton University’s Miguel A. Bernal-Merino are the Summit's principal advisors.

The recently confirmed keynote for the Summit will be 'Localization: The Pathway to Truly Global Game Development' from Jaime Gine, VP of International Development Services at Electronic Arts.

Gine runs EA's worldwide localization efforts, including the company's Multilingual European Development Centre and the Singapore Integration Studio, translating the publisher's titles into more than 23 languages.

He will talk on "the key decisions and processes that contribute to a successfully localized game title and in turn, a strong return on investment and a more globally-inclusive game development process."

Another key panel is 'Localization Tools', with speakers including BioWare localization producer Jenny McKearney, Babel Media VP Ben Wibberley, XLOC president Stephanie O'Malley and Binari Sonori localization manager Andrea Ballista.

Having been posed the statement that "localization has been a neglected part of development, resulting in a lack of standardized formats, strategies, and tools at every level", the panel will discuss the ideal localization tools for the job.

Also now confirmed is a 'Risks and Rewards of New Territories' panel, with CD Project co-founder Marcin Iwinski and Sega localization producer Rio Hasegawa discussing "the advantages of opening new territories and the challenges associated with localizing game content for [emerging] markets."

Outlining the importance of these lectures and the others that make up the inaugural GDC Localization Summit, Roehampton's Bernal-Merino explains: "Localization can preserve or strip the soul of a game. It is easy to mistake similar words, objects, and habits with direct equivalents in other cultures. Think for example of coffee; if you order 'a cup of coffee' in the U.S. it is different from what you get in Italy, Spain, or Japan -- not only the beverage itself, but the rituals around it, and its impact on language and culture."

"In order to truly appeal to and capture a particular audience, you cannot simply code a few translated phrases from a glossary. A more robust approach is needed to create the right experience for players in each locale."

Englobe's Tom Edwards adds: “As awareness improves, localization efforts are ever-increasing across game companies. This essential step, along with a growing realization of the need for the ‘culturalization’ of content, is the key to pushing global growth strategies and maximizing the revenue stream of your game.”

More information on the full line-up for the Summit is available at the official GDC Localization Summit webpage, with many new details on the entire March 23rd-27th GDC event also now available.

Postmortem: (I Fell In Love With) The Majesty of Colors'

Shot of The Majesty of Colors[Game designer and GameSetWatch columnist Gregory Weir recent released web-based abstract Flash game (I Fell In Love With) The Majesty of Colors' to acclaim, and over 700,000 gameplay sessions thus far -- and in this article he analyzes the genesis and outcome of the intriguing project.]

"Last night I dreamed I was an immense beast, floating in darkness. I knew nothing of the surface world until I fell in love with the majesty of colors."

(I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors is a pixel-horror Flash game that puts the player behind the tentacles of a titanic, writhing sea creature. It’s a tale of love, loss, and balloons with five different endings. In this postmortem, I'll discuss the inspiration for the game, how the design developed, and what the sponsorship process was like.

Design Underpinnings

"The Majesty of Colors" has its origins in a sketch and a title. I'd been playing around with a few ideas for my next game, and TIGSource's Lovecraft competition was just getting started. Inspired by Lovecraftian themes, I had the idea of an enormous creature from beneath the waves discovering the world above. When I think of the deep ocean, I imagine darkness and a lack of color. When I think of color at its simplest, balloons come to mind: floating spheres in primary shades.

Contrary to what many players have guessed, the game was not actually based on a dream I had. I was aiming for a dream-like atmosphere, but the concepts came from a more prosaic source: brainstorming. My actual dreams are typically much weirder than "Majesty."

Majesty of Colors sketch

My initial design sketch depicts a multi-tentacled beast reaching from beneath the sea toward a number of balloons. The accompanying title then sprang fully-formed from my head. I knew that the creature had to be a simple being, and that the game mechanics had to be equally simple. The tentacles immediately suggested a pair of strong verbs: PICK UP and RELEASE.

With this simple mechanic and atmospheric theme in place, I was reminded of Daniel Benmergui's game I Wish I Were the Moon, which had similarly surreal premises and simple gameplay. I decided that a chunky, low-res pixel style would suit the game well. With this aesthetic in mind, I made a graphics mockup in the GIMP.

Majesty of Colors mockup

On a whim, I posted this mockup in a thread on the TIGSource forums dedicated to work in progress. I received several positive responses to the concept and art style, which made me step back and make sure that I was doing the idea justice with the game.

My mockup had the creature wielding two tentacles, with the idea that the player would somehow control each one individually. In the interest of simplicity, I cut that down to a single tentacle, with the creature's body positioned so that additional tentacles were suggested but not shown. Over the course of development, the design was simplified further; the original concept involved a long time passing over the course of the game, with the scenery changing with the seasons and more communication with the humans.

I wrestled with a big design dilemma during production: how much narration should I include in the game? "Majesty" would have been a cleaner, purer game without any text, but I wanted to provide hints at certain parts and make sure that the player understood what was going on. In retrospect, I probably should have given the player more credit, and gone lighter on the narration text. I've received several suggestions to that effect.

Development Progress

My primary concern during initial development was in bringing the mockup to life. Given the simplistic pixel art, I felt that it was important to provide detailed motion, so that the game wasn't just a static picture with a tentacle floating on top of it. I sliced the original mockup into layers that moved independently of each other, creating a rather complex animation. While at a glance the game could have been created on an 8-bit system, it actually uses alpha blending and large moving textures to generate a convincing ocean with waves and seagulls.

Majesty of Colors screenshot

The most important graphical element was the creature's tentacle. I knew that convincing tentacle movement would be the key to the game's graphical charm. I wanted an appendage that would move in a complex fashion, yet would still read well at the low game resolution. I decided upon an inverse kinematic system. Used often in 3D animation, IK systems are much less common in the Flash world. However, a simple iterative IK system allowed me to simulate a multi-jointed arm stretching toward a certain point on the screen, and could be drawn quickly and simply while maintaining the illusion of life when animated.

The other priority from a graphical perspective was the depiction of color. In order to properly portray the creature's discovery of color, I needed to begin the game with no visible color and introduce the concept through actual gameplay. I'm quite pleased with how the transition from black-and-white to color turned out. By using a color transform that slowly faded to an identity matrix, I got a slow and steady fading-in of color. To accentuate the transition, I accompanied it by crossfading from a distorted wave background sound to an undistorted one, to represent the creature's realization of the nature of the world above.

My main regret from development is the lack of organization to my program structure. Due to the drawn-out development of the game and the complexity of the multiple endings, I didn't modularize or order the code as well as I would have liked. The main gameplay code is frankly a mess, full of conditionals for all parts of the game. If from the beginning I had adopted a structure for game scenes and events, I think I could have made a more detailed and complex plot with more responsiveness to the player's actions.

It's worth noting that development cost me nothing other than my personal living expenses. I coded using the freely available Flex compiler and the excellent IDE FlashDevelop. The sounds came from soundsnap.com, an excellent source for free sound effects and loops. I made the art myself in the open-source graphics editor, the GIMP. These resources make Flash game development an excellent choice for developers interested in making money off of small-scale projects.

Sponsorship

"Majesty" was the second game that I got sponsored. I placed it up on FlashGameLicense.com and sent out a round of e-mails to a number of sponsors. In the world of Flash games, much of the money is in sponsorship, where a web portal pays money in exchange for a splash screen and link in a developer's game. That way, if a game becomes popular, it drives traffic (and ad revenue) to the sponsor's site.

I've been quite pleased with FlashGameLicense as a tool for recording bids, but most of the bids I received were in response to the e-mails I sent. In the future, I intend to continue with the system of using FlashGameLicense as a central bidding location and self-promoting my games via e-mail.

