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May 9, 2009

Gamasutra Expert Blogs: From Industry Primers To Lawsuits

[In the latest highlights from sister site Gamasutra's Expert Blogs, industry veterans attempt to assemble a guide to the game industry, and suggest suing as many pirates as possible - fun stuff.]

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

I Wanna Make Games When I Grow Up
(Adam Saltsman)

After starting his Gamasutra blog just a week ago, Adam Saltsman has already generated a considerable slate of mainly design-related material. In this post, however, he begins what is intended to be an ongoing resource of links aimed at prospective developers -- from primers on games and the industry, to discipline-specific tutorials.

An Example of Indie Game Patronage
(Darius Kazemi)

Historically, great artists were often supported by wealthy patrons. In a free-market non-aristocratic society, that may not be feasible, but some developers are testing out distributed fan-driven patronage (surprisingly, inspired in one case by more traditional patronage). Darius Kazemi explains.

Game Dev from the Dark Continent
(Rodain Joubert)

Most development coverage focuses on the regions of North America, Europe, and Japan, but that doesn't mean game creation isn't going on elsewhere. Here, Rodain Joubert takes an in-depth, historically-informed look at game development in South Africa.

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

Why can Rocky train via montage in films, while players are rarely able to take similarly efficient paths in games? Reid Kimball mentally toys with the idea of implementing interactive montage through game design.

Fighting Piracy: Bring on the Lawsuits!
(Ian Fisch)

While the physical, maritime version of piracy has recently exploded onto the headlines, digital piracy never really leaves its place of prominence in video game industry discussion. Ian Fisch floats the controversial idea of suing pirates in great numbers, and a comment thread explodes.

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of May 8

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 Microsoft Game Studios, Ubisoft, NetDevil 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

Microsoft Game Studios: Lead Software Development Engineer
"Would you like to work on a next-generation project, built from the ground up in MGS? We have a very strong team, currently responsible for Gears of War 2, starting a new project in a start-up like environment. This is a rare opportunity to work on a team of game industry experts tackling a new challenge."

THQ, Kaos Studios: AI Programmer
"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 also just finished up 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."

Underground Development/Activision: Environment Artist
"The ideal candidate has experience modeling and texturing assets for a diverse visual range of environments. A solid grasp of form, color, and light for both 2D and 3D art assets is essential. The environment artist must be able to show talent in either one of the traditional skills (illustration, modeling, texturing, animation, or concept drawing) and be able to show 3d environments that illustrates that the artist understands what goes into crafting a great looking video game level."

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'."

Working Library: Senior Software Engineer
"Working Library is a Manhattan-based digital creative agency. We are currently seeking a game programmer to develop content for a virtual world environment on PlayStation Home. If you want to develop cutting-edge creative on a new platform, we have a place for you here!"

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.

The Community Manager Interviews: Bethesda's Matt Grandstaff

[Chris Remo is continuing to interview video game community managers over at big sister site Gamasutra, quizzing them on their important -- and often under-rated -- work, and this time, Bethesda's Matt Grandstaff is on deck.]

Bethesda Softworks' community manager, Matt Grandstaff, joined the company just two days before the Fallout 3 forums opened -- "Good luck, meat shield," executive producer Todd Howard teased him on their first meeting on the job.

We spoke to Grandstaff for the third part of our series of interviews with community managers from four different companies -- publishers, publisher-owned studios, and independent studios. Previously,we featured 2K Games' Elizabeth Tobey and Naughty Dog's Arne Meyer.

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

But Grandstaff, an active member of the gaming community in forums online who first dreamed of being a games journalist before finding his way into his community role, was able to use his firsthand understanding of the audience's expectations to navigate the steep challenges of introducing them to the long-anticipated Fallout sequel.

He read the phrase "Oblivion with guns" more times than he could count, and here, he discusses with Gamasutra how he adapted to being "thrown into the fire" early on, the fascinating culture clash he witnessed among Bethesda franchise fans, and what he learned in the end from seeing it all come together:

In your view, what is a community manager? In particular, what is the role of a community manager for a company that develops single-player games with a potentially very long shelf life?

I serve as a liaison between our company/development staff and the folks that play our games. Even though a game like Fallout 3 is single-player, there’s always something new going on with the game. Heck, Morrowind came out in 2002, and we still see players doing cool stuff with it.

For the community, a large part of my job is to keep them up to speed on news and happenings for our games (pre and post-release), while being sure to highlight the community aspect as too. I have a lot of fun interviewing members of our community on our blog.

For the company I’m making sure our staff is aware what’s going on with our games -- whether it’s issues players are reporting, or just sharing reactions the community has to news and announcements.

How did you end up in this role?

I’ve been playing games as long as I can remember, and it was always a goal of mine to have a job in the industry. During and after college, I did game reviews for my school paper and took any freelance opportunities I could get. I always dreamed of writing for a magazine like EGM.

Easier said than done -- I needed to find a real job. I ended up taking a marketing internship at the National Park Foundation here in DC. That internship turned into a full time job and I worked there for a few years. After that, I took a job at a marketing agency where I helped with projects relating to movies, TV shows and games.

With my knowledge and passion for the game industry, I became the office expert on games. After a couple years there, a friend let me know about the job listing at Bethesda. Less than a month later, I was working at Bethesda.

Does having that previous marketing experience give you any insight into how to deal with community, or are the disciplines too separate?

It’s a different world, but there are still some similarities. Whether I’m posting in the forums or on the blog -- it’s still a form of PR. While it’s not the same platform [marketing and PR VP] Pete [Hines] speaks to, you always have to remember you’re representing the company -- so you really have to think about what you’re saying.

Posting in an online community comes pretty naturally to me -- years before taking the job, I was already posting at places like [online gaming forum] GAF.

Speaking of Pete, he referred to you as having "survived Fallout 3." Fallout 3 is an interesting case, because it inherits separate longstanding and communities from both the Fallout franchise and Bethesda's own past games. Can you speak to the challenges of working with those, as well as presumably attempting to draw in new community members?

I don’t know if Pete means to do it, but when he hires a new employee they seem to be thrown into the fire right away. When I started, I had two days to familiarize myself with things before we opened our Fallout 3 forums.

I remember that first week when Pete introduced me to [executive producer] Todd Howard. I forget exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of "Good luck, meat shield." In the first few months, handling Fallout was definitely a challenge for me, but more importantly, it was a challenge for the community.

You know, you had this passionate fan base that had waited years for a sequel, and once we started to promote the game, they wanted to know everything about the game. With limited information on the game released, there was plenty of speculation, arguing and sometimes total mayhem in our forums. If I could have a dime for every time I heard "Oblivion with guns" or read a topic called, “What is the definition of an RPG?”...

To make things more interesting, the idea of "Oblivion with guns" was pretty appealing to our existing Elder Scrolls fanbase -- so there was a culture clash when the Fallout boards opened in our existing forums.

Over time -- especially after the game was released -- I think the two sides have come together and strengthened our community. It’s especially cool to me to see our Elder Scrolls fans, who are pretty familiar with modding, help Fallout fans with modding the game.

As for me, I think I’ve come a long way too. I still feel like a meat shield, but at least I know what to expect. Fallout 3 was more or less my rookie season in community management, a memorable one at that.

That's something community managers frequently say, that it can be overwhelming to deal with such a large group of people, who tend to be extremely dedicated and vocal. Any thoughts on how to avoid that, or generally stay sane?

I suppose the biggest challenge for me is that while I leave work between 5:30 and 6:30, the community never clocks out, and I get asked questions at all hours of the day. It’s pretty crazy to answer hundreds, sometimes thousands of community emails and [private messages] each week.

In terms of tips, I think it’s important to make yourself feel like a member of the community. This comes pretty natural to me, and I typically can relate to the feedback I get. Also, be sure to keep your cool when posting in the forums or answering a question. I might get frustrated from time to time, but try to never show it in the boards.

Another sentiment I've gotten from community managers is that the role is very much still being "felt out," and has not yet been well documented or taught. Would you agree with that characterization? How have you gone about defining your own place?

Definitely. After all, I’m the first community manager at Bethesda. Talking with some of my colleagues, they’ve told me things like, “I really didn’t understand why we needed someone like you, but you’ve really carved out your path.” On top of my role as a liaison, I’ve really worked hard to become the eyes and ears for our company. Additionally, I’m always looking at how to refine the community experience – either by tweaking what’s in place or trying something new.

Do you see the community manager role as changing at all?

I think it is and will continue to change. In fact, you could say the role of the community manager changes from game to game. How a CM works with a game like Fallout 3 is already different than how a CM would interact within an MMO or an online shooter.

I think the biggest change to the CM role will come as more games integrate community within the actual game. Just as the world becomes more obsessed with social media like Twitter and Facebook – we’re going to start seeing similar applications/portals in games.

I've also gotten the sense that although they work together in many cases, there are times when community and marketing and PR don't see eye to eye, due to the difference between the driving a message and fostering discussion -- have you found that to be the case?

Sure, there’s time when I have a differing opinion on how to handle something, not just with PR, but with other departments too. But that’s really the case with any job. In the end, I think we do a good job in balancing what’s best for our company and our fans.

How much of your job is focused on actual direct interaction with the community itself?

Even if I have a lot of busy work, I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where I’m not interacting with the community one way or the other. Ideally, I like to be able to spend at least an hour or two posting in our forums – whether it’s helping out with something game related, or just getting to know members more through discussion.

How important are social networking sites or techniques to your particular approach?

For my first year or so, most of my focus centered on our forums and blog, but I’ve shifted more attention to social networking sites recently. We do Facebook pages, we’ve put up modding tutorials on YouTube, and last month I started the company Twitter page. I think we’re only at the tip of the iceberg with social networking.

Do you have ways to measure the "success" of the community, be it through specific metrics or tracking, or more subjective observations?

Well, we track the amount of discussion and visits we get on our forum and blog, and we’re pretty happy with what we see. I do put more of a focus on subjective observations, it’s more important to me to know the pulse of what’s going on within the community.

Can you speak to any particularly successful campaigns, tactics, or interactions?

Well, we did a Create-a-Perk contest, and we were blown away by the amount of submissions we got. And lately, I’ve been getting a kick out of the response I’ve seen to our Twitter page. I’ll tweet a redeemable DLC code, and within 10 seconds, someone will have entered it on Xbox LIVE. I think those campaigns are effective for three reasons: they’re simple, they’re accessible, and they’re fun.

Any general tips for those going into community, or hoping to?

Play a lot of games and participate in the social aspects of gaming. Become a member of a gaming forum, start a blog -- do something to get your name out there and make yourself known.

[Previously, Gamasutra's series of community manager interviews featured 2K Games' Elizabeth Tobey and Naughty Dog's Arne Meyer.]

Best Of Indie Games: Spewing Those Games Out

[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 social interaction simulator by the author of Everybody Dies, a platformer centered around regurgitation, a ZX Spectrum puzzle game, a variation of Minesweeper, an overhead shooter with heavy tanks, and a new bi-monthly game from the cool people at Flashbang Studios.

Game Pick: 'Spewer' (Edmund McMillen and Eli Piilonen, browser)
"A new physics-based platformer created by the prolific Edmund McMillen and Eli Piilonen, featuring music by Gravity Hook and Meat Boy music composer Daniel Baranowsky. You are in control of a test subject named Spewer, who must escape from the clutches of a scientist by surviving all fifty-five rooms inside a maze-like laboratory, one level at a time."

Game Pick: 'W*H*B' (Bob Smith, freeware)
"A puzzler that resembles Damien Clarke's Bloxorz in many ways, although this version features configurable button settings, great chiptunes and lovely retro graphics that the original had never offered. An emulator is required to play W*H*B, assuming that you don't own a working ZX Spectrum anywhere around the house."

Game Pick: 'Extremine' (Tommo Zhou, freeware)
"A challenging variation of Minesweeper that forces players to think fast, created by Tommo Zhou for the friendly Ludum Dare 14 competition. The goal of the game is to detonate mines instead of just marking them, and if you don't act fast enough you'll find that the mines will start to box you in as the board shrinks ever faster with each passing second."

Game Pick: 'GDC: The Game' (Jim Munroe, browser)
"For this year's Game Developers Conference, GameSetWatch decided to try a little journalistic/interactive experiment by recruiting Canadian author and game creator Jim Munroe to create a game for them. The result? An intriguing text adventure based on his experiences at GDC."

Game Pick: 'Normal Tanks' (Vasiliy Kostin, commercial indie - demo available)
"A single-player overhead shooter with plenty of heavily armored combat vehicles, turrets and mechanical creatures to shoot at. There are only four playable levels included in this demo version, but no time limit to restrict you from replaying the game at higher difficulty settings."

Game Pick: 'Paper Moon' (Flashbang Studios, browser)
"A short platformer originally created by the Infinite Ammo team and Adam Saltsman for the Gamma3D competition, then remade recently with new art and music for Flashbang Studios' Blurst web site. The aim of the game in both browser and the original competition version are essentially the same, where players are required to grab apples, bananas and cherries for points before time runs out."

May 8, 2009

Duke Nukem Forever Art Surfaces

With 3D Realms shuttered and dozens of developers now looking for work, several artists from the company have been advertising their talents by posting never-before-seen artwork from Duke Nukem Forever online. The above piece comes from former art director Trammel Isaac, who has put up over half a dozen DNF shots on a new weblog.

"2 year 9 months, now it's over," says Isaac. "It was fun while it lasted. I worked with an extraordinary bunch of artists, designers, and programmers. You will all be missed. I know we will cross paths again."

Artist Layne Johnson and Chris Smith also posted samples from their Duke Nukem Forever work, a couple of which are pasted below:

Interview: Telltale's Connors On Episodic Gaming's Bite

[Indie studio Telltale Games (Sam & Max, Strong Bad) has been developing episodic games for five years -- but some studios haven't made it work. CEO Dan Connors tells us how they did in the first part of a new two-part interview.]

As one of the only developers focused solely on episodic games, and one of the few focused solely on traditional-style adventure games, independent studio Telltale Games has a well-defined goal.

Having recently hit its five-year anniversary, and boasting three major licensed series -- Sam & Max, Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, and most recently Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures -- across PC, Xbox 360, and Wii, the company has clearly made it work.

But some episodic developers, like Penny Arcade Adventures developer Hothead Games, have stated their intention to ease off the model a bit. With that in mind, Chris Remo sat down with Telltale CEO Dan Connors to discuss the companey's business model, its history, and its lessons learned:

During GDC, Hothead Games said it would be backing off episodic somewhat. There are very, very few companies that have actually stuck with episodic gaming, and Telltale is one -- it's your entire business model. What are other companies who are attempting to do this doing wrong? Or what are you doing right?

Dan Connors: I think it's the fact that it is the entire business model. We really weigh up front every decision based on what the opportunity that the distribution channel presents. We don't tend to over-bite on things. We tend to innovate in small ways each time.

We've made improvements along the way, but the mistake that a lot of companies make -- and I'm not saying this is what Hothead has done -- as independent companies trying to start from the ground up to do this, is that there's this huge investment in making the perfect product. But then when it comes time to bring it to market, all the challenges of getting exposure, creating a marketplace, and creating a user experience that works don't leave any room to maneuver at that point.

What Telltale did, which has always been very strategic, is always had content making it through the distribution channel into the marketplace to evolve from. I think that's been a huge differentiator for us, to be able to build it from soup to nuts to do this.

It looks like you've at this point put more into the renderer for Wallace & Gromit, with new lighting and so on -- a bigger evolution than there might usually be for one of your games.

Yeah, the render is definitely one area. We've been working on the same renderer since 2004, and the artists had really pushed it. We didn't decide until this time in our history to go after that part of the business because the product was delivering exactly what it needed to deliver, and the artists had the tools necessary to deliver on the experience.

They did a great job with it, and of course, with Sam & Max, the writing, the joke telling, and the gags are really what we needed to nail. The art was beautiful, the renderer was just a little dated, but for the audience we were going after, it really didn't matter.

With Wallace & Gromit, the look was really important to Aardman as well. They really wanted to feel like we were nailing their look, and they required us to push. So, it was a good time for the company to make that leap forward. And now, obviously going forward, you'll see it in all of our games. There will be this new rendering technology that gives us a bunch of new opportunities.

It's interesting to contrast your release schedule -- which is monthly during a season, and I imagine doesn't leave much room to be improving tech -- with Hothead's on Penny Arcade, which is much more ambiguous. Theirs is actually a lot closer to what Telltale started with on Bone, and that wasn't as successful as your later, faster-paced releases.

Well, I think that's one of the biggest parts -- defining episodic as something customers can believe in. The big complaint about episodic early was, "Sure, you'll do episodes, but I have no idea how they're going to be connected from a story standpoint, from a delivery schedule standpoint, from really anything. You're putting out one portion of the game and then you're pushing out another portion of the game."

I think our ability to deliver on a predictable schedule was a huge part of saying, "We are the episodic gaming company."

With Strong Bad, we didn't even skip a month. It was just five games in five months. That little extra month in the middle there while we still dealt with development realities -- the opening part of the development is the most difficult until we finally lock it in. We've kind of given ourselves a little bit of cushion there in the past, but ultimately our goal is to be out every month.

What would you say to other companies trying to make it work in this space, either to Hothead or anyone else?

I don't know that I would point out anything that Hothead did or didn't do because I don't know enough about the inner workings of the way they decided to go after Penny Arcade Adventures.

Telltale has never stretched itself too far. We don't hope in the dark for something to succeed. We take very measured steps and measure progress and navigate our way through the emerging marketplace. This whole issue of digital retail and what that's going to look like and how that's going to be set up, that's certainly the Wild West.

You really can't count on a lot of things to be 100% true. You have to figure it out. So, if you're betting on anything to save you, or to be the thing that generates X amount of revenue, it's going to end up being unpredictable, and you're not going to know. You have to be measured going in, understanding that that's the reality.

That comes back to understanding how big the appetite is for your product, how willing that audience is to buy a product digitally, and what is the right user experience that the consumers are going to like the fact that it's digital.

For years, with digital distribution or even episodic, it's always felt like it's the kind of thing that the industry has wanted to do without any known benefit to the consumer. The one thing we've been able to do over the three or four seasons is see the things that users are responding to and enjoying.

But it's all been just small steps, as we were kind of talking about earlier. Had we spent all our money trying to just get one thing out like Bone, we wouldn't be talking here today. We would be all over.

All of your games are licensed, but as far as I know, except for your Ubisoft relationship, you actually fund everything yourself. That's unusual for a licensed development partnership.

Yeah, except for the case of Ubisoft, which has been a really good relationship for us. CSI obviously is a great franchise, and we build five episodes as part of that, so it works really well inside of our model. We'd love to be doing an episodic television series that we were licensing and publishing and distributing through Xbox, Wii, and PSN.

You'd like to own a television series?

We would love to have a franchise like CSI of our own. As part of the business there, there's a real big challenge in turning television shows into games.

I think what Ubi has done with CSI and the way they've been able to make that franchise work has been a real success story, even though for gamers, it's not the biggest interest game that comes out every year or whatever. But it's been able to tap into an audience that isn't necessarily gamers and introduce them to games and introduce them to an interactive experience.

That's of great interest to us. That's always been the vision of the company, which is, as more and more [people] get used to interactivity and there's more and more channels for interactivity, turning things that they love as franchises into interactive experiences is a huge goal.

