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June 6, 2009

E3 Round-Up: The Press Conferences

[Well, having 'survived E3' (tm), I'd like to thank our awesome Gamasutra/Game Developer magazine staff for the dedicated coverage, quite a bit of which has spilled over onto GSW. We're pleased with our 'lower quantity, higher quality' attitude to interviews, write-ups, etc, so please humor us - here's part 1 of a 3-part E3 round-up: the press conferences.]

As part of GSW big sister site Gamasutra's E3 round-up, here's both our live coverage and analysis of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo's Los Angeles press conferences this week -- with essential facts and opinions all in one place.

Multiple Gamasutra staff were in place in Southern California to both cover the briefings live and provide post-event perspective.

Here's our stories on each of the major hardware manufacturer's conferences:


E3 2009: Microsoft's Press Conference Liveblog
"Specifics on The Beatles: Rock Band, Modern Warfare 2, Shadow Complex, Joy Ride, Crackdown 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Forza 3, Halo 3: ODST, Halo Reach, Alan Wake, Last.fm, Facebook, Twitter on Xbox Live, Metal Gear Solid: Rising on Xbox 360, and Microsoft's gesture/voice recognition device Project Natal."

Microsoft Debuts Project Natal Sensor Peripheral
"With the aim of removing the last barrier to universal accessibility for games -- the controller -- Microsoft unveiled Project Natal, an entirely gesture, voice and facial recognition-based technology at its E3 briefing."

E3 Analysis: This Year, Microsoft Lived Up To Its Own Hype
"Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander reflects from Los Angeles on Microsoft's E3 briefing -- why the company's real killer reveal will see the least buzz, and what announcements like Project Natal and MGS Rising could mean for the industry."


E3 2009: Nintendo Press Conference Liveblog
"Nintendo's quest to reach every type of gamer continues with the announcement of the pulse-sensing Wii Vitality Sensor, Team Ninja collaboration Metroid: Other M, Super Mario Galaxy 2 and more in this minute by minute blog of Nintendo's E3 press conference."

Nintendo Unveils Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario Bros. Wii, Metroid: Other M
"At its E3 media briefing today, Nintendo unveiled a new Super Mario Bros. title for Wii, a 4-player sidescrolling platformer, also confirming Wii Fit Plus to debut this Fall. [UPDATE: Super Mario Galaxy 2, Team Ninja co-operation Metroid: Other M announced.]"

Nintendo Announces Wii Vitality Sensor Peripheral
"One of the most unconventional announcements at Nintendo's E3 2009 conference is the Wii Vitality Sensor, a finger-mounted sensor that might be used as "a way to relax" in "this stressful society"."

E3 Analysis: Nintendo - Not Quite Status Quo
"Reporting from Nintendo's E3 press conference in Los Angeles, Gamasutra's Christian Nutt gives a detailed analysis of its performance, suggesting a "robust, full of surprises, and appealing", with one or two exceptions."


E3 2009 : Sony's Press Conference Liveblog
"Gamasutra covered Sony's E3 press conference live from Los Angeles, including Uncharted 2, M.A.G., PSP Go announce/pricing, Gran Turismo PSP, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker PSP, Rockstar's Agent, FFXIV Online, motion controller, ModNation Racers, The Last Guardian, Gran Turismo 5, God Of War III."

E3: PSP Go Download-Only Handheld Officially Announced
"Sony has announced the refreshed version of is PSP hardware, the download-only PSP Go, which debuts on October 1st in North America at a price of U.S.$249.99 -- in a 16 GB model."

E3 Analysis: Sony's Still Got It
"Sony had a high wall to climb to match the impact of Microsoft's E3 presentation yesterday, and in this analysis, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander finds that the company impressed -- with a caveat."

We're also updating in the near future with additional posts rounding up the first-party hardware and third-party publisher interviews and exclusive statements we gathered at E3.

E3: Valve Talks Left 4 Dead 2's Quick Sequel Strategy

[Another neat GSW-xpost from our E3 coverage -- with Valve's announcement of Left 4 Dead 2 coming just a year after its predecessor, Chris Remo spoke with project lead Tom Leonard about why the sequel is coming so soon -- and what it means for the original game.]

Valve's big E3 announcement -- that last year's hit Left 4 Dead would be followed up with a PC and Xbox 360 sequel this year -- was a surprise coming from a studio that has never delivered a full sequel in such a short timeframe.

It was made even more notable by Valve's oft-stated strategy of supporting its multiplayer games with new content and updates for many months or even years after their release, as exemplified by the ever-evolving Team Fortress 2.

At E3, as part of a longer forthcoming interview, we caught up with Tom Leonard, Valve developer and project lead on Left 4 Dead 2, to discuss the reason for the quick turnaround -- and the fate of the original Left 4 Dead.

"There's definitely not a change in policy," said Leonard in response to Gamasutra's inquiries as to whether this move represents a new direction for Valve's multiplayer efforts.

He pointed out that Valve has always experimented with different types of development and distribution. "With the various things we've done -- Half-Life 2, the big splash game that takes forever; or the episodic content; or the [Team Fortress 2] updates -- as a company we try to explore different ways of delivering value to the customer," he explained.

"For the team I'm working on, it was perceived that the best way to provide value was to provide this big experience."

Development on Left 4 Dead 2 began almost immediately after the first game shipped, following a short break, but the idea of a standalone sequel was borne out of necessity and practicality.

"The team got back together in early November, and we were all really excited to continue to expand the Left 4 Dead experience," Leonard recalled. "We hit the white board and came up with ideas about how we could expand the experience -- new characters, new locations, new positioning on the timeline of the infection, new game mechanics."

"As we started talking that through, it became clear that we weren't really talking about incremental updates; we were talking about a whole experience. And it would be hard to deliver that totality of experience in incremental bits."

"So I proposed to people, 'Why don't we try to make a sequel and do it in a year?' Everyone thought I was crazy, but as I talked them through the strategy of how to do it, the team collectively said, 'Yeah, that's interesting.'"

Leonard and the rest of the team discussed the idea with marketing VP Doug Lombardi and studio founder Gabe Newell, and were given the green light to proceed: "They said, 'Sounds great, if that's what you want to do.' Basically, the team was motivated to create an entire package."

But what about Left 4 Dead, which some players expect to fall by the wayside in the wake of its sequel?

Leonard declined to commit to there being more Valve-created content for the game, instead pointing out some upcoming functionality tweaks and the potential in user-created levels for the PC version. "We are doing updates across the summer, adding new matchmaking features, and new features to facilitate user maps after the SDK is out," he said. "Certainly, user maps will be part of the ongoing Left 4 Dead 1 experience."

"Additionally, those maps can be transported into Left 4 Dead 2. With regard to more content, it's hard to say, because the timeline for Left 4 Dead 2 is so sensitive, and the team has a head of steam right now for the game."

Best Of Indie Games: Reach for the Stars

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

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

The delights in this edition include a new release from the developer of Cursor*10, an art game, a platformer with charming graphics, two puzzle games, and a frantic horizontal shooter made in under forty-eight hours by the creator of Don't Look Back.

Game Pick: 'ClickPLAY!' (Ninjadoodle, browser)
"ClickPLAY! is a short puzzle game that is similar to Nekogames' Hoshi Saga series, where players would have to find a play button hidden somewhere in every level to progress. This usually requires completing a certain task, solving a puzzle, or finishing an arcade sequence so that the play button is revealed for you to click on."

Game Pick: 'Chaser' (Connor Carpenter, freeware)
"The aim of Chaser is to catch a small stick man who is running away from you through a black, grassy world of randomly placed trees, rocks and bushes. Starting off slowly, you soon gain speed by collecting coins which your prey hurls around. The brilliant thing which really makes this game so much fun to play is the music which builds itself up and the feeling of sheer speed once your score gets to around 1000 points."

Game Pick: 'Cat Gets 100 Stars' (Yoshio Ishii, browser)
"A small Flash game created by the developer of Cursor*10 and the Hoshi Saga series, where players are tasked with guiding a cat around the screen and collecting a hundred stars at their own leisurely pace. There's no time limit to complete your objective, although acquiring some stars might prove to be a little trickier than it seems at first."

Game Pick: 'Polkadot' (Andrew Brophy, freeware)
"Polkadot is a charming little platformer created by the developer of Sworrd Buster and Social Experiment, in which you play a rabbit searching for a party to attend. This will require solving a couple of puzzles and also conversing with the characters you meet during your short trip."

Game Pick: 'Bullet Time' (Terry Cavanagh, browser)
"Created in forty-eight hours for Mini Ludum Dare #9, Bullet Time is your standard retro shmup with the added bonus of a 'bullet time' effect thrown in. Everything from the action-packed playing area to the accompanying dance (by DestroySound and Kontinuum) beat make it all feel very hectic, and the rank-through-survival system works well."

Game Pick: 'LaserBox' (Dust United, browser)
"An interesting little puzzle game about guiding lasers through boxes in an attempt to uncover the hidden mirrors. Lasers and 'Impulses' can be fired from one of four directions into the group of boxes and will proceed to bounce around, eventually coming out somewhere else. Depending on where it pops out, you then need to work out where exactly it could have bounced and implement a Minesweeper-like removing/tagging strategy."

June 5, 2009

Emily Short Re-imagines Snow White With Alabaster

GameSetWatch columnist and Interactive Fiction author/maven Emily Short announced the release of her latest work -- Alabster, a "conversation-based re-imagining of the Snow White story." She introduces the "fractured fairy tale" with this curious text:

""The Queen has told you to return with her heart in a box. Snow White has made you promise to make other arrangements. Now that you're alone in the forest, it's hard to know which of the two women to trust. The Queen is certainly a witch — but her stepdaughter may be something even more horrible...

There are some eighteen possible endings to this fairy tale.

Some of them are even almost happy.""

Short didn't write the entire story, however. The game is a collaborative writing experiment, in that eleven authors contributed its dialogue with the help of a coding system with which participants could play through the beginning of the game, inserting new conversation whenever they wanted to be able to say something different.

Alabaster was recompiled and rereleased every day or two with new text, enabling authors to draw on one another's contributions. The resulting work extensively edited for continuity and conversation flow, then illustrated. Completed, their work incorporates some 415 snippets of conversation, many of which have "further alternate versions depending on just when the player encounters them."

The graphics are also an experiment in procedural illustration, displaying abstract sketches that indicate the current state of play, sometimes hinting at future possibilities. Alabaster's site describes the game's presentation of the illustrations as such: "Considered singly, the resulting images might be considered found art — or perhaps the work of the game itself."

You can download Alabaster for Mac or PC, with its corresponding (and required) interpreter on its official site, which also includes more technical details on the game's development, as well as walkthroughs for all of its endings, cover art, and more.

ESA: Game Biz Sees Strength Even With Recession, Anti-Game Legislation

[Almost finishing up our E3 coverage, the ESA's address earlier in the week was interesting in its retail-specific nuances but general positivity, I think. I also filed a different story about Mike Gallagher's responses to my question about piracy, but here's what he said in his speech.]

In his keynote address in the Los Angeles Convention Center, Entertainment Software Association president Michael Gallagher, speaking at the launch of the ESA-organized E3 conference waxed effusive on the strength of the game market "in this difficult economic time".

In starting off, he referenced the the significantly expanded E3, commenting that, even through the recession, the upgraded event showcased the game biz's "exceptionally [good]" performance.

Gallagher then cited the 22.9% increase in U.S. video game software revenues in 2008, and the $21 billion overall market. He did contrast this with early 2009, especially March and April, where NPD retail results overall "were not favorable", and commented - "there is no silver lining" for the companies and individuals affected. But he believes that there are still plenty of opportunities for increased revenue -- especially in the key fourth quarter of the year.

Discussing the industry's growing influence, Gallagher claimed the video game industry has become "the entertainment industry's most highly-sought commodity", and big entertainment companies have moved to embrace gaming wholeheartedly. Video games are "the preferred medium" for creativity among many young makers, he noted.

Gallagher then praised Grand Theft Auto IV as an example of a title that had "received widespread acclaim for its artistic value", citing a Rolling Stone review that was highly favorable, and pointing out Rockstar's Housers being listed on the Time 100 list.

He also referenced Nitin Sawhney's complex soundtrack for Heavenly Sword as an artistic highlight, and mentioned the Into The Pixel art exhibit, co-curated by the ESA, and its prominent South By Southwest Expo appearance.

The executive then cited stats from a newly released ESA 'State Of The Video Game Market' report which reveals that 68% of U.S. households play computer or video games, 42% have video games in their home, and 63% of parents believe games are a positive part of their children's lives.

He pointed out in particular: "Games are a social activity", and noted that 62% of gamers play games with other people in person, up for 56% in 2007 and 59% in 2008, according to the ESA's new survey.

The positive address also cited film-makers, including Steven Spielberg and Jerry Bruckheimer, working in video games, and then mentioned musicians The Beatles and Aerosmith turning to games "to replace lost revenue from declining CD sales".

Gallagher noted the blurring of lines in the entertainment medium overall, suggesting that games are at the center of this digital integration. The ESA president also praised the perennial up and comer, in-game advertising, and citing the Obama in-game advertising buy in titles such as Burnout Paradise.

Continuing somewhat quaintly, Gallagher suggested that some individuals are "actively beginning to test what online distribution models will mean for our business", noting that the industry association has "recalibrated our dues structure" and bolstered its ranks in recent months in order to change its largely retail-specific model. He particularly cited Trion World Network, a new ESA member who is entirely an online MMO-based company, as an example of this change.

Gallagher then noted that "we will need support" from both government and academia, citing Texas Governor Rick Perry's work to increase incentives in Texas for video game development, noting that 18 states this year have considered expanding support for game development-based tax breaks and other incentives.

He then suggested that "there will remain some in Government" in North America that might "lay society's ills at our doorstep", but believes strongly that "standing up for our constitutional rights" is very important for those in the game industry. Referencing the ESA's Video Game Voters Network, he noted that 31,000 letters were sent to government representatives in the last fiscal year complaining over anti-game legislation, and 74,000 total over the lifetime of the Network.

Concluding, Gallagher praised games as the "entertainment industry leader", and particularly commented: "I encourage you to be confident about our future... you will see why video games are on every screen in our society."

In a relatively quiet Q&A period, Gallagher did answer in-depth on the question of piracy, as covered separately, and also took a question from Dennis McCauley of GamePolitics.com on whether the recent California state difficulties in getting its game bill approved would stop politicians from trying to legally regulate the game industry.

"No it won't", said Gallagher, commenting that there are 50 states, and each of which has "at least 100... decisionmakers" that could continue to propose bills at any time.

He did note that the ESA had been to federal court 12 times to have bills overturned, and commented that overall, "we'll face challenges", but suggested: "Our advocacy and the growth of our industry are beginning to turn that issue around."

He particularly suggested that co-proposers of bills have decreased in recent months, as legislators find less peers willing to back bills against violent or adult games.

This Weekend: Chiptune Acts, GalleryNES at 8Static

8Static, Philadelphia's monthly chiptunes/8-bit video event returns to Studio 34 this Saturday, this time featuring performances by Italian micromusic artist Tonylight and chiptune rapper (don't think I've ever heard one of these before!) A_Rival, with sets by Cheap Dinosaur and Chromix as well. Alex "enso" Bond, advertised as "Philadelphia's finest pixel pusher", will also make an appearance.

Don't just plan to go for the music and visuals, though -- Don "No Carrier" Miller will also present a "Soft Circuit-Bending on the NES" workshop similar to his presentation at New York City's 2009 Bent Festival, but with some new information on his latest project, GalleryNES.

As its name suggests, GalleryNES is "an open source picture gallery for the Nintendo Entertainment System." With the program, you can create your own pixel art and view it in an emulator or on a real NES (provided you have an NES flashcart) in slideshow format!

LittleBigColossus DLC Teased For Next Week

Continuing to tease fans with promises of Team Ico content for LittleBigPlanet, Media Molecule posted this sneak peak of its planned Shadow of the Colossus downloadable content releasing next week. Considering the artwork the studio released last Friday, it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that the PS3 title will also receive Ico-themed content.

Team Ico-themed items and costumes seem like a given, but considering the effort Media Molecule has put into hyping the DLC's release, I wouldn't be surprised to see new levels in the pack, too!

[Via Offworld]

Reloading: Vectorized Commodore 64 Screens

Way of the Rodent forumer Mugsy has posted yet another batch of vectorized Commodore 64 loading screens, adding 15 more wallpaper-sized shots to the 24 that we've already shared with you. Some of the featured games this time around include Warhawk, Spy vs. Spy, Gunship and many more.

I've pasted my favorite loading screens (Nemesis the Warlock, Army Moves) from the new group below, but you can see the entire collection at Daily Rodent, too.

The Game Anthropologist: Examining Massively Single Player Online Games

[The 'Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's GameSetWatch-exclusive column about communities built around gaming. This week he notes the commonalities in Massively Single Player Online games.]

Lately some have been arguing that, as far as games are concerned, content is not always king. In the April 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine, Steve Theodore discussed alternative conceptions of games as art. After noting John Carmack's "We're doing entertainment" quote, Theodore writes: "Honestly, not many games can live up to the Romantic ideal [of art].

Recently, Chris Remo pointed out that many games seem to shoot to become epic, and Leigh Alexander suggested that perhaps it's time we stop looking for a “Citizen Kane”. In short: games are games first and foremost, and anything else is incidental.

There is an area of gamingdom that contests the point of content, at least, (though not necessarily art). I refer not to gaming critics, i.e. the “Brainysphere” (which this column has already covered), but to Massively Single Player Online games. The first place I saw the term printed was in the game ForumWarz, though it is certainly not the first of its kind.

A couple I know that plays games both invited me to Mafia Wars on Facebook, an application whose name evokes either a blessing for the bored or a curse for the busy. I received invites from them on the same day.

This wasn’t my friend’s friend or an elementary school memory that were making a request this time--these were very Internet-savvy people, good friends that are well-versed in netiquette who know what stuff online is truly awesome and what is just a fad or yawn. Prodded both by my trust in their recommendations and my guilt for not keeping in touch with them enough, I hesitantly allowed my first Facebook game to be installed on my computer. My wife is playing it now too.

The premise is simple and the mechanics even more so—you are in the mafia, trying to move your way up the ranks. You do this by going up levels by doing varying jobs and by fighting other players. An attack automatically calculates both players’ stats, mafia size, weapons and armors and does a couple of rolls (critical hits, etc.) and gives an instant result. Whoever deals more damage is the winner. The defending player doesn’t have to be there, and simply receives a notification when he logs in.

Jobs are even simpler; you must have the required equipment, and then spend varying amounts of energy; the higher the energy, the more experience and money. There is a chance to collect loot. Both energy and stamina (the ability to fight) are point-based and refill every 3 or 5 minutes, depending on which class you choose.

Players can also buy properties to increase income (which occurs every 54 or 60 minutes, depending on class) and rob/damage other players’ properties instead of fight. Lastly, one can spend stamina to put another a player on the hitlist. Other players can browse the hitlist and collect money for knocking out another player, which reduces said player’s experience points.

I’ve left very little out. All the game is inventory, cash, and point management, with occasional bickering and feuds. He who has the highest level or most money gets to win. It’s a never-ending race to the top in simplified form. An MSO, not an MMO.

Still, the content is highly mafia-oriented; the sheer number of jobs and loot items forces Zynga, the creators of the game, to get creative. Mugging, hits, robberies and murders are what you’d expect, but “Help a fugitive flee the country”, “Sell guns to the Russian mob”, “Move stolen merchandise”, “Influence a harbor official” and “Run illegal poker” game are jobs that indeed Mafia-related, but not the first that come to mind.

The whole thing is watered down because it’s on Facebook (or Myspace, or the iPhone); it’s popular because it borrows heavily (knowingly or not) from MSOs that have come before it. Kingdom of Loathing, started in 2003, has a large mass of writing and plenty of doodles to represent monsters, characters, places, and items. It has Zelda-style puzzles put in Choose-your-own-adventure form, personal shops, guilds, and a grammar test you’re required to pass in order to enter the chat room.

More recent is ForumWarz, a game based on the Internet itself. Unlike Mafia Wars or Kingdom of Loathing, each fight is long and protracted, each turn represented by an attempt to “pwn” forums by trolling, attention-whoring, or whatever else it is your class does.

One loses by having one’s ego deflated by the responses posted. The automatically generated posts written by the people you “pwn” and the moves you do are classic, satirical, funny, and accurate. With ForumWarz or Kingdom of Loathing, you can attack other players, join guilds, and trade loot, but the games and their successes can be heavily attributed to the unique and rewarding content.

