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March 14, 2009

Opinion: How Indie Video Games Helped Bridge The Culture Gap

[How is the rise of independent video games accelerating the cultural integration of the medium? In this opinion piece, IGF chairman and publisher/journalist Simon Carless looks at why equal coverage for indie games in the independent media is a big deal.]

The evolution of all forms of creative culture inevitably means the establishment of an initial niche, and a gradual leaking out of that medium until it permeates popular knowledge, almost without notice. And clearly, we're quite a long way down that path with video games.

But the fact that we're ever speeding towards our destination was brought home to me by Paste Magazine's latest print issue which I just got in the mail today, and seeing alternative game coverage so seamlessly integrated with talk about music and film.

As Gus Mastrapa recently Twittered, "My Spelunky review is in the new Paste (March/April). Thanks Jason [Killingsworth] and co. for dedicating an entire page (!) to a single indie game."

And this does feel like a big deal to me, too, because it's an adult discussion of how games are "one of the few means of expression that improve under constant, obsessive iterations" and an analysis of Derek Yu's clever Rogue-like platformer, all sandwiched between ads for the Sasquatch Music Festival and The Watson Twins' new album.

Even more notably, the 'Emergent' section highlighting interesting creators in this issue of Paste has a piece on Weapon Of Choice's Nathan Fouts, talking to the ex-Insomniac developer and Xbox Live Community Games creator about his deranged doodle of an action game, just next to a profile of alt.country singer Justin Townes Earle.

Another good example of this kind of crossover online - with some of the writers actually involved - is The Onion A.V. Club's game section. The site varies coverage of interactive fiction and indie game obscurity Cloudphobia with mainstream titles, all alongside a variety of independent music and film coverage.

What I'm trying to say here is that video games do finally seem to be developing a breadth of tone and criticism - and not just a breadth of conceptual genre. This allows mature discussion of them alongside other forms of expression that have been around for much longer.

On the other hand, there are still plenty of barriers to further evolution. There are intelligent mainstream magazines like Entertainment Weekly, which actually does an excellent job in cult and offbeat books, TV, DVD, movies, and even theater - but largely ignores video games (there's no category for it on the EW website, even).

In EW, games do get reviewed every month or so, but largely mainstream titles like Grand Theft Auto IV - and without the kind of profiles of independent creators or looks at alternative game styles that Paste Magazine or The Onion AV Club is helping to bring forth.

Other respected outlets do cover game and game creators on occasion, and I do think this is happening more and more often. For example, Will Wright's profile in the New Yorker was encouraging, even if Cliff Bleszinski's felt a little pitchy.

In particular, the featuring of auteur-style game designers in creative arts lists is on the increase (see Esquire's Jason Rohrer piece and Creativity Magazine's Top 50 for 2009 with Jon Blow, the Area/Code folks and the LittleBigPlanet chaps.)

Of course, I'm aware that there are ever-increasing amounts of game bloggers and sites that have a mature, culturally aware approach to game discussion. But a telling measure of games' integration is when there's seamless and thoughtful discussion of the medium in the same breath as music and film.

Now that this evolution of nuance is happening, we're moving inexorably away from the token one page 'pre-reviews' of the most obvious titles that have been sneaking into mainstream media in recent years. And things can only get more interesting from here on out.

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of March 13

In this round-up, we highlight some of the notable jobs posted in big sister site Gamasutra's industry-leading game jobs section this week, including positions from Capcom, Volition, Monolith and more.

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

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

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

Gamasutra.com - Game Industry Jobs

Monolith Productions: Sr. Software Engineer, Animation Systems
"Join the award winning technology team behind the F.E.A.R., Condemned and Project Origin game franchises. Work closely with engineers, designers, and artists on building the cutting-edge technology powering the development of Monolith's next generation of console and PC games. This position provides the unique opportunity to bring our award winning AI and characters to life through new and innovative animation systems."

Capcom: Senior Product Marketing Manager
"This position will manage and lead the development, planning and execution of marketing and promotional product marketing campaigns. Will develop brand and product strategies, managed focused market research to analyze market demands and opportunities for assigned products."

Radical Entertainment: Senior Level Designer
"Working with a team to develop and establish both the conceptual and detailed elements of the game vision, the Level Designer is first and foremost a creative visionary. The incumbent’s experience in creative development will ensure the construction of compelling worlds and characters, while his or her interactive design experience and knowledge of gameplay will help achieve a successful top-selling game."

Volition: Senior Visual Effects Artist
"We have an idea for a game where things explode. There's fire and smoke all billowing and you're like 'Nooo, the humanity!1!' But THEN: gentle rain drops. Cascading down from the heavens, they jounce lightly off the pavement, seem to hover for just a moment, then gravity wrests them from the air and they vanish into the quivering pools that gather by your feet. Is it rain, or is it in fact your TEARS? That is really the eternal FX art question, isn't it. Anyways. Can you make those things? "

WorldsInMotion - Online Games

Tencent Boston: Senior Producer
"Tencent Boston is an exciting new start-up with a focus on creating top quality online games. We are a division of Tencent Inc., one of the largest internet companies in China. For more than 350 million people, Tencent is the internet, encompassing portal, shopping, community, and entertainment services. We are right in the middle of one of the most dynamic and fast growing game markets in the world and our mission is to create large scale, free to play, online games for this market both in China and worldwide."

NetDevil: Sr. Programmer
"This position is a very challenging role requiring deep knowledge in multiple disciplines. This person is required to lead a team of programmers and mentor and guide them while also being a significant contributor to the project's technical requirements. This person is also responsible for overall architecture, system design and integration. Additionally, this role requires interfacing with other parties involved in MMO development including operations, deployment and publishing teams."

GamesOnDeck - Mobile Games

Namco Networks America: Mobile Games Designers
"Namco Networks America is looking for experienced game designers with the desire to create games for the ever-expanding mobile market. The Mobile Game Designer is responsible for generating a detailed, comprehensive Game Design Documents, which are the roadmap for the entire development team. An important part of the role is then communicating that vision clearly and concisely to the rest of the team. A strong technical or art background is highly desired."

To browse hundreds of similar jobs, and for more information on searching, responding to, or posting game industry-relevant jobs to the top source for jobs in the business, please visit Gamasutra's job board now.

GDC 2009 Additions Include Ono, Journo-To-Designer Panel, Interaction Innovations

[I checked in with my colleagues who organize Game Developers Conference in SF, and they pointed out that they're still adding some awesome lectures for GDC 2009 later this month, despite this late stage - so thought we'd highlight another three that just got put on the schedule.]

Organizers of this month's Game Developers Conference have revealed notable, late-breaking new talks from Capcom' Yoshinori Ono on Street Fighter IV, MIT's David Merrill on new forms of interaction, and a panel of journalists-turned-developers on crossing over to another side of the industry.

Street Fighter IV producer Yoshinori Ono will present a talk called "IV Style: Returning to the Roots of a Fighting Game Classic," discussing how the Capcom team approached the design and development process of the anticipating fighting game -- and promising "a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of Japanese development."

Also confirmed is "Physical Play: Siftables and Other New Forms and Formats for Interaction, Collaboration and Creativity" from David Merrill of the MIT Media Lab, who will be showcasing his innovative 'Siftables' technology, "cookie-sized, computerized tiles you can stack and shuffle in your hands."

Over his entire lecture, Merrill will give an overview of his work "building new systems for physical, collaborative and multimodal interaction with digital content," asking the question, "What opportunities will arise from systems that make digital interaction more physical and less screen-based?"

Finally, a panel of one game journalist and five journalists-turned-game-developers, including Insomniac's Bryan Intihar, Bungie's Luke Smith, 2K Games' Jason Bergman and Capcom's Kraig Kujawa will present "But What I Really Want to Do is Make Games," relating their experiences in radically changing their job descriptions within the industry.

Game Developers Conference 2009 takes place at the Moscone Center from March 23rd to 27th, and more information on the event and registration is available at the official GDC website.

Road To The IGF: Nicalis Duo Talk Night Game

[Continuing our series of interviews with the 2009 Independent Games Festival finalists, Eric Caoili talks to Nicalis' Nicklas Nygren and producer Tyrone Rodriguez about Night Game -- a physics-based ambient action puzzler nominated for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize and the Excellence in Design awards.]

Nicklas "Nifflas" Nygren gained a strong fan following with his indie games Within A Deep Forest and Knytt, and IGF title Night Game marks his first WiiWare effort.

He's known for an innovative, dreamlike style backed by soft skies, detailed sprites, and ambient music and sound he usually composes entirely himself -- Night Game gets musical aid from Chris Schlarb, of Twilight and Ghost Stories and experimental jazz duo I Heart Lung.

Night Game also differentiates itself strongly from Nygren's previous work with a strong silhouette style outlined against vivid sunsets and surreal backdrops. He's working on it alongside a Wii port of Pixel's Cave Story, and ahead of the 2009 Independent Games Festival, We spoke to Nygren and producer Tyrone Rodriguez to get details on both projects:

What kind of background do you have making games?

Nicklas Nygren: I've spent a long time attempting to develop games, and when I learned how to complete them (which by the way takes many years) started to release games on a more or less regular basis.

Tyrone Rodriguez: Unlike Nicklas, I didn't really have a chance to make my own games. In the past, I've worked at publishers or developers that have created games for various platforms like the Genesis, SNES, PlayStation, Dreamcast, PlayStation 2 and GameCube.

When did you start working on Night Game? Have you been developing it alongside with your Cave Story Wii port?

NN: I started out conceptualizing Night Game quickly after Knytt Stories was released. Development on Night Game actually started in late '07 and began before we started porting Cave Story.

TR: We have since been developing them side-by-side. However, as Night Game is 100-percent original, it has taken longer than Cave Story.

What challenges have you found developing the two titles at the same time?

TR: On my end, it's primarily about how we handle bandwidth. Where the development of one game advances the other one might face some technical issues or bugs. But in a way, this has been almost helpful because we're able to move between the two.

NN: For Night Game, I made all the game design related choices, and designed the graphics, most levels, and sound. For Cave Story, I've helped out with music related things and a tiny bit of art.

I've been working with Yann van Der Cruyssen on the audio. I loved his revised Cave Story soundtrack, but knew it wasn't going to work with a cheap sounding standard general midi soundbank, so I pushed for creating our own soundbank, and helped Yann out a lot in this process.

He carried the heavy load, of course -- he both created the revised soundtrack and assigned new sounds to the songs, but I've created a large amount of those sounds as well.

What tools or lessons were you able to share between the two titles?

NN: For me, maybe just Photoshop. On Cave Story, I used AWave Studio, and a whole bunch of VST plugins for sound generation. We used a lot of sounds from GXSCC which is a really neat GM compatible chip synthesizer and I did all the work on my faithful laptop, the Sprünkelbox, a HP6820s with an extremely slimmed (nlite'd) version of Windows XP and all the bloated HP drivers on top on that to ensure the computer doesn't run too fast.

TR: Aside from some Adobe tools and the Nintendo SDK these have been very different projects. But even though they're each unique, they have both benefited from being on the same console, so we've been able to use a lot of tech on the SDK side to tie either game into Wii functionality such as the Wii Remote or even something as simple as the Home Menu.

Will Night Game see a release before Cave Story? Nintendo noticeably left Cave Story out of its recent list of upcoming spring releases.

TR: No, Night Game is due to be complete after Cave Story. Cave Story is pretty close to complete and we're shooting to wrap up it up really soon, in April. Night Game to follow later in the summer.

How was Night Game conceived -- what led you to create a physics-focused action/puzzler, and why did you decide on this silhouetted presentation?

NN: I've always liked games like Marble Madness, Ballance, Super Monkey Ball, Marble Blast Gold, Switchball, Hamster Ball, and well, you get the idea. I've since long had a vision to create such a game, but I got started when I realized I could go for a 2D take on the concept.

I didn't think that much at all when I decided to go for the silhouetted look, I just thought it looked good, created a few rooms with that look, and couldn't see a reason to change it.

Are there any specific games or other media that helped inspire Night Game or its mechanics?

NN: As I mentioned, there's that long list of games that I've been inspired by. Graphically, I don't know a specific source of inspiration, but there are plenty of "black silhouette on gradient background" games, so I must obviously have been inspired by a few of those.

Night Game is the final title? How did you decide on that?

NN: Night Game isn't the final title. I'm just not very good with titles, and it is important that a game really have a title that fits! It has to take its while, in other words. I'm still open to suggestions, but the G in the word "Night" blends so nicely into "Game" if it's written on two rows with a decreased line height with the font the game title is supposed to be written in :)

TR: As Nicklas said, Night Game is the sort of codename for the title and not its final name. We've been kicking names back and forth between us now for over a year.

When and why did you decide to make Night Game exclusive to WiiWare?

NN: I've always wanted there to be a PC build of NG, since many of my fans have been waiting for this game. I however respect Tyrone's decision here.

TR: Unknown to probably most people who have seem screens or the initial trailer for NG is that we've actually approached Nintendo very early on. They've been great to work with and have been very helpful during the development of Night Game and Cave Story.

Many have complained about the lack of original, quality releases from third-party studios. What's your opinion on the current WiiWare market?

TR: I think WiiWare is doing well for being such a young service. Big publishers are taking notice and creating games. Look at the money Hudson is putting into it with games. That alone speaks well for WiiWare.

But I'm not sure I agree with complaints regarding the lack of originality in games. Original games don't always sell enough to be considered worthwhile investments for publishers or developers so it's a tough situation.

Nintendo's Tom Prata recently stressed the need for the company to better support and provide resources to WiiWare developers. Have you benefited from this renewed focus?

TR: I'd say so. From what I can see, both Tom Prata and Dan Adelman have put a lot of effort into advancing WiiWare as a well-supported service for developers.

Nintendo maintains a website and support group specifically for developers. The site regularly updated and the company provides all the tools needed to get up and running from that location. Other things developer's summits seem to be more than just one-off, now becoming annual events--there's one this month in LA and another in Europe, too.

Nintendo's support group is also pretty quick at helping developers with technical issues on a regular basis.

What sort of adjustments have you had to make in your release strategy for WiiWare, as opposed to your typical plans when releasing to PC?

NN: I don't think I've really changed that much. I started out with Night Game as my own little personal project, and kept developing it the way I would have liked it to be for PC--although we decided that the game should have more levels than in the initial plan.

I also had to change the key layout a little bit to work with the Wii remote, but it resulted in an improvement that would have been an advantage even on a PC version.

How has the move to WiiWare affected your budget, compared to releasing indie PC games?

TR: The budget has definitely increased when compared to the original concept. Things like dev kits, copyrights and dealing with the ESRB wouldn't be required if this were a straight PC release. The scope has increased incredibly, where initially the game might have only been three or four levels it's about four times that now.

Why did you pick WiiWare over other platforms, such as PSN and XBLA, for this particular project? Have you explored releasing any other future titles through those services?

NN: When I was contacted by Kevin at GoNintendo who got me in touch with Tyrone, he was discussing developing for the Wii so it was sort of natural to stick to that console. I have nothing against PSN or XBLA, and would love to release games through those services, too.

TR: The game was designed with NTSC-like resolution and we have a strong concept making it ideal for WiiWare. We have a few other concepts that would actually be perfect for PSN or XBLA. We'd really like to explore those services as well.

What sort of development tools did you use for Night Game?

NN: I used Multimedia Fusion 2 to create the initial draft engine of the game, and the tool which we use to develop it's levels. The final engine itself is created in C using the Wii's hardware and software development kit.

If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently?

NN: I would have written the level format very differently, now I know how to do it right, but I didn't when I started with NG. The final product would still end up being the same thing, I am really happy about how it turned out despite that I had to fix some more mistakes than I'd have to now.

TR: I agree with Nicklas, I think the external level format presents a challenge, but the game is thus far what we wanted it to be.

What do you think of the state of independent game development, and are there any other independent games out that you currently admire?

NN: It's awesome right now! There are lots of tools to develop in and all the consoles have network for games by smaller authors and studios. The hardware is becoming so powerful that the large companies are moving to huge sophisticated projects involving tons of programmers, animators, voice actors, modelers, and so on.

While more people get interested in gaming, a lot of people want those simpler 2D games too, like they used to be before. This has left a large hole that indie developers and small companies can fill!

TR: Yes, it is pretty awesome right now. There are so many opportunities and tools for would-be and veteran indie developers to utilize. Ten years ago tools were nowhere near where they are today, making it much easier to build a game, even if you're not a programmer.

What I admire right now? I just played a game called The Linear RPG -- it was cool, reminded me of a totally unrelated game called Vib-Ribbon. Legend of Princess and Snapshot are both pretty neat, too.

Many have wondered if Nicalis' attention to WiiWare could signal an eventual port of the Knytt series to the platform. Your thoughts?

NN: I like the idea of porting my previous games to consoles! At the moment we're focusing on the current projects, though.

TR: Well said.

Do you plan to work with [Cave Story creator] Daisuke Amaya on any other future projects?

TR: We'd love to. His understanding of design and art is so well-matched. Plus he's a great guy, I think he deserves to have more people play his games. He's working on a new project right now, but I have a feeling it'll be a couple of years before anyone sees that one--it looks pretty cool so far though.