Doing something like that with, who knows, Cold Case or a detective franchise or our own internal detective franchise is a great interest to us.

But going back to your original question, yeah, we go out, we do licensing deals, we fund, and then we publish through the digital channel. That's something that as an independent publisher is possible now. Three years ago, I think you'd have to be really brave. Then, there was the casual independent publisher, but I think the core independent publisher is now possible, so long as you're investing the right amounts of money for the return that the current marketplace is offering.

Are you funded all with VC, pretty much? How much of that do you still use at this point?

Well, we have great investors with Granite [Ventures] and IDG [Ventures]. They're very engaged with the company. They're there for us to help support us and get things done.

I think as we continue to work our way through the marketplace and see what it looks like, Telltale is in a position where it's really well-placed. The channels are starting to become even more and more viable with XBLA doing one billion this year or something and PlayStation Network and Home really starting to work out. And obviously, we've been big fans of WiiWare.

As we chart these opportunities, there are going to be opportunities that really take big marketing budgets and big R&D investments and big licensing expense to get off the ground. So as we continue to tier up, financing is always something we think about.

There are a lot of different ways to get money in the industry; you just need to think about the ones that service the business model the best.

It was recently your fifth anniversary, right?

Yeah. I don't think we officially incorporated until June, but we had our website up in May or late April. So, I think that's what we're marking as the fifth anniversary. But I mark it as the day we walked out of LucasArts.

Do you remember when that was?

That first bloodletting they did. It was around the 10th or 12th of April.

So that was a quick turnaround for you.

Yeah, yeah. It was the funniest thing. We left, and E3 was coming up, so we sat down and said, "Let's get this going. We gotta make this happen."

We had this huge sense of urgency, which we've always had. You look back on it, and you think it was kind of crazy, it was kind of unfounded, but it's been that rush of energy that's gotten the liftoff for the company.

"Okay, we'll write our business plan, we'll bring it to E3, and then we'll raise money in June." Something like that. God, that first business plan we wrote was just... You look at it now, and it just was so sad.

We were passing it around. We got a lot of great feedback from a lot of great people, and I don't think we raised a cent until the following January.

We said, "We'll finish the business plan, then we'll go out for a week and talk to VC, then we'll close the round and have the money by July, and we'll be off." And that was the way we worked.

But we certainly didn't know what we didn't know at that point. It was an interesting time. Then Telltale Texas Hold'em was the first thing live that following February, so 10 months in, we had the toolset built and the engine running and digital distribution up. Five years goes by fast.

Well, especially when you're releasing a game every month.

Yeah, well, I thought it'd be easy street by now, you know. [laughs]

Yeah, right.

An easy five years! Because when we were starting out, they say, what is it, 90 percent of companies don't make it past the first year? So, you'd figure by the fifth year, you must be done, right?

Reformat the Planet 1.5, VegaVox II at 8static

Philadelphia's Studio 34 will again host monthly chiptunes/8-bit video event 8static this Saturday, this time featuring a free premier screening of Reformat the Planet 1.5. Shot by 2 Player Productions, the same crew behind the Blip Festival DVDs, the 40-minute flick will cover New York City's Pulsewave concerts, "the growth of the chip music scene in Philadelphia, and the arrival of the next generation of chip musicians to the 8-bit scene."

If you're not able to make it to the screening, 2PP plans to include RTP 1.5 in the DVD release of its feature-length documentary covering New York's chiptune scene, also titled its Reformat the Planet. The company has screened the film at several festivals and at last year's Penny Arcade Expo, and will finally put out the DVD this summer.

Performers at this weekend's 8static include Go Motion, Void Vision, No Carrier, and Alex Mauer, the last two of which I've featured previously for their Pulsewave ROM flyers. Mauer will actually release his third and newest album, Vegavox II, at the show.

The album will come on actual NES carts, with title screens and artwork by Mauer accompanying each song (No Carrier coded the production). You can watch and listen to a preview of the title screen and first song here:

Mauer will sell Vegavox II at 8static for a discounted price of $25. The album will be available online afterwards, likely through label Pause Records, for $30.

[Via 8bitcollective, Daniel Rehn]

Sony, Mr. Driller Vets Readying Qruton For Cross-Platform Salad

Sony opened its official site for Qruton, a PlayStation Network puzzler releasing for both PS3 and PSP this June, revealing that the game is helmed by Yasuhito Nagaoka, who directed the original Mr. Driller games at Namco before joining the platform holder several years ago.

Kaori Shinozaki, who also worked on the Mr. Driller as a designer until Nagaoka invited her to Sony last year, is designing Qruton, according to a report from game weblog Andriasang.com.

The PSN title looks nothing like Mr. Driller, though, but its mechanics bear a close resemblance to Nintendo's cutesy DSiWare puzzle release, Kuru Kuru Action Kuru Pachi 6. In Qruton, players rotate numbered tiles to align four or more like-numbered square pieces. Once grouped, the numbers on the tiles increase by one and allow for opportunities to shift nearby pieces for a combo chain.

If that sounds much too confusing, here's a trailer that will better demonstrate Qruton's gimmick:

[Trailer via PSP Hyper]

Women's Group Campaigns Against RapeLay, Developer "Bewildered"

Equality Now, an organization devoted to "the protection and promotion of the human rights of women around the world", began a letter-writing campaign this week to demand that Illusion Software and Japanese government officials, including Prime Minister Taro Aso, to remove and ban rape-simulation game RapeLay from sale in Japan.

The 2006 PC game, which has no official English localization, was a controversial topic in February of this year after the game was made available for sale in the West by a third-party seller through Amazon Marketplace. The online retailer swiftly removed RapeLay from its site after receiving complaints over the game's content, as it encourages players to stalk and rape a virtual family.

"Please write to Illusion Software asking it to withdraw immediately from sale of all games, including RapeLay, which involve rape, stalking or other forms of sexual violence or which otherwise denigrate women," Equality Now asks on its site, arguing that the title normalizes sexual violence. "Suggest that corporations have a responsibility to consider, as good business practice, any negative impact their activities may have on society and the public interest. Please write a similar letter to Amazon Japan."

The group continues, "Write also to ... Japanese government officials, calling on them to comply with Japan’s obligations under [the country's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women] and the Japanese Constitution to eliminate discrimination against women and particularly to ban the sale of computer games such as RapeLay, which normalize and promote sexual violence against women and girls."

Oddly: "We are simply bewildered by the move," says Illusion spokesman Makoto Nakaoka, according to a report from Australian news site ABC.net. "We make the games for the domestic market and abide by laws here. We cannot possibly comment on [the campaign] because we don't sell them overseas."

However, "[We realize] the problem is there," a spokewsoman for the Japanese government's gender equality bureau commented. "While we recognise that some sort of measures need to be taken, the office is currently studying what can be done."

[Via Game Politics]

GameSetInterview: 'The Street Fighter Art Attack - Jab Strong Fierce'

[Continuing his series of GameSetWatch-exclusive interviews, Jeriaska catches up with the folks behind the excellent Street Fighter-inspired Jab Strong Fierce art gallery show in Southern California.]

The art exhibit Jab Strong Fierce is currently on display in Alhambra, California at the Nucleus gallery. Bringing together installments inspired by Capcom's Street Fighter game series, over forty participating artists have contributed work, from diverse backgrounds in the film, animation and video game industries.

The opening night of the exhibit saw a cosplay competition and Street Fighter IV tournament. Following Eric Caoili's extensive coverage, we hear from three of the artists who lent their training to depicting the World Warriors within new visual contexts and discussed their results at the event.

Ben Zhu, owner of the Nucleus gallery, designed the illustration for the official flyer. Animator and illustrator Brianne Drouhard brought a multiplicity of comic poses to her depiction of the ninja Ibuki.

A concept design artist for Pandemic Studios, Rodney Fuentebella offered an impressionistic depiction of Ryu and Chun-Li. The conversation with these artists on their contributions to the show provides a window into the video game-fueled imagery currently on display at Jab Strong Fierce:

Jab Strong Fierce's Street Fighter cosplay competition

What prompted you to create the Nucleus art space?

Ben Zhu, owner of Nucleus: I come from an illustration and fine art background. I love all aspects of art, whether it be animation, graphic design, sculpture, installation or fine art.

It started out, I had a lot of friends that were in the movie and videogame industry, and they were not getting as much attention as they deserved. When I was working in videogames, I knew I needed a social and creative outlet outside of work. That is kind of what the original idea was.

When did you first arrive at the idea of having a Street Fighter art exhibit like Jab Strong Fierce?

We've had the idea of having a Street Fighter event for awhile now. There are many themed shows here, and when we heard that Street Fighter IV was coming out it seemed like the perfect time. We started looking for artists then, about six months ago.

The Jab Strong Fierce image that appears on the frontpage of the Gallery Nucleus website is your design. What were you looking to communicate with this illustration?

I wanted an eye-catching image with iconic Street Fighter elements, yet keeping some of those elements abstract so that the viewer can engage and interact with the piece a bit more closely. I also wanted a strong sense of energy, like an explosion that is trying to contain itself.

The piece is all done in Photoshop. It started out with me throwing random elements of Street Fighter screenshots and other images into a sort of collage. I then played around with the smudge tool and also ran some filters through the whole thing. It was a fun process that allowed for many interesting accidents.

Attendees of the opening day of the event

How long have you been working on your piece for the show, "Hunt for Red Panda"?

Brianne Drouhard, illustrator: I started on my piece about a month and a half ago. Ben informed me of the show in December.

Did you have much familiarity with the Street Fighter series previously?

I grew up in a place that was really rural, but I did buy a lot of game magazines, like EGM and GamePro. I also had a subscription to Nintendo Power in the '80s and '90s, back when they used to have comics.

Capcom games, like the Street Fighter and Darkstalkers titles, had some of the best designs and illustration, as was the animation in-game. I'm very familiar with all the characters.

How did you decide upon Ibuki as your subject of choice?

I tried to think about which characters would be represented in the show, and needed to find someone that I liked that might not be there. I picked Ibuki because I like ninjas and her pants are so weird. I mean, they don't make sense for fighting.

Not good fighting pants. But for your purposes, good pants?

Yeah, good pants. It was also good practice: I started a storyboard job recently and I need to get better with my posing and action in general. All the characters in Street Fighter are active, but I thought with Ibuki I could play with knives and acrobatics.

Artist Rodney Fuentebella

For the pieces that are here at the show, are you drawing on an established historical style?

Rodney Fuentebella, concept artist: A lot of people say that I am influenced by impressionistic work. I try and go for raw emotion with all my fine art pieces, where you could kind of imagine yourself in it. There are a lot of lost edges and found edges: it is not fully defined for you.

Are there impressionists in particular that you find emotionally accessible?

Artists like Sargent that do portraiture type pieces. He did a lot of watercolor and oils on Venice, and they have that sense of place, where the people and places he depicted were real and they were through his eyes.

Was it difficult taking fictional characters and giving them this personal quality that you admire in other work?

Well, I've been a fan of Street Fighter for a long time, so for me there was an emotional link to it. I was one of those people who would take my quarters and go to any 7-Eleven I could find in San Francisco with an arcade cabinet.

What was it about these two characters Ryu and Chun-Li that you wanted to have represented in their portraits?

I always felt they were characters a lot of people could relate to. Like with Sargent and those impressionist works, I like to show them in a moment, like just before the fight. I like those moments.

The Street Fighter IV tournament.

[Jab Strong Fierce runs until May 11 at the Nucleus art gallery. Images courtesy of Capcom. Photos by Jeriaska.]

Star Fox's Laser Show At CES '93

To promote Star Fox and its prized Super FX chip, Nintendo accompanied demo kiosks for the SNES polygon shooter with a laser light show in a giant 360 "space dome" at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in 1993. The presentation didn't just show the Arwing flying around; you can actually see it flying through a field of asteroids and fighting Andross.

Grooveraider, who recently posted this vintage clip he recorded over 15 years ago, notes that the footage was also used for a short documentary on Super FX by Points, which features a 2007 interview with Dylan Cuthbert, the series' former producer and now Q-Games's president, talking about his work leading up to Star Fox and his relationship with Nintendo.

At around the six-minute mark, Cuthbert looks back on that Winter CES and gives some commentary on the laser show. "I was amazed at the amount of effort [Nintendo] put in. It was like the major thing for the show."

GameSetLinks: Slide To Ever Demo Ten

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

As we slide slowly into the 'almost weekend' stretch, GameSetLinks resurrects itself with a host of (actually fairly timely, mainly) news items, a number of which actually concern the game press itself - such as the first story below, Eurogamer's handling of the Darkfall review controversy.

Incidentally, much kudos to Eurogamer for being such a professional outlet that they've set up an editor blog which, in part, discusses meta-issues around coverage on a leading consumer video game site. (No dedicated RSS feed for it, though?)

Anyhow, also in this set of links is Slide To Play on iPhone editorial integrity, NegativeGamer on the story percentages (press release vs. originals) on a number of leading websites, Ben Fritz wandering from Variety to the LA Times, and rather more links besides.

Have at it:

Editor's blog: Darkfall aftermath // Blog entry /// Eurogamer - Games Reviews, News and More
This is interesting - controversy about how long the MMO was played for, Eurogamer decides on a re-review.

TRUE CHIP TILL DEATH » Breakpoint 2009 wrap-up Part One
Really good guide to the excellent European demo-competition.

Game Studies - Issue 0901, 2009
A good set of articles on 'EverQuest, Ten Years Later'.

Crispy Gamer - Feature: I Call Bullshit: Hardcore Elitism
'I'm getting a little tired of this kind of us-versus-the-newcomers mentality among the "hardcore" gaming set. Yes, more people are playing games now, but this is not a bad thing! In fact, it's been vital to making the industry as exciting and varied and downright enjoyable as it is today.'

NegativeGamer: 45% of All The News You Read is From a Press Release, and Other Interesting Stories
Some interesting raw analysis of what stories websites publish, Gamasutra included. Of course, publishing something from a press release isn't 'bad' if you correctly extract and contextualize the information - but this is still fascinating. (Yes, Kyle, I'm linking your semi-related feature next round-up!)

The Cut Scene - 'So Long And Thanks For All The Fish'
Fritz to the LA Times then, joining other smart folks like Alex Pham there who write about games, I presume.

Weekly Slide: Why Ethics Are Important at Slide To Play
Intriguing ethics discussion on iPhone review sites from Steve Palley over at Slide To Play.

May 7, 2009

UK's Game Industry Heavyweights Join Forces For... Boy Band

Just as the Game Developer Choice Awards gifted this undeserving world with its puckish skits from the Mega64 group, MCV entertained attendees of its own award show three weeks ago with this music video re-enactment of Five's "Keep on Movin'" (which never really made a splash in the States), bringing together the big guns from UK's game industry.

One's natural first reaction is to cringe in embarrassment when Nintendo UK's general manager David Yarnton begins crooning his verse, but if you open your heart to the idea, perhaps, like me, you'll realize how great it is to see everyone having fun together, unafraid to laugh at themselves. You'll even see a brief tiff between Electronic Arts' Rock Band group and Activision's Guitar Hero party.

Some other notable faces that you might recognize in the goofy production: Ubisoft UK managing director Rob Cooper reading an issue of MCV with the headline "MP Blames Games For Fat Arse", Codemasters UK general manager Jeremy Wigmore shaking his GRID helmet in either frustration or victory, and ELSPA director general Michael Rawlinson leading the boy band execs in a coordinated dance.

Arrested Development: 'Dubious Pitches'

[Game Developer magazine humor columnist and developer Matthew Wasteland rounds up the most dubious pitches in the industry -- from the "ultimate monolithic engine" to the "publisher that really cares about you."]


The Extraneous Engine is the most powerful, most technologically advanced and easiest to use video game engine ever conceived of by a sentient mind-human or otherwise. With this, your game will practically make itself!

All you have to do is make art and put it in the "assets" directory. The Extraneous Engine does the rest, automatically arranging these pieces into a gamelike experience. Your artists and designers will fall in love with it, and you can save overhead by strategically eliminating all your engineers! Who wouldn't want to put the overwhelming potency of the Extraneous Engine to work for them?


This is your chance to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing! You will have the opportunity to work long hours doing what you love, and will be paid competitively (to third world countries) and then just as soon as our World of Warcraft killer and gamer-centric social network comes out, we'll all be rich!


From out of the depths of chaos and darkness, the silver bullet appears-the one that will finally kill the werewolf that is modern video game development! This heaven-sent savior, called Scrimmage, is now here to fix everything that was bad about making games in those bygone days of madness and despair. Behold now, the radiant beams of knowledge and illumination that pour forth from this book on Scrimmage-available to you for a special discount if you sign up for our seminar at the same time! Act now while supplies last!


Hey, we both know that great games are good for business. Mediocre games for cheap are even better for business -- but let's forget that for a moment. The point is that we care about you! You, the creative guys, the makers of all of this stuff we put in a box and sell.

And of course we are all about letting you go do your creative thing, as long as we can make money from it. And as long as you stay inside this here "creative box" we've specially constructed for you. That ought to be enough creative freedom for anybody! Sure, we may occasionally need to make some creative calls for you here and there, but don't worry. We'll only do that if you make the wrong decision. We trust you, really!


Our people are more than happy to work twenty times as hard as your people, and for twenty times less money! We have no overhead costs because we make everyone buy their own workstations and hand-crank their own electricity! We have also hired local psychics, who will work tirelessly to read your mind so we can give you exactly what you want every single time! We are a rock-solid stable company with tons of cashflow! Sorry I can't write more, but the Internet cafe is closing! Talk to you soon!


We should just scrap what we have and start over. I'm pretty sure I could re-write the particle system in, oh, say, two weeks.


Our middleware will slide in to your existing tools and pipeline so easily, you'll have trouble remembering that you integrated it at all. One day you'll be working on the game and just say, "hey, where did all of this awesome functionality come from?"

And our APIs are so transparent and well-documented that you will never, ever wonder what our code is doing. And you will never, ever need to stay up until two in the morning on a Sunday to debug some weird memory leak that originates from the non-obvious way you implemented our product.


Stop worrying. I've seen this kind of thing before and I know exactly how to handle it. I guarantee it will not be a problem.


Starting today, we're going to expand our core hour definition to mean 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And since it's not fair to everyone if only certain people stay, we need the entire team to be here during that time. I know that this is probably a disappointment to some of you, but it is an unfortunately necessary measure to make our game the best it can possibly be and hit our shelf date. It's not all doom and gloom, though. To make the next six months a little more tolerable and fun, we will be ordering pizza!

[Matthew Wasteland is a pseudonymous game developer who has a fairly common first name and who blogs at Magical Wasteland. Email him at [email protected]]

Ludum Dare 14 Results, Top Scoring Entries

Organizers for Ludum Dare, the tri-annual competition challenging entrants to create a game based on an appointed theme in 48 hours, announced the scoring results for its most recent event in mid-April. Ludum Dare 14 participants put in their votes for the 123 entries, all centered around the idea of an advancing wall of doom, ranking the games in a number of categories -- innovation, polish, humor, etc.

The three titles with the highest overall scores, which I've included quick descriptions for below, are Seth "Mrfun" Robinson's Mind Wall, Anna "Auntie Pixelante" Anthropy's Tombed, and Rob's untitled game. You can see the results, download the 123 entries, and even watch timelapse videos following the creation process of 16 different games at the Ludum Dare site.

