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May 30, 2009

Gamasutra Expert Blogs: From Atari 7800 Sales To A.I. Awards

In big sister site Gamasutra's 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

And the Award for Best Artificial Intelligence Goes To...
(Dave Mark)

A.I. is a pervasive discipline that permeates throughout numerous aspects of a game, but Dave Mark feels that advancements in A.I. development aren't as recognized as prominently as they should be. The tiniest slip-up in a game's A.I. can render a game virtually useless, he says, so shouldn't the industry start awarding stellar A.I. alongside writing and game design?

Atari 7800 Sales Figures (1986 - 1990)
(Matt Matthews)

Graph wiz and regular Gamasutra contributor Matt Matthews picks through some recently-released Atari documents to find sales figures for the company's third major console, the Atari 7800. Launched in 1986, it fell victim to competition from Nintendo and Sega -- but Matthews finds that it sold a surprising amount of units nonetheless.

The Origin Of Serious War-Gaming
(Stephen Dinehart)

Stephen Dinehart, narrative designer and lead writer at Fracture developer Day 1 Studios, writes a brief history of war-gaming, from chess and its predecessors to Risk to Company of Heroes. A must read, especially for fans of classic board wargames.

Accessible Provocation
(Adam Saltsman)

Adam Saltsman is back another week, this time with a post examining films that are both accessible and provocative on varying levels. But can more video games strike the balance?

Design Tool Programmers Have No Excuses Any More
Borut Pfeifer

Borut Pfeifer, lead AI and game programmer for EALA, offers a couple of tips and useful links for programmers. He says adding P4.Net and ExcelPackage API to design tools can simplify the development process and save time. Click through for more info...

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of May 29

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's Halo team to a level designer for Blue Castle's Dead Rising 2.

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 — Redmond: Artist
"Microsoft Game Studios’ Halo team is looking for a sharp eye and a deft hand to help breathe a fresh vision into a new Halo experience. Teamwork, innovation, attention-to-detail and unbridled passion are characteristics we look for in all of our artists. If you are a talented 3d modeler looking for an exciting, high profile project to challenge you, this is where you need to be."

Radical Entertainment / Activision: Wii Gameplay Designer
"Radical Entertainment, an operation of Activision Blizzard, Inc. is a leading developer of interactive entertainment. We are proud to have released hit titles such as Scarface: The World is Yours, Hulk Ultimate Destruction and Crash of the Titans."

Blue Castle Games Inc.: Technical Level Designer
"We have a new opportunity available to work on one of the most highly anticipated game titles - Dead Rising 2. A Technical Level Designer at Blue Castle has level design experience coupled with the expertise and a passion for developing tools that help and streamline the process for other Level Designers to make the game."

Budcat / Activision: Producer
"Premium Iowa-raised Games. Budcat Creations is a developer of quality entertainment software for the PC and console markets. With over eight years of development experience and more than fifteen published titles under its belt, Budcat stands ready to deal with anything thrown its way. A game studio in Iowa? Sounds like trickery. But, I assure you, we’re not actually a farm who has mistaken themselves as a game development studio. As far you will ever know, at least."

WorldsInMotion - Online Games

Vigil Games: Sr. Programmer
"In 2006, Vigil Games in Austin, TX became a part of the rapidly expanding THQ family. We are at work on the next-gen title Darksiders and the Warhammer 40K MMO. We at Vigil are on a mission to develop the kind of experience that gamers remember forever. If this sounds like your kind of place and you are a talented and passionate game developer, please take a look at our currently open positions and apply today."

Tencent Boston: Animator
"Tencent Boston is an exciting new start-up with a focus on creating top quality on-line games. To achieve this goal we are looking for outstanding individuals with passion, talent and a team focused mindset. We are located in the Boston area and offer competitive salaries, superb benefits and profit sharing. This is your chance to get in on the ground floor of a great new development studio with the goal of being one of the best studios on the east coast."

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.

Opinion: 'Be A Wiener'

[In his new column, following his ruminations on resumes, Reset Generation/Pocket Kingdom co-creator Scott Foe examines the complexity of human relations in the developer's workplace, and recalls the lessons of former Sega exec Gerard Wiener to light the way.]

"Gerard Wiener is PR person of the show. There was something very human about how he talked. He had nice blue eyes that pierced right through Josh, Brandon, and myself when we were chuckling it up at the Rifts trailer. (Okay, so we were more like laughing our asses off.)

He was wearing a white shirt a size too big, and when he took the mic, Brandon and I - vegetarians who know much of skinny arms - figured out why: his arm inflated like a suddenly-stuffed football. The man was ripped. He had guns. I christen them the biggest guns of E3, even bigger than those in Halo 2.

I beheld those guns, and I spoke: 'That's the most Gerard Wiener I've ever seen!'"

That was the write-up from Insert Credit's Tim Rogers at Electronic Entertainment Expo 2004. I was there, at that press event, and I can confirm from my own memory that it was indeed the most Gerard Wiener that anybody had ever seen.

In 2004, Gerard Wiener was the number-one ranked squash player in Northern California. I don't know why they call the game "squash," because a game of squash is more physically demanding than menage a seven, and playing squash results in the bodily opposite of "squashing."

I first met Gerard Wiener long before Escapist Magazine described him as "Harvard-trained lawyer turned operations wizard," long before he was awarded, "the biggest guns of E3." He was a Vice President of Business Development at Sega, and, at that time, our group was looking for ways to monetize Sega's back-catalog of games.

It was decided that if we had a Genesis (Megadrive, for you Euro-spenders) emulator, we could sell some of our old content on Windows personal computers. Requests-for-proposals were written and development studios were interviewed, the lowest bid coming in at an astoundingly scant sum - less than it would have cost us in-house for a San Francisco-man-year of engineering time.

Even at the bargain price, there was a voice in my head, nagging that we were not on the correct course. You have two choices when confronted with a voice in your head, and I wasn't about to audition for reality television.

Gerard was clear-eyed and relaxingly postured, with an air of royalty about him - an air of royalty heightened by the elegant, painted Japanese screen that lined the back wall of his top-floor office. It was intimidating, sitting there in my 40-inch JNCO's - you remember rave pants -- nervously twisting at the temples of my dyed-blue hair, at audience with a man who could use his index finger to snap my career, my neck, or both, in either order.

"Why pay somebody to write emulator code when we can just pay hackers for their emulators, get the hackers' emulators right now, emulators that have seen a lot of use and have the bugs worked out?"

"This is good," Gerard smiled. "Make it happen." I had always joked that Gerard Wiener has a "love ray" that, if weaponized, would secure America's military superiority for now and in the future - he is so genuine and so deep that you cannot help but want to be friends with the man.

There I was, man-crush-in-bloom, consumed in the full brunt of the love ray, not the least bit expecting or prepared for what happened next, once I had contacted and opened negotiations with the college student who had written the emulator that we ended up acquiring: "We're going to let this kid keep the rights to his emulator code-base; we're only going to take this release. There's no need to be greedy."

The Mental Anguish Of Business-Humans

Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, wrote that, when it comes to organizations, "The tree rots from the top down." Well, I've heard it estimated that 70% of workers around the globe hate their bosses, and, if that's the case, that's a lot of rot.

I'm going to go out on an organizational tree-limb and say that that's a quantity of hate that, if left unchecked, could someday rival the world's racial, religious, or sexual prejudices. The only difference being that, in a lot of cases, this boss-hate should not be considered criminal.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put forth the notion that we humans are consigned to suffer mental anguish due to the fact that we are attracted to our mates based on who will yield the biologically best children, not mates who will be the most satisfying intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually for ourselves.

In much the same way, business-humans are consigned to suffer mental anguish in that we are biased toward promoting managers based on who is most apparently effective, not managers who are actually effective.

The Dark Side of Charisma, by Robert Hogan, Robert Raskin, and Dan Fazzini, is a psychology treatise that posits the over-representation of three very flawed personality types climbing the trunks and swinging from the branches of organizational trees the world-over.

The Narcissist: "It's not my fault, unless it's awesome: Then it's my fault." Narcissists are everywhere, quietly shifting the blame and loudly hogging the credit. Brimming with "you don't know what I know"-confidence, Narcissists are natural leaders, because that's what Narcissists say they are.

Homme de Ressentiment: Fancy European talk for "The Man who Hates," the Homme de Ressentiment is oozing with charm and smiles on the outside, but at the Tootsie-Roll-center of his being, there is nothing but ashen hatred. It's fair to note that while over-represented in corporate management, the Homme de Ressentiment is still quite rare. It's best to lure a suspected Homme de Ressentiment over by the water cooler to see if it boils before pointing one's finger and accusing.

The High Likability Floater: If this were Super Mario's Management Parable, the High Likability Floater would be the Shy Guy, wearing his expressionless mask, floating high into the organization by not betraying opinion. The High Likability Floater is a guy who never puts his pecker under the hammer: He never disagrees with anybody, and avoids real decision making in an attempt to never cause friction. We tend to like and appreciate people who tend to like and appreciate us.

As if the malignance of these three personality types is not enough to drive your average cube-dweller into Salem-like state of paranoia, there are also The Peter Principle and The Aura of Competence of which to take note.

The Peter Principle, so named for Dr. Laurence Peter, states that every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence - just because somebody makes a great tester does not mean that that same somebody will make a great test manager. The Aura of Competence, a phrase conceived by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his should-be-book-of-the-decade, Fooled by Randomness, warns of the illusion of competence: It is possible to guess a coin-flip correctly ten times in a row, giving you the appearance of one who is psychic - even though you really just got lucky.

Scrum And General Patton

There was a stuffed monkey sitting on Gerard Wiener's desk, and when you pressed a button on the monkey's hand, you were assaulted with apish sounds, "Oh! Oh! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!" Whenever one of our co-workers was misbehaving (a lot of times, me), Gerard would squeeze the monkey's hand and then flail his arms about his head, grinning, "Oh! Oh! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!"

There is an intense empathy to the man, like he can see into your belly, see both your passion for your mission and the ugliness of your half-digested breakfast. He knows people, knows that something a little-bit-monkey rests inside all of us, knows that monkeys will throw their own scat as unabashedly as major league pitchers throw baseballs.

The agile production methodology Scrum, and production methodologies like it, have been the talk of the games industry for the last few years. Scrum eliminates the need for heavy management, in essence allowing the implementing team to become the manager, and producing a transparency that not only shows what work got done, but which also makes each individual team member feel truly responsible for his/her contribution to the work.

Scrum is lauded and applauded for its management of complexity in workflow, its leveraging of the Surowieckian Wisdom of Crowds to result in better decision making. But where the hammer really meets the nail is that Scrum does a lot to trivialize the flawed monkey in all of us.

Well, what's good for the developer is also good for the publisher. How many times have you heard of a project put at risk because, "Our publisher wanted us to switch to an engine that didn't suit our purposes mid-project." Or, "Our publisher insisted that we stop everything to add a certain feature." The stories are litany. And in the end of the stories, it's usually the developer and/or the consumer who have suffered the most, which is probably why publishing organizations look today a lot like they looked yesterday: No pain, no change.

Also litany are the incessant comparisons of "business," to "warfare." General George S. Patton knew a lot about warfare, was considered one of the greatest battlefield commanders in history. In the movies, General Patton can be seen rallying his men, "When you stick your hand into a pile of goo that used to be your best friend's face, you'll know what to do!"

The movies have done the world a disservice: General Patton's greatest quote is, "Don't tell people how to do something: Tell them what you want and let them surprise you."

I'm by no means suggesting that we crash Amazon.com with the world's largest order for books about Scrum, but wouldn't it be great if more organizations ran by not telling how but by telling what? Wouldn't we achieve more great things more often if organizations observed the military doctrine of Commander's Intent?

Wouldn't it be great if we could all be Wieners?

Hitch Your Wagon To A Star

I'm sure that somebody is expecting a twist-ending; I'm sure that somebody is expecting that Gerard Wiener showed his teeth while eating my lunch. I'm sorry to disappoint somebody. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you hitch your wagon to a star - find yourself an industry mentor who knows enough of the ropes to show you how to climb the tree, one who likes you well enough not to tie a noose for you.

For years, the very best years of my career to date, Gerard Wiener was my boss, nonpareil - patient, brilliant, and kind - yes, to be clear, we're talking here about both the vice president and then the general manager of a publisher.

At the dusty and decrepit age of thirty-five, Gerard retired to travel the world. But he left me with something indelible, pieces of him to manage by, pieces which I now proudly share with you. (He also left me his stuffed monkey.)

The 12 Laws of Wiener

1. Be Part of the Solution, Never a Part of the Problem. Quite simply, it's much easier to be critical than it is to be correct. If you can't to help solve problems, then leave so quickly that there is nothing left but a you-shaped hole in the wall.

2. First, Do No Harm. You have to treat each decision as if you are a physician: First, do no harm. Make sure that while you're being part of the solution, you're not causing other problems as a side-effect.

3. It's the People, not the Products. Intellectual Property and hard assets are nice, but talent is the most valuable part of your organization - and talent should be treated as such. Ten smart people in an empty room can do more and better than a hundred dumb people charged with the care of a great product.

4. Align Utilities To get the best from people (and, to wit, the best from other organizations), their utilities must be aligned with your own. Create win/win situations and you will win, win, win some more.

5. There are No Laurels What you did yesterday doesn't entitle you to bad office coffee: It's what you are doing tomorrow that makes all difference to the team.

6. Execution, Execution, Execution The road to hell is paved with pretty PowerPoint slides. You have to be honest in your ability to execute on a strategy, and then you have to execute on that strategy and then execute some more.

7. Remove Obstacles A manager is there to remove obstacles to execution: Let other people run with the ball while you block for them.

8. You'll Have to get Blood on Your Hands. If an obstacle to organizational execution is a member of the organization, you're going to have to get blood on your hands - you're going to have to remove or reposition that person, even if doing so causes immediate pain.

9. One-on-One Gets it Done. The best way to make a decision is to poll individuals in one-on-one conversations - where individuals are more likely to give you the straight beef. Speak to as many people as is possible, synthesize, and react.

10. Do the Due. Preparation, preparation, preparation - do your due diligence. Know what you're talking about: If you've been asked for a meeting concerning a topic about which you know nothing, it's time to hit the books like the books owe you money.

11. C.Y.A. Saves the Day. Always cover your ass - know who your attackers will be and what weapons they will use against you. Have your shields ready. My favorite corollary to this is the evidentiary hearing: Never make one complaint. If you are going to complain about something, be ready to lay down a stack of evidence supporting your concerns.

12. Mea Culpa. The three sweetest words in the English language are not, "I love you," but, "it's my fault." If you've screwed things up, you have to bite the bullet, bite it in half.

[Scott Foe was creator/producer of Nokia’s critically acclaimed cross-platform game Reset Generation, and has worked on titles including Sega’s Pocket Kingdom: Own the World, the first global, massively multiplayer mobile game. Foe began his decade-long industry career as a member of the Dreamcast product development team at Sega. Foe also tries hard to be a Wiener.]

GameSetLinks: Zombies Versus Shareware

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

Well, as we near the end of a rather eventful week, time to catch up on the GameSetLinks. Not entirely sure what we'll be doing for E3 next week in terms of GSW coverage, but expect updates with show ephemera, the odd crosspost or two, and a general state of 'oo, Los Angeles and announcements!' euphoria.

In the meantime, let's mop up some of the neatest links, including Eurogamer on the shareware revolution, a fun Plants Vs. Zombies interview, bad science and health games, the rise of news games, and lots more.

Mic ro phone:

From Madoff to Sully, news events inspire video games - CNN.com
Nice to see some mainstream coverage of this type of thing, I think.

Nick Schager | IFC.com
Kindly pointed out to me by Alex Litel, IFC.com is running a decent new column on the video game/movie crossover - here's all the columns to date, I would check out the Braid one and the Iraq one for starters.

The Shareware Age Article - Page 1 // Retro /// Eurogamer
Nice article, and neat timing, given that we released the shareware-tastic Tim Sweeney piece on the same day.

Community Games: Creation Myths | Edge Online
Interesting piece, not least because it seems to have a lot of counterspin on XNACG by talking to some of the top devs. On XNACG, I still think the curve of success vs. not is quite iPhone-y, ie extreme, and also (like Super Monkey Ball at iPhone launch) some of the sales numbers early on were inflated by lack of available titles. We'll see.

Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist - Bad Science
Criticism of video games, while endorsing her own, super-expensive mind sharpening game. Wacky.

Interview with Plants vs. Zombies creator George Fan | Gamezebo
'One of the critical points in the design process was when it was pointed out that the sun collection mechanic was hard to learn for players who had never played Real-Time Strategy games. These players would plant peashooters but not enough sunflowers, and often lose because of that.'

ihobo: Eden (Concept document)
Shame this didn't get made, though I'm increasingly of the mind that docs like this should be replaced by actually making the thing, esp. if you're in the position to be indie and pick up tools yourself. (They're getting more userfriendly.) The final section about adoption methods is either amusing or genius, also.

Mania’s Arcania » *tap tap tap* Is this thing on?
I find this interesting because, heck, just collecting pets in World of Warcraft seems to be amazingly compelling in itself, as vocalized here. The imagined breadth of ecosystem for that world is just amazing.

May 29, 2009

Denki Verbosely Announces Quarrel's Scrabble Dictionary

The sesquipidalians at Scottish digital toy and game company Denki (Denki Blocks!) revealed that its forthcoming XBLA title, Quarrel, will include the Collins Official Scrabble Dictionary, so that players will have a wide selection of words (over 114,000) to choose from in this boardgame mix of Risk, Countdown, and Scrabble.

In Quarrel, up to four players "strive for dominance through the creation of the most complex and valuable words to capture and colonise the territories formerly held by their contemporaries".

“I cannot begin to express adequately my satisfaction with the conclusion of this transaction,” says Denki's managing director Colin Anderson. "I am quite literally ‘cock-a-hoop’, or jubilant if you will."

He continues, in borderline twee Belle and Sebastian style: "The primary concern of the individuals who have become party to our plans for the future of Quarrel has been the provenance and credibility of the vocabulary within the aforementioned product. The accord with Collins provides our game with the ne plus ultra of dictionaries within this particular bailiwick. Instantly rendering this query non applicable.”

COLUMN: Bell, Game, and Candle - "Other E3 Surprises Spoiled Before Their Announcement"

[In the final ever instalment of 'Bell, Game, and Candle', a GameSetWatch-exclusive column by writer Alex Litel, he follows up the the NSFW Reggie Fils-Aime E3 keynote to provide a sneak peek of other important bombshells to be revealed at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles next week.]