March 13, 2009

Game Developer Magazine Gets 5 Maggie Nominations

[Delighted to announce that our very own Game Developer magazine has been nominated for a bunch of Maggie Awards - congrats to EIC Brandon Sheffield, editor Jeff Fleming and Cliff Scorso and the other art staff on the honor. Here's the details...]

GameSetWatch sister publication Game Developer magazine has been honored with 5 nominations to the prestigious 2009 Maggie Awards, including Best Technology Trade Magazine and Best Digital Edition.

Other nominations for Game Developer at the long-running magazine awards include one for its game postmortems of Call Of Duty 4 and Rock Band, as part of the Best Article Series category for trade magazines.

In addition, an article on creating ragdoll physics on the Nintendo DS was nominated for Best How-To Article in trade publications, and the Rock Band postmortem was nominated for Best Color Editorial Layout for trade publications.

The Western Publications Association (WPA), the creator of the Maggie Awards, is a non-profit association working to advance the business of print and online magazines in the western United States, and has been operating for more than 50 years.

The full list of nominated categories for Game Developer are as follows:

Computers/Software, Technology, Training & Program Development/Trade
-- Elearning! - February
-- Game Developer - February
-- Oracle - Jul/Aug
-- RTC - February
-- Tech & Learning - October

Digital Edition Magazine/Trade & Consumer
-- Game Developer - October
-- Launch Magazine - Summer
-- Massage & Bodywork - Nov/Dec
-- Personal Development - December
-- The Costco Connection Online Edition - December
-- URBiZ - November

Best Series of Articles/Trade
-- Buildings (Feb, Jul) - Energy Management Series
-- Elearning! (Jan/Apr/Jun/Sep) - Learning Leaders: Innovation
-- Game Developer (Mar, May, Jun/Jul) - Postmortem: Call of Duty 4, Rock Band
-- Insurance Journal (Various issues) - AIG Series
-- Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News (Various issues) - Reducing Risk Series
-- Police (Jan-Dec) - The State of American Law
-- Roast (Jan/Feb, Mar/Apr) - Blending for Italian Espresso

Best How-To Article/Trade
-- Buildings (January) - Succession Planning: How to Prepare Tomorrow’s Leaders
-- Game Developer (September) - Ragdoll Physics on the DS
-- NAILS (May) - Just Like You Picture It
-- Oracle (May/Jun) - Accelerating Data Warehouses
-- Public Safety Communications (April) - Seed Money: 10 Keys to Successful Grant Writing
-- Tech & Learning (May) - Making Students Info Literate

Best Color Editorial Layout/Trade
-- Beauty LaunchPad (July) - Through the Grapevine
-- emmy (June) - The Spotlight Serves Her Right
-- emmy (August) - Let’s Do Lunch
-- Game Developer (May) - Postmortem: Harmonix’s Rock Band
-- Nailpro (June) - Art Attack
-- Scotsman Guide, Commercial Edition (October) - 8 Creative Financing Methods (and How to Find Them)

The results of the 58th Annual Maggie awards will be announced at an April 24th ceremony in Los Angeles, held as part of the the WPA Publishing Conference in the same location.

Best Of Gamasutra Expert Blogs: From Used Games To Fallout Thoughts

[Following the Gamasutra relaunch, we're continuing to highlight some of the awesome Expert Blog posts from the relaunched site (there's an expert-specific RSS feed now!), and here's Chris Remo's picks for the best of the last week.]

In our weekly Best of Expert Blogs column, we showcase notable pieces of writing from members of the game development community who maintain Expert Blogs on Gamasutra.

Member Blogs -- also highlighted weekly -- can be maintained by any registered Gamasutra user, while the invitation-only Expert Blogs are written by development professionals with a wealth of experience to share.

We hope that both sections can provide useful and interesting viewpoints on our industry. For more information about the blogs, check out the official posting guidelines.

This Week's Standout Expert Blogs

Imperishable Night: Easier challenge means more adrenaline?
(Michael Molinari)

In one of a number of blog posts focusing on the methods and minutia of shoot-em-ups, animation student Michael Molinari hones in on Team Shanghai Alice's Imperishable Night to reflect on how simple focus -- rather than overt challenge -- can sometimes result in heightened intensity for the player.

Co-op/social Dungeon Master: Left 4 Dead as a proof of concept
(Jason Schklar)

Where is the line between gameplay and content creation? The question has been explored in a number of recent games, and producer/designer/analyst Jason Schklar frames it through the lens of Valve's dynamic director-equipped Left 4 Dead.

A New Frothy Bubbling Of The Used-Game Stew
(Kim Pallister)

The GameStop-dominated used game market is the source of seemingly infinite discussion and argument in the industry -- but Intel Larrabee content director Kim Pallister argues that additional competition (i.e., removing the "GameStop-dominated" bit from the equation) could make the whole situation a lot better for everyone.

How to replace levels in MMOs?
(Brian "Psychochild" Green)

Arguably more than any other element, the concept of character levels is associated with the RPG genre, massively multiplayer or otherwise. But here, MMO consultant and Meridian 59 lead engineer Brian Green kicks off a discussion as to whether they are even necessary at all.

Fallout 3 And The Sixth Sense Of Time
(Ted Brown)

For a medium in which the speed of progression through a given title is largely up to the player, many games fail to properly evoke a sense of time, argues designer Ted Brown. With a high number of capital letters, he describes how Bethesda's Fallout 3 succeeds in that respect.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': And Now, The Conclusion

aitd6.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 returns to Alone in the Dark to get an enhanced perspective of Siren: Blood Curse and non-episodic episodic content.]

Episodic content is becoming less and less of a joke. It’s gone from being a way to make fun of Valve’s release schedule to a clever tool for developers looking to maintain interest in their titles long after release.

When it works, episodic content can create an interesting mix of video game and television sensibility. It allows customers to pay for their entertainment in relatively small installments, and make decisions regarding the quality of the product based on smaller (and cheaper) portions of the game.

What’s interesting about companies’ approaches to episodic content is how they are and aren’t engaging players’ notions of what “episodic content” means. It’s obvious that designers want us to anticipate the next installment of episodic content, just as they want us to appreciate the smaller, easily beatable portions of their game. What they don’t often capitalize on is the baggage that comes with the term “episodic.”

I am of course referring to TV shows, and the tropes and traditions they’ve created for themselves as they’ve evolved as an entertainment. I can’t be the only one who has memories of watching the first part of a two-part TV episode, realizing that I have to wait a whole week (or, God forbid, until the next season) for the conclusion. It’s incredibly vexing, but when you get that feeling of longing and frustration, you know that a show has its claws in deep.

aitd2.jpgNot Very Episodic, Actually
It’s truly mystifying then, when games produce a TV-like atmosphere, without the traditional TV wait-and-see moments. Alone in the Dark does this, and while it can be a puzzling decision at times, in the long run it’s a decision that makes sense.

In Alone in the Dark, the story follows Edward Carnby. As he tries to stop Central Park, New York City, and more from being destroyed by a malignant, supernatural force. The story itself may not be the newest thing under the sun, but the flavor that its presentation creates is definitely memorable.

As you aid Carnby in his struggle, the game is parceled into episodes, within larger chapters. Each episode can be fast-forwarded through (avoiding an annoying car chase, say), replayed, r even skipped, so long as you’ve unlocked the capability to do so. Admittedly, I can’t see a reason why you would want to skip any portion of a story-heavy game, but the option is there, and the ability to minutely control the level of a player’s involvement with a game should not be overlooked.

I was interested to notice that a lot of vicious reviews thought that this mechanic was good for only one thing: skipping most of the game. I’m not quite sure how writers arrived at this conclusion, because I saw it as a way to skip certain parts and come back to them, or replay very specific game segments to get achievements

aitd5.jpgPreviously...
What Alone in the Dark does well is something that a lot of people disagree upon, but I enjoyed the absolutely wonderful feature, “last time on Alone in the Dark.” Now, survival horror and action adventure games aren’t normally the games that cause me to quickly forget their plots. That’s normally a pleasure I reserve for lengthy JRPGs. However, it’s unrealistic to assume that players will be rolling through this game without any hitches, in one or two sittings.

It’s reassuring and grounding to see a quick, well-cut recap of the recent events within the story, just so you have context for whatever corner of Central Park you’re presently scouring for clues. It’s not only helpful, but also extremely evocative of those two-part TV episodes I mentioned earlier. It sets the stage for the mood of whatever scene you’re re-entering. Instead of hopping right into the middle of the action, you are quickly but effectively primed for whatever situation you may find yourself in, grave or no.

sbc1.jpgDocumentary TV Format Plus Ancient Curse Equals Siren
If Alone in the Dark is good at quickly preparing you for your return to the fight, Siren: Blood Curse does a great job of piquing your interest about the next installment. The game is even more minutely segmented than Alone in the Dark, with each chapter divided into a multitude of episodes. Most of them time, your perspective will change from episode to episode. At the end of one episode you’ll witness or trigger events that affect multiple characters, one or more of whom you’ll control in the next episode.

This lends the game an exciting level of tension and consequence: regardless of whether your temporary avatar survives the newest episode, there’s no guarantee that in trying to survive you’ll be doing the best thing for the rest of the PC’s. The “next time on” feature emphasizes this facet of the game’s tension. At the end of each chapter, you’ll be given a glimpse of the terror and possible death that awaits your companions or yourself.

This is obviously a device that finds special importance in Blood Curse. The multiple characters and narratives, combined with each character’s different abilities and limitations, are pretty confusing, especially as the game tries to find its footing early on. The cinema appended to each chapter, providing a brief, focused denouement to the episode’s events, is always just informative enough of what you can expect from the next stage. It doesn’t hurt that it always managed to pique my interest.

Of course, in the case of Blood Curse, it’s unclear why the developers released it in 12 separate downloadable chapters. Since all twelve episode were released simultaneously, it’s not as if the developers were releasing each chapter as it was finished. Likewise, as Alone in the Dark proved, it’s possible to release a completely traditional game from a purchasing and playing perspective, while still implementing the trappings of an episodic story. If Blood Curse had been released as one title, with its episodic window dressing and gimmicks intact, I would have enjoyed it just as much.

sbc4.jpgIf Not Next Week, Why Not Right Now?
Alone in the Dark’s system may be structurally and practically different from Blood Curse’s but both games are intent on evoking the aura of TV shows, while avoiding the week long wait between episodes. This isn’t a problem for me: I enjoy the dramatic angles that these games’ pretensions to televised drama afford the narrative. I like the in medias res sensation that arises from the mantle of televised drama worn by both games.

Still, it’s a strange match for Alone in the Dark, when all is said and done. Like I mentioned previously, the game’s story is hardly longwinded enough or convoluted enough to really need such a mechanic. Furthermore, there is nothing episodic about the narrative of Alone in the Dark, disregarding the episodic nature of gamers’ playtimes.

This assumed TV identity really does feel more natural on Blood Curse. There, the narrative is segmented already, and like a good TV show, concerns itself with presenting various disparate characters and situations, and then bringing them together.

I hope that more developers take a hint from Blood Curse, regardless of whether they present their games in an actually episodic format or not. I’m sure that there are more creative and interactive ways to leverage televisions (having episode cliffhangers with multiple choice endings – and thus multiple possibilities for the next episode – definitely comes to mind), but for now, I’d be happy if some other people out there besides Eden Games and SCE Japan will jump on the wagon.

GameSetLinks: Prescription For... Dr. Mario!

[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.]

Jeepers, GDC is coming up really soon, and I've been busy reviewing the video for the IGF and Game Developers Choice, giving some pre-show interviews (USA Today, most recently), and prepping my Indie Games Summit speech. (Well, a little behind on that, but I'm getting there.)

Anyhow, the GameSetLinks goodness is continuing, and this installment includes McSweeney's silliness, a new game-related iPhone app, BBC and The Guardian on interesting aspects of games from a mainstream perspective, and quite a few things besides.

Now you have a big problem:

McSweeney's Internet Tendency: Dr. Mario Weighs In on Universal Health Care.
'For nearly two decades, I have been a resident doctor at the Mushroom Kingdom Hospital, in the Division of Virus Research.'

Mission One - 'Prescription For Sleep' iPhone application
From MGS composer Norihiko Hibino, plus ex-Grasshopper programmer Mark Cooke and more - relaxing iPhone application neatness.

Should the United States ban RapeLay, a Japanese "rape simulator" game? - By Leigh Alexander - Slate Magazine
Leigh's last word on that whole furore, neat to see it on Slate.

NeoGAF - View Single Post - Idle Thumbs News PodBLAST - In two weeks, a videogame will make you cry
Useful info about why Idle Thumbs was a v.influential amateur (now spare-time and podcast-y) game editorial site.

BBC NEWS | Technology | Magical challenge of video game music
'How do you write a soundtrack for something which doesn't follow a conventional linear narrative? That's the challenge faced by composers when writing the music for computer games.'

Latoya Peterson: Those who identify as women or minorities are bullied into silence in online games | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
'Bullying people into silence rarely provides space for the perspectives needed to grow and improve the gaming industry. And the net result is that many gamers just leave large forums and go to seek out our own communities.' The shi*tcock argument writ large? Via Infinite Lives.

March 12, 2009

Opinion: Can The Industry Make A 'B Game'?

[Everyone knows low-budget, clumsy, charming B movies -- but can the industry make a 'B game'? Gamasutra's Christian Nutt examines the efforts -- and the key obstacles.]

If there's one conversation I've had several times over the years with other gamers that never ends with anybody satisfied, it's the B game conversation. Everybody knows (and many people adore) B movies -- whether they're intentional or not, they're films that tend to be low-budget, clumsy, and charming.

Sometimes they shoot for the bottom of the barrel; sometimes, they just land there. The best B movies have some intrinsic charm that elevates them in the eyes of their fans. They may do everything incompetently, but somehow there's just a certain something that makes them so much more enjoyable than they have any right to be.

Can our industry make a 'B game'?

The reason this came up again is because of last week's release of Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, from Vicious Cycle and D3Publisher, for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The game, for the uninformed, is a shooter with an elaborate back-story.

The marketing has been jokingly pretending -- for months -- that it's a re-envisioning of an (actually nonexistent) classic franchise from the '80s (compare to what Capcom is actually doing with its soon-to-be-released Bionic Commando.) The game features comedian Will Arnett in the lead voice role of a (parody of a) Duke Nukem-style action hero.

Wait, wasn't Duke Nukem a parody? Hold on...

Check out this high concept trailer, which itself parodies VH1's Behind the Music.

The result? As of this writing, a 56 on Metacritic for the Xbox 360 version. 1UP's Justin Haywald is particularly scathing, but his writing gets to the heart of why this is a dicey proposition:

"The only real laugh in this game comes in the opening introduction... The rest of the game is a plodding, boring mess that that forces you to play through the worst shooter genre clichés, and then asks you to laugh simply because the game's creators self-referentially point out how annoying those tropes are."

If ever there were a time where the gulf between games and movies were more obvious, it's hard to think of one. Put simply: playing an annoyingly bad game for 10 hours is too much to ask. The line between intentionally bad and unintentionally bad is probably too fuzzy in games.

Intentionally bad, even done with no subtlety whatsoever, is usually good for a chuckle in the right context. Scary Movie 4 may be a much worse film than Eat Lead is a game, but it at least functions as intended. And at least you can surf on by it when it gets boring, on cable.

The truth is, writing effective satire is extremely difficult. It's much more difficult than writing convincingly serious dialogue for all of the un-ironic bald space marines in gaming to grimly belch.

The Opposite Result

Perhaps the polar opposite of Eat Lead, and another good candidate for an intentional B game, is Indies Zero and XSeed's Retro Game Challenge, which came to the Nintendo DS about a month ago.

It's a jokey compilation of brand new faux 8-bit Nintendo NES-like games wrapped in a very silly story. You've been turned into a child and sent to '80s by a demonic digital incarnation of a gamer so frustrated he wanted to punish everyone with a Nintendo DS.

In stark contrast to Eat Lead, it has a very healthy 81 on Metacritic as of this writing. Why? Says IGN's Daemon Hatfield, "The developers of Retro Game Challenge didn't just accurately recreate 8-bit gaming -- they made a bunch of really good games."

Sure, the game is an intentional joke, and is filled with stuff that's actually bad in the real world -- poor translations, at-times frustrating or tedious gameplay. But that all evens out, because the whole package is creative, clever, and well-executed. It's aware of its limitations and finds ways to counteract them before they overwhelm the whole package.

To that end, it doesn't really succeed as a B game either.

Here's the Problem

Here's the problem with setting out to make a B game. Your game turns out to be a good game, or it doesn't, and that's the level on which it is judged, honestly and genuinely. Sure, gamers experience the whole of what's packed into a game experience -- but a game lives or dies by the quality of its gameplay.

Getting back to Duke Nukem, the character was an obvious parody of the over-muscled steroid supermen of '80s action movies. But the series has been taken purely seriously by fans on the merits of its core gameplay. They may enjoy the tawdry humor, and it definitely adds to the series' notoriety, but that's not the primary draw.

Think about Resident Evil. The first game had voice acting that was widely derided even in 1996 when it came out -- "Jill sandwich"? -- but the game was an instant classic regardless of this. And the games in the series have largely continued to have risible dialogue and bizarre and grotesque storylines that wouldn't make for compelling (or even comprehensible) films. Yet the series is continually lauded, and lauded even by people who will openly admit that they can't take its storytelling seriously.