Patience played a large role in the sponsorship process. I put the game up on FlashGameLicense on November 15, 2008 and sent out e-mails on Nov. 22. It took two days after that to get my first bid. My final bid had not been received until December 2. After an anxious period waiting to see if any more bids rolled in, I accepted on the eighth. The game was finally published and I was paid by December 10. In total, it took almost a month from when I finished the game to when it paid off. It's entirely possible that I could have gotten a higher bid if I had waited longer or been more aggressive in contacting other potential sponsors.

As it is, I feel quite satisfied with how I did on sponsorship. The bid I finally accepted, from Kongregate.com, was for several thousand dollars. Once you add in advertising revenue and a secondary site-locked sponsorship, I earned over a hundred dollars for each hour I spent on the game. These results are not typical for me; I earned significantly less on my other sponsored game, Necropolis, and I have two Flash games that I've finished but never gotten sponsored or released.

Reception

"Majesty" has been played over 700,000 times, according to my stats at the time of this writing. It's being played at over 60 sites around the web. It has a rating of 3.79/5.00 at Kongregate and a rating of 4.35/5.00 at Newgrounds. There are 198,000 Google results for the title, and it's gotten linked by Kotaku, by Jay Is Games, and by Play This Thing, among many others.

The reviews have been mixed. Many folks enjoyed the concept, but wished it had more interaction or was less slow-paced. Others dismissed the game as pretentious and boring. A whole lot of players enjoyed it, though, and one of the most common demands is for a sequel to the game.

If I had the game to do over again, I would spend more time on incidental interactions, to better maintain the illusion of a world that responds to the player's actions. I also think the game would have benefitted from a more detailed physics engine, so that the player could actually throw things in a parabolic path. Finally, I would adjust the pacing of the game so that on the second or third play-through players wouldn't be bored waiting for things to happen.

My biggest success was in translating the original concept and mockup into a fully developed game with simple gameplay. The mood and graphical style turned out exactly how I wanted them to, and many players seemed to get what I was aiming for with the game as a whole. I can only hope my future games come out so well.

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

2009 Independent Games Festival Announces Finalists

[The Independent Games Festival finalists are revealed, and there's a whole bunch of extremely interesting, innovative titles jockeying for contention again this year, yay.]

The 2009 Independent Games Festival (IGF) has revealed the finalists for this year's ninth installment of the pre-eminent indie game competition, and from a record field of 226 entries, 30% over last year’s totals, a number of notable games scored multiple nominations this year.

These include orbital osmosis sim Osmos (3 nominations), abstract PSN action-er PixelJunk Eden (3 nominations), time-reversing guitar-compatible antishooter Retro/Grade (2 nominations), and atmospheric ball-ambulator Night Game (2 nominations).

Other examples of the finalists, which are viewable on the official IGF website, include charming exploration-game Blueberry Garden and music-based block puzzler Musaic Box, both double nominees, and several of the finalists for the new Innovation award, including Ratloop’s Mightier, Jason Rohrer’s Between and Tale Of Tales’ The Graveyard.

Finalists were decided by a panel made up of over 40 industry-leading game creators and journalists, including the makers of previous IGF honorees World Of Goo, Braid, Aquaria and N+; industry veterans from studios including Maxis, Big Huge Games, and SuperVillain Studios; and noted writers from Wired, Newsweek, and MTV.

In addition to the announcement, digital download store Direct2Drive has aligned with the Independent Games Festival to serve as the festival’s official download partner this year.

This includes a new Direct2Drive Award given out at the IGF Awards this March, and the service has opened dedicated Direct2Drive indie game area, including many previous IGF finalists and winners and other notable independent games.

The finalists for the 2009 Independent Games Festival are:

Seumas McNally Grand Prize:
Blueberry Garden (Erik Svedang)
Osmos (Hemisphere Games)
Carneyvale Showtime (Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab)
Night Game (Nicalis)
Dyson (Rudolf Kremers/Alex May)

Excellence In Visual Art:
Zeno Clash (ACE Team)
PixelJunk Eden (Q-Games)
Machinarium (Amanita Design)
Cletus Clay (TunaSnax)
Feist (Filthy Grip)

Excellence In Audio:
Musaic Box (KranX Productions)
Blueberry Garden (Erik Svedang)
BrainPipe (Digital Eel)
PixelJunk Eden (Q-Games)
Retro/Grade (24 Caret Games)

Excellence In Design:
Retro/Grade (24 Caret Games)
Snapshot (Six AM)
Night Game (Nicalis)
Musaic Box (KranX Productions)
Osmos (Hemisphere Games)

Innovation Award:
Between (Jason Rohrer)
Mightier (Ratloop)
The Graveyard (Tale Of Tales)
Coil (From The Depths)
You Have To Burn The Rope (Mazapan)

Technical Excellence:
PixelJunk Eden (Q-Games)
Cortex Command (Data Realms)
Osmos (Hemisphere Games)
The Maw (Twisted Pixel Games)
Incredibots (Grubby Games)

Nominated games will available in playable form on the 2009 Game Developers Conference show floor, and will compete for nearly $50,000 in prizes, including awards for Innovation, Excellence in Design, and the coveted $20,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize, as well as the new Direct2Drive prize.

Winners will be announced on stage at the prestigious Independent Games Festival Awards on Wednesday, March 25, 2009, at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The Independent Games Festival Awards are held along the Game Developers Choice Awards at GDC, which is run by Think Services (as is this website).

A separate set of finalists for the Student Showcase award, will be announced during the week of Jan. 19th, with the finalists for the IGF Mobile competition following in late January. Full festival information, including more details on these finalists and winners, is available at the official IGF website.

GameSetLinks: Requiem For A Dream

[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.]

A sad day for EGM, then, and our commiserations to everyone at Ziff Davis affected. So we shall have to continue with a few GameSetLinks, headed up with Noel Llopis discussing the state of the independent developer in 2009, which does seem pleasant, if still a work in progress.

Also in here - some randomness about those Furry Animals, the MST-related Darkstar craziness, a little whining about Examiner.com, and some leftover Games Of The Year fun and hilarity.

Yah yah nah:

Games From Within: 2009: The Year of The Indie Developer?
Noel Llopis on indie hopes - to which I say that I think the indie is winning, but at much lower personal income levels than most regular game industry folks are used to. Doesn't stop the scene being awesome, though.

Music 4 Games -- 'In The Studio With Hitoshi Sakimoto'
Vagrant Story composer Sakimoto (who is speaking at GDC, btw): 'I would love to compose for a First Person Shooter game. It’s actually my favorite game genre. But unfortunately FPS games are rarely created in Japan, so I haven’t had a chance to fulfill this wish yet.' Now that would be neat...

Super Furry [email protected]
Just completely randomly, cos I've been loving the Super Furry Animals 'Best Of' DVD, and was Googling around about them: 'The video for the single Play it Cool featured the band playing as themselves in the Wales football team in the Playstation game, Actua Soccer. There was also a cheat embedded in the Actua Soccer game itself to allow you to play as the Super Furry Animals..'

Satellite News - The official Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan site » “Darkstar” Update
The infamous MST3K-related sci-fi adventure CD-ROM game, in development for seemingly ever, will be done... soon now?

Idle Thumbs - Gamse of the Year.cx
My colleague Chris Remo and his Idle Thumbs friends continue to monopolize weird URLs for good game writing - this time with their podcast creators and readers picking the best titles of last year.

games08
I have no idea whose top list of 2008 this is, but Mister Raroo recommended it on Twitter, and it's got some fun discussion of Japanese Xbox 360 shooters, soooo.... [UPDATE: Raroo tells me it's Joel "substance j" Hamilton, the guy who co-founded Sector: Neo Geo Pocket.]

source:examiner_com gamesetwatch - Google News
Hey, Examiner.com, you cheeky so-and-so-s, stop reprinting chunks of GameSetWatch for page view 'borrowing' reasons. (It's 'legitimate' in the sense that they're not reprinting everything, but honestly, they're doing it for sites like RPS, too.) [UPDATE: I didn't explain the sucky bit too well, either - Examiner.com is indexed on Google News, but GSW and RPS aren't. Rassin' frassin'....]