E3 2009 scoops? Sure, I've got plenty of them. Here's what's really being announced at the LA Convention Center (or thereabouts!) in just a few short days:

Star Wars: Chewbacca Origins: A Bar-Mitzvah and A Baptism: Even though I’m not a fan of Star Wars, I have seen all of the movies, and I’m pretty sure last year’s hit game Star Wars: Chewbacca Origins contradicted everything I had remembered about the films. And as many of you know, it turns out that Chewbacca was a typical kid growing up in Cincinnati in the early 1970s that accidentally tripped into his neighbor’s time machine and ended up in the past in a far-off galaxy.

This downloadable expansion episode tells the story of the half-Jewish/half-Christian twelve-year-old Chewy attempting to manage and deal with having both a Baptism and a Bar Mitzvah to prepare for. The content, which is dated for September, will be a timed exclusive for the Xbox 360 until early next year.

Dude Casual: The astounding success of Ubisoft’s girl-targeted brands such as Imagine got Tony Key, the company’s Senior VP of Sales and Marketing, asking himself, “How do you replicate this sort of success with typically non-gaming males?” Even though brands such as Prince of Persia and Tom Clancy have been successful, Key did not feel they those brands attracted the 17-36 male demo in the same that the extended family of the Frat Pack has.

Thus, the solution: the French game giant will put $50 million behind a encompassing branding initiative and multiyear campaign called “Dude Casual.” Starting with the late June release of Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, the company will take to the cinemas and nontraditional venues with new spokesperson Zach Galifianakis, who has reportedly never played a video game, in attempts to lure an expanded male market to their products.

In addition, Ubi optioned the rights to Todd Phillips’ crass Vegas comedy The Hangover, and has put Frédérick Raynal’s team in Montpellier on the project, which is planned for release in summer 2011.

Wii Sports: The Movie Game: Based on Steven Soderbergh’s holiday 2010 3D adventure-comedy-fantasy-musical tentpole based on the historic smash game, little is known about this adaptation from the soon-to-be Apple Games Japan other than it will be announced at the Apple keynote and it delves beyond the filmic lore of the Stephen Gaghan-penned film.

Helghan: Sony will issue an apology for the branding of Killzone, calling it “a condescending, insulting mark that perpetuates the assumption that gamers are perennial asocial virgins.” Execs at the company realized the name was completely generic as well as something that no one would ever admit to playing in a non-gamerly social situation. The company will re-release revised versions of all of the games in the Guerrilla-developed sci-fi shooter series with Helghan in place of Killzone and a new multimillion dollar ad campaign.

Sony has also dropped plans to release Team Ico’s next project as A Game Featuring A Big Fucking Giant Flying Muskrat.

Buzzword Fetish: Blue-chip interactive entertainment innovator Activision-BIizzard’s top-shelf go-to UK-based automotive gaming whiz corp Bizarre Creations blitzkriegs with Buzzword Fetish, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to their top-line car metropolis Project Gotham Racing. But really sets this high-speed racing championship is the revolutionary and evolutionary procedurally generated prog game 3.0 Facebook-influenced avant social story experience, which will unveiled in full at E3.

Peter Molyneux’s Mystery Box: Microsoft is showing nothing than a very vague trailer for this product, which they hope rides on the buzz of the recently reignited portable gaming platform rumors and makes people think that this is the subject of those rumors. But inside sources at Microsoft and Lionhead have confirmed to me that the Mystery Box is simply a semi-hollow Rubik’s Cube that, once solved, opens up to reveal an assortment of knick-knacks and tchotchkes.

BioShock: The Movie: It turns out the budgetary concerns thing was a cover story for a production chief at Universal actually playing BioShock and finding it to be “an incoherent, inaccessible and insultingly pointless jumble of pop philosophy.” And deciding that it was too much of a risk, even if “Verbinski is fresh off two awful but genuine blockbusters.”

However, Universal was not too inclined to pay the penalty fee, so they went on the hunt for a far more economical director. And they arrived at Michel Gondry and Kerry Conran. The former recently expressed interested in making a film of the video game where “you waggle the dancing and racing babies”; the latter wants someone to greenlight his “dense and sophisticated sophomore project.” So, Universal lied to both of them.

Take-Two will make the new co-director announcement at E3. The film is presently budgeted at $395, plus a Michaels gift certificate Gondry got for his birthday. Principles will be whomever Universal can successfully blackmail.

Play: For this ambitious and cerebral WiiWare title, Majesco has teamed up New Yorker pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell to find out why gamers enjoy video games and why non-gamers do not enjoy video games. This experiential holiday release will have players utilizing their Wii Balance Board, Wii Speak, Wii MotionPlus, Nunchuck and Wiimote in order to find those answers.

[Alex Litel can be reached at [email protected] and occasionally found at alexlitel.blogspot.com.]

Exerion II Prototype ROM Dumped, Released

The NintendoAge community has collected donations from its members to purchase and release yet another NES game from the vault of prototype/rarity hoarder Jason "DreamTR" Wilson, this time forking $500 for the prototype of Exerion II. Somehow, this group actually managed to find something more obscure than their previous acquisitions, Mike Tyson's Intergalactic Power Punch and U-Force Power Games.

If you've never heard of the first Exerion, it was originally an arcade shoot'em up developed by Jaleco (Bases Loaded), brought to the U.S. in 1984 courtesy of Taito. The game was ported to Famicom, Sega SG-1000, and MSX (also appearing on collections for PS1 and GBA before hitting Wii's Virtual Console in 2007), but none of those home console versions ever crossed the Pacific.

A sequel titled Exerion II: Zorni appeared on MSX in Japan, but an NES edition intended for a 1989 release never made it to stores. Up until this week, little was known about the NES version, save that Wilson had acquired a possessed a prototype for the game. Thanks to NintendoAge and the contributions of some 25 members, the prototype ROM for Exerion II is now available to download.

Those who've played the original Exerion and now the sequel say that the gameplay is identical in the follow-up, but with new graphics and audio, as well as a quad-shot gun. You can watch video of the first Exerion below:

As is the norm with these releases, Retrozone is selling cartridge copies of the game for those of you who'd rather play the game on its intended hardware instead of on an emulator. The transparent carts come with both Exerion 1 and 2 , so you can compare the titles yourself!

[Poster image via StrategyWiki]

UFO Catchers Evolved

In Japan -- where crane games are still popular and not just ill-kept cabinets filled with dusty stuffed animals, next to the sticker vending machines at the grocery store or Ponderosa's entrance -- the mechanisms inside UFO catchers have evolved beyond their single claw into walking robots with glowing eyes and a full set of limbs.

This Little Robo Catcher game allows players to control a robot inside a booth and pick up prizes. The small mechanical figure can even pick itself up when it falls over. Thank God there's a metal cord attached to its back, though, as its arms look perfectly designed for strangling a human master, should some accident occur where it gains sentience and breaks out of its plexiglass prison.

[Via Arcade Heroes]

Media Molecule Teases LittleBigPlanet and Ico Collaboration

Media Molecule could have something in the works for LittleBigPlanet involving PS2 cult-favorite Ico, judging by this attractive art released by the company. You can see a larger version of the piece, which drops sackboy versions of Ico and Yorda into this muted castle scene, at fansite LittleBigPlanet central.

Many speculate that the image hints at upcoming Ico-themed downloadable content for LittleBigPlanet, such as levels or costumes. Media Molecule has previously released content based on properties owned by other internal Sony developers, such as Guerrilla Games' Killzone 2 and SCE Studios Santa Monica's God of War. Considering the proximity of this art's release to E3, it's likely we'll find everything we need to know next week!

Humor: Schadenfreude And The MMO Conundrum

[Lured by the siren song of easy VC money from California, Game Developer magazine-featured humor writer and developer Karsden Morderhaschen gathers his team to brainstorm a World of Warcraft killer.]

Another day at Schadenfreude Interactive

Just a few days ago, I found a strange man talking loudly to himself in our conference room. That he was talking to himself was not the strange part. Our lead programmer, Otto, talks to himself all the time (then again, he also claims to think in reverse Polish notation).

On further investigation, the man in the conference room revealed that he was here to see me. He apologized for "Bluetoothing," saying he "just needed to free up some bandwidth in order to maximize our present synergy."

He then introduced himself as Chad. Just Chad. Was he here to sell us something? Toner cartridges? Vacuum cleaners? Digital rights management software?

No, he wanted to talk about World Of Warcraft.

Chad was a venture capitalist from California. Chad had heard a lot of things. He had heard that WoW had over ten million subscribers worldwide. He had heard that video games made more money than Hollywood movies.

He had heard it was cheaper to outsource game development to Eastern Europe, which is what brought him to us. Note: we are located in southern Germany. "East" is, I suppose, a relative term. Apparently he had not heard many native German speakers, though, as he was disappointed that my accent did not sound like Hans Gruber's in Die Hard.

I found myself slightly offended-but then he offered me three million dollars.

Here be Dragons

I told Chad we would consider his offer, although privately I had some concerns. At Schadenfreude Interactive we prefer to make single-player games, as we have trouble handling groups of more than ten people. My co-workers can barely manage a CC list without spamming a 250-Euro Neiman Marcus pfeffernusse recipe to everyone and their grandmother.

And I must admit, I have not actually played World of Warcraft. Our art director, Lothar, is a fan, and he is forever trying to tell me some fascinating thing about murlocs, which I tune out as I do when he tries to tell me some fascinating thing Joss Whedon said about existentialism.

Although Schadenfreude has made two licensed Lord of The Rings auto-racing games (Nazgul Thunder and Need For Speed: Underhill), I do not myself care for swords-and-sorcery.

The last time I played Dungeons & Dragons was in 1984 - I got up to go to the bathroom and while I was gone, a kobold wielding only an oyster fork murdered me in cold blood and stole my Hand of Vecna. These kinds of things just do not happen while playing Settlers of Catan.

Then again, three million dollars is a huge sum, even in American money.

But how could we come up with a game so amazing that it would steal World Of Warcraft's thunder?

Welcome to the Thunderdome

I ushered my employees into our tiny lounge, home to a refrigerator, card table, and our prized ancient Grabungadung arcade cabinet.

"Schadenfreudians," I declared, "We are going to stay in here until we come up with a game that will beat World of Warcraft." Gathered around the card table, pens and notepads at the ready, we commenced brainstorming.

"Has anyone read The Eye of Argon?"

"What if every player is a gelatinous cube?"

"It's like Loom meets Omar Sharif Bridge ..."

"Yes, but could a mermaid drive a manual transmission?"

As the hours crept by, the room grew uncomfortably warm. Otto even took off his omnipresent sweater vest. Crumpled balls of paper piled up at our feet.

This nut was harder to crack than we had thought.

"... wouldn't that make it a MMORPQ?"

"Needs more giant space hamsters."

"You go into this dungeon and there's another, smaller dungeon ..."

"... the dark elves steal everyone's pants."

It was becoming clear that we would crack long before the nut did. Someone suddenly recalled that there was beer in the refrigerator, left over from our intern's ten-year anniversary party.

Many beers later we were all very enthusiastically designing a massively multiplayer drinking game called World Of Barcraft - a cross between Bard's Tale, Diner Dash, and that movie where Tom Cruise makes fruity cocktails.

Otto and Lothar even choreographed the races' dance animations for us: their "Wight Wench Watusi" and "Beholder Busboy" moves were particularly impressive. It is shocking how much Otto loosens up once he gets out of that sweater vest. I can only hope that none of this shows up on YouTube.

Bye, Bye Mr. American Pie

I awoke the next morning underneath the card table with my aching head resting on a stack of Game Developer magazines and a Post-It that said "UNDEAD PUB QUIZ?" stuck to my ear. The dark elves had stolen my pants.

We had not come up with a game that would beat World Of Warcraft, but I did come to an important realization. I founded this company to make the games I wanted to play, not to copy other people's games, and certainly not just to make money. So many people are trying to get a piece of the massively multiplayer pie!

Chad did not want us to make him a good game-he wanted us to make him a pie. And while that pie may look tasty, it's served a la mode with a scoopful of meretriciousness and heaped with the non-dairy whipped topping of avarice.

No thank you.

I called Chad and turned down his development offer. I am sure he is headed to another game company in Romania, Belarus, or perhaps even Boston - "east" is, after all, a relative term.

[Karsden Morderhaschen is CEO of very important South German game development studio Schadenfreude Interactive. Email him at [email protected]]

Invaders! Possibly from Space! The Game!

If you've seen Futurama's "Anthology of Interest II" episode, specifically its Raiders of the Lost Arcade segment, you'll remember Fry and friends jumping into a mobile air artillery platform to fight off a swarm of raiding Nintendians in a very Space Invaders-esque scene.

Game designer Shinobi is recreating that scene as an actual PC game (a game of a cartoon of a game!) right down to Rush's "Tom Sawyer" soundtrack. He has even added video clips from the episode that pop in during gameplay, sort of like those scripted parts in StarFox, when Peppy Hare would plead with you to do a barrel roll.

Shinobi hopes to add more backgrounds and power-ups (like the shield), as well as additional clips, like General Colin Pac-Man's "Ah! I'm hit! So cold..." whenever the player loses a life. I can't decide which will be the best Space Invaders release this year -- Invaders! Possibly from Space! or Space Invaders Extreme 2 for Nintendo DS?

Best Of Indie Games: The Ivory Chaos Shift

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

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

The goodies in this edition include a new game from the developer of the Noitu Love series, two platformers, a real-time roguelike with raytraced graphics, and a simple yet addictive little arcade game set in the cosmos.

Game Pick: 'Ivory Springs' (Konjak, freeware)
"Similar to Joakim's The Legend of Princess, Ivory Springs is an incomplete project that is short on length but packs enough content to entertain for about half an hour or so. The game is an enjoyable exploration platformer which features great background art and sprite designs, a catchy soundtrack, directional shooting, Mega Man-type slides, and memorable boss fights."

Game Pick: 'Constellation Chaos' (David Scatliffe, freeware)
"Constellation Chaos is an arcade offering from the editor of the MOUSE NO! blog. Using the Z and X buttons to spin a pointer, players must draw a constellation using the randomly-placed stars provided. Small, floating shooting and exploding thingys are everywhere trying to sabotage your attempt. It's good fun and quite addictive, egged on by a great little ditty to compliment the gameplay."

Game Pick: 'Tomb of the Aztecs' (Iain C, freeware)
"A roguelike with raytraced graphics and real-time combat, Tomb of the Aztecs is a radical change from the usual turn-based tile movement employed by other RLs. You play an adventurer who is on a search for the Orb of Popocatepetl, rumored to be hidden somewhere inside the lowest level of the legendary warrior's tomb."

Game Pick: 'Astatine' (Phillip Skwarski, freeware)
"An apocalyptic platformer which focuses on exploration, combat and story. Our hero wakes up in a strange place and, with the help of a spirit, tries to remember who he is and why he is there. It's pretty much your classic exploration game with quite an interesting story and lots of zombies and evil, unpleasant things to kill."

Game Pick: 'Shift 4' (Antony Lavelle, browser)
"In Shift 4 you're in control of an astronaut whose ship was attacked by a giant squid, forcing our protagonist to make an emergency landing at the closest planet. Waking up to find your family members missing, you decide to explore a deserted facility nearby and search for clues on their current whereabouts."

May 28, 2009

SNK Playmore Opens KOFXII 'Dot Style' Gallery

Celebrating King of Fighters XII's upcoming console release and the series' 15th anniversary, SNK Playmore launched a "2D Dot Graphics Gallery" Japanese site centered around the King of Fighters games' hand-drawn graphics.

The site details the process of creating KOFXII's new character sprites, starting with the models based off rough sketches provided by the art director, to the six and a half months spent adding details to muscles, clothing, and other areas. The entire process takes about one year and four months to create the 400 to 600 dot images for each character, according to the steps translated by Japanese gaming news blog Andriasang.

The actual 2D Dot Graphics Gallery allows visitors to view animation patterns frame-by-frame for five KOFXII charaters -- Kyo Kusanagi, Ash Crimson, Joe Higashi, Elisabeth Branctorche, and Mature -- with additional characters planned. Two stage backgrounds are also available to zoom and scroll through.

Interview: Jenova Chen and ThatGameCompany's Vision of the Future

[We're in the process of blowing out a bunch of neat GameSetWatch interviews from Brandon Sheffield before the E3 monstrosity is upon us, and here's the newest one of note - ThatGameCompany's Jenova Chen on a gloriously thought-provoking meander through the future of game creation.]

Jenova Chen is the chief design mind behind ThatGameCompany’s critically and academically lauded titles flOw and Flower, and a recent emigrant to Los Angeles from China not a half dozen years ago. Together with fellow USC Interactive Media graduate partner Kellee Santiago, he founded the company with the aim to create games with an emotional tone.

The company seems to have succeeded, as most experimental gameplay summits, academics researching “alternative” games, and notable designers feel obligated to mention the company’s works.

During a demo of Flower at last year’s E3, prior to the game's launch, I had an experience that encapsulates Chen’s unique character (and I should preface this by saying he and I have known each other for several years).

He was demonstrating the game for various people, including myself, and described it this way: “You play as the dream of a flower. Hit any button to go, and see what happens.”

Later, I was in the area again, and heard a Sony producer demonstrating the game. He described it this way: “Choose a different flower to choose your level. OK, now press X to accelerate. You have to collect all the flowers in order to advance, and unlock more flowers. Those blue ones make you speed up. Yeah, now follow that line over there and you get a secret bonus.”

Both methods are valid in terms of describing and showcasing the game, and I can see the merits of each. But while one method describes the nuts and bolts of the game and its mechanics, the other shows a clear concern for the experience over the goal-oriented “winning” of the game.

That is the mindset of Jenova Chen, with whom my conversations usually evolve into a discussion of interaction and human dynamics –- this interview is no exception.

This time around, we discuss his 10 year plan for ThatGameCompany, the reception of Flower, Flower's "lost levels," the failings of current game-oriented online social platforms, and the future of game interactions in general:

Flower's Aftermath

Have critics and fans interacted with Flower, and reacted to it, in the way that you thought they would?

Jenova Chen: I think I was surprised how overall positive the response was. It was pretty clear people were just going to say, "The game is short. It's too girly. It's gay." And they all said it, but the majority of the critics have had mostly positive reviews about it, which is kind of different from the flOw

I think to me, Flower is a better game, but in the large picture, I think game critics have evolved a lot. The people who loved flOw, of course they love Flower, but a lot of people who didn't like flOw actually liked Flower, so that was pretty surprising. Nobody on the team thought the game would be doing that well.

Critically, you mean?

Yes. They all think it's going to be just like flOw. But overall, the reaction was very, very positive.

When I was playing it, it felt to me very much like the mechanics from flOw, but just taken to the next level.

Oh, so that's what you thought.

Yeah. Well, because the action is very similar, guiding a point around a map.

At GDC, we did a presentation during the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, which basically says, "So, from flOw to Flower, besides the graphics, you have no AI, like there was in flOw. What else did you guys do as designers?"

So, yeah, I can show you that it didn't start from flOw gameplay. It's a totally different thing, more like a game, but then we cut it down and down to a very simple form, it's almost just like the Snake game, which is flOw.