Though it's more rare, this can even work in reverse. Consider Resident Evil's obverse, Silent Hill. The series has long been infamous for its weak and plodding gameplay, but the story, characters, and out-and-out scares are so compelling that its fans overlook its tedious combat. The games are simply that gripping.

The Old-Fashioned Way: By Accident

But what about the best kind of B movie -- the earnest failure? The B movie that sets out with big dreams but its cut down by a lack of talent, time, money, or expertise? Are there games like that -- ones that can exceed their boundaries and become B games by accident?

This is where things get really tough. Sure, there are niche games and genre games that do one thing well (or mine one specific fan base effectively, even if they do nothing with particularly remarkable quality). But there are very few games you can laugh at and still enjoy despite the derision.

Racking my brain, the closest I can come in recent memory is 2006's Wild Arms 4 -- a game that has a dreadful script and a host of annoying characters. But it somehow strikes enough of a balance gameplay-wise to remain engrossing -- and score a better-than-Matt Hazard 69 on Metacritic.

But no. When Wild Arms 4 is not being legitimately fun, it's just grating. The developers rolled back many of the gameplay innovations in WA4 for WA5; without them, I hated it, despite a mild uptick in both production values and storytelling.

Wild Arms 4 has the obvious low budget of a "true" B game, but the story of an F game. (You can see both here.) The result is confused; it's unable to be laughed with and too tedious to be laughed at, yet somehow still engrossing anyway.

A group of filmmakers can set out to make an intentionally terrible film. They can even force themselves to work within the limitations that were just happenstance for the last generation's unlucky filmmakers, and wind up with something that's still a good laugh. Anybody seen The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra?

But game developers don't have that luxury. Games are judged primarily by gameplay, and how you succeed or fail there determines your fate. Even a game with an overt grindhouse subtitle like Bikini Samurai Squad can't catch a break, at least not reviewer-wise.

Can we make a 'B game'? The question nags me. It seems that by either accident or intention, it's a very tough place to get to.

Best Of GamerBytes: Peggle Fever!

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

We missed last week's Best Of GamerBytes, so this week, you get double the info in just one update, and this week is a doozy for Xbox 360 owners.

Peggle finally makes its way to the platform, complete with brand new multiplayer modes. Alongside it is Square Enix's Final Fantasy-based Tower Defense-style game Crystal Defenders. The Maw also gets its second downloadable level pack for 100MSP.

But Watchmen: The End Is Nigh also came out last week for the XBLA and PlayStation Network. For $20USD, you can fight it out as Rorschach or Nite Owl in this hefty beat-em-up.

Finally, Wii owners can now buy Gradius Rebirth, a classic retooling of the Gradius games for digital download. Here are the full highlights for the last two weeks:

GamerBytes Specials

What Needs To Be A Digital Download? #11 - The Strike Series
We look at EA's classic classic games Desert, Jungle and Urban Strike, and discuss how the company could bring the games onto the digital download scene.

GamerBytes Preview: Grab Gold And Swap User Created Levels In Lode Runner
We preview the upcoming Lode Runner on Xbox Live Arcade, and discuss the online modes, as well as the level editor and the ability to create share lists for people to download multiple levels at a time.

GamerBytes Interview: Ronimo Games' Swords & Soldiers
We interview Ronimo Games about their upcoming side-scrolling RTS for WiiWare.

Xbox Live Arcade

This Week on XBLA - Peggle, Crystal Defenders, Maw DLC
Skateboarding woodchucks, defending pathways, and changing redirecting rivers makes up your superb set of Xbox Live Arcade titles this week.

Now Out On XBLA - Watchmen: The End Is Nigh
The first movie blockbuster of the year brings its game exclusively to digital download.

First Screens Of Worms 2: Armageddon XBLA And Worms PSN, First Alien Breed Details
A brand new Worms game is on its way for the XBLA and PSN - check out the first screens here.

Quake Arena Arcade On Track, Release Soon
Thought to be canceled, Quake Arena Arcade is very much alive.

Sam & Max Coming To XBLA In Season Packages
Full seasons of Sam & Max coming to Xbox Live Arcade, but what will the price and file size be?

Virtual-On Website Live - First Screenshots And Trailer
Virtual On officially unveiled, complete with the first trailer.

Leaked: Direct Feed Screens Of Sega Vintage Collection Vol. 2
Altered Beast, Shinobi, Sonic 3, Gunstar Heroes, Phantasy Star II and Comix Zone coming to XBLA.

Days Of Arcade Announced, Seven Games In Six Weeks
You'll be spending a good chunk of money over the next month and a half...

PlayStation Network

Burn Zombie Burn! Limping Its Way To PSN March 26th
Score based arena zombie shooter makes its mark on PSN in just a few weeks time.

NA PSN Store Update - Watchmen Game, Age Of Booty Online Demo, Burnout DLC, Bowling DLC
The Watchmen game makes its mark on PSN this week, while the Age Of Booty demo with online play is now available.

EU PSN Update: Watchmen, plus Burnout, Bowling, Lumines DLC
Sony Europe finally gets it with the third release in several weeks which gets released the same week as the rest of the world. Rejoice!

WiiWare

First Screens of Rainbow Islands: Towering Adventure And... Released Tomorrow In Japan
Rainbow Islands officially announced, and released in the same week.

Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, Crystal Defenders Coming To American WiiWare
The ESRB reveals Final Fantasy IV sequel making its way to WiiWare.

NA WiiWare Update: Family & Friends Party
Sometimes we have no idea what comes out on WiiWare. This was one of those weeks. Apparently not too bad either.

EU WiiWare Update - Tossing Snowboards
Europe gets to toss some bags and shred some snow this week.

NA WiiWare Update: Gradius Rebirth
Konami's shooter revival makes its way to WiiWare.

GameSetInterview: Flashbang Studios - Blursting Through?

[We're starting a new set of GameSetWatch-exclusive interviews from UK-based journalist Phill Cameron, many of which will explore the neater end of indie gaming. First up is a chat with Arizona-based Flashbang Studios, longtime GSW friends, about their smart 3D web browser indie game projects.]

Flashbang Studios are an independent studio focusing on making browser based games using the Unity engine, hosted on Blurst.com. While for the most part they've focused on bringing us Dinosaur based fantasies - for example, allowing you to kill dozens of velociraptors with a jeep in Velociraptor Offroad Safari.

Heck, that's not all. They also let you peek voyeuristically into the sleeping mind of an Aptosaurus as it dreams of a Jetpack Brontasaurus that sails lackadaisically through the air collecting various fruits, and they've begun to branch out a little more recently.

For example, they also made the absolutely brilliant Minotaur China Shop, where you played a mythical Bull-Man with an anger management problem trying to run a pottery shop, and they very recently released Blush, where you play a neon attack squid.

And that's just the first of this year. There are five more games that will be with us by Christmas. We talked to Flashbang - led by Matthew Wegner and Steve Swink [who also help to organize the Independent Games Festival for GSW parent company Think Services] - about their background, ideas, and crazy concepts, and this was the result:

For those unaware, can you explain what it is Flashbang Studios does within being a games developer?

Flashbang Studios: Flashbang's been around for awhile--the company turns 6 years old next month! We started out targeting the casual market (think "Bejeweled" casual, not "Madden" casual), making games like Beesly's Buzzwords and Glow Worm. Both games were IGF finalists, in 2004 and 2006, respectively. The plan was always to:

1) Make piles of money off the casual market
2) Giggle as we jumped into these piles
3) Fund our own games

#1 never materialized, and we actually canceled our final casual game. Then we did a bunch of random stuff, like corporate training games, affiliate websites, and who knows what else, before growing again and focusing anew on our own ideas. We're on step #3 now, despite skipping the prerequisites. Don't ask us how (hint: The Internet)!

We've always been self-funded; today we're supporting a staff of six developers, all working on Blurst . Blurst is a catch-all site for our random ideas, with leaderboards/achievements/magical-announced-things tying them all together. We're tired of playing the same games found on store shelves, and we think other players might be too!

We're also quite active in and around the indie games community. Matthew and Steve help coordinate the Independent Games Festival and Independent Games Summit, and Flashbang hosted the first TIGJam. We have other super-cool indie events bubbling around our mind grapes.

Apart from the work you do as Blurst, you’ve taken on quite a bit of contract work. Is this merely out of necessity or do you use it as a way to try new things which are then fed back into your other projects?

FS: The type of contract work we do does not exactly accommodate experimentation, at least in terms of 3D tech and game design ideas. We did accept our first Flash-based contract job before any of us had ever touched Flash, though (quickly followed by a trip to a nearby bookstore, and quite a lot of experimentation). But contract jobs are basically there to funnel sweet, beautiful, cash money into other projects.

Specialising in browser-based games seems to grant you the largest audience for your games. How has the Unity engine in particular helped you to keep some quite system taxing games within the browser?

FS: Simply put: If it weren't for Unity, we'd have to be pursuing a completely different business model or making vastly simpler games. It's the only technology out there that lets us make complex, 3D, physics-based games in-browser, plus facilitates our rapid development cycles. If that sounded like a junior high-schooler gushing over their big crush, well, that's pretty accurate.

Your previous efforts as Blurst have mainly revolved around some sort of anthropomorphic hero in an often ludicrous situation, but Blush, the game you’re currently working on, seems to be quite a departure from that. What made you decide to take such a different path?

FS: We didn't necessarily decide to go in any kind of an aesthetic direction. As with most things we've made it just sort of "happens". With Blush, it started as a prototype where the only recognizable element was a squid-like creature in a world of empty blackness, and wrapping an aesthetic around it was very organic. All we provided ourselves with were high level concepts like bio luminescence and deep sea darkness. In fact, we just posted about the visual history of the game over on our blog!

There always seems to be a little set up before each of your games starts, explaining the situation, be it a dreaming dinosaur, or a Minotaur with an anger management problem. Are these just loading screen filler or do you feel there’s a need to establish a story?

FS: We do those things because we think they're funny. We realize a little bit of context does grease the player experience (especially with ideas as unconventional as ours), which is why we bother to include them in the final product. It's not that we think of a premise for our games after the fact, though; the premise is usually what drives us to make the game in the first place.

You’ve stated that you want to create six entirely different games this year. Are you crazy? Is that even possible? Why?

FS: Can't it be both? Last year, including our contract work, we actually launched 12 products, depending on how and what you count. So if we forgo contract work this year, it should be possible to release six games with a scope comparable to what we have been doing. The trick, as we're already discovering, is that "production time" and "calendar time" are two very different things. Increasing the shelf life of a project has benefits, even if you aren't spending much production time on it. There are more opportunities to think about the game in the shower, more nights to sleep on it, and new solutions to long-standing problems might suddenly solve themselves. Having a 1-to-1 relationship between production time and calendar time is much more stressful. Canned game ideas rarely go bad, unlike pumpkin.

As for why, part of what we are trying to accomplish is putting more content into the hands of users more quickly. If we give our players more products that focus on instant fun, we get more feedback and are able to refine our processes much quicker. What happens if 14 months into a 2-year game we find out it's not fun? That's a bad situation to be in, and one some of us have experienced at larger studios. If we put out a game in a couple months and users didn't like some parts of it, the cost is far easier to absorb and we can more quickly integrate the players' ideas and expectations into our next game.

Have you already decided what the other 5 games of this year are going to be?

FS: No way! The concepts for those games will most likely be born randomly from the unprotected idea sex that constantly happens here.

With such quick development cycles for each of your games, are there a lot of ideas that don’t make it? Or are they all used eventually?

FS: There are tons of ideas that don't make it. Our policy here is to spew out whatever coagulates in our brain soup. Naturally, most things are not going to make the cut. Part of this is because there isn't enough time in the day or an idea is too complex, part of it is that some ideas aren't any good, and part of it is that some ideas are just too genocidal, demeaning, horrible, abusive, disrespectful, and hideously irreverent to thrust upon the world.

A variation of Off Road Raptor Safari is now on the iPhone. What’s the response been like?

FS: Meh, with a side of "who cares". A few people like it, though! Mostly our friends. And our moms.

It's easy to get lost in the shuffle. The last numbers we heard were something like 15,000 applications--6,000 of them games--available on the App Store. None of our games have had a tremendous amount of traction. The sales curve is horribly nonlinear; the response has been pretty lackluster.

Presumably the ease with which your games run in a browser makes them ideal for mobile use. Are you looking to port more onto the iPhone?

FS: While it's a damned powerful mobile device, most of our games won't actually run on the iPhone without a bunch of reworking. Physics and graphics are the big bottlenecks, and we tend to push both of those in our web games. Not to mention the different control paradigm. We're more likely to do "spiritual successors" like Raptor Copter, or whatever irresistible idea succubi invade our dreams, like Rebolt. Blurst is our main priority now, though, so anything for iPhone will be a side project.

You’ve cited Flight404’s ‘Relentless, the REV’ as inspiration for Blush. Were there similar inspirations for your other games?

FS: Interestingly enough, thatgamecompany's Flow was sort of an anti-inspiration for Blush. And not because we don't like it; it was because we do like it! Very much so. Early on there was a company-wide fear that Blush might end up looking too much like Flow, and we wanted to make sure we were doing our own thing. We figured we'd give it an honorable mention since the concern pervaded us for a few days early on in the cycle.

Our other games haven't been directly inspired by any particular media or work, other than our obvious love of dinosaurs and physical-based gameplay.

You recently started to broadcast a webcam from your offices every Friday. What’s the reason for this, apart from letting your rabid fans pore over your every move?

FS: It's also to let the people that hate us and want to see us fail pore over our every move. That, and to build a connection with our fans. They say you only need 1,000 True Fans in order to succeed. We have at least two, now, and sometimes they argue about who is the bigger fan. So we're getting there.

We're also posting more video snippets from the studio (like this Minotaur China Shop postmortem).

Are you finding that, with the ‘indie’ scene on the rise, your games are getting more attention?

FS: Yes!

Longer answer: The rising tide of indie awesomeness, what Jenova of thatgamecompany calls the current Videogame Renaissance, floats all boats. The indie movement is creeping into mass consciousness. As it does, player expectations are changing, and that change benefits us. Instead of expecting all games to be Gears of War 3 or Madden 2010, a game might be about a little white guy with a hat who discovers the third dimension, or a minotaur with anger issues. That broadening perception can only benefit fringe developers like us and all our like-minded friends.

Are there any particular indie developers that you pay particular attention to? Is there anything on the horizon you’re particularly looking forward to being released?

FS: We've got a soft spot for local friends, Coin App. Their game Max Blastronaut is looking like some damned excellent arcade-style action! We're keen on what we've seen in progress from Infinite Ammo, as well -- Heroes and Villains is looking sweet, and the concepts for Marian are lovely. We'll actually be announcing a Blurst-related deal with Infinite Ammo soon! Our new favorite hobby is driving out to LA and partying with thatgamecompany. They know where to find the best breakfast spots and hedonistic drug orgies in Venice.

GameSetLinks: Wrenching Fly, Finishing Combo

[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.]

Continuing with the GameSetLinks RSS goodness, this set of eclecticism starts out with the New York Times highlighting new art that includes, yes, an art game in the form of Mark Essen's Flywrench (pictured). I do believe we are getting somewhere in terms of integration with other creative arts, folks.

Also in here - GameCyte tails off, Western games that were big in Japan wayback are discovered, some art from one of my old games surfaces, Daniel Cook drops more awesome science, and lots more.

Final justice:

33 and Under, Please - ‘The Generational’ at the New Museum - NYTimes.com
Nice, Mark Essen's 'Flywrench' indie game being shown at a major NY exhibition.

R.I.P. GameCyte, 2008-2009 | GameCyte
Not totally surprised, but the site was actually trying to do decent journalism, despite the PR kerfuffle.

Hypercombofinish :: How to Be Me: Leigh Alexander, Video Game Journalist
Not just linking this cos Leigh is nice about me in it, promise - there's some good advice for game writers in there.

Evil Genius [XBOX/PS2 - Cancelled] | Unseen 64: Beta, Unreleased & Unseen Videogames!
This was actually the last project I worked on before I left game development - there was a decent prototype up and running, too, but hey. A number of the principals behind it are at Double Fine now, and are much more talented than I ever was, which is why Brutal Legend should be rawk.

Lost Garden: What is your game design style?
'I've noticed that games have distinct styles. These are not visual styles. Nor are they styles associated with prefered process of development. Instead, they are unique styles of game design, how you mix and match mechanics, story, player agency and feedback.'

1UP's Retro Gaming Blog : 8-Bit Cafe: Big in Japan
'Yet looking back into the 8-bit era, you can find a number of curious exceptions to this rule: western games that did fairly well for themselves in the U.S. and Europe, but that took on new lives of their own in Japan.'

March 11, 2009

Q&A: The Travails Of External Design On Battlestations Pacific

[Another notable interview from Gamasutra that's worth recounting here on GSW, Christian Nutt talked to Eidos' Alistair Cornish about working as a game designer in a different country to your core team - interesting stuff.]

Alistair Cornish is a designer at Eidos London -- who works externally from his development teams on titles such as Championship Manager and the upcoming Xbox 360/PC action/strategy title Battlestations Pacific.

The latter title, developed by Eidos's Budapest-based Hungary studio, allows players to become the Americans or Japanese in a post Pearl Harbor World War II scenario, with real-time switching between multiple combat units. It follows up 2007's Battlestations Midway, also created by Eidos Hungary.

