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April 25, 2009

Game Design Legends: Meretzky On The Evolution Of The Medium

[Game designer Steve Meretzky has spent nearly 30 years designing video games, from Infocom classics like Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy to his current social network-based titles, and Game Developer magazine's own Jeff Fleming recently sat down with him for an in-depth chat.]

Steve Meretzky began his career by creating games for seminal interactive fiction firm Infocom, creating landmark titles such as Planetfall and Leather Goddesses of Phobos, as well as working with Douglas Adams on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

As the creative director at WorldWinner, he was an early innovator in the casual games space and is currently designing social network-based games for startup Playdom.

Sitting down with us for an in-depth interview, Meretzky reminisces on his first experiences with what we'd today call casual gaming -- back in the early nineties -- and shares insights from the progression of the casual game space over the course of his career.

He explains how having a "house style" may help distinguish casual titles in a crowded space, and opines on the role of the writer in games today:

At the GDC 09 Casual Games summit you said, "Games are for everyone." That’s an interesting declaration that probably the rest of the game industry needs to be hearing, particularly when it comes to female players.

Steve Meretzky: Right, and beyond female players, look at things like people in retirement homes playing Wii Sports and everyone's parents and grandparents getting DSes and playing Brain Age.

As far as I'm concerned, virtually everyone would play games if they found games that they like. And if they aren't, or at least if they aren't playing electronic games, it's because we've yet to produce the right games for them.

I think the example of casual games over the last ten years and those more recent examples with older players just shows that there's this incredible hunger for gaming of every kind. People just love games, and it's been proven for thousands of years.

You used to design pretty lengthy and complex games. What brought you from that to where you're at now?

Really, the first kind of experience that I had with what you would know as casual games was in 1994. I did a game called Hodj 'n' Podj. It was sort of a board game, but embedded within that board game were 19 minigames, each of which we would now call a casual game, and any of which you could also play standalone.

You didn't have to play the board game to experience them. You could just boot the game and say, "I want to play any game standalone," and then choose any of those 19. Anyway, it was sort of a game before its time.

It was definitely a game that was perfect for a family audience at a time when there wasn't really a family market and there wasn't really any way of marketing to anybody other than hardcore gamers. It sold pretty miserably.

But I have to say, I get more mail to this day about that game then all my other games put together. You know, a lot of people saying things like, "We've been playing that game for ten years, and the disc is worn out. Where can I get a new one?" That sort of thing.

So, that was sort of my first foray into casual games in ‘94. The real genesis for that was that I had many games that I remembered fondly, like the early, very simple arcade games, the Pac-Man and Space Invaders-type games. And simple card games, Solitaire and Pyramid, things like that.

So, really, these games had sort of disappeared from the face of electronic gaming. They had been like fun things to do with computers in the early days, and now, pretty much everything you can play on your computer was some giant time commitment kind of game, and I kind of really miss those simple games.

But the only sort of potential business model for games at that point was to put them in a box and sell them in a store for $40. And you couldn't take a solitaire game, and you couldn't take something like the wonderful, simple little arcade games and put them in a box and sell that for $40. And no one was interested in putting things in a box and selling them for $5 to $10.

So, that's kind of how I came up with the idea for this collection of minigames set as games within a game. I returned to that market again when I joined WorldWinner in 2000. Now, we're in post-internet environment or post-arrival internet environment, and WorldWinner had an online tournament, cash skill games business model.

And the company rightly sort of identified casual games as the proper type of games for that business model, whereas other people were thinking about that same business model but for things like first-person shooters. And so, WorldWinner succeeded whereas those other companies tried and didn't.

Was there something that clued them in to go that direction? Thinking back, it seems like the conventional wisdom would have been to do a Quake-style game.

Right. It really took everyone by surprise when we were doing casual games back in 2000 in that business model, we thought that we were going to have a primarily male audience, even though we were creating the sort of games that women like to play, because we thought that women wouldn't be interested in competing for money in that way, and that that sort of high-stress, high-competition environment was an environment that would appeal more to men.

I think the primary thing wasn't so much that we were thinking casual games or thinking that we were making games with primarily a soccer mom demographic. We were thinking that we need games that can be played in just two, three, or four minutes. And most of those obvious game ideas were casual games.

And then we began to do some that skewed more male, some skewed more female. All the ones that did well were the ones skewing female. And we began to do more analysis of our demographics and stuff, and saw we were two-thirds more women. Obviously, it got more and more of a conscious decision to make these traditional casual games.

With casual games, because they are so quick and because there's always the need to put more of them out, there’s a sense that maybe the business side is driving everything. Does creativity get pushed aside?

The business is really characterized by a lot of the same sorts of things that we've seen for many years on the hardcore side, which is that it's a very red ocean. There are a lot of players, the market is very mature and it's well understood.

Companies have been differentiating not by innovating creatively, but more by raising the bar in terms of production values in the interest of making bigger games, more fancy opening movies and cutscenes, or featuring more different player modes. As a result, budgets are getting higher and higher without sales increasing at the same rate.

Companies get very conservative in their decision-making. They don't want to do anything because more money is on the line, and they want to do something that they know is just like something that sold well in the past.

It's sort of like a self-reinforcing cycle that leads to a real lack of innovation. Really, probably the last major innovation we had within the downloadable space was when hidden object games appeared, which would be like four years ago now or so.

Could someone say, "This is a Steve Meretzky casual game," and immediately know your style?

If I have a style that anyone's going to recognize, it would probably be more in terms of story, character, and writing than it is in terms of gameplay and game design. You know particularly in something that's sort of boiled down to the very basics as most casual games are.

I think more than any sort of individual style, I think you tend to see studio style. For example, take a look at PopCap. I think even with the studio logo removed or whatever, you could sort of take me away to a desert island for a couple years, and come back, and show me ten new casual games, and I'd be able to say, "Oh, these two are PopCap games."

You know, a matter of a certain art style, a certain level of production value, probably a lot of tangibles that I'd have trouble describing or putting a finger on. I think PlayFirst is another good example of a company that I feel has a style. I think to a great extent, that's because their creative director Kenny Shea Dinkin is a very artistically oriented visual person.

So, I think he drives a lot of that. But then, there's, you know, like 1200 casual game developers. There's obviously going to be a lot of pretty generic work among a group that's that big.

Do you think that somebody developing a house style pay dividends, that it can help build an audience?

Yeah. I mean, I think what's really going to build loyalty is just the quality of the games and how much fun they are. And if a house continues to deliver high quality, like both of those two examples have, then they'll build both player loyalty and name recognition among those players.

Whereas I think having a distinctive look is probably sort of a second order effect, or a second order contributor to building brand loyalty and building recognition and building long-term players.

I also wanted to talk to you about game writing. Is game writing really separate from game design? There's a sense that is it possible to have game writing as a job that's somehow different from game design.

It certainly is. There are dozens of people who made their living as a game writer who don't do game design. I think ideally, it's best for the designer and the writer to be the same person, just as ideally it's best for the artist, programmer, designer, and the writer to be the same person.

But clearly, other than an increasingly small number of projects, that's not feasible. As game projects get bigger and bigger and teams get more and more specialized, it becomes not only more common but absolutely necessary to split up the role of writer and designer because it's too much work for one person.

In fact, you could have more than just a writer and a designer... three designers and five writers.

So, the question is that given the necessity of splitting these functions, what's the best way to work? Certainly, I'm a big advocate that writers shouldn't just be someone who you bring on two months before the game ships as a "Oh, the game is almost done; add some writing."

It's much better for them to come early on so that, for one thing, they can be a lot more familiar with the game and do a lot better job when it is time to do the writing, so that they can do the writing in stages and sort of provide almost a sort of first draft of the writing. And that will make the game much more playable for everyone who is playing early builds of the game.

And then polish those drafts, as the game gets closer to release. The writer, by coming early, is then in a position to make a lot more suggestions about the design of the game where they see that will aid the writing or that will avoid hurting the writing.

We recently did an article on Gamasutra where we singled out game writers that we all agreed were good. But in the debate over it, often it was hard to separate the writing from the game, from saying, "This is a fun game, and therefore the writing is good." It was very subjective.

Sure. I mean, look at something like Portal. The writing in Portal, the dialogue particularly, the computer, it was one of those things that made the game for me.

But where do you really draw the line? That certainly wasn't something that was added two days before the game shipped. So, the more integral that the writing is into the game, the harder it is to separate it out as a separate task.

It’s also hard to separate when we’re trying to identify what is good game writing versus bad writing. If somebody thought the story was dumb, that was bad writing. But most video game stories seem kind of dumb, really. So, how do you judge that?

Well, it's hard to tell who came up with what and unless you talk to the people you might not necessarily get to the truth. I'd say probably much more often than not, things like the basic storyline of a game, basic theme and setting, and things like that, were probably come up with long before writers come on board.

Can a writer take something and make it better?

You mean, turn lemons into lemonade? Yeah. I mean sure, within reason. If you have a completely generic story, you can spice it up a little around the edges and add some interesting characters and some interesting sub-plots and stuff.

But at a thousand-foot view, it's still going to be a pretty generic story. Once again, it sort of gets back to the point of what exactly the writer's role is, how early do they come on, where do you draw the lines of responsibility between the writer and other participants in the creative process.

For the most part, I think for the people who do only writing, who do only game writing, it's a pretty frustrating experience because they don't feel like they have enough of a creative role. They feel like they are just sort of being treated as a compartmentalized craftsman, and they don't feel like they were brought in early enough.

I like Valve’s approach of bringing in an established author like Marc Laidlaw to write. What do you think about that? Someone who's already started a career as an author.

The plus, you know, is then you get a good writer, but the minus is you don't necessarily get someone who understands games and interactivity. If a writer isn't familiar with the ins and outs of interactivity and the way that games work and things like that, it doesn't really matter how good a writer they are.

I've certainly worked with a professional writer when I did the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and it was relatively difficult at the beginning because in his case, he was even a computer game player and a text adventure player.

And yet he still had a lot of trouble thinking non-linearly, so he would write scripts for the game kind of with the prejudice or with the idea that the player would always do what he was intending the player to do.

And players almost never do what you intend them to do, and so he wasn't sort of thinking of it that way.

I remember this moment so starkly, we started getting the game implemented so it was still just a little bit of the game that was implement, but he had people over and said, "Oh, let me show you the game version of Hitchhiker's Guide."

And they started playing, and people would do something other than what he'd expect him to do, like, "No, that's not what you're supposed to do," and all of a sudden he kind of got it that you have to anticipate everything, not just what you expect, and that the game can go in lots of directions.

You have to anticipate that—ideally, you want to take advantage of that. Just over the course of the few months that we worked on writing the game, he really kind of blossomed as an interactive writer, as a non-linear writer.

But I was able to see over the course of that evolution the problems that he had in the beginning as some guy who was already familiar with the medium and was a game player and was a text adventure player. So, it takes more to be a game writer than to be a good writer.

Speaking of text adventures, do you think there was something unique about them, or were they just a response to the technological limitations that you had at the time.

Well, I think the reason they were so popular then and don't seem compelling now, is that back then, that was really kind of the coolest and most cutting edge thing you could do on a computer.

The only graphics you could do on a computer, up until say when the Mac, Amiga and regular VGA came along to PCs, the best graphics that you could do were pretty crappy. So, they weren't really all that impressive. And this, on the other hand, was like talking to your computer, and your computer understanding you and answering back.

It was just really kind of cool and impressive, sort of fun to do alone, fun to do with a group, and fun to show off to other people. So, in those days, the bragware, so to speak, stuff that really showed off your computer and made you feel good that you bought it, were text adventure games. So, that's one thing.

Another thing is the demographics of the industry back then. I mean, what percentage of people had personal computers in 1983? Five percent or whatever. And so, the people who had them were higher end early adopters, really techie oriented, and much more male. And these were the sorts of people who liked hard games, who liked games that made you think, who liked games that were cerebral.

As the computer market became broader, the population of computer owners became more and more like the general population.

I think another thing was they were really cool but didn't particularly evolve. And so, text adventures in 1986 weren't that different from text adventures in 1981. Parsing was a little better, and the total game size was a little bit bigger because you didn't have to worry about the TRS-80 Model 1 anymore, but the medium didn't really change all that much.

And again, as far as I'm concerned, the medium of first-person shooters hasn't changed much in fifteen years now, and yet they've retained their population [laughs].

What did you think of [interactory story game experiment] Facade?

I mostly like it. I thought it was pretty limited, but within those limits, I think it did a really good job. I know a lot of people who point out the fact that you can break it so easily by sort of refusing to adhere to the role-playing.

The game can start to behave really stupidly really quickly. But you can break a movie really easily by skipping scenes. You can break a book really easily by refusing to read the first sentence of every page, or things like that.

There's sort of a certain kind of pact we make with any medium to use it the way it was intended, and if we don't use it as intended, then your mileage may vary.

As far as I'm concerned, if you use Facade as sort of the way it was intended, and if you don't break that pact between you and the creator, I think it's a pretty decent experience.

The Community Manager Interviews: 2K Games` Elizabeth Tobey

[The second in a four-part Chris Remo-authored series on community management features 2K Games' Elizabeth Tobey on defining her role, the success of the "Cult of Rapture" portal for BioShock, and more.]

Over the next two weeks, we are presenting a series of interviews with community managers from four different companies -- publishers, publisher-owned studios, and independent studios.

As a field that is relatively young and frequently loosely-defined, community has not always gotten the amount of coverage that might be due such an integral part of operating in the modern, interactive world of promotion and communication.

The second interview in the series, following our chat to Naughty Dog's Arne Meyer, is with 2K Games' Elizabeth Tobey, who joined the company in 2006 to build community initiatives around BioShock from a "blank slate."

It was actually her first such role -- she'd never worked in the game industry before, and having no diagram on what a community manager ought to be, she invented her own definition.

Tobey created the popular "Cult of Rapture" community site, which in addition to acting as a communications hub, has served visitors and registrants with extras like concept art, music files and even podcasts.

Although she has a background in marketing and PR, Tobey clearly defines her priority is fans first, game second -- recognizing the "blurry line" that often appears between community management and marketing, she here explains why it's important to keep a specific focus, how The Cult of Rapture gained legitimacy and traction, and how she defined her own role.

What is a community manager, in your view?

Community manager and the role of community at 2K is actually interfacing with the fans. The way I look at it is that you are first the advocate for the fans and then the advocate for the game.

And then after that, you are the liaison, the go-between, and you work with the developer, the publisher, marketing, PR, and everybody else. But really, when I think about it, I'm working first for the fans and for the game.

Pre-release, it's all about figuring out what fans want to hear about, want to see, want to get, and giving it to them -- giving them the best experience, getting them the most information, figuring out how to make marketing and PR more dynamic and specific to the community with forums and everything else to really make people happy and get the information they want.

Then, of course, post-release, it's all about having quick, effective support and listening to people. Marketing and PR is great, but one of the great things about blending all those things together and having such an active community is that you get a dialogue and a two-way street -- whereas in the past, a lot of it has just been one-way.

Is that something companies or marketers have had a difficult time adjusting to? How do you modify processes from the more traditional top-down method?

I don't think that it's been difficult to adjust, because you're not going to abandon PR or marketing. I think one of the things that's important is having them all work together. When I came on in 2006, we didn't have a proper community, so we said, let's make one.

It was a blank slate -- dream up what you want and figure out what to do, which is where I think we might be a little un-traditional. Somebody made it up as they went along.

But it's all integrated into it -- I have marketing and some PR background, so I know how those things work. Everybody says community and marketing can be a blurry line. But I think focusing on the particular needs of your audience and trying to figure out how to make people more excited and get them more information -- being focused on the actual consumer rather than a human mass -- is really what defines "community" with a capital C.

You mentioned 2K didn`t have an existing community structure when you came in. How did you get that going?

Well, when I came on, it was specifically to work on BioShock, because that was a new IP and we didn't have anything around it. I first, of course, learned everything that was already out there on the internet -- everything people were saying and desiring for that game, since it was already rolling by that time.

I built The Cult of Rapture, BioShock`s community site, and I started working hand in hand with our marketing director. [BioShock creative director] Ken Levine wanted podcasts, so we started doing the podcasts.

I went and visited the [2K Boston] team every six weeks, and so I saw what they were doing, and just by talking to them and being with them, I started getting all my updates.

As things started picking up with all of that, marketing started saying things like, "Oh, we've got the box art, why don't we throw that your way?" In that way, the community really gained legitimacy and traction, not just with the very hardcore who happened to pick up on it, but with the larger gaming populace -- a lot of the blogs, a lot of the journalists. We became a source of really cool information. Not press release information, but a deeper look at the game.

I think the way we founded it first was through the community site and then by bringing on the forums. That's where the proper dialogue got going.

But I really think our community is a lot larger than just a community site or the forums. It's customer service. It's how you design limited editions, how you design art books, the store, everything.

So The Cult of Rapture was largely the thing that springboarded a lot of your how you went on to run community at 2K?

Yeah. I came in obviously from a gamer background, but I hadn't worked in the industry before. I was involved in communities, but I didn't have any classical community manager training. I probably couldn't have described to you what the typical community manager was back in 2006 if you asked me to, so I made it up.

I think that over the years, community in general has moved in the way that I think anyway. It's increasingly important everywhere. You hear about social networking and everything -- that's community.

I just approach everything literally as if I were the gamer on the other end of this website, t-shirt, art book, or poster. What would I want? It makes your job really, really easy when you're actually excited about something and you are that gamer dork who really wants those things for yourself. That's just what I did. Everything that I saw that was cool, or needed more attention, or that I wanted to learn about, or that I wanted to share that I have learned, I just went with it.

If you want to go to the game's site and just find a synopsis and see the amazing flashy product site, fine. But if you want to keep coming back to it, and keep finding information, and become involved or even just in passing come once a month and go see what's going on in the community, you should allow for that.

The community shouldn't be just a small inclusive thing only for a small group. It should expand out to as many people as you want. And no matter how casual or how involved you are, you shouldn't always just jump in out of it. I think it's the integrated nature of everything that really makes the community special.

Have you done much with actual dedicated social networking sites?

It is an area of focus, and we've experimented with it. I use some Facebook groups and fan pages for Civilization Revolution, and currently BioShock 2 and Mafia II have Twitters. We've got subscriptions on iTunes and RSS feeds, each game-specific.

The thing that is really important about any of that stuff is to know why you're doing it and to not just do it to do it. Don't make a Facebook or fan page or anything just to have it, and put the same stuff that you have on the community page. Have it be different, tailored, and specific to that form.

Twitter is great for interacting with groups, and the replies are awesome. But I think so many people are saying, "We have to use these things. We've got to be on Facebook. We`ve got to be on Twitter." It's about stepping back and saying, "Why are we doing this? What is the coolest thing to do?"

That pervades everything, whether I'm creating Xbox themes or PS3 themes or gamer pics. It's like, "Why are we doing this?" and "What do we want to gain out of this?" and "What does the gamer want?" The BioShock PS3 theme was one of the first paid ones, and it had a really good reception.

I was really nervous about that because once you offer anything that's paid to the community, are they going to like it? Are they going to think it's worth it? I think it's because we sat down and said, it's not just, "Oh, this is a new thing and we have to do it," but rather, "Why are we doing this?" and, "What makes it worthwhile?"

What are some campaigns or features that went over particularly well? Are there any that haven't?

That PS3 theme is a really good example of something successful. Another cool thing that we did that was really successful was that for Civilization Revolution, we did an artist series from Shepard Fairey, who made a special piece of art of Napoleon, and then Aidan Hughes did one of Abraham Lincoln. Those were really, really awesome.

Everybody likes posters of game stuff, but you don't want them to be just, you know, your logo and a screenshot. We like to be artistic and think deeper -- bring in new aspects and look at the game from new angles.

