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May 2, 2009

Opinion: What's Wrong With Game Music?

[Instead of the distinctive themes of the olden days, most of today's popular titles have indistinguishable soundtracks. Game Developer EIC Brandon Sheffield explores the reasons -- and possible solutions.]

Most game music these days is boring. I'm sorry, but it's true.

Music is one of the more pervasive arts. It's integrated into almost all our visual entertainment media, played in stores, supports our advertising, and obnoxiously decorates our social networking pages.

Rare is the person who does not listen to music. So with all this music interaction out there, why is so much video game music so consistently generic?

Music, of course, is very subjective. It may even polarize people’s interests more than other traditional arts do, given that listening to music has far more universal appeal than does going to a museum, leafing through an art book, or for many, even watching movies.

Further, it's easy for people to be opinionated about music because all the artists’ names are very visible, and much easier to recognize than the names of most traditional artists, and sharing an entire song with someone else is often as simple as downloading it or finding it on YouTube. Knowledge about music is easy to come by, and so too are informed opinions.

There are so many hungry musicians out there looking to get into games at cut rates, and yet I keep hearing the same flaccid John Williams-inspired scores, uninspired breakbeats, and generic guitar solos.

The fact is, these days it's quite difficult to identify one game soundtrack from another, and it didn't used to be so. Every video game fan recognizes the Super Mario Bros. tunes, the stage music from Mega Man 2, the main theme of Monkey Island, or the sweeping tones of Road Rash. Why have we moved away from that?

Some Initial Caveats

Of course, it's not as if someone simply stood up and declared, "let's not have interesting music."

One reason people remember the soundtracks of those venerable old titles is because of repetition. As an industry we seem to have moved beyond punishing difficulty as the default level of challenge in order to accept more players, and rightly so, I think.

But part of the reason we remember these songs is because of what Jesse Harlin cautions you to avoid in Aural Fixation in the April issue of Game Developer magazine – user fatigue.

Back then, due to a combination of difficult levels that players are forced to restart, frequent replays, or simply small ROM sizes, we heard these songs over and over, and they burned themselves into our brainstems. And where repetition once carried the responsibility of providing replay value, multiplayer gaming now takes up that mantle.

Another reason may be that there's a lot more going on in games now. When Mario was just jumping on the heads of Goombas and breaking blocks, he could only perform two or three actions at a time, and everything was clearly represented visually. In contemporary games, like an FPS for example, players are required to focus on multiple actions simultaneously—running and aiming in 3D space, while also firing and scanning for cover or reloading.

It stands to reason that you want there to be as few distractions for the FPS player as possible. Music needs to be in the background in this scenario, if it's there at all.

Where's That Melody?

So rare is actual melody in games that when I heard the opening riff for Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, I was shocked – a real tune! It wasn’t just a random guitar solo, someone had written a song for this game. Series like Resistance and Call of Duty are all good fun, but it’s unlikely that you’d hear the music out of context and recognize it -- and to me, that feels like a failing.

A lot of music is licensed now, which could be a contributing factor, but if you consider a game like Fallout 3, which has licensed tracks from the days of yore, when you’re out of range of the in-game radio, an atmospheric and entirely appropriate post-apocalyptic soundtrack kicks in, hammering home the desolate and lonely nature of the harsh environment.

This doesn’t happen in nearly enough games. Music is so powerful and emotive that simply recreating an operatic chorus with the same notes you hear everywhere is a terrible waste of aural space.

I can hardly remember the themes of any American game titles from the last two console generations, even in cases where melody would be warranted. I recently played Peggle DS, which is very good fun, but the music literally sounds as though it came from a vintage porno, complete with fuzzed-out bass synth and the stereotypical wah pedal guitar.

Casual games, with their simple, bright graphics, have the design space to use melody and more dynamic themes, as Mario did, and yet by and large they don't. Try the Ookibloks advanced course video on YouTube as a counter example. The music is distinctive, and perfectly integrated into the casual nature of the gameplay.

Out Of Your Hands?

Games often use temp tracks as they come together, and developers can become quite attached to the sound. This leads to requests for the music to sound, essentially, like every movie trailer and cliche soundtrack everyone's ever heard, because that's what's often in the temp files.

People put those tracks there for a reason, obviously. A lot of people like the stuff everyone's already heard, so maybe what I'm asking is unreasonable.

But if you consider player responses, you'll often hear things about how great the graphics are, or how the environments are destructible -- but you hardly ever hear about how great the music is. That's because it's so often generic that it can't stand out as interesting. Too much “dramatic” music ruins the drama.

It is very telling that Halo and Gears of War sport two of the most iconic soundtracks of the current generation, considering each has only one or two recognizable themes or melodies—the rest of it is filler. These days, all it takes is a little effort to make the music sound like something, and you can stand out from the crowd.

Yes, We Can!

When I asked Game Developer's audio columnist Jesse Harlin about this phenomenon some time ago, he mentioned that distinctive music can be created by playing against convention. Mario's themes are memorable in part because who expects swing music in an action game?

People remember BioShock's licensed music because it was so counter to the norm. So maybe when you're placing those temp tracks into your early builds, try a little Afrobeat, or a Celtic reel, or some Norwegian black metal -- something different. It might yield some interesting results when creating the final tracks.

And isn't standing out what we all want our games to do?

Ultimately, it may simply come down to a lot of folks simply having generic taste, and that’s not something you can change. Players most likely have generic taste as well. But there’s so much opportunity here, that it seems as though whomever is dictating what music is going into the game should be a big music fan, even if that person is not the lead designer or producer.

Often, all it takes to get interesting music in your game is a hint of the unexpected. Many players love and remember the Katamari Damacy soundtrack -- and the reason is that the team trusted the composers to come up with something interesting and engaging, rather than simple filler. It takes a little more foresight, and just maybe a little more trust in your composer.

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of May 1

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

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

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

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

Gamasutra.com - Game Industry Jobs

38 Studios: Graphics Engineer
"Would you like to become part of the team that includes the creative visionaries behind Drizzt Do'Urden and Spawn? 38 Studios is currently seeking a passionate, experienced software engineer to join the Copernicus team. This is a full-time time position with competitive salary, full benefits and 401k, and the chance to be part of MMOG history!"

Raven Software: Senior UI Artist
"Raven Software is an award-winning computer game software developer based in Madison, Wisconsin. With a focus on graphic excellence and high-level, intense playability, Raven has produced hit games including the Soldier of Fortune series and various Star Wars titles."

Infinity Ward: Game Designer
"Infinity Ward, Inc. is an award winning developer and wholly owned subsidiary of Activision, Inc. It is also the developer of the critically acclaimed Call of Duty 1, 2 and most recently Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (best-selling game of 2007 and winner of multiple Game of the Year awards). Infinity Ward was recently declared to be the best developer in America by Game Developer magazine, based on quality of product, industry reputation and quality of work environment."

Microsoft Game Studios: Character Lead
"Microsoft Game Studios’ Halo team is looking for exceptional art talent to contribute to a new experience in the Halo universe. Teamwork, innovation, attention-to-detail and unbridled passion are characteristics we look for in all of our artists. If you feel you have what it takes, throw your hat in the ring. We are looking for a highly-qualified candidate for the position of Character Lead."

WorldsInMotion - Online Games

Tencent Boston: Senior MMO Engine Programmer
"The successful candidate will be responsible for the architecture and implementation of key backend server technologies. Because the backend server technology is a crucial part of a successful MMO, we are looking for a candidate with a strong knowledge of MMO server architectures and a practical understanding of successful development techniques."

Ganz/Webkinz: Jr. Flash Developer
"A true cultural icon, Webkinz has been featured on every major television network and was ranked number 2 on Google’s 2007 Zeitgeist list of most popular searches. Ganz has revolutionized the toy industry with its innovative and engaging combination of online and offline play.Now is your chance to join the creative team that has brought this vibrant world to life. Ganz is seeking a talented and motivated person with a proven love of interactive media for the position of Jr. Flash Developer."

Serious Games Source - Serious Games

IPKeys Technologies: Game Programmer - Software Engineer
"IPKeys' I-GAME team supports the mission of IPKeys in delivering world-class modeling and simulation and interactive gaming technology. Our success is measured in the complete satisfaction of our customers, the superb quality of our products, and the adherence to our core principles of integrity and accountability. We operate in a team environment that supports individual growth, unhindered communication, the high morale of our team, the recognition of extraordinary achievement, and the fostering of the creative spirit."

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

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 5/2/09

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

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The latest DVD set from Mort arrived in the mail last week, and it's quite a big one -- the complete run of CU Amiga, the mag that (after Amiga Format) was the largest Amiga-exclusive title in the UK.

CU can actually boast a long and uninterrupted publishing history in Britain, starting with VIC Computing in 1981 and continuing for 194 issues until CU's closure in 1998. It was very much a mag that reflected its times -- starting out with a largely technical bent for the nerds who bought a Commodore 64 at full price, shifting focus to games toward the late '80s as the C64 became the UK's most popular "game console," and then starting the cycle over a few years later with the Amiga.

Like Amiga Format, the title got very programming and tech-oriented in the latter years when the diehards were all that was left; unlike AF, it arguably went away at its prime, when it was still healthy-looking and had a lot of stuff to report on. There is a lot of raw material to sift through here, and I'm very much looking forward to spreading that effort out over the next few months.

Anyway, on to this fortnight's column, one that I might as well slap a "Sponsored by Future US" sticker on because they're responsible for nearly everything this time around:

PlayStation: The Official Magazine June 2009

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Cover: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Hooray! Now this is a cover! It's a good enough cover, in fact, to make it my pick of this update.

Most of the internet has been talking the past couple days about page 16, where Square Enix gave PTOM some character art from an unannounced game with no further explanation and the editors let their imaginations run wild on it. But the B:AA feature inside is neater-looking, even though I really don't give much of a flip about superheroes, and the FF13 piece (like PTOM's Prince of Persia cover feature a half-year ago) is vertically oriented to novel and interesting effect.

Official Xbox Magazine June 2009 (Podcast)

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Cover: Aliens vs. Predator

This issue shares some similarities with PTOM this month -- both have big BioShock 2 pieces starring 2K creative director Jordan Thomas, and both tease unannounced Square games, with OXM's looking a lot like a new Front Mission.

The AvP piece is its own, though, and it's unique neat because it's both a neat-looking game and a neat sorta story -- what with being made by the company that created the only good AvP game ever (and arguably the only good Jaguar game). There is hope, in other words, even though PC Gamer this month rated their most recent game 23%.

The other original features -- a look at good obscure XBLA games and a list of 25 things that annoy gamers about non-gamers -- aren't as prominently fun this time around.

PC Gamer June 2009

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Cover: Borderlands

PCG gets its turn with BioShock 2 at the start of the mag, and the long cover feature is both well-written and nicely colored, which is good 'cos part of the article's point is that Borderlands' visuals are unique.

Most interesting to me, though, are three smaller bits: a piece by a PopCap VP about how the PC is still the top "innovation" platform (oh the irony), an interview that covers the coffee shop development of World of Goo, and a play-by-play of the first four hours of the very non-PC-like Last Remnant that's highly amusing.

Play May 2009

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Cover: Brutal Legend

Not a lot about Brutal Legend that you haven't read elsewhere; the feature is an extremely intensive (IGN-like) hands-on report that goes on for many spreads and closes with a very nice piece of original art, like the Play of old. But enough of that!

Dave Halverson also reviews a lot of games this issue, which means you get to hear a lot about his opinions of the female protagonists of the games coming out this month. Good thing the supporting characters of Klonoa aren't his bag.

Retro Gamer Issue 63

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Cover: Pocket power!

This cover, as you can see in the picture, folds out to reveal every potable Nintendo's ever created. Very neat, though I wonder if this'll produce a lot of ripped copies on the newsstand. The top feature this month: a making-of for Williams' Joust, complete with concept art that looks like it oughta be in some indie sci-fi comic book.

So Many Future Specials

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Woo-hoo, I found a copy of Zombies! finally! Seriously, there is a ridiculous amount of zombie nonsense in this thing, starting with a "What are zombies?" history piece and culminating with a massive look back at RE5 and the RE series in general.

There's also a couple of interviews with pertinent graphic design guys from Dead Space and Left 4 Dead, as well as the humorously-titled "The Best Dead Things in Games that Aren't Zombies But Are Still Pretty Cool". It gets even sillier toward the end of the mag, but I don't want to spoil everything. Have a look.

More useful (perhaps) and equally as fun to thumb through is PC Gamer Big Book of Free, a special that is exactly what it claims -- just a great big honking overview of free gamest hat encompasses almost the entire book. There are also assorted small articles (I think mostly taken from PC Gamer UK, correct me if I'm wrong about this) describing quick mods to PC games you can download or create yourself in a few hours.

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The second issue of Future Anime is mostly written by David F. Smith and Paul Starr, both erstwhile contributors to Newtype USA back when it existed, and so you're basically getting a (compressed, poster-heavy) issue of NTUSA if you buy this. There is just a smidge of game coverage, but not very much.

Nintendo Power Posters 2009, meanwhile, is just that. As with last year's poster special, no editorial content. I should go put all the Sonic ones up in the living room and confuse my friends.

[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.]

Best Of Indie Games: Window to Your Mind and Soul

[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 delights in this edition include a whimsical interactive toy, a castle siege simulator, a point and click adventure game, a steampunk platformer from the creators of Whirled, a WarioWare-type game, a playable collection of short stories, a mob control simulation game, and a Ludum Dare 14 competition entry that plays suspiciously like Valve's Portal.

Game Pick: 'Windosill' (Patrick Smith, commercial indie - demo available)
"An odd interactive toy disguised as a sequence of puzzles for the players to solve. The game basically involves searching for a key cleverly hidden somewhere in each scene, and once you've found this particular item you can then use it to unlock the door that hinders your progress from the current room to the next."

Game Pick: 'Crush the Castle' (Joey Betz and Chris Condon, browser)
"A remake inspired by Liam Bowmers' Castle Clout, boasting much superior graphics and a better interface than the original had ever offered. Knock down one castle after another with your massive trebuchet machine, as you travel around the map visiting each of the twenty-four locations that the resistance had claimed as their own territories."

Game Pick: 'Mental Repairs, Inc.' (Renzo Thönen, freeware)
"A point and click adventure game in the style of classic LucasArts releases, created by Renzo Thönen with the help of the Wintermute Engine. You play the role of a machine psychiatrist named Henrik Liaw, who received a fairly innocent emergency call from a large corporation requesting for some repair works to be done. Nothing ever goes smoothly in an adventure game, and once you're inside the building you quickly find yourself trapped with no clear exit from your little predicament in sight."

Game Pick: 'Bang! Heroes' (Three Rings, browser)
"A western platforming shoot-em-up with some pretty nice Steampunk-style graphics and a lot of gun-toting. Created by the guys behind Whirled, the game has a really great feel to it and has tons of little features to give a worthwhile gaming experience, like upgrades and achievements."

Game Pick: 'When The Bomb Goes Off' (Tom Sennett, browser)
"When The Bomb Goes Off is a look into the lives of lots of different people five seconds before a huge bomb turns them into ash. This is all achieved through WarioWare style minigames - some of them with obvious solutions, others not so. At the end a score is given to show how many of the situations you correctly acted out."

Game Pick: 'The Bryant Collection' (Gregory Weir, freeware)
"A collection of unrelated IF stories, originally sourced from a box of notes and story drafts that Gregory had acquired from a yard sale sometime in 2008. The short story titled 'Undelivered Love Letter' is a definite pick, simply because of the way the developer has limited your mobility and actions to one single scene in an airport."

Game Pick: 'Gray' (Intuition Games, browser)
"A mob control simulation game created by Intuition Games' duo Mike Boxleiter and Greg Wohlwend, where the challenge is to convince the rioters to change sides in an attempt to stop the conflict for good. You will need to match the wave patterns that appear when trying to strike up a conversation with any of the mob individuals."

Game Pick: 'Portwall LD' (X-0ut, freeware)
"X-0ut's barebones effort at remaking Valve's Portal in under 48 hours for the friendly Ludum Dare 14 competition. Veterans who have memorized the quickest routes for every chamber in the original can expect to be challenged here, partly because there are no heel springs to save players from a long drop to the ground."

May 1, 2009

Commodore Castleroid: Knight 'n' Grail

Psytronik Software, the same studio behind the Armalyte PC conversion we featured yesterday, plans to release a new and original game for Commodore 64 this June, Knight 'n' Grail. The clever title betrays its simple plot: you're a knight on a quest to find the legendary Holy Grail.

The studio's gameplay description, however, sounds like something that will be of interest fans of the Metroid series or Koji Igarashi's Castlevania games:

"The game begins in a castle which you must explore. Scattered around are switches that open up new areas when you smash them with your sword. You must also find special suits of armour and swords which are important for your quest."

Sounds like a Metroidvania/Castleroid, right? According to Psytronik's Jason "Kenz" Mackenzie, who is playtesting Knight 'n' Grail and posted a preview, the game will have over 200 screens split into different scrolling areas, with "various monsters and an assortment of rather large bosses".

Embedded below is a gameplay video from an Alpha version. I love the music!

I'm really impressed that most of the code and design was handled by Mikael Tillander, a newcomer to the Commodore 64 development scene (this will be his first release), with some graphics help from Håkon 'Archmage' Repstad.

Some other cool features in the game -- a mine-cart for traveling through a portion of the castle, a "well of wishes" that teleports you from one part of the map to another (a useful, familiar feature for Castlevania fans), and elemental weapons and armor (e.g. water sword will hurt fire enemies, earth armor protects you from snakes).

You can download and play a preview of Knight 'n' Grail without music from the C-64 Scene Database.

Gamasutra Expert Blogs: Board Gaming's Dangerous Legacy

[Showcasing highlights from big sister site Gamasutra's Expert Blogs, industry veterans discuss a cultural relic of the 70s, and how to write a game industry resume.]

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

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

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

This Week's Standout Expert Blogs

Twiggy Game: Will Videogaming's Future Look Like Boardgaming's Past?
(Greg Costikyan)

Greg Costikyan, the game industry's resident outspoken curmudgeon, worries that mainstream video game culture may be going down a similar path to that of 1970s-era boardgaming, which focused on brand above all else.

Writing a Resume for a Game Company
(Darius Kazemi)

Here, Darius Kazemi offers a straightforward, practical guide to constructing a resume for applying to game companies. It's primarily intended for students, but will likely have some tips useful to more experienced developers as well.

Improving Readability: Data
(Nels Anderson)

Playtesting and the data-gathering that can result from it are frequently misunderstood and misapplied. Programmer Nels Anderson lays forth some basic principles on user data, including the difference between listening to players' problems and listening to their proposed solutions.