Yeah, exactly. I know there was a lot more that went into it though. You know, you have the wind that shows you which direction you should go, and the camera often points to the next flower node that you have to get to, and things like that.

The camera was kind of dumb, because it's like the God of War camera. It's like the most effective but kind of shameless way to tell the player what to do. We actually use it a lot, so we can see like... We went through a lot of effort trying to not use any cutscene camera, but just people aren't that, you know, smart.

Right. Well, you do have to guide players to some degree, right?

Yeah.

My co-worker was playing it at my house for the first time a few days ago, and he said he would've actually liked it better himself if there weren't anything he was “supposed” to do. That’s kind of funny because I think a lot of people criticized flOw because there wasn't a specific goal.

The game was more like that [previously]. The game was designed to be an open world at the beginning. Then, people said, "What am I supposed to do after the first 20 minutes of straight awesomeness of enjoying the nature?" And then they all end up saying, "Oh, there's no purpose. I don't know where to go."

So, we kind of have to figure out a solution there. And we iterated it to more like a semi-open world and semi-linear structure. For example, let's say the first level or the wind level, you can fly all the way to the end if you want, but nothing's going to happen there.

You have to kind of trigger these flowers in sort of an order, and then we see players just wander off into the distance to the very end of the level, and there's nothing there. They were just all confused. So we actually had to kind of block them before they could move on to the next area. It's almost like we wanted to throw away the traditional game design, but we end up picking up all the pieces we threw away and putting them back because we know those are actually needed to deliver a good guided experience.

Yeah. Some of those conventions are there for a reason, because they help to guide people and help them figure out what's actually going on. I like the clear progression of the level structure, and how different uses for the same mechanic built on each other. The main issue I would have about the game being short is that I wanted to see it explored further -- I liked lighting up the dark pools or changing something from one way to another way by swirling around it.?

Well, why don't you just replay the game again? [laughs]

Well, I have, but I wanted further applications. I felt like sometimes that I could have as a player done some of those actions a couple more times and still have been happy to do it, rather than just doing it once, but with different contexts.

Yeah, we originally planned to have eight levels, and then we realized there was no time. And we cut it to six, then I added one back!

The credits level?

Yeah. Well, the credits level was planned from day one, because we did the credit stuff like flOw. It's obvious that’s how we’d do it in Flower. The credits level used to be the night level, and then there was a desert level. We were thinking about -- this has nothing to down with downloadable content by the way, I don't think we have committed to anything about that -- a desert level, but eventually we just ran out of time.

It's not like totally saying, "You're going to have to ship this set day." I say it was not enough time because the team was losing interest in the game. It took us two years to make, you know. We just wanted to kind of finish the game, so we could reorient our interest onto a new game.

The directions I created for Flower, which is an emotional curve, are very solid. I can't even see a way to add a level anywhere. I don't even see how expansion packs are going to work, because the game isn't really about the different mechanics you can use to play with Flower -- there's not that many.

To us, you hit a flower to trigger something, that's the whole gameplay. We didn't want to make it like a very deep game. So, it's more about emotional experience from the beginning to the end.

You mean in terms of gameplay?

Yeah. We didn't even try that. Well, we did try but we failed because deep gameplay means you have meaningful choices, and you have challenge. And challenge is the biggest enemy in delivering the experience we wanted for Flower because we wanted the game to feel very relaxed, safe, and friendly.

And challenge, we could add all kinds of challenges to the game – but they’d all end up making the people say "Fuck" when they fail the challenge. I don't want the player to play Flower and say, "Fuck."

So what we realized is that the traditional way of increasing complexity of gameplay is not contributing to the final experience. So, that's why the gameplay is all very simple.

We tried one mechanic, which is painting the grass, which is different from all previous levels. Even that mechanic made a lot of players who played the game for the first time completely have no idea what to do. So we ended up actually showing them you need to do this with a tutorial.

Before that, we didn't have a demonstration. We were like, "They're smart enough. They can figure it out." No, they can't. So, yeah. It's very much about that we wanted to deliver this emotional rollercoaster ride, and we don't want people to fall off the ride halfway, so that's why we didn't increase the complexity.

I think if you were to have added stuff, it would have had to be in the middle. And terms of downloadable content, people would accept more levels just on their own as an added kind of experience, I think.

Yeah?

Especially if you change up the context a little bit and don't have it in like the same city, if you have it in a different environment. I mean, if you did do it in the desert or something and it's far away from the city, then you're in a different context.

Yeah, yeah, that's possible. We were talking about maybe we shouldn't make the open level we wanted at the beginning, but then it was like, "Well, making an open world for Flower or making the next game that revolutionizes video games? Which one do we want to work on?”

So, you're going to revolutionize video games next?

Uh huh.

Revolutionizing Games

How are you going to do that? You can't say?

I can't say it. It's only a few weeks into the project. I can't say anything about that. We haven't even gotten a deal with somebody yet.

You're going to go with Sony again, of course?

It's a contractual requirement. It's the last game that we have in the contract.

Yeah. You had three, right? [flOw, Flower, and the next game] Do you have any idea beyond that, when you're not in the contract?

I have a ten year plan of the game I want to make, but I have no idea in terms of what company we're going to work with in terms of business, so we're definitely going to try to figure out after that current game.

What is the sort of direction that you're going to take the new game, I guess in terms of emotional...

Okay. Well, there are a lot of things I want to see happen. Some of them belong to the next game, some of them belong to the game I want to make in ten years. Which one do you want to hear about?

Both, really.

I think I will tell you the ten-year plan because talking about the next game will reveal to many details. So, in ten years, I hope people are not playing games by holding something, so everybody can play games just by using their body. It's not Eyetoy that I'm talking about, but their body. And the kind of gameplay that I wanted to see... Well, first of all, gamers are maturing every year.

The percentage of adult gamers are increasing at a very rapid speed. I think the future game market is definitely a mature market. And for a mature audience, we expect to be stimulated on an intellectual level or on an emotional level. Intellectually, we want to play something that actually is relevant to your life. Just look at how Brain Age and Wii Fit are selling because they're relevant to adults' life, it actually improves something that at least they can believe in. Versus, you know, what's the point of doing a headshot in Counter-Strike?

Like what's the point of learning how to play as a football athlete better if you're not a football fan? But I do see there are things that can improve every adult's daily life. I think that's why people read newspapers, why they watch news, even though a lot of people say news is pointless. But a lot of people believe it has a connection to the real world, and it somehow benefits them.

Then on an emotional level, it's much easier to look at Hollywood. When it first started, the film industry, the films were pretty shallow, and they were very kind of primal almost. They were very focused on stimulation and simulation of reality.

And lately, once the people who watched films grew up to become filmmakers, they wanted to have something as powerful as the films they watched when they were 10 years old, but they didn't realize they're much older, so they actually had to add a lot more depth. So they have very specific feelings, rather than the simple, "Oh, it was a fun movie," or "It was exciting." They actually have a lot of nuance in them.

And I think games are going to be the same. I don't think every game will be a hardcore-fun game anymore. I was talking to someone, and I feel like death in a video game is the worst thing for adults gaming because in real life, who would find death having any relevance to their real life?

It's like if you want to train someone to learn something as a coach, you wouldn't kill them as a penalty. You want to, you know, give them something else so they can keep learning.

Although people like to fantasize about and experiment with death and the concepts around it, so there is that.

Yeah, there is that. Especially, that's pretty appealing to kids. You know, remember when you were a kid, you would try to jump from a very high place just to see what happens, you know?

Yeah.

Yeah, you want to know your limitations. So, I think in the future, games will have a huge variety with different kinds of emotional content, and they will usually have relevance to your life.

If games are played via body and movement, to me, that seems less like it would be an adult activity than a child activity because as adults grow older, they get much more self conscious about moving and about how they interact with their environment.

Exactly. I wasn't thinking about entire full body movement. I'm more thinking about their facial structures, their body language. I think besides intellectual and emotional, social is the biggest entertainment aspect that adults do. How many people gossip for fun?

Adults’ Entertainment “Color Wheel”

Let's say this is the center of entertainment that all adults do. [places something down] And this is intellectual. This is emotional. And we have social. [arranged like a four-leaf clover] It's like the primary color wheel of all adults' entertainment.

So, on the emotional side, a pure entertainment would come from something like music. Very few people can sense intellectual things from music. They can sense a mood and a feeling. On a pure intellectual side, it's probably let's say a psychology book or a newspaper. But then you have the blend between intellectual and social which is like novels, TV, and movies.

They're very good at evoking emotion, meanwhile telling you something about life, knowledge, and science. And then you have this big pie of social here, right? You can combine social with emotional, like going to a concert. It's much different than just listening to music from your MP3 player.

You can also go with your friends to a football match. What do you really learn from that? Nothing really, you're just there to sense that emotion of excitement, and you drink with your friends, share that moment. And if you want to share the social with intellectual, you play boardgames together or go to your book club.

Or just having a conversation and sharing ideas and stuff.

Yeah. You and I are doing the social and intellectual content right now. But then I was thinking, "Well, is there any activity that has all three?" That's going to be the most appealing activity because certain people might not be into the social aspect.

And then the first thing that I thought about is Disneyland. So, with Disneyland, you go with your family, you have a fun time together, and you go through a very well-crafted area, almost like a virtual world. It's like a video game.

Meanwhile, the kids kind of learn a lot in terms of intellectual content, but not really for the parents. Then I was like, "Okay, that's more like an emotional experience, socially heavy, but intellectual a little bit. What if we have intellectually heavy? What is that?" Then I was thinking about going to a museum, like a science museum or a natural history museum.

And then I thought, "Well, what is more focusing on the social side." Then I think about church. In a church, you have very intellectual talks.

That depends on your perspective, but sure.

You have emotional experiences, like, everybody is singing together, you have certain feelings. And then most of the time, you just chat with your friends, socialize. And I was thinking, "Wow, these things are pretty popular." [laughs]

And I looked at video games again, and I was like, "All these experiences are totally possible to be communicated through video games. Why haven't people done that?" I think the medium of videogames has proven that it's very good at combining the intellectual with emotional as the gameplay experience, kind of like what they learned with film and novels, but in terms of the application of social aspects, it was very tacked on.

It's almost like almost all the online games you're playing now are classic gameplay mechanics duct-taped with some kind of online chatting system. The problem with that is that the social aspect was not designed as gameplay but purely as a tacked on tool.

When people engage in social conversations, 10% of the conversation is words, 40 percent is the tone of voice -- you know, I can say exactly the same thing, but you can read different context, and 50% is body language, which is how your eyes looking at them, how your head is looking at the other ones, how your facial expression and how your hands are used.

So, I was looking at online games right now. Most games like Team Fortress, you don't want to even look at your teammates because they block your bullets. Even in like an MMO game like World of Warcraft, this big screen, you don't look at other players because everybody has a poker face.

There's no facial communication. Rarely, there will be people who use the voice chat. Mostly, you're looking at a tiny little window through text, and that text is based on IRC chat, which is almost twelve years old. And this is how people socialize in video game land.

But it sort of sounds like you're talking about a virtual world type scenario, which to me is incredibly boring because like, why bring this...

Because there's no gameplay design in virtual worlds.

To me, why bring virtual into it at all, because I can just do these things in real life and hang out with my friends in real life, so why bring in the virtual aspect at all?

No. No, because in real life, if you want to hang out with me in a very cool bar set in space, there's no way you can do that.

That's true.

And it's possible, you and me meeting in a bar in space, but right now what we can do in the space bar is shoot each other in the head, alright? Why can't we have a good time to drink together and have an adventure? Right?

Sure.

I think it's because the communication between people... The technology hasn't been solved, but I think... Actually, I can do it now, but I don't want to do it now.

[laughs]

Second is that video games are very good at evoking the primal feeling, because that's what people are spending all their money researching now.

Yeah, very brain stem-oriented.

Yeah, when we are in a bar, and we're like, "Shoot, 12 o'clock, this enemy," we shoot down the social side. We just kind of focus on the tasks. And when we say stuff, it's like, you know, "Medic!" You know, "I need a revive here. Let's go!"

This is the kind of conversation you would have. And as a result, when you express your emotions, it's like, "Fuck!" You know, "Holy shit!" It's kind of like the extreme emotions.

So, it's not really designed for adults. I mean, it would be very surreal for kids to be together, you know. That's what kids do, they pretend there's warfare, and they play with each other.

But for adults, we want to be able to engage in a deeper level of social intellectual conversation. Not necessarily conversation, it could just be facial communication. Imagine the future when these are all possible, okay? I and you can have this conversation here. You can totally understand me because you can read all my facial expressions and my hands. But I look like an orc, and you look like the alien, and we are a spaceship somewhere, right? What can we do? We can do pretty much anything people have tried in reality TV.

That requires a real mental shift because for me, I value sort of in-person relationships a lot higher than stuff over games. I mean, it's true that I do enjoy playing games with my friends, but I would much rather have them be a physical presence.

Yeah, because you and your friends have nearly only like 40 percent of communication happening in a game, and the game is not facilitating your communication at all.

And to me, I think that to deliver a virtual experience like Disneyland where you and your family can meet up across the globe and go to a very carefully crafted world designed to make you happy, is totally possible.

What you're talking is very much not a gamer oriented scenario. It's much more oriented toward non-gamer, like people that aren't already gamers, it seems to me. Because to me, the examples you mentioned like Disneyland and church, and going to a bar. Two out of the three things you mentioned, I don't like at all myself. And so you still have like this kind of polarizing element.

Well, it doesn't have to be Disneyland because I don't like it either, because I think I can make the world much more... Send you guys to Jurassic Park, alright? Send you guys to Jurassic Park, and you're a crew with friends. You're on your way.

No, I do... I definitely understand the concept of it. It's just for me, a game has a place as a game rather than other kinds of interactions, and it may be more of a conceptual thing.

Well, the thing I'm saying here is still a game, but the game allows you to engage with your friends with full scale. If they have fear, you can sense their fear, you can see it on their face. Right now, if you have fear on the microphone, you don't make any sound.

Right.

Right? Just that kind of level, so you can reach a much higher emotional bond with each other in the experience. That's only adds to the game. You can still use any existing game mechanics.

I mean, I get that, I just... Yeah, for me, games are still going to be more of a... It's taken a while for me to even want to play multiplayer online.

Have you played any multiplayer online?

I have, but only limited type. Any MMO has no interest for me.

Did you play StarCraft?

No. But I've played Call of Duty and stuff. The thing is I always go into those games knowing I'm going to lose because I'm not the kind of person who has the time investment to become proficient.

Socializing Gameplay

Right. So, that's why you want to our space. We are the Call of Duty land where it's not about competing with each other. It's like, "Here's your gun. And here's your buddies. You're going to survive. There might be another group of players or it could be AIs. It doesn't matter. You're not here to use your gun well. You're here to learn how to socialize with your group, how to build a trust, why would you want people to think you’re a reliable person." I think those skills that you learn through a game will actually be meaningful in real life. If you can engage in a social conversation with someone in a game and you can come instantly into something, or you can appeal to them by the way you communicate, then you can also use that in real life. And I see that being something that adults would like to do. It's like, "Why do adults like to play poker?" Poker, the numbers themselves are pointless. But to me, deceit and bluffing, you know...

Yeah, the interaction.

... is much more enjoyable and actually useful in real life.

Though, using like the full body instead of... I don't want to be walking around my room, pantomiming a gun...

Right. It's not very useful to you. That's why I think allowing people to socialize in that full-scale world will allow us to unlock so many social gameplay mechanics that if you master will actually be useful in your life. So, I can give you a very simple example of how I want to design a game based on a social action.

Let's say, in a lot of the first-person shooter games, people can talk infinitely. As a result, they're like, "Well, I can say anything at any time. I don't really care about what I say," so dirty words start to come out. And then someone's talking about, "Oh, yesterday I met a girl," which totally breaks the illusion.

If you're going to be deciding social as a gameplay, well, with gameplay, one of the basic techniques is to come up with a resource. Let's say you guys are in a desert, and you guys only have one bottle of water, and your goal is to survive. It could be Dune, you know, the fantasy world.

But then, whoever needs to talk needs to drink the water. And you have to reach an agreement with your buddy which direction you want to go. Is it the left one or the right one? Then you wouldn't be saying, "Oh, let's go left. Or we can go right. What the fuck. Blah blah blah blah blah."

You will drink the water and really think about what you want to say, and say it being effective and being persuasive as effective as possible. And that way, by doing this kind of game a lot, you can express yourself very well.

Although that kind of game has the potential to end in a complete standstill with nobody able to talk anymore and no direction.

Yeah, but then...

But then I guess you start again.

Yeah, you start again. It's like Street Fighter, but you both lose.

Double K.O.

Yeah, and usually in the end, they will say, "Maybe we can do Rock Paper Scissors." That's another approach, right? So, to me, at least that is putting the people in a place where they think, "How am I going to convince this other real human" as mechanics, and he can practice. By playing with different players -- different people are different.

It's like why people play Counter-Strike so long, right? It's because every time you play it with different people, you learn something different from them. But Counter-Strike lost its appeal to me because I don't see the point in shooting heads. But I would see appeal in talking to another person, trying to understand who he is, what kind of things would convince him.

Ultimate Frogger Champion Released for NES

After seven months spent remaking the original arcade game, Kevin Hanley has released Ultimate Frogger Champion for the NES, with cartridges for the title now for sale through Retrozone. The cart is expensively priced at $48.00 before shipping, but there's a first-stage demo ROM available for you to try out while considering your purchase.

In addition to the familiar single-player Frogger game, UFC also features a competitive two-player Battlefrogs mode. The full Retrozone package includes a labeled green cart, a little frog toy, a black dust sleeve, a color manual, a five-year replacement warranty, and a sealed die cut paperboard box (check out the awesome Seal of Quality in the photos below!).

[Via @retronauts]

Bushnell Begins Business Blog

Unfazed by the recent closure of his uWink restaurant's Mountain View location, Atari founder and Pong creator Nolan Bushnell set up a new weblog on entrepreneur site Inc.

Titled "A Serial Entrepreneur's Perspective", the blog has so far discussed topics such as how to run creativity sessions with groups, why a recession is a very good time to start a company, and why patents typically aren't useful if you don't have $500,000 in extra cash.

Bushnell makes sure to share his experiences from Atari on the blog, too. In a post about why job security is "one of the worst things a person can have," for example, he talks about how firing employees can allow them to reinvent themselves:

"Over the years, many people that I laid off or fired have contacted me and, in many cases, it turns out that they took their severance or unemployment insurance time to get another business going. Many times an employee who was easy for me to lay-off was just miscast at Atari. Once they were in the position of creating their own gig, they knocked it out of the box."

You can read the blog, which has seen regular weekly updates since Bushnell launched it in early May, at this link.