There are plenty of other MSOs (Urban Dead being one of them), but the successful ones all have some attributes in common:

--All are based on stats, money, loot, rank, and clans or guilds
--The best extent to which players can communicate with each other is through messages, forums, or chat, all of which don’t occur “in game”
--All require alternative and creative revenue streams, and must be free to play. Methods include microtransactions, merchandising, and donation requests
--Actions or turns are limited so as to reduce server loads and costs. Some regenerate slowly every few minutes, others simple reset every 24 hours
--Must have interesting or popular content, especially if merchandising is a revenue model
--They generally prohibit multiple character creation
-They encourage player-banding by heavily rewarding group associations in order to recruit new players to expand the player base and sustain merchandise sales.

This last point is ironic, since these are essentially single player games, but it forges communities based around the culture of the game. In the case of Mafia Wars, that culture is Facebook, which partially explains why player interaction is limited.

Despite the large focus on content, Mafia Wars’ differences with typical MSOs illustrate an interesting point: even single player games can form and stimulate game communities, and the game design still effects them.

This is why in Kingdom of Loathing, the players are so formal, but in ForumWarz, the players are more likely to be vulgar (though they are still required to play and post nicely). Whatever the choice, MSOs are a rare way to make being a part of a game community free.

Adam Atomic Posts Flixel Actionscript Files

Adam "Atomic Saltsman, the developer behind recently featured Fathom and the Dr. Dobbs platformer/level editor, has posted Flixel, a free collection of Actionscript 3 files designed to help "organize, automate, and optimize Flash games."

According to Saltsman, it's an "object-oriented framework that lets anyone create original and complex games with thousands of objects on screen in just a few hours, without using any of the Flash libraries." Flixel features built-in retro game physics and effects, an improved version of the tech that powered Gravity Hook and Fathom, source code for a simple but complete game, and more.

The Flixel site also includes documentation for the framework and a forum for discussion among Flixel developers.

E3 Interview: Nintendo's Kaigler: 'We Need Core Gamers'

[Continuing our 'best of Gamasutra' GSW-relevant excerpts - Nintendo's VP of corporate affairs speaks to Christian Nutt on its competitors' motion control solutions, the esoteric Wii Vitality Sensor, and why the house of Mario "needs core gamers".]

Depending on who you listen to, Nintendo has had a stronger or weaker showing at E3 -- but the general consensus, even among the enthusiast press, seems to be trending positively.

The company is largely in iterative mode, relying on trusted IP on both the casual (Wii Sports Resort) and hardcore (Metroid: Other M) sides, with two new Mario games in between. The major surprise was the Wii Vitality Sensor, which showed -- uncharacteristically -- without so much as a concept demo.

Meanwhile, the competition in the console wars, Sony and Microsoft, both showed advanced motion control solutions for their platforms.

Gamasutra spoke to Denise Kaigler, Nintendo of America's VP of corporate affairs, to find out her take on the show's announcements at her company and at the others, and to see if we could gauge the mindset of the company that seems locked into the industry's number one spot at the moment.

During the press conference, Nintendo of America president and COO Reggie Fils-Aime joked, prior to debuting hardcore darling Metroid: Other M, that he reads the blogs and is well aware that Nintendo's core, long-term fan base has been less than impressed with the company's output. How much does that audience impact the company's strategy?

"We all read the blogs -- everyone does," Kaigler says. "If you're asking if what we read on the blogs has an absolute impact on our strategy, I guess the simple answer is that our strategy isn't done right at that moment... our strategy is long-term. Our strategy has always been to expand the gaming universe."

However, she says, "We need core gamers. We recognize that and we've always known that, though. We announce games when they're ready to be announced. I'm glad you described the overall tone of the press conference as being balanced, because that's what our strategy is."

Kaigler makes clear that the company appreciates its fans: "To hear the sound of the applause when we announced Metroid: Other M was amazing. We got chills."

The Wii Fit Audience

Wii Fit Plus, as implied by its title, isn't so much a sequel to the original game as an expansion that improves its basic functionality -- in fact, Kaigler confirmed that it will supplant the original title and is compatible with its save data, and contains all of its content.

But will such a strategy appeal to the millions who own the original? "We do believe that [Wii Fit Plus] will appeal to the audience," says Kaigler. "It has everything that the millions of consumers who have already expressed their love for Wii Fit, and has everything else."

Working With Developers

Kaigler referred to Nintendo president Satoru Iwata's GDC keynote when asked about Nintendo's relationship with its developers. Says Kaigler, "I know you were at GDC, and I know that one of the reasons Mr. Iwata wanted to speak at GDC and hand [developers] on a silver platter 150 million consumers [on DS and Wii] -- what an install base!"

But is the technical and design expertise of Nintendo filtering down to the development teams? Does Nintendo have processes in place to make sure that happens? Kaigler was a bit more vague on that.

"I would hope and assume that the information is getting down to the folks that need it." Says, Kaigler, "All you need to do is read any news report to understand the opportunity." Sure, the opportunity's obvious -- but is appealing to Nintendo's audience? That question is murkier.

With the market penetration for the Balance Board peripheral which comes packed with Wii Fit so high, Kaigler says the company is "making sure our partners understand the opportunity that the Balance Board presents for them." Commercial opportunities are there, but assistance may prove elusive.

But Kaigler does see strong support on the E3 show floor. 5th Cell and Warner Bros. Interactive's Scribblenauts for the DS is being touted by many as the sleeper hit of the show.

"We're glad they've [the developers] made that shift" in thinking about creating DS games that take advantage of the platform, says Kaigler -- and "It's so cool that [Ubisoft] has demonstrated their commitment to Wii Motion Plus by making Red Steel 2 exclusive" to the peripheral.

On Being, Staying Number One

"It's up to us to make sure that we're continuing to push the envelope" on software design, says Kaigler. "We've been fortunate that consumers have chosen Nintendo time and time again. We're going to try to keep that level of support among consumers of all generations."

With Wii Motion Plus, says Kaigler -- despite the fact that it's packed in with surefire hit Wii Sports Resort -- "We're not taking anything for granted. We never take anything for granted. You can open up any newspaper and see companies who were number one and don't even exist anymore... It's up to us to earn our place at number one."

Our discussion with Kaigler ventured into the shifting fortunes of the different companies over the history of E3 -- when the show began in the '90s, the big fight was Sony versus Sega, with Sony the obvious and clear winner.

"That's exactly my point. For Nintendo to take anything for granted would be crazy, it would be stupid, it would be irresponsible. We don't make the decision to be number one. We make the decision to bring to market certain products and technologies," says Kaigler, and consumers respond.

"Pick any number of technologies out there," she continues. "We didn't know how much we needed them until we got them. That's what our philosophy is -- to develop and bring to market fun experiences that the consumer won't even know they want until they've got them!" 

Important Questions Remain

Kaigler was a little bit reticent to talk about the mysterious Wii Vitality Sensor, but when pressed, did mention some concrete details. "We're going to hear more about it ... They're working on it. It's slated to hit retail next year, 2010. The accessory will come bundled with the software, much like Wii Fit comes bundled with the balance board."

Another important question is just how well Nintendo's audience responds to its downloadable content efforts -- its network just doesn't seem as robust as the competition. Unfortunately, in the case of DSi, Kaigler wasn't answering. "I don't have the data handy on what our downloads are for DSiWare. It hasn't been out for very long and it's finding its audience."

Nintendo is truly a global company, but the vast majority of its development takes place in Japan. This can be a pitfall for companies, as has been absolutely demonstrated over the course of this generation. Does NOA truly have input into Nintendo Ltd.'s software decisions?

Says Kaigler, "It's a collaboration, it really is. It's a true collaboration."

"Reggie and the localization teams in the US work very closely with Mr. Iwata and Mr. Miyamoto and the development teams in Japan. I think one of the reasons those games appeal to such a broad range of consumers is that collaboration."

Three Consoles, Three Motion Control Solutions

Of course, both Sony and Microsoft debuted motion control solutions at E3 -- Microsoft's Project Natal, Sony with its prototype camera/controller hybrid.

What's Nintendo's reaction? Says Kaigler, "It's great to see that motion sensing control has now become an industry standard. It's great when anything is announced that can continue to build on what Nintendo started years ago. Anything that continues to expand the market and bring more gamers into the video game industry is great for the industry, certainly great for consumers, and it's great for Nintendo."

However, she says, "There's no information to really judge; we don't know anything about the price or availability of the products that were announced. Certainly the key difference is that we pioneered motion sensing control three years ago."

"It's here and it's now. And show attendees can go down to the show floor and actually have fun playing with our technology and our games today. Seeing the smiles and laughs around the Nintendo booth is fabulous, it's contagious."

But surely these companies have the potential to bring these products to market with compelling software solutions, right? "You said one key word twice -- 'potentially'. That's a pretty critical word: potential. For us to respond to potential, there's nothing for us to respond to; nothing for us to react to. We're going to keep doing our thing and hope that the consumer continues to have fun with our products."

June 4, 2009

Brick Theatre Preparing Adventure Quest, Game Play

Beginning this weekend, Sneaky Snake Productions kicks off its run of Adventure Quest, a stage play combining vintage graphics and 8-bit music to present a theater piece reminiscent of 1980s adventure gaming, particularly Sierra Entertainment's titles like King's Quest and Quest for Glory.

Adventure Quest stars a generic hero who becomes more and more self-aware as the game/play progresses:

"The town of Perilton has been invaded by the dreaded Cult of the Octopus, and our dashing hero is the only one who can save it! Gasp as he evades bloodthirsty monsters and solves devious puzzles! Cheer him on as he fights to win the hand of the mayor's beautiful daughter! Watch as he meticulously collects inventory items, and then exchanges them with other characters for new inventory items, which are then used to solve more puzzles!

Shift uncomfortably in your seat as the narrative becomes increasingly unhinged! Glance around nervously as characters are brutally murdered for no particular reason! Weep silently as your faith in a meaningful, ordered universe is irrevocably shaken!"

Seats for Adventure Quest's first night (this Saturday) at the Antidepressant Festival in Brooklyn's Brick Theatre are already sold out, but there are still three shows afterward on June 17th, June 25th, and July 4th -- celebrate Independence Day with video gaming theatre!

You can also catch this "nostalgic treat and a glimpse into the yawning void" (as described by the show's organizers) at Brick Theatre's Game Play event, a three-week gala featuring three game party nights and three performances "executed through video games and in video game styles".

The game parties entail an MMORPG Night where attendees play massively multiplayer online RPGs in a theatre, a Rock Band karaoke night with Harmonix's game played karaoke-style in a theatre, and a chiptunes dance party night promising game-inspired micromusic with video game projections on The Brick's 20-foot screen.

Along with Adventure Quest, Game Play's other two shows include Suspicious Package: Rx, "a 1960s sci-fi dystopia of a far-flung future that could be right around the corner" told via Zune media players; and Thank You, But Our Princess Is In Another Castle, four live-action machinima pieces that present four classical theater texts through World of Warcraft, Halo 3 and Grand Theft Auto 4.

You can read more about Game Play at The Brick's official page for the event.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Interplay in Left 4 Dead

Common Infected['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at enemy interplay in Left 4 Dead.]

The role of enemies in video games tends to be as obstacles. The player character must get from point A to point B, and an army of goons stands in her way, forcing her to take time to thin the mob before continuing on. In most games, these enemies do not cooperate in any meaningful way.

Yes, they are all pursuing the same goal — kill the player character — but they do it in a simple way, without taking advantage of each other's abilities. The power of a group of enemies is equal to the total power of its members.

Sometimes, enemies are more complex. Half-Life is one of the first games to use squad-based artificial intelligence, where human grunts share information and coordinate their attacks to better inconvenience the player. Occasionally, a particular pair of enemy types are designed as partners to work together. It's especially common in strategy-focused games to find a rock-paper-scissors pattern of enemy strengths, but on a small scale this is more about the units' individual weaknesses than any sort of interaction of abilities.

Valve Software's Left 4 Dead, however, has a very complex example of cooperation and interaction between enemies, compressed into just six types of Infected units. These units, through the interplay between their unique abilities, have more than additive group strength. The power of a group of these enemies is greater than the sum of its members, because of this interaction.

Special InfectedBlood Harvest

The player characters, or Survivors, are threatened by six types of Infected in L4D's zombie apocalypse: Common, Hunters, Boomers, Smokers, Tanks, and Witches. These remain the same in all gameplay modes, although other players can control Hunters, Boomers, Smokers, and Tanks in Versus mode. These six can be separated into three categories: Common, Special, and Boss Infected.

Common Infected are in their own group. They are fragile zombies who go down in just a few shots, but they are great in number. Common appear in two forms: as "wandering zombies," who begin scattered around the world and provide little more than target practice, and "horde zombies," who rush in groups of 10-30 and mob the Survivor players, causing much more danger. All Common Infected are attracted by beeping pipe bombs and car alarms. At most difficulty levels, the Common Infected are environmental hazards; they obscure vision, block movement, and require the players to take time to thin their numbers. The other enemy types take advantage of the Common Infected to become more dangerous themselves.

The Special Infected aren't much stronger than Common Infected, but they have special abilities. The Hunter can leap great distances and tackle a Survivor, immobilizing and damaging her until the other Survivors come to the rescue. He is also the hardest to distinguish from Common Infected, making him stealthy despite his loud screams. The Boomer is large and easily-spotted, but he can attract horde zombies by vomiting on the Survivors, or simply by being close enough to them when he explodes on death. The Smoker is the easiest to spot due to his cloud of smoke and spores, but he is able to pull Survivors with his tongue.

These three combine in powerful ways. The ability of the Hunter to instantly incapacitate makes it a bad idea for the Survivors to split up, while the Boomer's bile attacks are more effective if the Survivors are in a tight group. The Smoker can pull a Survivor away from the group, which makes the Hunter's pounce more deadly and the horde summoned from the Boomer's bile more dangerous. The Hunter can more easily go unnoticed when the Survivors' vision is obscured by the Boomer's bile. Individually, the Special Infected are fragile enough that they pose only a minor threat, but when more than one attacks at once, they become considerably more dangerous.

The Boss Infected are even more exceptional threats. The Witch can be killed quickly with concentrated, coordinated fire, but if she survives the initial attack she is guaranteed to at least incapacitate a Survivor. The Tank, on the other hand, is simply huge, sturdy, and strong, which makes battles with him last longer than with any other Infected. These Boss Infected are powerful enough to present significant threats on their own, but when combined with the Special Infected, they become even worse. The distraction of a Special can cause the Survivors to inadvertently set off the Witch, while the Tank is sufficiently distracting in his own right to allow the Specials to be much more effective.

By creating enemies that can combine their abilities to become even more powerful, Valve significantly increased the complexity of L4D gameplay. Instead of simply worrying about six kinds of enemies, the players must worry about 36 combinations. This increases the game's challenge without making any single threat more dangerous. Players enjoy this interplay because it creates memorable situations with interesting solutions.

Boss Infected
No Mercy

The technique of enemy interplay can be used in any game which has varied types of enemies. Each enemy should be designed with a specific special ability or set of abilities. The Hunter can leap and pounce, the Boomer can vomit and explode, and the Smoker can pull. The designer should then think about how to make these abilities interact.

Imagine if the Boomer could vomit from a long distance, essentially hurling globs of bile instead of spraying it at close range. This would make it much more dangerous, but would weaken the interplay between it and the Smoker. Because the Boomer has a limited range, it benefits from the Smoker's ability to reposition Survivors.

Paradoxically, this process will often involve weakening individual enemies in order to make them even stronger in combination. Providing an enemy with a weakness lets the designer compensate for that weakness with a different enemy. Instead of two strong enemies working independently, they are two weak enemies working together. This is more interesting and often more challenging than a mob of independent foes.

By creating interplay between enemies, a designer can make a game more interesting and strategic. The extra complexity will be recognized by the player, and will make the gameplay experience more fun and longer-lasting. Games that take "a minute to learn and a lifetime to master" consist of simple elements that combine to provide a hidden complexity, and they have greater longevity and player investment than more straight-forward works. A designer who takes lessons from Left 4 Dead's enemy designs will create a richer, more engaging game.

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

4Kids Combining Trading Card Game, Cartoon, and Energy Drinks

Children's television production company 4Kids is taking a break from angering anime fans with inaccurate localizations for their favorite shows to launch its latest evil scheme on unsuspecting Canadians: an unholy triumvirate bringing together a popular cartoon, a trading card game, and a line of energy drinks.

Chaotic beverages -- based on the show of the same name and concocted by 4Kids, subsidiary TC Digital Games, and U & Me Marketing -- comes in four flavors "inspired by creatures and gameplay" from the card game: Dragon Fruit (Caffeine-Free) / Power Pulse; Blood Orange / Mind Strike; Grape Punch / Elixir of Tenacity; and Kiwi Melon – Sour / Fearocity.

Each drink can includes a tab that reveals an alpha-numeric code, which children can enter into the Chaotic card game site to unlock a virtual version of a card. The drinks are sold individually, and as four-packs that include a booster pack of cards.

No need to fear that this card game/tv show/energy drink mix will leave your kids addicted and strung out, though, as the four "formulations" are 100 percent natural! “The Chaotic beverage provides a great tasting choice for hydration that also helps contribute to one’s daily needs for a number of essential nutrients, antioxidants and functional herbs,” says U & Me Marketing's corporate dietitian, nutritionist, and regulatory affairs manager Carol Kerley-Rimmer.

Johnny Lee Helping Bring Project Natal To Living Rooms

One of the most common reactions gamers voiced after seeing Johnny Chung Lee's 3D head-tracking and interactive whiteboard demonstrations with the Wii Remote was "Nintendo needs to hire this guy!" It turns out that one of the big three platform holders did bring in the Carnegie Mellon University PhD (in Human-Computer Interaction) -- Microsoft now has the researcher working on its own motion control solution, Project Natal.

Lee didn't provide any new details on the sensor device, but he noted in his personal blog that his work on the project didn't actually appear in Microsoft's press briefing:

"I don't deserve credit for anything that you saw at E3. A large team of very smart, very hard working people were involved in building the demos you saw on stage. The part I am working on has much more to do with making sure this can transition from the E3 stage to your living room - for which there is an even larger team of very smart, very hard working people involved."

He went onto to say that working on Project Natal has felt like a "miniature 'Manhattan project' with developers and researchers from around the world coming together", describing the controller-free experience as a "pretty measurable step" towards a personal holodeck.

Game Characters Abound on Edge's Free Pixel Art Poster

Included with this month's issue of Edge magazine (for subscribers, at least) is this wonderful poster from extremely talented pixel artist Gary J Lucken (Army of Trolls). Scattered across the art, you'll see appearances from familiar video game characters like Brain Age's Dr. Kawashima, Bub and Bob, PaRappa the Rapper, Pac-Man, the Prince, and dozens more.

If you push your face against this larger photo of the poster taken by Jellymedia, you'll even seen a miniature scene taken from Street Fighter II, with Ken and Guile exchanging fireballs and flash kicks. You can see more of the Switzerland-based artist's work below or on his website.

E3 Analysis: Dante's Inferno Doesn't Need To Be Literature

[At E3, our own Leigh Alexander looks at Visceral Games' Dante's Inferno to argue that perhaps it doesn't need to take its source material -- the seminal, epic poem -- as seriously as some have suggested it ought.]

Audiences often urge game developers to create more sophisticated, artful experiences, and one avenue to this may be to take inspiration from literature. But when creating games -- especially action games -- how faithful to often austere source material should games be?

As soon as details first began emerging on Electronic Arts' Dante's Inferno, earnest, artful and chin-stroking audiences were unhappy that Alighieri's revolutionary epic poem took so many liberties with the source material.

It's not hard to see why. Where the Divine Comedy's Dante is a suicidal soul-searcher on a journey of discovery about self and sin, Inferno's is a former Crusader armed with a giant scythe that looks like it's made out of a monster's spine.

They've made of the hero a real video game character, complete with "dark past", added a vaguely risque subplot about rescuing Beatrice from the devil's seduction, and pegged on a cheerfully insouciant "Go To Hell" tagline.

As a religious allegory, the original work had -- and continues to have -- significant cultural and spiritual impact, and yet here's a revoltingly gory boss kill involving putting a monster's tongue into a spiked gear (developer Visceral Games aptly chose its new name).