In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, Cornish discusses the community-driven process for improving the sequel, the external designer as, in his opinion, an integral role, and working with a developer in another country -- all hot topics in today's development landscape:

Did you work on the original Battlestations Midway?

Alistair Cornish: I didn't. I came in at the inception of Battlestations Pacific, and my first task was really to trawl the forums and the boards and see what the fans were saying -- going through the reviews and trying to pick out what we were going to improve on and fix and change.

What were your priority items, when you came to the project as a designer, to bring into the new Battlestations?

AC: Two things, really. The first one is accessibility. That was my kind of big remit -- that the first game had a pretty notorious tutorial. I don't know if you remember it. It was quite dry and it was very, very long. And what we've done now is that you learn on the job. So there's a gradual revelation of units and there's lots of pop up hints and tips, and you can review them any time in the pause menu.

So you learn to bomb on an exciting bombing run in the middle of combat, rather than a naval academy. If you want to just practice, if you're worried about that, you don't want to get your feet wet, then you can go to a separate naval academy and drill yourself. But that's something you can elect to do -- you don't have to do that.

And you that's not the only way to learn. So, that's a really big deal, just accessibility. And keeping players in the action was another part of that. So, if you remember the old repair menu, you're taken to a separate screen. Now we try to keep everything in pop-up screens. So you can be in the cockpit of the Zero, and from there you can choose planes to launch from aircraft carriers and airbases.

We've got a really good fan base, and not only are they passionate but they're also very vocal and can express themselves very clearly in the forums. You know, they just come in and go, "this rocks," "this sucks," and then they tell you why, and what they want.

So, we've listened to them at every step, you know, from minor things -- like they ask for cockpit modes, we gave them a cockpit mode, they asked for this kind of unit type, we gave the most popular unit types they requested -- up to big deals, like skirmish mode, which was a huge thing that fans wanted to extend the longevity in single player.

Do you have a specialized community site for this game?

AC: Yeah. Fans can go to BattleStations.net. Previously we had official forums for it, but I go to trawl everything. I go to GameFAQs, I go to fan sites, and I go to our official forums. We kind of cast the net as far and wide as time allows, really.

And you often get people in the forums who are very, very active. You see them pop up in every post, they post multiple times, and we've tried to get their involvement. We've had events for them to get their opinion on things, and solicit their feedback.

Did you actually bring them into the studio?

AC: Yeah. So we've tried to give back. We've had them up, flown them into Budapest and put them up and had events for them. So, you know, part of it is to thank them, and part is to really get their honest feedback on what we're going to do.

Was that the primary kind of research you did into the features you should make in the new game?

AC: It's a real mixture of things. Obviously, the team had their own ideas of what they wanted to put in to drive it forward. We obviously had an understanding of what our strengths were, the pillars of the brand, the split of action and strategy.

There's obviously a drive for more content, so we've doubled the content with the Japanese campaign. All the multiplayer modes, the great addition of skirmish mode. And then one aspect of that was the fan feedback, another aspect was review feedback. You know, what the reviewers like, what they think was lacking, if anything, what we can improve. So it's a real multifaceted approach.

But I've worked on a fair few games, and I think this is the one that's taken the most direct fan feedback and just put it in the game. And part of what's allowed us to do that is the fans themselves. they've been very vocal and verbal, and they made good sense, they made their points well -- they haven't come on and just gone "ah, this is terrible" and left it at that.

They explained what they didn't like, what they wanted to see, what they would like changed, what they loved and wanted more of. But it's a real multi-faceted approach. The trouble with some fan feedback is you can't possibly take into account all of it because it contradicts itself. But it was a great experience.

As a designer, when you knew you were going to be leading this project, I'm sure you had preconceptions of what you wanted to do with the game before you started collating the feedback. How far did you go in directions that you weren't anticipating, or change your viewpoint?

AC: I think I'm very happy with the amount of input I've been able to have, and how the project's gone. I think my primary focus was accessibility, and I think that's something that we've driven towards so far, and so well. So I'm very proud of that -- that was a key thing.

Does this game have a narrative?

AC: That's something we changed from the first game, because it's quite limiting to try and follow a character through events. The other thing is it's quite contrary to the spirit of the game -- you can jump into that ship, and that submarine, then another plane. It doesn't make sense to follow one character's story when you can jump into any. So that's gone now -- you're some kind of nebulous floating Commander, as you'll see is atypical of any type of real-time strategy game.

I feel narrative can be a bit superfluous, at times, to some games. This strikes me as a game that's very mechanics-based, and then, as you said overall, it really wouldn't really logically make sense to follow one person's journey...

AC: That's exactly the conclusion we came to, hence our direction... I mean how narrative we're going to go really depends on genre, depends on goals, a bit of the design there. So in some games it's absolutely what you need it should be the focus, in other games it shouldn't.

We felt that with Battlestations it was about controlling over 100 different war machines, jumping between them at any time. That was the focus of it, to try and artificially squeeze in a person's story... We want to focus on the epic. The epic scale's a really big thing; you can't get too much of a sense of the epic scale if you're locked down to one person. So we brought this much more overall feel to it.

You work out of London, but the game is developed in Budapest. How does that work, from a pure logistics perspective?

AC: It's hard being an outsider, at a publisher... Initially, when you go from development to the publisher's side it can be a bit of a jolt. But early on on my career, I started at Sony, so I have experience on the publisher's side. So it wasn't too big a jump, to be honest.

But that's one of the challenges to be a designer on the publisher side -- you have to have really open communications channels, constantly be on the phone, or messenger, or emails, or writing documentation, or visiting a studio, to work harmoniously. So that's a window into my world!

Honestly that seems a bit rare, to have a designer on the publisher side; usually it's a producer.

AC: I'm not sure if things are going that way more, but Eidos is certainly not the only company that does it. Konami does it, for example.

I think it is the way to go, because good producers are great -- time/costs/staff, keeping things on the rails and everything else. But he doesn't necessarily have any design background. I've been a designer for over 12 years and have 25 published titles. You get to know what works in a game and what doesn't.

I don't have to worry about spreadsheets and Microsoft Project, or any of that stuff. I care about one thing, the quality of the game. Meeting specific goals -- like accessibility, in this case -- are being laid out. I think it's the right way to work, really.

Producers have their strengths and designers have their strengths, so I think it's a nice combination to have them both on the project.

There's sort of a blending or ambiguity of director, producer, and now maybe even designers. Go to different studios and go to different publishers and you'll find that these roles entail different things, or that there's overlap.

AC: My kind of role is occasionally referred to as "gameplay producer." I'm not sure if it's only EA that has that title.

That's sounds like an EA title, yeah.

AC: It does, doesn't it? There are about three or four different titles that basically mean the same thing. But I'm very, very positive about it. I know the changes that are effected on this title and other titles.

I'm confident that if I had to go to a publisher tomorrow, that's absolutely the structure I'd use. Producer and designer working together and all the brand managers, PR managers, associate producers to get the project to be the best it can be.

When they're in balance and in harmony, the yin and yang, it's all good. If it goes too much one way, if the designers get their way, it's probably going to take six years to come out. If the producers get their way, it'll come out in a couple of weeks with no features. [laughs] It's getting that balance right. That's industry-wide, internal and external.

And even though it's an Eidos studio that you're working with, it's still got to be somewhat like working with an external studio that's not really part of the company. Probably the politics are the big difference -- as opposed to dealing with the studio, because it's remote.

AC: Exactly. Day-to-day, it's exactly the same challenges and opportunities as you get from an external developer. As you say, it's more politics and down to really boring stuff, like how the payroll is handled. So that's very different. But from my end of things, it's very similar. As I say, the same opportunities, the same difficulties.

What are the major difficulties you've run into? Have you come up with any processes that you've now followed?

AC: You just have to be very, very agile. If you know your craft and you know what's missing or what's needed and you can communicate that well, work within the realities of deadlines and budgets, work in structures, then you can see what you should be doing in terms of the project.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Green and Sparkly

ECC.png['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at "Emerald City Confidential".]

Emerald City Confidential is a graphical adventure by Wadjet Eye Games, under the creative direction of Dave Gilbert. The protagonist, Petra, is a film-noir-esque detective led to explore deeper and deeper into the web of lies at work in the Emerald City of Oz, which is not really at all the way you may remember it from the books; she spends most of her time questioning people and solving some not-too-difficult puzzles.

Structurally, ECC is not doing anything especially new. It is a very linear game with carefully directed gameplay. The magic system's Enchanter-esque spells are strangely specific in their effects and conveniently work only when the designer wills that they should.

There are many fetch-quests, and the occasional lock-and-key or get-x-use-x puzzle. The game unabashedly repeats character dialogue verbatim if the player needs to hear some hint over again. Moreover, when it wants to represent characters who are "busy", it will sometimes put them into a loop of repeating dialogue while the player solves some puzzle.

In other respects, the gameplay is fun but sometimes too directed. The puzzles are fairer than graphical adventure puzzles of the past, but many of them are so blatantly hinted that the player is deprived of the pleasure of really solving them. I suppose that this is partly because a) this is an adventure game marketed to a casual game audience, so difficulty expectations are lower; b) this is an unusually narrative adventure game in which getting stuck for a long time would be a disruption of the intended pacing.

So I'm sympathetic to the tuning considerations that may have gone into this. All the same, I felt that the game already had an excellent external hint mechanism -- one can always consult the journal for suggestions -- so it wasn't always necessary for the game itself to make the logical connections for me.

Another small disappointment: Emerald City Confidential is a bit buggy here and there. There are several dialogues that can happen in a sequence other than the one the designers intended, with awkward and comical effect; and the enforcement of game logic breaks down even further in the final portion of the game.

At one point I got an actual error message on the screen in a final battle and had to restart the sequence; at another I managed to leave a room in which I think I was supposed to be confined, and was unable to pick up the narrative thread until I returned to it. But since I played a first-day release of the game, it's possible that some of these problems will be patched.

These were unfortunate blemishes on an otherwise highly polished and entertaining piece of work: the art is vibrant, the voice acting strong. (Particular favorites: I especially enjoyed the vocal performance of the Tin Man, and the visual punchline of walking into the Frogman's office for the first time.) The music worked, too, which is to say that I noticed it several times with enjoyment, and it never annoyed me enough to prompt me to turn it off. This is rare.

Still, the real strengths here are strengths of writing and characterization. The Oz setting works out well, and not just because of the initial thrill of subverting childhood icons like Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion. The appeal of the Oz books, at least for me, lay very much in their curious imagery: the sorceress able to swap heads, the Gump, the knowledge pills.

The combination of the vivid and the slightly grotesque makes for a memorable adventure game setting. Besides, many of the Oz stories read like adventure game puzzles to start with, full of characters who trick one another, hide things in inventive places, and aren't what they appear to be. It's a natural fit to translate all this into an interactive format and give the player the satisfaction of resolving these problems herself.

I especially enjoyed the tribute to the Nome King's ornament collection from the original books, and several of the other puzzles I might also have recognized if I hadn't forgotten so much Oz lore. (I think I was about nine the last time I read one of these.)

But it is not necessary to be an Oz fan to appreciate the story. In fact, the game has merits that the original series does not -- not least that it knows what its story is about, and knows also when it is over.

Emerald City Confidential digs deep into the Oz material and comes up with some characters not found in any of the major Oz movies -- which is not difficult, considering that most treatments of Oz only cover the first two or three books at most, out of a collection where the canon runs to forty volumes and the apocrypha into the hundreds.

From the vast collection of available witches, magicians, mechanical persons, talking animals, and flying furniture, Gilbert uses a selection with the most interesting motives and the most overlapping history.

Just occasionally I thought the dialogue could have been more economical -- there are some scenes that take perhaps a third again as long as they need to in order to establish a character note, and some are more on the nose than I would have liked.

ECC.pngGranted, this is especially difficult to avoid when the dialogue also has to convey a constant stream of puzzle hints and be sufficiently robust to be repeated when the player forgets things. All the same, now and then I found myself getting a tiny bit impatient, so that I clicked through rather than listening to the exchanges read aloud.

The dialogue-loop gambit also betrayed the story at one particular point. Here I am going to get a bit spoilery, so I suggest skipping the next several paragraphs if you haven't played.

(Spoilers ahead.)

One late-game scene involves Petra getting angry at Ozma. It was so freighted that having Ozma start to repeat herself when I couldn't solve the puzzle seriously undermined the emotional effect. It didn't help that this scene is one of the least well-clued of the game.

Moving forward requires -- uniquely in the whole game -- that the player do something irrational to express Petra's mood, rather than something practical to advance her goals. This is tricky territory even when previous gameplay has laid the groundwork for it.

I'm in favor of that allow the player to act expressively in-character -- it is so satisfying, and it strengthens the feeling of being in tune with the protagonist. It is rather less bonding when "make a dramatic gesture here expressing your anger" becomes a mandatory puzzle goal. First I had to realize that I was supposed to make Petra attack Ozma, and then I had to figure out how.

I was further stymied because I'd already tried several other spells and the game hadn't allowed me to cast them, so I assumed all spells were temporarily off-limits; and because I'd cast the relevant attack spell on several people earlier in the game without actually hurting them, I didn't think of it as the kind of spell you'd use when you were violently angry, but as something used defensively to disarm dangerous people (which Ozma clearly was not).

In fact, previous evidence made me think that using this spell on a magically powerless person would simply do nothing at all. I would have been more likely to lash out with a spell named, say, Fireball or Freeze Ray or Hammer Of A Thousand Thors. And then, finally, I worked out what Petra was supposed to do, using the book of hints, and I did it, and she thought better of the impulse and took mercy on Ozma instead!

This was necessary and in-character, but the emotional force of this whole exchange really really doesn't work unless the player casts the attacking spell with some fraction of the impulsive instinct that motivates Petra.

I can maybe hypothesize what the design challenge was. We want Petra to react to Ozma, so we can't have Ozma just fall silent, because then the player will think that the correct course of action lies elsewhere. But it's probably too bulky and expensive to have a many-minutes-long GlaDOS-style speech here, either, so the game does what it does everywhere else, and loops.

Unfortunately, the looping has the opposite effect from the one intended: it reminds the player that the whole sequence is mechanical and makes her less likely to react viscerally. At least, that was what happened in my case. Then again, I may be completely mis-imagining the thinking behind this structure.

I wish this scene had worked for me, because it is a key point in the game, and because it is more formally daring than any other sequence. I can see that from the designer's point of view, this was totally Stupid Player of me.

(There, the spoilers are over now.)

These are relatively minor quibbles about a densely-plotted game, however. The story is the driving force throughout, and the main character has a conflict of motives that becomes more and more clearly delineated.

The multi-act design provides structure, but there is enough thematic cohesion to keep the story from feeling episodic. Late game puzzles pick up strands introduced at the very beginning. The player winds up having to seek help from unexpected allies, which I found satisfying both as a puzzle challenge and as an expression of Petra's character development.

Best of all, the story took the twist I expected but went on to others that I did not see coming at all, ending up finally with a resolution that was not simplistically happy or sad. In fact, it left me faintly uncomfortable, which is a compliment: the main character's choice is probably not the choice I would have made under the same circumstances, but it did seem like the decision Petra would make.

Emerald City Confidential turns out to be a story uniquely appropriate to the Oz setting. Oz is most of all a land of grotesque and astounding personal transformations, where a boy named Tip becomes a girl named Ozma, a flesh man is re-embodied in tin, a beautiful woman keeps a wardrobe of alternate heads.

Identity is unstable; integrity, mental or physical, is not guaranteed; even the boundary between dumb object and animate creature may be crossed in either direction. Gilbert's story is deeply engaged with this idea of violent transformation -- and that makes it far more than a fannish tribute or mocking subversion of Oz.

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

GameSetLinks: Computer Games, Players? No Respect!

[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.]

Continuing the week - and apologies for a mishmash of articles of late, thanks to GDC preparation and crazy amounts of work on Gamasutra redesign improvement, we have a set of neat links from all over the web, harvested via our trusty RSS shovel.

In here - an '80s columnist on the terror that is text adventures, awesome retro T-shirt alerts, the history of megabits in game cartridges, a discussion (implicitly related to game criticism, too!) on how writing is actually paid for nowadays, and more.

Joe Este Vez:

Sinistar shirt from Williams development team sold on ebay | Rotheblog - Arcade Game Blog
I wish there were more officially licensed T-shirts with less played-out classic game themes - ahem, Meatbun folks.

Spectre Collie » Blog Archive » On Brevity
'The real art of videogame writing is being aware of the context: understanding how, when and where the line is going to be used, and how to compensate for the times you have no control over when the line is played.'

“Computer Games Have No Respect for you” - Taking Inventory
'I found this newspaper column written in January of 1985. It was acquired by a clipping service for Infocom during the cycle of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (hence the paragraph that is outlined in yellow) and is nearly 25 years old.'

1UP's Retro Gaming Blog : Heart on Fire: Key Moments in the 16-Bit Era - #08
Ah, the gorgeous megabit discussion, full fleshed out.

Chrontendo - playing every NES game in chronological order
In video form no less, whoa - via Auntie Pixelante.

Is writing for the rich? - THE WEEK
Interesting discussion, also relevant to games - I think anyone who has spare time to write, even with regular day jobs, can do good pieces that don't require detailed travel or research.