January 6, 2009

Magweasel Extra: EGM Closing, Sorrow Ensues

['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.]

The report's been a-going around for a little while, originally being rumored way back in December -- Ziff Davis selling the 1UP digital network to the Hearst Corporation, owners of UGO.

The deal was reported on earlier today by paidContent.org (in an article that since got taken down but has been mirrored elsewhere).

But the thrust of it has since been confirmed by sources in and around the company itself. In addition to GSW sources broadly agreeing, ex-Ziff editorial supremo John Davison has noted that "details will be forthcoming as to the validity of the story by tomorrow morning." So we'll find out officially then.

[UPDATE: The EGM closure/1UP sale announcement is now official, and Gamasutra has it, plus the CEO email to staff, for those interested.]

Electronic Gaming Monthly, the last print publication Ziff produces after PC Magazine closed last month, is not going along for the ride, putting an end-point on nearly two decades of publishing and a print outlet that, at one point in 2004, had six titles published monthly at the same time.

The closing of EGM is the latest in what's become a common refrain in print media, one that's affected enthusiast publishing as much as any other genre. Ziff closed its Official PlayStation magazine in early 2007 and Games for Windows: The Official Magazine in April of 2008, leaving EGM and 1UP as the company's sole game assets.

The remaining American consumer game-mag titles in print -- GameStop's Game Informer, IDG's GamePro, Fusion Publishing's Play, and Future's PC Gamer, Nintendo Power, PlayStation: The Official Magazine and Official Xbox Magazine -- all face looming challenges in 2009, including dwindling ad pages, high paper costs, and an audience that increasingly sees less value in print magazines.

The January 2009 issue of EGM, shown above, is reported to be the last one to see print. The February issue is complete, and its content is slated to be distributed digitally, either in PDF format or in the form of articles on 1UP.com.

Undoubtedly this will be discussed in more detail by myself in my Game Mag Weaseling column this weekend.

Game Developer Reveals Front Line Award Winners, Unreal Engine To Hall Of Fame

[GameSetWatch sister publication Game Developer magazine has revealed the winners of the eleventh annual Front Line Awards for game tools, and we reveal 'em here. Neat stuff - watch for the full article on the awards to be posted onto Gamasutra soon.]

The editors of Think Services' Game Developer magazine have named the winners for the 2008 Front Line Awards, honoring the best tools used to make video games.

This is the magazine's much-revered eleventh annual evaluation of the year's best game-making tools in the categories of programming, art, audio, game engine, middleware, and books.

As well as the regular award-winners, revealed below, the magazine has chosen the Unreal Engine series, Epic Games’ popular multi-platform game engine, as this year's inductee to the Front Line Awards Hall of Fame.

Each year, the honor, which makes that product ineligible for regular categories in that year, is bestowed upon a product that has made an outstanding contribution to the game development industry for five years or more. Previous inductees have included Autodesk's 3D Studio Max and Microsoft's Visual Studio.

The complete list of winners of the 2008 Game Developer Front Line Awards, derived from a Game Developer/Gamasutra reader poll of this year's finalists, is as follows:

Hall of Fame:
Unreal Engine
Epic Games

Art Tool:
Photoshop CS3
Adobe

Audio Tool:
FMOD
Firelight Technologies Pty, Ltd

Middleware:
Havok Physics
Havok

Engine:
Torque Game Engine Advanced 1.7.1
GarageGames

Programming Tool:
Visual Studio 2008
Microsoft

Book:
'The Art of Game Design' by Jesse Schell
Elsevier

All winners will be profiled in the January 2009 issue of Game Developer, available to subscribers in early January.

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

As for the Front Line Awards' methodology, Game Developer looks at the powerful lineup of new products and new releases of favorite tools for professional game developers – from game engines to books.

Following an open nomination period and consultation with the magazine’s editors, finalists were selected based on criteria such as utility, innovation, value, and ease of use.

For the first time, both Game Developer magazine subscribers and Gamasutra.com community members were then polled to ultimately decide the best game development-related products this year.

"We’re happy to finally announce the winners of the 2008 Front Line Awards," said Brandon Sheffield, editor-in-chief of Game Developer. "These awards show developers’ appreciation for tools companies of all sizes, provided they’re useful and well-supported. Congratulations to both the winners and the finalists, and good luck for next year."

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough' : Caring About The Prince

prince-of-persia-prodigy.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom explores the new Prince of Persia game, and why it sets a new standard for creating characters you care for.]

It’s not exactly a secret that I’m a fan of games with strong narratives, and am often willing to sacrifice a certain amount of gameplay and interface quality in the pursuit of interesting characters, stories and dialogues.

When I started playing the newest Prince of Persia, I suspected that I’d found one of those rare games that was completely willing to subject itself to the rigors of actual storytelling and narrative substance. I was correct, and had one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had playing a game.

Imagine my surprise, then, when it became apparent that most of the gaming press disagreed with me. People have criticized its emphasis of “style over substance,” a demerit that I can’t believe people are still using, seeing as it relies on some extremely problematic assumptions concerning the definitions of the words “style” and “substance.”

The game has also been criticized for its lack of control and interface complexity, its lack of general gameplay complexity, and finally the (strangely virulent) accusation that the new Prince’s dialogue and voice don’t correspond with how the Prince “should” be, or with PoP’s tone.

This was a problem that plagued another PoP game, Warrior Within. At the risk of splitting hairs, it should be noted that that game was part of the Sands of Time universe, whereas this Prince is a completely different creature, inhabiting a different world. People might expect a certain kind of Prince, but it’s obvious that they’re doing so due to prior Princely outings.

More specifically, people seem to have an idea about how the Prince should sound and what his world should look like, and while it’s never exactly articulated in the reviews, that idea seems to clash strongly with the game’s sense of humor, which is to say, with the Prince’s.

People don’t seem to think—at the risk of putting it crudely—he sounds foreign enough. He’s too straightforwardly American seeming. The gameplay, too, is too straightforward for most reviewers, which seems to have bored them and not to have challenged them enough—it’s too easy, they say, to make your way through the game’s levels.

prince_of_persia-may28.jpgNew Prince, New Princess, New Tricks?

Quickly then, we must examine the basics of this new PoP. As always, you control the titular Prince. In this adventure, you stumble upon a hidden kingdom, ruled over by a dying people and their last Princess, Elika. Elika’s father unleashes an ancient evil upon the land, and you and Elika must put a stop to it. To this end, the Prince flings himself from ledge to pillar to slope, with Elika following by means of acrobatic prowess and magic.

Unlike previous PoP games by Ubisoft, when the Prince fails a jump or misses a pillar, you cannot rewind time to a point before your mistake. Instead Elika will appear by your side, and spirit you back to solid ground. Thus, Elika turns what would be a death-inducing mistake into a near save.

In practice, this means that Elika will transport you to the last patch of solid ground the Prince encountered. Likewise, should the Prince fail again and again in combat, Elika will stun your opponents, gaining you some time to recover; at the same time, the opponents will regenerate some health. At most you’ll lose a few minutes of play, at the least, seconds.

It’s this mechanic, and the Prince’s abilities (and how you manipulate him) that have so many people up in arms. When compared to the Prince’s moves as seen in Sands of Time, this Prince is both more agile and less precise an acrobat. While he may be able to scale walls and slide along surfaces in a much more fluid and beautiful fashion, he does so relying on fewer player inputs.