None of this is in the Divine Comedy, of course. Surely Visceral could have done more with one of humanity's greatest pieces of literature than make a God of War clone, right?

Judging by its E3 demo, overt mechanical similarities to God of War probably give the game more to worry about in the court of public opinion than whether or not it's faithful to the source material.

Gleefully gruesome and literally hellish, the game seems to use the poem's backbone and references to enrich an action game, rather than use the game as an attempt to emulate an epic poem in video game form.

The very same literature buffs who despaired the lack of fidelity in Dante's Inferno can still get a kick out of recognizable symbology and references in the game -- whether that's hacking up repulsive, spewing "Gluttony minions" by the River Styx, or the imagination of Chiron's boat as a living entity with a head to be twisted off at the neck. There are unbaptized babies running around with weapons.

"The real inspiration is the setting, the characters and the script," senior producer Justin Lambros tells Gamasutra. He says the team was interested in visualizing an "actual geography of hell," and the visuals on screen often go with the voice-over from the actual Divine Comedy narrating each scene.

The Divine Comedy, after all, is largely a poem about two guys walking and talking -- not exactly the core gameplay of an action game. In that way, the liberties the team took were intended to create a stronger video game, a more reasonable priority for, well, a video game, than focusing on a strong epic poem adaptation.

As for the batty storyline, Lambros says the team intended to go "over the top" -- and maybe it should. It's an action title set in Hell. Why not have fun with it?

That's certainly not to assert that games should never treat literary sources with gravity. Audiences would like a game that uses the medium's potential to correspond with other cultural sources, and that's an excellent goal. Dante's Inferno is not that game -- it would rather be an action title.

And that's okay. It still becomes an interesting argument for the merit of taking inspiration, rather than being imitative.

Stuffed Animal Controller: Pluff

As impressive and immersive as Lionhead's demo for Milo was at Microsoft's E3 press conference, I think I'd rather play with this Pluff prototype that Diana Hughes has on display at IndieCade. I've seen photos of the strange game passed around for the past couple of days, and was immediately interested in its cuteness, but I wasn't able to track down its name or a video demonstration of it until this morning.

Petting and hugging the Pluff controller will make the creature displayed in the corresponding Flash game happier. You can also abuse him to make him sad, but then he won't perform or learn any tricks, like standing on its head or playing hide-and-seek. According to Hughes, the prototype is designed to "increase the sophistication of e‐textile applications and methods" while combining on-screen content and a physical interface to "create an emotionally engaging experience for the user".

You can watch more video of Pluff and read details about the game's initial design at Hughes' site.

[Via Los Angeles Times]

E3: The APB Interview

[My colleagues continue to do a bang-up job on Gamasutra reporting, and we're reprinting the longer-form highlights here. In this one, a rare interview, Brandon Sheffield speaks with Realtime Worlds boss Dave Jones about APB, the EA Partners publishing deal, Counter-Strike's influence on the game, and "eco-gangs" roaming the beta's streets.]

On E3’s pre-show press event day, it was announced that EA Partners would be handling the retail distribution and publishing for Crackdown creator Realtime Worlds’ new action/shooting MMO, All Points Bulletin, or APB.

Dave Jones, creative director of Realtime Worlds and original GTA 1 and 2 creator, doesn’t typically do interviews, but was on-hand at EA’s press conference to answer a few of our questions.

We quizzed him, as well as CEO Gary Dale, on the newly-announced partnership, Realtime Worlds’ evolution as a company, and details about the game itself, from matchmaking, to instancing, to the choice of genre.

How did this deal come about?

Dave Jones: As you know, we’re about to release APB, it’s an online game, and we took the responsibility of things like the hosting, serving the game, customer service, and things like that. That’s something that we’re comfortable with, and that’s a goal of ours for developing the company. But of course, we still need at the end of the day, a tremendous distribution and marketing part.

And we talked to a few companies, but really you know, for the same reason it ticks the box with companies like Valve, and Harmonix in those days, it ticked the box for us as well. EA’s one of the best publishing and distribution partners out there. And they love the game, and I’ve never had a chance to work with EA as well, so it’s just for all those reasons.

Is that kind of why you previously tried to partner with Webzen, and then subsequently un-partnered with them?

DJ: (laughs) Yeah, so we partnered very early. The online space, when we partnered with Webzen was not something, that many companies over here in Europe or North America had any experience with.

We wanted to learn a bit, et cetera, and they had some plans to come into the west, so their plans kind of, you know, took a backward step in some respects, and we raised some money and said listen, we’ll just buy the rights back and publish it outselves.

Having internal customer support, it’s quite difficult to build up. How have you found that?

DJ: Well that’s part of the reason why Gary (Dale, CEO) came on as well.

Gary Dale: Yeah, the last three or four years that Dave’s been working on this, it’s been a very development-focused company. We’re now at the stage as we move toward the launch of APB that we transform from being a development company to also an online publisher, so that changes everything in terms of the retail distribution we’re going to need, in North America and in Europe.

We’re very happy with the deal we’ve got there, and we’ve built up our own internal operations team, and through that we’ve hired people who have some deep experience building these kinds of operations.

There are certain companies who are working with us, and we actually announced in the last few days one of the companies working with us. We have a deal with a company called Internap, which will be one of our partners helping to provide the backbone.

There will be other announcements in due course about other aspects of the infrastructure we’ve got in place in North America and Europe to support the game.

You’re right, it is a lot of work, but we think to be a next-generation online publisher, that is very much the kind of resource we need in house, and the kind of resource we need on the retail and distribution side is what we’ve got with EAP.

So Realtime Worlds is essentially self-publishing with marketing and distribution help?

GD: Well on the retail side, it’s a very deep publishing relationship we’ve got. I wouldn’t want to underestimate EA’s involvement.

Of course. Realtime Worlds is now how many people?

DJ: 225-230 or so.

I was just thinking one of the problems in the Scottish game industry previously was companies ballooning too large and then imploding. Are you looking at that?

GD: Well making great games always helps. (laughs) No, I mean I know what you mean. And Dave has a long history in this business and a really successful track record, so as Dave says, hit games support good companies. That’s not a major concern.

DJ: And that’s not just true for Scotland, that’s true for anywhere.

Well yeah, but Scotland being an easier-to-define region, one can be more specific about it.

DJ: Yeah, true. There’s a lot there.

As a kind of high-level question, for APB what was it you felt you wanted to fill within the online space? Obviously a lot of companies just feel they can chase WoW.

DJ: Yeah, just press the win button. Well really for us, a kind of action, you know, highly dynamic persistent online world. WoW’s great, and it’s attracting huge numbers, but let’s face it there’s probably still more players on GTA and Call of Duty in terms of online.

They love online games, they spend all their time there, but really, nobody’s trying to push the envelope in terms of personalization, customization, persistence, matchmaking, so many areas that are ripe for somebody to come in. It’s intimidating for those with less experience, or less time maybe, who want to dip in and dip out of the game.

When I look at it I don’t think of an MMO, I think more of like Counter-Strike missions or something like that.

DJ: We were just talking about that, and you’re absolutely right. I actually stated at GDC last year, the basis of this game is Counter-Strike. All the stuff around it.

Oh yeah, I was at that, so maybe that’s where I got that idea. Whoops!

DJ: But it is! And I just think the time’s right. And to be honest with you tough in terms of technology to bring 100 players into dynamic cities that people expect in things like Crackdown. So that’s one of the reasons why people haven’t done it yet.

Well I think having 100 people at a time, basically that solves all your instancing problems, you’ve got a persistent world that you can control a lot better.

DJ: Yeah.

But does that require more maintenance because other companies may have somewhat less fragmented of a playerbase.

DJ: We’ll it’s not been an issue for us. 100 is good, it means you can be kind of personal. How hard is it to be a winner out of 10-20,000, that’s kind of hard in some respects. Not everybody wants to lose, and it’s hard if you want to have a lot of winners as well. And people can pick and choose their 100 as well.

How is the matchmaking?

DJ: The matchmaking is actually pretty interesting, the matchmaking is all dynamic. It’s more about “I want to go there,” because there may be a clan there that you have some personal grudges with. And if you go into the 100 player city with them, there’s a very high chance that you’re going to get match-made with them.

One of the first things I thought is that there’s a high potential for someone to just join the law and order side and then screw it all up.

DJ: Well I don’t really think there’ll be much of that, it’d be hard for law enforcement to screw it up. In terms of if they don’t respond, the system handles that. If you’re having a coffee and a donut, and they put out an APB and you don’t respond, we very very quickly recognize that kind of stuff.

The game puts the APBs out to other enforcers, et cetera, and we start taking rep away from those players that don’t respond, so it actually works very very well, because I just think the setting, you know, law enforcement versus criminals, is so perfect for that.

Is it basically like the two groups, or do the criminals fight amongst themselves?

DJ: Absolutely. We never match enforcers against enforcers, but if there are criminals and you want to fight against other criminals, you’re right, absolutely you can.

I assume then that it’s much more like localized skirmishes and scenarios versus large-scale battles?

DJ: It is, but we have metagroups as well. So for example if there’s a group with 5 players from one of the best clans in the game, and they’ve been playing for an hour and having a really good run, then we’re quite happy to take 10-15 players to go after them.

So we take multiple groups and match them. And that’s a very neat mechanic because those five elite players, they love it. “They’ve got to send 15 at us.” For them it’s like “we’ve achieved something.” And for the 15, they think “hey, we’ve got a chance to beat these guys.” So it’s very unique.

Given that it’s kind of Counter-Strike scenario oriented, is there a more MMO-style environment? Is there a world that people feel a part of?

DJ: Yeah, there is. I mean basically when you join a typical kind of world server, MMO-style, we have about 10,000 players on those, basically broken down into leagues. There are leagues for everything.

So if your gang wants to be the number one in terms of car-stealing, grand theft auto, there’s a league for that. There’s multiple ways they can be number one, and multiple ways they can be renowned for doing a certain thing.

We’ve got players who, for some reason, decided to never use vehicles. They’re like an eco-gang. They only ever run around! And people start to recognize those people, saying like “that’s those nutters!” But they’re good players! It doesn’t happen that much, but it’s nice that they can find a way to be recognized in that world.

June 3, 2009

Game Art From This Weekend's 80s Pop Show

This weekend, artist collective The Autumn Society will host The 80s POP Show!, an exhibition of "artwork inspired by movies, cartoons, and video games from the amazing and imaginary era of the 1980s" at Brave New Worlds Comics in Philadelphia. The show opens June 5th at 6 PM and will run until June 7th.

The show will feature over 50 pieces covering familiar faces from the decade, such as the Ghostbusters, Alf, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Inspector Gadget, ThunderCats, Super Mario Bros., and many others. Says the exhibit's organizers, "This show is bound to delight and spark great memories from this magical time, filled with memorabilia, long haired superheroes, and candy colored good times."

Artist Jude Buffum, who we previously featured for his Ich Bin 8-Bit Installation, will have two pieces there reimagining Rainbow Brite, the Care Bears, and Strawberry Shortcake as Mortal Kombatants. I hope American Greetings doesn't catch wind of this, considering the tiff Penny Arcade had with the company back in 2003!

You can see Jude Buffum's work, as well as another piece and The 80s POP Show!'s poster below:

"Rainbow Bloodbath" by Jude Buffum:

"Care Bear Carnage" by Jude Buffum:

Koopa Troopa by Doug Larocca:

The 80s POP Show! poster:

Kill Screen, Power Outage Thwart Wiebe's DK Record Attempt

Despite four tries and $10,0001 worth of quarters on the line, Steve Wiebe's attempt to snatch the Donkey Kong high score world record from Billy Mitchell at the E3 Expo was unsuccessful. During one of his runs, the King of Kong star had his game cut short when the sanctioned arcade machine lost its power. Wiebe joked, "Is Billy Mitchell around here?" before starting over several minutes later.

In his fourth and final go, he reached 989,400 points (Mitchell's high score is 1,050,200) as the machine interrupted with a "kill screen" glitch, ending his attempt with a stage timer set too low for any player to complete the level in time. Some are claiming that this is the first kill screen to ever broadcast on live television, thanks to G4TV.

I didn't watch the entire event that was streamed yesterday, but I heard that on a couple occasions, he jumped over three barrels at once in the game. I have trouble successfully jumping over just one!

E3: An Audience With Shigeru Miyamoto

[Still cross-posting GSW-worthy highlights of our Gamasutra E3 coverage - in this case, Christian Nutt's write-up on Nintendo's press presentation -- somewhere between a press conference in size and a roundtable in intent, where the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto more casually discussed his creative process and ideas.]

"I'm very lucky that I wasn't up on stage at the Media Briefing, so I'm in a really relaxed mood," Miyamoto offered, before beginning in earnest. "I've just been so busy for quite awhile now -- I'm sending emails from my hotel back to programmers in Japan during my free time here."

He joked, "We've reduced our staff at the show because of the fear of swine influenza. It's okay if I get sick, but some of the other guys -- we can't lose."

"I had the idea it would be great if you could carry your Nintendo DS with you during the day as you go through your daily activities... And download data, a guide for a shopping mail or a guide for a museum. In Japan we've done a lot of testing and had these programs underway."

The DS is being used for education in Japan at present, Miyamoto said. "Creating this sort of system in that sort of environment is something I enjoy quite a bit... and hopefully I can continue some of that work."

Old Becomes New: New Super Mario Bros. Wii

"As a lot of your know, I've been working on Mario titles for about the last 20 years," Miyamoto remarked. "And there's something I've been wanting to do for the entire time I've been working with Mario. And what that is -- you can see we've got three people playing for the same time.

"What I've wanted to do is recreate the single play with multiplayer. For pretty much every Mario project I've worked on, we start with a multiplayer experiment but we end up throwing it out," Miyamoto admitted -- a somewhat rare example of Nintendo's famous policy of dumping content that just does not work.

Watching Miyamoto laugh at the live demo -- being given by Nintendo Treehouse staffers while he spoke -- reinforced his own obvious interest in and enjoyment of his own work. "One of the reasons we were finally able to bring this multiplayer project to fruition was the Wii's processing power," he said. Miyamoto began to demo the game himself -- and quickly died, drawing laughs from the crowd.

"This is a game that's good for people who are new to games to play with people who have been playing for awhile -- this is something we've been wanting to accomplish," Miyamoto said.

Another example of that concept, he said, is Wii Sports Resort. This union of casual and hardcore -- that was a key theme of the company's press conference as well.

A Surprising Sequel: Super Mario Galaxy 2

"The first Super Mario Galaxy was the first time we had worked with spherical worlds, and we had a lot of ideas... but after we finished we realized we couldn't fit them all in. We were a little disappointed we couldn't use all of them," he said, by way of introduction.

The company has never before, it's worth noting, released two 3D Mario games on the same platform. "We thought we'd make Super Mario Galaxy 1.5 but the team got so excited that close to 99% of what you'll see is new."

The Latest License To Print Money: Wii Sports Resort

That's a gentle rib, not a cynical dig -- time with Wii Sports Resort on the show floor revealed its obvious quality and amount of content compared to the original. "There's not enough difference between this, and Wii Fit Plus, with the originals, to slap a '2' on and call it a sequel," Miyamoto, however, admitted.

Before launching into the WSR demo, Miyamoto offered up that he wanted to use the program to be able to weigh his dogs and his cats -- and made that possible in the new version. How often do you hear that at E3?

"When we first designed the hardware, Wii Sports was designed at the same time. And after we finished it, we thought, what should we do -- Wii Motorsports? Wii Leisure Sports? We did a lot of experiments," Miyamoto said, referring to Nintendo's extensive prototyping process.

But the Wii Motion Plus add-on for the Wii Remote offered the solution, according to Miyamoto. "Basketball was a sport that was really hard to do [with the old controller alone]... it's something that's really subtle and hard to recreate in a video game. It's very similar to the release point when you are playing darts or throwing a Frisbee." Though darts aren't part of the game -- UK readers may now groan.

The game includes two events from the original -- bowling and golf. "I have to say they're very different experiences from the original," Miyamoto reassured the audience. The difference, of course, is the reading of the angle of the wrist that the Wii Motion Plus allows.

What was notable here, though, was Nintendo's easy-to-understand and uncomplicated interface design in the Wii Sports titles -- the swing meter bends the way you turn your wrist, letting you know the way the ball's going to go with minimum complication or delay.

"This game doesn't have things like cutscenes that delay the game," Miyamoto also said, perhaps showing a bit more of his philosophy behind the title's simplicity.

"Another part of the game is that there's a stamp system that rewards you for achieving certain goals -- you'll get a stamp on the return challenge if you successfully return three serves... there are 100 stamps." Achievements in a Nintendo game? "This is a game that appeals to a very, very wide range of gamers, from new gamers to experienced gamers." The latter seems to apply in this case.

"One of thing I've been wanting to do for a long time is take a location and treat it like a character," Miyamoto said, referring to Woohoo Island, the setting for Wii Sports Resort and the Wii Fit games. He said he'd even like to have a similar character licensing opportunity to the Mario games -- but with a location.

"Maybe we'll put a hotel on Woohoo Island and there will be a murder in the hotel and you'll have to solve that mystery." It's worth noting that it was totally unclear whether or not he was kidding, at this point. "These are some of the things we think about while we enjoy ourselves creating games like this," he said, laughing.

Zelda First the Same, Then a Surprise

The new DS version of Zelda, The Legend Of Zelda: Spirit Tracks looks much like the previous DS game, Phantom Hourglass, and was debuted at GDC this year, so wasn't concentrated on during the press conference. Really, Nintendo's lineup is extremely iterative this year.

Apparently, Miyamoto likes trains -- Miyamoto hobby-spotters take note -- and so do many Japanese young men; that's the inspiration for the game, and the number of events that happen in the game are derived from scenarios imagined thanks to this interest.

Miyamoto revealed he's been having deep discussions of the series with its current creative lead, Eiji Aonuma."We've been talking about the Zelda franchise. What is this series?" The chief concern: what can be done to move the gameplay forward.

"Personally, I think that my idea of what I would like to see it be -- the player would have such an impactful experience that they would they, themselves, would feel like they had traveled to the areas Link visited in the game," he said.

The player would then "create memories of the characters that you meet within these travels. I think it's really important to stress that these would be your own memories of how you experienced the game."

"How you approach the dungeons, how you go about that dungeon layout, and solving that dungeon -- they would also be very important," Miyamoto continued. "At one time we would create an image movie of what we thought the game would be like, but we've moved away from that." The famous example was the Ganondorf fight from a past E3. "Instead, we're now doing repeated experiments with gameplay."

"To be honest, at this E3 I wanted to announce a new Zelda for Wii. But we've already shown you a Zelda on Wii. We'd rather work on it. But I didn't want to come empty-handed, so I did bring an illustration for the next game," he said, before showing a Twilight Princess-style realistic, teen link, with a luminescent young woman. He promised that it will -- most likely -- debut at next E3, and may well be Wii Motion Plus only, depending on sales of the peripheral.

"I love action games, and bring in archery and swordplay, that's great for me, but some people love it as an RPG, and like the simpler controls, so that's something I really have to think about," he admitted.

The Q&A Period

Miyamoto did ask, unfortunately, that discussion be restricted to games this year. This didn't happen, of course. The first question was, instead, about Miyamoto's reaction to Sony and Microsoft's motion control solutions, which debuted at their respective press conferences.

"For us in development, or policy to do development -- to get the device playable... then make our announcements. With Wii Sports Resort we thought it would take maybe six months, but implementing Wii Motion Plus took us over a year."

"On a development level, something I think Nintendo does well is not only create this technology but also implement it in a way that is user-friendly and accessible. Until this technology reaches this level it's hard to make a judgment of it."

"We, of course, are working on research at Nintendo -- so the things we've seen here [from Sony and MS] are things that we've seen before," Miyamoto said. "Taking this technology and implementing it well is something we've done with Wii Motion Plus."

Of course, the next question was about the Wii Vitality Sensor.

"I think it's a very unique device that I've been interested in for quite awhile," Miyamoto said. "Interfaces have evolved from the use of buttons to analogue sticks and even scales. There's some interfaces that are controlled by the player. Through your own volition you step onto the Balance Board and use that as a controller."

"However, can you control what your pulse does? Can you make it raise, can you lower it, from your own volition? For example, something like that which might take a lot of training, which is hard to control, but the idea of working towards that -- like with yoga, which does allow you to control your breathing."

"If I pose the question to you, when you're asleep at night, are you really relaxed all the way through? There's a device we had at Nintendo called the Love Tester, where a couple would grab the device and it would measure your compatibility," he said, referring to a '70s toy the company released.