Because Civilization ties into propaganda, those two people made a good fit. That ended up being not just cool for marketing and for the community, as well as a really cool thing to hang on your wall, but it also got a lot of people interested and thinking. And it was really relevant and expanded outside of video games.

I'm trying to think of something that really flopped. I`ve probably stricken those from my memory. I'm always testing contests, sweepstakes, and things like that, and I've had a couple things like, "Take a picture in a wacky situation," or, "Design something for a screensaver or a wallpaper." You get good results, but you don't get that overwhelming feedback. That's good, and it serves its purpose, so I don't want to say it's a flop as such, but...

It's limited in reach.

Yeah, it's limited. One of those things everybody always says and I always say is, "Don't already do what you've done before." For BioShock, we did a Threadless T-shirt competition. That got a ton of praise and a ton of press, but you don't want to do it again. I don't want to run another T-shirt contest, because you don't want to keep doing the same thing and just fall into a routine.

It's really, really easy to do, and it just gets boring. You don't want to be boilerplate. Any time I do something new or push something further, that's when generally you get enough feedback and praise from your friends that it's really worth doing.

How do you measure success of a particular campaign of promotion -- by ear, or is it a holistic sense of things? Do you have ways of measuring impressions or conversions?

There are a ton of ways you can do it. A lot of it is subjective, and some of it is tracked. All of our websites track page hits, uniques, and so on, so I can go in and say, "Something In The Sea -- how many unique people came on the first day? How many unique people came on the first week?" And I'll know how successful that campaign was to me.

But also, to me, it's how many people talked about it -- not just on the 2K forums, because one of the important things about community is that you have to build a hub that everybody wants to come to, but you also have to try and go to them, even if you can't be talking to them absolutely everywhere.

But you need to expand out and reach out. Even if you can't be talking to everyone and be everywhere, obviously, you need to at least watch and listen. I can't tell you how many Google Alerts I have for certain keywords.

Just watch that -- what are people saying? How many people are saying things? How many Google Alerts do I get the first day? How many blogs, how many journalists pick things up? What do they say about it? That kind of awareness is really important.

As big and expansive as my job has gotten, there is that core. A community manager still has to say, "This is what the community is saying," report that, and let everyone know what's going on -- good, bad, and ugly -- and then figure out what to do about it. Be the person who says, "This is what they want. This is what they're saying. This is the reaction."

When we do a big thing, like when the BioShock 2 gameplay footage went out, the first thing I did in the morning was go everywhere, figure out what people were saying, parse what that was, and send that out to people so we knew what to do next. A lot of it qualitative, but that is the nature of it, because much of it is opinion-based.

Any final thoughts for other community managers?

I think one of the best things that ever happened to me was that I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing, so I didn't do that. Anyone who is a community manager or is thinking about going into something community-related should think about what that word means and not just think, "Oh, that means I need to run a forum and a website."

Think about what you would want, and don`t be afraid to do those things. If you think, "Oh, that's ridiculous. That's outside my scope," just go ask.

Because of the growing importance of community, you'll gain a lot of traction, and you might have thought of something that, even if you think it may be the purview of PR or marketing, you can still help influence and give valuable input that will benefit the gamer in the end.

Essentially, stop thinking about what you should be doing, and think about everything that you're not doing, or that you want to do or that you would love to see, and just go do it. That sounds really cheesy, but it's right. If you say, "That would be so rad," then you should probably do it.

Best Of Indie Games: Clash of the Titans

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

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

The goodies in this edition include the release of IGF finalist Zeno Clash, a unique 'Spot The Differences' game, a couple of Ludum Dare 14 competition entries, and a game where you play the anti-hero carrying out evil deeds.

Game Pick: 'Zeno Clash' (ACE Team, commercial indie)
"An IGF finalist in the 'Excellence in Visual Art' category, ACE Team's Zeno Clash is now finally available for purchase from Steam and Direct2Drive. This hybrid melee fighting game sure packs a punch, delivering a surreal world to explore and an eccentric cast of characters well-deserving of the award nod. Some may find issues with the storyline and length of the adventure, but for the asking price you won't get anything else quite like it out there in the market."

Game Pick: 'Mind Wall' (Seth A. Robinson, freeware)
"A puzzler similar to Kokoromi's Super Hypercube, where players would have to fit a coloured block through a wall before it is done automatically for them. The shape in play will always appear as a silhouette at the bottom left corner of the screen, and a one-square hole has to be made somewhere on the wall before this shape will pass through successfully. Also available for the Mac OS X."

Game Pick: 'Tombed' (auntie pixelante, freeware)
"Tombed is dessgeega's submission for the Ludum Dare 14 competition, a short game that borrows one or two gameplay elements from Mr. Driller. Danger Jane is on a quest to raid an ancient tomb, but finds herself running away from a ceiling of spikes that threaten to squash her and end her endeavours prematurely. This is where you step in, as the invisible guiding force assisting her with digging through coloured blocks and navigating the winding passages that obstructs her path downwards."

Game Pick: 'Headspin: Storybook' (State of Play Games, browser)
"On the face of it, Headspin: Storybook is basically a 'Spot The Differences' game, but the way it is all presented is rather lovely. Provided with an open book, all the pop-up on the right-hand page must be the exact mirror image of the left-hand page to progress. There's a time limit involved, of course, and clicking each object will make it spin and face the opposite direction."

Game Pick: '(Don't) Save The Princess' (Shen Games, freeware)
"A fair princess has been kidnapped, and the valiant knight has been dispatched by the king to save her daughter. Playing the role of the evil-doer, you must find a way to thwart this hero's efforts and prevent peace from being restored to the land. Magical launching platforms have to be placed all over the screen in an attempt to fling him around, eventually landing in the jaws of your pet monster."

April 24, 2009

Controllers X-rayed, CAT Scanned

For several months now, Dutch radiology technician Reinier van der Ende has been taking x-rays of video game consoles, controllers (like the Nintendo Zapper pictured below), and even carts, posting them online in an online photo set with a simple title, X-Ray Funnies. Perhaps it helps pass the time during those slow nights at the hospital?

NYC artist and medical student Satre Stuelke had the same idea of capturing a controller's internals with medical imaging technology, and did a CT scan on the PlayStation 3's wireless controller as part of a Radiology Art project. As Offworld points out, Stuelke also posted a short video that rotates the DualShock 3 and gives you a 3D view of it.

Stuelke is selling "high resolution museum-quality signed limited edition prints" of the image, and plans to soon add a CAT scan for a PlayStation 3 console with a "de/re-construction movie".

Full Maps for Super Mario Advance 4's e-Reader Stages

To spice up Super Mario Advance 4, the 2003 GBA port of Super Mario Bros. 3, Nintendo released a series of e-Reader cards which which enabled players to load new stages and power-ups, provided they had a copy of the game, two GBA systems, a link cable, and the gigantic e-Reader+ add-on.

Because of that complicated and expensive setup -- and because different region-specific and region-locked cards were distributed randomly in game bundles and card packs -- it's unlikely that most gamers who picked up Super Mario Advance 4 ever saw all the e-Reader levels, much less played them. It's a shame considering they include elements from Super Mario World and Yoshi's Island, and they're the only Nintendo-designed 2D Mario levels that were released during the decade between Yoshi's Island and New Super Mario Bros.

NeoGaffer Mama Robotnik, however, reminded me that someone ripped and posted full maps of the 30 stages, so that if I want, I can just put my fingertip up to the monitor and pretend it's Luigi jumping through the level and collecting coins. I'm not saying that's something I wasted my entire afternoon doing, only stopping to write this post after I kept dying on one of the Airship stages, but if that turned out to be something I wanted to pursue, the option is there.

In-Depth: Behind the Scenes of Saints Row 2

[What went right and wrong in making Volition's hit 2008 title Saints Row 2? The April 2009 issue of sister publication Game Developer magazine explains, straight from the horse's mouth, and here's some choice extracts for GSW readers.]

The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a postmortem of THQ and Volition's over-the-top, open-world crime romp Saints Row 2, written by producer Greg Donovan.

The following excerpts from the piece explain how the Saints Row 2 team coped with feature creep and game instability, ultimately delivering a well-received multiplatform product.

Says Saints Row 2 producer Greg Donovan: "When everything was said and done, the game was localized into 14 languages across 15 separate SKUs. From a purely quantitative perspective, development was a logistical challenge and it would not have been completed without collaboration across many departments and studios."

Carving Out a Unique Identity

Released in Q4 2008, publisher THQ pit Saints Row 2 against a slew of other high-profile video games during the holidays. Donovan was aware that creating an action game that stood out from the crowd of holiday releases was crucial. In this excerpt, the game's producer writes:

"From the start, the team’s fundamental goal was to create an original open-world gameplay experience that would further distinguish Saints Row from other non-linear games, and carve out a distinct identity in the genre.

We needed to build upon the success of the predecessor and create a game that would ultimately establish Saints Row as a viable and global franchise on next generation hardware.

We also needed to create a game that could succeed in a more competitive window than the original Saints Row, without alienating the established fan base or deviating too much from the core mechanics players had come to expect—customization, sandbox gameplay, and combat.

We aimed to achieve this by iterating gameplay that worked in Saints Row, and cutting those mechanics and features that did not work. Three years of analysis, collaboration, discussion and hard work followed and concluded with a game that we feel was ultimately able to accomplish these goals."

Mitigating Feature Creep

Donovan was also cognizant of feature creep, implementing a system that would carefully monitor the addition of new features. Through what he calls "Change Management," Donovan made sure that key decision makers were kept in the loop:

"Near the end of pre-production, the team implemented a scope-control process called “Change Management.” Feature creep is common in game development, and it becomes an issue when elements are added without the knowledge or approval of key decision makers. Our process was designed to mitigate this.

Any new feature requests that came to light after our feature complete deadline had to be submitted to the leads group for review with a detailed spec that included an initial pass at task breakdowns, work estimates and dependencies.

This process helped ensure all appropriate parties had thought the request through and submitted the request with details already in place. The leads met regularly to review the requests and determine what could and could not be added to the game. We were overly zealous in our approvals, but we were able to schedule scope additions quickly because of this upfront planning.

Past projects proved that all too often additional features were implemented in a vacuum, without the awareness of all affected team members, or without adequate planning and forethought. Change Management was a valuable process designed to make additional scope requests more transparent."

Wrestling with Instability

During development, Saints Row 2, Volition's first simultaneous release across Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, experienced serious build stability issues. Donovan stated the team eventually worked through the problems and reaching an appropriate level of polish, but at certain points he called the issues "disconcerting":

"Build stability was a real problem. It wasn’t until late in the development cycle that anyone could play the game for more than a couple of hours without crashing. This was extremely frustrating and at times quite disconcerting.

Top-level, our instability was caused by failing to take systems and features to completion, an issue that had its roots in the litany of usual suspects—unforeseen dependencies, late design changes, new team members working in an unfamiliar code base, and of course a pre-production commitment to an assumed competitive scope that wasn’t adequately reflected in the schedule.

In hindsight, we failed to “develop deep” and didn’t take adequate time to think about system scalability. Instead we developed wide and made the mistake of hastily marking systems or features as “done” when in reality more work was needed to take them to full completion.

When production officially started, the schedule showed we needed to get things done at a brisk pace. This meant fast-paced work, and this mentality created a cycle that effectively exacerbated the core issue and resulted in further instability.

Programmers rushed to fix bugs that came late in development (which commonly resulted in more bugs; when you have hundreds of check-ins going into a mainline branch on a daily basis, you’re going to see things break), and design and art expectedly fell behind on polish and iteration.

Therefore, Q/A wasn’t able to progress through test plans efficiently, and we couldn’t conduct extended playtests until late in development."

Additional Info

The full postmortem for Saints Row 2 explores "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the April 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes the 8th Annual Game Developer Salary Survey, always a popular and useful feature; a divergent perspective from Rod Green of Intel's Project Offset on the crucial area of art pipelines; BioWare Austin's Damion Schubert on the nature of the design space; LucasArts' Jesse Harlin on dynamic scores, and much more.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of April 2009's edition as a single issue.

Make Your Own Glow In The Dark Space Invaders Lamp

Craftster Kris DeGraeve for put up a 16-step guide for creating your own Space Invaders lamp (or chandelier) with glow in the dark aliens, like the piece above. The light source runs on a 9-volt battery, and required a bit of "3D modeling/printing, laser cut acrylic, resin casting, UV reactive pigment, LEDs" and simple wiring to bring it all together.

It sounds like the type of afternoon project that somehow morphs into an entire-weekend affair! Once you've got it working, though, you can slowly sway the lamp side to side, pretending the aliens are approaching the surface of your soon-to-be subjugated end table. Here are some larger shots of DeGraeve's lamp:

Preview Jab Strong Fierce With Over Two Dozen Works

"The Hero" by Christian Ward

As previously posted, the Nucleus gallery in Alhambra, California will host Jab Strong Fierce, a Street Fighter tribute art exhibition opening tomorrow and running until May 11th. The show is sponsored by Capcom, i am 8-bit, Udon Entertainment, and several other companies, and will feature pieces from over 40 talented artists. You can see the full artist lineup and find more details on the event's official site.

Rather than wait for photos and reports from the exhibit's opening night, I've gathered photos for over two dozen of the pieces that will appear at the show, and have collected them here for those of you who want an early look or who won't be able to attend. My favorites are definitely Ward's paintings and Khylov's Japanese bamboo mats, but they're all fantastic. Enjoy!

"The Monster" by Christian Ward:

"Adios Mama" by Jorge R. Gutierrez:

"El Fuerte es el Mas Macho" by Jorge R. Gutierrez:

"The Red Cyclone" by Derek Yu:

"Chun-Li: Modern Woman" by Kevin Dart:

"Hunt for Red Panda" by Brianne Drouhard:

"The Civilian" by Eric Fortune:

Ryu painting (cropped) by Leong Wankok:

Rufus and Dhalsim sculptures by J. Shea:

"Chun Li and Blanka" by Bobby Chiu:

"Street Fighter Kids" by Kei Acedera:

"Sakura Sake" by Mari Inukai:

"Flash Kick" by Anthony Wu:

"FOighT!" by Anthony Wu:

Chun-Li by Rodney Fuentebella:

Ryu by Rodney Fuentebella:

Sagat and M. Bison by Roland Tamayo:

"Hyakuretsukyaku" by Luke Chueh:

"Thank You for a Gorgeous Time" by Becky Cloonan:

"Elena" by Khylov:

"Dhalsimer" by Khylov:

"Metaphysique" by Khylov:

"Ueno-chan" by Khylov:

"Dhalsim" by Adam Alaniz:

"Oh! My Car" by David Jien:

"Street Fight" by Francis Vallejo:

[Via Vinyl Pulse, Arrested Motion]

Interview: Harvey Smith Talks Thinking Big, Getting Small On iPhone

[Colleagues Brandon Sheffield and Christian Nutt recently caught up with Arkane's Harvey Smith to talk about his work on the recently debuted KarmaStar for iPhone, his current "first-person game with depth" main project, and more.]

Arkane Studios' Harvey Smith has a heritage in titles like Deus Ex and Blacksite: Area 51 in his time with Ion Storm and Midway, but at Austin GDC last year he revealed he was well into developing a strategy title for iPhone as a "side project."

The result was card-based KarmaStar, published by Majesco, and part of Smith's work at the Austin office of the French-headquartered Arx Fatalis developer.

Smith has been publically discussing the cultural transition from large-scale development to a small team on a small -- but deep -- small-platform title, explaining his strategy of always-on video conferencing to keep teams connected.

Now, we catch up with Smith to talk about KarmaStar, possibilities for genre depth on the iPhone platform, distributed development and more:

What were your inspirations, strategy-wise? What card-based titles influenced you?

This side project was an odd undertaking, since I didn't start out with any game template in mind. I think Uno is a classic, I like Munchkin, and once in a while I get hooked by a board game like Settlers of Catan. I played more Chron-X than Magic.

But that's not how KarmaStar came about. It was more abstract and driven by the fact that I just wanted to make a little strategy game for the iPhone.

If you leave video conferencing on all day, doesn't that feel a little weird? People could be watching you pick your nose or eat your lunch.

Ha, yes. One of our animators works from home, with a vid-conf system in his office, so we're constantly joking with him about installing additional cameras in other parts of his house. (He's also the guy who made the System Shock 2 mod called Rebirth, so he's sensitive to cameras...)

But in terms of leaving vid-conf on (nearly) all day from office to office, things like watching someone eat lunch is actually part of what makes it work.

I can comment on my French co-worker's t-shirt or new haircut, or the poster on the wall behind him. It enables the mundane, human social interactions that help people become a team.

This is a leading question, but as a designer do you feel that switching genres like this helps you get a fresh perspective?

For me, it wasn't so much the (temporary) genre switch that gave me perspective. I feel like the small team size, the autonomy and the motive for making the game were much stronger influences in terms of giving me a fresh outlook. I personally could have cancelled the project at any moment. I could have scoped it in any way necessary.

I was in control of when we took risks and when we cut features in order to stabilize and polish. And we were making the game because we thought it was cool to design strategy systems for a small game, and because I found it invigorating to engage in a creative project with more freedom.

What were the main challenges of scaling your design small? Did you ever find yourself over-reaching your means, or the constraints of the platform?

Supporting wifi multiplayer consumed a lot of our resources. For the last part of the project, Matthew Rosenfeld (our lead engineer) spent a lot of time fixing out-of-sync multiplayer bugs.

To get the level of polish we wanted, we had to trim some wildcards and cut short some of the experimentation. If the game had been purely single-player, we could have invested more time in creating more cross-interaction between players.

How do you think the distributed development model would work for a larger title, based on your experience so far? What would need to change?

We're working on larger projects in much the same way. The article I did [for Edge Online] includes a bunch of tips learned from that work.

I think the difference in scalability comes down to this: Wherever you've got a larger cluster of people, instead of an individual, you need someone on site with good organizational
leadership skills.

iPhone has massive opportunity but also massive competition. Things have been going for a while on the platform - how do you feel about entering it now? What do you think you learned from observing things up till now?

It's been great to watch. Interesting games pop up all the time. I love Zen Bound. I keep waiting for flOw to come to iPhone. The first time you launch a game on a new platform, you learn a lot about the process.

The App Store, pricing model, user reviews, the impact of timing all your initial press and materials "just to chart" initially, the later impact of updates...these are all interesting bits of information that publishers and developers are still assembling.

You had some notably public issues with creative control with Midway. Does working on a smaller project like this address those issues for you personally?

On a small game, it's more likely that the creative desires of the individual contributors translate to the screen. That's a joy. Even 10 years ago, a much smaller team could make an interesting game. Working on Deus Ex, in the map editor, on the story and on game systems, there was far less influence and approval process from outside the team than there is at some companies.

It's not just size...even some large companies are organized in ways that give a development team the autonomy to enhance certain features and to cut others; to make personnel decisions not based on a departmental/silo approach but in a way that serves the specific goals of the game; and to break off from external tech or time dependencies when the time is right.

What about genre and target concerns of the iPhone platform? Coming from a background of creating very deep and complicated games on PCs and consoles, how do you view the audience for iPhone? Are those differences appealing to you creatively?

Every day with Arkane Studios, Raphael and I are working with teams of people on a project that is very complicated and that hopefully will be very satisfying to players with tastes like ours.

This type of game is why I came to work here; it's a return to first-person games with depth, specifically at an independent company, where I believe it's possible to invest creatively.

My favorite games of the last few years are Fallout 3 and BioShock, but the iPhone is another platform altogether. When I play games on my iPhone, I've got 10 minutes to kill. For that, I love games like Drop7, Primrose or KarmaStar.

Mad Dog McCree Returns For Another Grab At Your Money

I spent too many quarters on the original Mad Dog McCree arcade game than I care to admit, beguiled by its live-action video and terrible acting. I hated myself everytime I walked away from the machine, knowing those quarters should have gone to a game that deserved it, like Time Killers or Pit Fighter (these games didn't actually deserve my money either).