Commentary: Design Lessons from Torture in Games
(Reid Kimball)

Despite a sudden endcap of out-of-place political opinion, Reid Kimball's analysis of torture as depicted in a variety of indie and commercial games offers a number of interesting observations -- including a reminder of just how difficult it can be to make a meaningful statement in a video game, about torture or anything else.

How Konami's MGS4 May Sneak Around PSN Charges
(Matt Matthews)

Following recent news that Sony has been charging publishers a bandwidth fee for downloaded PlayStation Network content, stats whiz Matt Matthews offers a speculative but well-reasoned theory as to how Konami might be sidestepping that policy -- and why Metal Gear Solid 4 has such a cumbersome online implementation.

Kyo Drops Knowledge For King Of Fighters Scrubs

With a new arcade game just out in Japan and a worldwide PS3/Xbox 360 release coming in July, The King of Fighters is on the minds of both long-time series fans and curious gamers hoping to try out this Street Fighter alternative for the first time. As a primer for that latter group (or for lapsed KOF players), DandyDLC put together a series of videos called The Beginner's Incomplete Guide to KOF:

As Arcade Renaissance's Ryan Gutierrez points out, these video guides won't teach you how to destroy any rival that dares pick up a controller pad against you; rather, it introduces you to the franchise's fundamentals that are unique from most games, like Street Fighter. The series' Kyo offers lessons on jumps/hops, ambiguous roll crossovers, and more.

You can watch Part II below:

DandyDLC says he has Part III on the way, so keep an eye out for that as you wait for Ignition/SNK/EVO's King of Fighters XII tournament, scheduled for May 30th in Los Angeles. You can find more details on that event at EVO's site.

For Coin Collector Collectors

If you don't recognize the above bucket, it will surprise you to find out that it played a pivotal role in some of your favorite classic games, like Joust, Moon Patrol, Robotron, Sinistar, and more -- it's the vault that hoarded your quarters inside its respective arcade cabinets, the source of that satisfying *shunk* whenever you dropped a coin in.

Jet Set Games' Chris Ainsworth has put up a photo collection of 14 coin buckets, matching them with their games, as a reference for arcade machine collectors and restorers tracking down the proper buckets for individual games. "While popular styles did come to the front as the industry progressed, there were no standards in the early days, and a multitude of coin door and cashbox designs were introduced as a result," he says.

Lego Kong (and Friends)

While not as technically impressive as some of the animated Lego renditions of Donkey Kong, the ape's goofy smile and stubby arms in this scene by Rob Majury kill me. Plus, it really looks like an action shot from a Lego version of Nintendo's arcade classic.

And so long as we're talking about Donkey Kong and Lego scenes from video games, I have to share this Donkey Kong Country snapshot with you, taken right from one of the game's mine cart stages. Diddy seems terrified with the incomplete track ahead, picturing his plastic limbs scattered across the kitchen countertop, his red cap thrown across the room and under the fridge:

The above Lego piece was put together by Chaosfish1, who also crafted these custom Lego video game characters, which I just have to show you:


GameCareerGuide Announces DSiWare Design Challenge Winners, Mario Competition

Our sister site GameCareerGuide has announced the winners of its first Nintendo DSi design challenge, which challenged readers to submit original concepts with the DSi's specific hardware in mind.

Many GameCareerGuide.com reader responses expressed enthusiasm for the DSi's cameras, and several concepts toyed with the idea of integrating real-world scavenger hunts into gameplay. Others contributed game ideas that exploited the DS's multiplayer WiFi capabilities, and a few suggested intriguing ways in which the DSi's audio playback could make for compelling gameplay experiences.

What follows are the best and most original entries we received - here's some top picks:

Best Entries
Matthew Rollins, Systems Analyst, Ultimate Scavenger Hunt
Ultimate Scavenger Hunt's scope pushed it ahead of similar entries, promising gameplay variety aimed at multiple audiences and demographics. Sponsored challenges and downloadable content expand an already robust gameplay offering.

RiCah Anne Vanessa R. Baltazar, Game Designer, Director's Cut
Director's Cut successfully integrates the DSi's many unique hardware features into one complete product that allows users to cut a film using photos, sound samples, and downloadable scripts. Film sharing features ensure that players will seek to hone their filmmaking abilities in order to show off their work to friends and family members.

Vladimir Villanueva, Artist, Beat Box
The DSi's music playback functionality may be one of the device's lesser-promoted features, but it's central to Beat Box's unique take on the vertically scrolling shooter genre. With simple gameplay and replayability that scales to the size of the user's music library, Beat Box would make an ideal candidate for the DSi Shop.

The full GameCareerGuide feature goes in-depth on the winning concepts, each of which utilizes the DSi's functionality in innovative ways -- read it now for all the details!

In addition, there's a new Game Design Challenge starting now. This latest challenge is, simply enough: "Change Mario's career." The justification for Mario and his brother Luigi's foray down into the sewage pipes of the original Mario Bros., released to arcades in 1983, is that the pair were plumbers.

It's said, even, that the Mushroom Kingdom, where Mario met Princess Peach and his nemesis Bowser, lay on the other side of a pipe, and the traveling-via-drainpipe motif figures heavily in the original Super Mario Bros. and its sequels.

But what would the series be like now if Mario had been, say, a chef? A taxi driver? An accountant? That's what we want you to do: change Mario's career and change the course of gaming history. Envision the game that would result from this new profession.

(Note: we obviously realize that quite a lot of Mario games don't rely on his plumber persona, but we'd like you to make a game that heavily relies on his new job!)

More information on this latest competition, for which the deadline is Wednesday, May 13th, is available on GameCareerGuide.com - and you can also discuss the Challenge in the GameCareerGuide forums.

Superpowerless Wastes His Time On Video Games

Based in Leeds, Superpowerless is 20-year-old Oliver Hindle, who describes his music as "Game Boy-fueled adventure-core". Despite his youth and limited budget, he was able to put together this excellent video -- which lives out a fantasy I've always had of crashing pedal karts into stacks of colored boxes -- after winning an MTV / Vodafone competition.

For his prize, Superpowerless spent a week with a record producer to polish the song and release it through Vodaphone's live download service, and had a music video directed by Luc Janin, who previously worked with other UK artists such as The Fratellis and Stereophonics. The video was then aired on MTV in 29 countries. Great exposure for a chiptune act!

GameSetLinks: High School, Schmigh School

[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 a sumptuous feast of links from across the Internet, brought from GameSetWatch to you over a series of tubes (hope you're liking the enhanced version of GSW, btw - much kudos to Eric Caoili for research and digging up some awesome cultural artifacts!)

Anyhow, in this particular URL stew, we have an MSNBC piece on high school-themed games, the U.S. demo-scene continued, the Blurst folks in the WSJ, interesting thoughts on Mother 3, the world according to Messhof, and more.

But how?

Progression in Mother 3 - The Quixotic Engineer
'To use a cooking metaphor, it’s as if the designers used the same ingredients, but tweaked the recipe and ended up with a very different dish.'

Fullbright: Reorienteering: spatial organization in BioShock
'How does the designer keep the player oriented, and give them the information they need to easily navigate from one side of the level to the other?'

High school hell is great fodder for games - Citizen Gamer- msnbc.com
'War is hell, but a few savvy developers have figured out an even more hellish and heart-pounding backdrop for games: high school. Bullets whizzing past your head? Pshaw. Just try surviving the cafeteria.'

Playing To The Gallery | Edge Online
Neat Chris Dahlen interview with Messhof on the 'getting artier' Edge Online.

demoscene.us - Blockparty 2009 reports and releases
Reports, competition info from the U.S. demo-scene party.

Boom or Blurst: A New Business Model for Videogames? - WSJ.com
Nice, my buddies (and Indie Games Summit/Festival co-organizers) at Flashbang get a really nice Wall Street Journal profile - also important on emerging biz models.

April 30, 2009

Psytronik Remaking Armalyte For PCs

Psytronik Software, a small company releasing old and new Commodore 64 titles, revealed that it will release a PC conversion of Cyberdyne's 1988 C64 shoot'em up Armalyte later this year. Working with developer S-A-S Designs, Psytronik plants to update the game with new graphics, animation, music and sound effects.

Psytronik will also release a Competition Edition of Armalyte as "a proper C64 commercial release" tomorrow. Along with new full-color artwork, the Competition Edition features like level-select, adjustable enemy bullet speeds, a scrolling demo mode, and more.

It will also include a bonus disk with music demos and Armalyte demos, as well as a demo of the Armalyte 2 game that never made it to market.

The company plans to sell Armalyte's PC edition through its store as a CD-ROM in "a white Wii-style DVD case", and intends to soon make available a downloadable demo with the first level. You can see screenshots from the new PC conversion below:

Analysis: Midway's Tragic Soap Opera

[Midway's story is one marked by fascinating characters, plot twists and gripping drama. In an in-depth analysis, new Gamasutra recruit Kris Graft examines how this once celebrated Mortal Kombat creator went from booming to bankrupt.]

The story of Midway Games reads like a video game business soap opera:

There’s the celebrated Midwest game maker with a coin-op heritage; the old billionaire media mogul – a Harvard man and U.S. Army vet who made the company his plaything, only to discard it like an old toy; a failed CEO who went from softcore porn publishing to software publishing; a mysterious investor named after two disciples – one faithful, one doubtful – who bought out the old man in a fishy scheme; a tragic bankruptcy that marked the beginning of the end.

Let us also not forget the mothers who grieved for their wayward young; the children who ripped vertebrae from ninjas’ torsos throughout the 1990s.

Today, Chicago-based Midway Games, which officially established as a corporation in 1988 (although its heritage goes back to the 1950s), is in the midst of a bankruptcy that began in February 2009, as pressure from creditors grew too much to bear.

But Midway’s problems were mounting several years earlier. With some formerly brilliant companies, it’s easy to pinpoint the exact moment where the business went sour. In Midway’s case, the current situation is the result of a culmination of several salient factors.

Profit Problems

Midway hasn’t turned an annual operating profit since 1999. That’s nearly a decade’s worth of losses. The most recent fiscal year ended December 31, 2008 saw operating losses rise 52 percent year-over-year to a staggering $113.5 million.

We should examine that turning point in 1999. In the late 90s, Midway, whose history traces back to the heyday of the arcade, was reporting heavy declines in its coin-op business, which steadily dropped since 1996.

It’s no coincidence that the PlayStation and increasingly advanced home consoles were taking hold of gamers around that time as well. The term “arcade perfect” was quickly becoming meaningless – gamers would soon expect their consoles to perform at the same level as arcade cabinets.

Midway’s financials in the 1990s are striking. Annual revenues for Midway’s home video game business didn’t surpass those of its arcade business until fiscal year 1996, when it dawned on management to begin publishing home versions of its own coin-op games instead of farming out home gaming duties to Acclaim. In 1997, coin-op revenues hit $168.3 million, compared to home game revenues of $219.9 million. For Midway, it was a banner year for its arcade business.

Two short years later we would see Midway falter. In 1999, Midway managed to eke out an operating profit of $8.3 million, way down from 1998’s $65 million. Revenues tumbled $27.5 million from the prior year to $134 million. The age of decline had begun.

You can argue that on a fundamental basis, Midway is in the position it’s in today because it never really broke free of its admirable but stifling coin-op roots, and failed to become a true top-tier home console competitor.

Just look at Midway’s most recent top-performing game, November’s Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, which shipped nearly two million units in its opening weeks at retail. This is a one-on-one fighting game based on an arcade game from 1992. There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily – good on Ed Boon and the Mortal Kombat team for making the franchise commercially viable after nearly 20 years.

But it exemplifies how little Midway has evolved as a company overall. The publisher is still remembered for games like San Francisco Rush, Cruisin’ USA, Hydro Thunder, Spy Hunter, NBA Jam and the original Area 51 -- arcade games, in other words, most of which saw home ports. But can one think of a Midway game that originated on home consoles that can nobly stand shoulder to shoulder in the pantheon of great Midway arcade games?

A Lack Of Foresight

Midway’s attempt to explain the sudden decrease in sales in 1999 seems endearingly naive, like a confused father trying to explain to his kids why the family dog dropped dead, when he doesn’t even really know the reason why:

“The decrease in home video revenues was primarily due to a reliance on third party designed games that were favorably reviewed but did not do well in the market place and a reduced number of home games converted from coin-op games that generally have higher sales.”

Again, the above shows Midway’s dysfunctional marriage to coin-op: coin-op properties are the key to the family room; more coin-op to home ports will turn things around; publishing third party games, even if they’re of quality – is not the answer.

Also in that final year of profitability, Midway – although it just suggested in the same filing that coin-op ports are the pathway to success in the home gaming market – tried to explain away why its coin-op business was slipping away:

“The decrease in coin-operated video game revenues was primarily from a reduced number of sit down driving games in the product mix and a sharp decrease in demand, during the latter part of fiscal 1999, for games that incorporate guns or a shooting theme.”

Hindsight is 20/20, for certain, but knowing what we know today, the reason for the drop in coin-op revenues wasn’t because there weren’t enough sit down driving games, or because nobody wanted to play light gun games anymore: people didn’t want to play arcade games anymore.

Nowhere does Midway in its filing that year address that home video game consoles like the PlayStation were beginning to eat away at the arcade business. Today, that trend is blatantly obvious.

Midway realized a full two years later that it was time to drop its coin-op efforts. In June 2001, the publisher discontinued its arcade business, cutting 60 workers and saying in a press release: “…The Company implemented a strategy to focus its product development resources on next-generation home videogame consoles, which are expected to generate significant demand for game software over the next several years. As a result of this strategy, Midway is expecting to generate significant revenue and profit growth in fiscal 2002, which commences January 1, 2002.”

Despite the optimism, that projected profit growth stemming from a greater focus on home consoles never happened. While Midway cut the dead weight known as “coin-op” that year, in fiscal 2002 – the year that the focus on home consoles would “generate significant profit and revenue growth” – the game maker reported an operating loss of $52 million – a narrower loss than the prior year, but still substantially negative.

In May 2003, Midway appointed David F. Zucker as chief exec, the former president of Playboy Enterprises who would take the place of COO Neil D. Nicastro. Under Zucker, Midway’s operating losses continued fiscal year after fiscal year:

2004: -$25 million
2005: -$108 million
2006: -$72 million
2007: -$78 million

After about four years under his guidance and nearly $300 million in total losses, Zucker “ceased to be the president and CEO” of Midway in March 2008, the company claimed. Clearly, his departure wasn’t entirely on his own volition. Nevertheless, Midway earmarked a $1.2 million golden parachute for the exec that fiscal year.

A class action suit filed in 2007 that names Zucker and other Midway execs is currently pending in the United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois.

The plaintiffs allege that Zucker and his colleagues “made a series of misrepresentations and omissions about Midway’s financial well-being and prospects concerning its financial performance…” Two investors who filed a similar suit earlier that year voluntarily dismissed their action in December 2008.

Disaster Set In Motion

Matt Booty, Midway Games’ current CEO, took over as interim CEO following Zucker’s departure. He’s been with the company since 1991 – a true grunt who’s been in the trenches – working various capacities in product development before climbing the corporate ladder.

Before his departure, Zucker had already made some decisions that would impact Midway’s ability to become a viable competitor in the generation of Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii. For one, Zucker decided in 2005 to use Unreal Engine 3 across its entire slate of next generation games.

While Zucker touted the capable Unreal Engine 3 as a magical ingredient that would cut costs, improve efficiency and return Midway to profitability, Booty was more transparent in an August 2006 interview (when he was EVP of worldwide studios), admitting that the studio-wide adoption of Unreal Engine 3 wasn’t wholly popular at first:

“Was there a cultural hurdle we had to overcome to get everybody on the same page? Yeah. I think that's going to be true with anything. … There's a lot to adapt to in terms of infrastructure. It also impacts the art and the development pipeline. It's a major cultural shift to get that many studios aligned with each other. We're spending a lot of time working on that stuff as well. ... You've got to look at the big picture as to how you're going to build your organization around it.”

Anonymous ex-Midway employees surfaced recently saying that Midway’s tech team tried layering custom modifications on top of the base Unreal Engine 3 to make a company-wide, multi-game genre solution, which caused development difficulties in adapting the largely shooter-specific engine across a range of games.

Technical hurdles on the new PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 led to the long delay of Midway’s next-gen debut, September 2007’s John Woo’s Stranglehold. Reports said the game cost anywhere from $30 to $40 million to create, a hefty amount for a console game even by today’s standards. Midway said the game sold over one million units.

Following Stranglehold was Blacksite: Area 51, developed by Midway’s Austin studio. The game was rushed to market and poorly received by critics. Respected developer and lead designer for the game Harvey Smith called the project “so fucked up,” citing everything from technical issues to management snafus.

And then there’s another one of Midway’s major current gen titles that was supposed to shake things up: Wheelman, a property that, along with Stranglehold, was supposed to be part of Zucker’s major cross-media strategy. Originally announced in early 2006, following multiple delays, the game finally released this year – although published by Ubisoft due to Midway’s weakened position.

As late as 2006, analysts had held hope that Midway could turn itself around, even in the face of mounting losses. The above games were supposed to be the ingredients of a comeback.

But instead of blasting into the room, two pistols blazing as doves scatter in slow-motion, Midway faltered out of the next-gen gates in poor form, setting the company up to continue the losses incurred in the years prior.

Midway had botched the all-important console generational transition, just as it botched the arcade to home transition.

What happened in the years to follow were job layoffs, studio closings and snarky game journos who found it advantageous to use images of Mortal Kombat fatalities in their Midway doomsday articles.

Let The Real Finger-Pointing Commence

But Zucker can’t be the only one to blame for Midway’s most recent misfortune. The buck ultimately stops at the desk of 85-year-old media mogul Sumner Redstone, whose company National Amusements bought a controlling stake in Midway in 2004. Under his watch, Midway languished until he offloaded the company to a mysterious investor by the name of Mark Thomas in late 2008 for $100,000, although Thomas agreed to assume $70 million in debt.

With the change of hands, creditors got the go-ahead to demand the money owed to them by Midway. Without the ability to pay the loans, the firm decided to file for bankruptcy on February 12, 2009.

The drama didn’t end there. The sale of the company to Thomas came under scrutiny, and accusations of shady dealings emanated through news reports. Redstone and his daughter Shari, Midway’s former chair, were subpoenaed in March over the sale.

A bankruptcy hearing in April had a judge summing up his thoughts on Redstone’s handling of Midway: “This is a game company. But that did not give National Amusement the right to treat a public company as if it were a toy.”