"About 10 years ago, I was able to experience this test where you were able to use your brain waves to move a robot. This could open new doors to creativity. If you're working with a lot of creative people, these devices can give you a lot of creative things. And we have quite a few young creative people at Nintendo who are interested in the same sorts of things," he finished.

IGN's Craig Harris picked up on the Wii Sports Resort achievement thing -- and asked if Nintendo plans to support a system across its games, as Sony and Microsoft do.

"Not maybe in the overall sense that you're talking about -- it's just something that seemed to really fit with Wii Sports Resort," Miyamoto said. "I'm not a big fan of using the carrots to motivate people to play. I want people to play because they enjoy playing and they want to play more. Ideally, rather than purchase a game and you purchase a game and you have one level open and go to the next level -- I'd rather you purchased it, it's mine, I want it now!" Y

"You do have to follow some systems, but ideally I'd want something that's wide open and maybe the difficulty levels are adquate for the person who's playing that game. Really, the stamps within this are more of an impetus not to play more, but to play in different ways and try different things."

Wii Speak, the Microphone attachment which shipped with Animal Crossing: City Folk hasn't appeared since -- so Miyamoto was next asked if it'll be appearing again.

"In all honesty, I really would like to use Wii Speak more, and with every game we're working on we do think about whether it's a good vehicle for this. We end up having so many ideas, that unfortunately that one has not made the cutting board," said Miyamoto. He did clarify, at this point, that New Super Mario Bros. Wii won't be online -- as the questioner hoped.

Next, Miyamoto was asked about the limitations of the Wii's hardware -- since he mentioned that NSMB Wii can't technically support online.

"I think you can say that with every single project we do, but that's part of being a developer -- it's been a challenge for developers since the 8-bit days. When we reach the limits of what we can do with the current system, we begin to think about moving on."

"We work with the tools we have, and that's what we do well," Miyamoto said. "That's pretty much how we're going to be moving into the future. Each successive hardware, a little more powerful."

Miyamoto was next asked about the backlash hardcore gamers had about last year's showing -- and whether or not this year's lineup was a response.

"Last year, I didn't uphold my part of instrument playing on stage, so that's one of the reasons I didn't make an appearance this year," Miyamoto joked. "In relation to last year, there were so many unique features of what we announced there that we didn't fully have time to go into it."

"I really think that we have many cases with Nintendo software where we'll explain it, and you'll get a lot of questioning faces, but when people pick it up and play, they'll understand what we're talking about," he said, clearly referring to the less-than-world-beating Wii Music. Miyamoto expressed disappointment with having to show games on stage -- or have people play even on the show floor.

The final question was about what might be the most inspirational game Miyamoto's ever played -- because apparently, Valve's Gabe Newell said his is Mario 64.

"Will Wright's Sim City had a big impact on me," Miyamoto said. "Outside of video games it's been Japanese comics and rakugo, which is a comedy storytelling art in Japan."

Koei Tecmo Offering Bonuses To Procreating Employees

Doing its part to combat Japan's population loss and declining birth rate, newly merged company Koei Tecmo is offering a new program that will reward employees for having children.

Under the initiative, Koei Tecmo will give $1,000 to workers who have their first child, $2,000 for their second, and $20,000 for their third and every baby thereafter, according to a report from Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun translated by Andriasang.com. Before the two entities merged, each company had a policy giving $1,000 to their employees per child birthed.

As odd as this sounds, it isn't unheard of -- Bandai (now a subsidiary of Namco Bandai) started a similar program in 2000 giving its workers $10,000 for each child they have after their second.

COLUMN: @Play: 2009 7DRL Winners, Part Three

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

Finally, here we are, at the end of our treatment of the 2009 7DRL competition. It's been a month since the last installment! If it seems like I've been procrastinating here... well, that's probably a fair observation. I hesitate to say that any of the winning games were unsuccessful.

7DRL places greatest importance on development speed; so long as the game compiles and is playable, even if only in a technical sense, it's counted as a success. I consider this to be perfectly valid. Congratulations are due to all winners. Even the failed attempts, by my lights, are all honorable failures.

But the purpose of these columns is not just celebration, but reporting on their worth as games, regardless of the strictures of the challenge. Some of the games, including one covered this time, Jacob's Matrix, turned out amazingly well. They'd be worth playing, as-is, even if it had taken the developers years to write them. That is the magic of these kinds of forced-creation challenges; sometimes they produce wonders.

Sometimes. Some of the others, well, are more interesting as programming feats than as games. It's not to say they're not salvageable, but they don't seem quite done yet.

The games covered this time out are Truegod, Escape From Lab 42, dL1, Fist of the Rogue Warrior, Pink Ninja, Jacob's Matrix, Nyctos and Whispers in the Void.

truegod.png18. Truegod
Written by James E. Ward for Windows
Homepage: http://code.google.com/p/stonesofchaos/
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is not real-time, it is presented in simulated ASCII. It has an unusual experience system, and no inventory. It is a short game that starts fairly difficult and stays difficult. It seems to be somewhat unfair (but that is the point).

Premise: Having lost the favor of your previous god, you switch over to worshiping the RNG. That is to say, the Random Number Generator.

Truegod is a chaotic, yet interesting, game in which the rewards and penalties are mixed up every play. At any time you could be seized by the desire to kill all the enemies on the level, or maybe not kill anything at all. How well you do at responding to these whims determines, somewhat, whether good or bad things happen to you.

There are experience levels in this game, but I'm not sure if there's an experience score. Sometimes you gain a level just from walking around, and sometimes you gain one in the midst of combat. You don't regain health over time; you must drink potions, found lying around the dungeon, to regain hits, and there doesn't usually seem to be enough to make up for the damage you take. However, gaining an experience level grants a large health boost, making it an important source of healing.

One tip: frequently, while exploring a level, the player will be given a random message. The meanings of these messages is not explained in the game, but it doesn't seem like they're supposed to be obscure. The RogueBasin page for the game explains what they all mean.

The preponderance of random events may remind some readers of a certain infamous god (Xom) from a certain other game (Dungeon Crawl). If you like Truegod, you just may find that it to be to your liking.

Verdict: It may be a little too random, but it's better for a game to know what it is and go all out in pursuit of it than to muddle through trying to be everything. Approved.

lab42.png19. Escape From Lab 42
Written by Rick Clark in FreeBasic for Windows and Linux (Linux version tested)
Homepage: http://rickclark58.googlepages.com/efl42
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game takes place in real-time and is presented in simulated ASCII. It has no experience system, but it does have a simple inventory system. It is a short game that starts hard and gets difficult, perhaps to the point of impossibility. Sometimes, it doesn't seem to be fair.

Premise: You're the only human in a building of zombies, starting up on the tenth floor. It's 30 minutes until they nuke the building. That's 30 minutes of real time, and there's a long way to go.

Ah, here's a game that's taken Rogue's primary design philosophy to heart: start them off in a tough spot, have it get much tougher, and make them sweat through the last phases. The developer himself has admitted his own best game has gotten as far as level 2, with an entire floor remaining before the end.

The most distinctive aspect of the game is its action-oriented play. Not only is the time limit an actual half an hour, but the game is also real time. In fact, it's a very rapid real-time game; a zombie that sees you and runs to the attack is on you in less than a second, and sometimes it seems like holding the key into it causes you to attack more slowly than it. It is hectic and panic-inducing, yes, perhaps a little too much so. It distances the game a bit from the roguelike ideal, but I tend to look better on games that bravely forge their own way rather than copy prior ones, so I'll say it's a good change.

One thing that doesn't work so well is the missile weapon targeting system. The 't' key turns targeting on. While on the game doesn't pause; instead, zombies get represented by other letters of the alphabet (besides the usual 'z' and 'Z'). Pressing the letter fires at that opponent. By the way, once you're in targeting mode, hit the key of the monster you want to shoot. (Usually 'a'.)

Real-time game with some very lethal opponents, the game seems to run a little too quickly, and sometimes the "guard" zombies (capital 'Z') seem to be invulnerable. There are times when they're dispatched immediately, and times when you hold into them with a full health bar and watch as they get in hit after hit, dozens, while your character steadfastly refuses to do any damage. It's quite frustrating. Using missile weapons could be a way around this, but there's no time to find the 't' key and then the proper target key when the enemy has appeared and closed to melee range nearly instantly. Considering that a slower rate of play would mean the difficulty would remain at roughly the same level due to the real-time aspect, and it makes me wonder why the developer figured the game should run so fast.

Even with this rather crippling flaw however, the game is still quite fun to play. I've gotten through three levels in my best game, and might have gotten another one or two down if it weren't for an invincible guard zombie. Some more attention to balance and playability is called for, but there is a kernel of awesome to be found here.

Verdict: Not a bad game, even if it is a little too hectic at times. Worth watching for the next version.

dl1.png20. dL1
Written in Java using a simulated console. (Note: I have only gotten this to run under Windows.)
Homepage: http://legend-angband.blogspot.com/2009/03/roguelike-challenge-completed.html
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is not real-time, it is presented in simulated ASCII, and it has no experience or inventory system. It is a short game that starts extremely difficult and goes nowhere. It is essentially unplayable: most of the times levels are not fully explorable, and there is no win condition.

Premise: You have this guy. He can fight immobile dragons, but probably shouldn't because some can kill him instantly. Fortunately, they don't hit unless hit first. Money is scattered around. It can be collected, but it doesn't do anything. Also, you're trapped, forever, on one level, there's no exit or way to win, and often you can't explore the whole level.

As Cymon's Games notes, you have to enter "java dL1" at a command prompt to play the game. He holds that fact against it; considering that chickhack technically required entering the Commodore 64's traditional load command to start, I'd be a little more disposed to excuse this.

Unfortunately, while the rest of the game is commendable for being a shell of a roguelike developed within a week's time, that's all this is: a shell. There's only one level, and it's not even guaranteed to be completely connected. The monsters are often extremely powerful and a few can kill the player in one or two hits. So it's a good thing that the monsters don't move, or attack the player except as a counter-attack when the player hits them. There is no escape from the level, either. There is gold to pick up, but it doesn't seem to be good for anything.
As a program, it runs. That's all I can really say about this.

It is, however, a computer game written within a week. And it's only the second Java program the author's ever written! We expect good things from him next time.

Verdict: Not worth playing except to satisfy curiosity.

fotrw.png21. Fist of the Rogue Warrior
Written by s.chiu in Python 3, using the curses console library
Homepage: http://code.google.com/p/fotrw/downloads/list
Another opinion: None found. Cymon's Games could not get this one to work, probably because of the combination Python 3 and Linux requirement. Interesting, frustrating fact: the official Python curses module does not support Windows targets.
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is not real-time, and has no experience or inventory system. It is a short game that starts with a selectable difficulty, that gets easier. It seems to be fair.

Premise: Your character, a monk in the tradition of karate, hates mooks. Mooks, perhaps unsurprisingly, hate him back, and run up and try to kill him. Kill them first!

Note: The space bar causes the game to instantly die without comment! To page through messages, use any other key. (Messages are waiting to be paged when three dots appear in the corner of the screen.) It also likes to lock up at times for no apparent reason.

This game has no instructions, and RogueBasin's page is empty except for the bare facts of its existence. I've been able to piece together that you have a number of stances which you can switch between using the 'q' key. Switching stances does not cost a turn, and some are better for attacking, and some for fleeing. Some no doubt have other purposes, but I was unable to keep the game playing long enough to piece together what their functions were.

When the game begins, you're asked how many opponents you wish to fight: 5, 10, 15 or a specific number. I've won the game on the five mook setting, only to have the game bomb out back to the command prompt upon success. Hmm. There is only one level and no other points of interest to be found beside a lot of boxy obstacles scattered around in a regular pattern.

This is another one that's interesting mostly for the rapidity of its development, yet isn't really worth playing on its own. The stance system has great strategic potential, however. If s.chiu is reading this, may I suggest the first thing to do is to document what the stances do, the second thing is to fix the crash and freeze bugs, and the third is to add in levels, and perhaps an experience system.

A word on Python 3: this is the newest version of Python, and a subject that I've read on. Of particularly importance is the fact that this version breaks backward compatibility with prior versions of Python. (Maintainer Guido Van Rossum is taking the opportunity to remove some cruft from the language.) Because of this, you must be sure to be running the game under this version of Python in order for it to run.

Verdict: Not really worth playing as it is.

pinkninja.png22. Pink Ninja
Written by Deveah for Windows
Homepage: http://dva.uv.ro/pn/
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is not real-time, and it has no experience or inventory system. It is a short game that starts easy but gets much harder. It's basically unplayable, due to the combination of some ludicrously strong and fast opponents and lack of player options in dealing with them.

Premise: An unusually girly ninja picks flowers for her master. While doing so, she defends herself against monsters. (The femaleness of the ninja here is assumed. It seems a fair assumption, though.)

Press '0' on the number pad to pick a flower when you find one (an 'f' that chances colors each turn). Pressing numpad 0 also uses stairs.

Not a huge amount to say here. There are monsters that can do three points of damage per hit and are faster than the player. Her starting health is only five!

This needs serious work if people are to play it. Deajah reports that the game only has five hours of work put into it. That's actually quite impressive considering what's here: random levels, multiple opponents, a line-of-sight algorithm and a ten-level structure. It's only slightly unplayable now; the first thing to do is to balance out the harder monsters.

Verdict: Not worth playing at the moment.

jmatrix.png23. Jacob's Matrix
Written by Jeff Lait (a repeat offender) for Windows and Linux
Homepage: http://www.zincland.com/7drl/jacob/
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is turn-based with a significant real-time element. It has no experience system, but it does have a limited inventory. It is a short game that starts easy but gets much, much harder. It is generally fair.

Premise: Explore a series of strange caves that unfold in three-dimensional space, while under a strict real-time limit! Do this while fighting a suspiciously varied selection of monsters, using an even more varied assortment of items.

I was taken by surprise by this, one of the best games of the competition this year. There are things about it that seem unusually polished for a 7DRL. I shouldn't be surprised: Jeff Lait's one of the most frequent 7DRL participants, having made four other challenge games. He also wrote and continues to maintain the popular roguelike POWDER! He is one of the most consistently awesome roguelike developers around.

Let's start with the flames on the sides of the screen. You can't see it in the screenshot, but they dance and flicker while you play. If you have a fast computer the effect is quite striking, but it slows the game down a lot all the same, and the timer means a slow game is also much harder. My suggestion, if you want to get far into the game, is to turn off the flames from the main menu, replacing them with boring bar graphs but making the game much more responsive.

About that time limit. There's some rather atmospheric background music playing while you explore. The game's time limit is, in essence, the length of the music track, and it's not what I'd call a long piece. The music doesn't stop when you check the control screen, which artificially steepens the game's learning curve, but there really aren't a huge number of keys to learn. While an interesting choice to tie play time to an audio file, I found myself wishing there were also an on-screen timer during the game. If your character runs out of hit points, by the way, the game doesn't end, but there is an enforced pause while you wait to be revived.

The number of monsters and items in the game is astounding. The monsters, it turns out, come from an earlier 7DRL of the author's creation, Letter Hunt. The items and spells come from another earlier game, Save Scummer. This is technically against the rules of the competition, but I don't mind myself; I'm more interested in these things for their play value, and there's lots of that to be found here.

Now we move on to the most awesome things to discover here. The first is that the maze isn't entirely Cartesian. You can travel along a path that curves back on itself, and when you go around and reach the place where the path should intersect, you'll often find that the walls don't match what you saw your first time through! If you go back around the bend, the walls will be back where they were the first time.

It's rather shocking to find this out in play; evidentially the maze is simulated as more than a simple 2D grid. One useful way to think about it is as being a 3D structure with invisible slopes, with the cross-over places being bridges or underpasses. It's not as confusing as you might think it'd be, and helps gives the maze a character little-seen in other roguelikes. It is a great technical achievement, and the source code deserves study.

To aid the player in finding his way to the goal, the walls along the way are presented as different colors. The starting area is dark blue, and the goal is bright yellow. As you progress along your way, the wall colors change and cycle. The "closer" they get to yellow (going either way through the color wheel) the closer the goal area is. It is a terrific use of color, and other authors should take note.

But, as if that weren't enough virtuosity to display in a single game (it IS a 7DRL, isn't it?), the developed even decided to thrown in the portal system from, well, Portal! You can fire off blue and orange portals, and if they strike a suitable section of wall they form a stable passage between those sections. That isn't even the awesome part; that is that the portals work the exact same way they work in Portal; the world in your line of sight through the portal is the world as if the two spots were spatially adjacent, with rotated perspective and everything. You can even see yourself through the hole. A mind-bendingly awesome accomplishment. Considering all the work that must have gone into this effect, it's a shame that the portal mechanic has little actual application in gameplay. You can't make a portal somewhere you haven't seen, after all, so you can't use it to make a shortcut through the maze. Effectively, you can only travel back to places you've already been, and if you're not careful the rotated perspective can cause you to get hopelessly mixed-up.

Jacob's Matrix isn't actually a single big game; it's a collection of little games of increasing difficulty. At the start you can only play the easiest one. Harder levels have much more complex mazes, tougher opponents and better items. The game tracks and saves the best time for each level, levels opened up remain open in later sessions, and if you play many levels in one session your inventory carries over between them. Since the real-time component of the game would make time spent managing inventory a tremendous waste, the game automatically selects the best weapon and spell of either the one you're carrying and any you find, a nice concession to playability.

Even after visiting Wikipedia, I never did quite quite find out what the Jacobian matrix has to do with the game. Ah well; it's possible to get quite far without that knowledge, at least. I've gotten to the next-to-last level myself.

Verdict: An incredible game, and not just as a 7DRL. A strong contender for the best of this year's challenge.

nyctos.png24. Nyctos
Written by in Python for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux
Homepage: http://code.google.com/p/nyctos/ (There's also a blog.)
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is not real-time. It has both a full inventory and experience system. It is a fairly long game that's not too difficult, although there is one aspect that makes it rather annoying. It is generally fair, except for that one thing.

Premise: There is something of a story here, but honestly I didn't pay too much attention to it. No, Nyctos is basically a random dungeon crawl just like mother used to make. One with an interesting, ultimately infuriating, lighting simulation.

First off: they stole the title screen music from Castlevania's ending screen. All the music seems to be swiped from 8-bit games, in fact. Castlevania was so hard I bet they thought no one would notice....

In the style of the standard of the genre, Nyctos is a game of exploration, resource management and combat in a series of increasingly-dangerous dungeon levels. Much more attention has been paid to the surroundings than usual; there are a number of things in the game that can be examined with a keypress that have no game function that I can discern, but are there as "dungeon dressing." Monsters, the first time a member of a species is seen, bring up a page of descriptive text. It is a welcome detail that other authors could stand to pick up on.

The combat isn't greatly challenging, at least what I saw of it. The game is one of the few seen this year to offer a full experience system. It even provides for player-selected stat gains upon gaining a level.

Let me move on to the game's primary feature and, to my mind, its downfall. Astrisks found in the dungeon represent potential light sources. The dungeon can be quite dark if they're not lit when they are come across. Shift-'L' while standing on one lights it (or lets you light something in inventory), and 's' (unshifted) snuffs one out. Although the darkness in most areas is annoying, and may even force you to turn your monitor brightness up, the light effects aren't bad. Annoyingly, some walls look just like dimly-lit floor spaces. This sometimes causes confusion, but it's not particularly common.

Worse is the fact that all light sources, the ones that I found at least, have a limited duration while on. The player begins with a torch, and can find more sources in the dungeon. The game is unplayable without a light source, it's just too dark. You can't even see your character's '@' symbol without a light source. Torches last a good while, but only provide one or so spaces of light, and I had to strain a bit to see even in that. The radius extends some way beyond that, but only dimly. In a way that's worse than the normal route of just not displaying things out of sight, because the player himself, sitting at the monitor, can strain to see things far off.

It'd probably be less annoying if a torch provided more light. Lanterns can be found once in a while and they provide another space or two of light while they last. There are braziers in some rooms that can be lit, and they provide a great deal of light for a while, but don't last very long and seem to be too cumbersome for transport. There is a scroll of illumination that provides a good level of light for a pitifully short number of turns, and a scroll of light that creates one permanent, but stationary, magical light source. All these drawbacks and caveats mean that, for the good majority of the game, the player will have to put up with torchlight for his illumination needs, and that gets old fast. It doesn't help a bit that the game doesn't "remember" places outside of his sight range, so he must put up with the low illumination even when navigating places he's already been.