Before, the height of the Prince’s jump would have to be calculated, along with the timing necessary to dodge multiple traps and enemies. Now, one doesn’t encounter such complicated obstacles until the last few areas of the game. Perhaps this is the problem people have: the game works its way up to a certain amount of complicatedness, one which doesn’t come close to matching the last game’s (infuriating) Dark/Light Prince platforming segments.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but why does navigating this changing environment have to be so simple? It seems to me that Ubisoft came to a point (or perhaps had decided on this from the beginning) where they began to create a gameplay experience that made itself as unobtrusive as possible, while still providing a set of gameplay situations that required a modicum of the player’s attention and skill. Even a person completely unfamiliar with games could master the game’s final boss, due to the fact that the game’s difficulty ramps up from easy to slightly less easy.

Even the game’s longer, tenser segments are surmountable, given one or two retries. When new gameplay elements are added to the Prince’s world, they fall into two very strict categories: new combinations of previously available inputs (boss battles, extended platforming sequences), or a set of “plates” that allow for slightly different methods of traversing the environment. These plates are unlocked through the collection of “light seeds,” orbs that allow Elika to drive the darkness from the land, and (handily) unlock new portions of the map to explore.

What’s hard to describe about the Prince’s movements is the way the work so well with the controls to draw you into the world. You may be using fewer timed presses to slide and wind your way through towering dungeons and aging marketplaces, but the Prince moves in such an exuberant, exaggerated manner that you’re transported, just watching him transcend one obstacle after another.

When you look back at the massive landscape you’ve traversed, you won’t be complaining about the game’s difficulty. As the Prince and Elika bounce from one dirigible to another, high among the clouds, you couldn’t ask for a more breathtaking series of acrobatics. To put it bluntly, I’d trade this beautiful ballet for the simpler control scheme any day.

All of this is to say that Prince of Persia offers little challenge to an experienced gamer, once they’ve learned its ins and outs. Then again, I’m not sure why this is such a failing. Yes, if I wanted to play the game again, it wouldn’t be that different of an experience. It is not, as many reviewers would say, a “substantial” offering. It’s a game that you’ll play and love (or hate), and then put down for a long, long time.

elika-prince-of-persia-550.png"Substance," Meet Elika

So how is this “style” over “substance?” What do those ideas mean? Reviewers, in making that division, and saying the game’s too easy, seem to equate difficulty with a sense of accomplishment or of fun “attained” and experienced. Thus, story, narrative and plotting are deemed to be “style,” while difficulty, method of control, and complexity of gameplay and interface are deemed to be “substance.”

I’ve discussed elsewhere how such a limiting view can be dangerous, and I feel like the response to Prince of Persia is a perfect example of the pitfalls of such an approach to gaming and game design. If this Prince is so lacking in what everybody else calls substance, maybe we should look for the meat of its experience in its style.

In Prince of Persia, narrative development and complication are much more important than the complication and expansion of various gameplay tropes. The game is much more concerned with upping the dramatic ante (by suggesting that Elika may have mislead the Prince with regard to her past or her intentions, for instance).

This is not to say that gameplay is completely simplistic in Prince of Persia. As mentioned above, the game is constructed to provide a seamless, flowing experience that attempts to simulate the type of acrobatic movement practiced by the Prince.

Working hand in hand with these simplified controls is the story of PoP. Prince of Persia takes a very interesting approach to storytelling, creating a process that the player is constantly involved in, although the game uses many other devices to maintain its propulsive and creative narrative. At any point in the game, the player can talk to Elika, discussing their situation and their pasts, getting to know each other. These conversations are universally well-written and engrossing, and there are more of them than you could ask for.

These conversations are completely optional, and yet they work perfectly with the in-game backchatter and other reminders of the duo’s relationship. By creating systems that provide for storytelling on a fairly low impact level (this is not a Blizzard cutscene), the game creates the sense that their relationship is one that makes up the very foundation of the world.

As integral to the Prince’s quest as his abilities and attacks is his ability to remain close to and converse with Elika. You’ll want to converse with her at every opportunity, so interesting are the conversations. Depending on how much you’ve talked with Elika (and on how far into the game you are), your conversations range from silly and superficial (the Prince teasing Elika with a game of “I Spy”), to mocking flirtation, to alarming questions about Elika’s true motivations for saving her lost city.

The Prince’s changing feelings toward Elika are constant factors in their relationship. Initially, the in-game backchatter between the two is laced with animosity, sarcasm, and worry. The prince and Elika are constantly running past each other as you explore the game world, and the Prince frequently carries Elika on his back. At first, he complains about Elika’s weight, while she mocks him for complaining.

As the game progresses, so does their friendship, and their chatter changes. Elika stops berating the Prince for falling, and instead worries for his safety. Likewise, the Prince, apologizes for dislodging her during complicated acrobatics. The tone of a gameplay mechanic changes along with the story. It’s a subtle trick, but it matters a good deal to hear Elika and the Prince express convincing-sounding worry for each other. How could you not share their feelings?

In a way, the environment is an even more important character than your enemies: the Prince and Elika constantly reflect upon their surroundings, and they react to changes in those surroundings, good or bad. To play PoP is to be forcibly thrown into a world where you must notice your surroundings, if only because the only two constant speakers are themselves obsessed with it.

Outside of the aforementioned player-activated conversations, the story is told through cutscenes of the traditional variety. Still, PoP manages distinguish itself even in this most familiar of areas. Instead of story segments punctuating increasingly difficult or protracted gameplay segments, gameplay is punctuated by increasingly dramatic and revelatory story sequences.

While the Prince and Elika may face slightly increased levels of difficulty, the true payoff in PoP comes from deep, engaging cutscenes and dialogue, all of which help to ground us in Elika’s kingdom.

I emphasize these words because it is obvious that when a story gains momentum and moves closer to its conclusion, it (out of tradition, in our society) reaches new heights of drama and tension. This is by no means a rule that must be followed closely; in fact, one could substitute such a statement by claiming that as a narrative progresses, its players often reach new conclusions regarding each other. They may even change their perspective on issues vital to the plot, to our (lack of) surprise.

This is where my favorite part of PoP comes into play. I may find the game’s difficulty to be perfectly balanced (it lets me experience the game, not beat it), and I may enjoy the flowing, simplified platforming, but my favorite part of this game is Elika, and how she becomes your companion and friend.

The Prince is also a deep character, to a degree, and he does change (as the developers have said, in a rather Han Solo fashion). However, it's Elika who is a miracle of modern game design. She is made a more important character than I’ve seen in any other game. She is vital to your cause from a story and gameplay standpoint. Without her, you would die time and again, and regardless of what people say, this is a debt that the player feels for the whole game.

It’s interesting to notice that people have seen Elika as a fanciful save system. When they write of her, it’s to complain about how minor an improvement she is over the Sands of Time technique of time reversal. What they don’t seem to realize is that by making Elika a constant and vital part of the Prince’s environment, Ubisoft has made her more important than any other element of the game.

princeop.jpgThrough Elika's Eyes

As the Prince, you see the world from one point of view, but Elika is a crucial part of that point of view. You can’t save the land without her; likewise, enemies can only be killed (or saved) through her understanding and magic.

The Prince, though he wants to be completely independent (like Han Solo), can never be the center of this story. From the instant he meets Elika, the world the player inhabits quickly narrows to a point, following Elika. She is your friend and your link to this new land, your tour guide and friend, an enigmatic ally whose goals may not actually be in keeping with your own.

Her worries, wants, secrets and past are all key to the experience of PoP. The Prince may want to escape to his donkey and his wandering life, but he quickly becomes caught up in Elika’s tale. At the end of the game, the Prince, despite being callous and independent-minded, ends up believably choosing to save Elika instead of completing the mission that he and Elika have fought for. And it’s a good objective, of the highest importance—saving the land, and ultimately the rest of the world.