Mind Wall (PC, OSX)

(The game runs a lot smoother than my recording suggests.)

Despite its simple premise, this puzzler from Robinson is the highest scoring game out of all the Ludum Dare 14 entries. Each of Mind Wall's seven levels throws a series of walls at you with scattered gaps. You'll need to punch a hole that will fit the stage's assigned shape before the wall fills up your screen. It's very addictive, and fun to play with a friend watching/yelling out solutions.

Tombed (PC)

Just watching a playthrough video of Tombed, like this one shot by Magnamics, is enough to put my stomach in a queasy situation. There are a lot of similarities to Namco Bandai's Mr. Driller series, except with a falling ceiling of spikes threatening you instead of suffocation, and repurposing Anthropy's Danger Jane hero instead of starring the son of Dig Dug's hero.

The developer notes that a comrade named Leon has released a level hack using the game's released source code to create Tombed II: Twombed Off, which adds new elements that provide an extra layer of difficulty and strategy to the puzzle game.

Untitled (PC, Browser)

Rob's game reminded me a lot of fighting Seven Force in Gunstar Heroes, except without the minecarts and a lot of other elements. A series of giant advancing bosses/walls chase give chase as you jump from platform to platform, trying to figure out how to take down the armored vehicles with your piddling pistol.

I ran into a glitch with the browser version in the third level that didn't allow me to move but also rendered me invincible, so I couldn't reset the stage without starting the game over. Thankfully, the way the bosses are designed, I was able to leave the game alone to take care of some other online errands, and then return to it several minutes later to complete the stage.

Peggy 2: The Meggy Sr. Pegboard Kit

Evil Mad Science, the same company behind the Meggy Jr. fully programmable LED handheld that I'm so fond of posting about, is now selling Peggy 2 Light Emitting Pegboard kits. This new model is based on the original "Peggy", a programmable pegboard display accommodating up to 625 LEDs, but adds support for simple animation capability and Arduino compatibility.

EMS has a few ideas for Peggy 2's potential uses:

"Like its predecessor, Peggy 2 provides a quick, easy, powerful and efficient way to drive a lot of LEDs ... in a big matrix covering almost a square foot of area. You can make an LED sign for your window, a geeky valentine for your sweetie, one bad-ass birthday card, freak the holy bejesus out of Boston, or instigate the next generation of low-pixel-count video games. Your call. It's a versatile, high-brightness display. How you configure it and what you do with it is up to you."

EMS sells the kits for $95, batteries and LEDs not included. If the Peggy 2 doesn't sound like it gives you enough room to work with for the project you have in mind, remember that "multiple Peggy 2 boards can be set side by side to have a visually continuous field of LEDs without gaps between them."

Here's a video demonstrating the Peggy 2's animation in action (with "2x2 super-pixels consisting of red, green, blue, and white 10 mm LEDs"):

Best Of GamerBytes: Heroes In A Half Shell

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

It's been a busy couple of weeks. Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 finally announced, a remake of TMNT: Turtles In Time coming out, a first look at PixelJunk 1-4, leaks left and right, it's all fun stuff.

There have been a ton of new releases for all consoles. Virtual On, Banjo Tooie, Sorry!, Space Invaders Extreme, Arkanoid Live and Zombie Wranglers are now all available on the Xbox Live Arcade.

PSN owners can now check out the Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 demo and WiWare enthusiasts can play Cocoto Platform Jumper and Penguins & Friends.

Here are the top stories for the week:

Xbox Live Arcade

Space Invaders Extreme, Arkanoid Live And Zombie Wranglers Now Available On XBLA
Three picks for Xbox Live Arcade this week, two from the same firm.

Banjo Tooie, Virtual On, Sorry! And Maw DLC Now Up On XBLA
The previous week's highlights include EA board game additions and Sega's classic mech fighter.

Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 Confirmed
The much-rumored title is now a reality.

TMNT: Turtles In Time Remake In The Works
After one successful Turtles title, another appears.

'Splosion Man 'Splodes Onto The Screen With New Trailer
The creators of The Maw showcase new title.

More Proof Of Perfect Dark XBLA?
Continued rumors on Rare's shooter.

Tower Bloxx Deluxe XBLA Bound
A much-praised mobile title is coming to XBLA.

Lost Cities Marketplace Disappearance Solved
Yet another game is lost to the shifting sands of the Vivendi/Activision merger.

Sonic & Knuckles XBLA Bound, Complete With Lock-On Technology
Now you can combine Genesis cartridges to make a tower again, but virtually.

PlayStation Network

EU PSN Store Update - Penny Arcade Episode 2, Mahjong Tales DLC
The European store finally gets Hothead's Penny Arcade second episode.

NA PSN Store Update - Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 Demo
The first demo for the long-awaited fighter is on PSN.

EU PSN Update: Brain Challenge PSN + PSP Bundle
Some brainy updates for those in Europe on PSN.

PixelJunk 1-4 Revealed, Naming Contest Announced
Q-Games' latest looks interesting, and the naming is up to you.

Trash Panic Confirmed For Western Release
One of the standout digital titles from TGS 2008 will debut outside Japan.

Super Stardust HD Dev Housemarque Developing Three New IPs For Download Platforms
Notable titles galore from the Finns.


EU WiiWare Update - Adventure Island: The Beginning, Crystal Defenders R1
Square and Hudson provide European WiiWare users with new titles.

NA WiiWare Update - Cocoto Platform Jumper And Nobunaga's Ambition
More new games for U.S. WiiWare types.

EU WiiWare Update: BIT.TRIP BEAT
Gaijin Games' stylish retro trip comes to Europe.

NA Nintendo Update - Penguins & Friends, Tower Toppler
Two new titles debuting.

First Trailer Of Icarian: Kindred Spirits
Spanish developers Over The Top Games reveal first info on WiiWare title.

Fight The Chinese In Swords & Soldiers
De Blob's original developers add game factions.

New Game Play Trailer For ColorZ
Bust-a-Move meets shoot-em-ups - a new trailer.

Strip Poker Coming To WiiWare?
Via Gameloft, and apparently so.

Badman Invades Japan's PlayStation Home

Acquire's Yuusha no Kuse Ni Namaikida (which is coming to the States as Holy Invasion Of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do To Deserve This? -- yes, it's an odd title, but I've already gone over that!) has jumped from its stomping grounds on the PSP to PlayStation Home in Japan, in the form of an arcade game that enables players to win avatar t-shirts.

The game's twist makes the series seem a lot more normal, as you take on the role of a hero fighting the game's Devil King in an 8-bit Dragon Quest-style turn-based RPG battle, the same villain who you protect in the PSP game by building maze-like dungeons packed with monsters to exterminate incoming heroes.

Gaming weblog Siliconera tried out the Japanese PlayStation Home promotion and posted details on its unique combat system:

"You vanquish the Demon King by choosing commands as if you were playing Dragon Quest. The twist is after you pick fight, skill or item another menu pops up asking which weapon you want to use. Choices like Excalibur, Copper Sword, and Wood Bat come up. Then another menu pops up asking how you want to hit the Devil King. Should you throw the sword or slash? Then a menu comes up asking where you should hit him.

The menus keep coming and you only deal damage if you select the right branching tree. To keep players on their toes the options switch position every round."

NIS America is scheduled to ship Holy Invasion Of Privacy, Badman! in the U.S. in July 2009. Hopefully, the publisher will consider localizing this Home game to accompany the PSP title's release.

GameSetInterview: 'Type 'Indie' for Infinite Ammo'

IA%20GSW.jpgCanadian indie developer Infinite Ammo is the company that Alec Holowka set up after creating the IGF-winning undersea adventure title Aquaria with Derek Yu. Of course, Holowka is not the only component of the company - Katie De Sousa, Ian Holowka and Christopher Lobay also round out Infinite Ammo.

Since the company's inception, they've managed to keep themselves in the media spotlight through a pleasant mix of an open development and genuinely interesting concepts for their games. Throughout the making of their next game, Heroes and Villains for iPhone, they've released pre-alpha footage, showing the game as it develops.

In addition, the company's GAMMA competition-created mini-game, Paper Moon, has just been expanded in association with Adam Saltsman and Jetpack Brontosaurus creators Flashbang Studios for free release on web portal Blurst.

It's notable that, sticking resolutely to the 2D scape, Infinite Ammo are determined to bring interesting and novel ways to approach the platforming/puzzle genres. Marian is the other game they're currently developing. While all they've released are a single piece of concept art and one screenshot, the game has garnered a large amount of interest from the visuals (pictured, above) alone.

In this GameSetWatch interview, we asked Holowka about their opinions on the rise of the iPhone, how they plan to tackle the problem of replayability, and why they chose to be quite so open with their fans:

For those unaware what sort of thing you make, could you give a brief run-down of what you specialise in and the sort of games you set out to create?

Alec Holowka: I'm (kind of?) known for creating the indie game "Aquaria" with Mr. Derek Yu. I did the music, code, animation and most of the story. It was a pretty intense experience, but ultimately very rewarding. Releasing Aquaria and dealing with the aftermath of that struggle gave me a lot of inspiration.

The kind of games I'm interested in making are the games that pull the player into a deep, emotional, interactive world. I'm a big believer that some of the most important art comes from dark corners within the author - that one valuable goal is expressing ideas that could only be expressed fluently through the art form. But its more than just putting what I feel out there in an interesting way, its about diving into those emotions and digging out something new. Arriving at new conclusions and bringing up more questions.

My approach is that the gameplay, music and visual art should form a seamless experience that grows out of the emotions, the characters, the game world and the underlying 'meaning' of the game. I want to make games that work as absorbing escapism, but also focus on personal internal struggles that we all share.

I believe that a lot of different types of gameplay emerge from thinking about games in this way. What if your game world was a real place and you lived in it as this character? What would you want to do? A lot of games avoid exploring the freedom and possibilities of the game world and limit themselves to locked-in objectives. I want to break free of that and allow the player time to pause, reflect and feel like they're actually a living part of this strange landscape. I want them to be able to explore a physical space while simultaneously exploring an emotional space through the characters and events that they're involved in.

FYI, "Heroes and Villains" won't really do that. But I'm hoping "Marian" will.

What sort of background does the Infinite Ammo team have? Are you mainly drawn from the games development scene?

IA's core is myself and Mr. Chris Lobay. From there, we collaborate with a wide range of people. We've worked with the talented concept artist Katie de Sousa, who had some experience doing art in the casual games scene. We've worked with Adam Saltsman, (Paper Moon, H+V) who is a very talented game artist who has a ton of experience creating all kinds of games as well as working for a wide variety of game industry clients.

We're also working on collaborations with the likes of Phil Fish, which folks should recognize as the creator of "Fez".

I think this model has a good chance of succeeding. We're small, flexible and have a lot of great creative partners that are fun to work with. If you're not having fun when working on an indie game project, something is terribly wrong.

IA%20GSW.jpgThe only game you’ve released so far is the short project Paper Moon (pictured), with larger games in Heroes and Villains and Marian on the horizon. All three seem to be very different projects, coming from very different directions. How have you gone about keeping the range of your games diverse?

It comes from a desire to explore. There are so many untapped game ideas waiting to be discovered and played with. We've only really scratched the surface of our own style and vision.

This ties into the concept of thinking of the game world first, rather than hard gameplay mechanics. It allows us to open our minds to a lot of strange possibilities.

So far you’ve released quite a few development videos of Heroes and Villains in action, including a few without textures and all the pretty effects. Was this just to raise awareness of the game, and how important do you think it is to involve the community before your game is out?

We started posting the "pants-off" footage of H+V as a kind of experiment. The main motivation was that it felt it'd be an interesting process for people to follow. I love following behind-the-scenes blogs for films (e.g. kongisking.net) and I wanted to be able to share that same kind of experience for our game.

I was also curious to see how it affected the marketing, and it has managed to create some buzz that we wouldn't have without this approach.

Getting feedback as early as possible is always important. It generally happens that you spend a fair bit of time developing a gameplay system only to realize that a lot of people don't understand it. Watching someone play the game over their shoulder is the best and most brutally honest way to see what works and what doesn't.

Sharing footage on a blog also gives you a general sense of how your game might be received based on your design choices. But you have to remember to be careful to ignore a fair number of not-so-great suggestions.

The mechanics of Heroes and Villains seem very puzzle driven and each level appears to have one solution. How are you planning on maintaining interest after the initial playthrough? How important do you think it is to make a game fun a second time through?

Our goal was originally to develop levels that had different paths to arrive at the outcome. We've only toyed with that a little bit so far, and its something I would love to get into more.

The original design for H+V (pictured, below) was actually very freeform, allowing the player to risk the lives of some of the civilians to save others. For example, you could be confronted with the following situation: a bus-full of kids is teetering on the edge of a cliff while a rich business man is about to be crushed by a wrecking ball. The rich business man will give you a cash bonus. You only have time to save one party.

Unfortunately, designing a level that can be played in both ways proved to be pretty difficult. Hopefully we'll be able to revisit those ideas in a workable way in the near future.

IA%20GSW.jpgWhat made you want to make the game for the iPhone? Do you perceive the audience to be bigger there than on other platforms? How easy is the iPhone to develop for?

We use the Unity engine, and that makes developing for the iPhone (and other platforms) relatively easy. The iPhone has hardware limitations that get in the way occasionally.

I have no idea how big the market is, to be honest - this is an experiment. We like the game concept and we want to see how well it does. The iPod Touch was a relatively new platform when we started and we were excited to try it out.

Infinite Ammo hasn’t been around too long, but has already generated a good deal of interest, despite not having a commercial release. Have you been really active in putting yourselves out there or do you just have a really good PR department?

Seeing as the core company is two people, we don't exactly have a PR department. I blog a lot and Chris prints a lot of pretty things for conferences. Our website incorporates video blogs, flickr and twitter. We update an insane amount. We're both very passionate and excited about the projects we're working on, and I think that comes through in a big way.

Recently news broke that you’re developing Power Pill with Polytron. What’s it like developing with another team? Are you working on different aspects, or collaborating on everything?

"Power Pill" is Phil's baby. I really wanted to work with him and support him to create a "Phil Fish" feel. I'm sure some of my own flavor will work its way in as well.

Essentially how it breaks down is Phil is doing the design and art, and I'm doing the programming. Chris and Ian wrote some awesome music that ended up in the latest build, and I think it'll probably stick. Its bumpin'.

Power Pill is also pegged as an iPhone title. Do you see mobile gaming taking off in the near future? Do you think it already has?

I think the iPhone and iPod Touch have a great potential to bring in new gamers who wouldn't normally buy a game console. How this will pan out for indie game developers is hard to say.

I've seen two different sides of the coin through my developer friends. The aforementioned Adam Saltsman created a boggle-type game called "Wurdle" that got in the top 10 and stayed there for quite a while. He's doing very well.

Another friend, Tommy Refenes, has tried several attempts at different iPhone games, eventually focusing mainly on games that annoy people. In "Free Money*", you scratch lottery tickets that have real lottery winning odds. i.e. You never win, and even if you do, its never real money. His latest opus is in approval right now and its called "Zits and Giggles". (you can imagine what happens in that one) He's collaborating with Adam on it, so maybe the Wurdle luck will rub off.

Tommy sees the App Store as a lottery, with odds of success similar to those in "Free Money*".

How do you see the indie scene at the moment? Do you think it is becoming more of a viable profession than it has been in the past?

In some ways it is, but its still a "risk" in the sense that you can't really plan a success. You have to actually have an original and exciting concept, and that's not something you can just buy. Those looking to make a steady income first should probably go elsewhere.

As the IGF grows in stature, do you think its effect on the indie scene is growing with it? Do you agree with the feeling that it’s acting as a divining rod for indie success?

The IGF does a lot to promote indie games, and that's why its a wonderful thing. I think what would be even better is if companies like Microsoft did their own research into the indie scene and started to think objectively about the situation.

What we have are starving indie developers with great content and companies with piles of money looking for it. 1+1=2. Give the starving indies a modest budget upfront to create content for your platform, pay them healthy royalties once its released and the world would be a better place.

You’ve stated that you use the Unity engine for your games. How diverse an engine is it to develop with?

I was surprised with how flexible it is. I developed my own game engine from the ground up for Aquaria, and I was kind of a curmudgeon about game creation systems after having a terrible time trying to reverse-engineer Torque 3D a few years ago. (to create a Curling game, of all things) Well, I made a Curling game in Unity over two days at TIGJam. I think that says a lot right there.

Is the indie developer scene a very tight-knit one? Do you have any particular developers you are close to?

A number of us regularly hang out on Skype and talk about what we're working on. A lot of creative and good-humored developers frequent the TIGSource forums. They're a really great bunch of people. One of the coolest things about the scene is that everyone is willing to help each other out. Since most people are following their own passions and creating unique experiences, we don't end up competing against each other.

Its a nice place to be right now!

Are there any indie titles that you are particularly looking forward to?

I really want to see "Indie Brawl" finished. I'm hoping that someday "LIMBO" will be a real game. I've also heard rumours about a possible "Spelunky" console port... that would be epic beyond words.

Portraits of Yoshitaka Amano

Photographer Kurt Xiaoyi Tang has put up a photo collection titled "Portraits of Yoshitaka Amano" with shots of the notable game-related artist taken in Hangzhou, China.

Even if you've never encountered Amano's celebrated work in Vampire Hunter D or The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, you've likely seen his character designs, boxart, and title logos for the Final Fantasy series and other games.

The 56-year-old artist appears reserved and contemplative in the photo series, much too tired for the bright purple print on his shirt.

Amano's designs will appear again in Final Fantasy XIII, and he is currently working with writer and film director Christopher "mink" Morrison on an illustrated novel titled Shinjuku, which will be released by Dark Horse Comics sometime this year.

Interview: Kickstarter's Chen On Alternative Game Funding

As the Internet makes collecting money from gamers exponentially easier, independent game creators are starting to experiment with new monetization models.

Apart from the obvious 'microtransaction for items' model that many free to play MMOs are using, there are other possibilities. Indie studio Flashbang recently discussed with the Wall Street Journal a plan to ask for a six-month subscription for enhanced access to a suite of games.

Moreover, Gamasutra expert blogger Darius Kazemi has just penned an editorial about developer Daniel Benmergui, who has published his latest GSW-featured art-game, Today I Die, under a patronage-based model.

In addition, Benmergui "is pursuing a variable patronage model for his next game" on his website -- with different amounts of donations giving rewards spanning from a mention in the game's credits to a customized version of Daniel's previous games.

Coincidentally, as Daniel launched his game, we were preparing an interview with new website Kickstarter, which provides an easy to use, formalized structure for donation-based art projects of all kinds, and has just attracted its first indie game project to its site.

Thus, we sat down with Kickstarter's Perry Chen to discuss the intriguing question of why independent games might join the place of other indie media currently using patronage models for funding:

What made you want to start this service?

I think we all sense that there are great ideas out there with little or no chance of funding from traditional channels. My personal frustration was that I wanted to bring musicians to New Orleans and I couldn't cover the expenses.

Were there particular people or markets you had in mind?

Initially it was concerts/shows. But very early on I realized that almost everyone had an application for Kickstarter, and that it was very flexible.

Though this is for any artistic work, do you think that video games are an applicable medium for this? And if so, why?