Japanese Organization To Ban Sale of Rape Games

Japan's Ethics Organization of Computer Software (EOCS) -- an industry organization that oversees PC game ratings in the country, and comprised of over 200 software companies -- is forbidding the retail sale and production of games created by its members that simulate forced sex, such as Illusion Soft's controversial RapeLay.

The committee's decision was spurred by a recent campaign from woman's rights group Equality Now demanding that Illusion Soft and the Japanese government prohibit the sale of games involving "rape, stalking or other forms of sexual violence or which otherwise denigrate women," according to a report from Tokyo Broadcasting System News translated by the Canned Dogs weblog.

RapeLay, which released in Japan in 2006 without an official English localization, was the subject of much outrage in February after the game was found available for sale in the West by a third-party seller through Amazon Marketplace. Equality Now, the British Parliament, and many others condemned the title for its encouragement of stalking and raping a virtual family.

Amazon and other retailers across the world removed RapeLay from their stores, but Equality Now called for more action. The organization asked its 30,000 members to write to Japanese government officials, including Prime Minister Taro Aso, and ask them to comply with Japan's obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Japanese Constitution to "eliminate works that normalize and promote sexual violence against women and girls."

The EOCS is revising its standards on the manufacturing and sale of rape games in Japan among its some 200 member companies beginning June 2nd, 2009, effectively banning them - though it is a measure enacted as part of a voluntary organization, and is not a legal change.

[Update: Canned Dogs now reports that the Ethics Organization of Computer Software says that Tokyo Broadcasting System News "misrepresented EOCS’s intended stance" with edited footage, and denied that it has set plans for banning rape games. One of the group's directors, Kanno Hiroyuki, however, says that there will be a "a meeting held on the 2nd of June where the EOCS will review their PC game software regulations."]

GDC Europe 2009 Announces First Speakers

[As you may recall, GDC Europe has a new long-term home in Germany alongside the 'E3 of Europe' that is GamesCom, and here's the first info from my colleagues on the line-up for this August's first show.]

GDC Europe 2009 has announced initial speakers for its August event in Cologne, Germany, with Flower's Kellee Santiago joining Swords And Soldiers' Joost van Dongen and Zootfly's Bostjan Troha at the international event.

The event will be held in conjunction with the massive European GamesCom industry event for consumers, publishers, and trade professionals, and will take place August 17-19 at the Cologne Congress East Center in Germany.

While just a small percentage of the lectures and roundtables have been announced, a first set of speakers is now available on the GDC Europe website. These span the gamut of content from technical through design and business talks, and some of the highlights thus far include:

- 'Flower - Design Postmortem' by ThatGameCompany's Kellee Santiago, in which the company co-founder discusses the hit PlayStation Network title, and "will walk through the team's design process and playable prototypes that led to the final product."

- 'Surviving Project Cancellation in the Economic Downturn' by Zootfly's Bostjan Troha, which sees the Eastern European company, perhaps best known for its Ghostbusters game prototype, discussing "hard-learned lessons from a near-fatal cancellation of a three-platform $5-million project" by a failing publisher, with "recommendations and strategies" on recovering.

- 'Advanced Racing Game AI in PURE', by Black Rock's Eduardo Jimenez, discussing the critically acclaimed, Disney-published ATV title and "what we did to try to have the player challenged and surrounded at all times, while avoiding the unfair sensation that rubber band methods leave the player with."

- 'Compressing Loads of Content Into Only 20MB: A Case Study Of Swords & Soldiers for WiiWare' by Ronimo's Joost van Dongen, in which the Dutch developer, compromised of original De Blob co-creators, discusses "techniques and approaches for making large amounts of textures, animations, sounds, music, XML and text fit into a small file size."

Overall, GDC Europe will host more than 80 sessions addressing the needs and opportunities for developers and business professionals throughout Europe. More information on the August 17-19 show is available at its official website.

EA Taps Indie Talent For SimSocial

Ahead of The Sims 3's launch next week, Electronic Arts released several online activities designed to offer a taste of the game. One of those simple web games is SimSocial, a "bite-size version of The Sims 3" with a turn-based system enabling players to create a Sim, make friends and enemies, and control their character's life day-to-day.

Gamers who'd previously played Kudos 2 for PC/Mac -- also a turn-based life simulation title from British indie Positech Games -- noticed a lot of similarities in SimSocial, so much so that it seemed as if EA lifted Positech's gameplay and ideas.

Positech's studio head Cliff Harris, formerly a programmer at Lionhead Studios, explained that there's a reason why the two games are so alike -- he helped design SimSocial.

"I worked with EA years ago doing some contract work, and recently they contacted me about working with me to do a version of The Sims that would be based on the gameplay of Kudos 2," he says "That game is SimSocial. If you look in the about box for the game, you will see the credit and link back here."

Harris continues, "I’m happy about the deal I did with EA, and think that the games complement each other well. Obviously they have major differences and I’m sure there will be some Kudos 2 players who will play SimSocial, and maybe some SimSocial players will be tempted to come try Kudos 2. It’s great to see a game idea re-implemented in another way, and I hope it’s a great success."

Glad that's cleared up!

GameSetLinks: The Turquoise Prophecy

[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 time rushes on, so does GameSetLinks, and although it's getting pretty hectic here before we wander off to Los Angeles in a couple of days for the three-ring E3 circus, we still have time to throw you a few links - this time headed by Resolution Magazine interviewing an art-mod musician - a curious corner, but worth a gander.

Also in this set of links - Indigo Prophecy in retrospective form by the always expansive David Cage, Mega64's Marcus tangles with another industry notable, Free Realms gets a critical rave in the New York Times, of all places, and there's plenty of Cactus and Purho to go around, too.

Look into my eyes:

Resolution Magazine - Interview | Jessica Curry
Another interesting Lewis Denby piece, on a musician for some experimental HL2 mods.

Final Fantasy XIII: How Will It Work on 360? Article - Page 1 // Digital Foundry /// Eurogamer
Technical (visual) analysis of console games from someone who somewhat knows what they are talking about? With video? Joy to the world, folks.

Looking Back at Indigo Prophecy from 1UP.com
Interesting claims from Mr. D.Cage: 'Indigo Prophecy was the first game entirely based on narrative and characters, not using any standard game mechanics but only contextual actions and decisions affecting the story.'

Hypercombofinish :: A Conversation with Cactus & Petri Purho [Interview]
Cute piece: 'Indie darlings (and budding BFFs?) Cactus and Petri Purho, who recently gave back-to-back lectures at GDC, agreed to sit down with us for some fancy, three-way IM action.'

Mega64 » Archive » Marcus’ Corner Episode 202 - Kellee Santiago Interview
Gonna keep linking these until they get boring. Which they won't.

Video Game Review - Free Realms - Living Nine Lives in Sony’s New Online Game - NYTimes.com
A high-profile rave: 'The sophistication in Free Realms lies in how carefully it has been designed to appeal not only to both of those audiences but also to the broad mass of entertainment consumers who are discovering (or rediscovering) video games through the likes of the Wii and Guitar Hero.'

May 27, 2009

Italy's 'The Art of Games' Show

"Junk Angel" by Jason Chan

UK's Pixel Hail exhibit wasn't the only art show to kick off in Europe this past weekend; “The Art of Games” also opened in Aosta, Italy, and will run through November at ex-church Saint Bénin.

Organizers of the exhibit hope to show "the level of art, fantasy, and technique that video games art require," displaying some 100 works -- including paintings, multimedia supports, music, projections, depth sections, and original sketches -- from 50 14 artists.

Four game units are available for visitors to play a selection of titles, as well as an "Amazing Inspiration" section where attendees can compare-and-contrast photos taken from "important cultural sites of the Aosta Valley" with the works of video game artists.

Gaming researcher Matteo Bittanti, who sat on the show's advisory board and delivered a presentation, discussed “The Art of Games'” significance and how it differs from developer-curated art exhibition Into the Pixel:

"Unlike “Into The Pixel”, “The Art of Games” is not associated with a trade show and it has been organized in Italy, a nation whose impact in the domain of digital gaming has so far been minimal, if not irrelevant, especially if compared to the contribution made by other European countries.

The importance of this event cannot be underestimated. “The Art of Games” offers an opportunity for video and computer game artists to showcase their work and receive critical feedback from both digital and Fine Art connoisseurs. The organizers are paying homage to a generation of artists that, so far, have received little critical attention aside from a limited number of publications."

I've pasted five pieces from the show below, but you can see more art and find more information on the event at "The Art of Games'" official site. Bittanti has also posted photos from the exhibit on his Flickr account.

"Afro Droid Battle Clouds" by Paul Sullivan:

"Autumn" by Stephan Martiniere:

"MC Side Full" by Craig Mullins:

"The Druid" by Kekai Kotaki:

"King Andy Portrait" by Alessandro "Talexi" Tani:

Aramakijyake's MegaTen Art, Persona/IGN Meme Mashup

Japanese freelance illustrator Aramakijyake drew this incredible piece of Raidō Kuzunoha, the protagonist of Atlus' PS2 action RPG Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner. He has a lot more great fanart on his site, mostly for characters in the Megami Tensei (MegaTen) franchise, but also for series like King of Fighters and Phoenix Wright.

One item that immediately caught my eye, though, was this mashup of Persona 4 characters with the IGN meme known as Gaijin 4Koma (also known as "reaction guys" or "that meme with the four guys, you know the one"):

[Via Fort90]

Interview: The Omni-Mind Of Trip Hawkins

[As we continue to try to sail the sea of game development, talking to some of the salty sea dogs out there, Digital Chocolate's Trip Hawkins is certainly one of the saltiest. Game Developer EIC Brandon Sheffield recently caught up with him to discuss theories on where gaming is now, and it's always a.... trip?]

Game industry pioneer Trip Hawkins has had a long and storied career, now spanning over 25 years, with his resume including being the original founder of Electronic Arts, and a long and strange trip launching the 3DO console.

Following a shift to solely developing games for 3DO as a company and its eventual shutdown, Hawkins has been laboring on his current venture Digital Chocolate since 2003.

As the cellphone game company transitions to meet the challenge of the crowded iPhone game market, and even converts some of its games such as Tower Bloxx to PC, it's obvious that Hawkins is trying a more diverse platform strategy based on this new paradigm.

Thus, in this in-depth interview, we ask Hawkins about the current state of the industry, his feelings about the changing face of consumers, handicapping versus luck, and his concept of the "omni gamer":

The Rise Of The Omni Gamer

As a guy who has been through a lot of tumultuous times. What do you think...

Trip Hawkins: I've seen it all.

Yeah, what do you think about the current situation in the game industry? What kinds of companies do you think are going to weather your storm, and what's going to close, and how? Talking in the general here.

TH: You know, if you're just talking about the gaming industry as a bigger picture, we've had this fairly substantial increase in cost in development, and that's been going on for the last twenty years, particularly when you went from media like cartridges and floppy disks to CD, you know, optical disc media.

You have a lot of memory in the machines and a lot of processing power, and it almost is like, if you use the storytelling comparison, it would be one thing to be in the book business and to write a good novel, and it's another thing if you have to make film.

And it's another entirely thing if you have to make a special effects film, to have a really big budget for special effects. Frankly, even Hollywood, they have to be really careful. One of the reasons why you're almost always stuck with a pre-existing brand like a comic book hero or a book hero is that when they make a big budget -- especially special effects -- film, it's because they're desperately trying to figure out how to recover their costs.

And this same scenario kind of got the game industry backed into a corner. And it's okay if you're making a really great game that's an established brand and that serves a big market like Grand Theft Auto or Madden Football, but over time, it obviously made it very, very difficult for the game industry to innovate.

And there's something going on right now where clearly, because of the economy, you can't assume you can spend as much money as you'd like, and it's going to be harder to get a customer to pay a premium price point for an elite performance. And you see this with filmmaking, you can put that really big budget special effects film in a movie theatre, and most people won't go to it.

In fact, the average American only goes to a movie only four or five times a year, in a movie theatre. And what's going on, I call this trend omni media, and it's very pronounced in the last five year. And there's this trend that affects music and film and television and web and games.

Basically, we're going from five years ago, when digital interactive media was pretty much limited to a 100 million customers. So, in a really good cycle, that's how many consoles Sony could sell or how many handhelds Nintendo could sell. Maybe at a 100 million people playing games at a PC at home.

Think about it, when you've got a population of six billion people in the world, you're only really scratching the surface. And what's happened in the last five years is this explosion in a new type of media that's consistent in crossing different forms. You've got music videos, TV, whatever, and games.

And what it's about is the fact that people are now comfortable with computers. They may own one. They may have a mobile phone that has become one. They may have a camera that has become one. They may have one at work or at school. So they don't necessarily have to be affluent people that can afford a new PlayStation or a hot PC at home.

Everybody has pretty much gotten comfortable with computers, and all these people are not inclined to dive deep into a really immersive hardcore game. They're kind of intimidated by that.

I think that's kind of the first law of omni media, that less is more. It's partly because the consumer, their motivation is that they want something that is simple enough for them to handle, and they want it to be really convenient, and they're interested in making social connections with it.

For example, you see this right now with the iPhone, where one of the reasons why they get so many downloads is because people are talking to their friends about what they're doing with their iPhone. And it's exciting for them to be able to feel like they're doing something fashionable and that they're discovering really cool new things all the time. Some of them are stupid like the fart applications, but it's still a laugh, and you can get some social value by giving your friend a laugh.

So, for the game industry, what this suggests is that the heartbeat of gaming is going to shift. It's not going to be just around the bug budget productions. It's going to be more about these simple, convenient omni games and how they get onto all the platforms that omni consumers are using because they're not just using one platform.

In fact, I think all these customers are going to start to expect to see the same brand names crossing platform boundaries and they'll expect it to be in their hand when they're walking around, and when they get home, they'll expect it on their computer, they'll expect it on their console, they'll expect it on their TV, they'll expect it in their hotel, they'll expect it on their airplane seat.

I think that's shifting the requirements where companies that make smaller, simpler games that appeal to a larger audience. They have lower pressure budgets, they have more agility across all these platforms, and they are designed more from a social standpoint.

Just think about it, "Okay, how do we get this to be socially enabling?" Again, you look at Guitar Hero, you look at Wii Sports. Those are two of the most interesting innovations in the game industry in the last five years, and they're not 3D immersive hardcore things at all.

A Multi-Platform Approach Works?

But agility across platforms requires a lot of resources and manpower.

TH: It's gotta be properly organized. We made a commitment to be a technology company in the very beginning in a time when maybe other companies couldn't see the logic of that, and you had to have a really long-term view to make it pay off.

You're talking about Digital Chocolate?

TH: Yeah. And if you just work with every developer in the world, they all have their own tools, they all have their own software libraries, they all have preferences about why they want to do things the way they want to do them -- and they've got logical reasons for it.

But what you would get then is a bunch of assets that are very much handmade and would have to be manually rewritten to get to any of the platforms.

Of course, the game industry -- and this is true about every segment of the game industry -- typically has a history of digging in and trying to get native on a platform to get the most performance and squeeze the most out of it, and of course, then it's hard to be agile also because you're so wedded to it.

World Of Warcraft is a stunning application, but it's pretty much married to a broadband PC. It would be very hard to translate that experience effectively elsewhere. And I think you can say that same thing is true about even, in theory, a game that's not an MMO.

Like Madden, again, a great game, but it's pretty much depending on whatever console resources, and it wouldn't translate as well if you just wanted it to be a free web game or moved it to be a mobile game. You could make something, and you could put the brand on it, but it's not really going to be the same experience.

But with the sort of omni thing, isn't that more about... isn't it kind of more about brand extension than actually having the same game across all experiences? I mean, at this point, because it doesn't seem very easy unless you're going for kind of the simplest level to get the same experience because interfaces are always different.

TH: Let me illustrate. Again, this is kind of a mobile reference point, but in the history of mobile games, there has been a lot of discussion about well-known brands, which have typically dominated, and generics like solitaire, bowling, poker, and original games, like the games we made.

It's been very difficult for the industry as a whole to make a lot of original games, and there did not appear to be a lot of demand for them. The phone companies didn't really want them.

There are mostly deck placement issues and things like that.

TH: Yeah. And so, for example, if you were fortunate enough to make the first solitaire game, and it did well, and you could convince a carrier to let you have that category, you're getting kind of an evergreen thing, but you weren't really inventing anything new. You're sort of trading on the brand equity that a generic name like solitaire already has, but you can make a lot of money that way.

Or if you had some big license, maybe you could make money that way, although unfortunately, it's proven that a lot of companies have overpaid for licenses and have end up getting hurt as a result.

Right.

On The Importance Of The iPhone

But here's what's happening now on the iPhone that's completely turning that upside down. This leading edge of omni media is consumers that don't think of themselves as gamers and that probably five years ago weren't using games of any kind.

And for them, a platform like the iPhone is exciting because they feel like their part of a fashion trend. And they want to discover not the generic solitaire game, not the traditional brand that everyone's known about for thirty years, they want to discover something that's new, and it becomes a topic of conversation. It becomes a conversation starter for them.

They also have an impression that this is a new kind of platform, which it clearly is. And therefore they're saying, "Hey, what does it do that it should do based on what it's really about?" By the way, the same thing happened on the web. In the early days of the web, all the traditional brands like CBS or EA or Sony are coming over to the web, and in the long run, that didn't really dominate the web.

It was the new companies that got invented, the Yahoos, the Googles, and more recently, the YouTubes, and MySpace, and Facebook. You take those latter three examples, those are three companies that are less than five years old. They've got hundreds of millions of customers. There's nothing ever like the growth in users on a site like Facebook. And those three are in the top ten in web traffic, whereas CBS can't crack the top 1000.

What's happening on the web, I think the iPhone -- and it's not just the iPhone by the way. As they disclosed last Tuesday, through December, they've sold over 13 million iPod Touches. And the iPod Touch is an incredible product.

I mean arguably, it's a more impressive product than the iPhone because any consumer can afford it, and there are no monthly charges for using it, and its WiFi proliferates. There's a little sweet spot there from a gaming perspective about a really sexy device that is really lightweight, fits in your pocket, and has a sensational display and a touchscreen, and it can play movies and music, and do all this stuff.

And with the proliferation of WiFi, having broadband access a lot of the places you go, and of course they just announced last week, they're now going to have bluetooth peer to peer gaming, so we could be playing together right now.

That's one heck of a gaming platform. So what's happening is that originality is now rising to the top. That's what allowed us to have three consecutive games hit number one in the App Store, and that's a hard thing to do. You know, there are 25,000 apps all competing to be number one, and there's a new number one every couple of weeks.

So, that means in the entire history of the app store, maybe 20 or 30 games have been number one, and we've had three in a row. Again, it's because they're original, and we've been able to get to the platform fast because the power of our technology is organized.