Of Friendships And Fatalities

Midway is now on the chopping block, with its pieces ripe for the picking. Management hopes to sell Midway's assets, including its crown jewel Mortal Kombat, for a total of at least $30 million.

Midway made five-and-a-half times that much in one year in sales from its coin-op business in 1997 alone. The company has fallen far.

It’s easy to kick a company while it’s down, criticize the failings that past custodians “should” have seen long before problems became insurmountable.

But the current reality is that here we have yet another fabled video game brand that will likely never be the same again (add Midway to the list of Acclaim, Sierra, Atari, etc.), not to mention hundreds of workers whose livelihoods have been negatively affected. When a plane smashes into the ground, what do you do first? You look for the black box and find out what went wrong. Not because you’re sadistic, but to learn how to prevent future disasters.

Sure, mourning for a video game brand that isn’t quite dead is probably being too nostalgic and over-dramatic. Although what’s a good video game business soap opera without a healthy dose of drama?

Download Sudnow's Pilgrim in the Microworld

Pilgrim in the Microworld, David Sudnow's "pilgrimage to the land of video games" as the New York Times described it in 1983 when the book first released with its ominous eye firing beams of green light (or breakout balls), is available for download as a free PDF through the late author's store.

A trained ethnographer and social psychologist, Sudnow also wrote Ways of the Hand, which chronicles how he learned to improvise jazz on the piano, and Passing on: The Social Organization of Dying.

Pilgrim in the Microworld follows his introduction to Missile Command after watching his son defend its cities from falling ballistic missiles, to his obsession with Breakout that leads him to analyze its mechanics, seek game-playing tips from Atari programmers, and question the "philosophical and social issues raised by video games".

You can read an excerpt from Pilgrim in the Microworld, posted by superannuation, below:

"They were all out of Missile Command, damn it. I’d woken up in the morning with the silhouette of that psychedelectric landscape still etched on my retina. Wouldn’t it be neat if a “city in memory” came up looking a little different, more imperfect than the original, say, with just the essence suggested? That would at least make it appear computers remember sights as we do, rather than as just series of numerical values for each grid point on the screen. Remembering the looks of things, we forget aspects of them in ways we can’t predict in advance, which is to say images live a history within our lives. Computers don’t have that kind of memory. How could they?

Herb had another game called Breakout, which I’d glimpsed some guests play during timeouts from the favored bouts at nuclear defense. Was there a truly worthy video opponent - a Don Juan of Silicon Valley? Who knew, but the salesman said this Breakout thing was a real good game, the TV was sitting in the backseat of the car, and rather than drive around all day looking for missiles, I figured I’d take this one home for starters. How was I to know it would become “my game,” that I’d get so obsessed with it as to live out the next three months of my life almost exclusively within this nineteen-inch microworld, heaven help me."

Kazemi's Meggy Jr. Sequence Synthesizer

I'm hopelessly infatuated with the Meggy Jr., the fully programmable handheld console featuring an 8x8 RGB LED matrix display, but don't have the coding knowhow to actually mess with one, so for now, I'll live through the Meggy Jr. projects of others, though there aren't many.

Orbus Gameworks' Darius Kazemi, who also created a roguelike for the system, posted the above video for MeggySeqSynth, which turns the handheld into a "standalone performance device where you sequence your samples and then improvise over it using the MeggySynth arpeggiator."

The project combines the work of Kazemi's MeggySynth (a proof of concept for a rhythm game idea) and Josh Brandt's step sequencer MeggySeq. The Orbus Gameworks president also posted this clip of Jonathan Mak (Everyday Shooter) trying out MeggySeqSynth:

4chan Group Releases Eroge Demo

Four Leaf Studios, a team consisting of community members of popular and oft-maligned imageboard site 4chan, yesterday released an "Act 1 Preview" for its free English "bishoujo-style visual novel", Katawa Shoujo, or Disabled Girls.

As you can surmise from the title, the group took a controversial approach with the project, succinctly describing it as "a cripple dating game". Players take on the role of Hisao Nakai, who suffers a congenital heart defect and is forced to attend a high school in Japan for disabled children, where he'll seek out friends and love.

The game features five main female characters which presumably one can seduce, each with their own storylines and ailments -- cheery and optimistic Emi Ibarazaki is the star of the school's track team with her prosthetic legs; caring and diligent student Lilly Satou has been blind since birth; philosophical and armless Rin Tezuka uses her feet and mouth to paint and complete everyday tasks; strong-willed and manipulative Shizune Hakamichi is the deaf and mute class representative; and reclusive Hanako Ikezawa is disfigured from a fire early in her childhood.

Despite its perverse and contemptible premise, the game so far is well-produced, and you can see the team's talent and earnest in Katawa Shoujo's music samples and opening movie:

The game was birthed from a sketch by Japanese doujin manga artist Raita summarizing the potential dating sim, scanned and posted onto 4chan in early 2007. "For reasons we will never know, someone's genius idea of actually realizing Raita's idea of the game caught on like wildfire and soon suggestions ranging from tender love stories to depraved sex fantasies were running amok in the thread," explains Four Leaf Studios on Katawa Shoujo's site.

"The insane idea of creating an actual original game, based on nothing but a single picture and the sparse ideas Raita had written in the margins titillated the imaginations of [4chan posters] so much that people became truly serious about the fledgling project," the team continues. "Soon, there were development forums and for the next months, ideas and suggestions were flying around, with people trying to flesh out their ideas, drawing sample art, writing sample text, trying to control the chaos of dozens of people arguing and bickering about the direction of the game."

You can see Raita's original concept sketch here (with translated text):

The reactions from those in Japan who noticed the project last year is interesting (machine translated):

"For them you might be one small step For GAIJIN is a major step HENTAI GAIJIN the way it is now only beginning"

"I do not know the nerve of those who think of this plan."

"The foreigners are good."

"Buyer is a would-be criminals, the police must monitor.

Whether you think that police must monitor or that hentai gaijin is only beginning, you can learn more about Katawa Shoujo and download the "Act 1 Preview" from the game's official site.

[Via Sankaku Complex (NSFW)]

2008 Game Developer Salary Survey Reveals $79,000 Average Income

[Although the video game business has definitely been hurt by the recession, our sister Game Developer magazine has just debuted its latest salary survey, and as can be seen, for those still holding jobs, average wage is still edging up. Here's the details.]

Editors at Game Developer magazine, the leading video game industry publication, have released the results of its eighth annual Game Developer Salary Survey, calculating an average American game industry salary in 2008 of $79,000, a 7% increase from 2007’s figure of nearly $74,000.

While the recession is, anecdotally, significantly impacting the amount of jobs available in the U.S., the income of still-employed game industry professionals in 2008 continues to edge up, thanks to increased asking prices for more experienced professionals.

Highlights of specific findings per category for the survey, which is the only major publicly released analysis of salaries in the worldwide video game industry, and is available in further detail in the newly published April 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine, include:

Programming: programmers are the highest paid talent next to high-end businesspeople, with an average annual salary of $85,024. Experience pays in this role, as those with greater than six years of experience earned 26% more than the average annual salary.

Art & Animation: artists – averaging a $69,532 salary, nonetheless, 28% of art directors reported lower salaries than the previous year. But these more experienced, higher status artists also tend to earn at least 35% more than those with less experience and lower title.

Game Design: averaging $67,379, design positions sprouted an average $3,730 over last year. As with many roles, region makes a difference, given that West Coast designers make on average $8,283 or 12% more than the rest of the game designers in the country.

Production: of all the game development disciplines, production – with a salary average overall of $82,905 – is the most welcoming to women, with 21% of the workforce made up of females – more than twice the industry average. The discipline as a whole saw a strong $4,189 bump from last year.

Quality Assurance: testers with less than three years experience make up the largest percentage of this segment – 46%. Quality assurance is the lowest paid of the game development disciplines, averaging $39,571 – almost flat to 2007 – and the majority of Q/A people – 87% - are lesser experienced. The number of female Q/A testers jumped from 6% in 2007 to 14% in 2008.

Audio: sound designers as a group earned 6% more than they did in 2007, up $4,758 on average over last year to $78,167. 74% of audio developers reported that their salaries increased over 2007. Interestingly, 48% of those in the game audio industry have been working there for 6 years or more – more than the 40% for game design, and equal to the 48% for production.

Business & Marketing: the business field as a whole remains the highest compensated group in game development - with an average salary of $102,143 - and also receives the highest amount of additional compensation. However, salaries vary significantly between individual job titles in this section, with experienced VPs and executive managers making the most of any individual section in the entire survey – at $131,085 on average and reporting at least 6 years experience.

An extended version of the “Game Developer Salary Survey” includes much more detailed U.S. regional and growth data for year-over-year results from 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008, plus international information from Canada and Europe. It will be of particular interest to business and HR professionals in the game industry, and is now available for purchase via the Game Developer Research division.

Mint Turns Personal Finance Into A Game

If we can enjoy ourselves with activities like personal fitness and "brain training" presented as games, why not take that same approach to managing our budgets or paying off debts? Ever since I saw Takara Tomy's RPG piggy bank, I've hoped that someone would bring something similar to the U.S., except scaled for adult use.

If having money in your bank account and building a nest egg aren't themselves goals that will motivate you to manage your savings, personal finance site Mint.com is testing a simple game-like feature called “Financial Fitness” with a private beta. The game encourages you to pick up points for completing monthly tasks such as avoiding bank fees and annual challenges like getting a high-yield savings account.

As you earn more points and improve your financial fitness rating, you can earn badges for achievements like keeping a 100% health status for an extended period of time. Also, you'll have the reward of having more money in your pocket or savings.

To develop this feature, Mint studied the reward systems of Wii Fit, World of Warcraft, and Nike Fit, according to a report from technology news site TechCrunch. While it's still a very simple implementation and not a full-fledged finance RPG (Dragon Quest X: Defenders of the Starry Savings For Retirement), perhaps Mint or someone else will expand on this idea in the future.

Best of Member Blogs: From Math to Sound

[Showcasing highlights from sister site Gamasutra's Member Blogs, we hand out a lifetime Game Developer magazine subscription for a proposal to reduce some games' reliance on hard numbers, and focus more on true narrative meaning.]

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 Fall Of Math
(Adam Bishop)

Member Adam Bishop has been thinking aloud about what he feels is an over-reliance of "math" in games. He suggests that instead of focusing on assigning numbers to choices, actions and consequences in games, developers should give true narrative meaning to those aspects, or at least rely more on logic rather than statistics. It's easier said than done, but he says that games like Indigo Prophecy and Braid have achieved this to an extent. Not all commenters on his blog agreed with his thoughts, but the notion is thought-provoking nonetheless.

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

- The "Living World" Game
(Bart Stewart)

Between single-player RPGs and MMORPGs, Bart Stewart wants the best of both worlds. In an in-depth blog post, he presents a theoretical single-player/MMO RPG hybrid, and runs down the challenges of designing such a beast. Is such a game plausible or merely a pipe dream?

- Pinball Wiizard
(Dave Beaudoin)

A recent reimagining of The Who's 1973 rock opera Tommy has the titular character playing Wii instead of traditional pinball. Dave Beaudoin objects to the way the recent performance (presumably from Michigan State University's run) portrayed The Who's original masterwork as well as the burgeoning gaming market. There's a lesson to be learned here, he says.

- The Debate Goes On...Are Video Games Art?
(Gary Hutton)

If you're not yet exhausted by the video games as art debate, read Gary Hutton's blog entry, presumably spurred by Gamasutra feature editor Christian Nutt's recent opinion piece. Hutton claims the question at hand should be "Are Video Games Art Yet?" As with more established, widely accepted art forms, creators' contributions to the medium will eventually reach a critical mass where video games' "artfulness" cannot be denied.

- World of Warcraft Audio Analysis: A Critique
(John Mawhorter)

An interesting academic analysis of the game audio in World of Warcraft led to this response by John Mawhorter, who finds a few standout problems with the analysis. Mawhorter's critique draws attention to the sometimes overlooked world of game audio, and how well-done auditory signals can improve gameplay, serving more than superficial aural ambience.

- Plus, Richard Cody says $5 is pushing the barrier price-wise for iPhone Apps.

April 29, 2009

Mighty Jill Off Activity Books

As part of a fanart competition held last October for Anna "Auntie Pixelante" Anthropy's Mighty Bomb Jack-inspired, BDSM-tinged platformer Mighty Jill Off, artist and animator James Harvey gave away five handmade activity books as prizes.

The books invite their owners to take part in a variety of creative tasks, like drawing in make-out partners for a group of repulsive, tongue-waggling oafs, or writing a poem for Mighty Jill Off's dom Queen.

Harvey has scanned and posted online pages from the activity book, encouraging others to send in their filled out pages (NSFW) as part of an Activity Week on his personal blog. You can see a couple pages from the books below:

Column: 'Lingua Franca' – The Place Of Games In Culture

['Lingua Franca' is a new biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Daniel Johnson which discusses the relationship between language, culture and video games.]

Piggy backing off the recent discussion surrounding Resident Evil 5 and the cultural liability of game developers or how the games industry breeds a “boys club” culture? No, I wouldn't be so brash. Culture has always been an integral influencer of game development and consumption.

As this introductory guide will attempt to explain, culture is a difficult to define, powerful force which has become ever more important as video games begin to touch deeper themes, wider markets and an audience which is more culturally adept.

What is Culture?

Culture is one of those tricky concepts generalized by many, yet clearly defined by none. There's simple reason behind the ambiguity, being that even when given a clear definition the concept is still terribly icky since it manifests as a agent that influences the greater part of our thinking. Culture affects the way we interpret the world and everything within that interpretation, hence it's difficult to separate culture from the mess of surrounding issues, so admitting generalization is almost compulsory when dealing with the matter.

Delving into the complexities of cultural definition are completely un-worthwhile (and hardly entertaining) for you the reader. It's an endless rabbit hole of confusion. Instead let's adopt the mantra that culture should be understood as a very open term, with the generally accepted definition being: “the way of life of a people”. These people could be connected by geography (country), interest (fan) or anything else that binds them together.

Why Culture and Games?

Culture is becoming increasingly more important in the modern era due to globalisation, multiculturalism and bilingualism. Businesses now operate on a worldwide scale, adapting their products and services to fit multiple cultural demographs. International communities reside in all corners of the earth, be it the Spanish speaking community of San Fransisco, Australian expatriates in the UK or mainland Chinese doing business in the bordering countries of South East Asia.

With the mixing of cultures, new hybridized identities have emerged such as the American-born Chinese, African-English (accented with the UK vernacular) and so on. Amongst all of this, second language acquisition and multilingualism is becoming a powerful asset in the contemporary modern world which demands greater cultural and linguistic sophistication.

Video games, much like anything else caught in this sphere is unavoidably affected by culture, therefore by understanding culture we can better understand how game development, marketing and the games themselves are constantly changing under this phenomena.

Discussion of games in a cultural light has always been slim to non-existent, while at the same time game markets and developers continually become more culturally diversified. It's only been in recent times that this has caught up on us, sparking new awareness on the topic. The realization of potential markets such as China, Korea and Brazil as well as the increase in culturally rich titles including Resident Evil 5, Far Cry 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV are all key contributors here.

How well the listed games portray a (foreign) culture is another matter altogether. Such issues as these raise the inevitable questions among audiences such as “Should developers be held accountable for the cultural messages inferred from their games?”, “What's the difference between selling games to a US, Europe or Australian market?” and “How much do we really know about developing a game for a Chinese, Jamaican or Middle-eastern audience?”. As you can see, now is as good a time as any to invest our thoughts into games and culture.

To bring this point home, I wish to discuss games as influenced by, representative of and a contributor to culture, and then conclude on some light discussion regarding the current cultural landscape.

Game Development as Influenced by Culture

Hopefully I've repeated it enough times already that you'll be aware that culture effects our everyday thinking. Living in a society with rules generated by our culture affects how we ourselves operate in that society. The process of developing video games is then obviously also affected by this culture, while at the same time being an extension into it's own industry culture. Game developers make games that abide by the rules of their culture, fair enough, most of the world lives in pretty humane societies, so the differences are mostly going to be pretty minor, right? True, but while subtle, they're hardly negligible.

Take the Metal Gear series as an example. The Metal Gear series was developed by a Japanese studio, whose influence can be seen throughout. For example, the series features a rather multicultural cast of characters with American, European, Russian, Chinese, African and Inuit backgrounds – an interesting fruit salad of ethnicities, all at the mercy of the Japanese interpretation of these cultures.

The way these ethnicities are represented in game are therefore very telling of the cultural angle in bias (be it positive, negative or otherwise). If you look hard enough the results are clearly apparent, cautious of spoilers, you can find some musings regarding the portrayal of the Chinese identity within the series here.

The cast is just a single concentrated facet of this mammoth series. References to the Hiroshima bomb blast, the way that the US is scrutinized for its role with nuclear weapons and the commentaries on the Cold War are interesting hints of the larger cultural forces at play.

Larger still, the cast, delivery of dialogue and action harkens back to the super-hero-super-villain manga style of story telling, which is particularly Japanese. From these minor observations we can draw powerful insights into the game and use them to better understand the title as well as its development.

The other, more home grown way that culture affects industry is through the culture of the industry itself. That is, the way of life of game developers clearly affects the game development industry. A standout example immediately jumps straight to mind; Heather Chaplin's GDC talk in which she criticized game development culture as being an adolescent boy's club, attributing this to why the medium isn't taken seriously. Funnily enough, my tutor (previously of RatBag Games) for an elective games course I'm taking, said similar things to our class a few weeks prior.

She asserted that game enthusiasts are the core group of people to enter development and therefore create games that appeal to themselves, hence limiting the progression of the medium. Her frustration on this issue as well as the responses generated from Heather's talk speaks volumes as to the effects that culture has on shifting the development process.

Games Representing Culture

Video games are a largely untapped, powerful medium of expression. Culture is an ingrown element of any form of story telling and is only more prevalent in a medium whose core quality is interactivity. The actions and reactions of people is what defines their culture, in a game world they're also features of the game's story telling, hence developing a video game narrative is developing a culture. Story within an interactive experience can be told in various, perhaps limitless ways and forms, with culture underlying every one of them.

It's arguably a faddish fashion statement nowadays for games attempting to be more engaging to set themselves in non-western contexts. In a way it's the always reliable crutch to make a game more culturally deep, well at least on the surface. Popular settings include Africa (Far Cry 2, Resident Evil 5), the Middle-East (Six Days In Fallujah, 50 Cent Blood on the Sand), Chinatown (Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars), Shanghai (Army of Two sequel) and Okinawa, Japan (Yakuza 3).