Verdict: The game's attention to detail is admirable, but its star feature, the lighting system, seems to be more aggravating than atmospheric.

witv.png25. Whispers in the Void
Written by William Hunt in Python for Windows and Linux
Homepage: http://nihilsys.com/wordpress/?p=63
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: rec.games.roguelike.development

This game is not real-time. It has a weapon-skill experience system and a rudimentary inventory. It is a short game that starts hard and gets much harder. Ultimately, it is probably unfair.

Premise: You're apparently a girl space marine on a spaceship filled with zombies and monsters. (It looks heavily inspired by Doom, a quality that did not escape Cymon's reviewer.) Survive and traverse the many suspiciously dungeon-like levels of the ship and escape.

The dungeon levels are all what I call "true mazes," a way of saying there's only one route to get anywhere without loops. This tends to reduce strategy; if you find a route filled with an unreasonable amount of monsters and the exit is on the other side, there isn't much you can do to get around them. Especially considering that all the game's corridors are one space wide. The mazes also make wandering around the huge levels fairly annoying.

One interesting thing here is that, after getting past the Doom-reject insane marines and commanders, the monster list starts getting decidedly Lovecraftian. Ghouls, Mi-go and Dimensional Shamblers all showed up in my test games. If you're going to steal your monsters from somewhere, steal from the best.

This game implements missile fire as its primary method of attack, and the weapons you find have limited ammo. These shot limits, in terms of gameplay, and not very meaningful since the player can't do much to change his hit chances besides gain experience in a weapon, which itself costs bullets. He can't even waste shots. Because of this, if the game decides you're going to waste ammo then you're pretty much doomed, and a bad run of luck can deplete your meager armament easily. This is what prompted me to write "it is unfair" up above. Classic roguelikes feature similar difficulty and resource management, but key there is that there are things the player can do to counter them. Making clever use of "bad" items, identifying things through indirect means, using smart combat tactics, relying on escapes as a means of last resort and conserving food through efficient exploration and healing.

Little, if any, of this applies to Whispers in the Void. The game is mostly a direct slog though the generated opponents, and if you don't find enough ammo to get you through the monsters, then you pretty much die, even if you applied the best strategic decisions you can make. It's not just that Rogue isn't unfair, sometimes, in generating its random levels. It's that, when you die in Rogue, usually you aren't completely certain you made the best decisions using the information available to you, so the game is usually given the benefit of the doubt. In WitV most of the decisions to be made are obvious ones. Between the pre-identified items, the automatic item collection and use, the limited ammo, the obvious tactics and the "true" mazes, there are very few meaningful choices to be made here. When such a game ends in death, it feels awfully unavoidable.

Note 1: As mentioned above, it turns out weapon experience is counted by the game. The only indication of skill in a firearm is the text "(mastered)" after its name in weapon inventory once maxed out.

Note 2: the "sanity" stat tracked by the game may not actually be implemented; even when fighting several Lovecraft monsters, I never saw it dip below 100%.

Verdict: Kind of feels grindy, but there's some good mechanics buried here. The first thing I'd do is slightly increase ammo supplies. Then I'd make the dungeon levels more varied, and put some loops in them; a strictly-valid maze is actually less interesting to explore than an imperfect one. Make the shot miss chances more explicit, put in some usable items instead of just activate-on-pickup, make levels less cramped while decreasing monster strength slightly while increasing their number. Maybe add some environmental hazards to avoid/take advantage of. In any event, keep the Lovecraft monsters at all costs.

In other 7DRL news:
It seems Excitable Digger is getting a sequel.
DungeonMinder has updated again, making for a substantially expanded game.

Overview of 7DRL 2009:
1. DungeonMinder (*****)
2. Epic! Monster Quest: Hyper (****)
3. Underbooks (****)
4. Excitible Digger (***)
5. Decimation (***)
6. DDRogue (****)
7. Fortress of the Goblin King (***)
8. Fruits of the Forest (***)
9. chickhack (****)
10. Cypress Tree Manor (****)
11. Domination (****)
12. Backwards Gravity (*)
13. The Favored (**)
14. Persist (*)
15. TetRLs (**)
16. Expedition (***)
17. SpiritsRL (****)
PART 3 (you are here)
18. Truegod (**)
19. Escape from Lab 42 (***)
20. dL1 (*)
21. Pink Ninja (*)
22. Jacob's Matrix (*****)
23. Nyctos (***)
24. Whispers in the Void (***)
25. Fist of the Rogue Warrior (**)

PSP's Augmented Reality Game: Invizimals

With the PS3 using its PlayStation Eye accessory for The Eye of Judgment and upcoming virtual pet title EyePet -- and the low-powered DSi soon using its camera to capture spirits with GhostWire -- it's no surprise that Sony has an augmented reality game planned for the PSP in the form of Invizimals.

This kid-targeted title uses the PSP Camera/Go!Cam (still unavailable in the U.S.) to find hidden monsters around their homes, which they can capture with real-life trap pieces, then trade or battle them against each other locally or online.

The ability to cast spells like earthquakes by shaking the system, or lightning strikes from shadows players cast is particularly cool. It even has a very DS-like feature in which players blow into the system mic to create a snowstorm. You can see more of Invizimals on Eurogamer's image gallery

E3 Analysis: Sony's Still Got It

[Continuing our press conference analysis from E3 - LOTS more coverage on Gamasutra, obviously -- and Sony had a high wall to climb to match the impact of Microsoft's E3 presentation yesterday. Leigh Alexander finds that the company impressed -- with a caveat.]

In contrast with the arena-style lightshow of Microsoft's presentation, Sony's was slightly more understated, preceded by an outdoor pavilion hour, finger foods and cocktails -- yes, at 10:00 AM on a muted gray morning.

"If I were Sony I'd wanna drink right now too," an attendee was overheard to murmur. The general mood resembled something like sympathy -- like a prelude to a wake -- after Microsoft's high-poweredpresentation yesterday. With so many early press leaks ahead of E3, many wondered if Sony had any cards left to play.

All the buzz revolved around what, exactly, the company could do to trump that dominant performance -- that is, when people weren't snarking about Nintendo's fairly by-the-books show. As the last of the Big Three to present at E3, Sony had a lot to prove.

"Thank god you guys showed up," joked SCEA President Jack Tretton as he took the stage. His self-deprecating, nervous laughter was directed at all of the company's leaks -- even Sony boss Kaz Hirai admitted the PSP Go! was "the worst-kept secret of E3."

But Sony's audience was there to applaud every stat: 364 games are coming to PlayStation platforms in the next year; the platforms generated 30 percent of total retail sales for the industry in 2008. "It's just the beginning of what we expect in 2009," Tretton said.

Starring The Games

More applause when Tretton said: "I suspect the reason some of you have bags under your eyes is because you've been playing Infamous since it came out last week." Applause, cheers -- and audible gasps -- for the frankly breathtaking Uncharted 2 footage presented by Naughty Dog's Evan Wells, who said it "sets the new gold standard in limit-pushing."

Whoops, cheers, howls, for Modern Warfare 2, Rock Band: Beatles, Ratchet & Clank Future 2 and Heavy Rain; for Metal Gear Solid Peacewalker (stressed numerous times as the franchise's "true" sequel), Gran Turismo 5 and God of War III, for new exclusive Rockstar IP Agent and shock reveal Final Fantasy XIV Online, and for the unrelenting barrage of PS3 exclusives shown on a day when nobody was expecting very many.

The audience only fell silent for the unveiling of Fumito Ueda's latest dreamlike game, confirming video footage that recently surfaced online. The long-rumored and long-awaited project was clearly the presentation's crown jewel.

The mood inside the Shrine Auditorium gradually took on an eagerness and enthusiasm not present in quite the same way during the other presentations.

Chalk it up to rooting for the underdog, perhaps, but the environment at Sony's event made it clear that when the company falls back on touting the strength of its brand and the duration of its presence in the video game marketplace, it's not entirely blowing smoke. Those who once loved PlayStation still do, and fiercely.

"'Only on PlayStation'... is not just a quantitative statement. It's also a qualitative statement," said Tretton, aiming to enforce the idea that certain types of games are only possible to develop on PlayStation 3.

Sony's Answer To Natal

After proving it could still pull exclusives and impress with software, Sony revealed that it, too, had a motion and gesture-based control solution in the works.

Microsoft's Project Natal presentation hinged on the idea that the use of a control device was a barrier to accessibility. Sony now posits that an item in hand -- with buttons -- is actually necessary to the experience of play.

The remote control-sized motion wand prototype is topped with a luminous sphere that the PlayStation Eye can track 1:1. The user can be shown holding any object in the game world, like a tennis racket, sword, gun or flashlight, and it features buttons for interaction.

"We learned from EyeToy that buttons are needed for some experiences," said the team's Dr. Richard Marks. "There's really no other way to do this without a trigger."

Even in prototype phase, the demonstration was impressive, particularly the precision of the gesture sensing -- "sub-millimeter accuracy," said Marks. The demonstration showed that, projected on screen as a knight holding a sword tapping a skeleton with varying degrees of force in different anatomical zones, users can interact with objects in extremely targeted ways.

Objects in the game world also respond with realistic physics to the user's movements -- like string tension on an archery bow, for example.

"This is the foundation for the ultimate sandbox; you could build anything in here," said Marx.

The scheme was used to move RTS units, paint and write, and made a strong case that having a physical object with which to act in the game world may actually be preferable.

More significantly, although the demonstration featured only a prototype, Sony's tech is apparently not substantially far off from launch. The company promises more news "in the near future" -- and is targeting a Spring 2010 launch.

Following Up LittleBigPlanet

One of the presentation's highlights was United Front's user-generated content-based racer ModNation Racers, presented as a segue from the "play, create, share" paradigm established by LittleBigPlanet.

Like that title, the racer is compellingly cute and offers limitless customization of characters resembling vinyl Munny figurines, and the utility to create and play one's own racetrack was impressively simple and deep simultaneously.

In this way, Sony seems intent on building -- and dominating -- the user-generated sandbox play genre on consoles.

So? We've Got That Too

In terms of how it matched the luster of Microsoft's show yesterday, Sony at the very least went tit for tat -- it's got its own motion recognition solution, its own Rockstar exclusive, its own major Metal Gear title, and it's got the next-next Final Fantasy, number XIV, on lock (aside from the PC version, which was, of course, not mentioned).

God of War III, Uncharted 2, Mod Nation Racers and the new Ueda game might even tip the content scales in Sony's favor, depending on what type of consumer one is.

And the company shows it's as committed to digital media as its rivals, promising that all future PSP titles will be available both as downloads and at retail. PSP Go users can access the PlayStation Store directly from their handhelds -- "The bottom line is this: There will be more content that is easier to get onto your PSP," said Hirai.

Sony also said it's signed content partnerships with Showtime, G4, E!, HDNet, Starz TV, TNA, Magnolia Films and new anime and sports partners for its video content. Despite this, however, there's an interesting role reversal taking place this year at E3.

The New 'Media Hub'

When Sony first launched the PlayStation 3, it positioned it as less of a game console and more of a "media device," to a decidedly negative reception. It was the Xbox 360 that was the true "hardcore" console, while Sony seemed to struggle to make PlayStation 3 the all-purpose living room device it wanted it to be.

This year, though, Microsoft's presentation was most impressive for its implications for "home entertainment," while the PlayStation 3 focused solidly and largely on the games. While past Sony briefings have insisted on emphasizing the console as a "media hub" to the point of fatigue, there was none of that talk at all this year.

While no one could accuse the Xbox 360 of lacking a compelling core software lineup, to say the least, Microsoft this year nearly seemed larger than E3; Nintendo, clearly comfortable with Wii's position as a mainstream consumer product, made many question its need to present at E3 at all.

But Sony put on the kind of show reminiscent of the "old" E3, evoking more than a passing reminder of why its platforms used to dominate the industry. Audiences filed out smiling, talking excitedly about the games they'd seen as if they were much younger kids.

"We will never become complacent, despite what we've accomplished," said Tretton.

The Announcement Sony Needed To Make -- And Didn't

There was no price cut for any of Sony's platforms announced at the briefing, as just about everyone had hoped there'd be. Many eyebrows lifted at the PSP Go!'s $249 price point -- the company is making such a strong push to broaden the handheld's userbase, yet tags it so high?

With the PlayStation 3 desperately in need of a reduction -- analysts say taking any less than $100 off the sticker wouldn't even be worth it -- it raises the question: what good's all this content if no one can afford the hardware?

Sony's portfolio of content is impressive. But it's taking a big gamble on the idea that content will sufficiently drive hardware sales, when more often it's hardware sales that foretell software sales. And when the platform ultimately needs developers far more than developers need it, it'll be tough to sustain momentum.

The company's still got it; Sony was not outdone at E3 this year, and depending who you ask, it outdid, maybe even handily. By the time its press conference ended, even the sun had decided to show its face for the first time in Los Angeles since E3 kicked off.

But until price adjustments and marketing initiatives position Sony's platforms better in the market, the clouds haven't passed yet.

Multiplayer Roguelike: MnemonicRL

Programmer Dabreegster posted this intriguing trailer (not just in its presentation, but also in its mysterious storyline) yesterday for his current project, MnemonicRL, a "real-time multiplayer roguelike with ASCII effects, immersive static towns, random dungeons, eight classes, and easy scripting."

If you watch the video all the way through, you'll catch a glimpse of a multiplayer conversation around the 04:15 mark. According to the programmer, his custom PerlRL engine helps the game step onto new ground by offering several single-and multiplayer modes, but he hasn't yet decided on how he'll execute the multiplayer gameplay, and is still figuring out what to do with permadeath and leveling.

Dabreegster promises an open beta soon for MnemonicRL, and plans to eventually release the game for Windows, Mac, Linux, and all platforms supporting Perl.

[Via TIGForums]

Interview: Maxis' Bradshaw On Freedom In Games, Failure As A Positive

[Just before heading off to the all-encompassing E3, our own Leigh Alexander attended Game For Change in NYC - see a couple of other neat write-ups - and chatted to Maxis GM Lucy Bradshaw, one of the keynote speakers, on her work on The Sims and Spore and how they relate to games for social change and learning.]

In earlier years the activists, educators, researchers and nonprofits that attended the annual Games For Change event had a tendency to dismiss the commercial games space as less useful to their cause.

But this year, all of the attendees interested in how game design can be leveraged for social change were very excited about lessons from The Sims and Spore.

That's why EA Maxis VP and general manager Lucy Bradshaw was in New York to give the closing keynote, and we caught up with her just before her lecture, where she explained how those titles can inspire and educate.

"The body of work that I've had an opportunity to work on [at Maxis] really does have this kind of strange background that has changed the landscape of gaming," she tells us.

Bradshaw also has a point of view on why games can act as a vehicle for change. "I believe it really stems more from play than an intent or a key message," she suggests. "I think the experience of playing is something that's transformative, and interactive games have this incredible opportunity to have that same kind of effect," she said.

Play, Community Are Key

Ideas on the essence of play were present in a big way at Games For Change this year, something of an evolution on a self-limiting focus on overt educational and simulation-type projects. And with play comes ideas about collaboration and community, which researchers Henry Jenkins and James Gee also discussed at the event.

Bradshaw agrees with their thoughts on the importance of community surrounding play, and believes that games like The Sims and Spore have a lot to offer groups looking to use games as a part of community-oriented activism efforts.

"I think the important thing that game companies have found and figured out is that to build a community, it's not something that you just put one thing out there," she says. "You need to give community a role to play, and then engage with that community."

"It's not a ship and forget," she stresses. "All of the projects that I've worked on... the start of that adventure is just when you ship that first game."

Players Will Surprise You

That's why EA Maxis has endeavored to begin community outreach initiatives prior to a game's launch, such as when the Creature Creator was released for free well ahead of Spore's launch. "What happens is this incredible transformative process," Bradshaw says. "The ingenuity of our players will take things well beyond what we've even considered."

For example, Spore players had a means of commenting back and forth to each other about creations in Spore. "One day, one player created a mailbox... that was a creature, and said, 'this will be your means of communicating with me.' The next thing we saw was more and more mailbox creatures... until nearly every player had a mailbox creature."

In that way, says Bradshaw, players are liable to design play in ways the designers could not have even foreseen. Similarly, player advocates naturally emerge from within the Spore community, says Bradshaw, to police forums, advocate for desired features, demand patches and point out bugs.

"I hope that people here starting to make games for change start to look at these kinds of practices within gaming," Bradshaw says. "We intuitively understand that games are a vehicle for learning and behavior change --" but game design is still needed.

According to Bradshaw, Spore's players were able to become designers, community leaders and advocates without being instructed or shepherded by the developers because they're given both tools and freedom. "For me, 'sandbox' is... a description of the types of games I've worked on that I think has a basis in creating imaginative play," she explains.

More Sandbox, Less Structure

Bradshaw is a firm believer in unstructured play -- since the amount of unstructured play in modern education has dropped 25 percent since the 1980s and '90s, she remembers having to search extensively for a kindergarten for her daughter to find one that wouldn't assign homework at such a young age.

"I really value that time kids have to be free and explore," she says. Moreover, children who play more with other children than they do with adults develop stronger language, negotiation and communication skills -- "because adults make it easier for them," she says.

That's why it's important to her that the EA Maxis franchises explore the balance between structure and the absence thereof -- games that let players push boundaries are the most effective for learning and engagement, she says.

"There've been studies on how gamers actually become better business leaders," she says. "They're very familiar with that creative, collaborative team space that's so much a [part of] our businesses." And creative, unstructured play means letting players fail, she asserts.

Giving players the opportunity to have failure states -- not just a "strict message that's being delivered" -- is the right way to encourage players to learn and explore. She noted educational game Electrocity, a SimCity inspired resource-management game, that allows for mistakes and consequences. "Sometimes in those moments is when people 'get it' strongly," says Bradshaw.

Learning Through Failure

She also agrees with the consensus of the earlier Ethics in Game Design panel that frustration is actually necessary for empathy and engagement. "I don't think I've ever seen one of my daughters pick up a manual when they start playing," says Bradshaw.

"They use what Will Wright called 'the scientific method.' It's through failure that they really do learn, and then all of a sudden those things really do click into place. The learning process really does stem from the experience of understanding how the gears work."

"That's true in life, true in play, and it's true in games. As a game maker, it's that balance... between the possibility space and how you give players the opportunity to explore it," she says. "With risk comes reward -- I think if there isn't the possibility of things going awry, you don't necessarily appreciate as greatly the progress you're making. And you need to have that sense of anticipation and suspense."

"At the same time, frustration is an interesting word... a funny thing," she says. "You can lose players [by frustrating them] -- they'll just drop right back out."

Spore And Balance

Finding the right balance was a challenge in Spore, she says, particularly in the area of how much impact and meaning to give people's visual choices for their creatures. "We thought about that a lot... how penalizing the editing process should be. How much meaning should any one of those parts have? Should we have focused more on the physics, should gravity have played a greater role -- should we have allowed players to make unsuccessful creatures?"

Ultimately, though, the team chose a "bias toward creativity and ease of use, rather than having physical attributes being damning of your species." If it's so easy to fail because a creature's the wrong size or incorrectly mobile, Bradshaw theorizes, then players may be stuck going back and forth in the creation loop and missing out on the exploration aspect of the game.

"We've gotten some grief for it, because people wanted more meaning behind the editors," she concedes. "I think there's more opportunity for us to look at some of those things and give players a little more sense and depth; to ultimately re-examine some of the elements of Spore. With Galactic Adventures, we're going deeper, allowing players to really invest back in their captain."

Personalization And Connectivity

An earlier Games For Change keynote by Nicholas Kristof noted that when an opportunity to engage is personalized, it amplifies engagement. "And the other thing I have been doing in games is making it personal," Bradshaw adds, "with things like user-generated content -- how do we get players to have that investment? Even storytelling -- 'how do I express the experience I just had and share it with other players?'"

Proliferating connectivity, increased access to online and emerging platforms are making community more possible than ever. "Now, we're on such a verge of change here with new platforms -- open APIs for social networks and iPhone, connectivity between mobile devices and stationary deices. There's such an opportunity to explore these kind of vehicles," says Bradshaw.

"'Connected platforms' is one of the new buzzwords in our industry -- the iPhone can tap into the PC vein, social networks can also be an outlet, you can keep tabs on something that's going on in a different space."

"I think it's going to change game design," she says. "It will change the way in which players invest in games... we've barely scratched the surface."