Earlier we were talking about things like MMOs, and free-to-play. Most of these areas that are “the future” and that are going to make money are of zero interest to me. Facebook social games and all that. As a player of games, it's all just so far out of my realm.

TH: What are your favorite games?

I'm an arcade gamer still. So, Street Fighter IV came out, and I was very excited. I really like it. I'm having a good time playing it. But those kinds of experiences are truly riskier than ever.

TH: Well, you know, here's a distinction. If you want to talk about, say, the hardcore gamer versus the omni gamer, and how they think. I think the hardcore gamer wants to pay for the game, and if they can, they like to pay for it once. And then they want the game to be really deep, really immersive. They want to play it for hours and hours, and they want to really master it.

And if they happen to be playing with other people, they want to beat them. They want to compete, and they need to win. I think for that hardcore gamer -- and of course, I am one -- for me that part of gaming has always been about wanting to prove that I'm competent. You know, I don't want somebody to beat me because they spend more money on virtual items, right?

And also, I don't want to feel like I'm stupid, so I don't want to pay every month. I think I should be able to buy the game and just play it once, you know? Switch to this omni gamer, somebody that's really not that competitive about it. They don't have the time to spend a lot of time on a particular game. They don't want to be overwhelmed about it.

They kind of like it to be free. They're much more interested in the potential social connections they're making with other people. And when they make those social connections, they don't want to have somebody come in and crush them that's viciously competitive.

They want to have it be a much more casual experience. And that is the audience that's more likely to pay for the virtual items when they decide that the items give them style or allow them to be more competitive without having to make the time investment.

Of course, that's something that really irritates the [World Of] Warcraft customer, and that's why it's such a battle for Blizzard, trying to figure out, "Well, what do we do about the fact that Warcraft is so successful. We're attracting this more mainstream audience that doesn't want to spend all the hours doing gold farming in the game. They want to just go buy some gold and get on with it."

Yeah. It's quite difficult.

TH: But I think if you build a truly omni game, which is the way we'll approach it, it might not be something you would want to play, but it will reach this other audience. And some of the hardcore gamers will still come in and do it in the same way that those hardcore gamers bought the Wii, they bought Guitar Hero, and they invited their friends over.

Yes, that's not a hardcore experience. It's serving a different need. It's not serving their need to be competing and winning and feeling competent. Somebody once reminded me that most games involve either themes of omniscience or omnipotence, so you've got that part of it.

And when you go out to play these casual games, it's almost like you want to lose sometimes to make sure your friends have a good time. In my whole history as a game designer, I have constantly worked on more social games that are multiplayer, that have handicapping built in so that there's always the surprise of the least experienced player sometimes [winning].

The Omni Gamer And Difficulty Balancing Issues

Do you consider that handicapping or luck, because...

TH: Sometimes both. In game design, you have four things to work with. There's luck, there's dexterity, there's skill, and there's strategy. So, for me, the perfect game has all those things. And one of the things you get when you have some luck is the spectator element.

Again, if we just played a card game like Poker, you have to ask yourself -- it's not even considered a game of skill, that's why it's considered a form of gambling because it's so lucky, but clearly some people can get to be pretty good at it.

But there's a spectator element even when you're playing, where, "Well, what's that next card going to be?" There's going to be pathos and humor... So, maybe a hardcore gamer is like, "No, I want more strategy. I want to be the mastermind figuring out the better strategy." Or, "I want it to be a demanding arcade game so I can master the skills of executing all these moves."

So, the hardcore gamer will move kind of in that direction. Personally, I just think it's really cool they have a little bit of luck involved, and sometimes the luck even things out, and sometimes handicapping helps even things out. For me, it's always been about just getting more people to play because everybody should be playing.

I feel like there are ways to kind of marry those two experiences, kind of like gateway products where you have these hardcore elements, like... I've been talking with a friend of mine, David Sirlin. He's the guy that rebalanced the HD remake of Street Fighter II. The question that we were discussing is that is a game like that... Is it about memorizing combos and how fast you can inputs in, or is it about a chess like experience of, "Oh, he's doing that move, so I have to do this?"

TH: I mean, you have to have the skill to do the first, and you have to have the strategy to do the second.

Right. But which is more important? Are the dexterity and the memorization -- is that something that's core to the enjoyment of the experience?

TH: You know, you can only answer that question by genre because if it's an arcade game, it's both. On the other hand, there are a lot of gamers that cannot stand games that require dexterity because they don't feel like that plays to their strength. So, they'd rather play an RTS or a turn-based strategy game or an MMO that isn't as focused on that.

So, it seems to me like you should be able to create, say, a versus fighting game in which players can actually be on an even field without really having to master all of these moves.

TH: Well, when I created Madden -- this is very much on my mind because I grew up playing games like Stratomatic where there's no dexterity. It's cards, it's dice, but it was a pretty good simulation of games like Baseball and Football.

And I enjoyed the spectator element because you're playing with two heroes, and you're rolling dice so there's luck. And, yeah, it was really cool, like if you played that baseball game and you had a no-hitter. Or you won a game in the bottom of the ninth.

You still have the drama in all that.

TH: Yeah. So, with Madden, I thought, "You know, I don't want to leave any part of the audience behind," so basically the game would just play itself. So, if you just wanted to play it thoroughly as a turn-based strategy game, you just click the play, and the AI would run all the players for you.

But you clearly could see how well... You could be having a ten year old who's just focusing on dexterity, and their father is focused on strategy, and it would be kind of a level playing field, playing with different styles.

And then a more serious gamer would say, "You know what? I'm going to master some of the skills so that I know how to move my quarterback out of the pocket and stay with tacklers. I know how to pitch the ball and sprint that guy around the outside. And I know how to tell if he's going to blitz with that linebacker.”

You can figure out how to use those skills, but you'd better be a good play caller, too, right? And you better know what to do when it's fourth and two at the forty-yard line.

I wish there were more of that because with the World of Warcraft example, how do you deal with the fact that you have all these level 70 characters wandering around, and I want to start the game now, and here I am at level one. What do you do with that? There are instances and all, but that's a really difficult thing to reconcile.

TH: Yeah, it's a problem with social organization. Hopefully, game developers are just now realizing that, yeah, that's a very important thing that they're responsible for figuring out.

I do think that to some extent, these omni gamers as you're describing them do want competition, they just don't want the same kind. Like with Pogo and their badges that they have. It's a casual game portal.

When you win... You can have a friend and see what badges they got on something, and it's kind of competitive, but even though you may think, "Wow, that person is better than me," it's not like, "That person is so unfair because they headshotted me five times in a row, and there's nothing I can do. Everytime I spawn I die."

TH: If you think about it, with professional sports, okay, you've got thirty teams, and only makes the Superbowl and all the others have to feel like losers. That's going in the other direction, right? [laughs]

Yeah, definitely. I forget with whom I was talking about this, but the idea of death in games is a strange thing because it's so punishing.

TH: I know. We always talked about that and always played with that over the years, thinking, "Okay, what if you really can't play the game if the character dies." We were so creatively intrigued with that idea but so terrified to actually do it.

WarGames' Parkes to Adapt Script Featuring Game Designer

Film producer and writer Walter Parkes, who was behind the scripts for WarGames and Sneakers, is developing a screenplay based on Daniel Suarez' 2006 novel, Daemon. The book stars an online game designer whose accidental passing sets off a series of malicious programs that lead to terrorists holding businesses around the world hostage.

It's a pretty crazy plot! Here's a synopsis taken from Daemon's official site:

"Matthew Sobol was a legendary computer game designer — the architect behind half a dozen popular online games. His premature death from brain cancer depressed both gamers and his company’s stock price. But Sobol’s fans weren’t the only ones to note his passing. He left behind something that was scanning Internet obituaries, too — something that put in motion a whole series of programs upon his death. Programs that moved money. Programs that recruited people. Programs that killed.

Confronted with a killer from beyond the grave, Detective Peter Sebeck comes face-to-face with the full implications of our increasingly complex and interconnected world — one where the dead can read headlines, steal identities, and carry out far-reaching plans without fear of retribution. Sebeck must find a way to stop Sobol’s web of programs — his Daemon — before it achieves its ultimate purpose. And to do so, he must uncover what that purpose is."

Parkes is working with David DiGilio, who wrote and produced ABC's short-lived drama thriller Traveler, to adapt the novel for Paramount Pictures. This is Parkes' first screenplay project since 1992's Sneakers, according to a report from entertainment industry news site Variety.

[Via Infinite Lives]

Best of FingerGaming: From Sonic the Hedgehog To Toki Tori

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

This week, FingerGaming highlights notable releases like Toki Tori and Sonic the Hedgehog, and details the upcoming debut of Ground Effect.

In addition, we start our exclusive FingerGaming interview series with a chat to EatWillGrow developer Ben Hopkins, and featured reviews for this week cover Peggle, Dark Raider, and Orchestra.

- Interview: EatWillGrow Developer Ben Hopkins
"FingerGaming talked to developer Ben Hopkins about how the scoring idea developed, the application of metagames in iPhone apps and his future in iPhone development."

- Review: Peggle
"Peggle is like a pachinko game seen through acid-colored glasses. You drop a ball and hope it hits as many orange pegs on its way down as possible. As soon as your arsenal of balls runs out, it's game over. It's deceptively simple, but infinitely addictive."

- Chillingo Takes WiiWare Puzzler Toki Tori to iPhone
"Toki Tori is best described as a gameplay blend of Lode Runner and Adventures of Lolo. Each sidescrolling level grants Toki a small cache of items and resources. It's up to the player to find a way to use these limited resources to progress through each level, collect all of the eggs within, and find its exit."

- Top Free Game App Downloads for the Week
"IntuApps' bathroom etiquette quiz Urinal Test has caught on fast with App Store customers, and the title finishes as today's most popular download in the Games category."

- Sega Releases iPhone Port of Sonic the Hedgehog
"Sonic the Hedgehog for the iPhone includes all of the zones from the original game, an iPhone-specific control scheme, and video options that allow you to play the game either at its original resolution or in a stretched size that takes advantage of the full area of the iPhone's screen."

- Review: Dark Raider
"I'm pretty sure I've put more time into Dark Raider than I've put into any other iPhone game. These hours are a testament to Dark Raider and what I think the game could be; in short, these Zelda-like dungeon crawlers are a genre of which we need to see more."

- Former Bullfrog Dev Glenn Corpes Reveals Ground Effect
"The game boasts an impressive 3D engine that allows for a large draw distance, which will no doubt come in handy during every race -- Ground Effect's free-roaming gameplay encourages players to find their own routes and shortcuts between checkpoints."

- Top-Selling Paid Game Apps for May 19th
"StickWars remains an unstoppable force, as the title takes the App Store's top chart spot for the fourth week in a row. EpicForce's vertically scrolling shooter iFighter rebounds after a disappointing finish last week to take second in today's results, while Bloons drops to third place."

- Review: Orchestra
"In theory, Orchestra could have been a brilliant game that made effective use of the iPhone's accelerometer. The game describes itself as an app that lets users play along to their favorite classical pieces as either a conductor or a violinist."

- Armor Games Releases iPhone Port of Puzzle Platformer Shift
"Initially, Shift seems like your typical 'find the key, then find the exit' single-screen platformer. A few levels in, however, the game introduces the 'shift' mechanic, which inverts the on-screen colors and flips the screen upside-down."

UFC 2009 Cuts Fighter Due To Hair Issues

Despite his popularity as a lightweight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship organization, MMA fighter Clay 'The Carpenter' Guida is noticeably absent from THQ's UFC 2009 Undisputed mixed martial arts game, which released last week for PS3 and Xbox 360.

According to a report from Fight! Magazine passed on by 5th Round, Guida's long hair caused clipping and collision detection issues in the game that made his character nearly unplayable. The piece also claims, oddly: "THQ had reportedly offered Guida money to cut his hair so that they could keep him in the game but Guida apparently turned down the offer."

UFC 2009 Undisputed's developer, Yuke's Osaka, is also said to have had clipping issues with southpaw stances for left-handed fighters like Rich Franklin. To fix this, the game displays southpaw fighters with a right-hand stance, according to Wikipedia notes from the same article.

(Nonetheless, the game is extremely well-received critically, and may well turn out to be a major sales hit, judging by initial chart placings and buzz, paralleling the rise to power of MMA over the once dominant WWE-style wrestling.)

[Via 5th Round - thanks, QT3!]

Opinion: Ditch The Script -- The Art Of Developer PR

[In this opinion column, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander argues that it's good business sense to ditch the marketing copy buzzwords and E3 preview rehearsals -- and just talk straight.]

"That was pretty good, but could you make sure and say 'high-intensity' a little more often?"

E3 is coming, and all of the developers and producers who will be giving press demos and showing games at the event have been rigorously press-trained by their marketing teams.

This makes good sense, of course; much of the enthusiast press that will be in attendance will be there effectively as representatives for their audience. They will see the things their audiences want to see and to ask the questions their audiences want answered. And that audience can be viciously demanding, even jaded, and nothing gets by them.

So in many cases, the press is planning to be tough on the audience's behalf, and developers and publishers attending E3 need to be ready. Of course, there's a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation occurring. The press and their audience might get extra-tough because they're sick of the fake marketing-copy conversations that go on at E3.

Those conversations have been thoroughly pre-planned and rehearsed; words like "action-packed"; "seamless", "ultimate open-world experience", are chosen in advance and drilled into their spokespeople. Many developers and producers are even given actual scripts and asked to keep as close to them as possible.

In this way, the press' first contact with a game is extremely artificial. Usually, the precise quotes cooked up in a prep session between the developers showing the game and the marketing team are exactly the ones that make it into the preview stories. "Successful" marketing campaigns will maintain this artifice all the way up until the game's launch.

At which point everyone's usually disappointed, of course.

Progress By Loosening Control?

There's a deceptively complex cocktail of skills successful games writers possess -- speed; the ability to retain high volumes of information; a library of knowledge on a broad range of games on which they're usually freakishly skillful, a deep understanding of what a community of gamers wants to read. But the sort of communication skills necessary to bust through "message" aren't often among them.

And marketing needs to do its job of maintaining control to the absolute maximum extent it can carry off. So perhaps you can't really blame it for leveraging this more complicit than effectively confrontational relationship between the game industry and the consumer press.

But why is everyone so afraid of genuine conversation about a project? Could loosening the fists of control and allowing for at least a little more transparency benefit everyone in the end?

It's got to be stressful for a developer to have to pretend they've made a sure-fire Game Of The Year, when they know inside that what they've got is a promising project with some flaws that they've worked hard on and they hope people will enjoy.

It's got to be hard to pretend there are no comparisons to be made whatsoever between their title and, say, Grand Theft Auto, when in fact several of their ideas, assets, maps, what have you, were junked mid-way through the development cycle because they were not GTA enough.

In what way would it be a bad thing in the end if consumers had slightly more reasonable expectations of a product based on the same fair understanding of the industry and its process as the developers behind it have?

The Advantages Of Transparency

For an argument in favor of this approach, one needs to look only to the positive impressions audiences have of the companies that are the most honest with them.

Valve, for example, can do no wrong. The consistent quality of its games and the strength of Steam in a crummy retail environment for PC games sure don't hurt. But the company's strikingly honest with its community -- without resorting to denigrating mea culpas when something goes wrong.

In fact, Valve tends to take PR gaffes and run with them, apparently aware that frantically scrambling to screw lids back on looks a lot worse than having a good laugh with the community and making it all work.

For an example, just take a look at how the company's been dealing with the challenges of serving its ruthlessly devoted audience as it updates the meticulously-balanced Team Fortress 2 with first the Sniper upgrade and later the Meet The Spy update.

That they addressed the complaints of the Spy class so creatively is one gold star, but the highlight's how Valve dealt with a leak. If someone at most other companies accidentally leaked a video of upcoming content to YouTube, heads would roll -- but Valve ran with it, and made it fun for everyone. If you didn't know better, you'd think they'd planned on screwing up.

For another example, look to publisher Stardock and the just-launched Demigod. The game's been plagued by big technical issues, but you can bet that a larger portion of the audience is pulling for both Stardock and developer Gas Powered Games, lending them patience, confidence and support rather than howling for their blood.

This is simply because at Stardock, CEO Brad Wardell is willing to cop to problems and explain what the team is doing about them and what they've learned.

There's no embarrassing self-flagellation, nor is there any attempt to delude the audience into thinking things are better than they are -- he simply shoots straight, and there's a nobility in that. Audiences find that attractive, and their favor transfers over into the games Stardock publishes.

The Dangers Of Overhyping

The peril of writing checks one's mouth can't cash is evident with the example of Mythic's Warhammer Online, previewed with a good deal of widely-reported tough talk from lead designer Mark Jacobs about changing the face of MMOs with realm-versus-realm gameplay taking on World of Warcraft.

With all that pre-release hype, audiences expected big things from WAR -- and EA and Mythic made a big to-do about the game's 500,000 players in its first week, and when it hit 750,000 in its first two months.

But that was apparently the peak; WAR has leveled off, believed to be at only about 300,000 subscribers as of March 2009. As the company consolidates and closes servers and lays off staff, to outside observers, it looks like the game's big dreams have summarily tanked -- even if this kind of curve is often expected for subscription MMOs.

However, CCP's longstanding EVE Online MMO attained 300,000 subscribers in six years -- and the company just celebrated this slow, sustained growth as a victory. One MMO has 300,000 subscribers and is a failure; the other has 300,000 subscribers and is a beloved community scion. The difference is entirely in the goals they set and how they represented themselves to their players.

MMOs are especially challenging from a PR standpoint, and the most successful ones see themselves largely as customer service businesses, not pieces of software where the commitment ends as soon as it ships.

And most of the companies provided here as examples don't have investors who will punish the stock for poor preorder levels or weak early sales. But the same lessons should still apply to the major console titles that will be shown next week at E3.

Mega Giga AAA Blockbuster Words

The predetermined marketing copy-words like "transformative," "AAA" and "blockbuster" will be spoken the predetermined number of times, and maybe big promises will lead to big sales spikes at release week.

But if the game doesn't actually deliver, word will get out. The truth will constrain post-release sales, it will tarnish the publisher's reputation. It may even put a damper on the back catalog sales that investors so badly want to know that companies can deliver.

If consumers saw developers as creators in a challenging industry, they might take more of an interest in the nuances of a product -- rather than seeing games singularly as the high-powered efforts of some faceless megacorporation lining their wallets on false promises.

In fact, if consumers could be allowed further transparency on the means behind a game rather than simply the end, they might see a title's shortcomings as an interesting part of its story, and not a reason to whine on message boards later on.

Of course, this doesn't mean developers should easily confess about certain private difficulties that audiences might weigh unfairly as red flags against a game months before it's even out. After all, we are dealing with a highly enthusiastic, sharply critical core audience here, and it's fair to try and contain info that might lead to unnecessarily negative pre-judgments.