Locations have a story of their own, and are an easy way for games to convey culture, it's what you see, there's the culture, right in front of you! Culture as environment can be meaningful, but is far too often used primarily for aesthetic reasons, rather than stirring about deep cultural themes.

I personally adore The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask for it's incredible portrayal of societal cultural rifts. The Zelda series features three reoccurring fictional races, being the mountain-dwelling, laid-back Gorons, the fish-like Zoras and the exotic, tribal Dekus. These races share similar personal qualities to real life ethnicities, but visually are representative of animals or nature. In previous Zelda titles, Link (protagonist) has always been an outsider to these races.

The mask system in Majora's Mask allows the player to take the physical mold of these three main races, and see the world through the eyes of each. You as the player are now accepted into the membership groups of these cultures, they no longer view you as a foreigner, but as an insider and their actions change accordingly. Take off the mask, and the world reacts to you differently.

As an insider, the game places you in the role of a cultural observer who can bear witness to backstage operations of each civilization as well as par-taking in their practices. The game particularly emphasizes the way these societies rely on the natural environment (which present the game's conflict), and how each race interconnect through the economy of Clock Town.

The mask system is an entrance way into experiencing these three different identities from a perspective that had never before been allowed by the series. The metaphoric depiction of this reality of cultures co-existing in the same space is one of the reasons why Majora's Mask had garnered such a strong individual following within the franchise; it gave the thematic a cold edge of realism.

These two examples of landscapes and identity representation as portrayal of culture are only two techniques in which video game can express culture. There are of course, other ways such as through characters, relationships and cultural symbols. The potential here is boundless.

Games as a Contributor to Culture

Video games also act as their own culture - that's us! The people that play video games are a society in themselves that through interactions within this society craft a culture of their own. Through our social transmission we emit a series of norms, specialized language and behaviour that define the role of the game player. The same is true of any specialized membership group, we are as such a sub-culture. L33t speak, the significance of “All your base are belong to us”, NeoGAF, Metroidvania are all examples of products of our culture.

The gaming sub-culture also feeds itself back into the larger cultural realm. The cultural products and symbols to come out of games culture in turn influence popular culture (and many other facets of different cultures). Pixel art, chip tunes, Machinma, classic iconography (the original Mario sprite, for instance) are all widely known products of gaming culture, spread through popular culture and in turn affecting the state of that culture.

The General Scenario of Culture and Games

Contemporary video games appear to be largely polarized between Japanese and American cultures. These two countries are the cultural powerhouses of this industry as both play the two most significant roles in game production. In recent years the industry has gravitated more towards Americanized games, due to the increase in quality of American developed games, and the decline in Japanese development.

The result of this shift has prompted many countries to Americanize their titles to suit this widening, more culturally dominant market. Previously, after the video game crash of 83, Japanese games controlled the industry. The tide has slowly been turning in favour of western developed titles, to a point where nowadays players are being brought up with the mindset that most of the world's best games are American produced, rather than coming exclusively from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Unlike other industries such as film, the youthful games industry is yet to establish a strong presence of country/culture specific games. That is besides American and Japanese games, most countries don't hold a significant reputation for their own blend or style of video game. It may sound gloomy but smaller cultural niches are healthy in their own right, they just haven't fully grown into their own, nor have the audience even began to adopt the mindset that each culture can produce their own distinct variety of electronic entertainment.

The cultural ethos in Fable 2 is a good example of a European atmosphere present in the games industry. Korean and Chinese games are an industry of their own, the large part of this almost wholly separated from the Western world, but a booming industry nonetheless. Just recently it was announced that India were going to receive a small bounty of Indian exclusive PS2 titles.

So while on a surface level, games may appear predominately American or Japanese, there's no doubt that this medium is also thriving from cultural diversity. In addition to these more apparent examples, there is much cultural subtly waiting to be unearthed. How does a French development team handle a game set during the Renaissance? How is language used differently in games made by developers from a bilingual country such as Canada in contrast to a monolingual country like the United States? These are all tiny nuances that affect the greater schematic, less obvious than the Far Cry or Fable examples.

The coming out party for games and culture hasn't started yet, and it'll no doubt be a long time coming, but it's nice to see some diversity from different corners of the medium. Monetary requirements is also a matter of concern, choking any further cultural diversity. Still, I find the current situation to be an adequate step in the evolution in this medium.

Conclusion

Unfortunately I can only begin to scratch the surface of this important issue within the constraints of this post. From what's been said though, you can see by the various arguments raised that culture is actually a pretty important issue worth discussing. Sure, the issue is messy and difficult to quantify, but the proof is in the pudding as highlighted; games are producers, representers and receivers of culture.

We'll only continue to see video games becoming more characteristic of their cultural origins. This is an entertainment medium after all, cultures shape markets, markets have tastes, tastes ought to be fulfilled, developer's need to meet the demands of their market, market is shaped by culture. We're a medium becoming more sophisticated, it's only a matter of time before the culture catches up to us for good. I hope this article has set the basic premise for you, I'll begin to chip away at this enormous issue in the following weeks, I do hope you'll join me.

[Daniel Johnson studies language and culture, and spends too many late nights conversing Mandarin to friends in Shanghai. He shares most of his video game musings on his blog at danielprimed.com]

Korea's Dog-Sledding MMORPG: Husky Express

Steparu, which covers foreign online games, put up a curious review of Nexon's odd MMORPG Husky Express. Created by Mabinogi-developer DevCat Studios, the game doesn't feature player versus player combat or even enemy mobs to grind against -- instead, Husky Express focuses on nurturing your dog-sledding team and making deliveries to different outposts.

The game, however, includes other traditional genre elements, like story quests, equipment upgrades, and resource farming. It also implements cool ideas like reselling items you've bought from NPC stores to nearby towns for extra profit (which isn't common in most MMORPGs), the importance of weather when planning your travels and deliveries, and the special abilities of the higher level dogs -- some can smell goods to determine the quality of products, and others have a leadership instinct that will enable your pack to jump crevices and cliffs.

You can watch a trailer for the game after the break, and see more videos on Steparu's review:

GameSetInterview: Rebooting Adventure 2600

Adventure 2600 Reboot recreates Atari's genre-defining 1979 classic with "16-bit-like" graphics, new sound effects and music, a more convenient front end, and more. The unauthorized remake also tracks players' best time for each difficulty, challenging players to complete quests with the lowest time score and adding an element of replayability.

William Stiernberg and a team that came together and organized their efforts on the Penny Arcade forums released the game for PCs earlier this week. We talked with Stiernberg about some of his design decisions for Adventure 2600 Reboot, including his changes to some of the game's pivotal elements, as well the advantages he sees in the original's simple graphics.

What's your game development background? Have you put out any other previous projects?

William Stiernberg: I don't have an extensive game development background, really. My first experience with programming at all was when I was in middle school, and I taught myself Q-Basic so that I could program some simple text based games. Later on, I would learn how to make custom levels and art for games as mods, although I rarely did any mod programming.

Eventually I sought out several projects over time, offering to do the artwork, because that's what I enjoy the most. Unfortunately, nearly every project I created artwork for fell apart before it could be completed. This is part of the reason I was so determined to bring this game to completion -- after so many projects that fell apart in the past, it kind of fueled my determination to see this one through to the end.

What tools did you and your team use for the project and asset creation?

WS: The Overworld artwork was created through two programs, Mappy and PhotoShop. 16x16 tiles were created in PhotoShop, and then the freeware app called Mappy was used to arrange and low down the tiles to create the overworld areas. I also used PhotoShop for the HUD and some spritework as well.

The Sound effects were done with Audacity, the freeware audio editor. I believe Delphinus also used Audacity to create the Ambient audio tracks. Khavall is a talented music student, and he has a variety of tools available to him at his university to compose and produce the soundtrack to the game, including Pro Tools.

What sort of history do you have with Adventure?

WS: Before I started, I had very little history with Adventure. Everyone knows about Warren Robinett's Easter Egg, and that was the extent of my knowledge until Halkun made the [Penny Arcade forums] thread about it back in August. So, I started reading and learning about the game, and became really interested in it. It's a classic, and many people have fond memories and nostalgia for the game.

After reading Halkun's thread, it seemed like a really great idea for a remake project. More importantly, it seemed possible. Most game projects wind up never getting finished because the project design is far too ambitious. With a remake of a classic Atari 2600 game, not only did it seem feasible to me that a small team of people could accomplish such a project, but all of the game concepts and design were already there.

So, I offered to help Halkun make the art, and he was going to do the coding from scratch. After doing a good amount of artwork, I decided to buy the Atari Anthology for the PS2, which includes the original Adventure. I wanted to get to know the source material better when doing artwork, but later on, I had to play it extensively so that I could code the remake properly. At this point, I know almost everything about Adventure 2600 that there is to know.

How long did you work on the project?

WS: Halkun announced the idea in the Penny Arcade [Games and Technology] forum on August 28, 2008. After reading about the project, I offered to make a few preliminary designs for the Castle artwork a few days later in September. So if the first day I did anything for this project was September 3, 2008, and the release date was April 27, 2009 at midnight, I have personally been involved with the project for seven months. And that's not including the time Halkun spent doing code and making sprites before he created the initial thread.

Why did you decide to recreate its look with "16-bit like" graphics (as opposed to say, "8-bit" or in 3D)?

WS: The original idea was to port the gameplay to modern PCs directly, and then apply 16-bit graphics to it. I personally feel that 16-bit presentation is a good middle ground because it gives you a lot of freedom with color and detail, but it still feels appropriate for the older gameplay.

How the sound is different from the original?

WS: Well, basically, the original game had almost no sound at all. There was no music and there were only some basic beeps/bloops when the Hero collided with an item, dragon, or bat. In the remake, we decided to retain some beeps/bloops for when the Hero acquires items or loses them to the Bat, but we updated the sounds of the Dragon.

Of course, the most noticeable difference in audio is the fact that we added ambient audio and music for the game. Delphinus created some great, high quality, mood-setting ambience for each area, and Khavall composed excellent "16-bit" sounding themes. The audio really brings the game to life when you're playing through it.

What other games did you look to or were inspired by when deciding on the remake's visual direction?

WS: Mostly 16-bit RPGs and action/adventure games. I drew a lot of inspiration from the 16-bit Final Fantasy games, and I also drew a lot of inspiration from Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. There were others that I took for inspiration for various areas, but most of the art direction came from 16-bit Final Fantasy and Zelda.

Can you talk about some of the changes you've made with the Bat and why you altered its behavior?

WS: The Bat represents the biggest gameplay change from the original. It's one of the things that Purists will probably notice first (and slam me for!), and I would have liked to make the bat more accurate to the original.

Basically, while the bat is on-screen, he essentially acts the same as he does in the original. The changes came in when I had to decide how to implement the bat across the overworld. I didn't straight port any code for this remake, and I only had certain resources to work with. So, I observed how the bat worked in the original game, and took some data, and implemented the new Bat as best I could.

He differs in that once he steals an item, he quickly moves and drops it to another area of the overworld, rather than hanging onto it for a long period of time. Secondly, you cannot chase the bat to subsequent screens. The downside is that once the Bat steals your item, you're going to have to track it down. The upside is that you can evade the bat by escaping to subsequent screens before he steals your item; and, if he has stolen one, you don't have to wait for him to drop it. But you'll still have to find it.

You encounter the bat roughly the same number of times on average during normal play as you would in the original, statistically speaking. I figured that this was an acceptable trade-off and that the gameplay remains largely the same despite these changes. It's the best I could do with what I had to work with.

You've been very open with the remake's development, sharing your changes and ideas on the Penny Arcade forums during the process. What role did the community have in the game's development?

WS: The community played a huge role in the game's development. Can't emphasize that enough. Ever since the beginning. It started when I was only doing art. Basically, I would create some art for an area, and post a screenshot. The community would have all kinds of suggestions about how to make it look better or suggest some tweaks to make it more interesting. Other times, I would just flat out ask for suggestions about how to liven up a scene, and I got tons of great responses that I added in.

The artwork of the game came out much, much better as a result. When it came to doing code, I would try to stick to the original, but I would constantly have questions from the fans about nuances of the gameplay, and the community ways always eager to clarify aspects of the original game so that I could make the Remake better.

And then towards the end, I took suggestions from the community about ways to add bonuses and replay value, and so I implemented a couple of those ideas that I could. Ultimately, getting input and making changes due to community feedback really helped flesh out this game in nearly every way, and I appreciate the suggestions and insight that I received throughout the project.

Were there any changes you'd wanted to make but backed off because it'd detract too much from the original?

WS: Yes. When I started with artwork, I wanted to put all kinds of things into each area to give liven it up. I wanted to put more pillars and suits of armor and all kinds of things into the Castles, for example. But ultimately I backed off on that some for the sake of staying a little closer to the original, for which the Castle throne rooms amounted to big empty squares.

I also changed how the Hero places the Bridge; but I received a lot of feedback from the community in favor of having the Bridge be the one item that controlled like the original game. So, I compromised by putting in an option called "Classic Bridge," which can be enabled or disabled. There were other instances, but ultimately I wanted the gameplay to remain largely the same, but alter enough to smooth out the experience.

Do you see any advantages that the original, with its simplified graphics and minimal soundtrack, might have over your remake?

WS: As far as graphics, having simplified artwork allowed the game to have physically impossible maze layouts, and few people would ever notice. With 16-bit graphics, you can recognize unique screens easily, and so when you travel through a maze, you notice pretty quickly when things fit together in a physically impossible manner, and that might throw some people off.

Secondly, some people kind of like how utterly simple graphics leave a lot to the imagination. Also, I'd say it's actually a little easier to see items and dragons against a plain single color background than a full color 16 bit backdrop. So, if you lose an item in-game, it's easier to spot when you're running around trying to retrieve it, since items stand out so starkly against the solid grey background of the original game.

Finally, I guess you might say that lack of graphics and soundtrack in the original kept its filesize down -- unfortunately I couldn't get my remake installer down to less than 65 megabytes!

Any plans for your next project?

WS: No plans yet! I'll be doing something, though. I want to do another game with an element of "randomness," like the Quest 3 of Adventure. The reason is that when you can introduce a well-implemented random element to gameplay, it can greatly increase replay value and player interest in the game, because it's a new experience every time you play. That's something I really appreciate about Adventure 2600, and it's something I want to incorporate in my next project.

If I don't end up doing that, I'll probably seek out another great Atari 2600 game or maybe an old-8 bit or arcade game and remake it in a similar way. I don't have any in mind yet. Part of the reason I was able to take this project to completion was by avoiding the trap of thinking too much about what I would do next; rather, my focus the whole time has been to finish this first, then start thinking about the next project.

Jason Scott On Platform Studies, Super Mario 64's Relevance Today

Textfiles.com's Jason Scott presented an engaging lecture earlier this month at Cleveland demoscene event Blockparty 3 (which he co-organize), beginning the session with an explanation of "platform studies," a growing field of study that examines the context in which games were released.

"It is extremely hard to understand software unless you understand the platform that the software came from," Scott argues. "If you have an emulator, you get a certain amount of knowledge from that game -- often it's rules, how it sort of looks -- but you miss out on other things. and you especially miss out if you don't understand the context in which that game was created."

He uses that as a jump-off point to talk about the history of the Nintendo 64 platform and to take attendees through Super Mario 64, sharing what lessons modern game designers can learn from the seminal 13-year-old game. "There’s a ton to be learned from this game, and the Mario series has really given us a lot to learn from, even if not everyone can get their heads around the idea."

He adds, "We're currently in a very interesting wave of the last five or six years towards nostalgia for these games. But I think way too many times ... we look at them merely as works of art, background dressing, or interesting nostalgic icons to point and go, 'Super Mario! Cool!' and move on without really understanding why Super Mario stayed where he is."

If you have trouble viewing the hour-long embedded video, you can also watch it or download it at the Internet Archive.

Opinion: Redefining Casual For The Hardcore

[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, designer and Divide by Zero Games founder James Portnow looks at the definitional divides between casual and 'hardcore' gaming, asking whether there's a market gap for core games with casual-style mechanics.]

To date the ‘casual’ market has targeted the ‘casual’ gamer -- but the question arises: "Do the ‘hardcore’ need casual games as well?"

Y’all know I get uppity about definitions, but here’s one term really does need some defining: "Casual Game". Who knows what "Casual Game" means these days? Unfortunately, I’m not really qualified to make a sweeping definition of "Casual Games"(I know there are some guys at PopCap that have put a lot of thought into this, and I encourage them to share those thoughts with the rest of us!) but I’ll give you a little bit of the reasoning that led me to pen this.

This year, Braid won the Interactive Achievement Award for best casual game -- but by the definition I’ve been running with, it’s not a casual game. So I started looking at media use of the phrase "casual games." It’s all over the place, but I’ve really only seen one constant: at this point, casual games are defined in the popular media as "non-violent games," and we’ve begun to adopt this definition.

For the game designer, and for the industry as a whole, I believe this definition to be counterproductive. Non-violent games are great, and they deserve a lot more discussion then they currently get, but to me, "casual" is a play style, and "non-violent" is a descriptor of one aspect of a game’s creative IP.

As a designer, having a definition for "casual" that helps me better understand the gameplay needs of the player I’m addressing is much more useful.

On that note, trying to justify an exacting definition of a casual game could take up a whole article, but for the sake of argument, let’s define a casual game as:

1. A game that can be played in short sessions (10 minutes or less)

2. Lacks finality (there’s no definitive point when you’ve finished the game)

3. Replayable ad nauseam

What does this definition mean? It means that casual gameplay doesn’t just have to appeal to the “casual gamer" i.e. your mom -- after all, let’s be realistic. That’s what most of us think when we think of “casual gamer”, demonstrating that, at this point, that term clearly needs redefinition, too.

Let’s examine some of the games that fall under that definition: Bejeweled, Tetris, Peggle, Solitaire, Trism, Cooking Mama -- But that’s the list we expected. Now let’s dig a little deeper.

The following games also fit this definition of Casual: Galaga, Missile Command, iDracula, Tower Defense, Robotron, Everyday Shooter, Geometry Wars.

Note that half of the games on that list are old arcade games. I postulate that there is a market hole here. "Casual Gamers" aren’t the only ones without time; many hardcore gamers (especially as we, as a group, grow older and have greater responsibilities) are looking for short session experiences.

So why hasn’t this hole been addressed? Because from the death of the arcade to the end of the PS2 era. it was practically impossible to do economically. If we look at casual games as they exist right now, they’ve come to a stable price point capping at around ten dollars -- making production of such titles largely unviable in a brick-and-mortar, box product environment.