Substantiating GameFly's rumors that the shooting game would see another release 19 years after its arcade debut, the ESRB has rated Mad Dog McCree: Gunslinger Pack, coming to Wii courtesy of Majesco. The title's use of Pack leads me to assume that this will be a disc release that will also include sequels Mad Dog II: The Lost Gold. And here I thought Konami's release of Target: Terror last year was an awful idea.

For some reason, I don't remember these offenses that the ESRB pointed out for its Teen rating: "In [one] scene, a woman says to the camera, 'You're my type, everyone is,' while a man in his long johns (i.e., underwear) moves past her. There is also a reference to "dirty peeping toms" and occasional depictions of women with exposed cleavage."

[Via Penny Arcade Forums]

GameSetLinks: Informing On The Citizen Gamer

[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.]

As the weekend looms ever-larger, it's time to take another wander around the RSS for our GameSetLinks roundup, starting with Game Informer's chat to seminal Activision co-founder David Crane and friends - always good to see sites talking to the people who made the game biz what it is today.

Also in here - a nice chat with Phil Fish, a random nod to upcoming game-related movie Citizen Game (pictured), a neat article called 'A Thousand Deaths Is A Statistic', and rather more things besides.

It's totally on:

Game Informer: 'Old School: Talking Games With David Crane, Steve Cartwright'
Man, I forget about GameInformer.com sometimes, but they do some really nice features - this one with some seminal Activision devs.

CrispyGamer: 'My Sister Annotates Blazing Prattles Ep. 21'
'I just had the following, unsolicited instant messenger conversation with my 15-year-old sister (pictured, right).' Certainly new, and game-related, and journalistic...

Kotaku - Going Indie: Fez Creator Phil Fish's Moment Of Clarity - fez
'Those IGF nominations didn't hurt. "I pleaded with my boss to let me go to GDC — not even send me there, like they were doing for so many other employees, but just let me go," Fish recalls. "They wouldn't give me clearance to leave." IGF Fez awards or not, Phil Fish, you are not going anywhere. "So I had to quit right there and then," he says. "That's when I became indie. It felt good."'

GI.biz: 'WiiWare threshold misinterpreted // News'
'Earlier this month, it was reported that many indie developers struggled to meet the sales threshold.' To be fair, we actually said - in our original report - that 'at least one' had. So GI/EG is apparently debunking its own inflation? Hee.

Citizen Game - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
'Citizen Game is an upcoming science fiction action thriller film written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. The film stars Gerard Butler as an unwilling participant in an online game in which participants can control human beings as players.' Interesting because they're the Crank creators, and that has a lot of video game references in the credits sequence, etcetera.

Game Informer: 'Indie Week: Day One - What Does It Mean To Be Indie?'
The website of the world's biggest game magazine does a whole week speaking to IGF finalists - v.neat. (Also they speak to me, boo.) Also see Pt.2, Pt.3.

A Thousand Deaths Is A Statistic | Resolution
A really nice article on death in video games for a UK game site that I wasn't aware of, and appears neat. (Via RPS.)

TIGSource forums: Dutch Tv special on GDC/IGF
Hey, v.neat!

April 23, 2009

Pulsewave April Video Flyer, Show This Weekend

Every month, God bless them, New York City venue The Tank hosts Pulsewave, an event focused on "experimental and lo-fi music, with an emphasis on the burgeoning neo/retro art scene around chipmusic." Previous Pulsewave headliners include micromusic giants like Trash80, Starscream, Anamanaguchi, Nullsleep, and Minusbaby to name a few.

With the approach of each show, organizers put out a video flyer with original graphics and music to promote the upcoming party. Appropriate to the audience and Pulsewave's theme, the flyers are presented with 8-bit graphics, like an attract mode or title screen for an NES game. In fact, you can even download a ROM and play the flyer in an NES emulator (or on a real console, if you're one of those odd sorts who have an NES flashcart).

Here's the newest clip, a skyline scene invoking memories of Punch-Out!! and River City Ransom, and advertising this coming Saturday's show, which will feature French acts Je Deviens DJ en 3 Jours and Dr. Von Pnok, as well as Larry (a duo consisting of Graffiti Monsters's Louis Shannon and Anamanaguchi's Ary Warnaar):

You can download the ROM for this piece here.

Seeing as I'm located nowhere near New York City, these nicely produced flyers are the real highlight for me whenever I think of Pulsewave. Programmer Don "No Carrier" Miller codes the slick production, chiptune artist Alex Mauer composes the wistful music, and illustrator Alex "enso" Bond (only 19 years old!) creates the charming graphics.

Bond also runs Pixelstyle, a fantastic Tumblr site celebrating "the aesthetic of pixels, whether from games, demos, original artwork, or anything else."

Here are two more of the group's recent Pulsewave flyers -- even if the advertised events are now past, the videos are still enjoyable months later. In fact, I still load up this first clip at least once every other week, whenever I need an artificial sunset and tranquilizing chiptunes to take the edge off a stressful day.

[Via enso]

'Locked Door, I Hate You'

Rock Paper Shotgun's Alec Meer has written a sharp ode to that vilest video game enemy, the scourge that's tormented you in hundreds of games across dozens of genres for decades -- the indestructible locked door:

"I hate the way you are resistant to knives, to guns, to sledgehammers, to rocket-propelled grenades, to weapons that rewrite the very laws of physics, to dark unearthly magic, to punches that can knock a man’s head clean off. ...

I hate the way you are so often an easy shortcut for developers unable or unwilling to devise more satisfying obstacles and challenges.

I hate the way you so often lead to nowhere, how you are nothing more than decoration for a wall."

As this excerpt indicates, the rant is just a much a criticism of these bothersome devices as it is of the designers who fill their worlds with locked doors and gates to guard the rest of the game (or often to guard nothing at all). You can read Meer's full diatribe here.

Sound Current: 'Auditory Memoirs of a Sushi Bar Samurai'

[Continuing his voyage through the video game audio world, Jeriaska contributes this GameSetWatch-exclusive interview with Gas Powered Games and RAD Game Tools veteran Casey Muratori on the intriguing indie title with an interactive soundtrack.]

"When a baking mishap disrupts the traditionally balanced diet of the spirit world, a young samurai must learn to master the art of sushi preparation to bring flavor and nutrition back to the afterlife."

This is the premise of Sushi Bar Samurai, a game by the independent production studio Molly Rocket, founded in 2004. A PAX 10 finalist at the 2008 Penny Arcade Expo, one designer served as the main programmer, art director and composer.

Casey Muratori not only champions the role of the videogame auteur through the example of his PAX 10 game, but by uploading video lectures to his website. (Got unwanted blending problems in your animation system? Watch the talk on using the quaternion double-cover property.)

Encouraging the indie community is not just a hobby. The founder of Molly Rocket sees it as a prescriptive response to an industry he maintains is dominated by impersonal development processes. In this interview on the interactive soundtrack for Sushi Bar Samurai, he offers a case study on how his culinary game title was recognized for its totally unique flavor.

Casey Muratori on the show floor of the Penny Arcade Expo

Sushi Bar Samurai is all about preparing traditional Japanese dishes for lost and wandering spirits so that they can transcend. What kind of research went into all the varieties and uses of sushi that you brought to the game?

Casey Muratori: I actually did a substantial amount of research for Sushi Bar Samurai, but only a very small percentage of that research is actually used in the game now. If you have too large a set of ingredients, it becomes impossible for anyone to remember what they all are, what they do, or how they relate to each other. The game then has to degenerate to recipe-following mechanics, and I don't find that to be a very interesting or rewarding type of design.

I worked the design down to the point where there are eight ingredients, with around 150 recipes, and I think that's roughly the sweet spot for what people can understand and work with in an interesting way. I think if you go above that, you're starting to be more of a sushi simulator and less of a game. While that would be an interesting thing, it's not what I was going for.

That said, everything you can make in Sushi Bar Samurai is a valid Japanese dish, and in general I have tried not to disallow any combinations of ingredients that would result in a valid recipe.

To lend a dose of verisimilitude to the supernatural game setting, did you talk with chefs, food critics, fishermen?

Verisimilitude wasn't something I was shooting for. I wanted the game to feel like a Japanese fable, and sushi is more of the artistic seed from which the game mechanics and art grow, rather than being what the game is "about." Another way of saying it might be that the game is inspired by sushi, but it is not about sushi.

In your research, did you find out whether it's true what they say about fugu?

Good question! Thankfully, I've never been eating at a sushi bar where someone has suddenly dropped dead, so I suppose I can only go by "what they say" as well. Here's hoping I can never answer "yes" to your question from personal experience!

Did you experiment with various software programs before arriving at the tools that were used to create the music for Sushi Bar Samurai?

I tried a number of things before deciding that commercial audio programs are basically useless. I tried Digital Performer, Cakewalk, Cubase, etc. They are all terrible.

These programs just don't work the way music works, so you're constantly manhandling everything and it's just very tedious. It's very strange coming from a background in 3D, where people always complain about tools like MAX and Maya. If they ever saw just how far behind these music packages were, they'd stop complaining! Even the worst 3D animation package is lightyears ahead of the best music editing software if you make the analogy.

So there is no commercial software involved in the production of the Sushi Bar Samurai music. I wrote a completely custom editor which works with the music the way I want it to, and I'm much happier. It still needs a lot of improvement, because I don't have that much time to spend on it, but I'm hoping over the course of a few products it will become quite spiffy.

You mentioned at PAX that music theory guides the structure of the Sushi Bar Samurai soundtrack. How strictly are these rules enforced?

Theoretical correctness is always strictly enforced, and the music system never violates the rules for the sake of better responsiveness.

The reason I chose that tradeoff is because the worst thing to have happen in the score is for something musically jarring to occur that draws the player's attention away from the game. The whole point of a good musical score is to reinforce the action. If instead it's detracting from the action by distracting the player, that's the worst possible situation. So if the music system has a choice between an immediate response that would violate a core musical rule, or following the rule and being a measure late, it's going to choose to be a measure late.

I've tried to employ a number of new techniques to minimize that number of times when a tradeoff has to be made in the first place, but it's never going to be perfect because the music system doesn't know what the player is going to do until after they do it. Perfect scoring requires that knowledge. That's the advantage a movie composer has over a game composer, and unfortunately we will never have that advantage assuming we want games to respond quickly to player input.

In creating the soundtrack to the title, to what degree did you determine that every person who sits down to play the game would be influencing the audio component of the experience?

All of the music in Sushi Bar Samurai is fully interactive. It responds to literally every action that the player takes, and across multiple players in co-op play. So to a large degree, the player is controlling the score as they play just as much as they are controlling their in-game actions.

This was very important to me. From a presentation perspective, music is one of the most crucial elements to have synced with the events in the game. It's always very jarring to me when I play a game whose music largely ignores what's happening on-screen. So I made sure the music system in Sushi could respond to everything, right down to the individual moves the player makes from second to second. Sometimes it's not perfect, because unlike a traditional score for a movie, it doesn't have the benefit of knowing what the player will do ahead of time, to make sure crescendos and transitions occur naturally over time.

That said, the final music compositions aren't done yet, since that's one of the last things that I'll do before the game is complete. So I still can't say definitively how well all the experimental music technology in the game will work. From the smaller test scoring that I have in there now, I don't foresee any problems when I expand the score out into its final size. But, one thing I've learned with experimental tech is that you never can tell what could go wrong!

Have you found it challenging to balance this motivation of handing over control of the sound composition to whomever sits down to play Sushi Bar Samurai with retaining your own personal vision for the soundtrack?

I don't really think about it as handing over control. To me, it's just the best way to do my job as composer on the title. I think about it this way: if I recorded someone playing the game, I could compose the proper score to accompany that specific play-through. The process would be identical to scoring a movie. So obviously there is a mental process going on in my brain that's allowing me to look at what's happening, consider the musical options, and put together each piece of the score such that it matches the on-screen action.

The interactive music system is just my attempt to capture that mental process in an algorithm, so it can be applied by the computer as the player plays the game. If I've done my job as a programmer, then it will create a score for any given play-through on the fly that's similar to what I would do if I looked at a recording of that play-through and composed the music for it specifically.

Do you feel it would be possible for you to release the music to Sushi Bar Samurai as a stand-alone item following the release of the game, or does the interactive nature of the audio mean that it's pretty much a different song you encounter every time around?

I haven't thought about how you would release a soundtrack, because the music is meant to be continuous from the start of the game to the end, and of course that may take many more hours than the typical length of a CD. So you would have to do a process whereby you decide on some representative play-through segments, and you'd have the interactive music system play back those segments, maybe with a proper prologue and epilogue to make it a track suitable for a soundtrack CD. That might work well, but it's not really something I'd thought about until you just asked!

As for the soundtrack being different each time around, that's true to a certain extent. But it's not going to be different in terms of the melodic identity. I set up the motifs that are used, the types of instruments that are going to be playing, the types of chord progressions, etc., and that's all fixed because that's what makes it the Sushi Bar Samurai soundtrack and not something else. So the music is very specific to this game. No two play-throughs will have the same music, but they will always sound identifiable as the Sushi Bar Samurai themes.

Overall, what personal experiences would you say have been most influential in contributing to this game?

Demoing the game at PAX was, without question, the single most important experience that influenced the design of the game. Prior to that, I felt very disconnected from the people who actually play games. Having worked in the mainstream game industry for a decade prior to starting on Sushi, I think the prevailing tendency to treat players as a market rather than as individuals was still affecting me, even though I have never liked that notion.

PAX really changed that. It was three straight days of wonderful people coming up to play Sushi, and they all had sophisticated and interesting reactions to it. It established this very intense emotional relationship in my head, replacing an abstract, faceless concept of "the player" with a very real and tangible notion of the kinds of people who will be playing the game when it is completed.

And frankly, I felt like I wasn't giving them everything they deserved. Here were these fantastic people, approaching the game with an open mind, immersing themselves in the world, thinking deeply about how it worked, and I felt like they were ready for much more richness than Sushi was delivering.

So immediately after PAX, I decided to completely rework the game with a fresh outlook on the audience. It's pushed out the release a ways, but I think it will be well worth it. The game is now deeper and more rewarding to play, and it gives people a lot more freedom to explore and to choose their own unique strategies and tactics.

I won't know how Sushi will be received in the end, but if it turns out to be a great game, it's going to be because of those people at PAX. Of that much I am certain! And to a large extent, I suspect that the games I do in the future will all also be informed by this experience.

Emulating CRT Characteristics For Atari VCS

Persuasive Games designer and frequent Gamasutra contributor Ian Bogost posted about an intriguing project he's working on with a group at Georgia Tech Computer Science (where he serves as an associate professor) to modify the Stella Atari VCS emulator to "better reproduce the visual effects of a CRT television of the late 1970s and early 1980s."

Similar to NFG's argument that modern monitors have difficulty displaying games the way we remember them, Bogost believes that our huge, sharp LCD monitors fail to give an accurate impression of what Atari games looked like in the 1970s, missing the texture, afterimage, color bleed, and noise of older televisions.

"Many of today's players may only experience Atari games in emulation," he laments. "Indeed, many of my students may have little to no memory of CRT televisions at all. Given such factors, it seems even more important to improve the graphical accuracy of tools like Stella."

The Georgia Tech Computer Science capstone group has modified Stella to add in those absent characteristics, and is working with the maintainer of the free and open-source emulator to include their CRT-emulating changes into the main build, where they will be available as a configurable option. Bogost hopes that the software will eventually be extended for use in other emulators for systems that relied on televisions for their primary output.

You can see some examples of the modified emulator in action after the break, as well as on Bogost's site.

Best Of GamerBytes: Gonna Take You For A Ride

sieark.png[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.]

It's been a busy two weeks for GamerBytes. We've looked at the sales on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and XBL Community Games in the month of March, with in-depth analysis on each of the new titles that came out in the month.

In addition, both Microsoft (via its Japanese event) and Konami had huge blowouts on upcoming XBLA, PSN and WiiWare titles as well - as I said, it's been a busy two weeks. Here's the top stories of the fortnight:

Microsoft Spring 2009 Preview

MS Spring '09 Preview: Fatal Fury: Mark Of The Wolves Made Official
We called it - the final Fatal Fury game is making its way to the XBLA.

MS Spring '09 Preview: Taito's Bubble Bobble Neo! Announced
A port of Bubble Bobble Plus! on WiiWare is making its way to Xbox 360s soon.

MS Spring '09 Preview: King Of Fighters Skystage -- A Shoot'em Up?
This makes no sense, and yet it could be great.

MS Spring '09 Preview: Square Reveal 0 Day Attack On Earth
Square Enix creates a giant alien city destruction game?

MS Spring '09 Preview: Project CUBE Is Bloody And Confusing
Square consumes and shoots bullets at you in this twin stick shooter.

MS Spring '09 Preview: King Of Fighters 2002: Unlimited Match Hits XBLA In 2010
But you're going to have to wait until after KOF '98 Ultimate Match.

MS Spring '09 Preview: Space Invaders Extreme, Arkanoid, Virtual On Given Release Dates, Prices
Games coming much sooner than expected.

MS Spring '09 Preview: 0-D Beat Drop Melds Music With Drop Puzzle Action
It's Tetris meets Columns meets Lumines.

Xbox Live Arcade

XBLA Update - Lode Runner And EXIT2, Domino Master DLC
Get your Lode on.

Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 All But Confirmed For XBLA
Achievement unlocked - taken for a ride.

Death Bringer Resurrected As Puzzle Chronicles For XBLA, PSN
Sideways Columns with spells!

OutRun Online Arcade Now Up On Xbox Live Arcade
It's a Sweet Sound Shower this week.

PlayStation Network

A Peek At PomPom's Gemini Rings
A shooter that is not a shooter.

Pinball FX Wizards Bring Zen Pinball To PSN
It's not the Terminator 2 Table, but it may be just as good.

Blitz Arcade's Droplitz Goes Multiplatform, Reveals Publisher
One of the Blitz Arcade 5 finds a publisher.

NA PSN Store Update - PixelJunk Eden Encore, Magic Ball DLC
Expansion to PixelJunk Eden now available.

EU PSN Store Update - Outrun Online Arcade, PixelJunk Eden Encore, Magic Ball DLC
OutRun Online Arcade makes it to Europe on PSN - and only Europe.

EU PSN Store Update: Flock, Worms, Chimps, Rag Dolls And Anniversary Sale
Get ready to Flock some sheep, shoot some Worms and battle a variety of animals.

NA PSN Store Update - Flocking Ragdolls
Flock and Rag Doll Kung Fu now available.


Get Off Road With Driift
Super Off Road is back, kind of.

Ant Nation Burns Tiny Creatures With Rocket Launchers
Toughen up your army by putting a blow torch over them.

NA WiiWare Update - Crystal Defenders R1, Wonder Boy III
Desktop Tower Defense title with Final Fantasy characters now available.

NA WiiWare Update - Party Fun Pirate, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure
Stab a pirate in this E10+ friendly game.

EU WiiWare Update - Bubble Bobble Plus!, Family & Friends Party, Equilibrio
Burst some bubbles while rolling marbles.

GamerBytes Originals

The Road To NPD - Xbox Live Arcade Sales For March 2009
We look at March's 5 weeks of Xbox Live Arcade sales. How well did Watchmen, Peggle and Family Game Night do?

The Road To NPD - PlayStation Network Sales For March 2009
Only two new releases made it to the PSN Top 10 in March. What happened? Find out inside.

The Road To NPD - XBL Community Games Sales For March 2009
Some XBL Community Games may not be selling too well, but we can at least see what is popular on the service.

Brilliant Persona Fanart

As part of a recent contest for Persona 4 prizes, Matthew "Fort90" Hawkins invited readers of his blog to send in artwork with characters from Atlus' offbeat RPG series. The grand prize winning entry, a beautiful illustration by, um, Poop-mouth, shows the heroes of Persona 3 and 4 rummaging through a moonlit room cluttered with Shin Megami Tensei props..