Video games are probably one of the best fits for Kickstarter for 2 reasons:

1. There's a product at the end. Something tangible that backers of the project can receive.

2. The process is fascinating. I'd want to follow a game being made, know the creator's rationale and thoughts, read his/her updates.

What kind of numbers ($) are you finding are perfect for funding amounts right now?

It is completely relative based on the person's network and the appeal of the project. I have projects with goals of $1,000 and $3,000, and my $3,000 one is doing much better.

It's a collaborative book project -- crowdfunding + crowdsourcing combined -- and it (apparently) has more appeal than my $1,000 project. I think you need to know your network, understand the appeal of your project, and make sure you have fair rewards for backers.

If you tell a good story and people can see your passion and competence, you can attract people beyond your first degree network. That is the key to raising larger amounts -- breaking beyond people you know.

What do you think makes people’s requests for funding stick out?

Videos make things stick out . That personal connection, the simple act of putting yourself out there and talking about your ideas and passion.

Smart and fun rewards are really powerful. They shape the project's story in subtle ways, for example on this music project.

What could work for games that might need higher pledge numbers?

To get higher pledges, like $50 or $100 out of someone? you need to be creative and provide real value. Value can come from low-cost interaction, like the music theory lesson offered in the new orleans music project mentioned above.

If you have a project idea, you probably have knowledge/expertise and people may be interested. I think people want to, both, help each other, and (more importantly) be a part of something. Create an interactive element and you build a bridge.

The real exciting thing for me is small amounts. Getting people involved for the price of a cup of coffee. And the people who get involved for $1 or $3 can be just as valuable as the big spenders -- they may promote to 50 others.

May 6, 2009

Raw Danger Sequel Crawling Through Rubble In Japan

This missed my attention last week, but Irem just released Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3 -- the sequel to Raw Danger, itself a follow-up to Disaster Report (known as SOS: The Final Escape in Europe) -- for PSP in Japan.

For those of you unfamiliar with the games, it's a survival action adventure series in
which players escape areas devastated by floods, toppling building, and other disasters.

You can watch a trailer for Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3, originally shown at last October's Tokyo Game Show, below:

CoreGamers' Bruno de Figueiredo has put up a thorough diary of the new release's first half hour, following his character's struggles to find a way out of a fissuring tunnel and a rescue survivors. He also accompanies key points in his narration with direct-feed screenshots -- very nice!

Hopefully de Figueiredo keeps this up, as I have a cynical suspicion that this entry might not be so lucky as its predecessors in making it to English-speaking markets.

Analysis: Sid Meier's Key Design Lessons

[In an essential design column, originally printed in Game Developer magazine, EA Maxis designer and programmer Soren Johnson (Spore, Civilization IV) shares four major insights from design legend Sid Meier on creating truly good games.]

Most game developers are familiar with Sid Meier's dictum that "a good game is a series of interesting choices."

In fact, my co-columnist Damion Schubert started his recent article on player choice (October 2008) by referencing this famous quote.

However, over the course of his career, Sid has developed a few other general rules of game design, which I heard him discuss many times during my seven years (2000-2007) at his studio, Firaxis Games. As these insights are quite practical lessons for designers, they are also worthy of discussion.

Double It Or Cut It By Half

Good games can rarely be created in a vacuum, which is why many designers advocate an iterative design process, during which a simple prototype of the game is built very early and then iterated on repeatedly until the game becomes a shippable product.

Sid called this process "finding the fun," and the probability of success is often directly related to the number of times a team can turn the crank on the loop of developing an idea, play-testing the results, and then adjusting based on feedback.

As the number of times a team can go through this cycle is finite, developers should not waste time with small changes. Instead, when making gameplay adjustments, developers should aim for significant changes that will provoke a tangible response.

If a unit seems too weak, don’t lower its cost by 5%; instead, double its strength. If players feel overwhelmed by too many upgrades, try removing half of them. In the original Civilization, the gameplay kept slowing down to a painful crawl, which Sid solved by shrinking the map in half. The point is not that the new values are likely to be correct - the goal is to stake out more design territory with each successive iteration.

Imagine the design space of a new game to be an undiscovered world. The designers may have a vague notion of what exists beyond the horizon, but without experimentation and testing, these assumptions remain purely theoretically. Thus, each radical change opens up a new piece of land for the team to consider before settling down for the final product.

One Good Game Is Better Than Two Great Ones

Sid liked to call this one the "Covert Action Rule," a reference to a not-altogether-successful spy game he made in the early ’90s:

The mistake I made was actually having two games competing with each other. There was an action game where you break into a building and do all sorts of picking up clues and things like that, and then there was the story which involved a plot where you had to figure out who the mastermind was and what cities they were in, and it was an involved mystery-type plot.

Individually, each part could have been a good game. Together, they fought with each other. You would have this mystery that you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get out of the building, and you’d say, "What was the mystery I was trying to solve?" Covert Action integrated a story and action poorly because the action was actually too intense - you’d spend ten minutes or so of real time in a mission, and by the time you got out, you had no idea of what was going on in the world.

In other words, even though both sections of the game were fun on their own, their co-existence ruined the experience because the player could not focus her attention on one or the other.

This rule points to a larger issue, which is that all design choices only have value in relation to one another, each coming with their own set of cost/benefit trade-offs. Choosing to make a strategic game also means choosing not to make a tactical one. Thus, an idea may be “fun” on its own but still not make the game better if it distracts the player from the target experience. Indeed, this rule is clearly the reason why the Civ franchise has never dabbled with in-depth, tactical battles every time combat occurs.

However, sometimes multiple games can co-exist in harmony with each other. Sid’s own Pirates! is an example of a successful game built out of a collection of fighting, sailing, and dancing mini-games. However, these experiences were always very short - a few minutes at the most - leaving the primary focus on the meta-game of role-playing a pirate. Each short challenge was a tiny step along a more important larger path, of plundering all Spanish cities or rescuing your long-lost relatives.

Another example of a successful mix of separate sub-games is X-Com, which combined a tactical, turn-based, squad-level combat game with a strategic, real-time, resource-management game. As with Pirates!, what makes X-Com work is that the game chose a focus - in this case, the compelling tactical battles between your marines and the invading aliens.

The high-level, strategic meta-game exists only to provide a loose framework in which these battles - which could take as long as a half hour each - actually matter. One doesn’t fight the aliens to get to manage resources later; instead, one manages resources to get to perform better - and have more fun - in future battles.

Do Your Research After The Game Is Done

Many of the most successful games of all time - SimCity, Grand Theft Auto, Civilization, Rollercoaster Tycoon, The Sims - have real-world themes, which broadens their potential audience by building the gameplay around concepts familiar to everyone.

However, creating a game about a real topic can lead to a natural but dangerous tendency to cram the product full of bits of trivia and obscure knowledge to show off the amount of research the designer has done. This tendency spoils the very reason why real-world themes are so valuable - that players come to the game with all the knowledge they already need.

Everybody knows that gunpowder is good for a strong military, that police stations reduce crime, and that carjacking is very illegal. As Sid puts it, "the player shouldn’t have to read the same books the designer has read in order to be able to play."

Games still have great potential to educate, just not in the ways that many educators expect. While designers should still be careful not to include anything factually incorrect, the value of an interactive experience is the interplay of simple concepts, not the inclusion of numerous facts and figures.

Many remember that the world’s earliest civilizations sprang up along river valleys -- the Nile, the Tigris/Euphrates, the Indus -- but nothing gets that concept across as effectively as a few simple rules in Civilization governing which tiles produce the most food during the early stages of agriculture. Furthermore, once the core work is done, research can be a very valuable way to flesh out a game’s depth, perhaps with historical scenarios, flavor text, or graphical details. Just remember that learning a new game is an intimidating experience, so don’t throw away the advantages of an approachable topic by expecting the player to already know all the details when the game starts.

The Player Should Have The Fun, Not The Designer Or The Computer

Creating story-based games can be an intoxicating experience for designers, many of whom go overboard with turgid back stories full of proper nouns, rarely-used consonants, and apostrophes. Furthermore, games based on complex, detailed simulations can be especially opaque if the mysterious inner workings of the algorithmic model remain hidden from view. As Sid liked to say, with these games, either the designer or the computer was the one having the fun, not the player.

For example, during the development of Civilization 4, we experimented with government types that gave significant productivity bonuses but also took away the player’s ability to pick which technologies were researched, what buildings were constructed, and which units were trained, relying instead on a hidden, internal model to simulate what the county’s people would choose on their own.

The algorithms were, of course, very fun to construct and interesting to discuss outside of the game. The players, however, felt left behind -- the computer was having all the fun -- so we cut the feature.

Further, games require not just meaningful choices but also meaningful communication to feel right. Giving players decisions that have consequence but which they cannot understand is no fun. Role-playing games commonly fail at making this connection, such as when players are required to choose classes or skills when "rolling" a character before experiencing even a few seconds of genuine gameplay.

How are players supposed to decide between being a Barbarian, a Fighter, or a Paladin before understanding how combat actually works and how each attribute performs in practice? Choice is only interesting when it is both impactful and informed.

Thus, in Sid’s words, the player must "always be the star." As designers, we need to be the player’s greatest advocate during a game’s development, always considering carefully how design decisions affect both the player’s agency in the world and his understanding of the underlying mechanics.

Bit. Trip Beat Bug, Core, and Posters

Bit. Trip Beat, Gaijin Games's WiiWare rhythm title mixing "80s aesthetics and modern game design" much in the same way as Nintendo's bit Generations series, is a markedly difficult game despite its minimalist presentation, with many struggling to complete just the first stage.

So, when players noticed that the game saved only when they achieved a high score, they assumed this was by design, another layer of frustration intentionally added by the developer.

"Rest assured, as much as we like to make challenging games, we aren’t quite THAT brutal," the company's CEO Alex Neuse clarifies." The fact is, we discovered this bug after the US version of the game was in the queue for release. This meant that those of us in the US were stuck with this issue. The Japanese and European versions that came after the US one do not share the same problem."

On any of the other consoles' digital distribution platform, this problem would have been easy to fix with a downloadable patch or game update. This doesn't seem to be an option for Gaijin Games, though, or the costs or other aspects of releasing such a patch/update are prohibitive.

Instead, the company came up with the alternative solution of posting two save files online that players can download onto an SD card and then access with Bit. Trip Beat. The files add high scores to the game (under the name "SRY, ACM") for levels one and two, unlocking all three stages.

The developer emphasizes that its next entry in the series, Bit. Trip Core, will not have the same bug. Due for release sometime this year, Core also features rhythm-based gameplay, challenging players to fire beams of light to destroy patterns of blocks flying across the screen from multiple directions:

Going back to Bit. Trip Beat, Gaijin Games Mike Terpstra created these two posters as a tribute to the game:

Big Sister Less Threatening in Toy Form

Even with Bioshock 2's expected release date still half a year away, custom toy artist Leon Arseneau managed to find a way to play the game (or at least, play with one of the game's characters). He created this 3.75-inch Big Sister using a "Destro body guard figure with a ton of sculpting."

As you can tell by this comparison shot with Game Informer's April 2009 Bioshock 2 cover, provided by gadget blog Technabob, the figure is a near exact replica of 2K Marin's design for the character. Arseneau put a lot of detail into the toy, which you can see in these larger shots:

Cthulhoid Spore Creature Render A Go Go

Ocean Quigley, Maxis's senior art director, has kept up his postings of Spore artwork and in-game shots since we last featured them.

One of his latest additions is this realistic creature constructed with the company's in-house exporter, which outputs "skinned, rigged meshes along with all of the textures (normal maps, specular, diffuse, gloss, etc)," then rendered with Mental Ray. "I love making them look like little physical beasties!" says Quigley.

These Cthulhoid renders are based on a Spore creature fashioned by custom toy designer Hellopike, and it looks like a real toy itself!

(Of course, you can pay to have your Spore creature sculpted into a custom figure using a 3D printer right now - here's a recent review with lots of nice pictures!)

Even so, many collectors would pay good money for a figure like this if it had _this_ much insane detail:

GDC Vault Adds Game Design Challenge, Indie Game Maker Rant

[UPDATE: Due to high demand, the free GDC Vault lectures were temporarily unavailable for some time last night and this morning - sorry about that. They are now accessible for all once again, so check 'em out if you didn't have a chance.]

Game Developers Conference organizers have made free streaming video of two major GDC 2009 events, the Game Design Challenge and the inaugural Indie Game Maker Rant, available as part of the newly launched myGDC Vault service.

The myGDC Vault website allows GDC 2009 All-Access Pass holders to view hundreds of specially video-recorded sessions from this year's Game Developers Conference, with synchronized slides and easy one-click viewing.

In addition, organizers will be making select GDC lectures available for free to the general public, and the first set of GDC 2009 lectures are now available. These include the following talks:

- Game Design Challenge: My First Time
The popular Design Challenge series has spanned everything from an “inter-species game” to 2006's 'Nobel Peace Prize' challenge, won by Will Wright.

This year's Challenge saw Infocom veteran Steve Meretzky, Habbo lead designer Sulka Haro and last-minute substitutes Heather Kelley (Thief: Deadly Shadows) and Erin Robinson (Spooks) entertainingly twinning 'sex and autobiography' in their entertaining, warring game concepts for the theme 'My First Time'.

- Indies: Beyond Single-Player
In an Independent Games Summit lecture, Jason Rohrer, creator of the critically acclaimed indie titles Passage and Gravitation, shares his thoughts on games as a new expressive form. Rohrer's thesis? To push games forward artistically, we may need to return to the medium's pre-digital roots: multiple players seated around a game and using it as an interface for communion.

Only multiple players allow game mechanics to blossom into their full, emergent potential, he suggests in this lecture -- something he's been exploring in the IGF Nuovo Award-winning Between, commissioned as part of an Esquire article.

- The Indie Game Maker Rant
One of the most explosive and entertaining lectures at the Indie Games Summit earlier in GDC's week, a multitude of indie game makers assembled by Fez creator Phil Fish rant, using slides and examples, about everything from game demos through Roger Ebert.

Some of the highlights of the Pecha Kucha-style rant session, recapped at indie site TIGSource if you'd like a key to the order and background of speakers, include Steve Swink (Minotaur China Shop) on ethical game design, thatgamecompany's Kellee Santiago (Flower) on changing the game biz, and an amazing finale from Crayon Physics's Petri Purho.

In addition to these free, non-registration based sessions, a number of GDC sponsors have made their own lectures available freely in video form in the myGDC Vault Sponsors section, if basic name and email information is filled out by users. Viewers can click on the + sign next to 'Free Sponsored Content' to reveal the list of lectures.

(Sponsors Nokia has additionally helped to make the entire GDC Mobile program, including a number of interesting editorial lectures, watchable for free under this system.)

Column: @Play: How To Win At Nethack

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

While writing another article, I'm sorry to say I got sidetracked off of completing the overview of the 7DRL games this time out, which unfortunately will have to wait another couple of weeks. My apologizes to you, and the remaining game authors.

In the meantime, please accept this hopelessly spoiler-tastic strategy guide for Nethack. The object here is to aid players who have played the game somewhat but always thought that winning was out of their league. It doesn't cover everything in the game, far from it, but with some practice it should get people up to the endgame.

Some time in the future I hope to put up more of these roguelike strategy guides. I hope I don't have to say this, but everything that follows the jump is spoilers of an even greater variety than the usual ones presented here. It's been a while since we've had a big Nethack column, so I hope this keeps everyone interested. It's really long.

Much of the information here has been checked against (and sometimes cases, gleaned from) the Nethack Wiki.


1. Recognize how safe you are at the start of the game.

For most of the game, the difficulty of random monsters is determined by a simple formula:

Monster difficulty = (Player level + dungeon level) / 2

All monsters have such a difficulty rating. The program's internal name for this statistic is MONSTR.

The hardest random monster that can appear at a given time will have a MONSTR of this value + 1, and that happens rarely. So, while the player remains at experience level 1 and dungeon level 1, mostly it'll be monsters with a difficulty of 1 or less who can appear: grid bugs, jackals, kobold zombies, newts, sewer rats, foxes, lichen, goblins and kobolds. All of them a piece of cake.

If the player descends two levels, or gains two levels of experience, or does one of each, MONSTR 2 monsters get added into the mix: shriekers, large kobolds, hobbits, gas spores, red molds, green molds, brown molds, acid blobs, yellow molds, gnome zombies, giant rats, geckos, coyotes, humans and bats. Generic humans are not generated randomly, the four molds, acid blobs and gas spores only attack in retaliation, and the other monsters are only marginally more dangerous than a level 1 monster.

flayer.pngThe lowest-difficulty random monsters that could potentially be troublesome are, ironically enough, the lowest-level pet types (kitten and little dog) and the two low-level lycanthropes (wererat and werejackal). All of these monsters are considered difficulty 3. The pets can be neutralized by throwing food at them; even if they won't eat the food, they'll often go peaceful from the consideration involved. The lycanthropes can be a problem, with their special lycanthropy-spread attack and summoning abilities. Gnomes also have a MONSTR of 3, and are sometimes generated with attack wands. Fortunately, difficulty 3 monsters usually only show up if the sum of player level plus dungeon level is six or more.

Difficulty 4 introduces dwarves (generated with considerable equipment); rothes and hill orcs (both of whom swarm); giant ants (swarm and are faster than most players); gnome lords (numerous in the Mines); and ponies (the toughest base pet type). This is where the monsters start to get really deadly. But so long as player level plus dungeon level is less than eight, the chances of running into one is small. If the player can find good-enough equipment before this point, his chances of survival shoot up greatly.

My point here is that Nethack characters are in almost no danger from monsters at the start of the game. He's better served by gaining equipment earlier on, which don't increase the difficulty of the monsters, than gaining levels. The better the equipment the player can find before the opposition ramps up, the better he'll do.

Notice that there is an exception to this rule. The Gnomish Mines start pre-stocked with a bunch of set opponents, gnomes and dwarves. The dwarves can be tough, and will be there regardless of player level, so if you want to take the Mines right off having a little better level will probably help you, unless you plan on running the protection racket, which is beyond the scope of this guide.

oracle.png2. Do not give the game excuses to kill you.

What this means is don't do dangerous things. By far, the most common of these is drinking from fountains. You might be able to drink from fountains 20 times safely, but all it takes is that 21st time summoning the water demon, water moccasin or water nymph to ruin your whole game. Water demons, in particular, are deadly. Some players drink from all the fountains they see in the hopes of lucking into an early wish. They are far more likely to get it out of a magic lamp in the Minetown shop than from a water demon, and are much less likely to get killed in the process.

Also, don't drink from sinks, and don't kick sinks until you're able to handle black puddings. Don't dig up graves. Don't mess around unnecessarily. Don't anger shopkeepers, say by trying to steal from shops in non-pet ways. And don't anger the guards in Minetown (from drying up a fountain or messing too much with locked doors in their sight).