March 10, 2009

Interview: Universal's Pete Wanat On Wanted: Weapons Of Fate's Unusual Construction

[The movie tie-in Wanted: Weapons of Fate is unusual in a few key ways, and in this interview, originally printed on big sister site Gamasutra, producer Pete Wanat talks to Chris Remo about the hows and whys -- including, ahem, why most movie games suck.]

Last year, Universal Pictures released Timur Bekmambetov's film adaptation of the comic series Wanted -- and this month, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment will release GRIN's game adaptation of the film.

It's an unusual tie-in arrangement in multiple ways. While most movie-based games are released simultaneously with, or even slightly before, the release of their source films, GRIN's Wanted: Weapons of Fate wasn't even announced until after the film hit theatres.

Furthermore, the Universal-produced title is, somewhat surprisingly, being published by the video game arm of Universal's Hollywood movie studio rival Warner Bros.

Gamasutra sat down with veteran Universal producer Pete Wanat (Scarface: The World is Yours, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay) to discuss how this unique partnership came about, why most movie games suck, and how GRIN's Barcelona studio became involved.

This is an unusual situation for an adaptation in that the movie was already released. How did that come about?

Pete Wanat: Originally, Bill Kispert -- my boss at Universal -- had seen the animatics that Timur Bekmambetov did. He does the entire movie in animatic form -- essentially greyscale models of the sets and the characters that can move around very much like stick figures. It's about blocking and mapping and getting an understanding of the flow of the action sequences.

Timur was showing Bill this animatic of the train sequence from the movie, where it's going along horizontally on the tracks and Fox's character crashes into the train with a car. On the animatics you can see bullets curving around people and the assassins fighting each other. [Bill Kispert] looked at this and said, "Oh my God, we should be doing this. This is a game." All that was missing was the controller to move it around.

When you have a film that says game as much as this one did, especially with the curved bullets, a signature gameplay mechanic you never seen before in a game, that stands out. The only problem is, at that animatic stage, it wasn't far away from principal photography. You are not going to make a game in that timeframe.

Well, I shouldn't say that, because as is evidenced by the last 15 years of our industry, oftentimes people do get to that point and say, "Hey, we are going to make a game." And you know what? All those games suck. When you don't give a game based on a movie enough time, you can pretty much lock into cement the amount of suck that's going to happen for those games.

One of the first things that they did was say, "Not only are we going to do this game, we are not going to release it with the movie." Not at any point did anybody at Universal say we are going to do this game for the release of the film. No doubt about it. Universal didn't even announce they were doing a game until a week after the movie had launched.

How did Warner Bros. become the publisher? It's interesting that Universal, a movie studio, would have Warner, another movie studio, publish its video game.

PW: You would have to ask Warner why they want to do a game that another movie studio is doing. From our standpoint, we were asking, "Who understands how to release movie-based games well?" Warner Bros. has a lot of experience doing just that.

I worked there back under the Jason Hall administration with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. There was a certain amount of care that they showed movie-based titles. We [now, at Universal,] felt that, 'here is a group that understands it.' The other thing for us is wanting to bring games based on Universal IPs to market -- we don't have any enemies. We're open to work with whomever. Our chief concern is making great games based off films and other IPs, established IPs.

I think we can work with Take-Two, Square, Konami, Capcom, Warner Bros. It doesn't really matter as long as that partner shares the same lofty goals that we share, which is when you are making a game based on a movie, make it so that it is great content.

Was there any convolution with Activision dropping the Vivendi Universal projects? Was there a handoff there?

PW: I did work at Vivendi -- I worked on Scarface and a host of other games prior to that, but unlike other products like Ghostbusters and Riddick, Wanted was never at Vivendi. It was always something that Universal said is special, because we are putting our own money into the game. It didn't have a publisher attached before they started investing in it.

Universal picked the developer, picked the project, picked the developer and started working. They didn't wait for an outside publisher to come on board in order to do that. And I think that is dramatically different than what you've seen most games do previously.

How was GRIN chosen? It's a bit of an up-and-coming studio these days.

PW: Look, I think Swedish development is amazing. I obviously worked with Starbreeze [on The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay] and the Swedish development community is a great place to do work. And I say that knowing full well that we used their Barcelona studio on this game. [laughter]

But GRIN had done the Ghost Recon [Advanced Warfighter] series on the PC, so we felt they understood guns and gun mechanics, tactics, and strategy. And the team in Barcelona had done some maps for Unreal. So we knew these guys had an established pedigree.

But while we wanted someone who was used to working with guns and shooting, we also wanted somebody who had a unique tech background. We didn't want to have to use the Unreal Engine -- not that there is anything wrong with the Unreal Engine, but we wanted a different look for this. We felt GRIN's Diesel Engine, which they were still perfecting, would go a long way for us. It worked really well on 360 as well as PS3, and it looks great and plays really well on the PC. The way you handle curved bullets with mouse and keyboard really feels spot on.

And especially creatively, Ulf Andersson at GRIN is one of the great new creative game minds. He really has a way of drilling down core mechanics. It was a combination of all those factors. We felt we could really get the type of vision that we wanted for Wanted out of that. I hope, knock on wood, that we will do more stuff with them.

You mentioned you had access to production materials. It seems like that sometimes doesn't occur to the full extent the developer would like.

PW: Yeah. I've worked on games on the past where you've gotten stills taken from the set, and that's the most interaction that the developer has. Maybe you'll get a script if you're lucky. Congratulations, you got a fucking script.

But that sort of philosophy has led to a lot of very bad game making. It's unfair that movie games have to deal with that. The question I answer most is, "Why do all movie games suck?" Well, go fuck yourself. We treat every game we do as an original property. We take the rules set by the franchise and make the best out of that.

[GRIN] was there when they were filming the movie. The developers were walking around, looking at the costumes, taking their own pictures. They got to meet the director. They got to meet the cinematographer. They got to meet the lighting guys. They understood what the idea was, how the movie was going to be lit, what it was going to look like. Then they got to go back and powwow with the rest of their group and fill everybody in.

And we kept them involved. Every time something changed with the movie or the story, we brought them to LA to see. GRIN was allowed dailies of the film -- that's almost unheard of. This is one of the primary difference factors for Universal. Universal Interactive Entertainment, the group led by Bill Kispert, has a unique view. [Kispert] treats game developers as his talent, the same way Universal treats writers, directors, actors, and cinematographers as talent.

We mix them together and allow them to intermingle. Normally, the thinking is, "You guys can't talk to each other." Fuck that. Blow all that old structure up. Get creatives talking with creatives. When you don't have rules and boundaries that prohibit interaction, you get better stuff.

We had artists come over as they were color treating the film and set it up so it matches the levels in the game. Every level, you can go through and you can match A to B to C: Here's what the movie looked like, here's what the concept art looked like, here's what the game looks like.

They also went back and looked at what the comic book did. What did [colorist] Paul Mounts do that made that unique look? How did [artist] J.G. Jones draw his figures? We met with [writer] Mark Millar to go through story. So much of the art is inspired by J.J. Jones, one of the truly great comic book artists of our day.

Earlier you said that this covers a different time period to the film, but the story material created for the game is considered "official." Is that a difficult process, working with franchise approval and so on?

PW: You have to sit down with the creator and know where Timur was coming from when he was writing the backstory. The amount of work that Timur does in order to prep himself to shoot the movie -- I never really had that insight into a director that does that much research.

What kind of research?

PW: In the comic book, there are super villains grouping. In the movie, there are fraternities that kill one and save a thousand. Timur wrote this backstory for how these fraternities came about; he wrote a history that traces the fraternity of weavers back to the true history of weavers and weaving society, how they were some of the first secret societies. There were these elements that were rooted in history that were actually true.

Who does that? Who writes that much information? We were able to have that information and give it to the developer and John Zuur Platten, who wrote our game script.

We'd worked with John on Riddick previously. He has a great sensibility for the comic book stuff. He chose to write a story that wasn't a linear narrative. He jumped around. He used characters to tell backstories so we're able to flash back in gameplay and help set up the movie while telling a sequel storyline. It's very ambitious writing.

One thing we're conscientious about is that even if the story leaves the player a little bit confused, that's better than spoon-feeding generic stupid game storylines that I'm so fucking sick of. I'd rather have a player leave Wanted saying, "I'm not really sure what happened there," then have them say, "This was so fucking generic."

We're going to give our players the benefit of the doubt that they're not stupid and that certain things are left hidden for a reason. I love when people come up to me and ask me, "What is the loom?" Fuck you, I'm not going to midi-chlorian the story for you. I'm not going to tell you the Force is a blood disease.

I want that mystery to stay a mystery. Even if I knew, I wouldn't tell you. Some mysteries are better left mysteries.

Analysis: Secret Languages In Game Playing

[In an in-depth analysis, designer and Divide by Zero Games founder James Portnow surveys almost 300 people to discover the role of genre-specific language in games.]

Every discipline and specialization establishes its own power words, its own secret language. These languages serve a multiple of purposes: to establish mastery, to deliver specificity, to foster group identification, to create an artificial barrier to entry.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in our own industry and our culture. After all, to the outside world something that is "broken" is bad and a "mob" is a crowd of angry people...and gamer slang can't hold a candle to the mystic composition industry jargon.

It's a natural human thing to do. It's why lawyers and doctors pepper their speech with Latin, it's the reason that "goths" and "gangstas" can barely communicate -- but should we do it within games?

The Problem At Hand

Today almost every game establishes a specialized vocabulary to support its story or creative IP. That vocabulary is, for the most part, exclusive and non-transferable (that is to say, it doesn't apply to other games).

Does this make sense? Is this what we should be doing? Should we be creating common genre-wide vocabulary? Should we be using more familiar terms in order to lower the barrier to entry to our games?

Over the course of this article I will be addressing these questions and discussing an informal survey I took regarding this issue (don't use it for any term papers kids: it's pretty much just me asking questions to gamers).

What Does The User Get?

There is a designer who I very much admire who would always ask the question, "What does the user get?" as a metric of whether a design decision was good. This was the best tool I could think of for weighing whether our exclusive vocabularies make sense, so I simply asked groups of gamers how they felt about the terminology in their games.

Case Study 1 - MMOers

Whether you're walking around Norrath or Azeroth, MMOs present some of the most massive and intimidating blocks of jargon and 'creative language' presented to gamers. If you don't know what a Blood Elf is or where Tanaris is located you might as well go back to your real world home and play with a ball.

So how do gamers feel about acquiring this massive vocabulary that loses all meaning when the servers shut down?

Overall the response was amazingly positive from the MMO gamer community. Common themes were that the vocabulary reinforced the world (the most important element of the creative IP in an MMORPG, in my opinion) and gave them the flavor they lost by skipping the quest text.

There was almost universal agreement about place names: "You've got to call them something, so they might as well be unique."

Equipment names were more split. There was a sizable minority who wanted equipment names to tell more about what a piece of equipment did. In general the amount of terminology was generally considered manageable given the amount of time players spent on a single MMO:

"By the time you've been playing for forty hours you just learn it, you know. It's not like I had to go out of my way to figure out what a Moonkin was."

Perhaps the most interesting part of my study of MMO players was around how MMO terminology related to the social experience. A fair number of the respondents stated that jargon enhanced the social experience, especially the out of game social experience.

"If I'm like at a Denny's and I hear somebody go '...Sunwell,' I'm like totally in."

(I wasn't entirely sure what he meant by this at first; he meant that he would go join their real life conversation.)

On the other hand a slightly smaller number said that the terminology ruined their out of game social interaction, some going so far as to say they wouldn't talk about the game in public, even to other people who they knew played.

"I hate that I can't talk about my game without sounding completely dorky."

"I feel silly saying Blood Elf Paladin. I'm uncomfortable every time someone tries to talk to me about WoW outside of my home."

Case Study 2 - FPSers

FPS games often have a more modest amount of jargon to pick up. It is almost entirely limited to the player's weapons/gear. So how do FPS players respond to this more limited jargon pool?

Well, first I found FPS players fall into two categories: those who play historical/real world games, and those who don't. For those who play "real world" games, there is at least a subset to whom the jargon matters a lot.

They will chew your ear off about how the Mosin-Nagant rifle isn't historically accurate or the M4A1 "just doesn't shoot like that." As for the rest of the community, they pretty much couldn't care less if you called a nail gun a nail gun or a machine gun.

Interestingly enough, I found that map names could be a real source of vitriol for some players.

"I think Deck 17 but we're playing on Deck 16 and it's all sorts of different, and that's some stupid fuckin' bullshit if you ask me."

(I'll admit, "Deck #" doesn't make for a very good naming convention.)

It was interesting to note that FPS players were at least somewhat displeased by how rapidly their knowledge of map names became obsolete. I don't think this is actually related to the larger question of exclusive vocabulary and secret languages, but it's a noteworthy sidelight.

Case Study 3 - Strategy Gamers

This one surprised me the most. Strategy gamers were all for invented names -- so long as they were good. Complaints came in when players had to remember the difference between a TU-34 and a TU-37 or a series of nondescript tanks.

I think my favorite strategy gamer comment on the subject was:

"If names weren't carefully chosen, how could you make sure everything hotkeyed right?"

The most common complaint from strategy gamers related to not having enough variety and breadth in their game terminology. Their principle desire was to have enough differentiation that unit names were clear and distinct, allowing for easy recognition and recall:

"MkV, Sherman, M1, Gladiator, Centurion; those names mean anything to you? Is a Sherman or a MkV better? Is one better against infantry and another better against other tanks? Maybe a Centurion's actually just a roman era foot unit!"

"I really like Dawn of War's names. They sound like what they do and they're all really different."

Case Study 4 - Parents

Here's one group that universally hates exclusive vocabulary.

"It's like my kid's speaking a different language."

"I can't keep up. He comes to the dinner table and I try to be involved, but one week it's a 'dwarf enchanter' and the next it's 'Solid Snake.'"

"I don't know if he's talking to his friends about doing drugs or playing a game."

"I've got a job and three kids. How am I supposed to learn all the Pokemon?"

I received several indifferent responses and no positive responses from parents about the exclusive vocabulary in games. At the least it was viewed as a tragic waste of a child's brainspace, at the worst it was an active impediment to the parent's relationship with their children.

Casual and Sports

I left sports games and casual games out of my survey entirely. Sports games usually translate their vocabulary from the real world sport they simulate, and so don't have IP-supportive vocabulary.

Casual games have little to no exclusive vocabulary, and when they do it's rarely integral to the user's experience (you don't need to know what a Tetris is to play Tetris).

Conclusions

I conducted this study to aid my own efforts in the work I am currently doing. Below are the conclusions I've drawn from the study and my own reasoning as I've wrestled with the project at hand.

Vocabulary Of The Mundane

I've come to believe that games would suffer from homogeny if we were to lower the barrier to entry by making game vocabulary more prosaic; we would lose part of what lets our players cross into the magic circle.

Part of what allows them to escape their mundane, ordinary, everyday lives and slip into this secret other world of "game" is the hidden language they adopt when they begin to play.

As words that had no meaning before reaching for the controller take on significance and gain import the player becomes part of an exclusive society: they know what no one else knows, they are special, unique.

This transformation prepares a player to adopt the role of a great warrior or a brilliant commander or a deadeye mercenary -- it is in becoming more special than the ordinary person that we come to more easily accept the fantastic roles we often adopt in games.

Unnecessary Complexities

While creative terminology is good, creating good creative terms is in and of itself an art. I've found that there is, at times, a tendency for some designers to want players to prove their devotion by learning an overly complex set of vocabulary.

I could write an entire article on this topic, but to keep it brief I've found the following rules of thumb useful:

1. Whether it's the Black Bow of the Betrayer or a Firebat, names should still hint at what something is in your game.

2. Use real roots. Whether it's English, Latin, German, or Japanese doesn't matter, just try to draw your names from something recognizable. While this might help clue your player in on what your names mean, the real reason is that it's hard to remember whether Qlgeshmahn is the healing potion and Mqklema is your torch or if it's the other way around…

3. Numbers are bad. If they correlate to power they're boring and if they don't correlate to power they are confusing.

4. Use invented vocabulary only for things that are unique to your world. Don't replace the names of things the player already has words for without some very good justification.

Genre-Wide Vocabulary?

We have already established a group of conventions (HP, EXP, bot, frag) that carry over between games in a genre. These terms are usually related to common mechanics found in the genre.

I've become convinced that you should not try to replace these with cool IP-related words. This simply confuses players and leads them to refer to things in your world by the better known corollary terms anyway. Of respondents who played RPGs, I often asked them what the currency in the Final Fantasy series was; slightly over half inaccurately responded, "Gold."

On the flip side, anything not related to common game mechanics seems to be fair game.

Familial Understanding

This study brought to light the larger question of how the non-gamer relates to someone immersed in one of our fantasy settings. This is a moral question and a social question but, I believe this to be a monetary question as well.

Often our customer is not actually the one consuming our products; they are a relative or a friend of the person who will, in the end, play our games. If we can improve their tangential experience, that is to say if we can make buying a game a positive and connecting experience, they are more likely to be willing to purchase other of our products in the future.

Unfortunately I don't have any suggestions on how to do this except on a case by case basis.

Notes on the Study

I began taking this survey in furtherance of my own work. I refined it over time, adding and subtracting questions as I began to discover what questions elicited useful data.