I've attached the full piece after the break along with a couple other favorite entries, but before you look at those, treat your eyes to this Persona 4-themed arcade stick, a Mad Catz SE FightStick modded by Scottind with new and matching Sanwa parts. Finally, a controller with the responsive buttons and high-quality directional input an RPG requires.

By Poop-mouth:

By Nemi:

By Adam Gouveia:

Opinion: The Authorship Conflict -- All For One, Or One For All?

[Our own Leigh Alexander recounts observations from Warren Spector's recent NYU Game Center lecture to illustrate the philosophy conflict between user-created experiences and designed authorship.]

Should a designer's objective be to build an environment where players can drive events and experiences, or should the game determine the objective, with responsibility for leading player behavior in meaningful ways?

This philosophy conflict between user-created experiences and designed authorship is one of the most interesting issues emerging in next-gen games. I first started getting my head around it when I recently heard Warren Spector giving a lecture on his approach to design at NYU. His talk was followed by an informal but fascinating Q&A with Area/Code's Frank Lantz -- if you're familiar with both these guys, you can imagine how interesting the discussion was!

In case you're unfamiliar, Lantz and Area/Code are very well worth reading up on -- Lantz is, last I checked, a professor in the Tisch School’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and heads up NYU's Game Center. But if you're a Facebook user, you probably know Area/Code best for Parking Wars, which played a major if not defining role in turning the spotlight on FB as an emerging platform for social play.

Whether or not Parking Wars is a "video game" is open for debate, of course -- but it is interactive multi-user play imagined by traditional game designers, and it's significant because it reached users where they were already interacting, rather than demanding they enter the designer's world in a traditional way.

You also may or may not know that it was created as a cross-media extension of an A&E reality show -- I sure didn't, at first -- which provokes some interesting thoughts on how game design can help IP be media-independent.

These kinds of ideas about games are less-known to the core video game audience, of course, but at Austin GDC last year, Lantz said Parking Wars pulled 400,000 users in its first two months -- close enough to twice what EVE Online has got now, if I'm not mistaken.

Hopefully you can see why it was so interesting to see someone like Lantz talk with someone from Spector's world -- Origin, Looking Glass, Ultima, System Shock, Deus Ex, Thief -- about the role designers play in the kind of experiences players have.

I've always tended to fall on Spector's side of the fence -- I've never been a fan of multiplayer games, because really, I want to interact with a guided vision, not my pals from the internet. Spector would rather have you talk around the water cooler about the moments you discovered in his game that he didn't plan for, and discuss amongst yourselves the way you all experienced the same thing differently, rather than hear a recounting of what was essentially your group social outing (involving headshots).

I get it. Say what you will about the BioShock "choice," for example, but we're all learning from the differences in one another's experiences of the same event. Meanwhile, the story of your WoW raid is solely personal, and interesting only to you and your guild.

One thing Spector said during the NYU discussion was that he feels multiplayer games are "lazy." This is the designer in him talking, of course -- his theory that in letting players build stories via Left 4 Dead-style happy accidents in open worlds, the designer doesn't have to tackle complex challenges like making choices meaningful, or making characters believable.

Spector wants to take on those challenges, and he doesn't like the idea that user-driven play, from his standpoint, effectively allows game design to bypass them. It's actually an idea I relate to a lot as a writer -- I was raised in an era of authoritative media, when individual voices drove culture, opinion and information. The internet's changed everything, of course; the authoritative voice has evolved into a conversation between writer and audience, and the writer now leads the community discussion rather than acting as a single determiner, a unilateral judge.

And it doesn't take a professional writer to lead a community -- many feel that the rise of citizen journalism and the core concept of crowd wisdom means that individual authority in media will eventually disappear altogether.

Naturally, as someone who makes her living as a journalist, I reflexively dislike this idea -- is this why I am a Spector-sympathizer? If the game designer insists on authorial authority, is that his self-interest in the way?

Lantz actually called Spector out -- politely, of course, as it was obvious that both gentlemen respected their differences -- because one of the advice items Spector had offered the primarily-student audience was that the design process shouldn't be ego-driven, and that designers shouldn't try to impose their will on players. Why then, should Spector want to fight the apparent trend toward user-governed gameplay in order to build the experience from the game design power seat?

As with most divergent perspectives, it's unlikely that reality will skew solely to one side or another; the rise of social games and user-generated content doesn't mean the author-driven video game will just poof away. But questions of control are still fun to think about -- do you want to drive the community yourself, or do you want to interact in an environment that's been created for you?

Are all of us together as good at game design as one Warren Spector? And what might we see taking place in the games industry if in fact the answer is yes?

Regal Rocking Out

This editorial cartoon by Steve Breen appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this month, re-imagining President Barack Obama's gift to Queen Elizabeth from when he visited Buckingham Palace several weeks ago.

In this alternate universe, Her Majesty never received that iPod filled with Broadway tunes and video footage from her 2007 U.S. trip; instead, she's wailing on her new copy of Guitar Hero, as Prince Philip looks on disapprovingly. It's not that much of leap to imagine this scenario (the actual gift, not the Queen playing Guitar Hero), considering First Lady Michelle Obama recently presented a Gibson acoustic guitar to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, France's First Lady.

GameSetLinks: Play First For The Pixel Jammers

[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.]

Up for the further RSS goodness, and wandering in here is Crispy Gamer's really nice longform Haden Blackman chat - part of some of the most well thought-out alternative game coverage around right now, I think - try to keep keeping an eye on 'em.

Also hanging out in here - more Final Fantasy fun with Mr. Mielke, game designers and pr0n, all kinds of IGF-related things, Playfirst's CEO on casual life, a very strange Pixeljam interview indeed, and lots more.

Go go go:

1UP's RPG Blog : My Life In Vana'diel: A Crystalline Prophecy Conquered!
Mielke's FFXI love is kinda adorable, making his write-ups puppydog readable.

Crispy Gamer - Interview: Dining With Developers, Vol. 2: Haden Blackman, Part 1
Really good, progressive discussions on reviews for The Force Unleashed, the Star Wars franchise, etc - there's also a Part 2. Also, XYZ Bar has (had?) a great tuna sandwich.

Game Developers and Porn Stars | Kill Ten Rats
'They are hired in young, generally in their late teens and early twenties. They are energetic and excited about getting paid to do something they really enjoy (and probably have been doing on a small scale for years without pay).'

Artsy Games Incubator » Blog Archive » Round 4, Session 1 Recap
Neat, it's baaack!

Interview with IGF 2009 Winners by Game Tunnel
Just posted: 'In the midst of the hubbub that was Independent Games Festival, I was fortunate enough to yank a few developers away from their games and talk to them. No easy task.'

Interview with Mari Baker, PlayFirst | Gamezebo
The new CEO on where the often interesting - though quite VC-controlled - casual company is going.

On The Media: 'DIY Gaming'
A U.S. public radio segment: 'Video game sales are astronomical, but like the music and film industries before it, the game industry has become dependent on predictable and expensive blockbusters. But now, as writer Clive Thompson explains, creative independent games are adding to the gaming ecosystem.'

Exclusive Pixeljam Interview: Porn, Fetuses, and Rich’s Super Developer Origin Story | Ripten Video Game Blog
Complete insane interview. (Via InfiniteLives).

April 22, 2009

Chartcore Gaming

As Rap Song Excel Charts proved last year, quantifying and graphing ridiculous things is hilarious. Gaming blog First-Person Shouter applied that assumption to a series of charts measuring the writer's gaming experiences, such as this bar graph of his Counter-Strike capabilities:

Yes, it really is funny because it's true. If Counter-Strike's scores were tracked by how often you spammed "Storm the Front" audio messages instead of by your kill/death ratio, you would see [GSW]XxEricIsAwesomexX at the top of the player list whenever you hit the Tab button, without fail.

Shadow and the Confusing Chinese Title

Bruno de Figueiredo -- the Portugese writer behind Antagonism and Continuity, a fantastic essay exploring the design and meanings of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus -- recently picked up the Chinese edition of SotC after hearing it described as the definitive edition, seeing as it includes subtitles in Chinese, Japanese and English.

He compared his new Chinese copy to the Japanese release, Wanda To Kyozou (Wander and the Colossus), and found that the titles printed on their manuals didn't quite match:

Yes, the Chinese title, Shadow and the Colossus, sounds more like the U.S. name, but it doesn't make sense at all! The same baffling text was also printed on the game's disc, dropped in after the break.

"I remind you that this is an official product with a proper Sony serial number, not some knock-off from a Hong Kong dealer," says de Figueiredo. "If that had been the case there would be no reason to take this seriously." Strange that no one noticed this until three and a half years after the Chinese edition's release!

Analysis: Xbox Live Community Games - March 2009's Hits, Misses

[Following up his XBLA and PSN analysis, sister console download site GamerBytes' [RSS here!] editor Ryan Langley looks at Xbox Live Community Games charts for March, including new standouts like Little Racers and ZP2K9.]

With the March NPD U.S. game sales numbers just debuted, GamerBytes looks back at the last month of sales for downloadable spaces, with the data available to us and the public.

Specifically, every week, Larry 'Major Nelson' Hryb posts a Top 10 for the Xbox Live Community Games, which gives us somewhat an inside look at which games are selling better than others.

It's no secret that the XBL Community Games are not selling as well as some developers hoped. But many of the games that appeared in the Top 10 list were not a part of the analysis we did.

Below, we have a look at the new titles for the month, look at the comparison between the sales of ZP2K9 and its positions each week, and then finish it off with a bit of armchair analysis and hard opinion.

Let's start out with the top 10 rankings, as revealed by Major Nelson, for the month on XBLCG, followed by more detailed analysis:


Standout Titles

The list has not changed a lot from month to month. For the most part, new titles such as Fading Memories, NextWar, Tank V.S or ZenHak have appeared for a single week and then dropped off quickly.

The 3 standout new titles for the month were ZP2K9, Solar and Little Racers, all which got past a week of being in the Top 10. While ZP2K9 was released at the very end of February, it has stayed in the Top 10 for the whole month of March. Solar has kept itself in 2nd place for two weeks running, and Little Racers has continued to stay in the lower parts of the countdown for two weeks now. Considering its price of 400MSP, that's not too bad.

Speaking of price, there are few games in the list that are above the 200MSP price point, which is not surprising. Besides Little Racers, the only other titles are Supercow, ZenHak and the return of Colosseum after a price cut at the end of the month. As all these games are twice as expensive, they would have made twice as much money, so being 400MSP or above and not being on the list doesn't mean they're doing badly, relatively speaking.

ZP2K9 Sales And Position

A few weeks ago we delved into the sales of ZP2K9, and going by those statistics, we can see how other games are doing, based on its position in the Top 10.

On the week of March 2nd ZP2K9 sold 769 units and got 6th place. On the week of the 9th it sold 1,177 units and reached 4th place, and on the week of the 16th it sold 1,130 units and fell to 8th place. So it's not doing so bad at all, and the stats mean that those games above it are doing more units than that per week.

RC Air-Sim, for example, has as of today been on the top of the list for 10 of the last 11 weeks, so going by that it has done better than any other XBLCG title. We'd speculate that it could have done at least 20,000 units, and Aquarium HD has been sitting quite high as well for 6 weeks, and should have hit at least 5,000+ units as well just during that time.

So it's perhaps not too bad for some developers, but it still looks like a lot of developers looking to create more "core" games -- rather than cheaper software toys -- might have some work ahead of them if they wish to make a good amount of money off of their title.

[We thank Major Nelson for releasing these statistics, as well as James Silva for releasing his statistics for ZP2K9 to us. We also thank our colleagues at Gamasutra and on NeoGAF for spurring discussion and bringing more analysis to the table.]

GameSpite Going To Print

Along with a team of writers, 1UP's Jeremy Parish has published GameSpite, an online magazine featuring long-form articles devoted to gaming, since November 2007. He recently put out GameSpite Year One, Vol. 1 (pictured), a 352-page book collecting articles from the periodical's first year running.

Parish announced that instead of releasing GameSpite's 14th issue online as usual, he's transforming the magazine into GameSpite Quarterly, now publishing articles in a print format first before posting them on his site, instead of the other way around.

"I already make a living doing online game writing for a company that has no interest in taking us into print, and this site already has lots of great content that will eventually be bundled into collected print volumes," he reasons. "So we've decided to reverse the process a little and do print first: thus, GameSpite Quarterly, Issue 1."

This change was likely influenced by January's shuttering of Electronic Gaming Monthly, as well as by the previous closings of Ziff Davis' other gaming magazines, which the 1UP editor previously wrote for.

"I really miss print," he admits. "I miss the substance of physical media, and I miss single looming deadlines, and I miss pages of content without animated roadblock-style Flash ads bordering them. No one's going to make a profit publishing a game magazine, but I realized we can do it here without a loss, and that's good enough."

GameSpite Quarterly will be modeled after Japan's niche magazine Continue, and will be purchasable through DIY-publishing site Blurb. The first issue will cover the Game Boy's 20th birthday, and will be available "by the time E3 rolls around."

You can GameSpite Quarterly's first issue cover below:

Best of FingerGaming: From MLB World Series to Oceanic

[Every week, we sum up sister iPhone site FingerGaming's top news and reviews for Apple's nascent -- and increasingly exciting -- portable games platform, as written by editor in chief Danny Cowan and reviewers Tim Lockridge and Louise Yang.]

This week, FingerGaming details the premiere of the iPhone's first MLB-licensed baseball title and the release of an upgraded version of Through the Looking Glass. Featured reviews for this week cover Hysteria Project and Oceanic.

- Review: Hysteria Project
"For Hysteria Project to fully realize its potential, Bulkypix will have to re-envision narrative gameplay with the same sort of progressive thought that they’ve brought to cinematics and visuals."

- Top Free Game App Downloads for the Week
"WordSearch Unlimited Lite swipes the top spot from last week's chart leader iFighter, which falls to third place in today's rankings. Namco's Galaga Remix Lite lands at second place this week, as the recently released Mafia clone Ninjas takes fourth."

- Free App Roundup, April 11th - 17th Edition
"This week’s free releases include demo editions of Freeballin’ and Balloon Headed Boy, along with free full versions of Find Junk and Spirit Board."

- Officially Licensed MLB World Series 2009 Debuts in App Store
"MLB World Series 2009 features 30 official MLB teams (but no player names, strangely) and four different stadiums. Multiple career modes are included -- players can either play through a full season or skip straight to the postseason leading up to the World Series."

- Review: Oceanic
"I really wanted to like this game. The visuals are bright and colorful, and the characters are whimsical. The screenshots just remind me of Saturday morning cartoons, when they were good."

- Apple Reveals All-Time Top Paid App Sellers
"Topping the chart is Vivendi's Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D, an early App Store release that won a sizable share of the iPhone's audience with simple gameplay, impressive graphics, and effective use of the device's accelerometer functions."

- Steve Capps Rebuilds Macintosh Classic Through the Looking Glass for iPhone
"AliceX's presence on the iPhone is significant, as many consider the original version to be 'the Macintosh's first great game.' It was also the only first-party title Apple ever released for the platform."

- Top-Selling Paid Game Apps for the Week
"Firemint's air traffic control sim Flight Control finishes at the top of the charts for the third week running. The recently released Scorched Earth clone Bowman arrives at second place this week, pushing the tile puzzler ParkingLot down to third."

Golfland Revealed as Heavy Proposition 8 Supporter

Long celebrated for their arcades and minigolf courses, Golfland Entertainment's "family fun centers" are familiar stops for many gamers in California, many of whom are likely unaware that the chain donated over $35,000+ to support California Proposition 8. The campaign for the proposition, which raised $39.9 million last year, helped changed the state Constitution to limit marriage's definition to opposite-sex couples, preventing same-sex couples from marrying.

Personal blog Guy Dads uncovered that the family-owned business's vice president, managers, and others chipped in a total of $10,459 to the ballot proposition, while president and chief executive Fred Kenney's wife, Cynthia Kenney, contributed $25,100 to the cause.

In an impassioned post at niche gaming site Insert Credit, which brought Golfland's donations to my attention, writer Joel admonished other gaming sites for not covering this controversy: "I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn this, but I am surprised it was only reported on activist blogs and not on any videogame related ones. There is a website called gaygamer.net. They run banner ads for gourmet food and Subaru cars (literally, this is not a generalization), but they didn’t report this. I guess I don’t understand the purpose of a gay videogame site then."

Interview: Suda51 Talks Pushing Style, Pursuing Freshness

[Malheureusement, Game Developer magazine's production editor Jeff Fleming is a little 'fifth Beatle'-ish - he does awesome work, but it sometimes gets lost under the carpet. Not so with this fine Suda51 interview he did at GDC this year - bravo, Sir.]

As the director of Grasshopper Manufacture, Goichi Suda - aka Suda51 - has overseen the creation of games that are unique in their subversive wit and style.

Suda recently talked to us about how his experience previous to Grasshopper informed the studio's strategy of balancing aggressively original projects like Killer7 and No More Heroes with more publisher-driven commercial work like Fatal Frame IV and Samurai Champloo.

We also discussed the distinctive Grasshopper style, the Unreal Engine, and matters of art, horror and... therapeutic chair-smashing?

Do you have a special affection for the horror genre? A lot of Grasshopper's games have a sinister quality to them.

Goichi Suda: It's not that I consciously think about horror during the creation process. When you're making a horror game, of course, that's a different story. I can't deny that I like a lot of movies in that genre, though, so from that standpoint, you could say that. Horror is one of the easiest story genres to express within a video game, but it's also one of the most difficult emotions to invoke within the player.

It's undoubtedly an interesting and vital storytelling tool in games, so from that aspect, I do have something of an affection for it.

Grasshopper has a very distinctive style that is easy to spot -— the way that it looks and sounds. But many studios are not as successful at developing a recognizable style. What do you do to ensure the Grasshopper look and feel?

To be honest, I didn't realize that the style was so distinctive until I began hearing it from other people worldwide. That's when I first became cognizant of it, and certainly I realize it today. It's not something that we deliberately set out to realize with each new project, although there's naturally going to be a lot of the development staff's own minds in any final product.

If you asked me what I consider to be Grasshopper's most unique trait, it's that we create games not by crafting individual parts and building them up like blocks, but by first considering what sort of emotional response we want to get from the player. That's a big part of what makes a game Grasshopper-like, the message we try to send.

Did you have a chance to look at any of the games in the Independent Games Festival? They have a very strong visual style. Very small teams make the games and they're generally not making much money at them, but they're very challenging works. I'm wondering what Grasshopper does to be commercially successful while retaining a somewhat confrontational spirit.

Well, I didn't get my career start in video games until I joined a publisher called Human when I was 24 years old. I left school at the age of 18 -— actually, I was in school for one more year after that, so it was 19 -— and in the five years between, I did all sorts of jobs, none of which had anything to do with games. Through that, I think I got a very personal insight into the ways of the world, and how our society is built.

I had that experience before joining the game industry, and in the beginning I was working on previously established games and series -- first a pro wrestling game, then I joined midway on another development team's project.

I was a designer, but I also had a team to direct, dealing with the dev team on one end and the main brass of the company on the other. There was a balance that had to be struck in order to keep every side happy with each other.

So with all that previous experience, I think we at Grasshopper have become adept at not only pushing our own style, but being able to work alongside partners, producers and publishers on an equal basis, being able to listen to their opinions and work alongside them. There are games like Killer7, of course, but there are other games we've worked on that were a great deal more publisher-driven.

I think that production style is something we've been able to preserve throughout our history; keeping up that sort of relationship is one important part of that.

With these other projects that you take on, like Fatal Frame 4 or Samurai Champloo -- how much time do they take away from productions like No More Heroes or Killer7? Is it a matter of setting aside time from your personal projects for these more commercial ones?