A lot of the process of getting better at Nethack is discovering the stupid little things that can kill you, and not doing them. There aren't as many as you might think, and in large part avoiding them is common sense.

death.pngHere's a list of things to be careful of:
Don't do things that do piddling damage if you're very low on hit points. Anything that can do at least one point of damage can potentially kill you in the right circumstances.
Don't smack floating eyes. Everyone dies to these babies in their first few games. Fortunately they're slow and don't attack.
Don't pray if it's been too soon since your last prayer. To tell for sure, try to sacrifice something; if you get a message that "You have a hopeful feeling," it's not safe to pray. If the message is "You have a feeling of reconciliation," then the offering's credit was just enough to eliminate your remaining prayer timeout.
Don't pray if you have negative luck (luck is usually zero unless you've done things to change it; things which lower your luck are breaking mirrors, attacking peacefuls, carrying a cursed luckstone, playing on Friday the 13th, harming your pets in an irresponsible way [check] and cheating in Sokoban. Prayers never work if your luck is negative. Luck gradually returns to zero over time unless you're carrying a luckstone.)
Don't break wands of death.
Don't teleport to level 0, or negative levels. These things may be funny to do once, but not in a game you care about losing.
Don't genocide yourself.
Don't wear amulets of unchanging while polymorphed unless you really know what you're doing. (Do you know what you're doing? No.)
Don't wear-test amulets; they're the only item class that has a member that can quickly kill the player in normal use, the amulet of strangulation. It's best not to use-test things at all if you can help it, but amulets are especially important to be care of.

3. Build the essential intrinsics as soon as possible.

This starts to get into real strategy. The most important intrinsic in the early game is poison resistance, which safeguards strength and prevents all poison-related instadeaths. Until you get it, monsters with poisonous bites (spiders, killer bees, soldier ants and some snakes among them) have a chance of killing you outright with each attack, and so do spiked pit traps, a particularly cheap way to go. Unfortunately, poison resistance is not easy to gain without some luck. You can usually get it by eating the corpses of poisonous monsters or blobs. This is never instantly fatal, but poison monsters will still poison you, lowering strength (and thus carrying capacity), and blobs are usually acidic and do stomach acid damage, and that could be fatal if you're low on HP. When you gain poison resistance from eating, by the way, the given message is "You feel healthy!"

soldierant.pngThe easiest way to gain poison resistance is to start with it, by playing a Barbarian (one of the reasons they're the easiest class) or Healer (not recommended for beginners). Beyond that, if you can find a Ring of Poison Resistance or Amulet vs. Poison, you can wear them long enough to gain intrinsic poison resistance through the eating poisonous monsters, and then discard the item.

Later on, the most important intrinsic is magic resistance, and it's one of the harder intrinsics to get. It can never be obtained naturally except through polymorph. The only ways to get magic resistance is by wearing a cloak of magic resistance, wearing gray dragon scales or gray dragon scale mail, by wielding the artifact Magicbane, or by holding a quest artifact that grants the property. Wizards begin with a cloak of magic resistance, and their first sacrifice gift, Magicbane, grants it when wielded.

Magic resistance is important because it prevents a wide range of troubles. They prevent teleport, level teleport and polymorph traps from working on the player, and they also protect against several monster spells, including Destroy Armor. Crucially, they're also the only reasonable way to survive death rays and the Touch of Death spell. Unlike other instadeath monsters, ToD-using monsters are usually capable of teleporting after the player, and so are very difficult to escape, and the worst monsters of the type, the Lich family of opponents, are immune to death spells themselves. Because liches don't usually appear before the Castle, many players can do without magic resistance for a long time, but usually regret it if they don't obtain it by Gehennom.

juiblex.pngBeyond those two things, the most important qualities to gain are:
* magic cancellation level 3 for protection against level drain and many other annoying monster attacks, best obtained by wearing a cloak of magic resistance, protection or oilskin;
* a unicorn horn, which can nullify nearly all negative status effects without cost beyond using a few turns, and can also serve as a means of restoring strength lost to poisonous corpses when trying to gain resistance;
* high-quality escapes to get away when all else fails, items like scrolls of teleportation, wands of teleportation (either zap yourself or the monster attacking you), wands of digging (aim ">"), wands of sleep and death (be careful with them, however), and potions of full healing (uncursed extra and full healing potions also cure sickness).

4. Learn the most dangerous monsters.

* Soldier ants: on a game-by-game basis, the most lethal monster in Nethack. They're poisonous, they sometimes appear in groups, they're too fast to run from and get multiple attacks in melee. Don't count them out until you've got poison resistance and good AC.
* Mimics are one of the toughest monsters you'll find in the early levels. Fortunately, they appear almost exclusively in shops and are very slow. Treat them with respect.
* Hill orcs swarm and are generated with equipment. Mordor orcs and uruk-hai often get generated with poisoned arrows, another reason to go for poison resistance as soon as possible.
* Nymphs aren't very dangerous to your life, but their theft attacks are powerful even into the middle of the game. Have a pet kill these, or take care of them from a distance. Don't forget, if you're stolen from the nymph will teleport elsewhere on the level. While tracking her down remember that she'll make effective use of the item(s) she stole.
* Chickatrices and cockatrices are the source of more instadeaths than any other monster in the game. Your pets won't touch these. Kill them from a distance! If you're forced into melee with one, be on the lookout for slowdown messages if you hear their hissing. And once they're dead, they can be even more lethal. Be careful around these guys.
corpse.png* Purple worms are strong opponents, but once they engulf you, if you've found a wand of digging they're easy to kill. Many other wands to good damage to them when you're engulfed. However, they're lethal to pets, even ones with much higher level.
* Chameleons may turn into an unusually deathly monster. Eating causes a polymorph. This is the only monster food effect that also affects pets, which could be either good or bad.
* Rust monsters will cause metal weapons you strike them with to degrade, and can also harm metal armor. Disenchanters work similary, but aren't restricted to metal items, and can instead reduce an item's plus.
* No elemental is a slouch in battle, but air elements are extremely quick so they can get extra attacks, and can engulf the player. One think that might help: if you're engulfed by a vortex-type monster like an air elemental, you can get expelled immediately by zapping a wand or spell of slow monster at it.
* Mind flayers and master mind flayers can drain intelligence and kill if it gets too low, but their attacks also cause amnesia, one of the most annoying effects in the game. Amnesia (by mind flater or scroll) causes you to forget item identifications and some level maps.
* Mumaks are rare and have no special abilities, but can do extremely high damage relative to when they can appear in the game.
* Beware of all liches, for their touch of death & teleportation harassment. These are prime targets for genocide, followed by giant eels, mind flayers and mimics (for getting more look out of shops).
* Medusa: learn to recognize her level and then don't approach unless blindfolded.
* Green slime is a late-appearing monster with a delayed instadeath sliming attack. Burn yourself, like with a wand of fire, to cure it. Prayer also can help.
* Black dragons are the only monster with a disintegration attack, which, if it hits, can only be survived by being disintegration-resistant -- from eating a black dragon corpse or wearing its scales -- or having reflection.
* Archons: the toughest random opponent in the game, who can blind and stun with a gaze.
* Demon lords and princes, immune to death rays in recent versions and perform teleport harassment
* Demogorgon, who only appears rarely, but has a highly dangerous sickness attack
* The Wizard of Yendor: touch of death, teleport harassment, and can't be killed permanently so can wear down the player over time; he is vulnerable to death wands and spells, however, and those are the recommended way of dealing with him
* The riders, Death, Pestilence and Famine, are practically impossible to kill permanently, and each has a unique, highly-dangerous attack

Liches, the demon lords, some quest nemeses and the Wizard of Yendor all have an aggravating trick they like to pull. They all have both teleport-at-will and teleport control, and heal rapidly, so they can teleport away when they reach low hit points and renew the attack when they've recovered. It is very difficult (though not impossible) to kill one of these enemies through damage alone before they teleport away. There is a trick for dealing with them; when they teleport away, it's always to the upstairs of that level. If you move in and stand on the upstairs when they're attacking you, they'll generally be much easier to finally kill. Other ways to kill some quest nemeses and the Wizard are with a wand of death. Vorpal Blade and the Tsurugi of Muramasa also have a chance of instantly killing most of these monsters. And wielding a cockatrice corpse and hitting a monster with it can instantly kill almost any monster in the game.

mumak.png5. Build equipment for overcoming game obstacles.

Here's the contents for a typical ascension kit:

* A good artifact weapon. Get this through offering.
* Very good AC. By the castle you'll want at least -10, and by the planes around -40.
* All the resistances you can obtain, but especially poison and magic.
* Very fast speed. You can only really get this by wearing speed boots.
* A means of water travel. Levitation or water walking is best; an amulet of magical breathing will get you through, but your stuff will get water-damaged unless contained in an oilskin sack or greased other bag. In limited cases, you can make due with using scrolls of earth and wands of cold to make bridges.
* A means of distance attack, for taking out sea monsters and other troublesome guys
* A wand of digging, for zapping down (">") to escape from monsters
* A unicorn horn (blessed when you acquire the means)
* A lizard corpse (keep it in your main inventory)
* A bag of holding, blessed when you can swing that, same goes for greased
* A means of reflection: amulet of that type, silver dragon scales/scale mail or silver shield. This protects your inventory from getting burned/frozen/blasted/disintegrated. This isn't a top-priority thing if you keep destroyable stuff in a bag, but in that case make sure to at least get disintegration-resistance, which only comes eating a black dragon corpse. (Black dragons, are the only monsters that use disintegration rays.)
* A luckstone, preferably blessed
* A stockpile of holy water, for blessing and uncursing stuff
* Escape items (scrolls and wands of teleport are among the best)

6. Dealings with the gods:

Prayer will get you out of these troubles: Being low on HP (less than five or 1/7 your max, which ever is greater), being weak from hunger (not just hungry), being stoned, being sick from food poisoning, being strangled by an amulet, being stuck in a wall, and some other things besides. The chances of good things happening are increased if you're standing on an altar of your alignment. Please don't pray on a differently-aligned altar; check alignment by pressing colon (":") while standing on one. After praying, you can't pray for aid again until a certain number of turns, usually up to 300, have passed.

If your alignment score (a hidden variable tracked by the game) is high enough, you might be crowned. If this happens, you immediately get several useful resistances and are granted a powerful artifact weapon, but your prayer timeout also becomes much, much longer. Also occasionally your god will tell you about the Castle's drawbridge-opening tune, or just outright tell you what the tune is. And sometimes, your god will just outright grant you a minor intrinsic, such as stealth.

archlich.pngSometimes in the dungeon you'll find an altar. If it's of your alignment then it's safe to offer dead monsters on it and offer them. (Shift-'o'.) Gods don't like really weak monsters compared to your level (though most monsters are still good at the time of the game where you encounter most altars), and always fail to appreciate kobolds. Also, don't sacrifice former pets or monsters of your race if you're not Chaotic. (Since Nethack elves are always Chaotic in alignment, elves are thus pretty much always okay to sacrifice.) If a monster corpse is too old (roughly the same time scale as it's good to eat them), then nothing will happen. Only freshly-killed monsters will work as sacrifices.

If you offer a corpse on an altar not if your alignment, then if your alignment score is too low you might get converted to the altar's alignment, an extremely bad thing that usually makes the game unwinnable. Fortunately, it's not hard at all to keep a good alignment score by playing normally. If you aren't converted, then there's a chance of converting the altar; if you succeed you gain luck, and if you fail you lose luck. (More on the Luck statistic is later in this column.) If you succeed but the altar belonged to a temple with a priest, then the priest will become angry with you, will begin attacking you, and you'll lose any divine protection thus far granted.

If you make a good sacrifice, several things may happen.
- If a prayer timeout is still active, it'll get reduced a bit, providing the message "You have a hopeful feeling." If this eliminates the remainder of the timeout, the message is "You have a feeling of reconciliation."
- If you have no prayer timeout currently, and your luck is lower than maximum (10 points), then you get a message about a four-leaf clover and gain a point of luck.
- Once in a while, insteads of a four-leaf clover, you'll get the message "An object appears at your feet!" This is usually an artifact, a powerful, unique weapon. Artifacts are rarely found on the dungeon floor, and can be wished for too, but this is by far the most common means of acquiring them. Some classes have a specific first artifact they receive this way. For Valkyries, for example, it's Mjollnir. If you were "restricted" in that weapon, that is unable to gain skill in it, it'll become unrestricted and you'll be able to advance to Basic skill.

7. What is safe to eat:

stormbringer.pngMostly, if you use common sense, you'll be okay, but there are some exceptions:
- Don't eat kobolds. They cause sickness.
- Anything acidic (like acid blobs and ochre jellies) will do acid damage if you eat it, and if you're low on HP this will kill you. However, acid corpses never go bad, and eating one cures stoning in a pinch.
- If you're satiated, be very careful what you eat! One of the most ignominious ends in Nethack is choking on your food, which tends to happen to players relatively late on their journey. If you're not satiated when you start eating then there is nothing in Nethack that will kill you from choking, but if you are satiated when you start you're pushing it. Particularly, don't eat dragon corpses unless you're not satiated!
- If something has the power to kill you instantly while alive, then be careful about eating it when it's dead. Be careful around these things: chickatrices, cockatrices, green slimes or Medusa in particular.
- If the corpse has been dead for longer than about 15 turns, don't eat it. It's best not to risk eating a corpse unless it's really freshly killed; food poisoning sets in surprisingly fast, and it's fatal unless you have a means of curing it. (Apply a non-cursed unicorn horn, potion of extra healing, successful prayer.)
- If it was undead when "alive," don't eat it, even if you just re-killed it; the corpse starts out old in this case. Exception: wraiths are okay to eat if freshly killed, and in fact eating them is recommended.
- Don't eat creatures of your race; that counts as cannibalism, your god will be angered and you'll pick up the intrinsic Aggravate Monster.
- Don't eat pet-type creatures: white cats or dogs, or normal horses. You'll get Aggravate Monster, even if it wasn't already your pet.
- Don't eat or offer a creature that used to be your pet. It's a relatively new feature, but the game will punish you for it.
- Don't eat lizard corpses! It's not that they're bad, far from it. They're too good to waste on a quick meal. They never go bad, and if you start turning to stone from a cockatrice's hissing ("You slow down" and "Your limbs stiffen" are the signs) quickly take a bite of one to halt the process and save your life. By the way, only the monster called "lizard" has this effect; other monsters that happen to be lizards, like newts and geckos, don't have the same property.

horse.png8. About Elbereth:

One of the weirdest tricks in Nethack involves engraving the word "Elbereth" on the floor. Once done, if you stand on that square 90% of monsters won't attack you! Generally speaking, only humans, elves, minotaurs, angels and blinded monsters (oddly, not naturally-sightless sightless monsters) will attack someone standing on an Elbereth. Creatures that will "respect" it include all demons and demon lords, and nearly every other dangerous monster. Elbereth protects you against melee attacks only, and pets and peaceful monsters don't respect it.

The tradeoff is that, if you write it in the dust with your fingers, the word will degrade rapidly. If even one letter is changed, the whole thing will cease working, and often it'll have degraded by the time you finish the original writing! Writing with certain wands will do the job quickly, or an athame, or a magic marker (although that may be considered a waste of resources). You can also engrave slowly with a weapon, but doing so will rapidly dull the weapon into near uselessness, or a hard gem. Note that you're a sitting duck when slow-engraving; strangely, the game won't prompt you to stop engraving if you're attacked while writing.

Elbereth is useful in a pinch, but isn't necessary for survival; I win the game fairly often and don't use it. If you don't have the means or desire to write Elbereth for protection, standing on the same space as a scroll of scare monster has the same effect.

9. Use these identification tricks:

- The cheapest scroll in shops is Identify. If you have unknown scrolls and find a general store or bookstore, find out what their prices are (drop in the shop). If it's less than 30 to sell or 50 to buy it's probably Identify, and if it's not then it's probably light, a harmless scroll to read. It is best not to trial ID scrolls after Identify is known.
- To get a good clue as to what a wand does, engrave on the ground with you fingers (what you engrave doesn't matter), then try to add onto it with the wand. The message you get depends on the type of wand. Three wands give the same message, that the engraving disappears. Several wands do nothing special, but that mostly happens with the less useful wands and those that are out of charges. The only real drawback to this method is that it uses a single charge from the wand and, if it's a wand of create monster, it might give you some monsters to fight.
cockatrice.png- If you have an extra ring of an unknown type, a similar trick can be done by dropping one of them down a sink. In that event, all rings have a unique message, and a couple of them even give the ring back. You can sometimes get a lost ring back by kicking it, but that means you won't get a random wing instead, and can attract dangerous monsters for early in the game.
- Enemies use many kinds of items, and if you see them do it you'll often get a good hint as to what the item does. They drink and throw certain potions, read scrolls, zap wands and wear certain types of armor. They will also wear one type of amulet. Notably, however, they never wear rings.

10. Make the most of your pets.

To get more pets easily, throw food at cats and dogs. Tripe rations always work for this. Horses can be tamed by throwing vegetable food at them. Even ordinary food rations work for this, although they won't eat them unless they're very hungry and it doesn't always work. Sometimes it'll make the creature in question peaceful instead.
Pets will not step on cursed items without a special message, unless there's a food item they're interested in on the same square. Opposing monsters will never attack pets in melee unless the pet attacks them first, and pets refuse to attack anything more than a level higher than it or extremely dangerous to attack (like cockatrices). Pets won't attack you unless they're blind, confused, stunned, extremely hungry or you're wearing a ring of conflict.
Every time a pet kills a monster, it gains a maximum hit point, and when it gains eight points it also gains a hit die, up to a maximum. Dogs, cats and horses are special, however, in that they can promote through three stages as they grow. A horse at maximum level is just barely capable of taking out a shopkeeper. Even so, these basic pet-types are typically only useful up to a certain point in the game.

eel.png11. Dealing with shops

Don't try to steal in plain sight of the shopkeeper; they are formidable opponents unless you're already strong enough that you'll probably not have much need for the stuff in the shop, they call in the Keystone Kops who can be difficult to deal with at low level, and money is worthless except for paying shopkeepers and priests anyway. In the early levels you can steal from shops safely by letting your pet do the lifting for you; stuff your pet carries out of the shop is free to take. The space right inside the shop's door counts as outside the shop for this. Don't attack a shopkeeper or zap wands at him, don't teleport while carrying stuff, don't dig holes in a shop's walls of floor, don't kick his closed door down (even if it says "Closed for inventory") and don't attack him directly.