June 2, 2009

Blueberry Garden, Octopounce, and More Playable at Indiecade

Independent video gaming showcase IndieCade once again has a booth setup at the E3 Expo, previewing a selection of titles from its upcoming IndieCade 2009 Festival slated for October.

Some of the titles at IndieCade's E3 booth this year include Independent Games Festival finalists SnapShot and Mightier , as well as IGF's Seumas McNally Grand Prize winner Blueberry Garden.

If you're dying to play Blueberry Garden but aren't able to stop by the booth, you'll be happy to hear that developer Erik Svedang just announced that the interactive fairytale will release via Steam on June 8th. Here's a quick description of the PC game if you're unfamiliar with it:

"Blueberry Garden is a short and experimental game about exploring a strange world. It is set in an ever-changing ecosystem and your goal is to find out what's going on among the softly swaying trees and mysterious creatures living there. The game is a relaxing, yet intense experience for people who like soaring through the sky."

One IndieCade-featured game that you should set aside time for to try out during your E3 visit, though, is Octopounce, Anna "Auntie Pixelante" Anthropy and artist Saelee Oh's multiplayer game specifically designed with crowd environments like E3's in mind. In Octopounce, up to four players control different colored octopuses that work together or against each other to catch fish swimming above them.

Here, she explains some of the design decisions she made before debuting the game at Game Over/Continue? last April:

"Because of the nature of the event -- game controllers would be passing hands quickly between members of a large crowd of showgoers -- I wanted the game to [accommodate] changing players as easily as possible. When a player puts her controller down and walks away, her octopus falls asleep. Sleeping octopodes drift through the waters, acting as both obstacles and launching platforms to other players. When someone picks up the controller again, the octopus wakes up. The game runs continuously, regardless of how many people are playing it: octopodes who aren’t being played are simply sleeping.

I eschewed a numerical score tally, thinking it would cause too much attachment of players to their octopodes (you don’t own your octopus, you’re just borrowing her). So score is simply marked by the brightness of the octopus -- or rather, the opacity. A sleeping octopus is fairly see-through, but an octopus who’s catching lots of fish is solid. I put a text scroll on the bottom of the screen to periodically update players on who’s doing best. It also welcomes new players and explains how to play, helping new players to join without disrupting the game."

You can watch a short video of the game below, too:

E3 Analysis: Nintendo - Not Quite Status Quo

[Reporting from Nintendo's E3 press conference in Los Angeles, Gamasutra's Christian Nutt gives a detailed analysis of its performance, suggesting a "robust, full of surprises, and appealing", with one or two exceptions.]

Nintendo's press conference wasn't as loud and ostentatious as Microsoft's, of course, but the steady message -- with one major exception -- was continued success and progress of its two platforms in the manner to which we are accustomed.

The catchphrase for the conference was the dual-meaning "Everyone's Game", meaning both "games for everybody" and "everybody's ready to play." The company clearly did its best job yet appealing to both its core demographic of gamers that stuck by it in the lean years, and those who have come to its systems thanks to innovations like Brain Age and Wii Fit.

The presentation was lead by Cammie Dunaway, the company's executive vice president of sales and marketing. "Everyone here has a professional connection to video games... We know that how well we do individually is directly linked to how well our category is doing," said Dunaway, as she took the stage, and began to lay out some predictably robust statistics:"Video games are just as big as home video, toys, and even bigger than music and movie box office put together. Today, it's clear. Everyone's game."

Reiterating what Iwata said at his GDC keynote, Dunaway said, "We've been working on one goal -- create surprise."

Building The Core/Casual Bridge

The presentation began with a Mario retropsective -- before launching into New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a four-player, 2D Mario adventure that clearly takes all of the lessons learned from its DS predecessor, as well as Nintendo's other franchises, including Smash Bros., Zelda: Four Swords, and Mario Party to bring cooperative, combative multiplayer action to the system.

It was a crowd-pleaser, and allows the company to retread the second dimension -- hewing back to Miyamoto's sometimes assertion that 3D is tough for novice gamers to deal with.

Of course, the company announced the already-leaked Wii Fit Plus, which seems to refine the original title with requested features. Said Dunaway, "There are millions of people who never stepped up to gaming until they stepped onto this." And for those gamers, this bit-more-than-an-expansion-pack (which will be sold both separately and with the Balance Board) offers new exercise options and a Mario-like platforming game mode -- a further unification of the company's two audience strategies.

Reiterating what Iwata pointed out at GDC -- that Wii Fit was coming close to selling as well as the PlayStation 3 -- Dunaway reiterated: "Some analysts have stopped looking at the balance board as a simple accessory and started looking it at as a platform."

Resort Living

Iconoclastic Nintendo of America president and chief operating officer Reggie Fils-Aime took the stage to demo the company's potential best-ever seller, Wii Sports Resort. "Over the last few years, physical reality has become the new proving ground for game innovation," he said, and with that, the presentation led into the requisite tedious Wii Sports Resort sizzle video.

Fils-Aime admitted that "video can show pretty much anything," and brought out longtime Nintendo staffer Bill Trinen to actually demo the game; Trinen started a demo that began with a new skydiving minigame that uses the tilt sensors in the controller.

"This is just the beginning of the game," said Trinen, which, along with its island setting -- the original didn't even have a setting -- implies a more traditional, linear game progression. This may or may not play to the jump-in, jump-out audience Wii Sports has built up -- though has clear implications for its core gamers.

This was followed by a demo of the archery minigame: "As you can see it's not about learning the controls; it's about what comes naturally," says Trinen. "And it's just the kind of challenge long-term gamers are looking for."

Moving to a sport with a bit more contemporary American currency, Fils-Aime took the stage again to play the basketball 3-point shot minigame and banter with Trinen. After winning, said Fils-Aime, "Wii Sports Resort brings a new sense of reality to a world that is distinctly Nintendo."

Of course, the Wii Motion Plus add-on also ships with EA's Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 -- and EA's Grand Slam Tennis and Sega's Virtua Tennis 2009 will also support it this summer.

"For Ubisoft's Red Steel franchise," which requires the add-on, Fils-Aime said, "the commitment to Wii Motion Plus is absolute. And these new titles suggest that third-party commitment is shifting to Nintendo." With the top third-party sales last year going to Wii and the second place going to Nintendo DS, that's not a shock.

The Casual, Adventuresome DS

Dunaway returned to the stage with a sharp observation: "The Nintendo DS line remains the most lucrative target for game development -- coupling low costs with over 100 million installed units."

James Patterson's bestselling Women's Murder Club book series is becoming a DS game in the form of Games of Passion from THQ -- a logical move that mimics some of the most popular casual games on western PCs (hidden object and adventure) and the Japanese DS -- which also has several successful adventure games based on popular mystery writers in that market. Ubisoft also has a game called C.O.P: The Recruit, which regurgitates the plot of 2 Fast 2 Furious while looking like a family-friendly Grand Theft Auto clone.

Nintendo's immensely successful DS dress-up sim Wagamama Fashion Girls' Mode is coming to America as Style Savvy, and according to Dunaway, "We expect it will further expand the market for girls and teens." The game still looks very Japanese -- with a somewhat subdued but still big-eyed anime style (notably, this style is often used in mainstream fashion marketing in Japan.) We can only assume Nintendo focus-tested it, though, to make sure American girls like the visuals. After the sizzle reel, said Dunaway, "As you can see, Nintendo DS equals diversity."

Nintendo DSi

When it comes to the DSi and the DS Lite, "We expected that the systems would complement each other," said Dunaway. According to her stats, total North American DSi sales as of today surpassed one million units; in that time, the DS Lite sold 400,000. The implication was clear: the DS Lite will continue to exist as a distinct platform.

Emphasizing the DSi's move towards user-generated content, Dunaway showed three games with a similar thread. "People today don't just consume entertainment -- they create it, and then they share it," she said. "Today, we can announce that the simple movie maker called Flip Note Studio will be available to DSi owners this summer. Other user generated content is on the way." DSiWare Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again also offers user-generated levels -- next Monday.

And of WarioWare DIY, which is TBD for North America, Dunaway said, "We believe this is as close to essential game design as any title has ever come." Finally, Facebook and Nintendo will launch direct link for uploading DSi photos -- but no implications of a more robust Facebook application were made.

The Growth and Maintenance of the Nintendo Market

At this point, the man everyone loves to love, Satoru Iwata, came to the stage -- the only Japanese representative (Shigeru Miyamoto, name-checked frequently, was AWOL.)

In increasingly typical fashion, he addressed the market in hard terms. "There are some who now believe the audience expansion movement is beginning to fail. We have been continuously conducting our own research around the world to discover what's happening." This breaks down, said Iwata, into three groups:

- Those who actively play games
- Those who say they will never play
- Those who might some day

Countering his own notorious comments that the Nintendo Wii is in its worst situation since launch, Iwata showed some interesting statistics. "How many [maybes] are there?" Japan, U.S., and six European territories comprise 295 million who actively play console or handheld games -- "big software purchasers." However, 149 million "maybes" exist. "Imagine the opportunity, if the number of players is 50% larger than it is right now," Iwata said.

Though he didn't offer a concrete answer to this challenge, he did offer some of Nintendo's philosophy: "Our next goal is to create a title that can satisfy each type of gamer -- even though the range of skill levels is now much wider." Though most gamers consider those games which test skill to be the most appealing, "This assumption concerns me," said Iwata. But, he cautioned, "On the other hand, if we lower the bar, we won't satisfy highly-skilled players. And I'm concerned about the wall between veterans and the novices."

Iwata reminded us that the original 1981 Donkey Kong was "intuitive enough to be enjoyed by anyone" and "ideally, this is still possible." With Mario Kart Wii and its plastic Wii Wheel, said Iwata, "we feel we have made a certain amount of progress... And we intend to move closer to the goal with some products you have seen today." Wii Sports Resort, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Wii Fit Plus all slot into this mission.

However, said Iwata, "This kind of solution alone may not be entirely convincing. Most of the names we've talked about today are familiar to even non-players. But what has attracted new players mostly has been unfamiliar. What's next?"

What's next is the incredibly odd Wii Vitality Sensor.

Debuting without a game or release date in tow -- no demo of any kind, in fact -- it's a pulse tracking tool that looks just like what the nurse clamped on my finger after surgery last month. The audience groan -- granted, from enthusiast press by-and-large -- was audible. However, visions of Japan's aging population flew by my mind's eye.

"You can use it as a way to relax with a video game," said Iwata. "Games have been traditionally used to give an increased sense of stimulation. But it may not be long that games are used to help people unwind, or even fall asleep." Alert the developers of the iPhone's Prescription For Sleep; Miyamoto's new hobby must be napping.

Awake Again

Fortunately, Dunaway took the stage with the promise "we've still got a little stimulation to deliver." She announced Super Mario Galaxy 2, with sidekick dino Yoshi, to enthusiastic shouts and applause from the audience -- capturing the best reaction of any game at the event.

Fils-Aime returned to further champion the company's offerings for core gamers: "I'll be honest -- I read the blogs too. And I've been a gamer myself for a long time." A quick glimpse at three third party, 2009 core titles -- all of which looked very competent -- came next. Sega/High Voltage's The Conduit, Capcom's Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles, and EA/Visceral Games/Eurocomm's Dead Space Extraction weren't as climactic as what followed, but may show something of a trend. However, one wonders if any, besides the Resident Evil game, will sell at all.

"Could a new ediger game coming from us? The answer is, absolutely," teased Fils-Aime, and then debuted the Team Ninja and Nintendo collaboration Metroid: Other M for 2010 -- solidifying the relationship the company has forged with Tecmo in the wake of last year's Nintendo-published (yet unreleased-in-the-U.S.) Fatal Frame title. It looked great; it left me wondering what shape Metroid Prime developers Retro Studios is in.


Fils-Aime made a surprising segue -- into the world of RPGs. Of course, Square Enix's commitment to the platform and its Final Fantasy title on Nintendo's two competitor consoles behooves that. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers, a Wii exclusive, doesn't even look as visually advanced, at present, as the company's PlayStation 2 Kingdom Hearts games, but will obviously capture many sales -- along with the KH game the company is prepping for DS (note: a different PSP version is also on the way.)

Nintendo also stepped up to the RPG plate with Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, which has the power of franchise and quality to ensure solid sales as well. And the audience of core gamers was pleasantly surprised by the re-emergence of Camelot Software Planning's Golden Sun series in a new DS installment -- after a six year absence.

What Nintendo's Up To

These games tell us two things: the company knows that the core gamers as as much of its audience as ever, and that competition from Microsoft and Sony is strong enough to encourage the company to do something it's never done: get a top-notch, second-party action developer (Team Ninja) to handle a new Metroid while pumping out a second 3D Mario title on its own platform.

In all, the conference was robust, full of surprises, and appealing -- though the banality and not-quite-a-sequel-ness of Wii Fit Plus and inscrutability of the Wii Vitality Sensor showed a little weakness in an otherwise strong showing.

Sony Sneaks Out Fat Princess PSP Announcement

In its E3 press conference today, Sony briefly showed footage of Titan Studios's (formerly Darkstar Industries) team-based strategy game Fat Princess running on a PSP, along with several other titles for the handheld.

Unfortunately, Sony, which is publishing the downloadable game through PlayStation Network this month, didn't disclose whether the PSP version will include any unique features or when it will release. The company, however, did reveal another interesting title for the system in its sizzle reveal, Echochrono, a sequel to Japan Studio's odd puzzler Echochrome.

[Via Siliconera]

For Real This Time: EOCS Bans Rape Games

After a false report last week that Japan's Ethics Organization of Computer Software (EOCS) banned the sale and production of rape games in the country, the Abel Group (Abel's chairman Kanno Hiroyuki is an EOCS director) announced that the organization decided to fulfill that early prediction and ban titles simulating forced sex. Note that this is not a government decree, rather a self-policing measure from Japan's software companies.

Comprised of over 200 software companies, the EOCS is an industry organization that oversees PC game ratings Japan. Nearly 100 representatives from the member companies gathered today for an emergency meeting and decided to move forward with the ban of rape games, according to a report from Abel Group's blog translated by Canned Dogs.

No votes on the measure were taken at the meeting as "there was an atmosphere among those who were present where many felt that there was probably no other way to solve this problem." Apparently, none of the companies attending voiced disapproval with the ban.

EOCS hasn't yet decided on the exact regulations of what games will or won't be allowed, but plans to work with each company individually until it has laid out all the specifics behind the ban.

Watch Wiebe Have Another Go At Donkey Kong Record

King of Kong hero Steve Wiebe is making his attempt to beat Billy Mitchell's Donkey Kong high score of 1,050,200 at E3 right now, and you can watch video of his attempt streaming live from G4TV.

In an unusual promotion, Stride Gum is offering Wiebe $10,001 in quarters, should he break Mitchell's record. Twin Galaxies scorekeeper Walter Day will also be at the event, where he'll be, um, keeping score.

Wiebe's last attempt to place himself at the top of Donkey Kong's high scorers list was at last October's E for All Expo, where he was only able to reach 1,000,200 points -- still an impressive achievement, considering it was only the third time a public play exceeded the one million points mark.

Analysis: The Psychology Behind Item Collecting And Achievement Hoarding

[Item-collecting has been a staple of video games for many years. What is it inside gamers' heads that makes us want to accumulate items and chase after Achievements? Kris Graft speaks with the experts...]

You may recall the eccentric Collyer Brothers. Homer and Langley, heirs of one of New York’s oldest families, lived in a Manhattan mansion in the first half of the 1900s.

There, the two became reclusive, boarding up their windows and accumulating over 100 tons of what most would classify as “junk” until the entire house was packed to the ceiling – anything from bundles of newspapers to the chassis of a Model T to 14 full-sized pianos.

They were compulsive hoarders, and I think there’s a little bit of Collyer in all of us gamers. The Obsessive Compulsive Foundation explains that in compulsive hoarders:

“Acquiring is often associated with positive emotions, such as pleasure and excitement, motivating individuals who experience these emotions while acquiring to keep acquiring, despite negative consequences.”

Sound familiar? The "negative consequences" of chasing after the 120th star in Mario 64 or all 100 hidden packages in Grand Theft Auto III may be more subdued than those of filling your entire house with orange peels and old cans of refried beans.

But game designers know that it’s pretty damn easy to tap into this deep-rooted need to collect and accumulate. And like happy suckers we buy into it all the time, some to a greater degree than others.

Item collection has been a staple of video games since Pac-Man swallowed his first cherry. Since then, we’ve collected stars, coins, rings, nuts, bolts, packages, armor, weapons, Achievements and so on. Games like Call of Duty 4 take exploration out of the collection equation, and use experience points and graphs to indicate how close we are to obtaining that next weapon or Perk.

False Sense Of Accomplishment?

All of this “stuff” is tied to the player, whether it’s a high score with your initials beside it, your Gamertag with its high gamerscore, your PlayStation 3 Trophy Room, your save file that says you recruited all 108 Suikoden characters, or your World of Warcraft or CoD4 account that’s filled with the best weapons and items. Such accomplishments, as frivolous and intangible as they may seem to outsiders, are meaningful to gamers.

One of the aspects of gaming today that most obviously appeals to our inner hoarder are Achievements. We joke around that video game “Achievements” are a misnomer, because what is it exactly that you’re achieving, other than sitting on your ass all day trying to kill 100,000 Locusts in Gears of War 2?

In collecting these digital gems, are we just filling ourselves with an empty sense of accomplishment when, in fact, we’ve accomplished nothing? Not necessarily, says Dr. Cheryl K. Olson, co-director at the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry, and author of the 2007 book, Grand Theft Childhood.

“People work for intangible rewards all the time,” she says. “Money and love, for example. A paycheck may seem ‘solid,’ but it represents an abstraction. And what’s more abstract than earning an ‘A’ in philosophy?... Small things can be quite rewarding. A smile from a cute girl may be a small thing, but it can make a teenage boy’s week.”

And the months (for some, maybe weeks) it took you to earn the Seriously 2.0 Achievement in Gears of War 2? “Delayed rewards are often more valued. Over years of formal schooling, we learn to delay gratification,” Olson says.

If you really need more encouragement or justification for your compulsive digital item-collecting or video gaming in general, there’s Chicago-based psychologist Dr. Kourosh Dini, who authored the book Video Game Play and Addiction: A Guide for Parents to give you that extra push:

“If you're trying hard to do something complex [such as video game play] – that is essentially a brain exercise. While others may see you as just sitting on a couch, learning is happening. Lessons like how to communicate with teammates, being empathic with other players in trying to understand their next moves, exercising logic skills to solve puzzles, among others are learned.”

He adds, “We do have a need for feelings of success. Achievements are unique and difficult enough that most players will choose a small handful and distinguish themselves that way. This is the same sort of process that happens in deciding who want to be as we grow.”

"I'm Better Than You"

The proliferation of item collecting or Achievement hoarding isn’t necessarily because we have an obsessive compulsive demon lurking under our skins. Whereas many real compulsive hoarders accumulate real-world items such as old newspapers or lists because they believe they’ll need them at a certain point in the future, many gamers chase after the item carrot for bragging rights.

Olson said in a survey on young teens and video games, she found that over half of boys (57 percent) and more than one in four girls (28 percent) strongly agreed that that “to compete and win” was a reason they played electronic games.

Gamerscores and Achievement lists that are connected to a community of millions facilitate this need to point out that “I’m better than you”. Ultimately, it all plays into chasing that sense of fulfillment. But for others, it really is about accumulating, accumulating, accumulating, sometimes to the detriment, or even the demise, of the hoarder.

Within the walls of his fortress of trash, a paranoid Langley Collyer had booby-trapped a maze of tunnels created from junk throughout his and Homer’s mansion. Langley set off one of his own tripwires, sending a mountain of papers on top of him, burying him alive as he was bringing food to Homer, who was blind and unable to take care of himself.

Homer died of starvation -- authorities didn't find Langley’s body until three weeks later, just ten feet away from his brother, covered in garbage. So don’t feel too bad if you’re jonesing for that next sword, star, or Achievement. I suppose you could be worse off.

Atlus Announces Shiren the Wanderer Wii for Spring 2010

It's always a surprise to hear a Shiren the Wanderer game announced for U.S. release. Sega didn't release Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer for DS stateside until the franchise had already flourished in Japan under developer Chunsoft (Dragon Quest) for 12 years. And U.S. sales for that DS title were rumored to be so dismal that Sega passed localizing Shiren's subsequent releases, as did niche game publisher Xseed.