The original titles definitely take more time. When you're working with IP that previously exists, then your top priority is to make fans of that IP happy. It's the same story in the anime business, and naturally when you make a game based off anime, job one is to attract the fans of the original property.

In a way, a lot of your job in a non-original-IP project is done for you in advance. In the case of Fatal Frame, there are naturally a great number of wonderful games in that series already, so it's our job to create the game that series fans are hoping for, not necessarily to inject every creative idea we come up with into the project. That's the reason projects like that take less time -- it's a more compact and pointed development process.

Are you able to talk about your work with the Unreal Engine? I saw the session that Square Enix had at GDC where they discussed using Unreal for Last Remnant, and the results seemed mixed. They were saying that it excelled in some ways, but in others it didn't meet their expectations.

I actually attended the session too, and certainly I've heard a lot of the issues in that session brought up by other people in the industry I've talked with. In my experience, I think ourselves and the companies we work with both know how to use Unreal and what we expect to get out of it.

We knew what to pay close attention to during our own preparation, and now we've got the pipeline down for the creative process. The decision to use Unreal was made at the start, and it's been a smooth process.

Certainly, mastering the system has taken time and it took some experienced people to help, but since we prepared ourselves for the worst case that we've heard of, it hasn't been a problem.

Grasshopper games always have such outstanding music, and I'm wondering what influences you when you're deciding on how a title should sound.

I want to make sure I don't give people the same impression all the time. We want to avoid, for example, having a Killer7-like song play in the middle of No More Heroes, because that'll wind up making players remember Killer7 instead of the game we want them to pay attention to. Since it's a new game, we want it to be a new experience for the players, and that's something we consciously think of for any soundtrack.

We don't want to repeat what we've already done in the past; instead, we want to give something new and interesting to the players. That's something that applies for the whole design process, of course. We always want to do something fresh.

Do you follow American wrestling?

I have to admit, I probably don't know much about more recent WWE stuff. The last guy I really followed was John Cena.

Do Japanese wrestlers have face and heel personas?

It's a pretty different story in Japan. There are promotions that work in a similar way, but in Japan it's more of a pure contest to see who's the strongest or the most popular.

Certainly, after a long workweek, it can be relaxing to come home and watch someone get hit with a chair.

(laughs) Definitely. The game business keeps all of us really busy, after all. While I'm here in the US, I took the opportunity to buy THQ's latest WrestleMania game, and that helps too, certainly.

[Special thanks to Kevin Gifford for interview translation help.]

8 Bit Weapon Releases Chiptune Loop Library, Floppy Disk Album

Chiptune group 8 Bit Weapon, who you might have heard on Nokia's Reset Generation Soundtrack or seen on Attack of the Show, just put out a new sample and loop library with sounds recorded from "the most venerated micro-computers and game consoles of the '70s and '80s," including the Apple II, Commodore 64, NES, Gameboy, and the Atari 2600.

Titled 8 Bit Weapon: A Chiptune Odyssey and released by Sony Creative Software, the collection can be imported into ACID, Ableton Live, Cubase, Garage Band, Logic, and other applications. Each system library features royalty-free samples for drums, bass, synth, special effects, and more.

The library is available as a packaged product or as a downloadable, with the latter version including a full MP3 release of the band's new Electric High EP album and a bonus track. 8 Bit Weapon also made the six-song album available as a limited edition physical release that comes in a real 5.25" floppy disk and sleeve. Only 500 copies have been produced, and each copy is hand-numbered.

GameSetLinks: Keeping The Dungeon Octomom-my

[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.]

We're going to be stepping up the GameSetLinks going up to the weekend, since we seem to have acquired a bit of a link backlog, woops - and this set of eight or so is headed out by a good discussion of tools for beginning game developers to make neat games.

Also in here - a neat behind the scenes on Dungeon Keeper, a fun discussion of Bit.Trip Beat, an Octomom game, and a Ghostbusters retrospective, and more.

Oh dear oh dear:

God at play - spiritual games» Suggested Tools for Game Designers
'This article is targeted to... designers interested in creating computer-based games, have a little programming experience, and have some familiarity with common development tools, like Torque or Game Maker.' V.neat - hoping there's going to be something else to add to this soon.

The Ludologist » Blog Archive » On the Game Studies Download 4.0 at GDC
The full listing of the top papers, which I don't remember seeing online before.

The Making of Dungeon Keeper | NowGamer
'In Dungeon Keeper, the game born of Molyneux’s aforementioned grievances, you were the dungeon master as envisioned by Gygax – the all-powerful, world-sculpting mastermind whose plots are only ever undermined by the incompetence of his minions, who always fail to see the big picture.'

Bit Tripping And The Art Of SD Card Maintenance » Murderblog 3D
'If I were to rank my favorite gaming moments, my first time entering the nether in bit.trip Beat would easily be number one.'

The Milk Machine - News Games: Georgia Tech Journalism & Games Project
'Editorial games show up in the strangest places. Take The Octuplet's Game, an editorial send-up up of the duties of the now-infamous "octuplet's mom," Nadya Suleman.'

Podfeed: 'GDC 09: To Catch an Editor Video Podcast, Episode 36 from the IGN Games Podcast'
Just found this audio discussion, and well worth linking: 'Kick off GDC with the Holy Trinity of art games: Jonathan Blow, Rod Humble, and Jason Rohrer.' Thanks Malvasia Bianca!

Press The Buttons: Nearly Every Ghostbusters Game In Seven Easy Bites
'I give you your tour guide on this magical history tour, 1UP's Bob Mackey, and his seven-part series of Retro Revival Retrospective articles.'

SLRC - Creative Responses to Videogame Questions: The Raider, The Prince and The Assassin
An interesting discussion on pacing in games.

April 21, 2009

Phosphor Dot Levels Advances to Level 2

Released in May last year, the original Phosphor Dot Levels DVD (Level 1) took viewers through the evolution of video games -- covering games for arcades, home consoles, and computers -- "from 1971’s 'Computer Space' through the dawn of the NES era." The product includes game-by-game profiles with footage and history/trivia, as well as a menu system for searching year-by-year to find particular games.

The PDF team has followed up on its first release with Level 2, a new three hour-long DVD with all new material and improved picture and sound quality. This sequel follows the industry from 1972 through 1987, reaching further into the NES era to show off "some of the most influential games (and a few dark horse contenders) of 1987."

Like the original DVD, Level 2, will have a collection of vintage commercials with restored sound and video quality, many of which PDF claims haven't been seen in over 25 years. It will again feature game clips, notes, and trivia, but will also cover "non-A-list classic consoles and computers" like the Fairchild Channel F and the Emerson Arcadia 2001.

The region-free NTSC discs will come with new features, too, like Retro Makeovers, side-by-side comparisons of classic titles with their modern-day reinventions. And Truth In Advertising Moments will compare released games with their pre-release publicity artwork to see if there's any resemblance between the shipped product's graphics and arists' promotional renditions.

Here are several shots from Phosphor Dot Fossils Level 2, which have their text and certain portions blurred out for some reason:

With Level 2's release, the PDF group also put together the Brown Box Collection, a two-disc set with both the original Phosphor Dot Levels DVD and its follow-up. The bundle comes packaged in a case with special woodgrain artwork inspired by the original Magnavox Odyssey's Brown Box prototype. PDF, PDF Level 2, and the Brown Box Collection are all available for purchase online through TheLogBook.com Media.

Eurocom's Baldwin Dissects His NES Soundtracks

Eurocom founder and director Neil Baldwin is offering a rare look at the history and process behind his soundtracks for the British studio's NES games. Along with sharing streaming and downloadable versions of his NES music, Baldwin has been posting track by track analyses with technical details, as well as overviews of his inspirations and ambitions for each particular game.

So far, he has posted breakdowns for Magician, James Bond Jr., and Lethal Weapon 3, the last of which he admits was a lackluster release in this honest paragraph:

"Sometime around 1992, Eurocom was in trouble. We had no money (actually, make that negative money) and the relationship with the publisher of what would've been our third proper NES title deteriorated to the point that the game was never released (more on this in future updates). We couldn't afford to really pay ourselves and Lethal Weapon 3 was one of those projects that came along that we had to do just to pay the bills. This didn't go unnoticed."

Baldwin intends to add more examinations of his game soundtracks, documenting his work and experiences in roughly chronological order.

Column: @Play: 2009 7DRL Winners, Part Two

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

Pixel Journeys is taking a break this month while I continue my reviews of all 25 of this year's in-challenge 7DRL winners - here's the first part.

I should mention, before we resume, that I was preceded in this by the guys at Cymon's Games. If I had known that they had done this when I started I probably wouldn't have bothered, heh. I agree with most of what they say, and where our opinions differ I at least can see why they differ. Each of my own 7DRL reviews contains a link to the page on their site so you can quickly see their take on the game. And to the folks at Cymon's Games, please allow me just to quickly say: good work.

This column's a week late, so let me waste no further time in getting to the games. This time, we look at Cypress Tree Manor, Domination, Backwards Gravity, The Favored, Persist, TetRLs, Expedition, and SpiritsRL.

10. Cypress Tree Manor
Written by Nils Fagerburg in Python 2.5 with PyGame for Widows and Mac OSX
Homepage: http://fagerburg.com/nils/stuff/games/cypressTreeManor/
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is not real-time, it is presented in simulated ASCII, and it has no experience or inventory system. It is a short game that starts fairly easy and remains so. It is mostly fair.

Description: Zombie survival roguelike after the apocalypse. Get away from the zombies, get into the single-occupancy bunker, and get rid of anyone trying to stop you!

Be warned, it uses the vi keys. You should also check the readme for additional keys. It also warns that a level generator bug means that not all games are winnable.

This is a fairly nice short game. Each level is full of zombies and humans. The zombies only want brains, but all the humans are trying to find the bunker key by any means necessary. There are more zombies (at least on the bottom level), but the human opponents are rather more dangerous.

On the bottom-most level is the bunker, which the player will have to enter then close and lock the door of with the bunker key to win the game. The key is hidden in one of the many furniture items scattered throughout the mansion. There are other keys as well (which tend to be less valuable) and also many weapon, health items and food items. Food can be used to distract zombies to cause them not to fight back while you kill them, health items replenish your appalingly small number of hit points, and weapons are, of course, useful to fight back. All the weapons are melee. The best one appears to be the chainsaw, which is fairly rare but powerful. Whether chainsaws should be horded to preserve them or used the moment they're found... this question I leave to you.

One thing to keep in mind is that you can carry unlimited items; the display on the bottom of the screen is just the first few in inventory. It appears that you have no way to drop things. To use items, press their number. If you have too many items to fit in the eight visible inventory slots, use [ or ] to cycle them until you see the item you're interested in. Although the game uses the Nethack pick-up key (comma), it uses more of context-sensitive system for other things. Pressing space both searches objects and takes stairs.

Weapons are of varying attack strength and durability. All weapons eventually fall apart when used enough, and it seems that other humans using them also depletes their uses. This brings in some fairly interesting resource management, since without a weapon you're fairly weak. All this combines to make loot scavanging the highest priority: having more weapons means you can do more damage, and longer.

You also will have more health items. You start at maximum health, five "hearts." You don't heal naturally over time it seems, but using medical items (health packs or boxes of pills) restores one heart.

The best strategy seems to be to scan each level as much as possible for items. At first you have nothing, which is when you're at your most vulnerable. After you find an axe or chainsaw you are more than capable of surviving on your own, but you must always be careful of your weapon. It's easy to miss a break message and inadvertently pound away with just your fists for a while.

By the way, the game is written in Python 2.5, which is not the most recent version. Python recently had a big version update that broke backwards compatibility, so versions 2.6 and 3.0 probably will not run the game acceptably. 2.5 is probably the fastest and most stable version at the moment. To run it, make sure the Python 2.5 directory is in your path, start a command prompt and cd to the game's directory, then enter "python.exe run.py" (without quotes, of couse).

Verdict: Surprisingly playable and challenging! A keeper.

7drl-domination.png11. Domination
Written by Numeron in Java
Homepage: http://www.users.on.net/~rossn/
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is not real-time, it is presented using tile-based graphics. It has no experience system, but does have a very limited form of inventory. It is a short game that starts fairly easy and gets a little harder. It is fair.

Description: It's single-player, turn-based, team-oriented, roguelike capture-the-flag, complete with line-of-sight and weapons (in the form of spells).

The player, joined by four AI-controlled teammates, are on the green team on the left-hand side of a five screen battlefield. The player only controls his one character, who has an oval head; the others on his team are autonomous. On the right-hand side of the playfield are five blue players, the opposing team. Every screen is color-coded by the side which controls it, or is gray if neutral. This doesn't seem to matter for anything except progress towards winning and ensuring the teams capture bases in order.

In the center of each screen is a base square. By spending ten turns on a base, the player and his teammates can move it one "state" closer to their side's control: if it's blue it will turn gray, and if gray it'll go green. However, a base's state can only be changed if the base one screen left belongs to that side's team. That is to say, the player's team must capture bases in order from left-to-right. The opposing team is under similar constraints in capturing bases from the other end of the battlefield.

At the corners of each screen are magic spells that can be picked up by characters from either team. A given character can carry two of these. When collected the actual spell bestowed is chosen randomly from a set. There are healing spells that replenish a character's health bar (shown over all characters in sight), haste spells that double movement and combat speed, and shields that ward against damage for a short while. Fireball is a moderately-powerful ranged attack spell, and web spells freeze nearly characters (friend and enemy) in place. There are interesting tactical nuances to the spells: invulnerability makes capturing a base a snap, but it doesn't protects against webs and haste spells don't speed base capture.

Combat is done in the traditional bump-into-enemies way. When a character, including the player, runs out of health he's out of the action for a few turns then reappears at his side's base. This means defeated characters have less distance to travel to get back to the contested screen when they're losing, a subtle but effective difficulty adjustment. There are no items other than the spells, but that works well for this game, keeping the focus on the tactics. All carried spells are lost when a character dies.

The game is not too hard really and can be easily defeated with practice, but it's not a pushover either, and bases at the Line of Scrimmage tend to change sides back and forth a couple of times before the focus of the battle moves down the field.

Verdict: A surprisingly engaging game. Multiplayer could actually work out very well for this, as could higher difficulty settings, more spells, additional battlefields, multiple character classes... er, not to try to turn this into Roguelike Team Fortress. Heh.

7drl-bg.png12. Backwards Gravity
Written by Elig in C++ for Windows, using the curses console library
Homepage: http://backwardsgravity.blogspot.com/
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: Dreamhack Devblog

This game is not real-time, it is presented using console ASCII graphics, and it has no experience or inventory system. It is a quick game that starts very easy and remains so. It is fair.

Description: A experimental side-view, platformer roguelike. With variable, Mario Galaxy-like gravity to boot.

Some slack, of course, should be extended to 7DRL games for the severely-limited time frame of the challenge. Just because some of the games turn out to be amazing, it doesn't mean that this is guarenteed to happen, or even that it is entirely the fault of the developer whether it goes one way or the other. Some of the people who participate are not experienced programmers, either.

It is difficult to recomment Backwards Gravity as a general game, that anyone might want to play. It shows some nice ideas, but it's just too incomplete and lacking in play value. Elig didn't even offer a binary download for play; the version linked to above, and the one I tested, is a version compiled by Cymon's Games. (I tried compiling it myself, but failed to get it to emit a binary.)

There is a hint here, however, of something nice. The player is the @ sign in what first looks like an overhead-view world, but is in fact viewed from the side. Mostly, the player can move left or right, but he can also go up and down anywhere there's a period, which represents walkable spaces. Think of them as ladders the player can grab onto. The player cannot move diagonally with just keys, but if he's jumping or falling he can move left and right in the air, which is effectively diagonal movement.

In addition to movement keys, there is a jump button (helpfully reminded by the game when jumping is available). This causes the player to jump "away" from the ground below or above it. When the player reaches the top of a jump, however, gravity reverts to down.

Verdict: A creditable effort, but really too buggy for play. It's an awesome idea however. With some more work this could be ready for play. Until then, it's probably best to stay away.

7drl-favored.png13. The Favored
Written by Joe Larson (of Cymon's Games) for Windows
Homepage: http://retroremakes.com/forum/index.php/topic,392.0.html
Other opinions: Cymon's Games (guest reviewer), IndieGames
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is not real-time, it is presented using console ASCII graphics. It has no experience system, and only the barest form of inventory. It is a quick game that starts at moderate diffi ulty and gets harder. It is completely unfair, but on purpose.

Description: Progress upwards through four levels. Progress if you DARE! Kill helpless rabbits and climbed their piled corpses to reach the next floor. It would be easy, except....

There exists a game, a kind of quasi-roguelike, called robotfindskitten. Actually it's not so much a game as a kind of joke-delivery medium. The original developer (it's been widely ported) calls it a "zen simulation." The game consists of a single screen filled with letters. Among them is the player, the Robot. One of the letters is a Kitten. The idea of the game is to bump into things, which reveals what kind of thing they are in a status line on-screen. When the thing that is Kitten is bumped, the game ends in victory. There is no combat, and no way to lose. The entire point is to see and laugh at all the "things that are not kitten," of which there are hundreds. Many of them are quite funny.

The Favored is a game only slightly more than Robot Finds Kitten is a game. Each of the levels contains a large number of rabbits. Rabbits move around diagonally and have no attacks. When one is killed, its corpse appears in ASCII-art at the top of the screen; the player can only carry up to four of these, and more being lost. Running into the up-stairs when carrying a dead rabbit piles it there. Six dead rabbits means the player can go to the next level.

There is a catch, however. One of the rabbits on the level is special, a bunny favored by the gods. If this rabbit is harmed, the player is treated to a short ASCII animation of his character being killed by a lightning bolt and the game ends. The player, to win, must avoid touching this perilous hare. It would be simple, for none of the rabbits does a single thing to attack or avoid the player, if it weren't for the fact that there is no indication, in the game, of just which is the deadly bunny.

Later levels have fewer harmless rabbits, thus increasing the chance that the kill switch is thrown. There is a tiny amount of strategy in that extra dead rabbits can be carried over from level to level, but it is fairly simple. The real reason to play this game is all the funny, random death messages with which the game rewards players for killing rabbits.

And that's it. It is completely possible to win, but it's entirely a matter of luck as to if that will happen.

Verdict: More of a joke than a game... but it is a funny joke, nonethless.

7drl-persist.png14. Persist
Written by jab for Windows and Linux, probably in C++
Homepage: http://code.google.com/p/persistrl/downloads/list/
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is not real-time, and it is presented in console ASCII. It has no experience system, but it does have an inventory (without item scrambling). It is a short game that starts hard and get a bit easier. It is probably fair. (But even so, I made little progress in it.)

A survival game, in a strict sense. No monsters, no mazes, no treasure. Just a large forest, some incredibly deadly rivers, and you struggling to figure out how to live.

I think I see the point of the game: to utilize the various resources at hand to make yourself sustenance and keep yourself hydrated, and live as long as possible. Sadly, other than "picking up" some grass to munch on and (somehow) water to drink, I didn't get very far into this. I did notice, though, that other than a little freestanding liquid here and there, water is incredibly deadly in this game. Also, gathering up a lot of grass enables the player to combine them into various pieces of clothing. Unfortunately, the game liked to crash whenever I picked up too many items, so I wasn't able to get much further than this.

I went over to Cymon's Games to see if he had any insight into it, and it seems he was almost as stymied as I was.

Verdict: Hard to get into and harder to make sense of. I was unable to determine if there is any more to this game than just wandering around making survival tools. The idea of a roguelike take on Lost In Blue is intreguing, though. Hopefully the next version will be a little more discoverable.

7drl-tetrls.png15. TetRLs, formerly TetrisRL
Written by Sir_Lewk for Windows, probably in C++
Homepage: http://www.cs.drexel.edu/~jlg95/tetrisrl/
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is not real-time, it is presented in console ASCII, and it has no experience or inventory system. It is a very short game that starts easy and gets a little harder. It is fair.