The popularization of digital distribution (Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network, WiiWare, Steam, &c.) and its ubiquity across all consoles changed all this. If you look at the best-selling games on most of those platforms, you’ll find a number of games that are considered casual under the definition given.

Another factor that has contributed to the viability of this type of title recently is the pervasive nature of handheld devices today. Be it the hundred million-selling Nintendo DS or the fact that every cellphone in the world can now run at least simple games, much more of the population now possesses a device which allows them to play games when they can’t be doing anything else.

It’s the Laundromat principle. Every Laundromat in the United States used to be equipped with one or two arcade games. Why? Because they knew that if people had nothing to do and had the means to do so (in their case, readily-available quarters) they would pay to play games.

So how do we craft great casual games for the hardcore player? Well, that’s a science to be re-learnt. So far we’ve turned to old arcade games for inspiration, and the old arcade games are certainly a good place to turn. Back then, games of this nature were created out of necessity. Replayabilty was vital not only from a technical perspective, but from a financial one as well.

Beyond that, my analysis is: limited but simple mechanics that require a great deal to master seem to be the key to making casual games for the hardcore (this may seem obvious, but it’s all I’ve got).

My purpose here isn’t to teach design principles for games of this nature. I would be a fool to try and do so. My purpose is to achieve a paradigm shift in what we consider "casual". If a person looks at "casual games" from the perspective of what mechanics make up a "casual" game rather than the aesthetics, one immediately sees that there is a vast underserved market segment.

We can confirm this supposition simply by examining the data already provided by the few casual games for a "hardcore" audience and see the market traction they’ve had.

Actually, my purpose is slightly greater than that...

Many of you reading this are better designers than I: it is my hope that reading this brief essay will spark some thought. I speak about casual games for the hardcore because that is what leaps to mind when I begin to think about the term "casual" mechanically (and I see the evidence for the need for such games), but it is my ardent hope that some of you, in thinking about the mechanics of casual games come to leaps that well exceed my own.

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

Heart, Ludum Dare 14 Entries

Game designer agj (The Lake) has put out a polished version of his Flash entry for Ludum Dare 14, the 48-hour game development competition that took place three weekends ago. He describes Heart as a "bleak and short 'experience' game", and also put up a postmortem explaining his decisions behind his contest entry.

Though it's a linear title, one which you can finish by holding down the right arrow on your keyboard, its playthroughs are cumulative, offering you more hints at its depressing premise each time you guide your character through the blocky office, struggling to escape the darkness crawling behind you.

Heart's oppressive experience fits the Ludum Dare 14 theme that people voted for: an advancing wall of doom. You can play the 130+ other entries from the competition designed around this idea, as well as read more postmortems for some of the submitted games at the Ludum Dare site.

GameSetLinks: Being Bad, Analyzing Braid

[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.]

Midweek is approaching, and with it a mass of new links trawled up at the weekend, and only now being communicated to you, the great unwashed, via the miracle of the RSS feed and the Internets, hurray.

First up is a neat Crispy Gamer piece on character in games, before we move on to trawl through a fun Cory Doctorow editorial in the UK Guardian, some discussion on Free Realms, being rilly, rilly evil in Knights Of The Old Republic, and lots more besides.

For the win:

Crispy Gamer - Feature: Character: The Next Great Gaming Frontier?
'Even in a Game of the Year-quality title like Fallout 3, we're still presented with primary story characters about whom we know virtually nothing, and with whom we have a hard time forming compelling, coherent relationships.'

Cory Doctorow: Game developers find ways to make industry recession-proof | Technology | guardian.co.uk
'The economics of gaming mixes retail psychology, games theory, ethics and legal speculation – and just who's prepared to pay in order to play.'

Cuppytalk: It’s Your World! (Free Realms)
Some interesting non-NDA-ed comment on SOE's Free Realms, This, at least, makes it sound interesting - but can it differentiate from the masses of free-to-play worlds out there, given that its budget (and therefore required player #s) must be on the higher side?

Bastard of the Old Republic Article, Pt.3 - Page 1 // Retro /// Eurogamer
Walker concludes his three-part EG article on being baaad in KOTOR. Good to see EG encouraging some more experimental journalism.

Copperpott's Cabinet of Curiosities.: Indie Games Are Go!
A useful list for the uninformed, yay - via InfiniteLives.

Braid @ Critical Distance
A v.interesting new blog does a giganormous round-up of Braid (tangentially pictured) analysis.

April 28, 2009

Homebrew Robot Odyssey For DS On The Way

VMware's Micah Dowty is working on a neat personal project: porting The Learning Company's logic adventure game Robot Odyssey to the Nintendo DS, possibly with some added touchscreen support. This comes after a month spent playing and reverse engineering the old title, which he says is "one of the games that [he has] the fondest childhood memories of."

For those of you unfamiliar with the 1984 title (released for Apple II, TRS-80, and DOS), it tasks players with finding their way back home from Robotropolis, an underground city full of robots. In order to escape, players have to program their robot helpers to solve puzzles.

Dowty explains the homebrew project:

"Before you ask, this is not a general-purpose DOS emulator for the DS. It's actually a static binary translator which does most of the work in porting a DOS game to the DS, but there's still an awful lot of manual intervention required. I only really developed the translator with Robot Odyssey in mind, so there are sure to be features missing that you'd need in order to use it with other games.

My intent is to turn this into a real port of Robot Odyssey to the DS, not just an emulation. In particular, I'd like to re-do the load/save game UI to support timestamps and thumbnails, and I'd like a soldering mode that makes use of the DS's touchscreen."

Here are a couple shots from the DS port so far:

Mark of the Mole: Music Game Milestone

Though never advertised outside of a brief mention in an old Atari marketing tape, Mark of the Mole for the Atari 2600 could have been one of the first music-based video games (if not the first), had it been finished and released.

Developed sometime between 1982 and 1984, the game was based on the Residents' experimental album of the same name, and at least two prototypes were made, an early copy that was given to the band, and a later 75% complete version that former Atari designer Greg Easter lost after he left the company.

Easter explains the game:

"First a line of music plays (one of the songs from the Residents' Mark of the Mole record) - you are a mole with a hammer who travels down into a cave and taps on walls with a hammer. Different parts of the cave make different musical notes, and when you find the next note you need to complete the line of music which was just played.

You are building a song note by note, and you have to remember the tone of the next note you need in order to get it right. Each time you play the caves are different, so you can't just remember where to go. The game actually teaches you what is called 'perfect pitch' in music - the ability to hear notes and know where they are on the staff."

While the game is now lost and perhaps never to be found again, Easter sold off a collection of materials from Mark of the Mole late last year, including sheet music written by the Residents, three polaroids of the game, and a page of programming notes that described how to convert code into musical notes on the Atari 2600.

Opinion: The Breadth Of Game Design

[In this new opinion piece, BioShock 2 lead level designer Jean-Paul LeBreton looks to the past, present and future of gameplay mechanics, and how designers may use them to adequately reflect true human experience.]

As of 2009, the game industry seems to want two fairly contradictory1 things:

- Make games, using proven mechanics from the last 20 years, that sell millions of copies.
- Give people a broad range of experiences that affect them as powerfully as those found in other forms of art.

Let's link to two visual aids to help with this:

- The Onion: Hot New Video Game Consists Solely Of Shooting People Point-Blank In The Face
- God Of War: Chains Of Olympus in-game video (Ignore the kid yammering over the video, until about 1:10 in, for the quicktime event sequence.2.)

We can debate whether encompassing a broader range of human experience is indeed a goal of importance, but if even a God of War game feels the need to have scenes that evoke strong emotions, you might at least concede that it’s something many developers seem interested in furthering.

To cut right to the heart of the conflict I see here, I don’t think we as developers can continue holding our breath and waiting for games that revolve around shooting, driving, running and jumping to someday make a great leap into expressing all kinds of things they were heretofore incapable of.

The problem is that the better versed you are in game conventions, the easier it is to separate the core mechanics of a game from its fiction and theme, and thus say that a game like BioShock is a meditation on free will, the dangers of ideological extremes, and whatever else… despite the fact that you spend about 90 percent of it shooting people in the face.

The world can see this disparity more clearly, ironically by virtue of being less game-literate. For many among the gaming literate, that sort of insight hits pretty close to home.

For a perspective from the other end, I was struck by this comment on io9, a non-gamer blog, from this post about BioShock 2:

"I can see how a first-person shooter would be interesting and entertaining, but I would have to fall short of “compelling” when you have to spend that much time, er, shooting."

This person wasn’t being an unreasonable jerk, or advocating the censorship of games. Shooting lots of insane people in a dark, weird place probably just isn’t their idea of a good time.

The common response to this from developers has been things like, “We just need to hire better writers”, “We need better technology”, “We need better artists”, “We need to spend more time planning out our stories”. However, we’ve been doing this for more than 10 years.

Whereas if you look at the points where this medium has made the most progress, whenever the expressive capabilities of games have expanded significantly, it’s actually been because new mechanics, or significant developments upon existing ones3, have emerged that enable new aesthetics. Those other things are quite important, but we seem to have them covered.

One problem is that, deep down, many designers view game mechanics more as structure (or “form”, if you prefer) than as content, when in fact they are both. If you treat them exclusively as structure when designing, you get all manner of unintended message and context… in a nutshell, ludonarrative dissonance. Which in 2009 means mashing the circle button to overcome an emotional inner conflict.

Another designer’s analysis accepts this completely at face value, which if anything demonstrates that this issue transcends our usual valuations of craft and art. It’s almost invisible to us, but quite apparent to outsiders.

So as developers, we need to deal more honestly with the disparity between our reach and our grasp - which is to say, what we tell ourselves our games are about, versus what they are actually about. History will see this decade as the period when games struggled with their destiny in this way.

I’m optimistic though, both because of the progress we’ve made in the first three decades or so of our medium, and because the solutions are right under our noses, deep in the fabric of all games. We must search out, and in some cases rediscover, core mechanics that engender new types of experiences - rediscover, because many have already been done at the fringes, promising yet underexplored. Here are some examples I find especially interesting:

holding hands in Ico
AI Companionship: Holding hands in Ico You reach out to a non-player character and become connected to them. Suddenly you’re no longer a lone entity; you must account and take responsibility for an Other. Sometimes they’re a hindrance, sometimes a help. Whether or not you buy into the designers’ attempts to make you sympathize, you have a real connection to something that’s reinforced by strong kinesthetics. In Ico, there was plenty of platformy adventuring to go along with this, but it seems inevitable that someday a game will make this its primary emphasis.
civ_rev_convert_sm.jpg

Victory via Self-Enrichment: Culture in Civilization
Sometimes you can triumph over an adversary simply by being better than them. Rivals come to view your achievements as an example to be followed. Each accomplishment that enriches you internally affords you expansion and encroachment via indirect force. Tend to your own garden and you will become powerful and influential without firing a shot.

civ_diplomacy.jpg

Social Reasoning: Diplomacy
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Many wargames have a diplomacy component, which gets especially interesting when other humans are in the mix. However in a game where direct force isn’t possible, social standing would be its own capital. This is a large part of why character-driven TV shows are popular; humans enjoy exploring the workings and permutation spaces of social networks.

Hopefully this gives an idea of the breadth of directions available to us as designers. It’s equally fruitful to look to the past, at how certain ideas bubbled up from nowhere to expand the expressive range of games.

Circa 1997, before Thief and Metal Gear Solid, Stealth was one of those underexplored mechanics. Suddenly, as it caught on, there were new play sensations we’d never had before - being some combination of sneaky, clever, afraid, transgressive. It transformed players’ perspectives on familiar game environments. It even brought some new people into the medium.

These are basic changes that everyone feels deeply, from a jaded critic to someone completely new to games. They are interactively “true” in ways that a change in setting can only rarely be, no matter how beautifully realized.

As a medium, we’ve proven we can seek out novel settings, themes, art styles, characters and tropes. We have other media to learn from, after all. New mechanics, however, are uniquely difficult.

The only inspiration we can find for them is human experience itself, and then comes the struggle of synthesizing, systematizing and iterating. This is the central challenge of working in this medium, and it’s never been more important that we embrace it.


[1] While some of this could be explained as the disparity between what game publishers want and what developers want, that might be giving too little credit to the former and too much to the latter. If there were more proven game mechanics and styles that enabled new experiences, publishers would probably sell them. Past a certain point, the burden of proof is on us.

[2] I want to make it clear that I’m not disparaging GoW:CoO, or speaking in any sense other than constructive criticism. I haven’t played it; in all likelihood it’s a great action game. I’m simply holding it up as an unwitting example of a much more existential crisis in game design today, much as other designers have held up stuff I’ve worked on in a similar light.

[3] Movement is something that gets re-discovered every so often; Mirror’s Edge being the recent example. Flaws in execution aside, players recognized there was something unique there.

[Jean-Paul LeBreton is lead level designer at BioShock 2 developer 2K Marin.]

For Hip-Hop Heads: Console Wars Beat Tapes

Cortez " Ferno" Almanza released The Console Wars, a series of beat tapes collecting instrumentals from artists like Darkseid (presumably not the actual DC Comics villain) and Stir Crazy who've remixed memorable video game songs into bass-heavy rap tracks. While they're not the sort of productions you'd hold up against J Dilla or El-P's catalogs, I wouldn't mind if they popped up in iTunes during a random shuffle listen either.

BLU LYC's "Welcome to tha Doom", a track mixing gun blasts with a looped voice sample from Sega's Altered Beast, is surprisingly listenable, more so than Lil' Wayne's flip of the similar "A Milli" beat (which my wife refuses to let me play in the car). Another highlight from the two Console Wars volumes is Chane's "Supa Mario", a laid back tune recalling Super Mario World.

You can download the albums at the following Mediafire links: The Console Wars 1 and The Console Wars 2

Best of FingerGaming: From Tap of the Dead to Moo Cow Fury

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

This week, FingerGaming details a major upgrade for Metal Gear Solid Touch and reports on the release of 12-year-old Nicholas Weintraut's Moo Cow Fury. Featured reviews for this week cover Flower Garden, Tap of the Dead and Oceanic.

- Review: Flower Garden
"Flower Garden encapsulates the best parts of the simulation genre while avoiding its pitfalls. The daily responsibility aspect of its gameplay made me want to keep coming back to unlock more flowers, and the presentation quality is uniquely charming."

- Metal Gear Solid Touch Gets Major 'Complete Version' Upgrade
"Metal Gear Solid Touch 2.0 features eight all-new missions. One of the new stages features a sniper battle with classic series villain Sniper Wolf, while another pits Metal Gear REX against Metal Gear RAY."

- Free App Roundup, April 18th - 24th Edition
"This week’s free releases include demo editions of Kamikaze Robots and Airport Mania, along with free full versions of Dark Nova and Land of the Lost: Crystal Adventure."

- Review: Tap of the Dead
"Tap of the Dead takes the infamous Typing of the Dead and translates the zombie-filled game to the iPhone. Instead of typing out pseudo-words and practicing your asdf skills, Tap of the Dead has you tapping one of four symbols located on the corners of the screen."

- Top Free Game App Downloads for the Week
"Odasoft's puzzler Catcha Mouse has seen a sharp rise in popularity, and finishes first in today’s free game app charts. The 'Five Finger Fillet' simulator iDare comes in at second place this week, as the recently released strategy title Flood-It! arrives at third."

- Review: Age of Curling
"Age of Curling is well-polished and worthwhile title. If Blackish would push out a more developed audio experience via an update, Age of Curling would be a top-tier sports title -- one that could bring new fans to the sport. As is, however, it's a solid game with a great deal of potential."

- 12-Year-Old Releases Debut iPhone App Moo Cow Fury
"12-year-old Nicholas Weintraut has released his very first iPhone app — the side-scrolling racing game Moo Cow Fury. Weintraut developed the game entirely on his own after spending two weeks studying programming manuals, and additionally created all of the in-game sound and artwork."

- Top-Selling Paid Game Apps for the Week
"iHunt's presence in Apple’s all-time best-selling app chart has boosted the sales numbers of its follow-up title iHunt 3D. The game finishes second in this week's results, finishing just behind reigning champion Flight Control."

Braid's Tim To Be Unlockable in Super Meat Boy

Super Meat Boy creator Edmund McMillen and programmer Tommy Refenes have big plans for their indie platformer, a PC and WiiWare port of Flash game Meat Boy. Along with the game's new art direction, they expect to include around 100 levels and several multiplayer modes -- co-op, versus, and a four-player party mode.

McMillen revealed earlier this month that he's enlisted 12 independent developers who've donated their characters as unlockables for Super Meat Boy's versus mode, whom players can access by collecting band-aids scattered throughout the game's stages (there may be a PC- or Wii-exclusive unlockable). One of those characters will be Braid's time-tampering protagonist Tim, McMillen disclosed in an interview posted on Wii's Nintendo Channel yesterday.

You can watch the interview, ripped and posted by game weblog GoNintendo, as well as some in-game footage here (the first half of the clip is another Nintendo Channel interview with Ronimo Games about Swords and Soldiers):

Towards the end, Refenes promises with a laugh, "It's just going to be the most epic game ever on WiiWare ... ever, of all games, of all time." I will hold him to that promise!

In other Super Meat Boy news, gaming blogs were up in arms yesterday after catching wind of a Super Meat Boy advertisement McMillen created for the game earlier this month, which you can see here:

He has since replaced the image with a version that doesn't have the Hitler text on the official Super Meat Boy weblog, not commenting on the change, but you can still find the original ad on McMillen's personal site.

GameSetInterview: 'Making Mods and Taking Names: Offtopic Productions'

TNM%20GSW.jpg[Continuing a GameSetWatch-exclusive series looking at some of the most interesting alternative games, indie titles and mods out there, Phill Cameron sits down with the folks behind epic Deus Ex mod The Nameless Mod -- to discuss the spectacular fan-created add-on.]

Offtopic Productions are the men and women behind The Nameless Mod, a modification of Ion Storm's cult PC title Deus Ex that was in development for seven years before it was released.

That's crazy long even for a commercial release, so for a small group of what started out as enthusiasts managed to keep it together for so long, you know the end product is going to be something special.

Turns out, it was. TNM has received a good amount of critical praise, and an even more respectable amount of downloads in it's first few weeks, numbering in the tens of thousands. This is no small feat for a modding team, and especially for a game like Deus Ex that's been out for quite so long a time. TNM plays on this, setting itself in a forum based around Deus Ex, to allow for satire and wit to ease the players into the gameworld.