It’s the rare game that makes you pick between two goods, leaving behind the thing you’ve fought for the whole game in favor of your love interest. Here’s one place that Prince shows a strong resemblance to its spiritual predecessor, Shadow of the Colossus.

This Prince of Persia is many things good and bad, but for me, it has been one of the more enthralling experiences provided by a video game. It eschews frustrating, punishing gameplay tropes, and instead follows a hugely unpopular and successful (at its aim) path: it aims to create a continuous, enjoyable, flowing experience, one unhindered by the mechanical, artificial traditions of “achievement” and “fun” that so many games cling to.

Here is a game that asks you to enjoy yourself, and its fiction, and attempts to make these goals as attainable as possible. I can’t think of a more welcome trend to introduce to the industry, and I wish Ubisoft well, especially if they continue to produce products of such impressive quality and passion.

[Tom Cross writes for Gamers' Temple and blogs about video games at shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

Best of FingerGaming: From Crayon Physics Deluxe to Edge

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

This week's notable items in the iPhone gaming space, as covered by FingerGaming, include the debut of Hudson's Crayon Physics Deluxe, the announcement of the IGF entrant Edge's impending release, and a word from indie developer Luc Bernard on future iPhone possibilities.

Here are the top stories:

New App Store Release: Crayon Physics Deluxe
"Hudson has released the iPhone version of Crayon Physics Deluxe. Winner of the Grand Prize Award at 2008’s Independent Games Festival, Crayon Physics challenges players to create freehand drawings in order to solve physics-based puzzles."

Top Free App Downloads for January 2nd
"The winter-themed Crazy Penguin Catapult Lite has remained a consistently popular download throughout the holiday season, but it remains to be seen whether the title will keep its top ranking for much longer, now that the new year is upon us."

IGF Entrant Edge Coming to App Store Next Week
"Edge is entered in the inaugural Independent Game Festival Mobile competition, and is nominated for the Excellence in Gameplay award at the International Mobile Gaming Awards."

Review: Squish Squash
"Squish Squash is a game that pits you, a hapless cookie-lover, against an army of marauding vermin. Alternately, you play the role of a sadistic bug-killer, luring hundreds of unassuming insects to their squishy end."

Cricket Game Premieres in App Store
"The iPhone has yet to host a proper simulation of the sport of cricket, until now. Enter Cricket Game, a rather nice-looking 3D title that gives all the willows, googlies, and yorkers fans would expect (?) from the sport."

Luc Bernard Announces iPhone Debut
"Independent game developer Luc Bernard, designer of the PC platformer Eternity's Child, has announced the formation of a new company focused on iPhone and WiiWare software development."

January 5, 2009

GameSetInterview: 'Rudy's Father Speaks - The Pat Lawlor Interview'

[Continuing this series of Todd Ciolek interviews for GameSetWatch, a personal pick of mine - an engaging chat with pinball veteran and game design genius Pat Lawlor, the creator of classic pinball machines from Fun House to The Addams Family and beyond.]

Few people have defined the modern era of pinball like Pat Lawlor has. In the late 1980s, he emerged as a leading designer in the industry with innovative Williams titles like Earthshaker and Whirlwind.

In 1990, Lawlor and Larry DeMar hit it big with FunHouse, a pinball game in which an animatronic head named Rudy taunted players and dominated the playfield. Lawlor and DeMar went on to create The Addams Family for Bally and watched as it became the best-selling pinball machine in history.

Lawlor’s design work continued throughout the 1990s, as he unveiled such pinball titles as No Good Gofers, Red and Ted’s Road Show, Safecracker, and a richly complex take on The Twilight Zone.

After leaving Williams, Lawlor founded his own design firm, where he has since engineered Stern Pinball offerings based on Monopoly, NASCAR, Family Guy, and other familiar properties.

He also can be seen in Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball, a recent documentary that digs into the story behind Pinball 2000, Williams’ failed franchise that promised to revolution the genre by mixing pinball and video games. We recently tapped Lawlor for his opinions on past projects, the state of pinball, and what can make a regular silverball machine into a classic.

What do you consider the most important step in getting a pinball machine's game flow, its kinetics, just right?

There are obviously many aspects involved in kinetics. Every designer has differing goals for the "feel" of the game. Usually these goals are a result of the kinds of games the designers like personally.

Things to consider are, in no particular order:

1) Middle shots are easier for beginners.
2) How to mix stop and go shots with nice return flow shots.
3) How fast is the overall game? Very fast games are very difficult for beginners.
4) When a shot is missed, what happens to the ball? Is it a bad, clunky thing? Does the ball come back in my face?
5) Are these shots just "there,” or do they represent something from the theme?

How do you go about deciding what special features to put into a pinball game?

The features are generally driven by the theme that has been chosen. Sometimes those choices are fairly obvious such as putting Thing into The Addams Family. Sometimes those choices are fairly obtuse, such as what to put in Family Guy.

I knew I made the right decision on that one when I presented my idea to the Family Guy folks in a meeting. When I suggested a small "Stewie" pinball machine in the big machine they loved it. It's always a big moment when folks "get" what you are up to in the arcane world of pinball.

In addition to creating pinball titles, you also designed some video games in the early 1980s, including Robby Roto and the apparently unreleased Demons and Dragons. How did your experiences in making video games influence your work in pinball game design?

The types of video games I worked on are now called "retro," 2-D games with limited (by todays standards) game play mechanics. Also, back then one or two people generally did almost all of the design and programming to make a video game.

It was a very personal type of endeavor that generated those games. Pinball design is somewhat still very much that type of work. That is, the designer sets the tone and the basis for the rules with what he does. It's a very personal creative process.

Why was Demons and Dragons canceled?

Demons and Dragons was designed and tested going into video collapse. Video collapse was the great demise of the coin-operated game industry circa 1983. Almost overnight all video work was stopped and the industry imploded. Everyone was fired, laid off, etc. (Sadly, I believe you will see a smaller version of this in our current economy.)

Most video only projects were stopped and the industry tried to do "old is new stuff" like the video shuffle alley I then began work on. Demons and Dragons was never produced outside of the prototypes.

How does working with your own design firm to create titles for Stern Pinball differ from your days of designing games for Williams? Do you have more creative freedom, even with the current pinball market?

Stern is a 180-degree different environment from what Williams was. At Williams the game designers were the creative driving force at the company. We were pretty much allowed to make what we wanted including picking our own themes for our projects.

At Stern, the theme is now universally picked by management. The game designers are trapped into working on projects they otherwise might never have chosen. It's much more of a "Lets ALL HUG and build a game", instead of the smaller creative team moving the ball.

I have never believed large groups do great things. They do good things, but not great things. Large groups lead you astray because they are never interested in radical concepts and chances. That’s why companies driven by "focus" groups generally make such vanilla product. Focus groups are a way of management covering their rear end instead of trusting their talent.

In your opinion, why was The Addams Family pinball game such a great success?

Timing, momentum, theme, programming talent, and... luck.

On a similar note, why do you think FunHouse has such a following among pinball fans and many casual players? Aside from Rudy the talking head, that is.

That’s like asking, "What do you like about chocolate milk? Aside from the fact it’s chocolate?" Rudy is the game. Rudy incorporates a level of human involvement in a story line like no other game before it. For the first time, your adversary is in the pinball game, is real, and you can see him and he can taunt you. You can fight back and hit him with the ball.

A funny Funhouse story: When we first tested the game in a large arcade, we set the game up in the morning and waited for customers to come to the arcade. FunHouse was placed into a long line of pinball machines. We had a guy come walking along the line pretty briskly, just sort of bopping along glancing at the games.