Description: A Russian scientist who seems to have learned English from Yakov Smirnov forces the player to shove oddly-shaped crates around a bin-like warehouse. While doing this, the player is pestered by rats.

This game's name recognition has gotten it a bit of play in the blogosphere, and the character of the Russian scientist is humorous, but I really wasn't too overwhelmed by this one.

The main play is more like Sokoban than Rogue. Blocks are generated one at a time at the top of the screen. Instead of falling, the player must get behind them and push them across the floor until it gets to the spot he wishes it to stay, at which time he can lock it into play with 'D' (the capital letter) and get another one. Blocks need not be anywhere near the bin before being "dropped," and making solid horizontal lines doesn't remove anything, which only serves to further the simularities to Sokoban. The player can "rotate" pieces with shift-R, but it will be returned to its start location if he does this. This can be abused to get pieces out of stuck corners.

A certain number of blocks must be dropped to proceed to the next level. While he's doing this, rats are randomly generated in the area, who walk up to and try to bite the player. So long as he focuses on killing them when they appear they're not too much of a problem, but they do provide a reason to place pieces efficiently; placing each piece heals the player for a small amount of health. Also, if they're not packed in solidly there won't be room for an additional block, making it impossible to proceed.

The player gets rewarded in a minor way for completing lines, but they don't disappear or anything. It doesn't even look like they're recorded for score. Progress is entirely measured in pieces dropped.

I wish there were more to say about the game than this. While competently implemented and polished, the game is really too simplistic. It's fun to place once for the joke but it's not hard to win. After you're done, you're done.

Verdict: It's cool... once or twice. The secret super-power of roguelike games is replayability, but this game doesn't seem to have a lot of that. Definitely worth going through once, however, to experience the entertaining Russian Scientist character. Further development might be interesting to see, but I'm not sure where Sir Lewk can go from here. I know I really shouldn't complain about this; I've been spoiled by the large number of surprisingly polished games I reviewed last time.

7drl-expedition.png16. Expedition
Written by Slash in Java
Homepage: http://slashie.net/page.php?27
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is not real-time, and it is presented in simulated ASCII. It has no experience system, but it does have multiple types of inventories. It is a long game that starts moderately hard but seems to get easier. It is mostly fair.

The version reviewed, 1.6, is a later version from the one that won 7DRL.

Description: Our intrepid @ sign has explored countless dungeons, fantasy realms, castles, vaults, and even spaceships. Now he faces his greatest challenge yet: the New World.

Developer Slash is one of the most prolific 7DRL participants, a multiple-winner responsible for such strange productions as CastlevaniaRL, MetroidRL, ZeldaRL, and MegamanRL, an ASCII-art platformer, which deserves some kind of prize for misguided fidelity to the concept.

Converting popular console games into a roguelike format is not an idea that really impresses me, but Expedition, a rather nifty Christopher Columbus simulator, is quite a game. The player begins in Spain where he buys supplies and equipment and hires men. After stocking up it's time to set sail. (Hint: you'll want at least 180 days of food just to survive a round trip to the Americas, and some more to live on once there.) The process of crossing the Atlantic amounts to leaning on the left-arrow key for a minute or so. Once there and landed, the player transfers supplies to his land expedition to keep them alive on their way. Natives are everywhere, who the player, in the traditional roguelike fashion, sets about slaughtering and taking their stuff, which tends to be easier if you bought good weapons and hired strong fighters back in Spain. (This is honestly a little disconcerting; the game provides no means of peaceful interaction.)

Some of their stuff takes the form of valuables like gold bracelets and pottery, and some in the form of additional food. After looting the land for as much as you can carry, it's time to load everything onto the ship and sail back to Spain (by leaning on the right-arrow key). Provided the player can find Spain again (it helps to remember that your home port is at 38 degrees latitude), you automatically sell your look upon entering port and can begin the process all over again with more men and equipment.

The sense of wonder in the game is, admittedly, a bit lacking. I haven't found any hidden cities, ancient temples or cultural artifacts other than the simple trinkets that get sold upon entering port. This doesn't necessarily mean they're not in there, but I've yet to see them. The game's primary concern is keeping your men from starving; if you don't prepare well with excess food upon leaving Spain/your ship, it's easy to lose most of your men to hunger before you can make it back to port/your supplies. Provided that you err on the side of caution both when deciding on how much food to take with you and in picking fights with the indigenous peoples, it shouldn't be too hard to get a good toehold established in the Americas.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the game is that it is poorly documented; some important controls are not mentioned in the Readme, and one that's mentioned in help, 'r' for ranged attacks, has another function besides that, and doesn't seem to do any attacking either. Fortunately there aren't that many keypresses to learn, and a little experimentation makes it easy to figure them out for yourself. (One that I remember is 'i' for inventory.)

Verdict: Holy smokes, it's roguelike Seven Cities of Gold! Well okay, it doesn't seem to be quite that deep. It skews a little too heavily towards building efficent wealth-harvesting routes and away from wonder and awesomeness, but the infrastructure is here for a truly incredible game. The ghostly Hand of Bunten can be seen at work here.

7drl-spiritsrl.png17. SpiritsRL
Written by Xecutor for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, mostly likely in C++
Homepage: http://max.eyeline.mobi/skv/spiritsrl.html
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

The version reviewed is 0.4.21. The version resulting from the 7DRL Challenge was 0.2.11.

This game is not real-time, and it is presented in simulated ASCII. It has something of an experience system, but it doesn't have a real inventory system. It is a fairly long game that starts out challenging and gets harder. It seems to be fair.

You got your roguelike in my Shining Force! You got your Shining Force in my roguelike! Two great things that go great together.

What if if you took a roguelike but made it so you could directly control multiple characters instead of just one? And, so that it didn't get annoying to have to switch contexts so much, it bunched each character's moves together? And to make it more convienent, it let you decide what order to move your guys in? And so your uncontrolled guys didn't get swarmed by monsters, it bunched their moves together as well, allowing you to get your guys in formation to prepare for their attacks? Of course, so you can't take advantage of your maneuverability, each character can only attack once per turn.

But wait, you object, that sounds an awful like a turn-based tactical game? Indeed it does, and that's really what SpiritsRL is: a game that takes advantage of the simularities between rougelike games and grid-based tactics wargames to blur the line between them. It's actually probably more wargame than roguelike, but it's got ASCII characters and was made for 7DRL, so I'll let it slide.

It's not a bad game either.

Setting aside the premise (which I frankly couldn't make much sense of), the player starts off by selecting from a number of fairly generic choices. He picks from two sets of moves to take with him (which are named after Greek letters), and also chooses two "guardian spirits" from a list of numbered selections. Then he begins the game, which is a series of set level layouts. Levels are generally composed of walls, monsters, doors and switches; the switches, when stood upon, and be flipped, which can open or close doors elsewhere on the level. These can often be used to control the flow of opponents, helping to stop the player's party from being overwhelmed.

The player has a cursor overlaid upon the game screen, controlled with the arrow keys. With this, he selects his characters, moves them around, and gives other orders. The game, it should be noted, is a bit slow; one of the big advantages to using console graphics is that it's fast. If you're going to use ASCII characters for everything in your game, does it really matter if they smoothly slide around the board?

The player can move use any or all of a character's movement allowance at any time in his turn, and also use its attack at any point. A legal move can consist of moving two spaces up to a monster, attack it, then three spaces in retreat and flip a switch, and still finish out the remainder of its move. Characters can even mix their actions together. This kind of flexibility in movement is rare in computer tactical wargamming, in which generally the player attacks at the end of a move but not before.

Characters have shield strength, health and power scores. Power can be replenished by absorbing it from downed opponents, and killed guardian spirits can be revived. Enemies are largely generic, and vary in power by their representing letter (with later latters of the alphabet being stronger, and capital letters much stronger). Guardian spirits don't have shield, but can replenish their health by absorbing those defeated enemies. After a map characters have the opportunity to raise their various useable skills and stats.

I'd like to say more about the game, but really, roguelike tactical strategy is nearly a perfect description. The game is fairly complete now relative to the length of its development. All I can suggest at this point is go; go forth and play.

Verdict: As the inestimable Cymon notes, this is closer to being a tactical wargame, ala Fire Emblem or Shining Force than a roguelike. This is hardly a point against it, but it should be noted that the game is not really a dungeon crawl.

In around a week's time we'll finish up the last eight games, or as many of them as I can get to running. Say this because I've had trouble getting one or two of them to run. If I can't get some to work, I might substitute some of the out-of-challenge 7DRLs to fill out the list....

GDC: The Mega64 Chronicles - Pt.3, Shadow of the LOLossus

[Previously, we featured the Metal Gear Solid 4 skit and the two IGF-themed videos done by the San Diego-based Mega64 japesters for Game Developers Conference 2009, huzzah - here's the third post in that series.]

The fourth Mega64 skit debuted at the 2009 Game Developer Choice Awards, this video brings Team Ico's Shadow of the Colossus to life. Of course, this was weeks before Sony Pictures revealed that it's working on its own, presumably much longer film for the PlayStation 2 game, written by the same talent behind Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.

Mega64's budget for the clip doesn't quite match Sony's, so the comedy group needed to scale its colossus down to human-size, which makes it more difficult to convey Wander's progress as he climbs the walking, ancient structure. The scenes are also more populated than I remember in the original game...

The team's latest podcast has additional insight on the skit's filming, including how it relates to an old Awesometown bit from The Lonely Island.

Analysis: PlayStation Network - March 2009's Hits, Misses

[Following up on his XBLA analysis, sister console download site GamerBytes' [RSS here!] editor Ryan Langley looks at how PSN's March debuts fared, from Red Baron through Burn Zombie Burn and beyond - interesting to see how PS3's downloadable service is going.]

With the March NPD U.S. game sales numbers just out, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the last month of sales for downloadable spaces as best as we can with the available data.

For the PlayStation Network, we delve into the Top 10 PSN games of the month, brought to us courtesy of the Pulse video show released online, and through the PlayStation Store -- which releases a new list every month.

We also have a deeper look at Keita Takahashi's quirky Noby Noby Boy and the web stats based on the amount of people reporting to the GIRL in the sky, and then finish it off with a bit of armchair analysis and hard opinion. Here's the full list, followed by in-depth analysis:


In March, the North American PlayStation Store received 7 new titles - Watchmen: The End Is Nigh, Astro Tripper, Buzz Junior: Jungle Party, Red Baron Arcade, Wheel Of Fortune, Worms and Burn Zombie Burn. But as you can see above, only two made it into the month's Top 10. So what happened to the rest of them?

Watching The Watchmen

The first release was Watchmen: The End Is Nigh, the $19.99 title available through the Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and PC. Despite the movie hype, the game on PSN did not chart for the month. The title's lower sales could be due to the higher price and lackluster reviews, but considering the hype around the movie, I would have expected it to at least make the charts.

Like the Xbox Live Arcade version, Watchmen has a second chapter planned -- which will likely not sell as well as the first. Assuming the development was all based on code porting, the PSN version probably didn't cost a whole lot of manpower to create, and any additional sales would be a bonus - but it's a shame that it appeared to do the worst on PSN. I expect that we might see both chapters appear at retail stores, some time after the second episode has been released.

On Red Barons, Astro Tripper and Buzz Junior

Red Baron Arcade, Astro Tripper and Buzz Junior: Jungle Party all came out during the next week, but only Red Baron was able to chart for the month.

Red Baron Arcade has a strange history, initially set for Xbox Live Arcade, and later announced as an exclusive for the PlayStation Network. With the Sierra fallout following Activision's merger with Vivendi it disappeared, only to suddenly pop up on the 13th of March. It's somewhat surprising to see it chart at all, considering the dismal reviews -- but that might be based more on name recognition, or the interest in a simple and cheap multiplayer title.

Buzz Junior not being on the list is somewhat expected - the buzzer peripherals are required to play, so it's a somewhat limited audience, much like the PSEye camera-utilizing games.

The sore spot here is Astro Tripper, a neat shooter, which has nabbed some great reviews and only costs $4.99, but didn't make it to the list. With the announcement of another title coming to the PSN, we hope PomPom are satisfied with their sales for this release.

Spinning The Wheel And Burning Carcasses

The real mind bender here is Wheel Of Fortune. Poorly reviewed and costing $15, it made it to the second highest selling game for the month.

Considering its sister game Jeopardy cut a third off its price after 3 months of release, I would have expected Wheel Of Fortune to go down the same road, but despite all odds, it's beaten every other new release this month.

While Burn Zombie Burn and Worms are not on the list, neither were expected to chart, as both games were released very late into the month.

Flowers Blooming, Booty Calling Back

February's late release of Zuma, which did not reach the charts last month, again does not make the list. Flower has continued its reign at the top, and NHL 3-On-3 Arcade continues to stay in the Top 10, much like the Xbox Live Arcade version has.

Age Of Booty and Ratchet & Clank: Quest For Booty returned to the Top 10, most likely due to Age Of Booty's Trophy patch and new trial version -- as well as R&C getting a week long 33% price cut.

BOY And GIRL Trying To Reach Mars

Noby Noby Boy, the strange game from the mind of Katamari Damacy's creator Keita Takahashi, has continued to rank in the Top 10 on PlayStation Network. Unlike the other titles, we do have some sales data (or at least, user data we can extrapolate from) thanks to the updated BOY count on o--o.jp.

The web statistics have been collected together by user Alts on the NeoGAF forums, and crafted into an excellent application which grabs the BOY (user) count every night. Using this data, we can see that during March Noby Noby Boy had 19,115 new BOYs reporting data to GIRL.

As this is pretty much the entire purpose of the game, we could say that this is roughly the amount of sales Noby Noby Boy achieved in the month - though it may be marginally inflated due to game sharing and multiple BOY accounts per machine. This would be for all of the world, but the North American segment would be a large fraction of that.

Takahashi was quoted as saying that Noby Noby Boy was not selling as well as he had hoped - and yet despite that, it still beat most other releases. It's a little worrying for all the other titles - if Noby Noby Boy isn't selling, everyone else appears to be doing even worse. Total BOYs logged so far via the stat tracker are around 63,000, but you have to specifically submit your BOY to get on this list, so the actual total for sales is difficult to extrapolate.

On another note, it was recently revealed via GamesIndustry.biz that Sony will match the development cost for PlayStation Network games in the exchange for exclusivity, starting with Burn Zombie Burn. It allows the companies to own the IP and control their product, but the resulting game will only be available for PSN.

If the sales are not nearly as good as some would hope, it will be very beneficial to those developers who want to take full advantage of the PlayStation 3 hardware. PlayStation Network may not be in completely rude health, but as long as it continues to get interesting new titles that expand the audience like Flower, then there shouldn't be any worry for gamers and top developers.

[We thank Sony and the PULSE Program for releasing these statistics, and I'd like to also acknowledge my colleagues at Gamasutra and on NeoGAF for spurring discussion and bringing more analysis to the table.]

Play Sierra's Adventure Games In Your Browser With Pseudo Multiplayer

Sierra On-line fan Martin Kool has launched Sarien.net, a portal for playing the historic label's (now absorbed by Activision) graphic adventure games in your browser. So far, the site's selection of Sierra's 1980s classics include Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter, Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel, and Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, with more forthcoming.

One unique twist to the posted titles is that you can see other players in the games, represented with a character similar to your own. While you can't interact with them, you can talk with them and observe their actions, picking up tips on how you should proceed. I noticed a few glitches when I tried out some of the games, but it's still a really neat concept!

The Community Manager Interviews: Naughty Dog's Arne Meyer

[Originally running over on Gamasutra, this v.neat series of interviews conducted by Chris Remo are going to delve into the state of video game community management -- something that definitely gets underdiscussed right now.]

Over the next two weeks, we will be presenting a series of interviews with community managers from four different companies -- publishers, publisher-owned studios, and independent studios.

As a field that is relatively young and frequently loosely-defined, community has not always gotten the amount of coverage that might be due such an integral part of operating in the modern, interactive world of promotion and communication.

The first interview is with Arne Meyer, self-described "community and PR guy" from Uncharted and Jak & Daxter creator Naughty Dog Studios. A subsidiary of Sony, Naughty Dog retains a strong studio identity and reputation that comes along with the company's track record -- and with that, comes a fan community.

Meyer began working in the games industry at a PR firm working with Microsoft on the launch of the Xbox. After getting involved with community tactics as well as the OurColony alternate-reality game surrounding the launch of Xbox 360, Meyer moved to Seattle to work more closely with Microsoft on community PR.

Following a pre-merger stint at Vivendi, Meyer ended up at Naughty Dog, where he works with Sony on product-facing campaigns and drives the direction of Naughty Dog's community efforts.

In this interview, he speaks on the growing role of community, its broad sphere of influence, and the necessity of facilitating discussion rather than driving a message:

What is a community manager, in your view?

The biggest issue is that it means a lot of things to a lot of people depending on what you do. The commonly-accepted meaning is someone who interacts with the players in public spaces, or within a game if you're an MMO.

I think that's been expanded to involve any sort of direct to consumer PR initiative, like inviting consumers to events or coming up with a broader strategy, as opposed to just the tactical aspect of talking to people. For some people it also means interacting with what PR would call non-top tier online sites, like blogs and fan sites or other media.

How has that expansion affected the role?

In general, the industry is trying to still wrap its head around what bucket community should go under, and whose responsibility it is.

Community is a really catch-all word for a lot of people, and there are a lot of touch points. People are realizing it's not just being on the message boards or being a GM in the game -- it really encompasses every aspect of communication, PR-wise or direct-to-consumer, or even community-specific marketing you could do. Posting any sort of video is a marketing tactic or a PR tactic, but it can involve community and social media as well. Anything that could be more of a direct line to consumer could fall under the community umbrella.

How well-understood is social media? Are companies using it well?

I think the understanding of social media is getting to be very sophisticated. People will see it as the next big thing, but they need to realize it's just one tactic in the overall media strategy. It's still a very important tactic, as that's where a lot of the innovations in communication come from, and it's a very important facet of what you're doing, but you need to take a step back and see that it's just one tool.

You need to keep in mind what you want to achieve, and how you want to interact with your fans -- not just throwing Twitters out there or something like that.

Is there a particular angle to community you've found to be effective?

Answering your question in a very big way, it's really about being part of the conversation, rather than driving the conversation, in an authentic and transparent manner.

Does that ever cause friction with more traditional and entrenched PR and marketing attitudes of controlling the message?

I do think that philosophy runs counter to what's typically considered the PR function, which is controlling the messaging. In the age of social media, everyone in community is starting to learn that you're not really in control of your message. You need to let the consumer run with it. I think that's a little scary for some people, myself included, but that's what it's really about. It's not about controlling the message.

How do you stay effective? Do you try to at least drive the message in some respect?

I don't even think of it in that way, because you really can't control what's being driven, you can just put it out there. I know this sounds really vague, but when you're communicating with the public, as with anything else, you need to be smart, thoughtful, and deliberate. That is the proper way to communicate publicly and be effective.

Are there ways to measure that effectiveness among the community?

There are a lot of ways you can measure what you're doing. The challenge with community, if you take a broader view, is how to measure that effectiveness in terms of what marketers would call conversion or product purchase. That's never a solid line, that's a dotted line. But if we're effective with what we do, there are ways to measure that.

Can you describe any of those?

There are a lot of tools that are available, whether looking at YouTube Insight, or companies and products that measure conversations and buzz on a broad scale and compile that for you. Really, unless you're working with an outside vendor or have an internal analytics team, it's just up to you to compile the data and analyze your results and takeaways. There's no real proprietary way, unless you're a specific metrics firm.

Can you speak on a particularly successful campaign with which you've been involved?

The work we did with Microsoft to build their community for the Xbox was something that has really reaped them benefits in spades. They were a company who was really hungry to take this to the next level -- they built up an internal to work with our external team, and really mapped things out. They basically just had that level of support for everyone internally and externally to do the right thing for community and the products we were representing.