12. Tackling special areas

- The Gnomish Mines are the first branch you'll encounter, a second set of down-stairs between levels 2 and 4. They have lots of gnomes and dwarves to fight. Gnomes are pretty much fodder, but dwarves sometimes wear good equipment. Dwarven mithril is good armor for this stage in the game. Halfway down the mines is Mine Town, referred to by some as the shopping mall. It's got many shops, including a guaranteed lighting shop run by a beloved figure, and also a guaranteed temple with a priest. Use the altar to ID curses, pay the priest for protection (see below), and check the shops for good items. Notably, both the tool shop and lighting shop may carry magic lamps, possibly the easiest source of a wish in the game. Make sure a magic lamp is blessed before rubbing it (Alt-'r'/#rub)!
- Sokoban is found a little deeper than the Mines. It's entered through a second upstairs found on a level, and all its levels start out pre-mapped. Sokoban is a series of boulder-pushing puzzles, along the line of the Sokoban puzzle game. The game's movement rules are subtly different here: you cannot move diagonally through corners or between boulders. Doing anythings that would break the rules of the puzzle of the same name causes you to incur a luck penalty while here, which could be a very bad thing if it goes negative (prayer never works when you have negative luck). To proceed, you must fill in all the pits blocking the way onward with boulders. Because of the puzzle aspects and luck penalties, many players choose to ignore Sokoban, but a lot of food, rings and wands tend to be generated there, and players who make it to the end can claim either a shield of reflection or a bag of holding.
- The Oracle level is in the main dungeon. It's mostly ordinary, except for the Oracle herself, who can be questioned for game hints. There are also several fountains and statues here. If you're a wizard, you can often find spellbooks by casting force bolt on the statues.
- The Quest, also known as the "Home" dungeon, is a branch accessed by entering a magic portal. The portal counts as a trap, so you won't find it at first until you happen upon its square. Until the quest is completed, you'll be given a reminder message each time you enter the level. Every character class has a different quest, some harder than others. (Monks have a particularly difficult quest.) The first level of the quest always has a staircase down that can't be used until the quest leader, a particular friendly monster on the level, gives you permission (chat with him to speak). To get permission, you must be level 14 and of your original alignment. Take heed! If you permanently change your alignment (by offering at a cross-aligned altar if you haven't been playing your alignment well, or by offering a unicorn of your alignment on an altar of a different alignment), you will be permanently barred from accessing the quest! Since the Bell of Opening must be obtained from the quest and it's needed to win, this means the game cannot be completed.
demon2.png- Fort Ludios is a little-seen one-level branch that is sometimes, but not always, found from a magic portal in a vault in the middle of the main dungeon. Vaults are hard enough to find, and to reliably find the fort you'll probably to find several of them. It's a pretty difficult level, with a huge number of soldiers, a number of dragons, and King Croesus in the middle of a castle. There is a huge amount of equipment to be found here, and lots of gold and gems besides. Ludios is not present in every game.
- The Medusa level is fairly deep in the main dungeon. The two main obstacles here are a vast lake between you and the stairs down, and Medusa herself standing on the stairs. Make sure to be blinded when facing Medusa; seeing her alive is an instadeath. If you have a means of reflection then she'll probably turn to stone from seeing her own reflection. Sometimes there is a statue named Perseus on or near the stairs; if smashed to bits with force bolt or a pick-axe, there is sometimes a bag of holding and/or a shield of reflection inside it. (These should be checked for curses.) After Medusa's level, some of the dungeon levels will be mazes. If you get to Medusa without a way past the lake, you can dig down (">") with a pick-axe or wand of digging to fall past it and move on. Remember, however, you'll still have to cross the lake coming back, and Medusa will be right by the upstairs when you climb them, so remember to blindfold yourself before climbing the stairs on your way back up!
- Not much further down than Medusa is the Castle. The drawbridge can be shattered with force bolt (bridge the moat with a boulder or wand of ice, or cross the water by other means), opened with a wand of opening or a spell of Knock, or if you have a musical instrument you can play it to open the drawbridge by playing "Mastermind," using the noises received as clues for the notes you need to enter. Be careful however; if you get in by opening the drawbridge, if you're standing on the two spaces in front of it, you'll be crushed by the falling bridge! Even once open, you can be killed if someone shoots a wand of striking and shatters the bridge while you're standing on it. Inside the drawbridge is a lot of tough monsters, and the moat contains a number of deadly eels, which can instantly drown you if they swing themselves around you. In one of the corners of the Castle is the game's sole guaranteed wand of wishing. Good things to wish for: 2 blessed scrolls of charging (for recharging the wand once when it's out of charges), blessed +2 gray dragon scale mail (if without magic resistance), blessed +2 silver dragon scale mail (if already in possession of magic resistance), blessed +2 speed boots (only permanent source of "very fast" speed), spellbook of finger of death (if experienced in attack spells), and blessed magic marker (for making useful scrolls out of blank paper). There are lots of other good things to wish for; Google up a full spoiler for full details. There are a series of pit traps at the back of the Castle. These are the only way down to the next level.
- The Valley of Death is the first level of Gehennom; prayer doesn't work here. There are lots of undead monsters and treasure chests. There is a temple to Moloch near the end; although Moloch is the evil god of the game, you can still get protection from paying the priest here. The staircase down is hidden behind secret doors near the end; search for them.
- Gehennom, also known as "those stupid mazes," is really annoying to get through. I suggest magic mapping as many levels of Gehennom as you can, it'll come in handy later.
- Several demon lords have lairs in Gehenom: Asmodeous, Baalzebub, Juiblex and Orcus. Azzy and Bubs sometimes ask for a bribe if you're carrying money in your main inventory; they'll vanish without harming you if you pay them enough. Juiblex can make you deathly sick if it engulfs you, but you can escape being engulfed with a wand of digging and can then cure yourself with a potion of extra or full healing, a spell of cure sickness or applying an uncursed, but prefereably blessed unicorn horn (though that has a chance of failing to work each attempt). Orcus has a wand of death, although he'll probably use up all its charges in dealing with you. For more tactics in dealing with them, check the section on monsters.
mimic.png- Vlad's Tower is entered through a second up-stairs in a Gehennom level. The tower is three very small levels with lots of traps and locked doors. A number of useful items are guaranteed to appear here, among a few other highly dangerous cursed items. Look for levitation boots and an amulet of life saving. At the top of the tower is Vlad the Impaler himself, who is possibly the easiest-to-kill "boss" monster in the game. He holds the second of the essential items, the Candelabrum of Invocation. Note that Vlad's Tower is not technically part of Genhennom; it is safe to pray here.
- There is a series of three levels in Genhennom with a huge, blocked-off rectangular section in the middle of them. This is the Wizard's Tower. There is no way in from these levels, however. To enter, you'll have to continue to explore down, where you'll find Fakewiz levels and the Wizard's Portal level, which all contain a small moat surrounding a few walled-off spaces. Cross the water and dig through the wall. One of these levels will have a portal there to the bottom of the Wizard's Tower. At the top of the tower is the Wizard of Yendor himself, who carries the Book of the Dead. Once awake, the Wizard will harass you periodically until the end of the game. Even if you kill him, he'll just keep coming back. Also, sometimes he'll call in a bunch of dangerous monsters to surround you, and sometimes he'll curse an item you're holding; he can do these things even if he doesn't actually show up on the level! He stops appearing once you reach the Astral Plane. (Twice now, I've been able to get the Wizard out of his room on the top level and teleport to attack me by playing a drum of earthquake while outside the tower on that level. I forget if he carries his Book with him in this event, though.)
- Once you have the Bell of Opening, the Candelabrum of Invocation, and the Book of the Dead, proceed to the vibrating square level, the bottom-most level of Genhennom. You'll also need seven uncursed or better candles; the lighting store in Mine Town is guaranteed to carry at least that many. One of the spots of floor on this level, which is impossible to determine until you step on it, gives the message "You feel a strange vibration under you feet." Once you find it, stand there then apply the candles to attach them to the Candelabrum. Then: ring the Bell, light the Candelabrum, and read the Book. The result is very cool, and produces a staircase down.
- Below that is Moloch's Sanctum, which contains more monsters than you've seen up to that point and a walled-off room containing Moloch's high priest, who carries the Amulet of Yendor. To get in, you'll need to get by a bunch a fire traps and find the secret door to the room; a wand of secret door detection is called for here. The high priest is a tough opponent, and while you're in the temple, Moloch will cast lightning bolts at you.

Once you get the Amulet of Yendor, the nature of the game changes. Now you have to carry it back up. You'll be completely unable to purposely level teleport, normal teleport often fails, going up-stairs in Genhennom has an annoying chance of teleporting you away or even back down into lower levels, and spellcasting requires many more power points than before. If you can get to level 1 with the Amulet and climb the stairs you'll get to enter the endgame. If you make it there, good luck! We're rooting for you.

13. Other things

- Turn autopickup OFF if it's on. (Shift-2 toggles.) Most players eventually find it more trouble than it's worth.
- If you don't know what bags of holding are, then don't put wands that might be cancellation or bags that might be holding or tricks into other bags. Bags of holding explode when these items are put into them! All good Nethack players fall afoul of this the hard way at some point in their careers, and are a lot more careful about it afterwards.
- Don't pick up a gray stone on a whim. If it's a lodestone you'll get weighed down and put in considerable danger even if it's uncursed, because they can curse themselves, and cursed lodestones cannot be dropped. To check, try kicking one ('k' when playing with numpad on, control-'d' if it's off) into an adjacent square; if it goes "thud" and doesnt' move it's a lodestone. (This doesn't apply if you have very high strength or are wearing kicking boots.) The dangers in picking up a lodestone are great enough to try, if a gray stone is generated in a corner, to try digging around it to give it room to move when kicked. It's safest to not pick up gray stones unless you're reasonably sure it's a luckstone. If you do pick one up, prayer can uncurse it so you can drop it.
- A quick way to determine which items are cursed or blessed is to drop them onto an altar. This works even if the altar is not of your alignment.
- One of the weird little facts of Nethack is that, after buying from shops, money is next to useless except as a minor score bonus. The best thing to do with money is to give it to priests: if you give a priest (using Alt-C/#chat) your experience level times 400 in gold, you'll gain points of intrinsic protection. It doesn't have to be a priest of your alignment. Since this protection cannot be lost by taking off your armor, and "stacks" with the protection offered by armor, it's an extremely useful attribute to have. Once protected, however, be careful not to do things that anger the gods or you'll lose it. Things that will cause loss of protection: killing an aligned priest, wearing a helm of opposite alignment, praying too often or while in Genhennom, and praying at an altar not of your alignment.
- Magic lamps never run out of fuel. That's a good way to identify such a lamp, but since it's the only never-expiring light source in the game, players who are already prepared for the ascension run sometimes keep one on-hand for light. Don't try to fill a magic lamp with oil, by the way; that will convert the lamp into an ordinary oil lamp.
reddragon.png- Your character has an invisible "luck" attribute. It goes up when you offer corpses on like-aligned altars ("You see a four-leaf clover at your feet."), when you convert altars to your alignment, when you throw good gems at unicorns, and in a few other cases. It goes down when you fail to convert an altar, when you cheat at Sokoban, sometimes when you anger the gods and in a few other circumstances. Luck "times out" over hundreds of turns, slowly returning to its base value, usually zero. Carrying a luckstone prevents this happening, which can be either good or bad. A cursed luckstone only prevents bad luck from timing out, and a blessed one prevents good luck from timing out. Luck affects many things, but in particular: it helps chances to hit, and it makes good effects from fountains, sinks and thrones more likely. Bad luck is very bad: if you have luck less than zero, prayer never works, and even wishes might fail. More on luck.
- Get poison and magic resistance as soon as you can. It's possible to win without them, but it's very unlikely and depends, to large extent, on luck.
- Get the other resistances soon: sleep, fire, shock, cold, disintegration. They can all be gained by eating the right monsters.
- Don't let yourself get surrounded if you can help it. If you see a group of hostile monsters, try to maneuver into a corridor so you can fight one at a time. Swarming monsters, such as hill orcs, killer bees (if you have poison resistance) and rothes, are much less dangerous when faced this way.
- Beware soldier ants at low level! They are the deadliest monster in Nethack. Wild big cats are tough opponents, too. Beware of leocrottas as well, and also mumaks, both 'q' monsters that can tear you up unexpectedly.
- Use weapons you can see yourself using in the long term, so you can build weapon skill in them. You don't have to use #enhance to win the game, but it can help. Not all classes can become proficient in all weapons. If you're a spellcasting class, focus on building your spell skills. If your god gives you an artifact or spell of a type you're not able to build skill in, he also grants you the ability to advance to Basic skill with a little practice; sometimes this is a more valuable gift than the object.
- Knowing the bad types of items can be of great help in identifying the others. The bad scrolls are amnesia, punishment, fire, destroy armor, create monster and most cursed scrolls. The bad potions are sickness, blindness, hallucination, confusion, paralysis, acid and most cursed potions. Blessed potions of invisibility grant permanent invisibility, which can make it difficult to patronize shops. Many wands are as dangerous as the are useful. The bad amulets are strangulation (which is extremely bad) and restful sleep. The bad rings are polymorph, hunger, conflict, teleportation, levitation, and increase rings with minuses. Some of these rings are sometimes cursed, but many of them are potentially useful too. Additionally, the ring of adornment is of only slight value.
- Besides just exploration and survival, the next-most-important thing you can do proactively to improve your chances of survival is to make a holy water engine. You can dip items, even whole stacks of items, into a potion of holy water (which is merely blessed water) in order to uncurse cursed items, and bless uncursed things. Most items are much more useful when blessed than uncursed or cursed, so a good supply of holy water can great aid you in your quest for the Amulet of Yendor. To do this:
Step 1: Take all the useless potions you've found and turn them into water. You can do this in a number of ways: dip them twice into fountains (only once you've gotten reasonably powerful, as it's dangerous), drop all your other stuff and walk into pools of water until they dilute, or wear water-walking boots then stand over a pool and dip. If you have a wand of cancellation, most potions can be cancelled to water by zapping them on the ground, and some unhealthy potions can be turned to water by dipping a unicorn horn into them.
Step 2: Find a self-aligned altar. That is to say, one whose alignment matches your own. If you find one that's not of your alignment and there's no attendant priest, you should try to convert it by offering dead monsters at it (Alt-O or #offer). Once it's your alignment, drop as much water on it as you can then pray to make them all into holy water.
Step 3: Once you have one potion of holy water it's much easier to make more. Make more potions of water by any of the methods in step 1, identify their curse status if not already known so they'll all stack together, then dip the whole stack into your remaining holy water at once; the whole stack will become holy water itself.
- Identify is one of the most useful scrolls. Once you learn it, try not to read them unless they're blessed, since they have a much greater chance of identifying everything you're carrying that way. Because of the chance of identifying everything, try to be holding as many unknown items as you can in main inventory before reading. Identifying a whole inventory of unknown things is one of the best things that can happen in Nethack.
- Zap yourself with a wand of speed monster to gain permanent speed. Zap your pets with it to make then permanently fast. Drink a blessed potion of see invisible to gain that property intrinsically. Drinking a blessed potion of invisibility, or zapping a wand of make invisible, both have permanent effects, which is mostly good but could pose problems in getting into shops. Wear a mummy wrapping to temporary make yourself visible again.
- Lawful characters of level 5 or better who can advance in long sword can fairly easily get one of the best artifacts in the game by dipping long swords into fountains. The chance is one in six times per dip.
- In enhancing your weapons and armor, extremely useful are the scrolls of enchant weapon and enchant armor, which each permanently increase the "plus" of an item. Blessed scrolls increase plus by one to three points, depending on how high its plus was already. Enchant weapon always affects your primary wielded weapon; enchant armor picks a random worn armor type to work upon, so if you want a specific piece enchanted take all the rest off before reading. When a weapon or elven mithril armor reaches +5, or any other armor reaches +3, you may enchant it just one more time safely. If these items are higher than the listed plus, enchanting them carries a very high risk of destroying the item.
- Some scrolls have different effects when read while you're confused. Some of these effects are very helpful and unavailable in other ways. Scrolls of enchant weapon and enchant armor will fire/rustproof instead of enchant, and scrolls of teleportation will cause you to level teleport. While scrolls may work, after a fashion, while you're confused, spells cast from memory do not. Neither spells nor scrolls will work when you're stunned.


Benmergui Releases Today I Die

After two months of searching for a sponsor for his newest game, I Wish I Were the Moon creator Daniel Benmergui posted Today I Die online and ad-free thanks to "an unusual individual". Like his previous releases, the title is short, simple, and somber. It's a puzzle game without any instruction, providing you with text and sprites that you can move around to change the poem's narrative and eventually save the girl.

Today I Die is reportedly inspired by USBEmily (Unstable Synthetic Brain Emily), Will Wright's entry to GDC 2005's Emily Dickinson Game Design Challenge, which challenged designers to create a game based on the 18th century author's poetry.

[UPDATE: Daniel himself responds in comments to say that "I never heard of USBEmily until I saw that article.... in fact, the poem interaction was born out of a poem creation prototype by Tembac (http://tembac.com)."]

You can download Today I Die's soundtrack, composed by Hernán Rozenwasser, from Benmergui's blog. The developer also has a new download section including standalone versions of the game and some fun tiered donation rewards.

While the lower donations include mentions in the credits of Benmergui's next game, you can even get him to customize the game (as well as I Wish I Were the Moon) with new characters that you specify, provided you make a considerable donation of $497. For double that, you can even get a version of the games with a new ending!

GameSetLinks: You Can't OutRun The OutRunners

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

Continuing the week's GameSetLinks majesty - or at least, minor royalty which owns a slightly ramshackle stately home that they rent out to corporations for team-building exercises on weekends - we start out with NowGamer reprinting another juicy 'making of' feature from RetroGamer, this time from Sega's classic OutRun.

That's not all, though - also in this bunch of links is a v.interesting discussion on indie game culture from Pixel-Love, uWink's Bay Area closing, intriguing cultural analysis of gaming in Japan, Sony Santa Monica's continued dive into the demo-scene on PS3 with .deTuned, and more.

Here we gone:

The Making of OutRun | NowGamer
“The main impetus behind OutRun’s creation was my love of a film called The Cannonball Run. I thought it would be good to make a game like that. The film crosses America, so I made a plan to follow the same course and collect data as I went."

Pixel-Love » Blog Archive » Indie Cultures
'Ultimately, the stratification in itself is a good thing, indicating that there are many different agendas to game development, rather than the monoculture of American boardgame publishing. Even if the arguments do seem futile, they’re indicators of a healthy and fertile culture of games production.'

uWinking out of existence at Lepus Lepidus
Oh, the Mountain View uWink closed already? We went there a few weeks back, it was kinda... fun. But not remotely busy, and on super-prime and expensive real estate.

Futures of Learning: 'New Media Practices in Japan Part V: Gaming'
'As we saw in the case of China and Korea, the research literature in Japan on gaming has focused on negative psychological effects.' Via Matteo Bittanti.

Hands-on: Korsakovia | Resolution
'Korsakovia, The Chinese Room’s new endeavour, is a little bit different. It’s still a Half-Life 2 mod, though you’ll need the Episode 2 engine to run this one. And it’s still about abstract storytelling methods and challenging the conventions of gaming. But it’s also, quite clearly, much more of a “game”. '

Introducing .deTuned - PlayStation.Blog
'.deTuned is a bit of an odd beast that offers an abstract and surreal interactive experience like nothing else. It is not exactly a game or an art piece like Linger in Shadows. It allows you to create your own visual to accompany your favorite music tracks on the XMB, and using the SIXAXIS™ Wireless Controller, you will be able to manipulate the given scene by interacting with and modifying a man and his world.'

May 5, 2009

New Jaguar Game Announced: Mad Bodies

Force Design announced that it is taking orders for Mad Bodies, its Atari Jaguar game featuring Breakout-style gameplay with shoot'em up mechanics.

The team spent six years on the title in their spare time, which is impressive if you consider that the hardware was already discontinued for eight years when Force Design began working on it.

The game features 10 stages, multiple power-ups and weapons, digital speech samples, and a humorous, self-aware plot:

"Mad Bodies puts the player in the midst of the Dark Knight Games tournament hosted by Dave Vapourware. The battle takes place over 10 stages, and with an arsenal of multiple weapons and power-ups, the player fights to take out The Graphics Man and prevent his ultimate rule of the universe."

Force Design priced the game at $80, which might seem ridiculous, but what other Jaguar game are you expecting to buy this year? Each copy comes with an "oversized plastic clamshell case with full color cover and cartridge label, and a semi-gloss, black and white instruction manual."