But in most cases, even when there've been difficulties, developers do feel good about the work that they do. Even those who've worked on games that came out far more tangled and mangled than intended seem almost personally wounded by negative reviews.

They bemoan all the things the reviewers overlooked, all the misunderstood complexities, and they mount strong arguments amongst themselves in favor of all the ways they did their best within the limits of their resources.

A Script Ditching Plea To The Majors

Developers are advocates for their own projects anyway. Why not let them ditch the script and advocate directly? Instead of leaving them to justify themselves frustratedly only to one another post-release, why not begin the process of honest dialog now, in the "high intensity" preview phase?

It's best to allow developers to simply speak with candid positivity to members of the press about the projects they're proud of and believe in.

The press is exhausted of bullshit, and will likely get behind a project simply by virtue of being able to tell someone's being genuine with them. And the varied industry observers would like to see something worth feeling good about at E3 -- just as much as developers want it to be their game that wins the positive impressions.

Most of all, the audience wants something to believe in, too. Why not let it be the reality?

Hominid Makes Super Meat Boy Appearance

In a new round of artwork released for the platformer, Team Meat revealed that The Behemoth's antennaed, yellow creature from Alien Hominid (pictured) will make a cameo in Super Meat Boy, likely as an unlockable character for the WiiWare/PC remake's new versus mode.

The game is slated to include a wide variety of characters donated by at least twelve independent developers.

This marks third guest appearance revealed for Super Meat Boy, the previous two being Tim from Number None's XBLA/PC/Mac time-manipulating platformer Braid, and Commander Video from Gaijin Games' Bit.Trip series on WiiWare.

Gamers will also get to play levels that look like they were taken from the characters' games, according to a TWG interview with creator and designer Edmund McMillen.

Super Meat Boy is expected to release "end of the yearish" with a price point that will be "just enough to annoy forum kids but affordable enough for them to still buy the game".

GameSetLinks: Developers We Have Known And Loved

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

As the week continues, time to return to the GameSetLinks - this time headed up by Crispy Gamer, with an interesting discussion on whether there are some developers that you can just be cool with, no matter what cruft they decide to unleash upon the market, because you love 'em so.

Also in here - lots of discussion of Flower, the Co-Op guys talk about being game video masters, some fun stuff from a GSW columnist on what's wrong with tabletop RPGs, and plenty more besides.

Go go go:

Crispy Gamer - Column: Thought/Process: The Lifetime Pass: What It Is and How to Earn It
'It's hard to give out free passes to game creators because the finished product is usually the result of a team.' But attempts are made here, with fun results.

Critical Distance | Flower
Really nice compilation of critical analyses/reviews of Flower.

Hypercombofinish :: How To Be Me: Matt Chandronait, Area 5 Founder & Producer
'Matt works as producer, editor and *actor* for Area 5 Media's flagship show CO-OP, "a weekly look at the meaningful, the important, the interesting, or the just plain fun games that are out there or will be coming out.'

Post Position » Well Played
'Well Played 1.0: Video Game, Value and Meaning is now out from ETC Press. It’s available in print from Lulu.com and has been offered to the creative commons and can be downloaded as a PDF or read on the Web.'

Videogame Violence and the Dark Side of Flow | GameCulture
'While I believe that media researchers have almost chronically mistaken the psychological effects of "the flow state" as evidence of desensitization to real-world violence, Thompson's piece does make me think about how "flow" in violent games might desensitize us to representations of violence, even when those representations involve the real thing.'

Ludus Novus » Blog Archive » What’s Wrong with Tabletop RPGs
'I’ve been working on a tabletop RPG system, and one of the things any creator needs to ask is “what’s wrong with what’s already there?” and “how can I make it better?” Here, then, is a list of the things wrong with tabletop roleplaying games.'

May 26, 2009

Greek Drama Game Tackles Alcoholism, Sexual Identity

Toronto-based indie Phantom Compass just announced its latest PC/Mac project, Dionysian Dream, a Greek drama game looking to explore social issues like alcohol abuse, familial estrangement, and sexual identity with a storyline that incorporates a real tragedy with an imagined dream world.

The 3D title is designed to teach both adult and teen players (at home or in classrooms) about the basics of Greek drama, as well as its relationship to current culture and society. It also brings in famous fictional characters as well as important playwrights, such as Euripedes and Sophocles, who will encourage players to compare and contrast their works and styles.

Phantom Compass hopes to make this the "game equivalent of a short film", at least as far as length is concerned, as players can expect to complete the experience in less than three hours.

“Dionysian Dream looks at historic Greek drama through a contemporary lens,” said the studio's founding director Tony Walsh, who you might recall briefly served as editor for this very blog! “We use the Euripides play ‘The Bacchae’ as a springboard to explore timeless social issue... We’re going places most games -- and gamers -- fear to tread.”

Dionysian Dream features an interesting mechanic in its Entheos Scale (pictured), a scale that measures the player's rationality or irrationality. The player's position on the scale (left or right) determines his or her range of possible actions, and is affected by factors like consuming alcohol, choosing certain responses with NPCs, and wearing masks.

Every character in the game wears masks that help identify important figures in the game from lesser ones. Phantom Compass also says this will "help to give the player an other-worldly feeling, as they won't be interacting with actual faces, but stylized representations." masks can also be collected throughout the game.

Phantom Compass invites gamers, dramatic arts enthusiasts, and academics to follow the game's development through the project's official site. Dionysian Dream is scheduled to ship in the third quarter of 2009.

In-Depth: Inside The Making Of Deadly Creatures

[Extracting from the just-debuted issue of Game Developer magazine, here's some interesting, hopefully instructive info on the creation of the actually slightly slept-on Deadly Creatures from Rainbow/THQ.]

The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a postmortem of Rainbow Studios' Deadly Creatures written by technical director James Comstock.

Best known for its racing titles, THQ-owned, Phoenix-based developer Rainbow Studios decided to take a chance on a unique game idea that that would immerse players in the violent microcosm of the insect world.

The following excerpts from Game Developer magazine's recent postmortem from the Deadly Creatures team would have to overcome a number of significant obstacles along the way to realizing the dark adventure.

As Rainbow's Comstock explained, “First, we planned for the development team to be small and built from the ground up, often through external hires. Second, the title was planned for the Nintendo Wii only, which was a new console at the time and had an unproven controller."

"Third, the title was new IP. Fourth, Rainbow has traditionally made racing games, so the IP was a departure from the core competencies of our personnel and tools. As I often sum it up: new team, new IP, new genre, new platform, new controller.”

Iteration, Iteration, Iteration

Rainbow was moving into new territory and this sense of exploration had a tangible effect on how the project was structured -- as Comstock explained in this excerpt:

“One key decision we made early was to focus on building tools that would minimize content iteration time. We implemented a common framework that allowed content changes within all tools to be synchronized with the game in real time.

At a minimum, any asset saved by a game developer would be automatically propagated to the game. More advanced tools could leverage the framework directly to implement real-time editing features, for example, editing entity properties within the level editor and synchronizing the level editor's camera with the game's camera.

We embraced scripting across all disciplines, which caused a dramatic shift in how we developed the gameplay. Programmers wrote most of the game code in Lua, which allowed us to iterate the AI, control schemes, and so on, in real time. We complemented this with a custom visual scripting system, which was used heavily by all disciplines to create level content, such as tutorials, encounters, boss battles, cut scenes, and objectives.

An unintended benefit of the real-time editing features was that they led to less complex tools. In the past, developers would iterate content extensively without reviewing the updated versions in the game because launching the game was time-consuming.

To compensate for this bottleneck, they would request complex, specialized features that maximized their productivity with a certain tool. But as users became comfortable with real-time iteration, they began to prefer simplicity and stability over depth of features. Most importantly, they didn't perceive the absence of deep editing features as a hindrance.”

Concept Art as Communication

Deadly Creatures has a unique look that takes commonplace environments and twists them into startling unfamiliarity when viewed from the perspective of its insect protagonists. Effectively visualizing this sinister landscape became a major concern for the team.

“In preproduction, we homed in on a painterly art style that complemented our game design and the technical constraints of the Wii. Concept art was the linchpin in communicating the art style, setting standards, and measuring quality throughout development. Our goal was to achieve the look and tone of the concept pieces directly within the game experience.

We used a mix of internal and contract artists to visualize a diverse cross-section of the game's environments. Commissioning work from a wide variety of sources helped us to digest and interpret our vision, and allowed us to generate a large number of concept pieces quickly.

The final concept pieces fed into all aspects of development and helped us set the tone for the game. They inspired ideas for level design, creature design, and story presentation. We used the pieces to communicate our vision to marketing, sales, product development, and the press.

Concept art wasn't just for support and visualization. We continued to use it as a resource throughout production. Our internal concept artists created large and exquisitely detailed texture scripts for every imaginable material: rock, wood, sand, rusted metal. These provided a consistent yet stylized palette from which our artists could pull to add texture to our diverse environments.”

Understanding the Wii Remote

However, designing for the Wii remote presented new challenges, and the team found that their lofty plans for the novel device were often at odds with its technical limitations:

“Leveraging the Wii remote to its full potential was a key design goal. However, we began preproduction before the Wii had been released, and our imaginations led us to devise overly ambitious control schemes. When we were finally able to prototype the control schemes on the Wii and play other Wii titles, we realized that our expectations were beyond the capabilities of the technology.

With the Wii remote in hand, we spent significant time trying to bend it to our will. After much experimentation, we concluded that complex gesture patterns were difficult to recognize with an acceptable level of accuracy. They also required significant design constraints, as recognizing such patterns required that we clearly identify the beginning and end of the gesture.

We eventually defined design constraints to help us avoid creating usage patterns that would punish a user for “mashing” gestures, and to avoid creating control mechanics that could be misinterpreted by our software.

We limited the remote's gestures to cardinal directions—up, down, left, right, forward, backward—and the Wii nunchuk to non-directional shaking, as testing proved that users can make these gestures with a high degree of accuracy.

Then, we created usage scenarios that required a pattern of timed cardinal gestures with ample delay between each gesture. We also tried to map all cardinal directions to a valid input, so if players gesture-mashed, they would still get a satisfying experience during combat.”

Additional Info

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

The issue also includes Mark DeLoura's Game Engine Showdown which surveyed nearly 100 decision-makers to ask them what they think of the various game engines on the market; a new method for simplifying asynchronous operations from LucasArt's Javier Blazquez; how to really get ahead in the game business from a variety of industry veterans, and much more.

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

Still Loading: Vectorized C64 Screens

Way of the Rodent forumer Mugsy has kept busy since we last introduced his vectorized versions of Commodore 64 loading screens, posting a dozen new pieces since for titles like Monty on the Run, Head Over Heels, and Sanxion.

As with the previous images, these screens are desktop wallpaper-sized, so you can keep this cute shot of Gizmo peeking out of a dresser drawer on your computer's background, revealing to your coworkers how much of an Elite Systems fanboy you are.

You can see all the loading screens on Daily Rodent, and a coupe of my favorites from the new batch below:

Best Of Member Blogs: From Newbie Budgeting To Outgrowing Nintendo

In big sister site Gamasutra's 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

- Et Tu Nintendo?
(Benjamin Quintero)

Hardcore gamers give Nintendo a hard time for "abandoning" them, but Benjamin Quintero says that he came to the realization that "Nintendo hadn't abandoned its roots, I simply outgrew them."

The NES and SNES generation continues to lament how their favorite game maker has left them by the wayside to attract a broader demographic -- but perhaps with the Wii, Nintendo has been truer to its fun-for-everyone roots more so than it has for the previous two hardware generations...

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

- Back To The Old School?
(Ayushman Datta Gupta)

A lot of time and money is spent on making games hyper realistic, or at least highly believable. Ayushman Datta Gupta revisits the idea that game creators are spending too much effort on chasing realism and believability. Using elaborate back-stories and hyper-realistic graphics and physics as examples, Gupta asks, “How fun is reality?”

- Basic Game Budgeting For Newbs: Part One
(Kimberly Unger)

Kimberly Unger has posted some helpful tips for "newbs" who may have to present a budget as part of a pitch. "You know how to budget, you do it for school, you do it for your household finances," she says. Using that basic skillset as a starting point, she offers suggestions when designing a budget for a game. This is just part one...

- Interviewing In A Skilled Labor Force Industry
(Travis Johnston)

Keeping your interviewing skills sharp is important, whether or not you're actually looking for a new job, says Travis Johnston. He suggests the controversial practice of attending job interviews even if you have no intention of taking the job, all for the sake of keeping interview skills in check.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with that practice, he gives solid suggestions for interviews. For example: the more places you interview with doesn't necessarily increase your chances of landing an interview, so don't waste your time, he suggests.

- Things Games "Must" Be
(Adam Bishop)

Adam Bishop feels that over-arching rules that some people try to apply to video games hinders creativity. In particular, Bishop takes issue with the ideas that games must be "fun", that games shouldn't talk about politics, and finally, that games must be completely and utterly interactive. What are some other self-imposed "rules" that game designers should consider throwing out?

Sweeney's Dad Still Sending Out ZZT Orders

Just a week after we posted about recommended games created with Tim Sweeney's ZZT, the text-based action/adventure/puzzle game with a built-in editor and scripting language, sister-site Gamasutra posted an in-depth interview with the developer discussing the DOS game's origins and why he changed his studio's name from Potomac Computer Systems to Epic MegaGames.

This bit where the Epic CEO explains how ZZT orders are still being received and sent out 18 years after the game originally released and a decade after he renamed the company is particularly amusing:

"My father still lives at the address where Potomac Computer Systems started up, so he still gets an order every few weeks... he's retired now, so he doesn't have much to do. Every week, he'll just take a stack of a few orders, put disks in them, and mail them out. So you can still buy ZZT."

You can read the full interview at Gamasutra.

Bioshock 2 Concept Art, Wallpapers

Bioshock 2's senior character designer Colin Fix has put up some fantastic concept art for the upcoming PC/PS3/Xbox 360 game, like this piece of Big Sister and the Big Daddy Doll, which toy/comic/gaming blog Super Punch has posted as downloadable wallpapers.

Colin notes that his wife, Annie Fix, also did a lot of the character designs for the game: "Pretty much all the design work on the game that involved little sisters was done by her. She brought just the right sensitive feminine touch to these freaky little sweethearts." You can see more examples of their work below:

COLUMN: Alt Space: 'The PC: The Champion of the Revolution'

['Alt Space' is a new column by critic and writer Phill Cameron, discussing the relationship between the personal computer and gaming. First up - a call to appreciate the PC as ground zero of the current indie video game revolution.]

It all started here. Decades ago, games were made on the first computers, on the Amigas and Commodores that took only a few people to develop, putting in long hours to come up with innovative ways to make pixels move on the screen.

Then the big money came in, buying up the talent and churning out Triple A titles like there's no tomorrow. Games and game development stayed insular for the longest time, just because it took so long to learn how to make the games. By the time you knew how, you were already part of the system. And then things got a little easier, and that's when things got really interesting.

Over the past few years, there's been a crescendo. Independently made games have gone from novelties to an entire subgenre, capable of earning the makers a living, if they so choose. No longer are indie games enjoyed by just the few who pay attention to the scene. Now, all you have to be is an enthusiast tuned into the right channels to know about the latest brilliant step. It's happened so quickly that it's hard to recognise a tipping point.

One day you were just playing the big titles, perhaps indulging in the odd flash game if the moment took you, the next, you're laying down £10 for something like World of Goo, and declaring it the best game of your year.

The PC is the birthplace of all of this. It's the front lines of the independent renaissance, the next step in the evolution of games. The obsession on graphical realism has moved away from the focus, with novel and paradigm-shifting concepts gaining the majority of the limelight.

Mechanics and what you do with them are the focus, with subtext and commentary becoming far more deeply appreciated. It may be hasty to declare ourselves in a period of interactive enlightenment, but we're certainly progressing.

Harnessing the Keyboard Community

So why does the PC make a difference? It's here on the PC that the independent developers are able to cut their teeth, and get the honest opinion of the thousands of anonymous voices that the internet provides.

The services of websites like TIGSource, where hundreds of developers meet thousands of fans, all of whom share ideas, concepts and play through each others games may seem a little incestuous, but it's brought about the likes of Spelunky, Aquaria and the upcoming Indie Brawl, which is just about as incestuous as you can get. The benefit of such a community cannot be overstated.

On the PC, digital distribution is freely available, so there's no publishers to worry about, little licensing issues and the ability to give something you've made to people for however much or little you wish. It's something that a fixed state console just cannot provide, and it's not something they are trying to provide. It'd be ludicrous to try and take on the PC in this way, without bastardizing the console and giving it a keyboard and mouse. And then, well, you may as well call it a PC.

That's not to insult consoles, which are providing an increasingly important platform for indie developers to earn their deserved money, but they remain the next move, one more step up the ladder towards financial success.

Without the facilities offered by the PC, the Internet and the active communities, they would have no awareness, no back catalogue, and nothing to sound their ideas off. Developers need this kind of experience to refine their games, and build up their reputation. It's hard to believe Flower, the recent PSN game, would have been made at all (at least on the PS3), without first the success of Fl0w, ThatGameCompany's previous success.

There's little threat to the big companies. The success of independent games has forged its own niche separate from the big titles, meaning that the only impact on the AAA titles is critical, and, if anything, it's providing a set of brilliant new developers that the big companies can employ to improve their own games.

Indie games have fought the way into the consciousness of the games press, and anything beyond that has been mostly superfluous. It's growing, but in way that's keeping the genre away from the larger titles, whether out of self interest or merely because of the way these games work. There is no real threat to the big franchises, which is never something the indie scene has even aspired to.

A Rich Garden For Growing Games?

The majority of consumers today will still buy the multi-million dollar projects, and ignore, for the most part, the burgeoning indie scene. What little does filter down to them will be through the consoles, with the online services providing an important springboard to the independent developers. Again, though, the audience requirements for these games are so wonderfully small that usually they've got most of the way there before the game is even released.

The majority of consumers aren't PC gamers, though. While the platform is far from being the dying beast it is so commonly dismissed as, at the same time it's not at the same level as the current generation of consoles. It's seen as too fiddly, too unfathomable, to bother with, and so those that do put in the effort number lower than those who sit on the sofa with a controller in hand.

It's no small number though. Steam alone has registered 20 million accounts, and the success of World of Warcraft is enough to tell you just how many people play on their PCs, even if those players are atypical. Audiosurf, an indie game that allows you to harness your music library and turn it into a series of psychadelic racetracks, managed to make good use of Steam's users. While the exact number of sales hasn't been released, it topped the Steam sales charts for the month it was released, which means Dylan Fitterer, the developer, made good money from it.

If you look at the 34 finalists at this year's Independent Games Festival, by my calculations, only five are available on the consoles, and of those, only three aren't also available on the PC in some form. This is where it's all going down. Ground zero, the eye of the storm, whatever hyperbolic metaphor you'd like to use, it applies. We're the future, right now. Whatever trickles down to the standardized systems is theirs for the taking; we'll stick with what we've got.