I talked to Jonas Waever, Offtopic Productions' lead man, about how it felt to get the game out, how hard it was to make, and whether he thinks it was all worth it:

For those unaware, what exactly is Off Topic Productions, and what do you do?

Lawrence: Off Topic Productions is a small group of game developers brought together by The Nameless Mod. Strongly influenced by Deus Ex, we’re dedicated to delivering unique, innovative gameplay that allows for an exceptional level of freedom and creative problem solving. The team is made up of individuals scattered throughout six countries and includes these fine gentlemen:

Lawrence: Based in Canada, Lawrence is the producer and general handyman as well as managing the staff recruitment, voice acting department, and public relations.

Jonas: In addition to being Danish, Jonas is the lead designer and has also been functioning as project director for the last several years – he’s had the overall creative responsibility, wrote the story and most of the dialogue and text, designed some of the levels, and has generally been in charge of filling our world with content.

Jason: Based in the UK, our manic modeller man. Jason is the artist responsible for almost all of our 3D assets.

Nick: Nick is American and is one of two exceptionally skilled coders who keep the bits and bytes from staging an uprising.

Shane: Based in Australia, Shane completes the coding tag team and, when not fighting off rabid kangaroos, works furiously to churn out the code to bring our projects to life.

Gelo: Based in the US, Gelo acts as an incredibly astute narrative consultant and sometimes-writer, working with Jonas to knit our worlds into cohesive and believable environments.

Alek: Based in the US, Alek is our lead sound technician and has his paws in everything from sound effects to processing voice-over.

Leo: Our lead musician, Leo is based Chile and works tirelessly to create the music that puts the pièce de résistance in all our environments.

Martin: Based in Denmark, Martin is musketeer number two in our trio of fantastic musicians.

Steve: Based in the UK, Steve rounds out the team of composers.

The Nameless Mod has been in development for seven years, and has finally been released recently. Can you explain quite how relieved you are?

Jonas: Not with words. Perhaps through the medium of interpretive dance, but this doesn’t seem like the time nor the place for that. The greatest relief is that we didn’t let everybody down: Neither the people who’ve been following us since 2002, nor everybody who’s contributed along the way. The latter is especially important to us - all the people on our credits have worked on the game for free, and by releasing, we’ve ensured their contributions were not in vain. That feels very, very good.

Lawrence: It’s a rather odd feeling, actually; lots of relief mixed with some confusion as to what I should now be doing with my time. It’s quite difficult to let go of something that you’ve poured so much work into for such a long period of time, but in the end you just have to kick it out the door and cringe at the thought of all the polish you didn’t have time to add.

With such a long development cycle, and with no money coming from the project itself, how did you keep the team together and working?

Jonas: By tightly balancing business with pleasure. We like to say that for each hour a person spends working on something he or she must do in order for the project to be finished, we had to allow that person to spend 2 or 3 hours on something he or she simply felt like doing. I assume this ratio would be significantly lower if we could’ve paid people, but I still think it’s important to give everybody a measure of creative control in order to maintain their motivation. Unfortunately it also makes the game grow at a frankly ludicrous rate, and at some point you need to stop adding things and focus on finishing the game – thankfully at that point the team had been reduced to the most dedicated members.

Lawrence: Beyond what Jonas mentioned, we also worked very hard to establish a community around the game. To be sure, we did a lot of internal back patting, but nothing beats encouraging words from fans anticipating your work. To that end we put a lot of work into keeping our website updated with interesting news and media to encourage the fans to stick around. We also made an effort to release frequent internal builds. Even if it was just the first map, it’s incredibly encouraging to everyone when you can fire up an installer and see your work in action.

When you began the mod did you have any inkling as to how long it would take you to complete? Were there times when you didn’t think you’d ever release it?

Jonas: Yes, we were fully aware it’d take a year to finish. But then we had to push it another year. And then another. Then we gave up on scheduling for a while and just went with the flow, but eventually we settled on a summer 2007 date. Only, then we had to push it to 2008; and then January, then February, and finally March 2009. I would say that if there’s one thing TNM hasn’t taught us about, it’s scheduling, but actually we’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons about what not to do.

There was never really a time when the core team had no confidence that we’d complete the project. In the beginning we didn’t realize it would take this long, and the further along we got, the more we stood to lose by abandoning the project. There were definitely times when it looked a bit hopeless, but I don’t think we ever faced any challenges that couldn’t be solved by cutting content in the worst case scenario. The closest we came to a crisis was when we realized what a momentous task it was to get our main character’s dialogue recorded. We came very close to releasing the mod without voice-over for the protagonist, but our great friend Jeremiah Costello of T-Recs Studios stepped up and offered to handle it for us.

Lawrence: We had not the faintest idea of the chunk of our lives that TNM would consume when we started out. If we had known, we likely would have laughed at the thought of such a long development cycle and gone out to get PhDs, instead. I have a rather distinct memory of someone telling me a couple of years into the project that we should just give it up as an impossible job. I recall being rather disheartened by the thought of how much work remained to be done, but I don’t believe we’ve ever really seriously considered quitting, or the idea that we would fail to release.

You’ve recently released the first patch for TNM, which fixes a lot of technical issues with the game. Was lack of funding and testers the primary reason for the few hiccups at launch?

Jonas: Lack of testers has been a huge concern. We brought in a lot of people during beta, but only 10 of them were active at all. We were quite taken aback by how many problems our engine additions caused – by and large we’ve stuck to Deus Ex’s engine, but we’ve managed to add a bit of our own native code to e.g. implement ogg music support. Unfortunately the release version of that ogg player has turned out to crash quite a lot for many people, which is a problem our testers never encountered.

It’s no surprise that thousands of players make better testers than 10 volunteers, but this was further compounded by the complicated nature of TNM. We had more possible combinations of plot branches than our testers had time to discover, let alone test. To make sure everything was working before launch, we would’ve needed very thorough and systematic testing, and that’s more than you can ask a bunch of volunteers to do, and more than anybody on the core team could handle considering the pace we were working at just prior to release.

Lawrence: I’m not sure that funding factors in overly much, but it would certainly have made for more motivated testers. We grossly underestimated the story permutations that are possible with the non-linear gameplay we created, and our measly 10 testers just weren’t sufficient to properly tackle it. To be fair, I don’t think we could ever have tested it sufficiently using purely internal testers, the game is simply too large for proper rigorous testing using only the small number of people we could mobilize. However, we’re extremely pleased with how helpful and patient the fans have been as far as reporting, testing, and tolerating the bugs they’ve encountered. With the release of the upcoming 1.0.2 patch we feel that TNM will finally be in the shape we’d have liked it to be at release.

Now that the game is released, do you feel vilified? Was it worth it?

Lawrence: Vilified? Not at all. There have been certain factions of angry internet men (most of whom have yet to actually play the mod) who have unconditionally declared that we must be absolute idiots for spending 7 years on such an odd concept. However, the positive responses have vastly overshadowed the few naysayers. We also realize that with every release, no matter how good, you can never please everyone.

Jonas: It was definitely worth it, this is a fantastic hobby where at the end, you have this product you can look at and see exactly where all your free time has gone for the past several years. It’s also great to get other people’s feedback on our work, positive and negative, as long as they’re being polite about it. We’ve learned an incredible amount of things about game development that we’d love to put to use in the future, so yes: It’s all been worth it.

Did the mod go through several different iterations, or did the vision for TNM stay the same throughout?

Jonas: We estimate that we recreated everything we did during the first 2 or so years because we got better. The plot went through 4 revisions in the first year and was continually tweaked, expanded, and revised. Most of it also simply came about as we experimented with the game and the engine and grew familiar with what we could do – originally we were planning something even more open and free-form than we ended up with, but when we realized how fundamentally the game was built for a completely different type of structure, we reigned ourselves in and adjusted our design.

Even the basic concept of the game evolved a lot over the 7 years as we all grew up with the project and the quality of our work improved. We realized early on that our mod wasn’t going to appeal to a lot of people because it was too exclusive, so we spent a lot of time opening it up to a broader audience. Also, I don’t know if you ever go back and read what you wrote 6-7 years ago, but in my experience that’s a great way to embarrass yourself – I spent a lot of time rewriting old dialogue to be less embarrassing.

While most mods take themselves rather seriously, trying to create something unique with the tools of the game, you’ve chosen instead to satirise Deus Ex by setting your game as a Deus Ex forum. Given that this took you seven years to complete, do you think the fact Deus Ex has drifted from the collective consciousness has hurt people’s enjoyment of the mod?

Jonas: I don’t know if it’s fair to say Deus Ex has drifted from people’s consciousness, in fact it seems a lot of people who never played Deus Ex but heard about it after it achieved status of a classic are using TNM as an excuse to buy Deus Ex and see what all the fuss was/is about. I do think the technological deficiencies of the game is hurting people’s enjoyment of the mod, though – a lot of our problems stem from the fact that Deus Ex runs on a very old engine, and early 3D engines aren’t renowned for holding up very well.

Lawrence: If anything, our association with Deus Ex has been a huge boon. People hear “Deus Ex” and are instantly willing to at least listen to what you’re about. A lot of people have certainly turned up that haven’t played Deus Ex, but they’ve all heard good things and many are picking it up so they can see what all the hype was about and give TNM a go. It’s a great two for one deal!

The humour in the game is often very wry and amusing, and mostly throw away, with comments made by periphery characters. Do you think the humour is necessary to making the game work, or was it just for your own enjoyment?

Jonas: I think the humour is necessary to ease people into the game. It’s a very unusual concept, and people often seem relieved to hear the game isn’t taking itself too seriously. Once we’ve established that we’re capable of self-irony, we slowly tone down the humour in favour of what we think is a reasonably engaging narrative, but in order to get to that part at all, people need to get over the fact that TNM is based on an Internet forum, and I think that’d be a lot harder without the humour.

In terms of our own enjoyment, the humour worked both for and against that. It gave us a lot of freedom to be wildly creative, but it can also be pretty difficult to maintain a consistent tone throughout such a long project. It’s been difficult, but very rewarding.

There’s a colossal amount of voice work in the game. How did you get so much done? Is that’s what’s been delaying the release for so long?

Lawrence: The voice work is certainly one of those things that really bit us in the ass. Being 95% naive and 5% dumb for the first few years of this project, we had no concept of how our massive script would end up translating into ludicrous amounts of work in the acting department. Work on the voice-over began about 2-3 years ago, with most of that first year generating only horrible quality material that sounded similar to a pack of angry cats eating a microphone. In our usual fashion, we simply forged onward and continued trying to locate quality actors. This strategy eventually paid off when the good actors began recommending their equally gifted friends, resulting in a rather pleasant domino effect.

However, the acting department did, in my opinion, result in the largest amount of hair-pulling and head-banging for us. When you’re working with so many unpaid actors (over the Internet, no less) it’s inevitable that many of them will randomly vanish, or take an insane amount of time to actually record their lines. We also discovered that keeping track of thousands and thousands of individual sound files and ensuring that they ended up in the right spots is... challenging.

Despite the rather mammoth nature of the undertaking, we did manage to pull it off to our satisfaction. We utilized our own rather nifty web based tracking system to track the files and eventually just learned how to deal with the occasionally flaky actors. In the end, the voice-over didn’t delay the project, although it was close! In our opinion, the countless hours of work that went into the dialogue were entirely worth it; the extra personality and life it brings to the characters is something we feel brings a lot to the game.

Quite a few of the development team seem to be characters in the game, yet they are not voiced by those they represent. Is it strange seeing yourselves acting within the gameworld?

Lawrence: Fortunately for everyone, I did not voice my own character. At one time we had thought that I would, simply because we were unable to find anyone dedicated enough to voice thousands of lines. Happily, Jeremiah stepped in and did a wonderful job. I did voice a few incidental characters, and the most important thing I learned is that I cannot act. The only character that I really get a kick out of is a crazy cult priest who I was able to use a completely zany voice for; I think he turned out really well and I rather enjoy listening to his inane rants.

Jonas: Many people on the core team have actually recorded their own characters (Nick, Shane, Gelo, our composers, and myself – basically anybody who could get a hold of a good microphone and act well enough to not ruin the game), and let me tell you it’s very weird indeed to hear my own voice coming out of a character in a video game. It’s especially surreal when people log into our IRC channel to tell one of us they’ve knocked out our character and stolen our stuff or blown us up because we were annoying.

TNM is probably one of the most meta games I’ve played. Would you like to explain a bit about what you were trying to accomplish with the mod?

Jonas: Initially, we just wanted to do something we hadn’t seen anybody else do before – a game set in a giant metaphor for an Internet forum seemed like a pretty original idea. As we experimented more with the concept and grew more familiar with our own setting, it became obvious that TNM was ripe with opportunities for intra- and intertextuality and self-reference. There was a period when I was looking for ways to imbue TNM with some sort of cultural relevance, because it felt like we were spiralling down towards self-indulgent irrelevance, and going meta seemed like the best way to realize the potential of our setting. I just hope we managed to pull it off without seeming too smugly pseudo-intellectual.

There’s also the fact that TNM is meta on two different levels: On one level, it’s a Deus Ex mod taking place in a world created entirely around Deus Ex. A lot of plot points in the mod are explicitly motivated in the fact that Deus Ex is the pivot of our setting. On another level, we occasional play around with breaking the fourth wall by having certain characters address the player or muse about the fact that they’re inside a computer game – as opposed to on a forum, which would be well within all four walls. In fact there’s a whole little unlockable subplot about it all being a game, and I think the reason this is interesting is the double-layered self-reference – first we get you used to the idea that you’re controlling a forum avatar, then we make jabs at that by letting on that you’re in a game. But you won’t even find that unless you explore our levels religiously.

Modding communities are often only as healthy as the tools the developer releases with the game. How easy was it to mod Deus Ex? Would you consider modding something more recent in the future?

Jonas: I’ve given a lot of thought to this personally, and I don’t think the difficulty in modding Deus Ex is due to the quality of the SDK or the old technology so much as the ambitions the game fosters. Deus Ex has very complicated core gameplay based around a carefully – and often precariously – balanced mix of FPS, RPG, and stealth gameplay, with a healthy helping of adventure game elements thrown in for good measure. Most people who mod Deus Ex wants to recreate this gameplay and they let their ambitions get out of hand – we’re definitely guilty of that ourselves. You want to create missions that allow the player to make full use of the whole skill set, you want to support exploration, you want elaborate branching dialogue with a real impact on gameplay, and in the end you’re looking at creating a full-fledged game. If people would settle for just making a plain 3-mission action mod, it’d be far easier, but then they wouldn’t be modding Deus Ex in the first place, because there are far better action games with larger and more thriving communities to boot.

As SDK’s go, I don’t think Deus Ex’s is too bad. There are a lot of things we could’ve done better if we’d had access to the engine code, but how many developers allow their fans access to that? I think most of the problems we had were problems Ion Storm Austin also faced during Deus Ex’s development – they had to pull off a lot of hacks because they didn’t have time to rewrite large parts of the engine from scratch, and we had to work with those hacks and add our own on top of that.

Lawrence: Modding Deus Ex had its perks, but it really can’t measure up to the tools and documentation available for newer games like HL2 or Unreal Tournament 3. The Deus Ex modding community is relatively small, which meant that pooling resources to get things done was fairly easy. Of course, with such old tech and no access to any kind of official support, we often found ourselves fumbling around in the dark, using trial and error to figure out what would work, and what would cause everything to explode in our faces.

How popular has TNM been since release? Has it exceeded your expectations or fallen short?

Jonas: I think we set out to get 10,000 downloads during the lifetime of the mod. We’re pretty close to achieving that already. How many times has the mod been downloaded in the first 14 days since release, Larry?

Lawrence: By current estimates, TNM has been downloaded over 6000 times in just a few weeks. In terms of popularity, I think we’ve certainly surpassed our expectations. It’s amazing to see chatter popping up in so many forums all over the Internet, and incredibly gratifying to read all the kind comments from players.

Jonas: Of course as modders, it’s more important that our players like what they get, rather than that we get a lot of downloads. We’ve had a few negative comments here and there, most of it based on the fact that the first release of the game was unstable on some machines, but the response we’ve got has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve even had a few professional games journalists speak very highly of us, which is certainly encouraging. Whether it’s exceeded our expectations... I’d say it’s met them, but I was, perhaps arrogantly, always pretty sure we had something very impressive on our hands.

What are you next planning? Are you planning on making anything commercial?

Jonas: We’d definitely like to take everything we’ve learned making TNM and apply it to a commercial project. In a way, The Nameless Mod has been like a 7 year master class in how to design Deus Ex, and we’re quite eager to see if we can create something as engaging as TNM if we’re not leaning so heavily on a classic, proven design.

The next game will be smaller. We don’t have a lot of art resources, so we’ll probably have to recruit some people. We’re currently trying to work out how we can best leverage our skills and experience from TNM without getting bogged down with another 7 year project or letting the team grow too large.

Lawrence: Jonas covered the key points nicely: smaller, and with a massively better plan/timeline going into it. We’re hoping to take the many lessons learned over the last seven years and kick things into high gear for our next project!

Thanks for your time.

Girl with a Triforce Earring

Taking inspiration from Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, artist Clint Wilson reimagined the eminent painting with Princess Zelda replacing the woman, and lurking creeps and Link's silhouette in the background.

The Triforce over the Hylian's head cover is a bit much, and the earring looks tacky, like something a 'tween would buy at Claire's, but other than those quibbles, it's a neat homage!

The art is available as 24×32 4-color silkscreen prints through online shop Nakatomi, though Wilson only produced 100 signed and numbered copies. There is also a "Gold Cartridge Variant" using all gold metallic ink - only 30 copies of this.

GameSetLinks: Gaming Stances For Victory!

[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.]

Further along the GameSetLinks fun and games for the week, and this set of gorgeous RSS-trawling starts out with the diversification of Way Of The Rodent into a piquant weblog - which may have been around for a little bit, but hey, we catch on slow.

Also hanging in here - a discussion on how to curate video games in a museum context, some quixotic rambling, how MMO server farms work, the slight hipster return again, and more.

Time bandits:

World Champion Stances II - the Revenge! | Daily Rodent
The uniquely cheeky, British Way Of The Rodent web-mag has opened a blog now - and it's pretty good fun, as this post (security guards playing NES games) shows.

Versus CluClu Land: Against my Better Judgement, I Discuss Citizen Kane and Maybe Art
'One of the major problems with this discourse is that the are-games-art conversation almost never goes anywhere.'

Patching the Game (Part III) @ Imaginary Cogs
A multi-part series on actually hosting MMOs in data centers - v.interesting. (Via Zen Of Design.)