This survey is a combination of email questionnaires and face to face conversations. Not all of the respondents knew they were being surveyed at the time. In short, this study was in no way statistically rigorous.

I am publishing this summary because I felt as though the results benefited my own work and may benefit the community as a whole. I believe the data acquired here to be good, regardless of its lack of rigor…just be aware of how it came to be.

For those, the sample size was just under 300 people (I have 238 gamers and 43 parents marked on my tally sheet with a handful of results discarded for various reasons). I tried to target gamers of all ilk from the hardcore to the more casual, although due to the categories investigated and the nature of the survey I believe the respondent pool leaned more towards the "core."

[James Portnow is a game designer, formerly of Activision, and now at Divide by Zero Games, where he is also the founder and CCO. He received his master's degree in Entertainment Technology from Carnegie Mellon University.]

Best of FingerGaming: From Watchmen to Tap Tap Revenge 2

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

This week's notable items in the iPhone gaming space, as covered by FingerGaming, include a port of the classic sports sim Earl Weaver Baseball, the release of a multiplayer online Watchmen title, and the debut of Tap Tap Revenge 2.

Here are the top stories:

- Review: Edge
"What sets Edge apart is a combination of factors, ranging from its striking aesthetic to its smooth controls to its challenging gameplay. Every element in Edge has obviously been given very careful attention to detail, and the result is a product that feels altogether complete and satisfying."

- Top Free Game App Downloads for the Week
"A swarm of new releases descends on the top free app chart this week, pushing many of last week's most popular titles out of the top ten. Tapulous' recently released Tap Tap Revenge 2 tops this week’s results, while the racer Finger Sprint Free and action title Scribattle Lite rank in at second and third place."

- Free App Roundup for the Week
"This week’s free releases include demo versions of Enigmo and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, along with full versions of games like Consumed and Fly Must Die!"

- Demiforce Cancels Development of Onyx Online
"Onyx Online was to be a freely distributed Xbox Live Arcade-like ecosystem for independently developed iPhone applications. Applications with Onyx's infrastructure would have featured standardized leaderboards, achievements, and forums."

- Top-Selling Paid Game Apps for the Week
"iDracula tops the App Store sales chart for the second week running, fending off competition from Flick Fishing, which moves up a place in this week's results. A price drop and the release of a well-received Lite version places the tank-based action title Heavy Mach at third place, while sales remain steady for Blocked and Shooter."

- Warner Bros. Announces Online Multiplayer Watchmen Title for iPhone
"Warner Bros. has announced the upcoming iPhone release of Watchmen: Justice is Coming, an online adventure title that allows up to 1,000 players to play simultaneously in each in-game area."

- Classic Sports Sim Earl Weaver Baseball Bound for iPhone
"Earl Weaver Baseball represented a major step forward for the sports simulation genre. While previous console and computer sports titles featured simple, arcade-like gameplay, Earl Weaver Baseball's focus on realism made it a standout in its time, and its success helped to establish Electronic Arts' EA Sports brand."

March 9, 2009

Announcement: Dr. Dobbs Challenge Deuce Game Competition Launched

[Something I've worked on for a good few months now, and has just launched, is Dr. Dobbs Challenge Deuce, a commission from Microsoft for our sister property Dr. Dobb's Journal. Notably, Adam Saltsman from Semi Secret Software (Wurdle for iPhone, Gravity Hook) co-created the game and level editor, and there's almost $10k in prizes for in-browser level modders and more hardcore Silverlight coders and artists - check the fun user-made levels already up.]

Gamasutra sister programming brand Dr. Dobb's Journal has launched Dr. Dobb's Challenge Deuce, a game competition from the world-renowned Dr. Dobb's website for software developers and Microsoft's Visual Studio.

This program builds on the success of the original Dobb’s Challenge game competition, which debuted in March 2008, and allowed visitors to the site to download Windows and Windows Mobile source code and mod an existing game starring Dr. Dobbs and the 'Defy All Challenges' machinima crew to win up to $10,000.

The new Dr. Dobbs Challenge once again gives away almost $10,000, but switches things up by going in-browser. As one of the most advanced uses of Microsoft Silverlight technology to date, it allows full in-browser game play of an addictive platform title, again starring Dr. Dobbs and the machinima characters.

There are two branches to the competition this time. Firstly, the application includes an innovative in-game level editing tool, so anyone can name and create their own level and dynamically save it, accessing it with a custom URL or via the in-Silverlight browser - for example, 'Ball Skillz' by challenge entrant Ben Caron.

Anyone can browse all the levels created so far, sorting them by most-played or most recently uploaded. Specific to the in-browser level editing competition, weekly 'best level' winners will get a Dr. Dobbs bobblehead doll, and the best user-created level will win $500 in cash every month (the first deadline to win is March 31st).

Secondly, full source code and art for the games are freely provided for programmers and artists to download the Silverlight source code, make larger modifications, enter their modified Silverlight app, and win thousands of dollars of prizes. The categories for this section are as follows:

- The Dobbs Race-To-The-Finish Challenge ($1,000) - Produce the best modded game (of any kind) in half the length of the competition.
- Best Game ($2,000) - Produce the best modded game (of any kind) across the whole challenge.
- Best One Button Game ($1,000) - Produce the best game that uses only one button for input.
- Best Game Starring Dr. Dobb's And The Defy All Challenges Crew ($1,000) - Produce the best game that still stars the Dr. Dobb's and The Defy All Challenges Crew (though these characters can be redrawn or otherwise used in any way in the title.)
- Best Total Conversion ($1,000) - Produce the best game that is completely different from the original Dr. Dobb's Challenge -- i.e. uses no design aspects or assets other than the use of Visual Studio icons.

The deadline for Dr. Dobb's Challenge Deuce is June 12th, 2009, and the deadline for Dr. Dobb's Race-To-The-Finish Challenge is April 6th, 2009. Full information, including rules, source code, and the in-browser game, is available at the official Dr. Dobbs Challenge website.

Best Of Gamasutra Expert Blogs: Engines & Cooking

[Weekly, we'll be showcasing highlights from Gamasutra's new Expert Blogs - starting out by revealing Mark DeLoura's startling game engine survey, Don Daglow on cooking and gaming, and more.]

Alongside the redesign of Gamasutra came the debut of Gamasutra Blogs, a new section of the site that showcases a broader and more unfiltered selection of writing from the development community than we are able to present on the front page.

Member Blogs -- which we will also be highlighting weekly -- can be maintained by any registered Gamasutra user, while the invitation-only Expert Blogs are written by development professionals with a wealth of experience to share.

We hope that both sections can provide useful and interesting viewpoints on our industry. For more information about the blogs, check out the official posting guidelines.

This Week's Standout Expert Blogs

The Engine Survey: General Results
(Mark DeLoura)

Setting a high early bar for the Gamasutra Blogs entry, longtime programmer, writer, and consultant Mark DeLoura begins his game engine-focused blog with a developer research survey.

The data addresses what systems developers are targeting; their budgets; their awareness, adoption, and opinions of various game engines; and the factors they consider most important in development.

With data on a number of the most-used engine solutions currently in use, and supporting data from the developers using them, this is the kind of stuff you don't usually get for free.

What I Learned from a Cooking Contest
(Don Daglow)

In this clever entry, industry veteran and Stormfront Studios founder [disembodied head pictured!] Don Daglow takes a lighthearted look at common pitfalls of game development, by way of the Food Network gameshow "Chopped" -- then presents a few closing questions intended to help studios improve upon those issues in the future.

The 6 Reasons Your Game Development Tools Suck
(Dan Goodman)

Here, engineer and Robotic Arm Software founder Dan Goodman focuses on an area that affects all game developers immensely but is frequently pushed aside in favor of seemingly more pressing issues: the quality of tools.

Goodman identifies six key areas of tools development that should not be overlooked, promising to delve deeper into the issue in further blog posts.

Autonomous AI and the First Dinosauria
(Andy Schatz)

Pocketwatch Games has found an extremely unique niche, succeeding with its Venture series of wildlife- and environment-themed games for PC and Mac.

For years, founder Andy Schatz has been refining an idea for a dinosaur-centric game, but various factors -- technological and otherwise -- kept it from coming to fruition.

In this blog post, he explains the history of the concept and discusses the factors that have finally led Venture Dinosauria into production.

Revenge of the Writer Monkey
(Adam Volk)

There is perhaps an overabundance of admission that video game writing is frequently poor, but perhaps also not enough useful consideration of how it can be improved.

Here, video game writer (Aces Of The Galaxy) and freelance journalist Adam Volk addresses some of the major issues as well as possible solutions.

Sound Current: Nakamura, Yokota On The Origins Of Lumines Supernova

[In the latest 'Sound Current' column, exclusively posted on GameSetWatch, Jeriaska talks to the co-creators of Lumines' music and audio-visual design about their work on the beautifully crafted puzzle game update for PSN.]

This year, the debut of Lumines Supernova for the PlayStation 3's Playstation Network coincided with the tenth anniversary of Brainstorm Co., Ltd, the sound design company behind the Lumines Remixes albums.

Three soundtrack albums have been published in Japan, composed of audio and sound effects from familiar Lumines skins by series composers and guest musicians including h ueda of Every Extended Extra and Keiichi Sugiyama of Rez.

The first Lumines Remixes album featured songs by Brainstorm founder Takayuki Nakamura, the primary composer and publisher of the Remixes CD series. His contributions to the album were joined by the songs of Katsumi Yokota, the protean illustrator and musician who served as director of Lumines Supernova.

In this in-depth discussion with Nakamura and Yokota, the Lumines designers offer their perspectives on the most recent installment of the puzzle game franchise and reflect on the origins of Lumines, from the making of Yokota's influential game prototype and the founding of the Brainstorm music studio to the release of Supernova for PSN.

Interview conducted by Jeriaska and translated by Kaoru Bertrand. This article is available in Japanese on Game Design Current.

GameSetWatch: Nakamura-san, thank you for joining us for this discussion on the origins of the Lumines series. Could you begin by telling us about how you have gone about designing audio for each installment of the puzzle game series to complement the visual design of the skins?

Takayuki Nakamura, Lumines music composer: For the production of the original Lumines, the music tracks and skins were designed simultaneously. Yokota-san and I would pass ideas back and forth, each of us making the necessary adjustments on our own sides. At that time, audio had to be completed before finalizing the skin. However, for the Versus Mode, Yokota-san had a very specific idea in mind. The audio tracks on "The SPY loves me" and "Japanese Form" were largely influenced by the specific overall design that he had envisioned.

Beginning with Lumines Live! and Lumines II, we tried a different approach. The skin design took precedence, so as to provide more concrete suggestions for the audio. This made greater variation possible for the music tracks. The sophistication of the skin design for "HIKARU frame work" in particular made a deep impression on the soundtrack.

As for the music of the Rockin' Holiday Pack, all the skins had been specified in detail by the time I joined the project. It turned out to be a considerable challenge to find the right sound to match the last two skins I was responsible for. One of them was a beach theme, with Santa Claus relaxing in the Southern Hemisphere. It became "Papa!," which mixes a reggae beat with a yuletide styled melody. After that, "Discoveries" was intended to be a festive New Years celebration, though there were not any concept illustrations available to inform this idea at the time.

GSW: The Classic Pack has recently been released for the Playstation Network, including skins from the original Lumines. Do you feel that these tracks have taken on a different quality now that they are running on the Playstation 3 hardware?

Nakamura: I wouldn't say I'm particularly nostalgic about this selection. However, I remastered the tracks for the Playstation 3, and I think they sound a little different from their original versions on the PSP, Xbox and PC. The sound is a lot clearer and has greater range. The tracks are fully intended to be heard on a 5.1-channel sound system.

GSW: Is it too early for word on a Lumines Supernova remix album?

Nakamura: Unfortunately, it is. I would like to publish an album, especially if there is demand from listeners.

GSW: Can you tell us what qualities you feel stand out about the music you have written for Lumines Supernova?

Nakamura: For Supernova, again it was the case that the skins were designed prior to the audio. There were already specific ideas in place for "UFO," "sleepy weather report" and "DQ0.8." This made it enjoyable to construct tracks that enhanced those design concepts.

The skins for "Take me to the sky," "Catch the beat," "colors," and "JumporBounce" were rather abstract, which left it up to me to determine their sound. I was concentrating on my contributions to Supernova between May and September of last year, and having had that much time for the project gave me the liberty to experiment with new sound materials, more female vocal samples, along with samples of my own voice, which I think brought something new to the sound design.


[LUMINES Remixes samples, courtesy of Brainstorm]

GSW: Yokota-san, you yourself are responsible for writing a number of songs for the original Lumines. Do you have a background in music composition?

Katsumi Yokota, director of Lumines Supernova: Primarily, I am a graphic designer and illustrator. When it comes to music composition, I'm truly an amateur. That is, while I was in school it was a hobby of mine to play the guitar and bass. For the purpose of making the Lumines prototype, I bought some PC software and forged ahead, piecing together loops of electronic music.

Previously, while working on the Sega game Rez, where I was working as the art director, I had picked up some ideas about using sound effects successfully. Clearly background music is very important, but for the prototype my focus was on the sound effects and the music was constructed primarily to supplement them.

GSW: Which of the songs that you wrote stand out to you?

Yokota: When I went about creating the original prototype for the game, I wrote songs that included conventions of the puzzle genre, built on multiple audio tracks and ambient sound effects. " Square Dance" was the first song I wrote, so it holds a special place in my memory. It all started from there.


GSW: As the director of Lumines Supernova, what were you interested in accomplishing with the new game?

Yokota: As a Lumines entry with HD quality, we were aiming at matching the highest visual standards. It has been the approach of the series to make the most of the hardware platform for each new installment.

GSW: How much concern do you have personally in the reception of Lumines in territories outside of Japan?

Yokota: It's of major importance. The number of people who play the game in other regions far surpasses the domestic market. From the beginning of the series we have been careful not to limit our focus to Japan, and in particular have responded to feedback in North America and Europe, frequently checking website forums for what people are saying.

GSW: What software did you use to build the original Lumines prototype, and how did the game diverge from this model as it has expanded onto multiple platforms?

Yokota: The software I was using included Fruity Loops and Cubase. The graphics were primarily done in Adobe Photoshop. Translating the demo onto game hardware turned out to be a straightforward operation because the prototype had been solidly built. As a consequence of thinking about how to package this game design, Challenge Mode was created as a standard form of continuous play. Carrying over the same rules, Time Attack, Puzzle Mode, Mission Mode and Dig Down Mode later came about.

While creating this prototype, I was experimenting with constructing a rhythm beat by beat in time with the movement of the "timeline" bar sweeping left to right at the top of the screen. It seemed to me that a game could be paced by the unbroken flow of this timeline. I approached several game designers that I had worked with previously with the idea, namely programmer Kodera-san and director Hattori-san, and the rest is history. This prototype had been perfectly timed with the launch of the PSP hardware, so a lot of what we discussed was how to find visual designs that matched the specifications of the portable console.

GSW: How far back does your relationship with Nakamura-san go and what did you feel he could bring to the music of Lumines?

Yokota: We first met after the Lumines prototype had been completed. I had been looking for someone who could write music to match the specifications of the Lumines game. Hattori-san had previously worked for Sega and introduced me to Nakamura-san.

In terms of what Nakamura-san brought to the table, he was capable of constructing a rich variety of songs built on a deep understanding of the game design. Due to the constraints of the sound system, at first I thought we would be limited to dance and techno music. I had some misgivings about the project because of the lack of musical variation, but he put my fears to rest by demonstrating solutions.


[LUMINES Remixes Winter samples, courtesy of Brainstorm]


GSW: How specifically has music for the game gone in different directions from what you had originally intended when starting out?

Yokota: At the very beginning of the Lumines series, I was a bit hung up on the interactive properties of the game. For instance, the background music simply would not progress unless at least a single block was eliminated by the player for every sweep of the timeline. It was not an ideal design, neither for the sound designer nor for the audio-minded player, as it interfered with the compositions. We decided to modify this after Lumines Live! I believe that since the change, each song has become more worth listening to.

The requirements of an interactive experience and the aims of a creator can at times run counter to one another. You could argue effectively for placing emphasis on either one, but I think it requires the skills and planning of a director to successfully tie those purposes together.

GSW: What were your impression of Lumines Remixes when the album was published by Brainstorm?

Yokota: It was really gratifying to hear these songs given such a high quality treatment. To hear the sound effects effectively integrated into the design of each track was an interesting way to go about creating a Lumines soundtrack.

GSW: What role do you see the albums playing in broadening recognition of the franchise?

Yokota: Because the remix albums are released on Nakamura-san's label, publicizing them takes place outside of Q Entertainment. While the music is deeply associated with the game, there is something to be said for its ability to stand on its own as a discrete object.

A distinct quality of the Lumines games is its interactive audio. By contrast, the Lumines Remixes albums present an artist's rendering of the audio elements into a distinct design, making it a different kind of musical experience altogether. Both deserve a listen. Music is a feature of Lumines that I treasure, because the possibilities are so expansive.

GSW: Nakamura-san, you have worked as a sound designer and composer for various well known Sega arcade series. How did it come about that you began working for the company, and what other memorable game projects have you been involved in on the way to founding your own recording studio ten years ago?