[Via Digital Press]

Jazzuo's Mo'minis Games, Yellow Ninja Ads

I'm not sure who this Yellow Ninja guy is -- maybe it's the developer himself -- but Jazzuo enlisted the character's help to promote his latest games in several hilarious clips. The video above shows off Platform Golf, which is exactly what its title suggests, a combination platform and mini-golf game.

The simple but clever mobile title features 12 levels, challenging you to hit the ball into each course's hole with as few swings as possible. Each stage allows for a maximum of 20 swings, and completing them below par will award you with a bonus.

Jump, another one of Jazzuo's newly released mobile titles, is even more basic, using only one button and allowing only one form of movement -- jumping. The game's nine levels features a variety of moving platforms, with an end platform that you'll need to somehow hop to. Yellow Ninja again lent his talents for a Jump advertisement:

The two games -- as well as Jazzuo's Reds'n Blues, which is a puzzler with colored balls, not a gang war game starring Bloods and Crips -- were created with Mo'Minis Studio, a free "environment for rapid development of mobile games". According to developer Mo'Minis, the software's interface allows "fast creation of mobile games without being constrained to any certain template".

Mo'Minis also says that Studio is designed to serve both advances users as well as non-skilled developers without any programming knowledge, and that games created with the environment are "automatically ported to all popular devices."

It's unclear whether this next game is developed with Mo'Minis Studio or not, but if you haven't had your fill yet of Yellow Ninja, here's his latest video for a strange puzzler titled Extreme Zero. The goal of the game is to arrange numbers so that they add up to zero horizontally or vertically.

Advice to other would-be ninjas out there: don't record yourself pulling off ninja moves in your boxers. Things might unintentionally show up in the resulting video.

[Via TIGForums]

The Ascent, TOJam 4

Artist and game designer Benjamin Rivers released The Ascent, a charming PC platformer with attractive pastel environments and a simple premise: "You play as a girl who's woken up alone and at the bottom of a strange place. Your only option? Go up..

He adds, "There is no score, no life counter, nothing to interfere; you simply press upward and avoid the spiky obstacles that obscure your path." Rivers plans to release a newer version with a musical score and additional changes in the next couple weeks.

He developed The Ascent last weekend as part of the fourth annual Toronto Independent Game Development Jam (TOJam), which challenges hobbyists, students, and professionals to work together or alone to finish a good, small game in three days. Photographer Brendan Lynch uploaded a Flickr set collecting shots of attending developers, and Rivers also posted a set with his own photos from the event.

According to organizers, a total of 90 people created 29 games at TOJam this year. The official site, which features a neat Space Invaders game in the background, promises to post about more games that were birthed from the event throughout May.

Best of FingerGaming: From Tiger Woods to Mass Effect

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

This week, FingerGaming reports the release of EA Sports' Tiger Woods PGA Tour and reveals an iPhone-exclusive entry in BioWare's Mass Effect series. Featured reviews for this week cover Sky Burger and Iso.

- EA Survey Leaks Mass Effect: Jacob's Story for iPhone
"Mass Effect: Jacob's Story puts players in the role of Jacob Taylor, 'a biotic-powered super-soldier who stumbles across a plot to terrorize civilization's greatest beacon of hope.' Characters introduced in Jacob's Story will be featured in the upcoming Mass Effect 2 for the Xbox 360 and PC platforms."

- Free App Roundup, April 25th - May 1st Edition
"This week's free releases include demo editions of Cooking Mama and Metal Gear Solid Touch, along with free full versions of PapiMissile and Finger Dodge."

- Tiger Woods PGA Tour Released for iPhone
"This mobile adaptation of Electronic Arts' landmark golfing franchise includes much of the content featured in recent Tiger Woods console releases, and boasts an all-new and iPhone-specific control scheme."

- Top Free Game App Downloads for the Week
"Digital Chocolate's miniature golf sim Mini Golf 99 Holes Theme Park Free moves up to the top of the charts after debuting at seventh place last week. Minesweeper Classic arrives this week at second place, as last week's chart champion Catcha Mouse falls to third."

- Tecmo Makes App Store Debut with Rio BlackJack
"Japanese developer and publisher Tecmo (Ninja Gaiden, Dead or Alive, Tecmo Bowl) has released its first iPhone title — the gambling simulator Rio BlackJack."

- Review: Sky Burger
"The iTunes App Store is filled with so-called casual titles, and as the market for casual games becomes more and more crowded, the 99-cent quick fix app becomes harder to differentiate and recommend. So in the interest of an honest and fair appraisal, let me say this: Sky Burger is one of the best."

- Review: Iso
"Iso is another entry in the falling block puzzle game genre, this time with a catch: speed never increases like in other games, but the game still gets progressively harder."

- Top-Selling Paid Apps for the Week
"The recently updated Defend Your Castle clone StickWars takes the top spot in today's App Store sales chart. Flight Control finds itself at second place for the first time in several weeks, while ParkingLot moves up to take third."

Super Madrigal Bros. Remixes 'She's Leaving Home'

Designed as a throwback to the early 90s Amiga and C64 demo scenes, this Super Madrigal Bros. production uses video from the Beatles' promotional film for "A Day in the Life", digitized and converted to the color palette of an NES. On top of that, the video game music duo then added "She's Leaving Home" from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

The song is likely very different from your memory of it, though, as it strips out the original instruments, replacing them with samples from Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Mega Man 2. It's not the disaster you'd expect from a group of whippersnappers tampering with a time-honored song; it's actually brilliant!

Interview: Runic Games' Schaefer Goes In-Depth On Torchlight

[Leigh Alexander had a chance to talk to Diablo co-creator Max Schaefer on new firm Runic Games, and for those who haven't seen, their action RPG Torchlight looks pretty adorable - here's the full interview, originally published on big sister site Gamasutra.]

Following the collapse of Flagship Studios, a number of the developer's founders and core team formed their own studios. Flagship co-founder and original Blizzard North co-founder and Diablo co-creator Max Schaefer then teamed up with the Flagship Seattle division.

This included FATE designer Travis Baldree and a number of other developers who were behind Flagship's second project, Diablo-esque online RPG Mythos, still in late development at the time of Flagship's closing.

As Korean firm Hanbitsoft has claimed the rights to Mythos, the team branched off to create Runic Games, where through a new deal with major Chinese online game publisher Perfect World, they get a second chance with the concept of a Diablo-like MMO with Torchlight.

"Torchlight is an action RPG, kind of in a similar vein that we were working on previously with the Mythos project," Schaefer tells us. "It's evocative of that same style of gameplay; there are a lot of Diablo vets on the team."

While Schaefer clarifies that the art style and mood of Torchlight are completely different from Diablo, he hopes there will be commonalities elsewhere: "We always want you thinking that you've just got to go to one more room and do one more dungeon to find the coolest item -- and hopefully look up and it's three o'clock in the morning," he says.

The support of Perfect World "has been an absolute delight," says Schaefer, pegging the seasoned MMO operator as "exceptionally good and professional" at running online games.

Schaefer also says that on a visit to China -- where the company publishes the Perfect World MMO -- he was impressed in particular with the professionalism of how the company treats its community.

"If we can combine our style of gameplay and their expertise... we really have an unbeatable combination," Schaefer enthuses. "Perfect World is founded and run by game makers. Even though they're in China, we absolutely talk the same language... so far it's just been better than great."

East Meets West: The Monetization Model

With the Chinese approach to MMO operation tends to come the Asian approach to business model: "Yes, we intend to do the microtransactions model," says Schaefer. "Generally, I think Asia leads the world in figuring out monetization strategies for games."

"We feel like the item transaction model is going to be the standard model for MMOs even in the U.S. and Europe in the near future. It originally started out as just being something that [made it] easy to combat piracy... turns out it has a lot of really good advantages."

Schaefer says the team knew intuitively that the subscription model was "wrong" not only because it limits the number of player accounts, but it also locks the player into the game and obligates them to play continually else waste money.

"The item transaction model lets you have as many games as you like; you put it away if you're done with it, and then you haven't paid anything extra. You decide how much commitment you want to put into it."

Getting The Core Comfortable Through Single-Player First

The team has an interesting launch strategy for Torchlight; to gradually introduce to universe to a Western audience more familiar with the Diablo style of gameplay in a single-player context, Runic will launch a U.S. and Europe-only single-player version this year, ahead of the full MMO.

"It's just a way for us to get our feet wet... get the title out there, get people looking at it," Schaefer explains. "This will let the team have a published title and get the IP out there, and let people get to know the Torchlight universe and what to expect from the MMO when it comes out. We've already started on all the network stuff."

"The single-player version is already really fun to play; we know we're onto something good because people just stay late at work and sit and play it. It's already got this addictive, really slick, fun feel to it."

Game Balance And Free-To-Play

So Torchlight is shaping up to be a real core gamer's game -- precisely the sort of audience that has tended to resist the business model migration towards microtransactions. Is Schaefer concerned?

"First, hardcore gamers are just passionate and serious about their games -- there's really no good way to get money from them," he laughs. "It really all depends on how you implement it. If it's one of the games that's free-to-play, and you can optionally do item transactions -- but the reality is its a missed experience unless you pay a lot of money, that's gonna turn people off."

Allowing players to buy themselves into the best character is no good strategy either, Schaefer says. "The things you're selling have to be fun and useful, but it can't alienate the people who are not paying. You have to really make that a reality and not just a perception, because they'll see right through you... hardcore gamers know more about your game than you do. It's all just a delicate balance."

The team had started experimenting with how to offer item transactions that don't unbalance gameplay back while working on Mythos -- where they'd developed an optional-purchase map to a special dungeon with generally better loot, or where enemies offer more experience.

"The cool thing is you can bring your party into this dungeon so that only one person has to buy the map, and he can bring all his friends who haven't paid," Schaefer says, offering an example of the kind of ideas in the works for Torchlight.

The creative challenges of game balancing alongside a microtransactions model are worth the revenue to keep growing in response to players' ongoing needs, Schaefer says.

"With Diablo I and II, we charged for a box and people are still playing on BattleNet to this day. On the downside, we never got to expand the universe very much. You couldn't put a whole crew of people on expanding your game, because there just wasn't the revenue to do it," he says. And listening closely to the community and responding is "a big part of making people more accepting of [the item transactions] model."

The Torchlight MMO: 'Dragon's Lair Meets The Incredibles'

With the single-player slated for "probably not even super-late this year," the Torchlight MMO is expected to follow 18 months thereafter at the earliest.

Players can look forward to something a little bit lighter, thematically, than Diablo: "For some reason, it's such a fun style of game that it seemed like going with a super-gothic tone wasn't appropriate," he says. "Since this is a new IP and a whole new thing, we have a little bit more leeway to have our own flavor on it. Dragon's Lair meets The Incredibles, I think, would be the most accurate way to describe us."

Dungeon-Crawlers And Addiction

The Diablo game mechanics are well-known -- and well-loved for their "addictive" nature, and are infamous for being hard to put down. But lately, game addiction has been in the news with a new study that aims to point out the presence of harmful addict behavior in some hardcore gamers.

Although many, including the Entertainment Software Association, argue with the study's methodology, stories of Chinese players fainting -- or even dying -- of exhaustion and deprivation while parked at their games in net cafes have become familiar news items on the web. How does Schaefer feel about the present environment of concern around game addiction ahead of Torchlight's launch?

"[Game addiction is] a serious problem," he concedes. "I think that game makers should be very aware of it, and should really consider that in their game design." Part of the way the team's addressing the issue is through design that allows players to have a satisfying experience in only a short period of gameplay.

"One of the things that we pride ourselves in the games that we make is that it isn't built into the game that you have to sit and grind for four hours to do a particular mission, or to get something done. We make bite-size chunks," he explains.

"A lot of MMOs out there are such grinds... advancing characters literally requires that you sit at the computer for six to eight hours. We're trying to design around it, so you don't have to do that."

Working Together, Working Around Diablo

The Torchlight team, comprised largely of Mythos vets "plus several new people," is up to about 22 staffers, says Schaefer, and the team size helps with efficiency, focus, and making good tools.

All the staff works together in the same open room: "Instead of having to schedule a meeting, you just kind of turn around and talk," Schaefer explains. "You can really only do that with a small team -- with 30 or 40 people, it'd be too chaotic. But it keeps everyone tight, keeps everyone really engaged and involved, and we save a lot of time."

"It's the most fun I've ever had in my game development career."

All the comparisons to Diablo do prompt the question of whether the Torchlight team sees competition in Blizzard's upcoming major release of Diablo III. "All of us are really excited about Diablo III, also," says Schaefer. "We can't wait to play it."

"It's not really [competition]," he says. "Obviously it's the same style, but again, they're working on an established IP that has its own look, and its own story and its own tone, and they're not doing, as far as I know, a traditional MMO... [it's] more in the BattleNet style that Diablo II was in."

"We're doing a straight single-player and then a true MMO," Schaefer says. "We're kind of working around Diablo III in that sense; it's a little different model that we're pursuing."

Schaefer notes that with so many Diablo veterans on the Torchlight team, "there will be some familiarity there for sure," but that there's plenty of room in the marketplace.

"There are not many action-RPGs out there," he says. "People do more of the traditional stuff -- and we definitely don't want to aim at World of Warcraft either. That's a fool's game."

8-Bit Fatalities

Freelance artist Steven Lefcourt found inspiration for 8-Bit Fatalities, a series of paintings depicting the gruesome murders of classic video game enemies, from the outrage many conservative adults expressed over Mortal Kombat during his youth, decrying its bloody, violent fatalities.

He argues that fake deaths occurr during almost any game all the time, and that even if Nintendo's depiction of Mario isn't photorealistic, that doesn't mean he isn't smashing a Goomba's brain any less when he hops on its head.

"I knew my goal was to kill these enemies, so Mortal Kombat wasn't a big change for me. To me, it was still just a game, where fake deaths happened as part of game progression. To uninformed adults, however, Mortal Kombat was a photo realistic depiction of kids becoming complicit in virtual murders.

And so, I decided to show everyone just what I imagined was happening when these little blocky, pixelized abstractions did when they came into contact with each other, but in a much more visceral, and gory way than could ever be shown with limited graphical systems."

My two favorites from the series:

GameSetLinks: Scratching Up The Scratchware Manifesto

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

Time to update those GameSetLinks, then, and this particular set is started by Auntie Pixelante's smart digging up of the Scratchware Manifesto, which is, as she points out, a document that was prescient even if not quite as influential as it might have been. (Is that the case with all manifestos?)

Also hanging out in here somewhere - the Artsy Game Incubator continues, Charge Shot does a good overview of first-person games that ain't the typical FPS grind, Mr. Raph Koster talks about money, points, and gaming incentives, and plenty more.

Ell cee dee:

auntie pixelante › the scratchware manifesto
'in 2008 i was commisioned to write a piece on the manifesto for notes on game dev. my argument in this piece, which was never published... was that although the document itself is rarely cited, many of the creators on the margins of game development - the hobbyists, the small and free and independent authors, the videogame zinesters - embody the spirit, if not the letter, of the manifesto.'

Artsy Games Incubator » Blog Archive » Round 4, Session 3 Recap
Including: 'Craig hit it out of the park with his metaphorical sports sim “A hit Videogame”. Employing the abstract distressed pixel style he uses in his films the game presents a setup that is Warioware like in its simplicity.'

Hit Self-Destruct: Chaos Theory
'As long as there's a Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I am able to plan a day like this: Rod Humble lecture, visit to Alcatraz, Jason Rohrer lecture.'

Charge Shot!!!: First-Person WhatNow?
Re: the FPS: 'Here are some games that, despite perhaps containing a gun or two, have begun chipping away at an outdated moniker.'

Raph’s Website » Why Isn’t Money Points?
'In short, the Easter Egg hunt, crude as it was, had plenty of opportunity to insert a lot of deeply manipulative game mechanic tactics that create addiction, attention, and loyalty. Now, eventually, it did wear thin — as a pure accumulation minigame, there was not a lot of depth to it, and the choices users could make quckly palled. But at its core, what we had here was the basic acquisition mechanic of an RPG, in its bare bones form.'

We Can Fix That with Data / Who Still Types Item IDs in 2009?
A WoW player randomly gets a ridiculous dev-only item?

May 4, 2009

Armalyte PC Remake Video, Possible Mac Version

Not long after publisher Psytronik Software announced its “officially blessed” PC conversion of Commodore 64 classic Armalyte, developer S-A-S designs unveiled this trailer for the shoot'em up releasing later this year.

S-A-S also recently sat with retro/indie/coin-op gaming blog JOMG to talk about its process developing the title, and mentioned that it's programming Armalyte in OpenGL, hinting that it could thus potentially lead to a Mac version if there's enough interest. One of the game's changes (other than its new graphics, animation, music, and sound effects) will be an option to use a separate button for activating special weapons, instead of having to hold down the fire button.

In this excerpt, coder Stuart Collier talks about S-A-S's approaches to free and commercial projects:

"There’s no real difference as we always put 200% into every release, free or retail games should have the same attention to detail and playtesting. Saying that -- we are spending a bit more time making sure [Armalyte] will work on a 'minimum' system.

There’ve been a few authors that have have said no to a few free remakes, saying that they have new versions coming out. Years on and still no release (which is a crying shame). Us part time groups and individuals have no budget and no outlays, so we get the job done (although slower). I would love to imagine what we could accomplish if we were full time."

You can read the full interview and see comparison screenshots of the Commodore 64 and PC versions at Just One More Game.

Prototype Bayonetta Footage

Before Bayonetta became the high-resolution jezebel we know her as today (posing for swooping crotch shots and asking gamers at home, "You want to touch me?"), Platinum Games had the acrobatic, gun-toting witch fighting half-dressed ninjas and Karate uniform dudes in this drab room.

The developer posted this early Bayonetta prototype on the game's official site, describing how the team worked on perfecting the heroine's graceful movements and gunplay. Towards the end, you can even see Bayonetta doing a handstand to execute her ridiculous but awesome "ankle pistols" attacks!

[Via Unseen64]

Analysis: Inside GameStop's Fascinating Financials

Although these ran late last week on big sister site Gamasutra, I particularly wanted to call attention to our resident statistician Matt Matthews' excellent take on the finances of GameStop, the world's biggest specialty retail game publisher.

GameStop is incredibly important as a market, even as digital downloads start to take a hold in the game industry.

So it's great that Matthews was able to go through multiple years of SEC filings and data and synthesize a set of really compelling data on what makes the retail giant as large - and unique - as it is, for better or worse:

- Part 1, in which "...we begin with a detailed view of GameStop's annual revenue, gross profit, and gross profit margins", and reveals, among other things, that "...in the last year, GameStop accounted for roughly 21 percent of the new hardware and software market in the United States, according to our estimates. That marketshare defines the power it wields when working with publishers."

- Part 2, in which Matthews "estimates GameStop's used game sales, in units and dollars, and compare with the figures for new software. We also look at some new signs that the company recognizes the challenges publishers are posing for GameStop's used game business."

- Part 3, focusing on "how the company's revenues across territories have changed with time. Moreover, we'll focus on the United States and estimate what percentage of the market the company controls by comparing with public data from the NPD Group. Finally, we'll look at the density of stores in the United States, particularly with respect to population."

Thanks again to Matt (who also creates Gamasutra's monthly NPD analyses, also unputdownable from my perspective!) for putting this together.