Just like in a comedy sketch this guy makes it one step past the game, when he stops dead, turns to his side and stares into the game with Rudy. He runs to the change machine and starts to play to see what the "big head" on the playfield would do. I knew at that point we had a huge game.

Do you think that the modern pinball market can support only games with popular licenses? Is there really no room for titles like No Good Gofers or Red and Ted's Road Show?

The answer to that question is much less obvious than it appears. In America for the last, oh, say 20 to 25 years, kids are mercilessly marketed to. Then they become adults with those values. We now raise everyone to believe that a well known corporate "thing" is far superior to a less known item.

Case in point: there is a fairly well known study where little kids (I believe five year olds) were given two lunches. One came in a McDonald’s bag, the other came in a plain bag. The kids were asked, "Which one tastes better?" They universally answered the McDonald’s one.

The fact of the study was that the same food was in both bags. No difference. Nada. The moral is this.... if you are a large company like, say, Disney, you can afford to show new product because you can back it up with advertising. If you are not a large company, you cannot push through 20 years of programming in the American public, that your product might be fun (or tasty ).

So....the answer is, right now we take the easy road to sales and tie in with the well-known item. For the consuming public, it works (and fools them) every time.

In your opinion, what would it take to bring pinball back to the same level of popularity it enjoyed in the days of The Addams Family? Are pinball's fortunes invariably tied to the state of the modern arcade?

Pinball has not adequately adapted to the 21st century. Pinball machines that are being made today are basically the same machines that were being made in 1992. Except for some collectors and a few die-hard locations the game is considered to be irrelevant by the general population.

Without changing the game to appeal to today’s technology-driven audience it will die a slow but certain death. Today’s modern arcade is by and large a kids’ ticket emporium, and has very little in common with its older adult-driven version.

Do you think there was an overriding reason that Williams' Pinball 2000 line didn't succeed, or was it a combination of the market, the two games released, and the decisions made at Williams?

The answer to whether or not Pinball 2000 succeeded or not has never been answered. Williams was in the process of becoming a gaming (slot) company and wanted very badly to be out of the pinball business. That’s because the stock analysts hated that they couldn't value the stock correctly as long as the old vestige part of the company still survived.

Since there were no buyers for the pinball group at its write-down value, it was economically smarter to close the business and take the write-down valuation on the books. It was also smart never to let the world know if another company could have made a go of it, since at that time pinball was still a market share threat to one of the sister companies.

Several years ago, you mentioned that it would be exceptionally difficult to create a pinball game similar to Wizard Blocks or another Pinball 2000 title due to the expenses involved and the state of the pinball market. Do you think the market has gotten better or worse since then?

Market? What market? Right now, December 2008, the coin-op game market as a whole is in terrible shape. It had been diving even before the economy as a whole collapsed. I still believe Pinball 2000 would make money on location. I still also believe that no one is willing to put up the necessary capital expenditure to make that happen (smart if you are a money guy, the economic upside versus the risks are huge).

What new features did you put into your latest title, CSI? We've seen that it has a skull that launches balls from its eye sockets.

CSI has the usual array of toys and mechanical tricks and traps. And yes, there is a skull in the game. That was suggested by the creator of the show, who is a big pinball fan.

Feature: Best Freeware Shoot 'Em Ups 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 seventh of the 2008 Best Of Features here on the IndieGames.com blog, we're proud to present twenty of the best freeware shoot 'em ups released in 2008.

Fans of Galaga, Space Invaders, Warning Forever, and Everyday Shooter, step right up. Only a courageous pilot would stand any chance of saving Earth from being enslaved by an invading alien race, once again. Leave your Zero Wing quotes behind, because you will need every ounce of your arcade skills to make it through our picks for the best twenty freeware shoot 'em ups of 2008 alive.

Here's the top freeware shoot 'em ups of the year:

Best Freeware Shoot 'em ups 2008

  1. Alien Assault
  2. Nobody Shooter
  3. Debrysis
  4. Harpooned
  5. Pasta Master
  6. Nanosmiles
  7. Armed Generator Doom Machine
  8. Hello Panda
  9. Ceramic Shooter
10. Made in Wired
11. The Hordes
12. G:plus
13. War Bus
14. Self Destruct
15. Artificial Nature
16. The Last Canopy
17. Attack of the Meeplings
18. 41st Reality
19. Areas
20. pararalyzer

[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.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 1/3/09

['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.]

Happy post-holiday malaise! I'm feeling it in full force, and so is my postmaster, apparently, because he only gave me three mags to write about in this installment. Let's get straight down to business, the three mags that hit newsstands in the past two weeks:

PC Gamer February 2009 (Podcast)

pcgamer-0902.jpg

Cover: Diablo III

Staff-shuffling time at PC Gamer! EIC Kristen Salvatore is stepping down (but apparently "moving to a different spot on the masthead"), and in her place is coming Gary Steinman, formerly of PlayStation: The Official Magazine and also, coincidentally, my ex-boss at Newtype USA. Joy! I look forward to tormenting him endlessly about PC topics instead of PS3 topics in the future.

A pretty basic 2009-preview issue, one spiced up by MMO Extra, a four-page advertorial that I presume replaces Future's occasional cell-phone section. There's also a very nice bit on the Russian game development scene, not unlike the one PC Zone did a bit ago...or was it PC Gamer UK? Either way, it's written by UK freelancer Jim Rossignol and pretty fun to read.

Play January 2009

play-0901.jpg

Cover: Ride to Hell

Play's copy editors (?) took a vacation this month, letting game titles like "Cooking Mamma" and a massive think-piece essay feature titled "What compells [sic] us?" seep through to the final print-ready version. There's a lot of interesting things to read in that feature, though, ranging from the importance of the game's world setting to why people still argue about Shenmue eight years after its release. Ride to Hell certainly isn't Play's typical content, either, but as always, the massive amount of neat art makes the feature worth looking at.

Girls of Gaming Vol. 6 is also out sometime approximately now, but I haven't seen it around yet.

CVG Presents Volume 5

cvgpresents5.jpg

Ohhh, am I embarrassed. After all the platitudes I draped upon the first four issues of this bimonthly-ish UK special, they go and make their fifth edition a strategy guide compilation. Nooooooo! Why me?! It's an immaculately designed strategy guide compilation, at least -- no random mishmash collection of screenshots here; it's all lovely to look at and just as nice as any other CVG Presents issue. But, it's all strategy. Noooooooo.

[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.]

GameSetLinks: International Rebellion Adventures

[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.]

Spooling out of the weekend and in to a week that's sure to be busy (with Game Developer Front Line Award winners and IGF Main Competition finalist announcements from us alone, blimey), this set of GameSetLinks continues to noodle around some of the more alternative 2008 'best of' and 2009 'going to be best of' charts, thanks to Steve Gaynor and Auriea Harvey respectively.

Also in here - Six To Start's Dan Hon gets a little inflammatory, Jason Scott pokes around in Adventure International's mail order catalog, and Erin Hoffman talks about what makes a game designer a game designer.

Fabulous prizes:

Adventure International - Taking Inventory
Jason Scott: 'When people think “text adventure company”, a lot of people think Infocom, but others also think of Adventure International, which was not only the first company to sell text adventures, but one of the first companies to sell computer gaming software at all.'

Tale of Tales» Blog » Games I’m looking forward to playing in 2009
ToT's Auriea identifies some interesting alternative games she's anticipating this year - and a worthy alt.list ensues.

Six To Start: Everything you know about ARGs is WRONG
Dan Hon with some very smart points on ARGs: 'Do you want a game that’s going to get lots of eyeballs, or lots of engagement? Those two things may well require two different and mutually exclusive optimisation strategies.'