Is your work at Naughty Dog relatively in line with what you've done in the past?

It's been an extension and expansion of my responsibilities from before. I like to feel that in my position, I not only have the ability to think about community, but to make it happen on a budget level, or by acquiring the resources to do so.

Before, I was sort of limited with what was existing within the overall company goals. I like being able to drive what I think will work -- which was really my role at Vivendi also, my stint there was just too short to get it off the ground.

What do you do at Naughty Dog on a day to day basis?

Some of it's fairly boring, but I still interact on the forums using all these social community tactics. I've come up with a community plan and strategy we want to take long term -- in case something bad should ever happen to me, someone else could understand what I was trying to do. I also work with my counterparts at SCEA on the plan for our products, and I focus on what I'm trying to do for the studio itself.

Can it be a challenge to interact with the individual community members themselves? I imagine that could get overwhelming at times.

It definitely is a challenge, a lot of it because of the time management perspective. You could spend your entire life just working in that area and never getting around to everything else you want to do. But it's one of those things -- you're putting yourself out there; you have to have thick skin; you have to accept that there are people who don't like you or your product; you have to not be overly emotional.

It's just like if you're soliciting opinions from your friends -- not everyone is going to like what you do or have your same opinions on art or media or books or anything else. If you take a step back and look at it that way, it will keep everyone a little bit saner.

Do you have any final thoughts for other community managers?

Everyone in a community manager position, or around it, needs to realize this area is where the conversation is going. While there will still be a need to be cautious or thoughtful, hesitating or having trepidation to engage with your consumers is going to be a shortcoming if you don't start thinking about it.

Nicalis Talks Night Game at GDC

This week's Nintendo Channel update brought two new developer interviews shot at the Game Developers Conference, one for Deep Silver's survival horror title Cursed Mountain, and the other, embedded above, for Nicalis' IGF finalist and physics-based WiiWare puzzler Night Game (tentative title).

The video interview features producer Tyrone Rodriguez, creator Nicklas "Nifflas" Nygren, and composer Chris Schlarb, all sharing their perspectives on the game and Wii's digital download platform. If you haven't read it yet, we recently posted own interview with Schlarb, which goes into detail on Night Game's randomized ambient music. We also recently talked with Nygren and Rodriguez on how development is coming along for both Cave Story and Night Game.

Nicalis expects to release Night Game exclusively on WiiWare this September.

[Via GoNintendo]

GameSetLinks: The Xtranormal Effects Of Atari

[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.]

You can now get access to the newest, neatest GameSetLinks, and it starts off with some fun discussion of indie title Dyson from the other one of the duo thus far interview by TIGSource - it's heady stuff, m'dears.

Also in here - Benj Edwards examines Game Boy oddities, Wil Wheaton discusses classic Atari, the demo-scene awards for 2008 are decided over on Scene.org, and plenty more.

Chu chu chu:

The Independent Gaming Source talks to Rudolf Kremers
The other half of the Dyson creators, and another smart, literate indie.

Game Boy Oddities | Technologizer
'After seeing the items I rounded up for this extravaganza, you’ll probably agree that the public’s infatuation with this classic handheld has grown far beyond Nintendo’s wildest dreams.'

Xtranormal: A Glimpse Into the Future of TV Animation Production | Cartoon Brew: Leading the Animation Conversation
Def. an interesting discussion, if only because ex-video game and CG guys made Xtranormal, according to blog comments by one of the creators, and it prefigures discussions in the game space about making authorship easier.

SuicideGirls News > Geek > As a Matter of Fact, I Have Played Atari Today
SFW Wil Wheaton program about, yay, classic 2600 fun.

Scene.org Awards - 2008 winners
The best of the demo-scene for last year, always worth checking out for real-time effect insane goodness.

insertcredit.com: 'Link: New heights in game journalism'
My colleague Brandon Sheffield gets grumpy at Joystiq. And I see why!

April 20, 2009

WOW Pod: For the Professional Raider

Modeled after a Horde hut, the WoW pod is designed to be an "immersive architectural solution" for advanced World of Warcraft players with in-game responsibilities that keep gamers chained to their computers, unable to step away from the MMORPG for even a couple minutes.

In addition to housing a computer and its necessary peripherals for playing the addictive title, the WoW pod offers canteens filled with spring water, a toilet built into the seat (which has surround sound speakers), a hot plate, and food packs.

When hungry, the gamer selects a food item (‘Crunchy Spider Surprise’, ‘Beer Basted Ribs’, etc.) and a seasoning pack. By scanning in the food items, the video game physically adjusts a hot plate to cook the item for the correct amount of time. The virtual character then jubilantly announces the status of the meal to both the gamer and the other individuals playing online: “Vorcon’s meal is about to be done!” “Better eat the ribs while they’re hot!” etc.

The in-game avatar will be set as AFK ("away from the keyboard") once the food is cooked, and when the player resumes, he or she will find their character's behavior affected by the meal they just consumed, sometimes sluggish from overeating or full of energy.

As loony as it all sounds, the project is real, created by artists Cati Vaucelle & Shada/Jahn, funded by grants from the Council for the Arts at MIT and other organizations, and is on display at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from March-September 2009. You can see a video for the project here, as well as a WoW blueprint and prototype sketches here:

Sega's Trailer For Upcoming Shining Force Arcade ARPG

Just a few months after Shining Force Feather's release in Japan for the DS, Sega is already planning to add another entry to its 18-year-old fantasy franchise, Shining Force Cross. The upcoming title won't follow the console strategy role-playing game formula that most gamers associate with the Shining moniker, and instead will be an action RPG (think Shining Force Exa) released to arcades -- given the state of the U.S. arcade industry, don't expect this to hit your local Dave & Buster’s!

Shining Force Cross won't at all resemble the arcade RPGs that usually come to mind in the West, Capcom's 2D Dungeons & Dragons beat'em-up hybrids; the game looks more like Monster Hunter or Phantasy Star Online. The ARPG will have a single-player mode, but up to four gamers across Japan can form a party locally or online, cooperating to fight enemies and bosses together. Players can also save their stats and equipment onto arcade IC cards.

An internal group at Sega AM2 (Virtua Fighter, Shenmue), specifically the team behind Japan-only arcade dungeon crawler Quest of D, is working on Shining Force Cross, expecting to have the game out by Winter 2009. So far, the only revealed details behind the game's story is that players will take on the role of a treasure hunter on Eden, a floating continent. The prosperous but now lost Istria civilization once occupied the continent, and have left their treasures behind.

Famitsu has artwork and screenshots of the game's Sora-esque hero and massive end-level bosses:

Sega will hold location tests for Shining Force Cross from May 2nd to May 4th at three Tokyo arcades (Club Sega Akihabara, Ikebukero GIGO, and Club Sega Nishi-Shinjuku), according to arcade gaming news blog Versus City. Perhaps one day, we'll hear news for a console port coming stateside!

Analysis: March 2009's Xbox Live Arcade Hits, Misses

[In this analysis, sister console download site GamerBytes' [RSS here!] editor Ryan Langley examines stats and success factors for March's XBLA launches, from Peggle through Watchmen and beyond - short, snappy, neat digital console games are v.relevant to GSW readers, so... here we go!]

With the March NPD numbers just debuted, at GamerBytes I thought it would be a good idea to look back at the last month of sales for downloadable spaces -- as best as we can with the data we can get. For Xbox Live Arcade sales, we've gathered the Major Nelson Top 10 lists for weeks that the NPD covers for March.

Alongside that, we've been able to gather some Leaderboard statistics which give us a fairly decent idea on how popular a game might be, and then finish it off with a bit of armchair analysis and hard opinion. We'll take a look at the 10 different releases for the month, and see how well they did.

March was perhaps the most experimental Xbox Live month we've ever had, with 6 of the 10 games released being quite different to your standard release. Did they fail or succeed? Let's look at the results, starting off with the rankings for the month according to Major Nelson, aka Microsoft's Larry Hryb, and follow up with analysis:


Watching The Watchmen

Watchmen: The End Is Nigh started off the month with a bit of bang - a kind of game that only the PlayStation Network has previously attempted. Essentially, it's a title that looks as good as a retail title, is over the Xbox Live Arcade file size limits, and one of the two titles to be released at 1600MSP - the equivalent of $20USD.

Being that Watchmen was meant to be Warner Bros' first major movie hit of the year, and the only way to get Watchmen was through digital distribution, it looked like a game which could have brought a lot of attention to the download space. Despite it hitting the top of the charts in its debut week, it quickly slipped down the chart in favor of newer releases, and disappeared 3 weeks later. The game was also released on the PlayStation Network but as we'll discuss later, it didn't fare well either.

It was quite a risk for Warner Bros. to make Watchmen digital, from all accounts it was never intended for digital distribution either - the lack of Leaderboards and online multiplayer as well as the giant file size point towards it initially being a retail title with some wheeling and dealing with Microsoft to allow it to be digital.

Part 2 of this episodic game is intended for release later this year, presumed to be around the release of the DVD and Blu-ray versions of the movie. Later episodes in an episodic title tend to do less than the original, but if they can get both XBLA Watchmen episodes to collectively crack the 100,000 mark, and add on the PSN and PC sales, than it likely will have been worth the development.

I would expect that Warner Bros. will eventually put both episodes on disc and release it as a package, or at the least partner with Microsoft's Deal Of The Week for a cheaper first episode when the second is about to hit.

On Peggle, Defenders, Basketball

The second week of the month had three releases in the same week - Peggle, Crystal Defenders and NCAA Basketball MME.

Peggle did very well, and it's not too surprising. Peggle has been a smash hit on the PC for PopCap Games, and there had been a lot of buzz about the XBLA version hitting, with additional online multiplayer modes. It hit the top, technically for two weeks running. The title has begun to slow down a little bit, but it will likely be one of those steady-selling games that occasionally pops back into the Top 10 listings, assuming the new releases don't push it out.

According to the Peggle single player Leaderboards, as of April 11th, it's now cracked 100,000 entries. Exceptional work for an Xbox Live Arcade title, something we haven't seen for quite some time. Unfortunately, we do not have the data for the people who bought the PopCap Volume 2 retail package, which includes Peggle, Heavy Weapon and Fishing Frenzy 2, but I would assume most of those sales were through the online store.

Crystal Defenders, released the same week as Peggle, did okay, but clearly not as well as Peggle did. Crystal Defenders is a strange one - a game based on an iPhone and mobile title, ported to the Xbox 360, as well as PS3 and WiiWare in North America soon, with little to no effort. The game feels like a mobile title on the Xbox 360 with no real enhancements added to it.

Despite the lack of Final Fantasy branding, it didn't do too badly. The game made it to second place on its opening week against Peggle, and stayed healthy for the next two weeks, until it eventually dropped off. Most dual weeks see one title dramatically beat the other, while this week was a little closer.

With the announced Wii and PSN versions coming fairly soon, the market for this game could have split between the three for those with multiple systems. And since it's been ported to everything under the sun, this quick-and-dirty port would have been well worth the effort for Square-Enix.

NCAA Basketball MME is another one of the game changers for the Xbox Live Arcade. It's a game which does not even consider itself an XBLA title, has no demo, is over 2GB in size, has no online support and due to its NCAA focus is only available in the United States. The game was announced just the week before its release, and the only marketing by EA is through the Xbox spotlight section on the system itself.

Despite all of this, the game ended up in the Top 10 for the first week of release, but only hit the 5th spot. To be honest, I don't really understand the thinking process behind such a release - a stripped down version of a retail game, released in only one region. Sure, it was an experiment to hit a demographic of gamers who aren't willing to pay your standard $60USD rate for games, but limiting it so much just doesn't reach the wider audience that it should be hitting.

With the success of NHL 3-On-3 Arcade, which continued to be in the Top 10 throughout all of February and March, you would think that EA would have been working towards a simpler basketball game with the same mechanics.

Possibly EA could have tried something like NBA Jam or NBA Hangtime, which could be easily released across the world and accessible to regions who generally would not care to buy a $60USD equivalent of a basketball game.

Instead, they stripped down a retail title and gave it a limited release. Considering its short stay in the Top 10, I don't see how the effort would have really been worth it, but I'd imagine the development time for this wasn't too long either.

New Style - Family Game Night

This wasn't EA's only foray for the Xbox Live Arcade this month, however - Hasbro Family Game Night was also released, and again used some ground-breaking measures that we hadn't seen on the Xbox Live Arcade previously. Instead of downloading each of the board games separately, you download the Hasbro application for free, and then buy each title from within it.

Originally FGN was released on the PS2 and Wii at retail, so this new development, complete with several new game types added, was a change of pace. The pricing structure for the games raised a few eyebrows, though. FGN was a $40USD game on the Wii with 6 titles, but each title on the XBLA costs $10, or 800MSP, and with 7 titles that's a total of $70USD.

But it doesn't look like that's stopped players. It appears that EA's plan has worked - people have generally bought only one or possibly two titles that they're interested in, which in the grand scheme of things is less money than they'd pay for the full retail set - plus you get the addition of online multiplayer.

Unfortunately, due to the strange ways that Hasbro FGN deals with new games, the Major Nelson blog was initially unable to represent the games with a combined total of all Family Game Night titles. In the third week, it did return, though, thanks to a resolution to the stat tracking issue.

With a little bit of digging through the Hasbro FGN's Leaderboards, we can see that over 25,000 players have played Yahtzee, and over 33,000 players have played Connect 4, and over 41,000 have played Battleship. Even if the sales numbers are somewhat below that, that's still some very good sales for the price that they're going for.

Going by the Top 10 list, Family Game Night is still collectively doing very well for itself - and only four of the 7 titles are available, with Sorry!, Sorry! Sliders and Boggle on their way sometime in the next month or two, so it's ready for a big return to the top soon.

Rush-ing To The Samurai

Carbonated Games' and Microsoft's UNO Rush was again, a bit controversial. The original game was a huge success, still in the Top 10 on a consistent basis. UNO Rush is a new variant on the card game. The difference? A $5 price hike.

It's no surprise that the game shot up to the top spot for the first week of release, but in its second week it has fallen straight away, down to 8th spot, and only a little higher than than the original UNO.

The game has served a little more than 20,000 players, according to the Leaderboards, and will probably do alright in the long run. It's certainly not the sensation that the original UNO was, but I feel that a lot of people were put off by the price point. Its main draw now might be its ability to play the game offline with other friends, rather than being a online only experience.

The final game of the month was the XNA based The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, a game entirely done by James Silva of Ska Studios. It jumped to the top of the charts in its first week, and looking at the Leaderboards, has also done very well.

The game unfortunately does not have Leaderboards for the single player story, only for the extra "Arcade mode". Over 20,000 people have played the Arcade mode in the one week of release, so it's safe to say the amount of people who have played the single player mode blows that number out of the water.

The March numbers see two titles finally make their way off of the Top 10 for their first times - Super Street Fighter II HD Remix, having lasted 15 weeks in the Top 10 list and A Kingdom For Keflings, having lasted 19 weeks. It would not be surprising to see them make a return however, especially if Keflings release new downloadable content, which it has yet to do.

Both Braid and Alien Hominid HD made a return to the Top 10 through the new Deal Of The Week promotion. These discounts, similar to that of the Steam weekend specials, do dramatically boost sales for a short period and would give more revenue to the developers than they otherwise would at their regular price.

The regular additions of Castle Crashers, UNO, Worms, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, Marble Blast Ultra as well as the triumphant return of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade complete the list. It should be noted that all those games outside of Castle Crashers are 400MSP, but due to the way the list works, those titles are most likely not earning as much as the lower 800MSP games.

Next up, we'll be discussing the PlayStation Store Top 10 titles. Due to the lack of official data released by Nintendo, we are unable to do the same for WiiWare sales. Meanwhile please, tell us what you think of our analysis. Thanks to Exu for helping with the Hasbro Leaderboard numbers.

Fallout Appears On Delta Playlist, Chiptune Tribute

Travelers flying Delta have an interesting alternative to the classical pieces and smooth R&B tracks for their in-flight music -- 13 songs from Fallout 3's soundtrack. The airline is featuring selections from the first-person ARPG's 1940s and '50s tunes, such as "Easy Living" by Billie Holiday and "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" by The Ink Spots, interspersed with short Bethesda interviews explaining the soundtrack's direction and how it fits into the Fallout setting.

Several outlets posted about this late last week, but I actually grabbed the full playlist (scanned from a stolen issue of Sky, Delta's in-flight magazine), shown after the break.

Also, this gives me an opportunity to share with you Ilmondodeirobot's chiptune tribute to Fallout, a dirty, industrial track with samples from the original PC game -- it's totally boss.

And if you haven't heard about it yet, Bethesda and Obsidian announced Fallout: New Vegas earlier today, a new title for the franchise releasing next year on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. More details at Gamasutra.

Best Of Member Blogs: From Choice To Crazy

[Showcasing highlights from big sister site Gamasutra's Member Blogs, we hand out a lifetime Game Developer magazine subscription for an examination into the evolution of Western "art," and why it may be irrelevant to games.]

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

Member Blogs can be maintained by any registered Gamasutra user, while invitation-only Expert Blogs -- also highlighted weekly -- are written by selected development professionals.

Our favorite blog post of the week will earn its author a lifetime subscription to Gamasutra's sister publication, Game Developer magazine. (All magazine recipients outside of the United States or Canada will receive lifetime electronic subscriptions.)

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

This Week's Standout Member Blogs

- The Problem With Choices
(Craig Stern)

One of several responses to James Portnow's Gamasutra piece about the nature of choice in video games, Craig Stern's post takes issue with Portnow's characterization of "choice" and "problem." Not all decisions are created equal, argues Stern, and removing disparate consequences from games doesn't model real life in any meaningful way.

For his effort, Craig will receive a lifetime subscription to Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine.

- I Would Never Do This In Real Life
(Adam Bishop)

Games allow the player to virtually do things he or she would love to do in reality if given the chance, but they also afford virtual actions that most sane, reasonable people would consider morally reprehensible. Adam Bishop considers where the line is drawn.

- GDC 2009 Coverage
(Kimberly Unger)

Minigames are becoming increasingly prevalent as subsystems in "hardcore" games, frequently as ways of streamlining actions that might previously have been represented by much more complex mechanics. Artist Kimberly Unger wonders whether this type of game-within-a-game design might demand its own team role or even specialty?

- Console Continuation Means Sometimes Going Beyond Default
(Edward Vertigo)

Why do console games still largely eschew button-by-button custom mapping options? Edward Vertigo looks at this and five other common console game usability concerns (some more practical than others), and suggests fixes.

- Top 10 weirdest IGF 2009 games
(Davide Coppola)

By its very nature, the Independent Game Festival tends to spawn titles that are off the beaten triple-AAA path -- but even so, the IGF has its own spectrum of normality. Here, Davide Coppola rounds up what he sees as the ten weirdest entries, including Three Forks VS. the Crab Creatures From Neptune and Dark Room Sex Game.

- Plus, the thrilling conclusion to Jim McGinley's Epic GDC Coverage.

Save Energy With Eco Wario Ware

Though Nintendo doesn't have a stellar reputation with Greenpeace, its games still have potential to deliver environmentally aware messages. This video prototype, for example, takes inspiration from the Wii version of microgame collection WarioWare to share ways players can save energy.

"My aim was to demonstrate that one can mediate specific serious information through entertaining games without compromising on fun nor gameplay," says developer Marek Plichta, an Interface Design student in Potsdam, Germany. "When concepting a serious game it can be very seductive to put in a lot of meaningful information on the surface for the player to 'understand.' While this can be good for training software, it's less suited for entertainment."

Plichta says that he combated that by designing the Eco Wario Ware prototype so that its primary goal is not to teach energy saving tips, but to "tint the subject of sustainability in a 'cooler' tone." The above clip shows only three out of 15 potential microgames Plichta has concepted.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - The Interface of Hotel Dusk

Hotel Dusk['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at adventure game interfaces in Hotel Dusk: Room 215.]