Atlus USA, though, already familiar with publishing Eastern roguelikes, what with two Izuna titles under its belt, revealed this morning that it is releasing Shiren the Wanderer Wii, or Shiren the Wanderer 3: Sleeping Princess in the Clockwork Palace as its known in Japan, in the States in Spring 2010. Unlike the DS title, which is remake of the original SNES Shiren, this Wii game is a new 3D entry introducing features such as an online multiplayer versus mode:

"The grandfather of the rogue-like RPG, the legendary Shiren series (also known as Mystery Dungeon) is all about tough-as-nails battles, thrilling exploration, finding tons of items, growing in strength, and most important of all: staying alive! With beautiful, colorful 3D graphics, multiple control options, numerous lengthy dungeons, thrilling boss battles, and classic rogue-like gameplay, Shiren the Wanderer delivers the ultimate hardcore RPG experience to Wii!"

If you're completely unfamiliar with the roguelike series, you really should read John Harris' posts about the Shiren games in GameSetWatch's @Play roguelike column -- they're what made me (and many others!) fall in love with the franchise.

You can watch a Japanese commercial for Shiren the Wanderer Wii, which shows off the game's many, many deaths while Beethoven's 5th Symphony plays, after the break:

GameSetLinks: Gotta Pecha Pecha Kucha

[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, my E3 is about to kick off, and I'm afraid I'll be doing more business meetings than wonderful product demos - though I am looking forward to seeing and playing The Beatles: Rock Band a little in the week.

Anyhow, some of the highlights in here include MUD T-shirts from Richard Bartle, the making of Fool's Errand, a history of game accessibility, the making of Asteroids, and lots more.

Hay low:

QBlog: MUD1 T-shirts
Wow, the first ever MMO merchandising, I'm guessing: 'One of the people who bought it, Sue the Witch, complained that the words "majestic mountains" appeared right across her, well, majestic mountains. She later turned out to be a guy named Steve.'

“10 games in 10 hours” videos « Mark Cooke’s G-Mixer
Neat idea from the former Nihilistic, Grasshopper Manufacture coder, shown at a Pecha Kucha series in Tokyo.

The digital closet: online gaming struggles with gay voices - Ars Technica
Appreciate a piece on this topic.

How Legendary Puzzle Game Fool’s Errand Came to Be | GameLife | Wired.com
Some brief/neat extras: 'For all the YouTube clips and fan sites devoted to The Fool’s Errand, the eccentric Bristol, Connecticut, creator remains something of a puzzle himself. Just what kind of mind lurks behind the phenomenon?'

The Making Of: Asteroids | Edge Online
Nice piece on a classic title.

Able Gamers: A Brief History of Video Game Accessibility: The 1970's
Neat to see people looking into this in some detail.

June 1, 2009

E3 Analysis: This Year, Microsoft Lived Up To Its Own Hype

[We're covering E3 en masse, of course -- go check out Gamasutra news for the full skinny - but we'll feature the top analysis pieces on GSW too.

Here, Leigh Alexander reflects from Los Angeles on the major takeaways of Microsoft's E3 briefing -- why the company's real killer reveal will see the least buzz, and what announcements like Project Natal and MGS Rising could mean for the industry.]

When it comes to presentations, Microsoft hasn't exactly got a reputation for austerity, so it was fitting that the company's press event (also covered in liveblog form by Gamasutra for the raw announcements) should be the one to kick off the "new" E3.

The enormous packed amphitheater awash in drifting green light patterns, flecked with gold strobe and decked out with enormous display screens, throbbing power-pop and strange honeycombed stage architecture was exactly what you'd expect from a company that feels like it's number one at the event of the year.

E3 press conferences are usually well-choreographed, hype-heavy events; one can expect a few nice-looking trailers, a few surprises, and perhaps one or two real kickers -- like last year, when the company announced it had finally broken Square Enix's Final Fantasy PlayStation exclusivity for the thirteenth installment, at least in the U.S.

This year, it's been easy to dismiss Microsoft's promises that it would "completely transform how people think about home entertainment" as more of the company's usual aggressive bravado. But the company's E3 media briefing wasn't just talk.

Microsoft brought it. Formidably.


Early on in the conference, the company brought the Beatles on stage -- Paul and Ringo, the Beatles -- to thunderous cheers, joined by Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, to lend their support for Rock Band: Beatles, whose cheerful opening cinematic saw its first debut at the event.

"Who'd ever thought we'd end up as androids?" McCartney joked. "We look great," said Starr.

That moment of genuine joy was further warmed by the announcement that proceeds from Xbox 360-exclusive downloadable track 'All You Need Is Love' will all go to Doctors Without Borders.

The Stuff You Expected

Other than that, a cameo from skating legend Tony Hawk, the exclusivity of a surprisingly creative-looking Splinter Cell: Conviction, the impressive vividity of Modern Warfare 2, the revelation of a new Halo in Reach were all the sort of things you might expect.

Microsoft's vaunted entry into the racing space with Forza Motorsport 3 -- complete with shiny red Audi on stage, fog machine, and promises of "the definitive racing game for our generation," and "the best looking racing game on any console" of course -- was flashy, but a logical move.

Incidentally, that the company that owns the Windows OS made it through an entire two-hour presentation without once mentioning the PC platform is strange, but not too surprising, either.

The Obvious Coup

"But we're not done yet," Xbox senior VP Don Mattrick said. "It seems we're missing one crucial piece of the puzzle."

Enter Hideo Kojima.

Last year, the announcement of FFXIII for Xbox 360 in the U.S. was Microsoft's best card. This year's defection of a formerly PlayStation-associated franchise was not the biggest announcement -- in fact, it was something like one more stone in an avalanche of eyebrow-raisers for Microsoft this year.

The news that the forthcoming Metal Gear Solid Rising will come to Xbox 360 represents Microsoft robbing its rival of one of its few remaining third-party exclusive franchises, and certainly its most desirable one. The company didn't need Metal Gear to give a dominating presentation -- but it had it anyway.

The Quiet Triumph

Microsoft's real killer reveal will likely receive the least amount of press and buzz from the hardcore gaming community -- Xbox Live's integration with Facebook and Twitter.

Xbox Live users will be able to invite their friends on the service to become their Facebook friends, and vice versa. In the near future, starting with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09, gamers will be able to post screenshots of favorite gaming moments to to their Facebook pages for all their friends to see.

This means Xbox Live as a community will be exposed in a huge way to Facebook's massive 200 million userbase -- not only will the Xbox Live network effectively join the webbing of an existing mainstream social network, but it's likely that Facebook users will be pulled in. The company gains free marketing at the same time it provides a much-needed service to its users. Brilliant.

And if that's not enough, the company's also partnering with super-sticky, explosive web app Twitter -- by integrating Xbox Live seamlessly with both of these powerful mainstream social networking platforms, Microsoft is proving that the Xbox 360 can be one, too.

And, Of Course, Natal

Strange that they should pronounce their gesture-based control project Na-TAL, because the company's clearly birthing something major here.

Although at the event Stephen Spielberg called video game controllers "a barrier separating video game players from everyone else," it's likely there's a significant portion of the gaming audience that isn't ready to put down their controllers yet -- or ever.

Project Natal, then, is significant more for what it means to "everyone else." Though it's hard not to share Peter Molyneux's palpable excitement for the lifelike interaction the technology can enable, the concept of a television display that recognizes and greets you when you walk by, that allows users to control downloadable film menus by waving a finger in the air, are even more significant for the impact they could have on modern entertainment.

Microsoft's Winning

Between the social networking integration and the revelation of what could feasibly become a home entertainment mainstay, Microsoft's E3 presentation was so strong not so much because of its video games -- although there were no weak reveals there, to say the least -- but because it's obviously planned ahead to position itself as an integrated entertainment hub in all the ways its competition has only attempted to.

For once, the company lived up to its own hype. And as a legion of dazed media and industry folk filed slowly and quietly out of the amphitheater, one question could be heard on everyone's lips, murmured into cell phones and in curbside chatter in the lines to the shuttles.

It sounded hushed, funereal, sympathetic:

"What can Sony do now?"

Kickstarter Brings in Funding for Small Game Projects

Launched in late April, Kickstarter is a neat site that allows creative types -- artists, musicians, bloggers, journalists, game developers, etc. -- raise money for their projects by offering multiple tiers of incentives to patrons.

Creators set a fundraising, deadline, and rewards depending on the pledge amount, and if backers front enough cash before the deadline, the money goes towards the project's execution. If the fundraising goal isn't met, those who pledged a donation aren't charged anything. (GSW conducted an interview with Kickstarter's Perry Chen last month.)

Kind of Bloop, a project (started by Waxy.org's Andy Baio) looking to bring together notable chiptune artists and recreate Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" album with an 8-bit sound, is a great example of a Kickstarter success story, raising its goal amount of $2,000 in a single day. After less than a month, Kind of Bloop raised over $5,700, with 60 days left until its fundraising deadline.

The project was able to attract backers not just based on its interesting premise, but because it offered advance access to the album, behind the scenes updates, limited edition CDs, and more to donators. Each project also has blog-like updates and a comment section, allowing patrons to leave feedback and potentially help guide the project's direction.

Actual game projects are beginning to appear on the site too, such as High Strangeness an action adventure title that its Portland-based three-man team hopes to release in 2010 for PC and Xbox Live Community Games.

The project is described as a 12-bit game, as its planned "visual aesthetics lie somewhere between that of 8-bit (Nintendo) and 16-bit (Super Nintendo)". You can read about its Mother-esque plot below:

"Our video game is about a boy living in current day middle America, who awakes in the middle of the night to find that his home has been intruded upon by shadowy villains. He soon finds himself on a quest to discover the secrets of a mysterious item, after unwittingly being dragged into a foreign world filled with the evil and mysterious Shadow Men. Hesitant at first, our hero eventually realizes his role in a cosmic battle for peace throughout all universes."

The group has already posted a video promoting the project and an excellent music track from the game (composed by chiptune artist Rich "Disasterpeace" Vreeland). As incentives, they are offering spots on the game's end credits, a limited edition version of the soundtrack, a High Strangeness T-shirt, a high quality print of game art, and a "highly limited, hand crafted, super-secret collectors' item inspired by the game's plot".

The team has raised $791 so far for High Strangeness, over half of its goal amount in two weeks, with 77 days left until its deadline.

IGN/GameSpy Shutting Down Classicgaming Fan Sites

IGN/Gamespy is shutting down its public hosting services as of August 31st, 2009, doing away with its Classicgaming.com sites and possibly others (e.g. Strategyplanet, RPGPlanet), according to a forum post by Kurt "discoalucard" Kalata.

Kalata maintains several noteworthy sites on the Classicgaming network, such as Castlevania Dungeon and Hardcore Gaming 101, both of which keep very devoted followings. Other sites on the network include Shmups, The Metroid Database, and The Odyssey2 Homepage.

He notes that several Classicgaming sites have changed or are changing hosts in order to keep operating, but he laments, "How many of us will make the jump? How many will simply vanish, saved only by the rather arbitrary algorithms of Archive.org and the few people who actually save web sites to their hard drives, perhaps to charitably archive them later ala The GIA?"

Kalata argues that with the closing of free hosting sites such as Classicgaming, fansites are disappearing (he adds that free blogs aren't an adequate replacement): "The big draw of the Internet is where the general populace can come together to have their voices heard. That's slowly going away, and it really kinda sucks."

[Via @retronauts]

Tecmo Super Coach Updates Roster, Gameplay

ROM hackers have released Tecmo Super Bowl roster patches for years now, but Tecmo Super Coach does more than just update the 1991 NES game's team lineups for the 2009-10 season.

Tecmo Super Coach, which first appeared late last year for the 2008-09 season, takes the original Tecmo Super Bowl and overhauls quarterback priority selection, makes CPU play-calling less predictable, adds "strategic situational play calling", and throws in lots of other hacks intended to help create a more "realistic Tecmo Coaching experience".

The patch won't be available until later this month, but you can already flip through Tecmo Super Coach's online instruction book to see the complete list of changes and hacks.

[Via Digital Press]

PS2's Experimental Biometrically Controlled Game

Some time around 2001 to 2003, Happy Toe Productions worked on "Project Brain Tracer", a biometric control device for SCEA. The studio also developed this prototype game, Aibo Verse, which was controlled through electromyography (EMG), electrocardiogram (EKG), galvanic skin response (GSR) and electro encephalography (EEG) signals. Presumably, the concept had some relation to Sony's robotic dog series AIBO.

In this prototype for the PlayStation 2, players controlled a dog around a small planet, interacting with characters and the environment. Apparently, another possibly related prototype called Sand Man was developed, according to the resume of Happy Toe's former game designer and artist Doug Cope.

You can see video of Aibo Verse in action below, as well as more concept art on Unseen 64.

[Update: Shortly after this post was published, the video was marked "Private", as was Unseen 64's post.]

Column: 'Lingua Franca' – Portal and the Deconstruction of the Institution

Erving_Goffman.jpg['Lingua Franca' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Daniel Johnson which discusses the relationship between language, culture and video games. This time he steps away from culture to talk about games, language and sociology with regard to Valve's Portal - please note that the article contains story spoilers for the game.]

In 1959 Erving Goffman released The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life; a book that went on to heavily influence future understanding of social interactions within the sociology discipline. In it, he discusses social intercourse under the metaphor of actors performing on a stage. Specifically, in the second chapter he shares the idea of a front and backstage to social interaction.

As with the theater, we have a place where we manage the performance and a place where we give that performance. As social interlocutors engaged in interaction, we are presenting an impression of ourselves to an audience; we're acting out a role that requires constant management at the whim of the interaction. The front stage is the grounds of the performance. The backstage is a place we rarely ever want to reveal to others, it contains the truth to our construction and to reveal it would be to defraud our identity in front of the audience - it simply spoils the illusion of where we're placing ourself in the interaction.

The narrative of 2007's Portal by Valve Software is grounded heavily in Goffman's work both in social performance and institutions. The running of an institution requires a front and backstage. A restaurant is an institution which has an obvious front and back stage, both in architectural layout and in the management of performance.

A waiter passing through one area to another will shift their presentation accordingly. In the dining area he will be polite to guests, hold himself strongly and compose himself with great dignity. Moving into the kitchen though, he is away from the front stage and can loosen his shoulders, yell requests at the chefs and do other despicable acts which wouldn't be acceptable out in the dining area.

All institutions have a backstage that mask their inner workings. The events within Portal represent the management of performance used to conceal backstage in a constant tug-of-war battle to have institutional control over the player. This phenomena is due predominately (but not restricted to) the use of language in static dialogue, the following is a critique of how Portal achieves such a task:

Which Institution?

Portal's narrative component can be dissected into two key parts; the static, compulsory narrative (the relationship between the protagonist and Glados) and the variable player narrative (everything else, ie. the game world). Since the relationship between the player and Glados is purely built on language, we can then derive that Portal's narrative is constructed by Glados' dialogue and the game world.

Furthermore, these two narrative components are the two respective devices used to define Aperture Science as an institution; the tangible and actual institution. The dialogue provides the language and the game world provides the context. I think I've just stepped upon a some kind of axiom here. Don't get too caught up in details, let's flesh this out a little;


The latter part should be fairly clear. You wake up as an inmate to a landscape that visually portrays itself as an institution, and once the actual institution delivers you a routine (the first pieces of dialogue), the tools in the game world (portal gun, level design etc.) allow you to achieve the requested outcome. Even before that first utterance is spoken the player has a sense of who and where they are, due to the visual, aural and agency clues.

While the player narrative is obviously the game's largest component (because it is “the game”), it's only a minor increment of the overarching narrative. In terms of narrative alone, the game world purely provides the context by characterizing the landscape, telling you that you've made the transition from visual front to visual backstage of the compound, giving Glados a visual avatar and providing the medium in which the compulsory narrative (Glados's dialogue) can operate – that's all. This is the tangible institution. You've got the furnishings, the white-wash décor, the building itself and all that jazz. It's also the context required to justify the dialogue (language cannot exist without context).

The larger chunk of Portal's narrative exists in Glados' dialogue; language and language only. While the game world may present the player narrative and set the initial context, it's Glados' language that ultimately defines Aperture Science as an institution. Language is the medium that constructs the institution, it's front and backstage. When you go to the supermarket to buy food, the language that is spoken to you (even if it's just “twelve dollars fifty”) defines you as the customer and the checkout chick as the manager of that process within the institution. The building, food, signage and furnishings are meaningless to the key construct.

They're just props that aid in institutionalizing yourself as the customer, as the portal gun, turrets and elevators aid in institutionalizing you as a convict. In Portal, Glados defines your position, she states your role and no outcome within the game will occur until you obey her instructions. Her dialogue and your reception of that dialogue is the actual institution. That is, until the point where you intentionally break her orders. Therefore, Aperture Science would not operate as an institution if there was no language to define the roles within it. I shall define this as the 'actual institution'.


Now that we've dissected the game into the two well-defined chunks, I can introduce the intention of this piece. Today I would like to move away from culture for a moment to critique Portal on the grounds that it is an interactive showcase of how language is used in performances to manage institutional processes. There is a front stage and a backstage to Aperture Science, and as one progresses the game's narrative, the institution falters allowing backstage to become front stage. This is done through the combined use of the game world (context) and Glados' dialogue (language). The two devices are self reliant, that is language (compulsory narrative), cannot exist without context (player narrative), hence I shall be analyzing how both these tools operate to reach my conclusion.

Paraphrased to length already, there are two parts to Portal's institution, this essay shall be assessing how Portal deconstructs the actual institution (part). To do so references need to be made to the tangible institution – one cannot exist without the other. The player already knows about the deconstruction of the tangible institution as this is presented as the destruction of the physical place at the end of the game, hence explaining this is useless for the essay. We're looking at the “invisible” here.


Introduction - Chamber 04

Finally, let's begin shall we? The player wakes up in the Aperture Science compound in a glass chamber alongside a series of objects; table, radio, (incubation) bed and toilet. The game provides some short breathing room for the player to take in the surroundings and to ponder where exactly they're located. Visually, the game presents itself as a holding cell, looking through the glass it's clear that your being held in an institution of sorts. The sanitary cleanliness, minimal objects and grey-white washes of colour all set the context of the tangible institution. These set pieces act as objects to institutionalize your initial role.

Your observations are interrupted by “Hello and, again, welcome to the Aperture Science computer-aided Enrichment Center”. The utterance confirms your suspicions. The front stage is set and remains unscathed. The talk continues as the PA runs through routine precautions when suddenly an electrical fault occurs, sparks fall from the ceiling and bed, the sound sifts, speeds up and then jumps to the next line of script. We witness some kind of problem occur and the system (seemingly) provides quick repair by relaying to the next step. The repair offers a glimpse of backstage as improvisation occurs. This is the first flaw in the routine of the institution, and a slight break in the performance.

The previous incident also contains some nuggets of interesting language. “Hello and, again, welcome to the” suggests that some part of the institutional process (unknown to the player) occurred previously. “Your specimen has been processed and we are now ready to begin the test proper.” Again, what specimen and what test? The institution is withholding information from us, flaunting it even. The performance instills a role onto the player of inferiority in an inexplicit manner. Everything said to the player is also wrapped in the typical, false politeness that one receives in such institutional contexts. This is of course, a re-occurring theme in the text. Lastly, we have no knowledge of the identity of the speaker – how did we ever figure out her name was Glados?

A portal appears and Glados continues to talk rules. The linear design shuffles you into the next room with a large red button and a box that falls from an overhanging chamber. The game allows you to fill in the blanks and once it's done more procedural conversation is projected. “This Aperture Science Material Emancipation Grid will vaporize any unauthorized equipment that passes through it- for instance, the Aperture Science Weighted Storage Cube.”

The lengthy names and unrelenting reference to official equipment is a trick the writers employ to make fun of institutional processes which usually require the use of official titles in formal interaction. While there is nothing systematically incorrect with using titles, the elongated names sounds downright silly. You'll find that the humour, works as it's own device to ridicule the testing procedure and institution itself. The humour doesn't so much break the performance in the conventional sense (ie. disobeying assumed norms of interaction), rather it illegitimizes the performance. Therefore, each joke made regarding institutional protocol peels away at the front stage performance.