Bringing It On Home

Let's face it. On the PC, there are no hoops to jump through, no 'i's to dot and 't's to cross, and no one else to give your money to. The PC is where the revolution has started, and it's going to continue to be where it happens. They say PC gaming is dying, but really, it's just evolving into something that can't be tracked or controlled.

We're the academics in the coffee houses discussing symbolism in The Path, sharing stories of our countless lives and deaths in Spelunky, and laughing at the nuances in You Have To Burn The Rope. The key sector of innovative independent gaming is going to stay here, and while it may branch out into different platforms, its roots are always going to be... on the PC.

Girl Has Lucky Week, Reaches Mars

When we last reported on the length of Noby Noby Boy's spacefaring, stretching creature Girl, her estimated time of arrival to Mars was a distant 2700 days away, a depressing projection brought on by the lack of players contributing their Boy-stretching stats to help her grow.

Less than six weeks later, though, Girl has reached the red planet thanks to a Lucky Week promotion that multiplied lengths submitted by players, sometimes by as much as 765, according to gamer reports. You can see just how fast she grew in the above chart taken from Noby Noby Stats.

Now Girl can set her sights on the next planet on her itinerary, Jupiter. Here are a couple screenshots released by Namco Bandai of Boy partying on Mars:

GameSetLinks: Vices, Vidi, Vici?

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

We're keeping up with the GameSetLinks wunderbar-ness as the week continues, and while I'm here, can I just give a massive, random shout-out to BoingBoing's Offworld? I think most of you know it already, but my buddy Brandon Boyer is providing some of the only sustained alt.game coverage out there. Rock. Him and RockPaperShotgun have got this whole 'entertaining Internet game blogging for non-dummies' down.

OK, onwards to links - and this set has Duncan Fyfe going Braid-y on Hit Self-Destruct, plus the seldomly updated but super-entertaining Murderblog 3D, Magical Wasteland on teh PixelVixen, and lots more.

Nineteen oh one:

Hit Self-Destruct: Hit Self-Esteem
'Jonathan Blow appears to read everything that is written about Braid on the internet, so you can imagine him looking over your breakthrough analysis and shaking his head dismissively.'

ihobo: Ten Game Development Vices, Part One
And there's a part two, of course - lists are always fun, as the Internet well knows.

Where is the Leonard Part 6 of gaming? » Murderblog 3D
'Cynicism amplifies the joy of discovery. We need to lower the bar. Games will never be considered art until they’ve had a spectacular failure like this that completely degrades the industry as a whole, allowing beautiful works to truly stand out.'

[I ♥ The PC Engine] Shanghai @ Magweasel
Interesting discussion on the history of Shanghai - the Activision proto-casual classic - and its game design derivations here.

Reality as It Is Today (Magical Wasteland)
Nice piece, and I do believe that the PV is quoted MORE than once in this article, heh.

Critical Distance | Punk and Indie Games
'The game industry today shares many qualities with the bloated, elaborate, high-concept music industry of the 70’s. Budgets are skyrocketing, endless sequels are the norm, and team sizes range in the hundreds. At the same time, many of us pine for the kind of games we grew up with, the ones that made us fall in love with the medium in the first place.'

May 25, 2009

Knight News Game Awards Reveals 'Journalistic' Finalists

Organizers for the first annual Knight News Game Awards, which seeks to honor games that are "journalistic and enhance people’s ability to make decisions in a democracy", announced the competition's four finalists.

The titles were picked out according to several criteria: "their role as investigative reporting tools, they needed to expose an unknown logic or new information, uncover a truth, or provide editorial or commentary on a current event or issue." According to its definition on the award's page, "news games" are typically tied to the current news cycle and produced in under a month or two, acting like an op-ed or political cartoon.

You can read about and find links to the finalists below:

The Budget Maze:

"Players in Gotham Gazette’s web-based Budget Maze navigate a dreary dungeon. At various rooms, the player must find the zombie who holds the answers to a question about the city or state budget process in order to move forward."

Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City:

"Global Kids Youth Leaders and game developers from Gamepill created a Web-based game, Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City to recognize local heroes that emerged during the disaster. The game educated players on the essentials of disaster readiness and of reporters."

Play the News:

"Play the News is an engaging, community-driven experience that utilizes 'interactive news' mini games to change news consumption from passive reading to active engagement. The platform is flexible enough to address a range of global and local content."

September 12th – A Toy World:

"Highly controversial at its launch in 2003, September 12th describes the post 9-11 world. Created by a team of Uruguayan game developers lead by a former CNN journalist, this game critically examined the US-led War on Terror."

The winner will be announced at the sixth annual Games for Change festival, held at New York City's Parsons The New School for Design from May 27th to 29th. The Knight Foundation, a nonprofit organization looking to promote excellence in journalism, will sponsor a ceremony on May 28th at the event.

Photos from Brighton's Pixel Hail Art Show

This past weekend, Brighton's Fishing Museum hosted Pixel Hail, a multimedia exhibition of art from video game developers, with local UK studios such as Doublesix (Burn Zombie Burn!) and Media Molecule showing pieces from their titles.

The gallery also had artwork inspired by video games, so you could also see items like Mikaël "Orioto" Aguirre's wallpapers depicting scenes from classic games, Jude Buffum's 8-bit painting of a Saved by the Bell massacre, and several of the Something Awful forum's video game book covers presented as actual paperbacks.

Pixel Hail's Facebook page shows some of the pieces that were at the show, and software developer Tom Hume also has a few photos from the three-day event, a couple of which I've pasted below.

If you missed the show, AtomFire Productions, the developer that puts on the event, plan to run the exhibition again at the Develop conference in Brighton this July 14th to 16th.

GDC Austin Reveals iPhone Games Summit Plans, Call For Submission

[The second of GDC Austin's new Summits that I have my greasy little fingers in, the iPhone Games Summit, has announced and is now accepting submissions - if you're an iPhone dev, maybe consider putting forward a lecture/]

Organizers of this September's GDC Austin have announced a call for submissions for its new iPhone Games Summit, following a similar call for the Indie Games Summit earlier this week.

Initial information about the September 15th-16th iPhone Games Summit is available on the GDC Austin website, with organizers noting that the first day will discuss "the business, marketing, and key design tenets behind successful iPhone game development", before the second day "provides overviews and deep dives into technical aspects of developing on iPhone."

The Advisory Board for the Summit, which will be announcing its first speakers in the next few weeks, include local Austin-area iPhone developer Brian Greenstone, founder and president of Enigmo creator Pangea Software, as well as Snappy Touch's Noel Llopis, a Game Developer magazine columnist and creator of notable iPhone app Flower Garden.

As the GDC Austin iPhone Games Summit call for submissions page explains, organizers are looking for business topics including marketing do-s and don't-s, game postmortems, alternative and innovative monetization methods, and paths to success on the App Store.

In addition, for the technical day, topics wanted include 3D engine and app discussions, Objective C tips, 3.0 OS features, approaches to using multi-touch, the accelerometer, and networking, and other detailed technical subjects.

The submission deadline for presentation abstracts for the 2009 iPhone Games Summit at Austin GDC is June 3rd at midnight PST, and more information is available on the official GDC Austin iPhone Games Summit website.

8-Bit Homies Are Dissing Your Girl

Video game music netlabel Pterodactyl Squad revealed that it is putting together a chiptune tribute to Weezer, enlisting a crew of micromusic notables to cover the alternative rock group's hits, like "Why Bother?" and "El Scorcho". They're even making a chiptune version of "Jamie", my favorite track from the DGC Rarities, Vol. 1 album (other than Teenage Fanclub's "Mad Dog 20/20").

You can see the upcoming album's cover art by David Mauro and full tracklist, which features artists like Anamanaguchi and Tugboat, after the break. You can also download an MP3 version of PDF Format's "You Won't Get With Me Tonight" video above at 8-Bit Collective.

1. Island In The Sun (Belmont's Revisal) - videogame orchestra
2. Holiday - Anamanaguchi
3. El Scorcho - Tugboat
4. The World Has Turned And Left Me Here - Bit Shifter
5. You Won't Get With Me Tonight - PDF Format
6. Hash Pipe - seal of quality
7. In The Garage - OxygenStar
8. You Gave Your Love To Me Softly - :(
9. We Are All On Drugs - Rabato
10. Jamie - Unicorn Dream Attack
11. Come To My Pod - Mahamajama
12. Why Bother? - I Fight Dragons
13. Buddy Holly - nordloef
14. I Do - arcadecoma.

[Via 8BC]

Raw Danger PSP Grip, Preview

To commemorate the Japanese release of Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3 (the latest entry in the Raw Danger/Disaster Report series), accessory manufacturer MSY has released a system shell that can be used as a grip, useful for games where "the excitement level can ramp up, which causes sweaty and slippery palms", according to import retailer NCSX.

It will also help you hold onto your PSP should there be a real-life earthquake or a building-rattling tornado, as there tend to be in this survival action adventure game. Notice the "cracked asphalt" texture on the accessory designed to mirror the broken city in ZZT3. The Zettai Zetsumei Grip also can be used as a system stand with the support bar on its back.

When we last talked about ZZT3, we featured a screenshot-filled diary of the game's first thirty minutes by CoreGamers' Bruno de Figueiredo. Since then, he's recorded another segment of the game, in which he dodges cars falling from the top floors of a garage, and finds a wicked pair of Hiroshi Yamauchi-style sunglasses.

Interview: Riot Games On The Birth Of League Of Legends

[Interesting to see the 'defense'-related genre getting so busy, from a variety of angles, and here's another multiplayer-centric one to look forward to - Chris Remo sat down with the folks at Riot Games to discuss the intriguing upcoming PC title League Of Legends.]

WarCraft III RPG/strategy mod Defense of the Ancients has attracted millions of players, and now Riot Games, a team including DOTA's co-designer is taking the concept full-scale commercial with League of Legends, due out later this year.

It's the first title for the Los Angeles-based studio, which announced the project at the end of 2008. Other games, most notably Gas Powered Games' Demigod, have aimed to spiritually succeed DOTA, but Riot Games is attempting to recreate the game more literally, and has DOTA co-designer Steve "Guinsoo" Feak on board.

Here, we speak to director of systems design Tom Cadwell and community relations director Steve Mescon about the special considerations in evolving a wildly popular Warcraft III mod into a commercial RTS/RPG.

They discuss how League of Legends -- which can't escape being abbreviated LoL -- is both like and unlike the original DOTA, and modding as an avenue into full-scale development:

What mentality have you taken in developing this game? You're building on the legacy of Defense of the Ancients [which the team created a postmortem of for Gamasutra recently], its existing dynamic and fan base, but how are you rethinking it?

Tom Cadwell: We're trying to find out, "How do we keep the core experience of DOTA and enhance it, broadening it so more people can experience and enjoy it?"

There are a couple aspects to that. One is just removing the obvious pain points and trying to make it go better -- adding matchmaking so you can find a competitive match that's going to be against people in the same skill level as you.

We're improving the user interface... instead of using the Warcraft III interface, which wasn't really suitable for DOTA. It's really designed for a single character rather than multiple characters as with RTS controls. There are a lot of little enhancements like that. We're polishing a lot of the things the DOTA audience just lives with.

We also thought that adding a persistent gameplay element that allows you to progress over time would add a lot of value to the gameplay. It just makes it a lot more fun. We're trying to pick mechanics and characters that follow principles of simple but deep design.

What about taking it into the commercial space, where people who have played DOTA are accustomed to it being a free mod?

Steve Mescon: Coming from the community side, it was an interesting transition going from a player-created mod to a commercial product. We wanted to make sure that we kept a lot of the original community roots, empowering the community to have input in the future of the product, making sure that we consistently listen to user feedback, addressing concerns that people have.

From a very early stage, we started to listen to feedback from a lot of the existing DOTA community. That was something that's really important that game companies don't necessarily always have. And it's nice to now have the resources to do a lot of stuff that we couldn't have otherwise done. DOTA existed as -- still exists as -- a non-profit entity. Without any revenue, we were often limited in the kind of things we can do both as a community and for the community.

TC: We're calling the genre MOBA -- multiplayer online battle arena. You have the champions, you're fighting minions and upgrading your champion throughout the game, leveling up, gaining items, and so forth.

We think that that core gameplay can be applied to a lot of different scenarios. Right now, it's just in the basic DOTA map, which works great, but we think if we draw from other genres and games like Team Fortress 2, the [World of Warcraft] Battlegrounds, older games like Tribes, and other games with interesting team-based scenarios, we think we can pull elements from there and make some even more compelling gameplay that furthers the audience.

Team defense is exciting to us. We won't be able to do a lot of that for launch, but we're really excited. As we're operating the game, there's a service after launch that we can use to continue to make those improvements and broaden and deepen the experience.

That's definitely the direction PC games are going these days. Valve talks about it all the time, of course. It seems like in the last few years, it's become an increasingly feasible -- arguably even necessary -- route for PC developers to take.

SM: Interestingly enough, I think we're seeing a lot of similar models like this outside of the game industry as well. We're seeing a lot of products and services -- products that are really being offered now as a service.

For example, you see music services now where you can listen to music but you don't need to necessarily buy a song. A lot the same concepts are spilling over when you're talking about operating a game as a service. It's just becoming a point of familiarity with people.

TC: Yeah, I think you could talk about the economics of those sort of things, but what I really think is important is just that players like having games as a service. They like to have a game that's patched frequently. That's more fun. I think as a game developer, that's your first priority. If you can give players something that's more fun, you're going to be rewarded for that.

SM: And constantly changing. Two years after you bought it, it's completely different than when you first got it. It might be fundamentally the same, but there are lots of core differences.

TC: We definitely are really inspired by what a lot of the top developers like Valve and Blizzard are doing with frequent patches on the products they release. We want to do that, too. That's the expectation of our core community.

SM: And in a game like this, in my opinion, it's really the only option. To just let it go and then forget about it, that was never on the table.

When managing that core community, how much have you found that there are existing models to look at in the game industry, and how much is playing by ear? I know a few community managers, and it seems less defined than some roles.

SM: Part of that is because online communities are relatively new in the professional world, so you don't have a lot of people who've been doing it for 20 years. There really is no precedent to follow. A lot of people are just finding where online communities in general fit into their business.

What are some of the principles?

SM: I really think it has entirely to do with building brand evangelists. What you want to do is essentially create a funnel where you can convert users up a series of steps until you create brand evangelists who will both recruit new players and help retain existing players. That's really what community is about.

Do you think that's easier in a way with a mod that has no financial backing? Particularly among hardcore PC gamers, if a game is a mod, an underground thing, people are more compelled to think, "This thing needs my help to go out and push it"? Obviously, the other end of that is that a commercial game has an actual marketing budget, but what about the community side specifically?

SM: Yes and no. It's really a lot of things that are making some of the core principles of building an evangelist of a brand pretty simple. One of them is giving a user a sense of efficacy. So, we want our community to have a clear impact on the game's future.

There are a bunch of different ways that we're doing that. I don't know how much we're going to touch on right now, but that's one example of something that's really important that we can do even though we're a commercial entity.

One of the things I've observed is that in some cases, when the evangelists get their friends to install DOTA, the friend can sometimes be overwhelmed, because they're just thrown into this completely hardcore environment with no ramp-up -- sort of like Counter-Strike, but maybe not that extreme.

TC: Well, I'd say it's a lot harder to get into than even Counter-Strike, because in Counter-Strike, if you've played a shooter before, the aiming is different, but you know how to do a headshot if you've played a lot of shooters.

Right. So, as a designer, how do you compensate for that?

TC: I think you really need to look at the aspects of the game that cause the new player attrition. In DOTA, I think they're pretty clear. First, there are huge penalties for dying. Not only that, but it rewards the enemy team substantially, so with your own teammates, you're causing their loss as well.

Then, there's an overwhelming amount of content. You come into DOTA and there are a gazillion heroes, a gazillion items, powerful relationships between the items that are difficult to understand -- the list goes on and on. You also have to buy a game, and then an expansion to the game, and then download a map and put the map into the proper directory.

A lot of this stuff we can fix directly just by having a standalone game that's easy to install. On the pure design side, though, I think we look at those mechanics. We think, "Hey, if there are too many options, too many items, we can potentially gate those options so you have to have played a small amount to unlock them all." Some of this stuff we want to have a lot of players access for competitive reasons; for other stuff, it's okay if they have to work a little bit for it. It makes the game more fun.

We're going to be adding a death recap system, which basically will give players very clear indicators of what caused their death. You can learn from that, and it makes it less frustrating. I think you have to focus on those pain points that you know are happening. You just talk to somebody who did burn out immediately trying to play DOTA.

SM: We're using a lot of data points to drive these decisions. We're preparing everything from exit surveys to user studies. We'll be optimizing the installation process and registration process and download process through those means.

TC: Absolutely, but in addition to that, we're just trying to apply good, clean, simple, polished game design that's been proven to work in other games. Just try to, you know, make sure we grasp both what at its core makes DOTA great but also polish over and apply those principles of simple but deep game design to it.

That sounds very Blizzard-esque.

TC: Yeah, they certainly are great at it. I'm really happy I was able to learn about that while I was there. My main area of focus was play balance for the WarCraft III expansion, and I did a bit of mechanics design on that as well. Blizzard's definitely an environment where if you're interested in something, you put your hands in and try to help with it.

I was also a contributor to a lot of aspects of WoW, working with internal feedback teams there to polish some of the new player experience and controls. Accessibility is something I'm very passionate about, and I've spent a lot of time on it in the past.

Do you have any thoughts from a design perspective about the difference between approaching an RTS like WarCraft, where DOTA is based but which is otherwise about many characters being controlled all at once, as opposed to League of Legends, which is all about your one character?

TC: It's tricky, because on the one hand, players who played DOTA on some level just expect exactly the controls they've been using. So if controls are not that usable but you know them anyway, it's easier just to stick with that. But they're not optimal controls for a single-character experience.

We have to tread very carefully on that, and we'll try a lot of different ways. Iteration is very important to us. We'll get an idea of how to improve a particular aspect of controls, and we'll just try it. If it works, we'll keep it. If it kind of works, we'll refine it more. If it doesn't, we'll go back to where we were.

For example, a while ago, we pulled out shift queuing -- in an RTS that's when you hold down shift and you can make several orders in order, and have your characters perform them in that order -- and we're finding in our internal tests that maybe that wasn't such a great idea. We thought it was an unnecessary feature, but we're finding especially among hardcore DOTA players that we should have that it.

So, that's a case where we tried something, it didn't work quite as well as we wanted, so we change it. On the other hand, we have mini-map zoom, and that's great; people love it. You win some, you lose some. The more you can try, the more you win.

How do you "prep" the larger community to make sure they're going to be quickly acclimated to this?