Vorpal Bunny Ranch: Quixotic Rambling
Freeform thoughts on games, Don Quixote, and more. Uninhibited game discuss is good, abstractly.

The Cure for Hipsters » PixelVixen707
He's already been joshing at me, now the rpgsbebroke guy gets poked at by an ARG product, intriguingly.

Valuable Games » How to curate video games and interactive media?
'The challenge is fitting an interactive and often social medium into the traditionally hands-off and reserved context of most art museums.'

April 27, 2009

Super Ultra Baseball 2 English Translation Released

Despite its name, Super Ultra Baseball 2 is the fourth entry in the Ultra Baseball series, with the first two games released in the U.S. as Baseball Simulator 1.000 and Super Baseball Simulator 1.000. Translation group VX has put out an English patch that fully translates the 1994 Super Famicom title, also converting metric units to the United States Customary System and correcting minor graphics issues.

The game stands out for its use of ability-boosting power-ups and special moves. Because SUB2 was created without a Nippon Professional Baseball license, it instead features 18 teams spread across three leagues -- Sunny, Paradise, and Ultra. Those actually sound way more fun than the NPB's Central and Pacific leagues.

Developer and publisher Culture Brain intended to release SUB2 in the U.S., but later canceled the localization for unspecified reasons. The studio is still around creating games for the DS, and even recently released Super Choujin Ultra Baseball DS with online support, anime characters, and an NPB license.

[Via RHDN]

Puzzle Kingdoms Sneaks Out For PC

Infinite Interactive has released a couple RPG/puzzle hybrids since the unexpected success of Puzzle Quest -- Neopets Puzzle Adventure and Galactrix -- but Puzzle Kingdoms is designed as a return to the Warlords universe that the studio was known for before PQ, with more emphasis on the RPG/puzzle formula's strategy portion.

As with PQ, Puzzle Kingdoms has you matching gems to deal damage and gather mana that can be used for spells against your enemies, except you now command armies instead of a single hero with an ancillary party, and resource management plays a bigger role in deploying your army.

The game is planned for Wii and Nintendo DS, but the PC version is already available online through digital distribution services Direct2Drive and Steam. Though there's no demo, you can preview Puzzle Kingdoms with a short trailer posted on D2D's product page.

"This was news to me too!" said Infinite Interactive head Steve Fawkner, when he found out about the title's availability after fans posted about it on the company's forum. "I thought the PC version was going to be coming out behind the DS and Wii versions."

The game was originally intended for a 2008 holiday release, and was then dated in Nintendo's spring lineup announcement for March 31st. according to Infinite Interactive senior engineer Peter Suwara, the DS version entered the submission process a couple of months ago.

If you haven't heard about Puzzle Kingdoms or its release before, that's likely because its publisher Zoo Games, is relatively smaller than Capcom and D3Publisher of America, who were behind Neopets Puzzle Adventure and Galactrix, respectively. There's surprisingly very little press for this spiritual sequel to Puzzle Quest, especially when you consider the attention Galactrix received when it shipped in February.

Fawkner is currently working on putting up a demo for Puzzle Kingdoms online.

COLUMN: Chewing Pixels: 'A Tale of Destiny'

['Chewing Pixels' is a semi-regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by British games journalist and Flash game producer, Simon Parkin. Today, a fictionalized account of a real-life tragedy from the heart of Akihabara.]

“IRASSHAIMASE!”

In the fifth minute before he is hit by a rental truck, Kenshin Kitano allows himself a slight nod at the shop assistant’s near-hysterical greeting. Eyes down, he makes his way to the back of the electronics store, around the stack of dusty peripherals for forgotten music games and idiot train simulators.

In the corner there's a set of crumpled, tragic dance mats, all the bright plastic detritus of a long gone Japanese videogame boom.

In the fourth minute before he is hit by a rental truck, Kenshin Kitano makes a beeline for the bargain tray, entertainment platter of the student gamer. Clack, clack, clack, he flicks the cases forward in quick succession, making staccato snap decisions as their titles flit past his eyes: no, no, maybe.

Cracked jewel cases holding broken games: the forgotten work of long-gone studios. If their creators could have seen their creations then as they are now, would they have persevered in making them, he wonders? Probably. Everything and everyone ends up on a bargain tray one day or another, right? Doesn't stop us.

In the third minute before he is hit by a rental truck, Kenshin Kitano’s fingers pause on the second to last jewel case. Tales of Destiny: a middling RPG stacked behind a misfiled two-year-old Idol CD. 200 Yen? With the sidequests he can probably draw it out to sixty hours playtime which works out at, er, nearly 20 minutes per Yen. That has to be the cheapest escapism in all of Tokyo, he congratulates himself.

In the second minute before he is hit by a rental truck, Kenshin Kitano turns the game in his hands, studying its artwork, tracing the roll of its logo’s serif with his eyes, drawing out the foreplay of the purchase as long as possible.

The boy on the front cover is a pair of blue eyes framed by a blaze of chick yellow hair, a close-up interrupted only by the steel of a long sword held against his cheek. It’s a passable cover, Kenshin Kitano thinks to himself, with the dismissive sneer of an adolescent enthusiast, before turning on his heel and taking his purchase to the counter.

The minute before he is hit by a rental truck, Kenshin Kitano steps out into the Akihabara air, game in his rucksack, a beat of small excitement in his breast. It is a gas mark 3 sort of lunchtime, the June heat intensified by loud fumes and hot noise.

It is Sunday and streams of pedestrians flow against each other along the pavements, wafted along by the barked chatter of aspiration-less middle aged salesmen holding blue megaphones against their lips. Here and there gaijin twirl on the spot, nose in map, salt flecks in a sea of pepper, searching out some obscure hobbyist store or other, no doubt. Too hot. Too many people. Time to go home.

The moment before he is hit by a rented truck, Kenshin Kitano steps out onto the crossing. Five paces in there’s he's hit by a roar, an incredible noise. He looks up into the high-speed, wild but deliberate eyes of its driver. The man is seven years older than he, the truck seven times his size and both are aiming at him. Time slows to one frame a second. Kenshin Kitano feels no thing.

Kenshin Kitano is hit by a rental truck.

In the seventh year before Kenshin Kitano is hit by a rental truck, its driver, Tomohiro Katō, sits at the back of class doodling on the inside of his exercise book. He traces a wide eye with his HB pencil, a flick of the wrist framing it within a shock of hair. His classmate, Emiko Hoshi leans across to get a better look at the doodle. She draws Pokémon in her exercise book. Perhaps this boy does too?

Noting her mild interest in his peripheral vision, Katō lifts his left hand to form a wall, protecting his picture from her view. She mentally shrugs and turns back to face the teacher. Next to the drawing Tomohiro Katō lists some of his favourite things. Videogame: Tales of Destiny. Flower: Rose. Food: Apple. Weather: Blizzard. Word: Destiny.

In the minute after he is hit by a rented van, ghosts hover in Kenshin Kitano’s dark vision, an ebb and flow of shapes in some intangible distance, silhouetted against regular waves of alien red and blue light. More than half of himself is gone already.

The orchestra beneath the silence stills, the silence now bruised only by shapeless words. Kenshin Kitano is unsure if he’s a baby in his cot or a man on his deathbed. He inches his fingers towards where he imagines his rucksack to have fallen: they search blindly for another tale of destiny. Kenshin Kitano’s eyes sink, all becomes chick yellow, he feels the steel of a longsword on his cheek. He feels no thing.

In the week after Kenshin Kitano is hit by a rental truck, Tomohiro Katō’s high-school drawing is shown on Japanese news and printed in tabloid newspapers the world over. The sketch offers a snapshot into the mind of a deranged killer, they say.

The otaku assassin! Likes roses and apples? Irrelevant. Likes RPGs? Now, that there's proof positive of an unhealthy obsession with all of the inscrutable Eastern vices that consume the minds of our young...

In the week after Kenshin Kitano is hit by a rental truck, the Pokémon in Emiko Hoshi’s exercise book rest unseen by the media’s hungry gaze, hibernating forgotten in a sealed cardboard box in her grandparents’ attic.

This column is, in part, a fictionalization of the tragic events that occurred in Akihabara on June 8th, 2008. Kenshin Kitano is a fictional character.

CosMind Releases Glum Buster

"Cheer up, dear friend, or they may come. And take you where the glum is from." Developer CosMind (Justin Leingang) teased gamers with that rhyme at last year's Independent Games Festival, providing little else to describe Glum Buster. He spent the past four years working on the action-adventure title in Game Maker during his spare time, but has for the most part kept quiet about its release.

CosMind contacted us last night, though, to tell us that he has released Glum Buster to PCs for free under a "charityware" scheme that will send money to the Starlight Children’s Foundation, an organization dedicated to "helping seriously ill children and their families cope with their pain, fear and isolation through entertainment, education and family activities."

I won't spoil too much of the game's charm, but Glum Buster features some unique environments and mechanics, and has you controlling a little guy in a raincoat, flying around the screen while using your mouse to shoot light at dark creatures. CosMind described his inspiration for the game in a recent interview with us:

Glum Buster was primarily inspired by the initial play mechanics of the prototype that I built. From there, bizarre as it may sound, it was continually inspired by itself. I was constantly fueled by the development of each component - be it play mechanics and dynamics, graphics, sound effects, functionality, etc.

As a result, inspiration begat inspiration. It was a pretty gratifying reciprocal process, really. Outside of that, the largest inspirations were my constant, thick-as-brick daydreams - I'm pretty much stuck in perpetual daydream - and good ol’ Mama Nature. The decision to make the game stemmed mainly from my desire to learn and work with a new tool set in my free time at home.

You can download the game from CosMind's Glum Buster site.

Gamasutra Expert Blogs: Time to Ditch the Term 'Game'

[Showcasing highlights from big sister site Gamasutra's Expert Blogs, industry veterans talk about alternatives to the word "game," classic Treasure shoot 'em up love, and Wii's hardcore gaming conundrum.]

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

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

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

This Week's Standout Expert Blogs

How to Replace Levels In MMOs, Part 3
(Brian "Psychochild" Green)

In part three of a series of posts exploring the alternatives to having character levels in MMOs, Brian "Psychochild" Green proposes a system, inspired by Lord of the Rings Online's "deeds," that throws levels out the window completely.

He argues that there are other methods aside from leveling that can give gamers a sense of achievement, solid pacing and relevant information.

Project RS3: I'm No Fanboy, I Just Appreciate Art
(Michael Molinari)

Michael Molinari has already deemed Treasure's Project RS3 "one of the greatest shmups ever created," despite the fact that the top secret game has yet to release.

More than a raving fanboy's soliloquy, he explains why his prediction is probably right, at the same time reflecting on the cult of Treasure -- the company behind Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga, two of the best "shmups" ever to exist.

A New Word for Game
(Tynan Sylvester)

The word "game" is "holding us back." That's according to a blog post by 2K Boston's Tynan Sylvester. Since the days of Pong, Space Invaders and Galaga, the medium has evolved beyond simple packages of action-reaction rules.

Open-ended, virtual worlds of today are a far cry from tabletop games like Hungry Hungry Hippos, but they share the same descriptor. But if we no longer call them "games," what should we call them?

Opinion: Too Much Action and Not Enough Adventure Gameplay
(Reid Kimball)

Reid Kimball says many of today's games rely too heavily on action aspects: acrobatics, combat, taking cover or driving. Meanwhile, developers are missing out on opportunities to explore the narrative possibilities of awkward bathroom encounters...

"Playing to Win" and a Philosophy of Competition in Gaming
(Ian Fisch)

Wii fans have high hopes for the success of the promising Wii-exclusive FPS The Conduit, but recent poor-performing hardcore games on Nintendo's white box aren't exactly confidence builders.

Ian Fisch writes that hardcore gamers, who commonly own a Wii alongside high-powered consoles and PCs, may find little incentive to buy The Conduit, even if the title does push the hardware to the brink. There is room for hardcore success on Wii, but "It just takes the right idea," he says.

Jab Strong Fierce Artwork Now Online, For Sale

Now that Jab Strong Fierce -- the Street Fighter tribute exhibition in Alhambra, CA -- is running and will be up until May 11th, the Nucleus gallery has posted all 62 of the pieces from the show online and made them available for purchase.

A lot of the paintings that I previously shared with you have sold since Jab Strong Fierce opened on Saturday, but you can still grab this Dutzy sculpture shown above, titled "Blaunkius, the Protector".

Here are a couple of favorites from the posted paintings that I haven't featured yet:

"Target Practice" by Robert Kondo:

"Untitled" by Rhode Montijo:

Opinion: Forget 'Games As Art' -- Try A New Approach

[Gamasutra's Christian Nutt argues that the road to improving the cultural currency of games lies not in wishing you're making "art", but making small changes to improve products already in development.]

The "games as art" debate is tiring me out. At GDC, after a tiring week, I was at a post-show party. Standing in a circle of developers, the topic arose naturally, as it does.

I didn't catch the name of the guy who spoke up first, but I inwardly sighed as I realized that I was in for another completely naive discussion of the subject. There's nothing wrong with earnestness and naivete; it's just that there's something at least bordering on wrong with not harnessing this intellectual energy and actually turning it into something more meaningful.

Jim Preston, in his Gamasutra essay cheekily entitled "The Arty Party", made light of game developers' pretensions towards art. But he also made a really relevant point that doesn't quite seem to be penetrating:

"The problem with [the idea that there's an art establishment to aspire to] is that it isn't even remotely close to reflecting the state of art in 21st century America. To think that there is a single, generally agreed upon concept of art is to get it precisely backwards. Americans' attitude towards art is profoundly divided, disjointed and confused; and my message to gamers is to simply ignore the "is-it-art?" debate altogether."

Gamasutra columnist Ian Bogost -- explicitly agreeing with Preston -- took this discussion a step further earlier this year by pointing out that in fine art, there are movements and schools, and that's the context in which art can be defined in games; he proposed a school called Proceduralist.

Watch us wildly diverge from what developers generally seem to mean when they bring up the "games as art" thing. That's instructive. It illustrates that the creative impetus to create something worthwhile or more culturally relevant is actually a separate one from the simple concept of creating art -- as it should be.

Shadow of the Colossus and Ico are two of the most reliably cited games when the discussion of games as art looms -- at least when we're talking about games produced by large, professional development studios.

At this year's GDC when director Fumito Ueda was point-blank asked about that, he responded, "My team and I are making a game which is close to art -- that's what people say. Personally I don't think that way. We're making a game to entertain people. Sometimes my personality and my team's might be reflected on the game, and it might look like art, but it is a game to entertain people. That kind of feedback is welcome but it's not what I'm trying to achieve."

Inclusive, Exclusive

Before we abandon from the discussion of what's art and what is not art, it's worth looking at what some incredibly successful creators -- artists? -- have to say about the topic.

More Ueda, from a Guardian interview: "If I was not in the games industry, I would want to become a classical artist. Though I regard not only games but also anything that expresses something -- be it films, novels or manga -- as forms of art." While that seems to contradict what's quoted above, it's interesting to think about what the difference between "forms of art" and "art" is. I think that's kind of where the crux of the argument lies, in a way. It's about the intent of a creative endeavor, versus the outcome.

As Bogost pointed out in his Proceduralist piece, Dada artist "Marcel Duchamp made a urinal into art by putting it in a gallery rather than a restroom." If we put a copy of Postal 2 into a gallery, in other words, it becomes art. That may illustrate the meaninglessness of the question.

Observing the most successful living artist in the world, Damien Hirst, offers up a lot of really fascinating ways to look at this sort of debate through. First, of course, is the news that he is an immense commercializer of his own work.

Said Hirst, in an interview with the Guardian, "There is an attitude that you're not a real artist if you make money, if you're not starving in a garret with holes in your jeans. But me and Warhol and Picasso, we took on the commercial aspect of art. Goya, Rembrandt, Velasquez, all of those guys, they were all thinking about the commercial aspect of their work. It's art first though, money second. I've taken the risk that the art will outshine the money -- I think it will, I hope so."

He would know. He sold a diamond-encrusted skull for £50 million in 2007 -- then approximately $100 million in U.S. dollars. The title of the work is "For the Love of God" -- which may imply it's the pretentiousness of the title, rather than the crassness of the actual item or its inherent commercialization that defines something as art.

Columnist Germaine Greer writes about Hirst's spot paintings: "Hirst is quite frank about what he doesn't do. He doesn't paint his triumphantly vacuous spot paintings -- the best spot paintings by Damien Hirst are those painted by Rachel Howard. His undeniable genius consists in getting people to buy them. Damien Hirst is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing." These paintings were mass-produced in his studio by assistants. Few were painted by Hirst. Hundreds of them were sold to collectors.

The most successful living artist is fundamentally concerned with commercializing his works; he creates broadly accessible and obvious products -- like paintings of colored dots, or the frankly banal diamond-encrusted skull -- and we're worrying about if we're producing "art"? It's probably time to let that word go; in 2009, it's more than reached its sell-by date.

This may be why Brian Green, in his essay, attacked from the direction of "legitimacy" than the concept of "art" -- a much more useful distinction.

Incredibly successful author Neil Gaiman isn't a big believer in there being much meaning in the fact that certain works are placed on pedestals and others in wire racks next to the checkout counter.

Writes Gaiman, "I've never been convinced that there's any meaningful division between high culture and pop culture -- I think there's good stuff out there, and there's stuff that's not much good, and that Sturgeon's Law applies to high culture and popular culture: 90% of it will be crap, which means that 10% of it will be amazing."

Of course, proponents of "games as art" will then point out that Neil Gaiman is a pop novelist. At which point I would ask if you the dialogue in your game is as good as the dialogue in Neil Gaiman's comics, and you'd accuse me of being a jerk and say "That's not the point!" and walk away from the discussion. So let's head that one off here -- it is the point.

Finally, What I'm Proposing

Now, if you're Jason Rohrer, or somebody working in a similar space, you can pretty much stop reading. Editorially, though, we tend to assume that most of the readers of Gamasutra work at studios, or at least, on essentially traditional video games. And that's who I'm addressing with this suggestion.

Rather than worrying that you can't turn your licensed kids' platformer or space marine murder simulator into art, think about what you can do to make its creative palate a little bit more expansive; to make its characters and dialogue a little less stupid; to make more concessions to an audience just a smidge wider than your marketing-decreed target.

A while ago I had the idea that making these small but potentially meaningful efforts on products already in the works will have a bigger impact than pining for an opportunity to make some grand gesture down the road somewhere. Fortunately, it didn't take me long to find a developer I knew well who'd already had practical experience doing just that.