Walter Day: Twin Galaxies and the Two Golden Domes

If you've seen The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (and chances are that you have if you're a regular reader of this site), you'll remember Walter Day as the scorekeeper for Twin Galaxies, the international organization devoted to tracking video game high-scores.

Formerly an oil executive, 59-year-old Day founded the Twin Galaxies arcade and scorekeeping organization in the early 1980s, helping promote video games to mainstream audiences through competitive events and publicizing world records.

VBS.tv (Vice Broadcasting System) recently posted a three-part documentary titled Walter Day: Twin Galaxies and the Two Golden Domes, featuring interviews with the scorekeeper and a glimpse of his songwriting aspirations. You can watch the first episode, Set the Record, which covers how Twin Galaxies grew from a small arcade in Iowa to the official video game high-score tracker for the world, below:

In the second and third episodes (also embedded), Day shares his real focus outside of video games, transcendental meditation. He even talks about the human race one day reaching a "collective state of stress-free consciousness", and learning how to levitate and perform Yogic Flying:

This bit from the third episode talks about what video game players can take from meditation:

"I believe that video game players could benefit from transcendental meditation because players that are average would become better. The players that are already real good would become even better. And even the best players could even get better because there's always room for improvement. So, if everybody's improving through transcendental meditation, scores would go up and skillsets would improve.

It's like tuning up your car. It's like increasing the RAM on your computer so it can handle more input and more output or what have you, so they can do more. So, when I do TM, I get so rested and so clear and so full of potential that when I go out, I'm able to do this worldwide organization called Twin Galaxies.

I believe it's because of transcendental meditation that Twin Galaxies has flourished in a way. And every single idea I've had in Twin Galaxies has definitely clearly been the result of turning deep within, doing transcendental meditation, and tapping that inner resource of energy, intelligence, and creativity that lies at the basis of every person's mind."


Special: Introducing Jim Munroe's 'GDC: The Game'

For this year's Game Developers Conference, we at GameSetWatch (yes, owned by the same company as the GDC folks, but they had no idea we were doing this!) decided to try a little journalistic/interactive experiment.

We recruited Canadian author and game creator Jim Munroe, whom, as his Wikipedia page explains, is a former editor at Adbusters Magazine and a HarperCollins-published author ('Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask').

In the game field, he founded the Artsy Game Incubator project, and his poignant illustrated text adventure, 'Everybody Dies', took third place at IFComp last year and picked up a number of other media honors.

So, we got Jim -- in exchange for a press pass to the event -- to write his experiences at GDC and what he finds out, and use that as inspiration to write a text adventure with some kind of Game Developers Conference theme, and that's just what he did.

Here's his brief explanation before you get into playing what is, intriguingly, more of a social simulator (very befitting of GDC!) than a traditional IF work:

"I wanted to try something that was more of a "text game" rather than "text adventure game". Think of it as a round of cards rather than an immersive and colourful narrative. If you don't like the hand you're dealt, you can always reshuffle with a restart. If you find you're playing "guess-the-verb" (IF's most infamous minigame), restart and read the beginning carefully."

You can now play 'GDC: The Game' in your web browser using Java [UPDATE: If you don't have Java, try this Parchment link], or, if you'd like to download the Z-Machine file to play it on your computer, here's 'GDC: The Game's zcode file - go check out the IFGuide's Wiki for info on an interpreter.

In addition, if you'd like to read the process whereby Jim experienced GDC, thought through the game creatively, and then made it, we've archived his GameSetWatch.com posts made during the event and afterwards, with lots of insight into what he considered, and how that birthed the game.

The Hello France/Farewell Swine Flu Chiptune Sessions

Recorded and posted by 2 Player Productions (Reformat the Planet), this Manhattan jam session brought together members of New York City chiptune groups Anamanaguchi, Glomag, Larry, and Starscream, as well as French micromusician Je Deviens DJ en 3 Jours. Their instruments of choice? "Synchronized copies of Nanoloop, MuddyGB, live drums, and a Commodore 64 running Synthcart."

2PP plans to put up more videos from the "Hello France/Farewell Swine Flu" jam, and also promises more sessions in the future. This already looks great shot with the personal digital still camera's video setting that was used, so I can't wait to see what the group will put together using its usual filming gear.

Since I mentioned Starscream earlier in the post, the band recently took a page from Anamanaguchi and put up "Gravity In Terms Of Space-Time", a preview track from its upcoming EP, on Muxtape. Titled Future, And It Doesn’t Work, the album is scheduled to debut on 8bitpeoples later this month.

[Via True Chip Til Death]

Best of Member Blogs: From Recognition to Dating

[Showcasing highlights from big sister site Gamasutra's Member Blogs, Chris Remo hands out a lifetime Game Developer magazine subscription for a consideration of gaming's target markets and celebration of talent, and also consider dating games.]

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

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

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

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

This Week's Standout Member Blogs

- Game Design and Target Market
(U. Collins Okonkwo)

What is the game industry's target market? What is the role of freelancers in development? Is talent properly celebrated? U. Collins Okonkwo addresses these questions and others in a massive post that is at times too sprawling for its own good, but certainly has a lot to say.

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

- From the Outside Wanting In: XNA Community Games
(Ephriam Knight)

In the first of a planned series of articles about the openness and viability of developing for six major digital distribution channels -- covering PC, the three major consoles, and iPhone -- Ephriam Knight addresses XNA Community Games, which he describes as "one of the most public about its services" among the various platforms.

- Action-Packed Short-Form Games: An Ideal Date?
(Sande Chen)

Is there such a thing as a "date game," in the same sense as a "date movie"? Writer Sande Chen addresses that topic, considering the function of date activities, the emotional response to games, and gender as it relates to play.

- "Entertainment as a Service": To Change, or not to Change?
(Jake Romigh)

Valve has enjoyed great success and engendered player loyalty with its philosophy of treating games as services rather than products. Here, Jake Romigh examines that mentality and considers the effect it has on games.

- Can games create empathy?
(Kimberly Unger)

Can games create empathy? If so, why do players frequently spend so much time subjecting their avatars or other NPCs to ridiculous or demeaning situations? Kimberly Unger considers exploratory play.

Otobeya's Transplanted Game Music

For several years now, Otobeya has taken classic video game songs and "transplanted" them onto soundchips for older consoles. You can hear an example of his work here, with the arcade version of OutRun 2's "Shiny World" played on a Sega Master System soundchip:

Pretty neat, right? Insert Credit's Brandon Sheffield introduced Otobeya to westerners back in 2007, but since then, the Japanese music tinkerer has registered Nico Nico Douga and YouTube accounts to provide video previews with his downloadable MP3s.

Here's another more recent standout piece from Otobeya's collection, Gran Turismo 4's opening music/video played on the original Game Boy:

[Via Nerd Music]

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Layered Gameplay in Disgaea

Etna from Disgaea['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at customization in Disgaea.]

One of the primary appeals of roleplaying games is their customization. A player can shape her characters and the party as a whole to her specifications, which can support a wide range of gameplay styles. One player might want a hack-and-slash, action-filled game, and so build characters that are best at dealing and absorbing damage.

Another player might prefer a more slow-paced, bag-of-tricks approach, and focus on special abilities like status ailments or techniques that control the flow of battle. By incorporating this customizability, roleplaying games broaden their appeal. The more variable a play experience is possible in a game, the wider its possible audience.

However, customizability introduces a paradox. More customization provides a more varied experience, but it also introduces complexity. The old Gold Box Dungeons & Dragons computer games have a complex character creation process that must be completed for each character in the party (as many as six). They offer pre-built characters, but in order to customize the party at all, a player must roll random stats, choose a name, gender, race, alignment, and class, create an icon, and possibly customize spells.

This has to be done for each character before play even begins. Purchasing equipment is also a virtual necessity before the adventuring can really start. Each of these steps requires the player to consult the manual for things like the function of spells or the power of weapons. To enable customization, a game must become more complex, which will scare away many of the players that the customizability would attract in the first place.

The trick to resolving this paradox lies in layering gameplay. A game can allow customization while keeping it entirely optional by separating the customization from the primary gameplay flow. That way, a player who wishes to customize can do so as much as she wants, while one who is uninterested can skip it entirely. One game which excellently demonstrates this technique is Nippon Ichi Software's Disgaea.

A Prinny confronts some GhostsPrince of the Netherworld

Disgaea is a game in the tactical RPG style first pioneered by 1990's Fire Emblem. The player controls Laharl, prince of Hell and heir to the throne, and his team of vassals and soldiers as he fights to gain control of the Netherworld and defeat various threats to his world. Battles occur on a grid, with each character maneuvering and attacking.

On the surface, the game is rather simple. Battle is tactical, with outcomes depending on the characters' strengths and the player's strategy in positioning and choosing targets. Some battles include "Geo Panels," which apply modifiers to certain squares and can be disabled by destroying their associated "Geo Symbols." Characters gain experience by battling, which makes them increase in level and strength. Equipment can be purchased at stores, and new characters can be created via the Dark Assembly, a sort of demonic parliament.

This is the "top level" of Disgaea's gameplay. A player could complete the game while barely ever delving any deeper. However, by taking on more challenges to customize her characters, a player can make her party even stronger than it would be through experience alone.

The first of these deeper layers of gameplay is the Dark Assembly. In addition to creating characters, an assortment of proposals can be passed, from "Raising Military Funds" to improving the contents of the store to opening optional areas. Each of these proposals requires a vote, which requires senators to like you. Senators' disposition can be improved by bribing them, but if all else fails, the player can pass it by force, which requires her to defeat all of the disapproving senators in battle.

This allows the player to customize the scope of the gameplay by changing the difficulty of battles and opening new, more difficult arenas. The Dark Assembly ties into the main gameplay by requiring resources: mana, which is obtained by defeating enemies in combat, combat power, which comes from experience, and bribery items, which can be obtained with money or in the course of regular gameplay.

The next layer of gameplay is item customization. Unusually for a roleplaying game, items in Disgaea are all slightly different, even within the same "type" of item. Two Short Swords will have different rarities, which in turn determines the number of "Specialists" that live inside the item. These resident specialists are randomly chosen, and modify the weapon's statistics.

Each item in the store may have different statistics because of this. By hunting around, a player can find the perfect weapon or other item for a character. This isn't strictly necessary to do well at the game; a Chain Mail bought at the store will usually be better than a Leather Jacket, so players can just rely on the rough ranks of the items. However, a player interested in customization can gain an advantage.

Item customization doesn't end there, however. Each item contains an "Item World:" a randomly-generated series of battle maps. By completing these battles, a player can level up the item itself, which increases its statistics. Additionally, some levels of an item will contain the item's Specialists, which can be "subdued" in battle. This doubles the bonus the specialist provides and allows that bonus to be transferred from item to item. There's even more to the system: items contain special boss characters that can be defeated to make them even more powerful, and new, incredibly powerful items can be stolen from enemies inside the Item World.

A player who is interested in getting the maximum benefit out of her items can spend more time in the Item World than in the actual storyline, subduing specialists, completing levels, and customizing her characters' items to any specification. However, the Item World is almost entirely optional, beyond a visit or two that serve as a sort of tutorial for the feature.

Beyond the Dark Assembly and the Item World are additional layers of complexity. Characters can be transmigrated to reset them to level 1 with increased stats. Hidden character classes can be unlocked by completing certain requirements. Secret unique "story" characters can be recruited through optional side-quests. Finally, the game also contains a "New Game +"-style feature that lets a player replay the game while maintaining each character's inventory and statistics.

For advanced players, there's a wide range of options for customization, but players who want a simpler game can simply ignore them. Indeed, the game itself advises players, "Don't worry, you can still beat the game with minimal knowledge." This combination of complexity and accessibility means that the game welcomes new or casual players while encouraging players who like to customize their gameplay.

Laharl from DisgaeaOn Being an Overlord

How can other games duplicate Disgaea's two-pronged approach? The first step is to have gameplay which is based on simple rules, yet offers the possibility of depth. This is the old "minute to learn, lifetime to master" trick. Designers should think about several interacting mechanics. Disgaea combines tactical positioning, character leveling, and special techniques for its basic gameplay, then complicates those with Geo Panels, a lift/throw maneuvering mechanic, and different types of weapons and damage.

The second step is to pick aspects of the game which can be optionally customized. If the core gameplay is designed with depth in mind, there should be various ways that players could be allowed to customize it. The key is to include default configurations and simple alternatives so that the customization can be ignored by uninterested players.

Finally, the customization should be tied into the primary gameplay so that it is not just a separate, disconnected "edit mode." The classic RPG way to do this is through experience, where playing the game provides a limited resource which can be used to improve and customize characters. Disgaea uses this method, as well as a couple of others. The Dark Assembly uses a social approach, where non-player characters must be persuaded with gifts. The Item World uses a side-quest approach, where separate challenges must be completed to customize items. Note, however, that even the Item World challenges use the same character statistics and gameplay as the main game.

Using this "layered" approach to customization, where players can delve as deeply into the game as they want, will attract players interested in customization and keep them engaged, while not alienating new or casual players with an overly complex beginning experience. This helps to resolve the essential paradox of customization, where greater customization requires greater complexity. By using the techniques demonstrated in Disgaea, designers can make deeper games that appeal to a wider range of players.

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

May 3, 2009

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

Yet again, the weekend is upon us - 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 GameCareerGuide that you might not have seen.

Thanks to our staff (and contributing developers!), I hope our sites continue to lead the way in discussing the art and business of making awesome games. Thus, in the last seven days, we went from compelling Molyneux and Hollis interviews through social network game analysis, neat DS game postmortems, and lots more.

Here's the highlights:

Peter Molyneux: The Essence of Interaction
"Gamasutra speaks to Bullfrog and Lionhead co-founder, Populous, Black & White and Fable series designer, and iconoclast Peter Molyneux on his studio's evolution, the role of emotion in games, and what's next."

Postmortem: Square Enix's The World Ends With You
"In this rare postmortem, the creators behind acclaimed DS title The World Ends With You at Square Enix and Jupiter describe exactly what went right -- and wrong -- while making the innovative touch-screen title."

The Social Network Game Boom
"In this in-depth article, Sande Chen looks at the state of games for social networks like Facebook & MySpace, which "seem poised to set a revolution in the game industry akin to the one first kindled by downloadable casual games", according to her."

Sponsored Feature: OMG, Multi-Threading is Easier Than Networking
'In his new Intel sponsored feature, part of the Visual Computing section of Gamasutra, former Insomniac and current Intel staffer Orion Granatir introduces threading by comparing it to networking in games."

Quality Quality Assurance: A Methodology for Wide-Spectrum Game Testing
"Nintendo and Microsoft Game Studios veteran David Wilson talks about the value of diverse, video game testing, suggesting a formula to make sure your game debuts with the smallest amount of bugs possible."

A Convoluted Conversation With Martin Hollis
"Former Rare developer and N64 Goldeneye 007's director, Martin Hollis, has returned with the unique Bonsai Barber for WiiWare, a tree/haircutting title with some unique features - and talks to Gamasutra about his career and the new title."

Plus bonus Gamasutra news originals and GameCareerGuide feature: Exclusive: PS3 Owners Want Final Fantasy XIII More, GCG Feature: Student Unreal Tournament III Mod Toon Doom, Ubisoft's Guillemot: Prepare For New Hardware 'In The Next Few Years', Exclusive: Third Parties Fare Well On Most-Wanted Wii List, Big Fish Acquires Grubby Games, 'New Brand' Coming Soon, Exclusive: Halo 3: ODST Tops Most-Wanted Xbox 360 List, Interview: A2M's Fortier on Wet's Acrobatic Shift.

Interview: Housemarque's Finnish Fire Generates Three New IPs

[Game Developer magazine EIC Brandon Sheffield has been touring Finnish game developers this week, hence a separate chat with Habbo creators Sulake, but we thought we'd crosspost this Gamasutra piece briefly, since we know GSW readers likely dig Super Stardust - here's what its creators are up to next.]

Talking to Gamasutra, Housemarque has revealed that the Finnish Super Stardust HD developer is making three new IPs for various systems, including a PSN exclusive, a multiplatform title, and a self-published game, Rope.

“They’re both in matters we haven’t dealt with before,” said CEO and co-founder Ilari Kuittinen. “One of the games is a PSN exclusive for Sony again, continuing our good relationship with them. And that’s gonna be as far as we know, announced at [GamesCom 2009 this August in] Cologne.”

“We are doing also currently our first multiplatform game, for a leading publisher,” he continued. “Again, something different from the past. We haven’t done this kind of a game genre before.”

“What we’ve been able to accomplish in the last 6 months is pitch new IPs for downloadable games. Most of the games out there are new versions of older games, it seems. We’ve been lucky enough to sell our own ideas to publishers.”

Additionally, the company is hoping to get into self-publishing, on its third IP, a physics-based puzzle/problem solving game called Rope.

“What we are currently doing is games for publishers, but we’d love to go games of our own,” said Kuittinen. “Doing what Team 17 is doing for instance, doing our own games. We hope Rope will be one of the first games we will publish, late next year.”

The game essentially uses rope physics, attaching a ropey avatar to various objects, then beginning the physics simulation, with the goal of getting a group of fuzzy characters to roll to a goal.

Housemarque is considering different kinds of rope with different physical attributes, and different themed levels. The company is hoping to add around 50 levels, and release new ones, perhaps with an editor.

The company still hasn’t decided what platforms the game will hit, but the concept is approved on PSN, and the company is asking Microsoft for approval as well, but “obviously it can be on iPhone, maybe WiiWare. We hope to eventually be a small boutique publisher, releasing things ourselves.”

GameSetLinks: Lessons From A Stopped Clock

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

A relaxing weekend, then, and how better to pep it up with some GameSetLinks, courtesy of RSS feeds and me - starting out with 1UP's rather fun 'talking heads' feature, raiding interesting sayings of game biz types over the years.

Also in here - Jim Rossignol on JG Ballard and games, Introversion's struggle in 2008, ten lessons from a failed game-related startup, Leigh Alexander on The Path and art game thingies, and plenty more.

Twice a day:

1UP: Talking Heads: Classic Video Game Industry Quotes
With cute little Terrance and Phillip style JPGs, too.

The Independent Gaming Source: 'Introversion's Difficult 2008'
You've probably seen the original posts, of which the third and final part just went up (which I think makes them even more sympathetic characters.) Nonetheless, I think Derek Yu's take on it (in both original post and comments) is worth looking at too.

Ragdoll Metaphysics: JG Ballard, Boredom, And The Violent Promise Of Videogames - Offworld
Rossignol is always worth reading, and culturally, stuff like this is kinda important.

Gamer’s Choice | Christ and Pop Culture
Now this is fun: 'The systems that decide whether or not you made an ethical choice are obviously not based on a strictly Christian ethic, and it goes without saying that anyone who doesn’t agree with the developer’s ethical system will find themselves frustrated that they are losing karma, or purity points for what they have deemed to be the right decision.'

10 lessons from a failed startup » VentureBeat
Fascinating: 'A year and a half ago, my co-founder Dev Nag and I started an internet TV network for games called PlayCafe. Our ambitious plan was to run highly interactive game shows in which everyone was a contestant.'

Kotaku - The Path For Art Games - Art
Leigh's monthly Kotaku editorial on a subject fairly close to my heart.

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.)