The graphical adventure game has fallen from its former prominence among video games. In the 1980s and early 90s, Infocom, Sierra, and LucasArts produced best-selling games that are still referred to today. However, with the rise of high-budget, technologically advanced games and the accompanying increase in the complexity of the average game's storyline, traditional adventure games have lost their prominence. While point-and-click adventure games are still produced (with TellTale Games's Sam & Max episodic series as a prominent example), they have mostly been reduced to a niche product.

One of the reasons for the fall of the adventure game is the detached nature of the gameplay. As interesting as the story and puzzles in a game may be, the player is still just pointing and clicking to control an avatar or disembodied first-person protagonist.

There's not much gameplay there, when compared to a Mario Kart or Grand Theft Auto game. The experience is very cerebral, and a player used to more action-packed games will tend to become bored with a game where she doesn't do anything. It's a shame, because there's no other kind of game that offers generally non-violent, mind-focused gameplay.

One way to make an adventure game more accessible and interesting to the modern player is to involve her more directly in the game's events. Cing's Hotel Dusk: Room 215 does this in an interesting way: thanks in part to the Nintendo DS's unique hardware, players are provided with a hands-on approach to puzzle solving that feels much more involved than other adventure games.

Kyle HydeA Clever Touch

Like its predecessor, Trace Memory, Hotel Dusk is an adventure game that uses the hardware of the DS to great advantage. The game is played by holding the game sideways, like a book. In exploration mode, the "top" screen displays a rendered 3D view of the environment, while the touch screen is used to navigate from a top-down view.

In conversation mode, the two screens show the protagonist and the character he is speaking to, and the touch screen is used to select speech options. In search mode, the player can rotate a 3D view of an area, and tap on objects of interest. These all provide a very direct, accessible method of control. Where the interface shines, however, is in the puzzles.

Periodically, the player will be called upon to solve a puzzle. She will be presented with a close-up view of an object or group of objects, and will need to use the capabilities of the DS to accomplish a task. Some are purely interface-based puzzles, where the challenge is not in figuring out what to do but how to communicate the actions to the game. Others are traditional puzzles like you'd see in other adventure games, from assembling a literal jigsaw puzzle to picking a lock with a coat hanger. The best puzzles are the ones that require both logic and interface cleverness.

The first "puzzle" in the game is of the interface-based variety. It requires the player to ring the bell at the front desk. There's nothing too tricky here; just tapping the button on the bell with the stylus makes it ring. These sorts of so-called puzzles are scattered throughout the game, from sewing up a torn doll by drawing the desired path of the stitches to dragging the lid of a toilet tank to open it.

The cleverest of these requires the player to flip two switches in a circuit breaker box at once. The DS touch screen isn't multi-touch like the iPhone's, but with some smart coding the game appears to recognize two simultaneous points of contact on the screen. This is a puzzle that is harder the more clever you are; being aware of the DS's limitations makes a player less likely to quickly figure out the solution.

The more traditional puzzles have straightforward interfaces, but require a certain amount of logic. Besides the aforementioned jigsaw puzzle, there is a set of matchstick-arrangement puzzles, a figure-out-the-obscured-combination puzzle, and a simple handwriting-comparison puzzle. These challenges tend to be simpler than the ones you'd find in other adventure games. They seldom require a big leap of logic, and the solutions are often heavily hinted through dialogue or internal monologue.

Locked SuitcaseThe Key to the Problem

The true potential of the game's puzzle approach occurs in the challenges which combine cerebral puzzle-solving with interface trickery. One excellent example occurs a little way into the game, when the player is presented with an engraved fountain pen. The pen is worn, and the inscription is unreadable.

In order to find out what it says, the player must figure out that she can use either chalk dust or flour to fill in the inscription. The interface challenge comes in when executing this maneuver. Rubbing the powder on the pen and blowing it off (using the DS microphone) just blows away all the powder. The solution is to gently tap or rub the pen to remove the excess without disrupting the inscription.

By incorporating logic and a clever interface into the challenge, this strengthens the player's identification with the main character. She's not just clicking on the flour then the pen to USE FLOUR ON PEN; the player is involved in the entire process, making it feel like she's actually finding clues herself. This sort of approach is shockingly rare among adventure games; it really only appears in "casualized" games like Hotel Dusk or Zak & Wiki. However, it may be the key to revising adventure games for the modern video game world.

All an adventure game needs to do to take advantage of this technique is to add an extra step to each puzzle solution. Just as Oblivion has a lockpicking minigame, adventure games can have puzzle-solving minigames, where the player physically manipulates the components of the puzzle to solve it.

By including this sort of hands-on gameplay, developers can enhance player character identification while simultaneously breaking up the often-monotonous gameplay with fun interludes. It does require more planning and implementation time to have a separate screen or interaction mode for each puzzle, but the gains in accessibility and interesting gameplay outweigh the costs.

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

Crash Course On Aspect Ratios, Scanlines, and Modern Displays

Select Button forumer NFG, who was also behind the wonderful Arcade Font Engine, posted a primer on aspect ratios, scanlines, and modern displays as they relate to video games, explaining why typical LCDs and plasma screens have trouble showing games the way we remember them.

"Modern fixed-resolution displays don't do a very good job of displaying older games," he argues. "No matter how they're displayed, some changes are made and compromises have to be accepted. Some of those problems, which NFG says CRTs are able to work around, include stretched or compressed sprites, blurry resampled pixels, and inconsistent resolutions for different consoles.

NFG isn't asserting that everyone should ditch their expensive modern displays, but he does see some intangible value in approximating the look of older games on CRT monitors. "Trying too hard to replicate the failings of old hardware is probably a sign of mental illness, but we do it anyway," he says. "I can't abide the idea that it's better or that the games were designed that way, or even that the designers intended them to be played with scanlines... It's just a silly pursuit which we engage in because we are chasing a personal ideal, a fleeting and enjoyable memory."

GameSetLinks: Arcades Versus The City

[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 RSS links after a blessedly relaxing GameSetWeekend, the first link on this returning combination is the (fairly) new VersusCity blog, which I was delighted to see precisely because there's very little good English-language coverage of the fascinating Japanese arcade game scene.

But there's other goodness in here, including Amped 3 for cheap, the v.silly 'rpgsbebroke' blog, and The Godfather II pointed, counterpointed, and counter game set match serve ace pointed, apparently...

Hur ray yay:

Versus City
_Really_ good blog about the Japanese arcade game scene, which is always written up poorly in English... until now!

Amped 3 (XBOX360 NEW): N02-008435 iNetVideo.com - Movies, Games, Music
I wrote about this back in 2005 (!), but seriously overlooked, is Amped 3 - and INetVideo has it for under $20 new.

Inside The Soviet Arcade Games Museum | Edge Online
Oo, this museum looks very neat indeed, if you're in Moscow.

dobbschallenge2.com - Dr. Dobbs Picks: Best Level Picks (13th April)
Continuing the user-created level fun on the Silverlight-based platformer produced by me and developed by Adam Atomic.

RPGs be broke
Extremely funny blog on game journalism from someone who is writing in a style below their IQ.

Crispy Gamer - Column: Dissenting Opinion: The Godfather II
Fun counterpoint indeed to a Gus Mastrapa original: 'While we're all shaking our fists with righteous rage, let's try not to recall that Mario Puzo wrote his novel "The Godfather" after his first two novels sold poorly, with the express purpose of creating a book that had commercial appeal.'

April 19, 2009

GDC - The Game - Part 6, Post-GDC: 'My Game, My Rules'

[Every day during GDC, Everybody Dies creator Jim Munroe blogged for GameSetWatch discussing the creative process for the GDC-related text adventure he'll be building for us. Here's a post-GDC update, following Monday's, Tuesday's, Wednesday's and Thursday's and Friday's entries during GDC.]

Skeletons are scary. I'm about 60 hrs into making the GDC text game -- which should be done in the next couple of weeks -- at this point.

There's a bunch of randomly generated convention-goers wandering around the Moscone Center, annoying and impressing each other, talking about things they know about and things they know nothing about, and as the player character you can stand there and watch it happen or jump in.

But because I haven't written more than one or two actions/behaviours for each situation, they still feel pretty robotic. I just try to keep in mind something Raigan and Mare told me -- when they were making N, adding the animated ninja at the end of the process immediately made it much more fun. Up til then it'd just been a physics simulation.

So I'm still keeping the faith. I think social interactions will be compelling in a text adventure context because prose can communicate a haughty look or an adoring gaze way better than the most advanced 3D model with the most talented face puppeteer in the business.

I've also been thinking about the creative authorship that goes into the creation of systems.

I've created plenty of systems in the various communities I've been a part of -- the latest of which is the Artsy Games Incubator, which is currently being run by Miguel Sternberg.

For me making this game (which I'm calling a social simulation) has been recognizing that every variable decision is an expression, of a creative or opinionated type.

Sure, extroverted characters are more inclined to talk to people and make friends -- but they're also inclined to talk about stuff they're completely ignorant about, and thus make enemies too.

One part in my previous game, Everybody Dies, asked the player to decide if he wanted to threaten a racist with a knife or turn the other cheek. There were no game-altering consequences either way, and partially this was because I was uncomfortable with judging the player and dictating behaviour.

It's the same way I would feel super-bossy telling someone that they had to make a game in six weeks, and that these are the tools you should use to make it.

But I had no problem setting up the AGI, hanging out a shingle, and signing people up to do just that. Setting up a system allows people who are engaged by it to participate, and if they don't want to they don't have to. It's not the only game in town.

[Jim Munroe will be demoing the beta of his GDC-themed interactive fiction game at the next Hand Eye Society Social this Thursday, if you happen to be in Toronto.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 4/18/08

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


Ad pages for consumer magazines dropping by 25% in the space of a year! - Print mags closing up not for being unprofitable, but for not being profitable enough! - The industry grasping at straws for ideas, most of which seem to involve that astonishing new "Twitter" thing for some reason!

These, and more, are some of the topics that are not on my mind this week, because nobody told the game industry about this and therefore I have a stack of magazines to write about that's three inches high.

At the top, for some reason, is the latest newsstand copy of Nuts and Volts, a mag I've covered now and again in the past. I picked up this issue not because there's any hilarious Photoshop errors on the cover, but because it covered the RetroGame, a handheld "game system" that's so straightforward from an electronics perspective that a third-grader can put it together.

It's been picked up by tech blogs on an on-and-off basis ever since its inventor produced it in 2007, but making the cover of a nationally-distributed magazine has to be a bit of a coup for it.

I have a tendency (as you've noticed) to buy pretty much any magazine that has video game stuff on the cover. A melding of hobbies that combines modern entertainment with obsolete media, you could say. And speaking of, how 'bout we discuss the 12 other pieces of obsolete game media that crossed my desk over the past two weeks?

Edge May 2009


Cover: Final Fantasy XIII

Kind of a subdued issue of Edge this month, following their massive 200th-issue effort. The FF13 cover is basically the top devs letting them play the demo and then discussing it with them -- a feature that kind of loses his punch considering anyone can play the demo now if they're willing to go through the trouble. Other features, like a bit on the new Dead to Rights and another on Blitz Games' 3DTV technology (again, only news if you didn't catch it in all the GDC coverage), seem ill-suited for the print medium.

Much better, as always, are the profiles, including pieces with Masaya Matsuura, RPG designer Chris Avellone, and Al Lowe talking about the very first Leisure Suit Larry. The reviews are bound to stir up a little controversy, too -- not the 3 they gave to Sonic and the Black Knight, no, but the 9's they gave Little King's Story and Plants vs. Zombies, an (imo) inane PopCap tower-defense game.

There's also another "Region Specific" game-dev profile collection, this one focusing on Canada's Prince Edward Island, a place I hate to admit that I completely forgot existed. My geography isn't what it was back when I was a grade-schooler who thumbed through the World Almanac for fun. It turns out that despite a population of only 140,000, there are five game devs in the province, although one is exclusively a QA house, and two universities there have game design programs. Heavens.

Boos to N'Gai Croal for writing a column that reiterates the stance he'd already laid out online about the Resident Evil 5 trailer's white-against-black imagery, spends a few paragraphs whining about the response, mentions at the very end that he got to speak with producer Jun Takeuchi about the game, then baits us with that as the topic for next month's column. Come on! Just give up the goods! I didn't pay money for a print mag to read what you already said online!

Retro Gamer Issue 62


Cover: Sega Mega Drive

The cover ties in with the Genesis (or Mega Drive, depending on where you are) Ultimate Collection, as you'd expect, and there's a dev interview, as you'd expect (one that includes Ethan Einhorn, current Sega producer and former GameNOW editor). The general Genesis retrospective attached to the interview is quite nice, though, set up as a bunch of small bite-sized columns and interviews with people like David Perry and Trip Hawkins.

There's also making-ofs for Space Invaders (Tomohiro Nishikado is definitely making the rounds in game media lately, this despite his most famous game's 30th birthday being last year), Lucasarts' Full Throttle, and Atari's S.T.U.N. Runner, an underappreciated arcade game.

PC Zone April 2009


Cover: Top 10 shooters

This month's reason to like PC Zone:

"Not only is Ray Muzyka the co-founder and joint-CEO of BioWare -- the world's finest RPG developer -- the man also holds an honest-to-god medical degree. If I'd had a heart attack during our interview, or needed an emergency tracheotomy with a pen, Muzyka MD would've been on hand to save me from the brink of death or stab me with some stationery. On the other hand, if I'd been with some non-qualified numpty, I would've died, probably with biros hastily lodged in all sorts of ineffectual places."

PC Gamer May 2009


Cover: Battlefield games

This is Mr. Steinman's third issue, and the changes keep on coming, including a redone letters spread and the "Eyewitness" section -- sort of a mix of the traditional news and previews departments -- filling up almost half the mag. This section's quite a lot like the best of GI's opening pages, which I consider to be praise because it rocks -- small interviews, small previews, interesting news pieces. Very neat stuff, and it makes the cover feature look pretty pedestrian by comparison.

PC Gamer has always been pretty high-quality, but I think it's spent much of the last few years searching for direction. It's finally beginning to get one, which is great.

Official Xbox Magazine May 2009 (Podcast)


Cover: Lost Planet 2

A pretty straightforward issue, apart from those classic OXM-trademark freeform features. This month we got a piece with military specialists answering humorous game-themed questions like "Do barrels of fuel really explode if you shoot them?" (an idea EGM used back in 2004 or so, I think). Another one, my personal favorite, lists up the crappest game endings of 2009 and offers suggestions for what they could've been.

Nintendo Power May 2009


Cover: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

An interesting juxtaposition here -- a mag with a (presumably) M-rated horror game as its lead story, supported by advertising for Gardening Mama, My Pet Shop, Klonoa, and ocarinas. (And, granted, The Conduit too. But still.)

The cover feature is mostly hardcore text and dev interviews, making it almost seem like something Play would do. The Punch-Out!! feature (which, at 9 pages, is a third larger than Game Informer's "exclusive" piece this month) is much more colorful and exciting.

PlayStation: The Official Magazine May 2009


Cover: Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2

Almost certainly the best cover of this column, and it's a very stylish feature on the inside as well, alongside similar bits on God of War III and assorted baseball games. (The GOW3 article's black text on red background is a bit straining after a while.)

Game Informer May 2009


Cover: Assassin's Creed II

There's a piece in Connect about the state of video game TV shows, a topic I'm surprised hasn't been tackled more in-depth before now -- it's a pretty sorry scene, after all. Otherwise, I dunno. The cover feature is typical GI target-renders and "the game's gonna have this and this and this" dev quotes, and the Punch-Out!! [not-so-]exclusive has oddly blurry and dark screenshots, as if someone was shooting a large-screen TV with a digital camera.

GamePro May 2009


Cover: UFC 2009

Oh, man, it's a throwback to the good ol' days of GamePro rasslin' covers! At least there's no neon-colored halo over all the fighters this time.

It's a surprisingly neat feature inside, though, and there's an even bigger surprise inside -- a 6-pager about Six Days in Fallujah, the only print mag I've seen cover this so I guess it's exclusive. I can't help but wonder if that woulda made a better cover choice. It would at least spark a little more buzz among gamers than UFC.

Future Specials A Go-Go

ultimategamingpc2009.jpg   ps3ultimatereviewguide.jpg

It's that time in spring, it seems. Build the Ultimate Gaming PC and PlayStation 3 Ultimate Review Guide both deliver what they promise on the cover, with PC Gamer's special being entirely original content and even PTOM's having a few original roundup features spicing up things.

Future has been advertising two other specials -- a second volume of Nintendo-themed posters from NP, and a zombie-themed mag from OXM -- but I haven't seen them in stores yet.

Game Developer April 2009


Cover: Saints Row 2

Aw, who can forget about Game Developer? I can't! This month is the annual salary survey, AKA the annual reminder that I ought to be making far more money than I am. (At least those California types have to shell it all back in taxes and higher living expenses. That's how I justify it in my mind. That, and they can't have ferrets and I can.)

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. In his spare time he does writing and translation for lots and lots of publishers and game companies.]

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

Once again, the weekend's here - so time to recap some of the week's top full-length features on Gamasutra, plus some bonus original news stories and interviews from the site and sister educational site GameCareerGuide.

Really, really delighted with the quality of some of this content - including neat interviews with BioWare's doctors and EA's Robi Kauker, plus discussion of City Of Heroes' user-created content generation, AI for Darwinia, the quandary of game engine choice, Ernest Adams on adventure games, an audio postmortem for, uhh, the new 50 Cent game, and lots more besides.

Welcome to the jungle:

A Constant Evolution: BioWare's Doctors Talk Present And Future
"BioWare's dual doctors, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk are the heart and soul of the Mass Effect and Dragon Age developer's committed approach to making games, and in this Gamasutra interview, they discuss post-EA life, their new franchises, and more."

Developing AI in Darwinia
"In a detailed AI-focused postmortem, Introversion's Gary Chambers discusses the challenges and successes of creating the AI system for Darwinia and its multiplayer counterpart Multiwinia."

Mission Architect: How Are You Going To Manage That?
"As subscription MMO City Of Heroes launches its Mission Architect expansion, allowing user-generated stories and quests, Paragon Studios' Morrissey discusses the logistics of creating policing for the system."

Sponsored Feature: Implementation of Fast Fourier Transform for Image Processing in DirectX 10
"In this Intel-sponsored feature, part of Gamasutra's Visual Computing section, Muthyalampalli examines how you can use the fast Fourier transform (FFT) for image processing."

50 Cent: Blood on the Sand: Audio Postmortem
"In this detailed postmortem, Bridgett discusses what went right and wrong during the creation of audio for the Swordfish-developer, hyper-stylized hip hop action game 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand."

The Designer's Notebook: The Genre That Would Not Die!
"In his latest column, Ernest Adams discusses the creeping return of the adventure game, discussing 'what got better' and 'what didn't get better' in the genre after its famine years."

Choosing The Game Engine That Can
"Game engines are a key part of development -- and Gamasutra talks to developers at Wideload and GRIN and engine surveyor Mark DeLoura on the choices available, from building to buying from a plethora of providers."

Planet of Sound: Talking Art, Noise, and Games with EA's Robi Kauker
"Robi Kauker is the audio director for the EA Play Label at Electronic Arts and for almost ten years he's been helping create the multilayered soundscapes that make up The Sims world - he talks to Gamasutra about it."

Plus bonus original Gamasutra & GameCareerGuide news: Genius Vs. Activision/7 Studios: The Complaint Analyzed; Interview: CCP's Ward Talks Getting Agile With EVE; GameCareerGuide Feature: percussONE Student Postmortem; Game Career Guide Feature: Twenty Essential Design Questions; Report: WiiWare's Minimum Sales Threshold Affects Developers.

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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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

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