But first, a cautionary tale: this isn't always going to be easy. Another developer friend was working on a triple-A game for a major publisher. (The game's canceled now, but he's too busy on his next triple-A game for another major publisher to answer an irritating journalist friend's instant messages, so I can't reveal his identity, the publisher, or the project.)

His (now canceled) game featured an average guy, searching for his wife after a major urban disaster, as its protagonist, alongside an average-looking woman in a supporting role. Word came back from marketing: make the guy beefier and more heroic; make the girl "Hollywood ugly" -- that is, a beautiful woman wearing glasses. The battle was essentially lost. If that happens to you, fight that, please. Do your best.

That said, Double Fine Productions gameplay programmer Anna Kipnis has had some success in this vein, and I think it's one of the most promising stories I've heard in a long while. Brutal Legend may well be tangibly enriched for her efforts, and that means more, in some ways, than another 10 minute art indie on the web.

"My basic point is that devs can have a tremendous impact on the game they're making -- and they shouldn't forget that," says Kipnis. When the game was first pitched internally at the studio, she was a bit worried that the "inclusive" Psychonauts was being supplanted by something with a more narrow appeal.

Working within that context -- the big, cartoony, violent and willfully stupid world of a metal roadie played by Jack Black -- it might seem pointless to make the effort to bring more perspectives to bear. But according to Kipnis, "you have to be very constructive about it, and suggest solutions. So I said that maybe it would be rad to include things that didn't violate the metal setting, but still did something interesting in terms of gender culture."

Like? "Ugly gals, important gal characters, smart gals, sinister gals... because that would be moving away from the stereotypical bikini-clad achetype of metal (and video games)."

"It's really hard to purposely make a game that's going to appeal to women," admits Kipnis, "and isn't a wise undertaking," she adds. But adding unexpectedly rounded characters into an unwelcoming context far from hurts the game.

Working within the context of Brutal Legend rather than trying to change it to something it's not, and working to improve an existing core gamer concept with richer, more complicated characters seems like a lot more practical of road towards improving the medium than most suggestions I've heard. As Kipnis says about Brutal Legend, "I wanted to feel proud of the risks we took with it. I think in order to make progress, you need to catch yourself when you're making 'safe' decisions."

Brutal Legend is -- forgive me, Tim -- unlikely to be the kind of game that proponents of "games as art" look to as an obvious example of one that stretches the medium. But we've just revealed that it's developed in the kind of culture that allows for this subtle growth, the question -- what can developers can do to make games more relevant? -- changes entirely. Do what you can.

In the comments for the article Making Games Art: Designers' Manifesto, the most recent feature article Gamasutra has run on "games as art", Eric Carr had something interesting to say: "I think we want to call games art to give meaning to them. We want them to have more substance and we're finding that too many people consider them to be just games without finding any deeper meaning. It is noble to want that to change. We want people to understand exactly what it is we do and why. But, why must it be art or not? What true difference does it make? If we make great things that people can experience and enjoy -- isn't that really the point?"

Yes. That's the point. Now instead of talking about it, let's find the approach that actually works.

Kojima's Path to Game Design Resumé

"I'd like to continue being on the scene making games until I die," Hideo Kojima wrote in a faux resumé, presented during a Q&A session at the Apple Store in Tokyo's Ginza District.

The Kojima Productions head and Metal Gear creator shared with his fans glimpses from his early childhood, which he spent sitting around all day watching television (he learned how to eat spaghetti by watching TV). Despite his wasteful youth, he emphasized that he did have a girlfriend named Yoshiko.

Displayed on a projector was Kojima's "Path to Game Design" resumé, a timeline of significant points in his life that led to his thriving career at Konami. According to Anoop Gantayat, who attended and reported on the event, one of those milestones was the 1970 Osaka World Fair, where he first encountered foreigners. At some point during the Q&A, Kojima brought up a dream of working with an ethnically diverse group of people, describing the envisioned crew as a "Team Star Trek".

Another dream he had, marked on the resumé by his watching of the Apollo 11 moon landing's live broadcast in 1969, was to one day go into space. He still holds onto this dream, and even joked that the only thing he'd give up video games for is a chance to go into space. Tempting Kojima, one of the event's attendees revealed that he has a friend who works for Virgin Galactic, a company planning to one day offer sub-orbital spaceflights to the public.

You can read Kojima's translated "Path to Game Design" resumé here.

GameSetLinks: Never, Ever Look Back

[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.]

End of the weekend, it is, and time to hop back on the GameSetLinks train, and, as you folks know, we really try to scout the Internets for the best intelligent, longer-form blogs and writing about games - no matter what the source.

This time, we span everything from bizarre Wired mag puzzles to indie star Terry Cavanagh being quizzed on Don't Look Back and his other blocky, stocky titles - with a side order of that man Meretzky again.

An amazing race:

Wired.com: Game Changers: Brainteasers for Hardcore Videogame Fans
Wow, supergeekiness here - from the rather amazing J.J.Abrams guest-edited issue of Wired. Via Chris Baker!

Technology Review: Author of Play
Hey, more Steve Meretzky interviews - this one quite MIT-related, for obvious reasons.

Charge Shot!!!: Real Time Simplicity: A Talk with Rudolf Kremers and Alex May
The Dyson duo are further quizzed, oh yes.

An Exclusive Excerpt from Friends, Fans and Followers | Cartoon Brew: Leading the Animation Conversation
'Scott Kirsner, Variety writer and editor of the invaluable CinemaTech blog, breaks it down in his new book by offering case studies of thirty visual artists, comedians, animators, documentary filmmakers, musicians and writers.' Super-relevant to games, too, though I'm not sure any game creators were interviewed... nonetheless!

Wonderland: Commissioning for Attention: games, education and teens
'Public service gaming is wonderful. There should be more of it. There will be more of it.' Amen to that.

Interview with Terry Cavanagh, creator of Don't Look Back | GameCritics.com
Nice indie interview over at the sometimes forgotten GameCritics.

April 26, 2009

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': The Lost Ultimate Entertainment Experience

['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.]

ladeda.jpg

For the first time in about three years of writing Game Mag Weaseling, I'm going to not talk about magazines at all. Hopefully you will forgive me; I've been on vacation in the lovely CA Bay Area for the past few days, largely basking in the nostalgia, and my mind hasn't been on the subject.

I lived in San Francisco from '01 to '05, working first for GamePro then Ziff Davis, and as a result I spent a lot of time in SF's downtown district, home to some of America's most expensive real estate...and, also, some of its most vacant presently.

I was particularly interested in revisiting the Metreon, the urban shopping center established by Sony in 1999, for the first time in a few years. I always sort of saw the Metreon as the most unique symbol of the PS2/GC/Xbox era of console games, chiefly because I went there all the time for industry events.

Konami and SOE held their big video presentations for their Gamers Day events in the "Action Theater" upstairs; Square Enix and Bandai held big public game launches in the PlayStation Store on the street corner. There is the Walk of Game, a catwalk on the second floor with some tiles that say "Sonic the Hedgehog" and "EverQuest" on them.

For a while in '03-'04, game press and developer rank-and-file gathered in the bar/lounge area for semi-regular industry networking events, which I went to mainly 'cos a new kind of liquor would be half-price every night.

Even at the time, I don't remember much of the Metreon being heavily-trafficked apart from the movie theater. My suspicions were confirmed when I revisited a couple days back. The Metreon, which was bought by mall developer Westfield in 2006, is remarkably empty.

The Bandai store is gone; Games Workshop is gone; the comic-book shop (photographed above) is gone; Sony Style is gone; the PS Store is closing soon; the bar appears to be available chiefly for special events only these days.

The big arcade on the second floor, which also had a bar and used to feature this weird Heavy Metal-magazine theme to the decor, is now more than half composed of redemption games. And I haven't even gotten to the Where the Wild Things Are stuff on the third floor.

Westfield is planning a $30 million renovation of the Metron that'll take the noticeably cave-like structure and make it wide-open, cheery, and a bit more like a typical mall. A lot of the "current structural clutter" will be removed in the process, likely including the Walk of Game (which hasn't seen any new inductees since the 2006 Westfield takeover anyway).

I feel, in a way, like I'm losing part of my history...even though I rarely ventured inside for reasons that didn't have to do with eating free hors d'oeuvres and listlessly taking down notes about games like Sonic Heroes and Nano Breaker.

The game industry may not be in any danger of disappearing tomorrow, but it, like everything else, is changing more rapidly than ever before. Maybe I don't play as glamorous a role in it any longer, but even today, there are few fields I'd rather want to work in. Though, I do admit to being glad that I haven't had to write the words "Sonic Heroes" in about five years until today...

[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.]

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of April 24

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

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

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

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

Gamasutra.com - Game Industry Jobs

Activision: Associate Producer, Guitar Hero
"The role of the Associate Producer is to assist the producers in all aspects of the production of a game. Associate Producers are generally responsible for taking over whole sections of game production. These sections can be the production of audio, video, and asset management for the Main SKU, or management of the production testing, as well as complete responsibility for derivative products, such as add-ons, ports, localizations, and OEM SKUs."

THQ, Kaos Studios: Animator
"Kaos Studios is located in the heart of New York City and is mere blocks from the Empire State Building and the thrill of Midtown Manhattan. Along with the opportunity to live in one of the most exciting cities in the world, we are also working on one of the most exciting FPS titles to date- Frontlines: Fuel of War (PC/XBOX360) is already receiving great press and that’s just the beginning!"

Ubisoft San Francisco: Lead Designer
"Ubisoft Entertainment, a global leader in the video games and entertainment software industry, is currently seeking a full-time Lead Designer. We are looking for a highly talented, motivated and experienced person to help guide the creation of an exciting new cross-platform music based game."

A2M: Software Developer -- Technology, Online Team
"Founded in 1992, Artificial Mind and Movement is a Montreal based videogame developer specializing in the creation of interactive action-adventure games. A2M's experience developing quality licensed games and original titles have made it one of the premier game developers in Canada."

WorldsInMotion - Online Games

NetDevil: Social Designer
"The Social Designer is responsible for design and creation, maintenance, and oversight of all socialization features in the AAA MMOG, LEGO Universe. This includes responsibility for safety and consumer service issues, in order to provide a premium, trusted online experience for 'kids of all ages'."

Perfect World Entertainment: Community Manager
"Perfect World Entertainment, a subsidiary of Perfect World Co., Ltd. (NASDAQ: PWRD), publishes free-to-play, online games and provides online services in North America. We are currently seeking a creative Community Manager to join our fun and dynamic team in Redwood City. The Community Management Specialist will develop relationships online to create effective partnerships to promote site and build traffic."

Serious Games Source - Serious Games

IPKeys Technologies: Game Programmer - Software Engineer
"IPKeys' I-GAME team supports the mission of IPKeys in delivering world-class modeling and simulation and interactive gaming technology. Our success is measured in the complete satisfaction of our customers, the superb quality of our products, and the adherence to our core principles of integrity and accountability. We operate in a team environment that supports individual growth, unhindered communication, the high morale of our team, the recognition of extraordinary achievement, and the fostering of the creative spirit."

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

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.

Some really neat stuff out here - a v.neat Emil Pagliarulo interview about Fallout 3, an in-depth title on the state of iPhone games, a pretty interesting highlights reel for postmortems, Peter Dille on the state of PlayStation, and lots more.

Hey yay hurray:

Exploring A Devastated World: Emil Pagliarulo And Fallout 3
"Fallout 3 lead writer and lead designer Emil Pagliarulo on the creative process of everything from the main game to DLC to understanding and implementing user desires -- and how people saw the game as an Oblivion sequel."

The Three Rs of Audio Leadership
"What are the key things you need to work as a video game audio lead? LucasArts' Jesse Harlin picks the 'three Rs' that he thinks game audio managers need to have."

iPhone Devs: Rethinking the Art of Making Games
"In a Gamasutra special feature, we talk to five leading iPhone game developers, including the makers of hit titles Rolando, iShoot and Flick Fishing, on the state of making games for Apple's explosively popular platform."

What Went Wrong? Learning From Past Postmortems
"Gamasutra sister magazine Game Developer decided to round up every "what went wrong" entry from the last three years of game postmortems, and compiled the most frequently made mistakes (usually over five times each) into this cautionary feature."

Custom Tools: Environment Artists and Game Editors
"In this art-centric article, originally published in Game Developer magazine, Bungie's Steve Theodore discusses visualizing game environments, and why 'an upgrade to your tool chain is a great opportunity to upgrade the relationship between artists and designers'."

Catching Up With PlayStation: Peter Dille On Sony In 2009
"Sony is the company that perhaps popularized the post-cartridge console generation. But running into mixed press and PS3 pricing issues, how does the company itself view its progress? How does it see its business? Gamasutra spoke to Peter Dille, senior vice president of marketing at Sony Computer Entertainment America."

Bonus: GameCareerGuide features & Gamasutra news originals: 'It Was A Good Time To Make A Change,' Says Ex-Dragon Age Director; Analysis: Mature Titles On DS -- Is The Audience Just Not There?; GameCareerGuide Feature: What I Learned As An Indie; Exclusive Analysis: Console Tie Ratios Reveal Market Dynamics; GCG Feature: Big Hadron Games Mega-Postmortem -- 16 Flash Games In Three Months; Scratch Lawsuit: $6 Million Dev Costs, Legal Battle Over Source Code Revealed; Analysis: On The Wii And DS, Game Ratings Matter.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Complex Style

Jojos2_screen1.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Jojo's Fashion Show 2, by Gamelab.]

I do love Gamelab.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Since Gamelab laid off employees and seems to have de-emphasized or even ceased its casual game production (its site just redirects to the Gamestar Mechanic website now), this article might be a bit of a stealth eulogy for them. Anyone know if they are still making casual games?]

Jojo's Fashion Show 2 starts off with an obvious handicap, viz. being a numbered sequel. Reviews focused on the repetition and lack of technical innovation from the first installment in the series, and I would have to agree that those are fair complaints.

Several things make it stand out, though. First, the writing is unusually perky for a casual game. I would have said "surprisingly", but in fact this does not surprise me, since several of the people working on this project also worked on Gamelab's Miss Management, a piece so successfully written that I still remember the major characters with amusement and rueful affection many months after playing. The characters in Jojo's Fashion Show 2 aren't quite such a bundle of neuroses, but they are unusually distinct and opinionated.

Jojo also affords a rather larger cast than the average frame-story cast in a casual game. The Diner Dash episodes usually get by with Flo, Quinn, and other cookie-cutter gal pals assembled from various Dash variations, with perhaps Flo's grandma thrown in for color; but I'd have a hard time naming any way in which Flo and Quinn differ in personality (for instance), and adding more members to their posse would just make it bigger, not more interesting.

Besides which, Flo has become such a franchise that we can be safely assured nothing remotely interesting will ever happen to her again. Jojo's Fashion Show 2 does borrow a few popular stereotypes in order to distinguish its characters -- the fashion magazine editor courtesy of The Devil Wears Prada being the most obvious. They've even given her Meryl Streep's hair, lest there be any question about the intended casting.

Nonetheless, there are more distinct personae, and they're more fun, than you'll see in any other game of the same ilk.

Second, there's a plot that involves confict between characters, and this time it's not just a simplistic struggle against some greedy or envious villain, but a considerably more plausible and more engaging conflict between people who care about one another.

The mother/daughter team of Jojo and Ros generates some creative tension, which leads to an argument and a parting of the ways. This is all handled with a fair degree of sensitivity: the player can see the crash coming a little way in advance, but it still has a little sting. And once it has happened, the two of them are left to struggle on without each other for a while.

There are subplots, too -- a romance, an old rivalry going through new stages -- but the story stays most focused on what the designers rightly knew was the most interesting arc, the resolution of differences between Jojo and her daughter.

Finally, the gameplay reflects all of these stages, with inventive level design that lets the player experience and share in the struggles of the main characters.

It helps that the play concept of dressing models to fit a specific style lends itself to a lot of tuning: the game has many variables to play with: what styles the player is trying for; how much time is allowed per model; what pieces are available and how suitable they are, on average, for the target styles; how many times the player is permitted to refresh the wardrobe with new clothes; etc.

Scores are based on how well each piece of clothing matches the criteria of the given style, with some extra bonuses for effective combinations (like jeans with a t-shirt, or boots with a mid-length skirt).

When Rosalind and Jojo of them are feeling out of sync, the player may be confronted with hard-to-reconcile style challenges; for instance, during one of the most stressful points in their collaboration, I found myself trying to create flapper ensembles and casual business ensembles at the same time, where the difficulty is that very few pieces are suitable for both. I was constantly getting stuck with a business woman to dress and a wardrobe full of fringed skirts, or the reverse, and found myself burning through my bonuses to recycle the available clothes, irritated by the incompatibilities.

Then they separate, and the player has the chance to dress shows for each of them individually. Ros, on her own, experiments with some wacky style ideas that become more challenging for the player to throw together on instinct -- requiring more thought and more frequent reference to the style guides to make sure one is on the right track.

Jojos2_screen1.jpgWhen Jojo is lonely, on the other hand, she becomes depressed and her creativity evaporates. Her styles become very simple and predictable, so there are few criteria to match, which means that no one element of an ensemble is ever worth very many points. This leaves the player frantically working the chaining bonuses in an attempt to get decent scores out of uninspired outfit concepts. The game tunes the player's frustration to match up with what the characters feel -- and frustration is one emotion that games are reliably good at provoking.

And when at last mother and daughter are reconciled (I didn't say the plot was unpredictable), their new style concepts are silly, exuberant, and hugely fun to play with. This gives the game a kick of exciting new life. The player gets new and ever-more-fanciful pieces of clothing, and the target styles are more closely aligned. (It's particularly easy to dress the show which includes both Punk and its bizarre relative Flamenco Punk, since there's such a large supply of crossover pieces.)

At the same time, the player finds himself working against a faster clock and with higher point-value expectations. The result is the sensation of being a bit stressed by the higher stakes, but finally in sync over the process -- exactly where the story has taken the characters at this point.

This is strong design. I imagine it requires that the writers be intimately part of the level design process from the outset, because someone on the team must be asking not just "what new challenges can we put into this level to make it more interesting?" but "how will these new challenges shape the experience of play, and how can we line that up with what is happening in the story?" It makes a huge difference.

Jojo's Fashion Show 2 is still definitely using story in support of game, rather than vice versa. The main attraction of play is the semi-zen state one gets into while assembling outfit upon outfit, and the narrative arc is not as dominant as it was in Miss Management.

Nonetheless, Gamelab continues to do a better job than most at presenting character experience through the gameplay, drawing the player into sympathy with their emotional states and struggles. I continue to find theirs some of the best casual game writing on the market.

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



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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