The Saturn Junkyard: Dezaemon 2 Shmup Galore - Part 2!
Ooo, it's 'the Dezaemon 2 Save Game Manager Volume 2! Oh my, what a feast. This thing opens - once again - the world of Dezaemon 2 user made shmups to you and your Saturn.'

Determined to foment a rebellion - What Game Designers Actually Do
Erin Hoffman: 'There are certain focal points that certainly lend to the notion that "game designer" is a "type", beyond the vague ways they're often described -- "jack of all trades", "wide interests", "multitaskers" -- though all of these things often have to be true as well.'

Fullbright: MOTY 08
2K's Steve Gaynor: 'I started putting together a list of my favorite games of 2008... and then realized that gaming for me this year wasn't defined by individual titles, but by memorable moments from lots of different games.'

January 4, 2009

GameSetInterview: 'The Turbo-Charged Making Of Arcade Mania'

[Continuing with a series of GameSetWatch-exclusive interviews exploring alternative looks at gaming, Jeriaska sits down with Arcade Mania author Brian Ashcraft to look at his and Jean Snow's new book about the Japanese arcade game scene.]

A new generation of console games equipped with internet connectivity has allowed for the return of a key feature of the arcade game experience: joining in a game with another human being you’ve never met before. Combine this phenomenon with the thriving retro game scene and there could hardly be a better time for an overview of the past and present of the arcades.

Enter Arcade Mania!: The Turbo Charged World of Japan’s Game Centers, a book by Brian Ashcraft with Jean Snow. While out in Japan since October, care of Kodansha International, the book arrives this week in English-language territories.

What many who grew up frequenting arcades in North America and Europe will notice in Mania! is a brew of the nostalgic and the not-so-familiar. There are trips down memory lane with racers like Out Run, light gun titles like The House of the Dead, and 2D hop-and-bops like Bubble Bobble. Then there are glimpses of gaming experiences that may be altogether new---through sticker pictures, pachinko parlors, past mahjong tiles and collectible card games.

Here to offer us a walkthrough of the book’s trip through Japan’s game centers is author Brian Ashcraft, editor for Kotaku, whose writing has appeared in Popular Science, Metropolis Magazine and Japan Times. The discussion offers both an introduction to the action-packed read and some insights into the making of Arcade Mania! .

GSW: Arcade Mania! is divided into nine chapters, each focusing on different realms, past and present, of Japan’s arcade game centers. Along the way we are introduced to nine players, including Daigo Umehara, the 2D fighting game champ, and Aaron Chmielowiec, the rhythm game phenom. At what point in writing did you decide to make arcade gamers a prominent voice in the book?

Ashcraft: That was one of the main impetus for writing the book. When I came up with the idea for doing an arcade book, I didn't just want to focus solely on the games and the people who make them. That's the obvious approach, I think. Instead, I wanted to showcase the players.

Games need players. Players are the final puzzle piece that is gaming. Players are what take gaming out of the abstract and put them in the real world. So, I thought from the beginning if this book is going to have any weight, we need to do more than trace the history and talk to developers: We need to talk to players.

One of the things that inspired this was superplay DVDs -- DVDs that show recorded footage of famous arcade players' spectacular gameplay. Those DVDs often have interviews with the players and even commentary. That was always fascinating watching them play and hearing them describe how they got good or why they liked a certain game.

I figured that would make fantastic material for a book.

So early on, I wanted to divide the book up into genres and peg each player to that genre. The player would be a vessel for telling not only his story, but the genre's story. This is good structure for telling stories and makes the information more human and approachable.

Often game writing focuses either on very technical things, and some of the humanity is lost. I wanted to focus on the technical, while at the same time, bring out something real, something personal.

Another thing that inspired the book was a Kotaku post I did on the UFO catcher queen, Yuka Nakajima, about two or three years ago. The post was some Japanese TV clip showing her catching prizes in some game center. At the time, I thought, "Wow, there's someone in Japan who specializes in crane games?"

When I was dividing up the chapters into the various genres, I wanted players that would represent each of them. She immediately came to mind. Same for Daigo Umehara, Kenta Cho and Aaron. And so I was able to start fleshing out the book and laying out the chapters.

GSW: I like that Aaron has the chance to point out some of the finer points of arcade social norms in the chapter on rhythm games, like that in Canada leaning against the support bar while playing DanceDanceRevolution is frowned upon because it takes away from the spectacle of the performance, whereas in Japan it’s more widely accepted as necessary to maxing out your dance points. Have you found there are other surprising or significant cultural differences when comparing the arcade scene in Japan with that of North America or Europe?

Ashcraft: Oh definitely. Perhaps the most notable would be with fighting games. In North America, fighting game cabinets typically have two joysticks and button layouts side-by-side. You can see your opponent, he or she is standing right next to you.

However, that's not true with the cabinet set-ups for fighting games in Japan. Fighting games in Japan typically have two cabinets back-to-back. You cannot see the other player, and it's considering bad manners to look over the cabinet to see whose ass you are kicking or who is kicking your ass. That's quite a discrepancy.

Co-op two player games like beat 'em ups and shooting games have the joystick and button layouts side-by-side. That's a telling insight into Japanese culture.


Author Brian Ashcraft with giant, marauding Norton Fighter

GSW: Your book comes replete with interesting facts about the history of the game center. There are some insightful comments from Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado and Xevious mastermind Masanobu Endo. One thing I found interesting, not everyone might be aware that Sega was an abbreviation of “Service Games,” and that both that company and Taito were founded by people born outside of Japan. Have you found in your writing for Kotaku and other publications that you’ve had the chance to explore a history of arcade gaming in such depth?

Ashcraft: Interviewing both Nishikado-san and Endo-san was a real treat. Both have contributed tremdously to basic gaming grammar, and gaming owes them a great deal for their work. It's easy to forget just how big "Space Invaders" was in Japan, and "Xevious" too, for that matter. Both Nishikado-san and Endo-san are more than happy to talk about their games, arcade history and arcades today. They're a fountain of knowledge and insight.

The nice thing about writing for Kotaku is just the plethora of stuff we cover. We do something like 60 posts a day, so we get all the news, we break news, and then we can post about stuff that's off the beaten path -- stuff that isn't news, but hey, it's interesting to us at least. It's because of that I was able to post that clip of the UFO catcher queen all those years back and get the wheels churning for this book.

GSW: In terms of your own background with arcade games, are there any memorable experiences that come to mind?

Ashcraft: Oh definitely. There was an arcade called "Tilt" at Prestonwood Mall in Dallas that I went to a ton as a kid -- "Crystal's Pizza" also had a pretty good arcade from what I remember. Memories of things like playing "Pole Position" at Chuck E. Cheese, beating "Final Fight" with a friend and trying to figure out how the hell to control "Dragon's Lair" are still vivid. Arcades have a nostalgia factor that's different from game consoles. I don't know what it is exactly, perhaps it's that you had to leave your house, or the weight of the quarters in your pocket, or the smell of cigarettes and Orange Crush on the carpeting, but they aren't the same -- for me, at least.

GSW: The book includes conversations with a number of prominent game creators working in the industry today. Hearing from Suda 51 of No More Heroes about his love for Elevator Action, or Parappa the Rapper’s Masaya Matsuura’s thoughts on arcade rhythm games, gives an idea of how deeply game centers have been in informing the development of software on home consoles. Had you known that these designers had a love of the arcades before starting work on the book?

Ashcraft: That was a little trickier than, say, featuring Yu Suzuki. Suda and Matsuura are primarily console game developers. Fortunately, I have friends that work for them and who were willing to gauge their bosses to see if there was any interest. I did want to feature game developers in not the typically developer sense, but as players.

Before they made games, they only played them, so I really wanted to capture that -- especially with Suda, who talked a great deal about his childhood playing arcade games. It's a side we don't usually see.