Nakamura: My work at Sega began in 1989 as part-time employment, and I formally joined the company the following year as a sound designer. I was enrolled in the sound team for the arcade game division, which was overseen by Yu Suzuki. By the time I left Sega in 1996, I had worked on a number of soundtracks for arcade game titles, including OutRunners, F1 Exhaust Note, Virtua Fighter and Virtua Fighter 2. When the Sega Saturn was released, I was involved in porting Virtua Fighter to the console.

Members of the Virtua Fighter staff started a company called Dream Factory after I left Sega, which was affiliated with Squaresoft. I was invited to create the soundtracks for Tobal 2 and Ehrgeiz. Brainstorm, my own company, was formed in 1999.


[L.II remixes samples, courtesy of Brainstorm]

GSW: What were some of the defining features of the LUMINES game concept that interested you in being involved in the original title's development?

Nakamura: I think the sound system is the most interesting aspect of Lumines. The standard for music in games that are made today is that a certain rhythm is determined for the player. On a fundamental level, playing Lumines is a sensation like playing a musical instrument. I think that shifts the focus of the entire experience.

When I heard about this idea from Yokota-san, who was working as a graphic designer, I was intrigued. At the time when he showed me the prototype, it was close to how it appears today, up to and including the presence of his song "My generation."

The concept of having a player's activities synchronized with the music appealed to me as well. Even now Yokota-san and I still have discussions on this subject, asking "What other methods can we explore to write music that is in synch with the game system?"

GSW: How many of the songs from Lumines II wound up on your album L.II remixes?

Nakamura: From among 40 pieces found in Lumines II, I chose only eleven of my favorites for the album. There was also a single track, "Inheritance," included from Lumines Live! for the XBox Live Arcade. It might have been preferable to see more tracks included in the album, but there was only so much time free for the project.

GSW: Would you ever consider remixing the additional skins for a new Lumines Remixes album?

Nakamura: If there were requests from listeners and I could find the time for it, I would be interested in creating a remix album for the remaining tracks.

GSW: Do you have a favorite song?

Nakamura: It's a tough call, but one that stands out is "Big Elpaso." Songs that are not written in a 4/4 time signature conflict with the technical specifications of the Lumines game design, but this song finds a way around the restriction.

The song has an irregular meter, alternating between 5/4 and 3/4 time signatures. For every two bars, the meter averages out to 4/4, which works out just right for the game. It is a song that I really appreciate for this reason.

GSW: Can you explain why it is necessary for the music to be in the 4/4 time signature?

Nakamura: You will notice that while playing Lumines, the playing field pictured on the screen is divided into 16 sections. A bar is constantly sweeping across the top of the screen from left to right. The movement of the timeline matches the tempo of the music track and is in synch with the beat, moving to the rhythm of eighth notes. A total of sixteen eighth notes corresponds to two bars in the 4/4 time signature. Those are the rules.

As I mentioned, "Big El Paso" circumvents the rules by alternating time signatures. In general, it is very difficult to write songs for the game in alternate tempos.

GSW: Brainstorm has recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Has the music studio developed along the lines that you had envisioned for the company when it was founded?

Nakamura: I would say it has, though it was not as though I had all that specific an image in mind of what I wanted the studio to become. To build my own studio necessitated immersing myself in an optimal setting for sound construction on a daily basis, so it was a process of bringing my surroundings in line with that imagined environment. For me, having persisted in the industry this long is a source of pride, and the work I have done on Lumines and Meteos has been a tremendous source of happiness.

[Images courtesy of Q Entertainment. The Lumines Remixes albums can be imported from Amazon.co.jp]

GameSetLinks: Soviet Russia Says... What?

[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.]

Oddly, the relaunch of Gamasutra has provided me some serious opportunity to think carefully about all the other sites we run, and why aggregating cool information in one place is more and more important, with so much damn information out there online. Which is why GameSetLinks will run for ever. And a day.

And this time, our six delightful links include some odd Russian game-ness, journalism and corrections goodness (OK, a bit meta, but hey!), the Wall Street Journal on game developers actually getting famous, on a name basis, gosh, and lots more besides.

Ha ha ha:

Laughing Squid: Soviet Unterzoegersdorf Sector II, Release Party & Download
Odd SF party for odd faux-Soviet adventure game!

The future of corrections at Newsless.org
An interesting point - on Gamasutra, we try to make corrections directly in the story, and do an 'UPDATE' if possible.

1UP's RPG Blog : Talking with Treehouse Part 2 - Adventures in Frogs and Butter
Yum, Nintendo localizations: 'Here's Part 2 of my chat with Treehouse localization managers Rich Amtower and Tim O'Leary.'

GDC 2009 'most important' industry event this year // GamesIndustry.biz News
Well, that's good news!

gameslol » Blog Archive » Another Ex-Journalist
It's really because there aren't journalists any more, just writers, and marshalling writers isn't that exciting for many people.

Game Designers Gain Notoriety - WSJ.com
'Alex Evans, technical director for the puzzle platform game LittleBigPlanet that won 8 AIAS awards this year, likens developing a videogame to designing a car -- the product is what attracts all the attention in spite of the individual contributions.'

March 8, 2009

Interview: Croal Talks Newsweek Departure, Consulting Plans

[Another important blow (or evolution, if you prefer) for game journalism, N'Gai Croal's move away from the reporting business shows, to me, how game writing is mainly becoming a community, rather than a professional critical, medium. Anyhow, Gama news director Leigh Alexander's interview with him illuminates some of the surrounding issues, so read away!]

High-profile Newsweek game journalist and Level Up blogger N'Gai Croal is leaving his job to pursue a career as a creative consultant to game developers, after 13 years with the magazine and three years focusing on the video game industry.

Though long a consumer technology writer at Newsweek, Croal is best known to the game world for his Newsweek-associated Level Up weblog.

On it, he combined editorials with news interviews and discussions with both high-profile execs and frequent collaborator Stephen Totilo of MTV.

In his new role, though he has no specific partnerships yet announced, Croal hopes to offer developers a new, outside perspective on addressing increasingly complex target audiences -- and we had a chance to talk to him about his plans.

Reaching The 'Hard Casual'

"In addition to new gamers coming to the table, I think there's a stratification starting to go on in the gaming audience, and I'm not sure that a lot of the front-line titles are really fully grasping that," he suggests.

For example, as recently back as fifteen years ago, adults commonly grew out of gaming when they reached the end of their teenage years, but in the current environment, many adults continue playing as they age.

Croal coined the term "hard casual" to refer to these adults with different gaming needs than they had when they were young, but just as much interest -- a separate audience from the adult recently introduced to the video game space by casual games or the Wii.

"How games teach players to play, I think, is also something really important," he continues. Given that every game is teaching its player, he hopes to help developers re-think their approaches to difficulty in games.

Well-known among his friends as an early adopter and heavy user of new web tools like Twitter and Tumblr, Croal is also interested in ways social media can help create extensible communities for games and redefine the way players relate to them.

"Different developers will want different things," he explains of how he plans to work with studios. "Some games, I'll come in very early, and in other cases, much further along. In the ideal situation... I would come in once there's enough of a concept to really test, and at the same time, have a lot of room to provide food for thought."

"At the end of the day, the consultant isn't designing the game. I'm providing an outside perspective, a broader range of possibilities than they could have elsewhere."

Reflecting On Games Journalism

When asked about what he remembers most about his journalism work, Croal says his Level Up post on the widely-controversial firing of veteran Jeff Gerstmann from GameSpot over his review of Eidos' Kane and Lynch stands out.

In that discussion, Croal sought to identify the broader issues challenging the ecosystem of game publishers and the online enthusiast press. "There was a way in which the lines were blurring," he says.

His observations, he says, struck a nerve with many and provoked a widespread response, and he calls it "one of the posts I'm proudest of."

Croal has been one of game journalism's most visible figures, frequently making television appearances on Geoff Keighley's Bonus Round on GameTrailers.com -- and recognizable by fellow GameStop shoppers in his home city of New York thanks to his signature dreadlocks.

When asked what legacy he hopes to leave behind, he finds it a hard question to answer, thanks to the community of online writers who all influence one another.

"I was really inspired by the work you're doing," he says. [Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander frequently engaged Croal in dialogue via her workblog, Sexy Videogameland]. "And the work that someone like [Brainy Gamer blogger] Michael Abbott does, and obviously [MTV Multiplayer's Stephen] Totilo," he says. Croal also cites Dubious Quality's Bill Harris as one of his favorite writers on games.

"I guess if there was a legacy I would want to have left, it would just be that there are even more ways to approach writing about games than we think they are, and we should explore all of them," he says.

Collaborative Community

For example, he cites the exchanges he did with Totilo on Level Up's Vs. Mode, where the two would post in full their long back-and-forth exchanges on various games and issues.

"You can say what you will about them, that they're too long, self-indulgent and blah blah blah," Croal says, responding to some of his critics, "but I think the thing that worked about that for me was that Stephen's writing, and responding to Stephen, forced me to up my game. It made me have to be really precise in trying to understand the experience I was having."

As opposed to the competitive, magazine-dominant era, Croal feels that the idea of a genuine writers' community is a healthy thing for games journalism.

And he sees more challenges ahead for the discipline, as new modes of marketing bring publishers ever closer to directly communicating with the audiences they aim to reach. He gives an example as when gamers and press received access to Killzone 2's demo at the same time, meaning that writers' take is subject to more questioning from readers.

Croal won't wholly be walking away from writing about games. "I'll still be doing my Edge [print magazine] column, offering up some observations and thoughts about the things I'm passionate about on the [soon to go live] NGaiCroal.com," he says.

However, he will be ceasing pre-release coverage of games to avoid conflicts on all sides. Nonetheless, as his role in the game space evolves, does he have any parting advice for his fellow writers?

"Take advantage of the hive mind," he says. "If you look at any subject in the world... good ideas can come from anywhere. For what I'm doing next, I'm hoping people believe that's true!"

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

Obviously, there's been some big things happening on big sister site Gamasutra this week, what with the redesign and all. But we've still been blasting features on the site, so here's a quick round-up.

It's headed up by a Masaya Matsuura interview about music games and Major Minor's Majestic March that I really like, plus some neat design articles and LocoRoco (Tsutomu Kouno) and EA Games Europe (Patrick Soderlund) featured conversations.

But we're also starting to reprint a number of columns from Game Developer magazine to fill out the new discipline-specific sections on the site, so look for more art, code, and audio-related 'bonus' features to light up the site over the next few weeks.

Anyhow, here's the highlights:

Marching To His Own Drummer: Masaya Matsuura's Thoughts
"NaNaOn-Sha founder Masaya Matsuura has created memorable music games like PaRappa The Rapper and Vib-Ribbon, and in this in-depth Gamasutra interview, he tackles the Japanese game industry, upcoming title Major Minor's Majestic March, and the future of music games."

Data Alignment, Part 1
"In the first of a two-part article, Noel Llopis exposes techniques for optimizing game performance by aligning data effectively, showcasing techniques and code samples to smooth out the process."

Screen/Play: Narrative Postpartum
"Game writer Rafael Chandler (MAG: Massive Action Game, Ghost Recon series) introduces the concept of 'narrative postpartum', mapping out a post-ship look at your game's narrative."

Experiments and Innovations: The EA Approach
"EA Games Europe's Patrick Soderlund oversees studios like DICE and Criterion, plus the freshly announced sim racer Need For Speed: Shift, and talks to Gamasutra about EA's new biz experiments."

Raw Crude: Twists And Turns In The Concept Pipeline
"Seeking advice on your art pipeline? Bungie's Steve Theodore delves deep into the issues behind taking a piece of art from 2D concept sketch to finished in-game model, with the least waste and complication."

The Thoughtful Design of LocoRoco: Tsutomu Kouno Speaks
"Sony's Kouno birthed adorable PSP title LocoRoco, and in this in-depth Gamasutra interview, he discusses its train-sketched genesis and his Short Circuit robot inspirations."

The Death of Rigging?
"In this in-depth article, Valve veteran Steve Theodore examines an alternative to the traditional animation rigging system currently used throughout the game industry."

Surviving The Overflow
"Having trouble managing your audio projects? This article tackles the tough topic on what to do when you have too many commitments and not enough time to handle them."

COLUMN: @Play - 'XRogue Has Not Yet Ceased To Be'

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

Once again with the aid of the work of the Roguelike Restoration Project (link, sometimes unstable), let us return to the early days, when Rogue was the big thing in campus Unix labs and its several imitators became the first roguelike games. This is the second article on the RRP. The first covered the game of Super-Rogue.

Two games in particular concern us this time. Advanced Rogue was developed from 1984 to 1986 by Michael Morgan and Ken Dalka. It was a considerable expansion of the original game, with different monsters, multiple artifacts, trading posts and other ways to buy things, and a lot of other new features.

It introduced many features that Hack and Nethack would later pick up and run with, such as a three-level curse/bless system, a basic form of shops-as-rooms, charmable enemies and many kinds of enemies. This is also the game that introduced items of "miscellaneous magic," which brought to the game many different things that were explicated in the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons DM's guide. Those items include gauntlets, boots, chimes, bracers, and other objects, and probably form the inspiration for Hack's many equipment types and tools.

arogue1.pngOn the item curse/bless thing, also called "beautitude," Nethack and ADOM are best known for it today. Nethack picked it up, so I piece together from the Nethack Wiki page, as late as version 3.0.0. Curses are an important part of the identification game, and all of the major ones use them, but in most games it functions merely as a kind of glue for bad objects. Wearing, wielding, or otherwise putting on a cursed item will make it impossible to remove until the curse is lifted, and that's all.

What Nethack, ADOM, Advanced Rogue and XRogue bring to the idea is two things. First, they expand the concept of curses to apply to all kinds of items. Equipment curses work the same way, but cursed one-use items like potions and scrolls perform their functions in a somehow diminished or even negative way. Whatever that way is depends on the thinking and/or sadism of the developer. A cursed potion of healing does a lot of damage in Advanced Rogue, but in Nethack it just heals less.

Second, these games implement blessings, which are functionally the opposite of curses, and cause objects to behave in a more useful, or at least less harmful, manner. A blessed item that comes under a curse will instead become uncursed, or "normal" in Advanced Rogue parlance. For equipment items this doesn't matter much, but blessed one-use items are often much nicer than the normal version, enchanting items for more than one plus, restoring more than one lost attribute point, and so on.


arogue1.pngPeople come in different flavors, but dragons are not picky eaters

Both games also present a large number of classes for the player to choose from. The selection reads just as if it were directly taken from the AD&D Player's Handbook: Fighter, Ranger, Paladin, Magic-User, Cleric, Thief, Assassin, Druid and Monk.

Five of the nine classes are spellcasters. Clerics and Paladins use "pray" spells (used with the 'p' key). Druids and Rangers use "chant" spells ('c', lower-case). Magic-Users and Rangers can "cast" spells ('C', upper-case). Notice that Rangers get access to two of the spell categories; they are the only class able to use more than one variety. Only the magic specialists get the full ability in a class. Spell selection appears to be determined by the combination of experience level and relevant statistic. Magicians, for example, gain extra spells when either their level or intelligence increases. Most classes eventually get 16 different spells, and get them fairly early. The non-specialist spellcasters get them at a slower rate.

xroguezoo.pngIt is important for you to know, should you decide to play this game, that even magic-users will do a lot of hand-to-hand fighting. This game abandons the traditional conception of what a RPG magic-user is like. You will do far more killing hand-to-hand here than blasting from a distance. In my longest test game I had a magic-user get to dungeon level 31, learning all the spells for that class, and while he did pick up several attack spells they used up so much magic power that they were almost valueless. Most of my magic points went into casting Identify, which as usual is a tremendous advantage in a game like this.

The stuff games are made of

To return to the items, there is a surprisingly large number of things to discover, in XRogue in particular. The game doesn't have as many items as Angband or Nethack, but the number is still quite high. One thing about roguelike games that don't bias item generation depending on depth or difficulty is that most things become identified fairly early. This tends to be especially true of Nethack, but in XRogue I was still identifying things through to the last level I was able to reach. The relevant ratio is items possible over items generated during a game. The lower this value, the more likely, and the sooner, the player will be able to identify everything in a single game.

More dungeon levels generally means more items generated. It's easy to make the dungeon longer in a roguelike since each level is procedurally generated, but there is currently no easy way to procedurally design and implement an item. Each item must be be custom designed and programmed, so most roguelikes have a much larger dungeon relative to the number of possible items to find. This is unlike the original Rogue the ratio was fairly high; the Amulet of Yendor was "only" on level 26. XRogue is no different from the norm here, but it does have a good supply of possible loot.

xrogueinvent.pngAdvanced Rogue was one of the earliest roguelikes to support the full range of D&D statistics (even Nethack didn't use Charisma until version 3.0.0), and some of the most useful items in these games are potions of gain ability. Unlike Hack's version of the potion, this item comes in different "flavors," one per statistic, which are revealed for all of them upon identifying one. These potions are fairly common, and drinking one (provided it's not cursed) adds one (for normal) or two (for blessed) points in its chosen attribute score. The thing about this is that while players are forced to begin the game with no stat above 18, in-game stats can get as high as 50, and with rings can go even higher. Some food items also increase stats.