SM: Existing DOTA players are going to pick it up very quickly. The moment to moment experiences...

TC: Well actually, immediately, if some of the tests where I've gotten owned were any indication. (laughs)

SM: (laughs) Yes. We have friends and family beta testers who are pretty much annihilating the developers.

TC: They're not necessarily my friends after some of those games.

SM: They're still my friends because I was on their team.

But yes, we have existing DOTA players who have picked it up, and it's a very easy transition. Even with the things that were changed, it's very easy to pick up on what's changed and what the differences are. So, I don't think it will be a huge barrier.

So, you haven't had that experience that strikes fear into the hearts of many developers making official or spiritual successors, where you go onto the official forums and it's just thread after thread of "What are you doing to my game? You're ruining everything. I hate you."

SM: Well, we still haven't had a whole lot of people with their hands on it. We've been pretty tight-lipped about everything that we've been doing.

That usually doesn't stop people from complaining.

TC: Some people will say, "I want it to be exactly like DOTA," but that's not everybody. Our general view is we're adding so many things that DOTA just really needs and doesn't have. We think the overall impression, and we're seeing this validated in feedback, is that DOTA users say, "Well, I kind of wish you had that particular weird user interface, but you're adding these ten other things that are totally awesome, so I like this game overall."

Why do you think this mechanic or genre isn't more widespread? For a mod that became so popular, it seems odd that it didn't spread out and pollinate like Counter-Strike has. Now we have Demigod too, but it's taken a while.

SM: It could be that the industry is not reactive enough.

TC: If you're a publisher and you're looking at what you're going to invest money in, no one's made money by selling DOTA. Blizzard made money selling War III, but...

SM: There's a risk you have to take on that. It's something that's been proven to be fun, but not necessarily proven to be business accessible. I don't necessarily think that's the only reason, but that's definitely a reason.

TC: There are a number of companies, though; we're not going to name them here, of course…

Have you looked at Demigod?

TC: Yeah. One or two of our developers have worked at GPG in the past. They're a great group of guys.

SM: We have Steve Snow, who was [a member of the founding team] and [founder] Chris Taylor's roommate for a while.

TC: I hope Demigod is super successful, and I hope we're super successful with them. We think it's a great genre. If several games can be successful, it's going to add credibility to the genre, and it's great for all of us.

SM: Just consider that if there are ten million people playing DOTA, how many people have tried it and left? Just look at the potential size there.

What do you mean by that? People who couldn't necessarily get into it, and might try it again?

TC: The game's pretty old, so you have to imagine there are all sorts of people that have experienced and played it and liked it but don't play it now, or people who experience it and hit some of those roadblocks and threw up their hands and left.

SM: And also, it's really fundamentally simpler. The very fundamentals of the game are simpler than a lot of existing games. And so, I think that eventually, it's going to be a really big mid-core game. We're going to get a lot of people who aren't the hardcore gamers who can pick this up easier once we get over the education issue.

TC: I agree with that. I think there's really fun gameplay there. It's different from what else is out there. I think it just needs the right game or games to show people how fun it can be.

You see this sometimes, when a genre isn't going anywhere, and then a really solid game comes along and people become really interested in it. Look at how Counter-Strike revitalized FPS. FPS was doing fine, but look what happened. And Call of Duty and Halo both did great things for FPS on the consoles -- it just grows the entire category. World of Warcraft did that for MMOs. GTA almost created its own genre in a way, right?

There's lots of fun out there that hasn't been discovered. I think you just need to show the gamers that it can be fun, and package it right.

Sucker Punch Developer Diary Video Series

Gametrailers has a fantastic three-part video series profiling Infamous developer Sucker Punch Productions, offering interviews with employees at nearly every level, from the studio's co-founders to SCEA's development director to Infamous' quality assurance testers.

The developer diary focuses less on the studio's PS3-exclusive game, and more on topics like finding ways to spend time with your family during crunch times and how the company began developing 3D platforming/action games.

"When we started, we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. And so, in our naïveté, we decided to do games that were like the games that we really liked, which were, you know, Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot," says co-founder and development director Chris Zimmerman, discussing Sucker Punch's first game, Rocket: Robot on Wheels for N64. "We didn't pick something easy to go and do. We had to pick the hardest possible thing to go try to do."

Another interesting detail about this developer diary series is that it was shot and produced by 2 Player Productions, the same group behind chiptune documentary Reformat the Planet. You can even hear chiptune tracks playing in the background in these videos!

"We met one of the senior Sony developers at PAX last year," says 2PP producer Paul Levering. "He loved Reformat the Planet [and] said he wanted us to work on some stuff with them. [He] hooked us up with Sucker Punch."

You can watch the other two parts of the Sucker Punch video series at Infamous' Gametrailers page.

GameSetLinks: 1066 And All That

[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 roll into what can only be a holiday Monday in the U.S., time to boot up a few GameSetLinks from both last week and this previous weekend - and we hope everyone's having a pleasant, at least semi-relaxing time.

Highlights this time: another neat Channel 4 educational game, a rave for Raiden Fighter Aces on the Xbox 360, an excellent look at the E3 Game Critics Awards, Chris Morris pops up at Variety, the continuing saga of Christian game company Left Behind, and plenty more.

A b c:

Wonderland: 1066: the game
Via Alice: 'Here's another big fat flash game from Channel 4 Education for you: made by Preloaded, and to complement the C4 factual drama 1066, it's a historically accurate (right down to the taunts) military strategy game. Multiplayer, too.'

Getting Ahead In The Industry - Zack Hiwiller
'Here is the unhappy truth: those who do whatever it takes to make the game the best they believe it can be are seen as boat-rockers.'

Subatomic Brainfreeze: Raiden Fighters Aces: MISSION WAS SUCCEEDED GREATLY BY THEIR ACTIVITIES
It's as easy as this: 'You know what I like doing? I like telling you to buy videogames. Buy Raiden Fighters Aces! Do it now! Twenty bucks! Do it! Do it!'

Crispy Gamer - Column: Press Pass: The Most Important Game Critics at E3
Whatever misgiving I may have about CG's biz model, they are really commissioning some excellent articles - this one is well worth checking out.

Kotaku - Indie Devs Turn To In-Game Ads After Piracy Strike - In-game Advertising
Interesting piece cos it shows the struggles of indies, but do the Raycatcher guys really think they're gonna make more money doing ads in a Unity web browser game than putting their game on Steam? Cos that's not going to happen in today's market, I don't think.

The Cut Scene: 'Hey, who’s the new guy?'
Ah, CNN Money's Chris Morris, long dormant in his games writing, pops back up following in Ben Fritz's footsteps - neat.

Digital Foundry /// Eurogamer
V.interesting super-techy blog gets a home semi-hidden on EG. Neat, though.

The Extraordinary Saga Of Left Behind | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
Left Behind Games is a crazy company - witness previous attempts to bother us, way back, for actually nothing - nice Walker post here.

May 24, 2009

COLUMN: Bell, Game, and Candle - "An Obtained Copy of Reggie Fils-Aime’s E3 Keynote Speech"

['Bell, Game, and Candle' is a regular-ish GameSetWatch-exclusive column by writer Alex Litel, discussing stuff that happens - or doesn't happen - in the game business. In this edition, he returns from a three-month hiatus to provide the NSFW first of two exclusive E3 bombshells.]

Firstly, I would like to say welcome to all of the dweebs and non-dweebs who have to be here because their place of employment fired the dweebs.

Also, I would like to tell some jokes.

What is an item on the menu of a hip-hop-themed hot-dog stand? “Kanye Wurst”

What rhetorical question does a runner ask to inspire sympathy? “Have you ever jogged a mile in my shoes?”

I have told these hilarious jokes to dull the temporary nerd boner inversions that you will receive following the announcement I will make.

[Do not proceed until front row of press section reacts.]

Nintendo will be selling its game business to Apple, and go into the pixie dust industry.

So, you'll hear about our upcoming slate of Sam Mendes’ Yellow Lasers, Wii Troubadour: Simon & Garfunkel vs. Mario Bros., Wii Troubadour: Mario vs. Bruce Springsteen, Wii Troubadour: Link vs. Leonard Cohen, Wii Troubadour: Samus vs. Joni Mitchell, Masked & Anonymous: Ness Meets Bob Dylan, Wii Sports: The Movie Game, Woody Guthrie's Dustbowl Donnybrook, Untitled Scott Walker Collaboration, Bob Dylan Circa 1973 as Mario, Give My Regards to Broad Street 2, Luigi’s Studio Apartment in Oceanside, Dr. Mario Gets Sued for Malpractice, and Pit’s First Semester at Brown at Apple's surprise keynote tomorrow.

Anyways, it all started when Iwata was playing Peggle a few months ago, and he called me and said, “Regs, this shit is completely motherfucking crazy. Orgiastic mindfuck. This is like a revelation for me—pretty much a birth of a child on steroids caught with a rainbow substance and a coked-out alien hooker with a moustache hockey mask face in a American motel bathroom.”

Then I asked, “Are you using hallucinogenic substances again?”

Iwata reiterated that his personal reliance on hallucinogenic substances ended during the GameCube era. He also explained that he was alluding to the synopsis of his novel, The Day After Yesterday, which he described as “Yates fathered by Murakami.”

“How do they do this? It’s so magical and ethereal that it’s almost ineffable.” Iwata had expected me to know the answer to his vague question.

“PopCap Games, not to far from us in Seattle,” I answered with a wallop of uncertainty.

Iwata gleefully shouted, “We will go there, Regs, and find out the origins of the amazement!”

So, we to PopCap and Iwata asked his question. Jason Kapalka told us “pixie dust,” which I thought was for sure bullshitting. But the ever-curious Iwata wondered how one could acquire this substance.

And Kapalka said, “Warren Beatty is our dealer. I don’t know where he gets it from, but he has this almost infinite quantity that he uses to make himself appear ten to fourteen years younger.”

Coincidentally, Iwata’s favorite film is Reds, and he claims to have seen it over a hundred times. Yeah, we went down to Los Angeles and met with Warren.

Iwata was fawning and Warren was into it, until Iwata brought up the substance.

And for the next hour or two, Warren reviled and screamed, “I’m naturally fucking beautiful, you fascist pussy sons of bitches! I’m sorry that your manhood is so miniscule that you have to harass the ultimate form with egregious falsities. I’m typically a well-tempered man.”

“It is anything; it is everything,” he eventually admitted.

“I discovered pixie dust in late 1962, and used it as capital for my ascension to Hollywood royalty. If not for the substance, I would have never been able do risky projects like Bonnie & Clyde or Shampoo.”

Iwata was even more curious. “Now that you are retired, what do you do with the pixie dust these days?”

“When did I ever say I retired? I don’t retire, I idle when I cannot find something artistic and substantive. Oh, I mainly sell.”

“Is it profitable?” Iwata queried.

“Certainly, very much so,” Warren replied.

Iwata had another epiphany “Would you be interested in selling all of your pixie dust?”

Warren was concerned and hesitant. “You know that with great power comes great responsibility. There is the potential here for absolute, irreversible entropy.”

I had to butt in. “Can we see this supposedly magical substance? Until I can with my own eyes, this is utterly illusory, and your Spider-Man references won’t change my mind.”

“Regs, don’t be so haughty, negative, and aggressive,” Iwata chided.

Warren also responded. “Stan Lee stole that phrase from a pre-pixie dust version of myself.”

Then, I had a complete about-face, and I realized that the pixie dust was on Warren’s desk. It was then I saw the genius and the quintessential nature of the product—to hide this would be contempt of humanity.

I came to the same conclusion Iwata had—pixie dust is a much larger and more important market than video games ever will be, and Nintendo should exclusively devote its resources to the distribution and manufacturing of pixie dust.

Just looking at the present and past applications of pixie dust, one sees a monumental precedence: Mary Matalin and James Carville’s marriage, Cody ChesnuTT’s debut album The Headphone Masterpiece, the MP3 player, the Nintendo Wii, et cetera, et cetera.

In that spirit, I would like to announce the appointment of Warren Beatty as Chief Creative Officer at Nintendo. He will help not only the company but also the world into a brighter future.

[Warren Beatty comes on stage and reveals pixie dust. Audience looks in awe, forever changed by the presence of the pixie dust.]

I know in the past, we have drawn the ire of the non-retail “enthusiast press”—but I am confident that this time we have won all of you over.

Thank you and good day.

[Daft Punk remix of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” starts playing.]

[Alex Litel can be reached at [email protected] and occasionally found at alexlitel.blogspot.com.]

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

Wandering into the holiday weekend, time to check out the top full-length features on Gamasutra, plus some bonus original news stories and interviews from Gama and sister edu site GameCareerGuide.

There's some really neat stuff in here, too - including NPD analysis, a design piece on pacing, an awesome in-depth BioShock 2 interview, analysis on the future of the PSP, a new Game Design Challenge over on GCG, and lots more.

Here's the top stories of the week:

Rebuilding Rapture: Choices And BioShock 2
"Building a sequel to a beloved game is a delicate enterprise -- more so when you do it with a whole new studio. Alyssa Finley, executive producer at 2K Marin, and series newcomer and lead designer Zak McClendon, lay out the thinking behind building the sequel to BioShock."

Beyond Pacing: Games Aren't Hollywood
"In an in-depth design article, People Can Fly (Painkiller) designer Wesolowski looks at games from Freelancer through Thief and beyond to examine the all-important art of correct pacing in video games."

Collaborative Game Editing
"Individual game developers take responsibilities for different parts of game development - sometimes leading to content mixups and bottlenecks where their work overlaps. In this in-depth article, originally published in Game Developer magazine, Mick West discusses how collaborative editing may be the future."

Planning For Fun In Game Programming - Part 1
"From a game programming and planning perspective, how do you legislate for... fun? Veteran game coder Hammersley discusses how you might split game technical planning into 'must-have' features and 'non-functional requirements' that enhance the game's fun factor."

Analyze This: Is It Time To Refresh The PSP?
"Where now for Sony and the PlayStation Portable? A trio of analysts, representing firms such as Wedbush Morgan and Cowen and Company, discuss the PSP's state of play amid rumors of an upcoming redesign."

NPD: Behind the Numbers, April 2009
"In his regular, in-depth look at April 2009's NPD numbers, Gamasutra's Matt Matthews examines the disappointing month from multiple angles, from Sony's results and theorized price cut plans, through the numbers behind the software sales drop."

Plus bonus Gamasutra news and GCG features: Event Wrap-Up: Nordic Game 2009's Northern Spirit; GDC Canada Announces Doubled Attendance, 2010 Return; GCG's Game Design Challenge Tackles The Crisis Of Credit; Interview: 505 Games Merges Fashion Week and Video Games; Interview: How The Next Need For Speed Hopes To Shift Racers; Q&A: Recoil Games Reveals Eco-Themed FPS Earth No More; Postmortem: Getting the Degree.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Where's My Zzap?

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

zzap0100001.jpg   Compute_Issue_060_1985_May-1.jpg

I got some feedback the other day that asked a question I've thought about off-and-on over the years but never seriously arrived at a conclusion for. It's a simple one, but deceptively so, and I'll paraphrase it for the purpose of this column:

Why didn't the US have any equivalent to CRASH or Zzap!64 or the other big UK computer-game magazines of the 1980s?

Someone in Europe looking back at American personal computer mags of the 1980s must feel pity for us. The UK had witty, engaging, (largely) editorially sound magazines concentrating exclusively on video games just as early as the US did.

But unlike their American counterparts, they kept growing and evolving after the Atari crash, outselling the business-oriented Euro PC mags easily and becoming immensely popular beginning in 1984 and '85. The "golden age" kept on going until well into the late '90s in the UK, and with mags like Edge and Retro Gamer still crankin' in Britain, you could argue that it's still there.

Meanwhile, for better or for worse, the dominant US consumer PC mags of the age -- COMPUTE!, COMPUTE!'s Gazette, RUN, assorted other platform-specific titles -- were all about either business or programming. Games were shunted into a small column, if covered at all, and both editorial staffs and letter-writers shunned them as a presence to be tolerated rather than to be celebrated. This despite the fact that the largest, costliest ad spots in well near every 8-bit computer mag in the US were occupied by game companies.

If the advertising was there to support a Zzap!-ish like publication in the US, then why didn't it happen? After some thought, here's what I came up with:

1. America is large. The size of the nation makes postage and distribution orders of magnitude more expensive for US magazines. This means ad rates must go higher, and a large reader base needs to be there, in order for a magazine to make money. This isn't news, of course; it's one reason modern US game mags have been thinner and sparser than UK and Japan mags for years.

A corollary to this is that America is not only large, but also sparse. If you were an early computer hobbyist, you were often pretty lonely if you didn't live near a big city. This meant that you formed user groups, you published (and read) newsletters, you got really active with computers -- and, naturally, you demanded more from the national press as a result.

2. America is rich. The 1541 disk drive, as slow and unreliable and expensive as it was, was seen as standard equipment for American Commodore 64 users -- something that never really happened in Britain, where tape-based game distribution was the norm for the computer's entire commercial lifetime. This little detail made a huge difference in the respective marketplaces.

The UK C64 scene was largely action games; in the US it switched over to RPGs and large-scale adventures pretty quickly, thanks to the benefits of random-access storage. What's more, the disk drive allows the C64 to enjoy all manner of serious applications, from GEOS to accounting and desktop publishing software, and owners demanded coverage of this stuff in their mags instead of the game reviews and strategies seen in Zzap!.

3. US publishing houses weren't interested. No US game magazine (except Computer Gaming World, which I'll get to next) survived the Atari crash. No publisher of national computer magazines in the US had any expertise or experience in the game marketplace.

They took the video game companies' ads, but never gave back, so to speak. There was no impetus for them to explore the options. Meanwhile, in the UK, the two top game-mag publishers were originally started in order to produce game magazines.

4. The only real candidate wasn't interested in gambling. Computer Gaming World gets no respect. It is one of the most influential game mags ever made and deserves to be seen as such. But throughout the '80s, it wasn't a game mag so much as a technical journal for the game industry -- the New England Journal of Medicine of games, as others have put it.

Its circulation didn't even break 10,000 until the late '80s, and serious expansion didn't happen until advertising ballooned and the magazine was bought by Ziff Davis. This conservative approach allowed CGW to survive the crash, but its pioneering efforts didn't get nearly the audience they deserved at the time.

I've always considered it a shame that there was no ready equivalent to Nintendo Power for computer games back in the day. VideoGames & Computer Entertainment's PC coverage was getting there, but it was still too text-heavy and boring for really universal appeal.

As anyone alive in 1987 with $15 and transportation to K-Mart knew, there was a huge critical mass of game software screaming for coverage -- but it never quite came to pass on a national level until the PC compatible became the de-facto platform for computer games.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a really cool weblog about games and Japan and "the industry" and things. In his spare time he does writing and translation for lots and lots of publishers and game companies.]



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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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