GSW: How did you find Player 9, Ren, who introduces the section on collectible card games?

Ashcraft: Ha! Easy. That's my oldest son. He plays tons of card games and likes arcades, so he seemed like a good fit. I wanted a wide variety of people in the book -- female players, extremely famous players, regular people, developers, non-Japanese folks. Basically, I didn't want it to be an entire book of dudes. After a few chapters, that would have gotten stale.

Finding Renny was simple. Finding some of the other players was extremely hard. Like, we all know who Daigo Umehara is, but how do you find Daigo Umehara? It's not like he has some website we can get his email address off of. Same for people like Clover-TAC and Clover-YMN.

Even tracking down Aaron, the DDR player, and Sakurina, the sticker picture model, was challenging. We sent Aaron several emails to the address on his website, but through some coincidence, the book's editor, Cathy Layne, knew someone who knew Aaron.

And then even after locating them, it was always a matter of whether they wanted to be in a book or not. Some people are shy and maybe reluctant to be interviewed. We didn't find that to be the case, but there was always a bit of nervousness and uncertainty while I was writing the book. What if we don't get this person? Who can we interview?

GSW: What are some of the advantages that you have found of working in print that are not afforded by net publications? Also, for bloggers who might be pursuing a book publication for the first time, what warnings should they receive in advance?

Ashcraft: The big advantage is time. You have time to go back, pretty up your sentences, check things, double check things and triple check things. With online, you are writing in the moment. Brian Crecente, Kotaku's Managing Editor, often compares online writing to TV and not print. That's a fair assessment, I think. Many times you're writing about something as it happens.

Because time moves quicker for online, your copy tends to be raw. You don't have the luxury that print writers do of typing something up, putting it aside, coming back to it and sprucing it up. So when people compare online writing and print writing, I do not think it's an accurate comparison.

Then again, one of the big disadvantages is time. Print moves slower. There is the fear that you're idea will get scooped by a magazine or, especially these days, a website. You can't relax really until it's in print.

For those pursuing a book, just keep this in mind: It's a year of your life. You cannot get it back. Make sure you're writing about something that engages you, something that helps you grow -- not just as a writer, but as a person.

I really hope this book does well and inspires other publishers to take a chance on doing other game books from other writers. There's no shortage of strategy guides published, but there is a shortage of books examining social or cultural trends. We've seen some published recently -- I'd like to see more.

Game books are a hard sell for publishers. As my editor pointed out, many book stores don't have a "Game Book Section" per se, so it's hard for retailers to know where to put something like "Arcade Mania." It's changing, but slowly. Fingers gently crossed that we'll get that more books and more stories from more writers.

GSW: In closing, in talking with game creators today, do you get the sense that they are pessimistic about the future prospects of the arcades, as seems to be a prevailing vibe in North America? Or is there more of a sense that continued innovations, like the ones featured in Arcade Mania!, will see the arcade game centers of Japan through to a bright future?

Ashcraft: Some of the genres, namely fighters and shooters, seem to be going through a Renaissance of late. That's great for fans of those types of titles.

There does seem to be something in the air, a feeling of nostalgia, or something. Maybe it's just me, maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I do hope that Japanese arcades continue to evolve just as they have since SEGA introduced those mechanical games in the Post War Era and right up to today with card games.

As someone at SNK told me, "If we didn't release our games in arcades, no one would buy them."

[Arcade Mania!: The Turbo Charged World of Japan’s Game Centers can be purchased online at Amazon. Interview conducted/ photo by Jeriaska. ]

Feature: Best Freeware Adventure 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 sixth of the 2008 Best Of Features here on the IndieGames.com blog, we're proud to present twenty of the best freeware adventure games released in 2008.

We've compiled a list of twenty adventure games to proof that the genre is still very much alive, with picks such as a western-themed IF, an educational game for both adults and children, a chatroom simulator, a couple of sequels, and even a remake of a past Sierra classic in full VGA glory to satiate anyone's desire for more questing.

Here's the top freeware adventure games of the year:

Best Freeware Adventure Games 2008

  1. Dirty Split
  2. Life of D. Duck II
  3. The Vacuum
  4. Fedora Spade 4: The Last Job
  5. Yume Nikki
  6. Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire
  7. Broken Sword 2.5: Return of the Templars
  8. Gun Mute
  9. NES Quest
10. Nanobots
11. Sydney Treads the Catwalk
12. Ben Jordan Case 7: The Cardinal Sins
13. Limey Lizard: Waste Wizard
14. Beauties and Beasts
15. Chatroom
16. Questionaut
17. Everybody Dies
18. Daymare Town 2
19. Pragaras
20. The Maze of Madness

[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.]

2008 In Games, Oct-Dec: Struggles And Trends At Year-End

[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. It ends here, with October to December's main events.]

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

Over the holiday and into the new year, we've rounded up a news summary aimed at providing a complete look back on 2008's memorable events.

Following our round-up of January to March, April to June and July to September, we conclude with a look back on October through December:

October 2008

October began with big news for Nintendo, as the company revealed several long-rumored projects at a Tokyo press conference. First, they showed a new, revamped DSi handheld featuring a camera, the ability to play music and download games, and an SD storage slot.

The Wii's much-discussed storage issues would receive a fix in Spring 2009 with the addition of its own SD card slot, and Nintendo seemed to be aiming to address the demands of the hardcore audience with the upcoming Punch-Out Wii remake.

It was a month for major presentations, it seemed; BlizzCon revealed that Starcraft II would release as a trilogy, while LucasArts and BioWare announced their joint project: the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO.

In business news, Southpeak (Ninjatown, Roogoo) acquired fellow publisher Gamecock and its upcoming titles, including Legendary, Mushroom Men and Velvet Assassin.

Additionally, economic challenges began to knock on Electronic Arts' door, as the company announced 600 layoffs, the start of a disappointing holiday season for the publisher.

November 2008

November was the month that more companies began to show signs of feeling the recession, or simply the results of unsuccessful business models.

EA consolidated its casual business and shuttered its Blueprint studio, Brash made portentous layoffs, and Midway's year-long struggles took it into critical status.

After taking the trip in space he'd always dreamed of, NCsoft's Richard Garriott announced he was leaving the company. Tabula Rasa's launch proved to have been far less successful than Garriott's space flight, however, as NCsoft saw its profits sliced in half.

Nonetheless, speaking at the BMO Capital Markets event in New York, many of the top publishers gave bullish talks on the state of their business, aiming to prove their resilience to their investors. Microsoft said it was "pretty comfortable," Ubisoft said 2009 was set to be a 'great year', and Nintendo expressed confidence that its "gaming for everyone" strategy would continue to create "evergreen" products that would post long-term steady sales.

December 2008

Crediting underperforming holiday sales, EA reduced its estimates for the year, planning to cut its portfolio in favor of a focus on less-risky hitmakers and reducing yet more staff.

The company apparently wasn't about to cut all creative risks, though -- it then revealed that Double Fine's Brutal Legend, arguably the most-buzzed castoff from the Activision Blizzard merger, had found a home with EA.

Joining the influx of Japanese companies looking to better address the needs of Western audiences, Namco Bandai created a new Western-focused label called Surge, which had been quietly at work on Afro Samurai for some two years already.

Finally, just two months after snubbing Electronic Arts' $25.74 per share offer in September, Take-Two, like many of its fellow publishers facing economic constraints, saw its shares down significantly.

Trading at just about $9 and with losses widening, the company made a big move to keep its key Rockstar talent in a largely unprecedented deal: key employees of the studio received a new contract that allowed for profit-sharing.

More significantly, the contract gave those employees the ability to own their own IP to be funded and published by Take-Two -- a key concession, but one that kept the Grand Theft Auto IV masterminds working for the publisher.



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


Copyright © UBM TechWeb