Stats can go down, especially from the attacks of some monsters, but that can be undone with restore ability potions, and the upward pressure from all those stat potions is considerable, greatly increasing a character's power as they consume the potions they find. It's harder to design monsters when player abilities can vary so greatly, so most roguelikes have fairly low limits on maximum stat growth for this reason, but that design strategy itself has a drawback: at the end of many won games most characters look fairly similar to each other, having had long ago boosted all their stats to the maximum allowed. Even though stat-raising potions in XRogue are fairly common, the ceiling is so high that even by the end few players will have reached it. Between the two approaches, I think I actually prefer XRogue's.

Another highly useful item is the scroll of enchantment. Other roguelikes usually separate enchantment scrolls into weapon and armor, but these games combine them into a single item which can be used on many kinds of things. When used on miscellaneous stuff, the scroll most commonly serves to bless the item. Permanent equipment plus-raising is a characteristic of Hack-style roguelikes, and again, most of those games impose strict limits on enchantment levels. Dipping an item into a magic pool may also increase its plus, but this is risky as there's also a chance it'll randomly decide to set the item's plusses to negative levels and curse it! Most pools serve to enchant items, but the higher the item's plus gets, the more the player stands to lose if the next pool is cursed. XRogue doesn't seem to have an easily-obtained limit on pluses, again unlike most other roguelikes. The longer the dungeon gets, the higher stats become unless they're capped, but capping them thus makes those enchantment sources less useful.

xrogueacquire.pngOne thing these two games does that's entirely different from all other roguelikes I've seen is that they is allow the player to wear up to eight rings, far more than the standard two. They appear to increase hunger a little bit each (except for rings of slow digestion), but food is common enough that it doesn't tend to be a problem. The tradeoff is that there are so many useful ring abilities, and potentially great benefits from stacked stat-increasing rings, that the player must choose between the special powers he receives from them. Also, the inventory in Advanced Rogue and XRogue is limited to only 26 items. There are magic items that allow the player to get around this limit for scrolls and potions, but there is no such item for rings, and to be worn anyway they'd have to be in the main inventory. Inventory limit get harsher the more possible items the player can find and have. While 26 items is the same limit as in Rogue, there are many more items in ARogue and XRogue, enough that the player must often make choices about what to leave behind.

Another interesting item present in the game is the scroll of charming. Yes, XRogue allows players to have pets, and even take them between levels with him if it's in the same room. Yes, this is also a Nethack feature. I don't think pets grow in power naturally as they do in Nethack so they tend not to be useful in the long-tern, but they make good cannon fodder. The game doesn't seem to punish you for pet abuse as Nethack does.

There is even an extensive selection of artifacts in the game, which are used for goal items as well as having functions of their own, but I have so far been unable to get deep enough into the game to report on those...


xroguemaze.pngHere be dragons… and a selection of five other monsters, chosen randomly

The monster selection of XRogue is fairly extensive. Cockatrices are in there, as are Lava Children (special in that weapon hits go through; a couple of wands are useful against them though), several varieties of Dragon, and many many many many more. Interestingly for such an early roguelike, enemies can pick up and use some items they find lying around the dungeon floor, another surprisingly Nethackish feature.

Kobolds, a weak enemy among the first seen, can pick up and use any weapon, potentially transforming one into a heavy-hitter. Lamias, found in the middle-to-deep dungeon, can use wands, which is especially dangerous because unlike Nethack, wands don't feel like they've been gimped here in case of accident or monster use. An "ordinary" attack wand can do significant damage even to a higher-level character.

The monster generation routines at work here should be explicated, to bring it into the larger roguelike picture. The primary monster generation algorithm in roguelikes, and the one used here, is the one introduced by Rogue, generation by area. Each level has a selection of monsters that can show up. As the player makes it to deeper levels, some monsters are retired and others introduced.

xrogue2.pngThis gives each level a consistent character that doesn't change even if the layout and precise mix of monsters present does. Some games that do this, like Angband, force the player to rely upon it in order to avoid running into certain highly powerful monsters before he's ready. Nethack, on the other hand, mixes the foes up a bit by partly using the player's experience level to influence generation; even if the player stays indefinitely on a single level, if he gains experience the monsters will still slowly improve.

There are also a couple of special areas the player can accidently end up in, which have a few special monsters of their own. But we'll get to that soon….


In the Outer Region… We control the horticulture! We control the vertibrates!

The most surprising thing to find in the game is the varied dungeon areas. There are two primary types, each of which tied to a certain type of trap; a later version of this concept features heavily into the later areas of Dungeon Crawl, when the player can get banished to labyrinths, the Abyss or Pandemonium.

The first type of area is quite similar, in fact, to Crawl's labyrinths. It's a single-screen maze with an exit hidden somewhere within. Unlike Super-Rogue these are not in place of a regular dungeon, and unlike Hack and Nethack it's not the entirety of the deeper dungeon, which often becomes tiresome there. They are filled with an abundance of monsters, but also many items, more than on a typical level. There appear to be some monsters that are either more common there, or only appear in mazes; in my long game, I think I only met lava children while in one, a trying predicament since the usual "Hulk smash" enemy handling technique is useless against them.

But yes, we've seen the first kind of special area before. The second type though… wow.

xrogueouter.pngPicture this. It's the mid-80s and you're in a Unix computer lab. You're wandering around an ASCII dungeon, killing monsters, finding loot. It's a cool game, you might think, but all the levels have been pretty much like you've seen in other Rogue variants, the 3x3 grid of rooms and passages. But then you accidentally step on a "wormhole" trap and suddenly you're in a confusing screen filled with non-dungeonish character types. Monsters are everywhere, but there are no items to be found. After a while you might see a message, "The sun goes down," and most of the characters, all those except those right around you, disappear as your range of vision decreases.

Further, and you probably only discover this accidentally, if you walk to and off the edge of the screen, the whole board changes. Walk back on and the board changes back to how it was. The layout of this strange area is persistent! It does reset the monsters in the area though. Getting out of the zone turns out to be rather difficult, as not many of the screens contain a staircase back into the dungeon!

This unusual zone is called the "outer region," the strange ASCII characters turn out to represent mountains and forests, and it's strange how, even today, happening upon it the first time can be a bit of a shock. It has a day and night cycle, and is persistent within the same game. It originated in Advanced Rogue, but XRogue improved it in a number of ways, such as allowing items to be generated there. (Including food, because it was easy to starve in the original game's outer region.)

Also, while ARogue's outer region monsters are simply those that were in the dungeon, XRogue's are all prehistoric monsters, including a good number of dinosaurs! In fact, the level of the dinos is adjusted to be similar to that of the dungeon level you left. Facing them can still be a challenge regardless, since the relatively wide-open layout, and good number of summoning monsters among them, make it easy to get swamped by foes. The outer region is not necessarily bad, however, because whatever level the dinosaurs are generated as, they tend to be fairly ordinary monsters. Some of the XRogue dungeon opposition in certain levels can be very trying to deal with; the "jermilane," a tenacious monster with many annoying attacks and some immunity to weapons comes to mind. It's easy to gain a surprising number of experience points during even a few screens of outer region travel.

(By the way, if you would like to explore the outer region youself, if you take the upstairs on level 1 of the dungeon without your goal artifact, the game will transport you to a level 1 outer region zone. Good luck finding the way back in!)


xroguecrash.pngYou'd think a stone dungeon would be sturdier….

I wish my experience with the game was all this positive, but unfortunately, like Super Rogue, my best game was ended not by getting attacked by a dangerous monster, or stumbling upon a deadly trap, but from the game crashing. I had managed to get through over 30 levels at the time and had identified nearly all the non-artifact objects in the game. Artifacts start showing up around level 40, so I was particularly upset to have my adventure ended in so ignominious a manner. All I can suggest is, if you decide to play XRogue yourself, be sure to save and back up every few levels. Yes, I know you're not supposed to do this, but games aren't supposed to crash either, and yet it obviously happens with this one. My warning is delivered. Of course, you are expected to delete the backup save if you honestly die. Duh.

It is telling, really, how many features Hack and Nethack appear to have lifted from Advanced Rogue. XRogue plays a bit like an alternate universe Nethack, with many similar features but different strategies. It is definitely far less reliant on spoilers to do well, and in overall difficulty is probably on the easier end of the spectrum. I am sad to say, however, that we will never see another official version of XRogue: its creator and developer Robert Pietkivitch died in a car crash in 2002, becoming the third roguelike developer, to my knowledge, to have died in the 28 years since Rogue's creation. (The others are Noah Morgan, creator of Larn, and Izchak Miller of the Nethack Dev Team.) It is still possible that yendor of the Roguelike Restoration Project will add in features like numpad support (ARogue already has it), but the site has been moving slowly lately and is once again, as of this writing, down.

Appendix: Some information of use to new players of Advanced Rogue and XRogue

Advanced Rogue and XRogue can both be obtained here: http://sourceforge.net/project/showfiles.php?group_id=4895.

First off, I must remind you that XRogue is another game that yendor has yet to modify to support the number pad, so you must learn the vi key array to play. To remind: 'h', 'j', 'k' and 'l' are left, down, up and right in order. 'y' and 'u' are diagonals up-and-left and up-and-right. 'b and 'n' are down-and-left and down-and-right. Also, to pick things up hit comma (this is the same key as in Nethack). Note that Advanced Rogue is an earlier, simpler game, but it has been modified to allow the keypad for movement; however, if you turn autopickup off, the pick-up key is shift-P.

In both games, Ctrl-'r' repeats the last message. In XRogue only, Ctrl-'e' reveals your hunger level, and Ctrl-'o' provides a list of active effects both positive and negative. One command weirdness, compared to other roguelikes, is that wearing both armor and rings is done with the Shift-'w', Wear command, and Shift-'t', "Take Off," removes them. Most roguelikes use other keys, Shift-p and Shift-r, to handle accessories.

You begin the game in a trading post, but empty-handed except for a good quantity of gold. To check how much you are carrying, press Shift-8 (that is, an asterisk). The shopping keys are printed on-screen while you are here. The starting trading post has no limit on the number of things you can buy, but posts you find in the dungeon do. You do not begin with any items, so make sure to pick out some good equipment with your starting funds. (Note that only "fighter-types" can use two-handed swords, so if you're primarily a spellcaster don't bother buying one. I haven't yet tried to see if a mage can wear heavy armor.)

The impulse to start off in a new role-playing game is sometimes to play a figher, but in fact your first games should probably be as a magic user, which are not actually weak physically so long as you give him average strength in the point-assign character creation. And as long as they start with high intelligence they'll begin with the Identify spell. You should only use spells for identification and curse removal for many levels. Even when you get attack spells, they cost so much that you'll not be able to rely upon them.

Natural healing, in XRogue, is a bit slower than usual in roguelike dungeons until (I believe) your Constitution gets sufficiently high. Experience level also likely plays a role.

An odd thing about both games is that, while Rogue's corridors always meandered at right-angles, here they can have diagonal extents. You must travel diagonally through those corridors, even if it looks like you should be able to walk orthogonally. In mazes, too, corners cannot be cut diagonally around walls, and neither can they be even in the outer region -- unless the game determines that two spaces are meant to be diagonally connected, in which case only the diagonal move will work. Still, so long as you realize what's happening when your @-sign refuses to take a step, this is only a minor problem most of the time.

In difficulty, the game is a bit easier than Rogue and Nethack in the early going, although death is still common. A lot depends on how quickly you can get your equipment improved. In my level 31 game, monsters almost never hit my magic-user in the later levels, possibly because he was wearing +10 studded leather armor and two rings of protection. I believe I would have had a good shot at winning if the game hadn't been killed by a monster named ntdll.dll.

I don't pretend these lists are exhaustive, but they might help out a bit. These are spoilers, so don’t read these if you wish to discover everything for yourself. Really, I discovered all of this from only a couple of games of playing an identify-happy magic user, so it's not like this stuff is a particularly big secret. If you've played some amount of Hack or Nethack, some of these things may seem a bit familiar.

Scrolls:
Identify
Cure Disease
Hold Monster
Remove Curse (Asks for an item to work on.)
Monster Confusion
Gold Detection
Trap Finding
Light
Enchantment (Works on many kinds of items.)
Protection (Shields a given item from damage. However, this will not save an item from a cursed fountain.)
Create Monster
Runes (Fireball goes off when read, damaging reader.)
Petrification (Not tried, too scared.)
Acquirement (A predecessor of Nethack's wishes, this allows you to choose from nearly any item in the game!)
Aggravate Monster
Genocide
Magic Mapping
Scare Monster (The secret use of this is the same as Rogue and Hack, but doesn't seem to operate if it's cursed.)
Charm Monster (Picks a nearby monster to operate on.)

Potions:
Magic Detection
Monster Detection
Haste Self (Lasts surprisingly long, but don't drink when already fast though or you pass out.)
Lightning Protection (Turns skin blue.)
Fire Resistance
Cold Resistance
See Invisible
Healing (Increases max HP when at full health. Note that the game contains no "Extra Healing" or "Full Healing," although a blessed potion is similar.)
Flying
Skill (Temporary level boost.)
Phasing (Allows walking through walls for a good while.)
Invisibility (A drawback is that it makes your character symbol a space. Use the blinking cursor to determine your position.)
Poison
Raise Level
Clear Thought.
Restore Ability (Unless blessed only restores one point. This is changed from Rogue.)
Gain Ability (There are six versions, one per stat. Identifying one covers all the others.)

Wands:
Cold
Polymorph
Disintegration
Charging
Teleport
Lightning
Cancellation (Disables monster special abilities.)
Fire
Curing (Heals the player when zapped.)
Wonder

Staves (seem to be heaver than wands but otherwise similar):
Drain Life
Magic Missile
Confusion
Petrifaction
Teleport
Striking
Charging

Rings:
Alertness
Add (stat) (Carries a plus, there's types for Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence at least, and probably others.)
Teleportation
Increase Damage (Carries a plus.)
Aggravate Monster
Extra Sight
Heroism
Warmth
Teleport Control (Also borrowed by Hack.)
Carrying (Halves weight of stuff carried, but provides no help with the 26 letter limitation.)
Fear
Fire Resistance (Probably Cold Resistance and Lightning Resistance, too.)
Slow Digestion
Protection (Carries a plus.)
Sustain Ability
Illumination
Searching

Food:
Note: Some food items have special effects upon the player. It seems that these may change from game to game.
Food Ration
Slime-Mold (Can be used to bribe monsters.)
Soursop
Sweetsop
Peach
Banana
Strawberry
Candleberry
Elderberry
Caprifig
Guanabana
Pitanga

Miscellaneous items (Most used with Ctrl-'u'):
Keoghtoms ointment (Heals some damage and removes some afflictions.)
Book of Spells (Storage for scrolls, can hold up to 20 each. Items in storage weigh nothing.)
Beaker of Potions (Same, but for potions.)
Alchemy Jug (Contains a large quantity of potion liquid, it seems.)
Gauntlets of Dexterity (Sets Dexterity to 21.)
Gauntlets of Ogre Power (Same for Strength.)
Gauntlets of Fumbling
Jewel of Attacks (The 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide says it's a bad item that increases the chance of encountering monsters and makes them more tenacious.)
Dust of Disappearance
Cloak of Displacement
Book of Skills (Grants free experience level, but class specific. You should probably beware of using this if your class does not match.)
Chime of Hunger
Chime of Opening
Boots of Elvenkind
Necklace of Strangulation (In both AD&D and Nethack this is a very, very bad item. It's probably about as bad here.)

A few selected monsters:
Quartermaster: Non-hostile, tries to sell an item to the player. The only monster that appears throughout all levels of the dungeon.
Xvart: Appears in groups, can throw daggers, often drops daggers when killed.
Fire beetle: Lights rooms while it's in them.
Troglodyte: emits a foul odor that can discomfit the player.
Shrieker: Shrieks when hit. Probably attracts other monsters. AD&D says the shrieking might attract a purple worm, an extremely strong monster.
Lemure: Can summon a swarm of bats.
Grey Ooze. Rusts armor (when it strikes) and weapons (when hit with one).
Zoo spore, Gas spore: Explores when hit, doing considerable damage. Note that the explosion does not destroy the spore, and it can explode again if struck once more. These can also harm other nearby monsters, and attacking one from a distance can be an effective way to help clear a room, even if the monsters are tough.
Giant ant: Can sting to reduce strength.
Blink dog: Teleports around the player.
Violet Fungi: Can shriek as a shrieker, and can summon in more violet fungi near to the player.
Shadow. Can chill with a touch, doing major damage and draining strength. Can move through walls. A dangerous opponent.
Blindheim: Can blind with a gaze. Difficult to deal with.
Cockatrice: Beware.
Lava Child: Cannot be hit with weapons. Also immune to lightning. (Try cancellation before whacking.)
Jackalwere: Can cause sleep.
Basilisk: Can cause paralysis with a gaze. (Thankfully, appears to be unable to turn the player into stone.)
Treant: Can summon other treants.
Jacaranda: Can steal gold. Can summon Zombies. Can cause uncontrollable dancing. Can cause blindness. Difficult to hit with weapons. A tough customer.
Wererat: Can summon Giant Rats.
Zombie: For some reason, they're often invisible.

Outer region monsters: Grig, Trilobite, Pterodactyl (flies), Theropod (flies, explodes), Sauropod (can summon grigs), Brontosaurus, Sloth (can summon trilobites), Mastodon.



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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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