In the next room (Chamber 01), the previous joke is repeated to a further extent “Fifteen Hundred Megawatt Aperture Science Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Button”. These two jokes together represent the subtle way in which the writers introduce performance-breaking devices. In the first instance, we're introduced to a device (technique, function, whatever) and it appears slightly odd in context but negligible, a small flaw. Later the same device is used to greater effect, increasing the presence of backstage. The devices work on a continuum of strength, increasing a notch as you climb each storey. Sometimes these devices will take a back seat and then re-emerge later in the game. I'll continue to point there out as we go.

Once you complete the test, the welcoming line “Please move quickly to the chamberlock, as the effects of prolonged exposure to the Button are not part of this test.” hints at backstage knowledge being withheld – that is the effects of prolonged exposure (another device).

On entering Chamber 02 Glados compliments you (“You're doing very well!”) in an almost patronizing tone, asserting your lesser positions. The uncertainty of safety surrounding the equipment is further played on: “Please be advised that a noticeable taste of blood is not part of any test protocol but is an unintended side effect of the Aperture Science Material Emancipation Grill, which may, in semi-rare cases, emancipate dental fillings, crowns, tooth enamel, and teeth.” This utterance is a combination of several different techniques. Firstly we again see the overlaying polite language. Secondly, the understating of the possibility of danger are standards of institutional talk, yet the consequences are usually kept behind doors. In this case, they're said out in the open, with full brutality, instilling a weary sense of fear. The game occasionally waves around such information, because it acts to lesser you to (in this case) the risks. A proper institution wouldn't dare put participants in such a position of risk, yet here it is done and presented as “normal”. Placing the protagonist where they probably don't wish to be.

Once you obtain the portal gun, similar jokes are made regarding the safety of the device, before another electrical cut out. This time there is no immediate repair, the device (power out) has moved along the scale to greater effect, more cracks are showing. The repetition confirms the worry that something is awry behind the scenes. Occurs once, okay, occurs twice, perhaps not.

More humour in Chamber 03 with Glados making mention of the “Aperture Science Bring Your Daughter to Work Day” stating that it “is the perfect time to have her tested.” Jokes aside, this message suggests something about the origins of the organisation. Something relating to the testing of females. Certainly falls in line with the female protagonist. Again, crucial background information withheld. We still have no clue as to why we're taking these orders and completing the exercises, reinforcing your position as the unwilling participant.

Chamber 04 features some encouraging words. Glados also states that the next room won't be monitored. Makes you consider how they're monitoring you, eh? By now the player has probably noticed the translucent windows with the desk on the other side and may have connected the dots. The security cameras similarly may also be monitoring your actions. Both instruments institutionalize your role, they're unknowns, inaccessible information which insinuate paranoia. They are elements of the front stage that feed information to the back.

Chamber 05 - Chamber 10

In Chamber 05 Glados says “As part of a required test protocol, our previous statement suggesting that we would not monitor this chamber was an outright fabrication.” which again has several functions. Firstly, the actual institution mislead you outright and by later informing you of this, it only pushes you further into a position of unwilling submission. Secondly it continues to break any faith that you might have had of the institution. On the other hand, this utterance could be interpreted as a mistake on behalf of Aperture Science making it another instance of floundering in the performance. She then follows “As part of a required test protocol, we will stop enhancing the truth in three, two, one.” The fact that this is part of some required test protocol unbeknown to yourself only strengthens your role as the submissive inmate. What would misleading the protagonist have to do with the testing? Are these tests somehow psychological? The game embeds this initial perception here. Also what is the intended meaning of “enhancing the truth”?

Chamber 06 has more darkly humoured, procedural talk regarding safety and concludes with another false complement “Unbelievable! You , must be the pride of .” The lack of names points out unintended holes in the performance of the institution, creating a lose of face but at the same time, the utterance is patronizing to the player, giving position and declaring roles.

Chamber 07 and 08 play with safety messages adding a sharp twist of dark humour “Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an 'unsatisfactory' mark on your official testing record followed by death. Good luck!” The dark humour is created by the dialogue prioritizing the face of the institution over your own well-being and safety. The two points are two ends of the balancing act that institutions must keep in favourable equilibrium during a performance. In the case of Portal though the institution puts itself before the patient and while it's humourous to the player, it serves to subordinate you to the institution, maintaining the front stage and keeping you well away from the back. “Please note that any appearance of danger is merely a device to enhance your testing experience.” This last quote is perhaps ultimate submission of the player, the institution doesn't just warn of danger, it's saying that is a part of the routine which you have no control over.

Chamber 09 again teases the player by incorporating decipt into the routine, normalizing it. Glados alarmingly states “The Enrichment Center regrets to inform you that this next test is impossible. Make no attempt to solve it” and then later (once you've solved it) “Fantastic! You remained resolute and resourceful in an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.” The language here toys with the institutional knowledge gained so far . You know that if you don't complete the task, the elevator doors won't open and you won't be able to proceed into the next area of the exercise. All of this was taught to you by the exercises of the last 8 levels. Chamber 09 is constructed to question the player whether or not they will independently conform to what the exercises have taught them, doing so displays obedience to the institution, not doing so yields no result. You're being subordinated, forced to play out a given role. This is perhaps the most powerful technique in the whole game. It institutionalizes the player by unfairly forcing you to play the part. By playing your role, you are allowing the actual institution to continue playing their own, in which case, this is a front-stage- strengthening exercise. The mightier the front stage control, the more control the institution has over the player.

Glados' speech cuts out again at the entrance of Chamber 10 (“Hello again. To reiterate our previous warning: This test [garbled] momentum [garbled]”). This device has been used for the third time and is now common place within the performance. The word momentum is left in as a clue on how to use the portals to solve the next puzzle. Glados attempts to reiterate a previous warning but again the system cuts out. Starting with “This test” it seems as though what she tried to convey was a rule previously garbled earlier in the game. Even “unintentionally”, important information is withheld and the dominant role is unintentionally carried out.

In Chamber 10, the game breaks more rules of front stage performance by insulting and patronizing the player. This was negligible before, but due to it's continual use and exaggeration is now prominent. It's first presented as “You appear to understand how a portal affects forward momentum, or to be more precise, how it does not.” denoting your failure to achieve the requested goal.

Glados then continues the assault by referring to momentum “In layman's terms, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.” The childish use of the word speedy is diminutive of the player. Honesty that may be harmful to the face of the institution is something never said out in the front stage and usually reserved for backstage chatter. For instance, you do not insult a customer in a department store to their face, but you may talk jokingly about them with another staff member in the lunch room. Glados begins to air open honesty towards the protagonist in a way that institutional acts don't normally permit, we see this subtly crawling between the cracks of politeness.

Chamber 11 - Chamber 16

Rarely is the 'actual instiuition' discussed, it's socially destructive. Unless you're not conforming to routine, there is no need for a supermarket to declare you as the shopper and themselves as the storefront. We just subconsciously play the performance of a shopper when entering a supermarket, alerting us of the performance is intrusive and denotes that something is wrong; someone is either not playing their role or there is an error in the institutional processes.

In Chamber 11, Glados states the actual institution by way of referring to safety; “ The Enrichment Center promises to always provide a safe testing environment. In dangerous testing environments, the Enrichment Center promises to always provide useful advice.” This much should be assumed, so by mentioning it, Glados only conjures up skepticism of the security among the player. I mean, what reason would there be to state this unless there is some sort of breach? The writers play on the gamer's mentality here. Glados then delivers another indirect insult “For instance, the floor here will kill you- try to avoid it.” You obtain the second Portal gun and shortly after Glados continues “As part of an optional test protocol, we are pleased to present an amusing fact: - The Device is now more valuable than the organs and combined incomes of everyone in .” This cold fact is wrapped in institutional politeness and is a stiff pill to swallow. To the player it's no doubt amusing, but in terms of the performance, Glados is now breaking etiquette in a manner that straddles the line. She is still talking through her teeth, but the inferred meaning only shows us how the use of personal attacks has peaked at this stage.

Not terribly much is said in Chamber 12, Glados' voice becomes garbled again and she expresses some childishness is her talk ("Wheeeeeeeeeeee"). We can see that she's also losing a professionalism in her performance, she's becoming more casual with her speech.

All insults thus far have been implicitly delivered. In Chamber 13, the barrier is removed “Now that you are in control of both portals, this next test could take a very, VERY, long time.” Unlike the other jabs, this one loses the politeness.

The dark humour continues with Glados providing excessive amounts of detail to possible situations that should be censored or destated for the patient “If you become light headed from thirst, feel free to pass out.” and “An intubation associate will be dispatched to revive you with peptic salve and adrenaline.” Afterwards she then reinstates her honesty (as required by the test protocol) and out of nowhere shares some emotion “When the testing is over you will be, missed.” In institutional performance strong emotion (crying, strong affection) that could possibly jeopardise the front stage should be suppressed, here the seed is planted. Although it's suspicious due to the raised tone of “missed” which sounds artificial.

In Chamber 14 the writers take a few more digs at institutional procedures. “All subjects intending to handle high-energy gamma leaking portal technology must be informed that they MAY be informed of applicable regulatory compliance issues. No further compliance information is required or will be provided” Glados then continues to compliment the player, this time more heavily “and you are an excellent test subject! Very very good. A complimentary victory lift has been activated in the main chamber.” This could be interpreted as repair of the prior smattering of insults. On the other hand, all of the compliments come out forced and sound purposely polite, almost as though Glados is restraining herself. This scaffolding provides a slight glimpse into the management of her performance, by switching between polite and rude identities we can make out the bones of her performance.

In Chamber 15 Glados attempts to continue repair of front stage by personalizing the procedure “Cake and grief counseling will be available at the conclusion of the test.”, only to defy this by making clear the intentions of the institution “Thank you for helping us help you help us all.”

At this point the front stage has been lightly damaged and elements of backstage have appeared briefly in each of the chambers so far. Still, as far as an operating institution, Aperture Science maintains its front quite comfortably. In Chamber 16 two devices are heavily utilized to open the door to the backstage. The first is the inclusion of security drones. While the sludge and laser beams threatened your life before, they were passive devices, so getting injured or dying by either of these was mostly a fault of your own clumsiness. The drones on the other hand are active agents that seek to harm you, they're obstacles that must be dealt with to proceed.

They justify the sinister undertones of language that have underlined the talk so far, and force the player to consider the motives behind the institution since they [the drones] are featured so prominently in the player narrative. Shortly into the exercise you'll notice two cubes wedged into an opening which reveals the first visual backstage. Inside are messages scribbled on the wall such as “The cake is a lie” and “I'm watching you” with respective pictures of a cake and security camera. “Help!” is also marked on the floor by the opening.

Advancing to the next segment of the floor reveals a pile of cubes, a radio and some other utensils lying around discarded. The disorderliness of the game world is a visual metaphor used to confirm the disorderliness of Glados performance. Both are well unkept. The visual state of the front stage is proper confirmation of the situation at hand. Instead of a few suspicions caught in your head, it's now much more serious.

Add to this to frightening messages scribbled in the visual front stage and the game begins to affirm the sinister undertones as well. Glados' text only acts to reinforce the sinisterness of what's witnessed in the player narrative. She first apologise for the inconvenience and then casts your role again in the last part of this line; “Well done, android. The Enrichment Center once again reminds you that android hell is a real place where you will be sent at the first sign of defiance.” Now the front stage is well and truly falling apart as the sinister intentions are becoming more evident.

Chamber 17 - Backstage Reveal

Chamber 17 is all about the companion cube; a device used to heighten the psychological undertones instilled by the institution. Glados first assigns a series of mental conditions as symptoms possibly contracted by using the cube. “The symptoms most commonly produced by Enrichment Center testing are superstition, perceiving inanimate objects as alive, and hallucinations.”

She then consoles you to believe that the cube won't threaten to stab you, nor can it speak, implying that you may have thought otherwise, suggesting the protagonist is insane/delusional. She then encourages you to disregard the cube's talk if it does indeed talk – further suggestion. After de-humanizing the cube she begins to personalize it in order to bridge affection between player and cube. She asks you to “escort” the cube, that you must “euthanize” it, she labels it as a “faithful companion” that doesn't wish to “burden you” and finally that the cube will feel no pain from the process.

We see that she initially hints that the player may be mentally insecure, then goes to the effort of creating a personal attachment to the cube before concluding by reminding the player about mental instability “You euthanized your faithful Companion Cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations.” This last statement ties the player to the cube, to the sickness. The aim of her technique here is to link the player to mental instability through use of the cube (both in language and game world). Of course, the technique is an obvious failure since the player does not feel any strong personal attachment to the cube to the point of mental instability. It's a hole in the performance, but one I doubt many players realized due to the layers of implementation.

In Chamber 19 Glados' performance falters by stating that “The Enrichment Center is required to remind you that you will be baked and then there will be cake.” Her words are the actual truth; the institution later attempts to cook you alive, Glados reveals the intentions and delivers backstage directly. She continues the safety jokes and normalizing of the institution by spruiking additional safety seminars to the player (“For more information, please attend an Enrichment Center Electrical Safety seminar.”).

Upon reaching the end of the exercise, the player is on a direct course, destined for an open furnace. Glados continues to place the organisation over the player's safety “All Aperture technologies remain safely operational up to 4000 degrees Kelvin.” and “Rest assured that there is absolutely no chance of a dangerous equipment malfunction prior to your victory candescence.” Institutions avoid the sticky end of business where possible, which explains why this part of the procedure was never mentioned before – it's awkward. How does Glados explain that you're now to be killed while maintaining a believable front? Even while the player is being escorted to the flames, she makes no word of it.

The player escapes (maybe after dying some) by portalling to the platform above, turning the whole game on its head. The fire reveals the hidden intentions that you were to be killed at the end of the exercise. Of course, at this point, the institution is exposed. The front is now the back and it's impossible to repair the situation once the performance has been defrauded. The analysis up to this point has looked at how Glados' performance has attempted to maintain and impose front stage control. Now, after having the front stage pulled from under her, we look at how Glados is trying to buy back the front stage.

At first Glados expresses her disbelief and responds with a knee-jerk reaction “What are you doing? Stop it! I.. I.. We are pleased that you made it through the final challenge where we pretended we were going to murder you.” She slips up and begins to talk on behalf of herself, before quickly trying to maintain institutional control by pretending the escape is part of the routine. Her tone says otherwise, expressing restraint and urgency. She then uses compliments and the prospect of a party to persuade the player to conform to her demands, leveraging all that she has left.

The player then begins to explore the visual backstage which portrays many things such as semi-build turrets, the mechanical process that levitate platforms, storage, exists, air vents, the back offices and even returns back into one of the earlier levels. Glados can no longer monitor you in these areas and her dialogue represents that struggle of control. “Hello?/Where are you?/I know you're there. I can feel you here./Hello?/What are you doing?/You haven't escaped, you know./You're not even going the right way./Hello?/Is anyone there?”

You're now a deviant that has been given control. Glados begins to plead with the player, she's desperate to return to procedure. “Okay. The test is over. You win. Go back to the recovery annex. For your cake. It was a fun test and we're all impressed at how much you won. The test is over. Come back.” She then tries to persuade by leveraging the cake “Uh oh. Somebody cut the cake. I told them to wait for you, but they did it anyway. There is still some left, though, if you hurry back.” and then attempting to convince the player that they're lost “You're not even going the right way. Where do you think you're going? Because I don't think you're going where you think you're going.”

She then vouches for affection, playing the previous incident off as a joking charade “Remember when the platform was sliding into the fire pit and I said 'Goodbye' and you were like 'No way' and then I was all 'I was just pretending to murder you'? That was great!” In fact she goes through a whole manner of techniques to gain her role back, but fails every time. When it all becomes too much, she digs deep into the backstage and shares her deepest opinions “You're not a good person. You know that, right?/ Good people don't end up here./Can you hear me?/This is your fault. It didn't have to be like this./I'm not kidding now. Turn back or I will kill you./I'm going to kill you and all the cake is gone.”

This is the first instance where the backstage is completely unveiled to the player, Glados cannot retreat from here. In fact, Portal now begins to go beyond Goffman's specialization. The player has travelled from front to backstage and from backstage, right into the psychology of the antagonist. Her words transcend the socially accepted and are pure evil. Unlike everything leading up to this part of the dialogue, the institution is now gone, destroyed. Glados is no longer scrambling for front stage, these utterances admit defeat and all of the dialogue that precedes has no adherence to the institution. All further performance is unrelated to the institution. In the final chamber, the “boss battle” if you like, Glados's performance attempts to convince the player to a) not attack her b) die. For this reason, we have finished the analysis, as the instuition is gone.


Portal is a game fragmented into two slices, with each slice aiding in the delivery of narrative. What we can draw from the lengthy (but necessary) analysis is how through the use of both language and it's required context, a performance is created and maintained by the antagonist, and used to tell a metaphoric tale of a power struggle of identity roles within an institution.

We see this through the flaws in performance, that break down the front stage allowing the player to witness parts of the back. From there the process concludes and the institution's intents are revealed. and then undermined which result in complete destruction of the institution and a desperate scramble for performance control.

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

More Video Game Classics From Olly Moss

Illustrator Olly Moss swore off posting any more Video Game Classics -- his project reimagining boxart for video games like GoldenEye, Metal Gear Solid, and Half-Life as Penguin-style book covers -- earlier this year after producing just six pieces.

He did so partly because he believed "the video game book redesign meme caught on very quickly to the point that [he felt] it would be derivative to work on it any more", but also because he was asked not to publish any more until a related project was revealed.

Moss posted his contribution to that project over the weekend -- new covers to be featured in an Edge article on evergreen games. The four titles to receive the Video Game Classics treatment include Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games, The Sims 2, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Buzz: The Music Quiz. See them all after the break!

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

Since it's the end of the weekend, it's evidently 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.

Some of the top stories for the week include an inspired Katamari Damacy interview, Ian Bogost on iPhone game pricing, learning about game design from mobile titles, some neat art from Defense Grid, and lots more.

Here's the highlights:

Think Like Takahashi: Noby, Katamari, Creativity, And Carpet
"Keita Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy, is generally more interested in art, life, and his dog, than the work of his creative peers - so Gamasutra tried bringing paper and pens to our interview, and here are the results."

Persuasive Games: I Want My 99¢ Back
"In his new column, writer and designer Ian Bogost looks at Apple's iPhone App Store -- and one of his game purchasers' demands to get his 99c back -- to discuss digital purchases, value, price point, and the 'race to the bottom' for iPhone games."

From Concept to Execution - The Art of Defense Grid: The Awakening
"The creators of Hidden Path's PC and upcoming XBLA title Defense Grid: The Awakening look at the visual concept work that went into the game's creation, suggesting that "pre-production concept development and visualization resulted in a much better looking game and in significantly reduced problems" during the title's development."

The Four Perspectives of Game Design: Insight from the Mobile Fringe
"What can you learn about game design from working on mobile titles? Cellphone game design veteran Ventrice (Guitar Hero Mobile), now working with iPhone developer Smule (Ocarina/Leaf Trombone) on music games, discusses the key conceptual layers of game building that are common to all titles."

From The Past To The Future: Tim Sweeney Talks
"In a special interview, Epic Games founder and technical guru Tim Sweeney discusses his career, from the company's birth in the shareware revolution through to present and future game technology challenges."

And bonus Gamasutra news/GameCareerGuide articles: GarageGames Veterans Found PushButton, Target 'Emerging Markets' Via Web; How a Game Gets Made: A Game's Journey from Concept to Store Shelves; Top Ten Things I Learned During My Programming Placement Year.

May 31, 2009

Sound Current: 'Dog Ear Records and Cello Quartet Remixes of Final Fantasy'

[Now that Final Fantasy music supremo Nobuo Uematsu has a Japanese record label, Dog Ear Records, GameSetWatch contributor Jeriaska catches up with label boss HIroki Ogawa to discuss cello quartet Final Fantasy remixes, Uematu's plans, and more.]

Hiroki Ogawa is the director of Dog Ear Records, the record label founded by Final Fantasy series composer Nobuo Uematsu. Updating the company’s DERBLOG weblog in both English and Japanese under the pseudonym "Wappa," he has participated in the organization of live performances of the music of Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon and The Black Mages.

Dog Ear Records has sought to foster familiarity between listeners and musicians by organizing music events in the Tokyo area. The second edition of their performance and meet-and-greet event, called Shinzoku Kaigi, took place recently and included the appearance of CELLYTHM.

A quartet of cellists, the group performs impassioned arrangements of Final Fantasy tunes such as Gilgamesh’s character theme “Battle on the Big Bridge” and “Those Who Fight Further” from Final Fantasy VII - samples of the music are available on their official website in WMA form.

In addition to publishing an album of music by CELLYTHM, Dog Ear Records released an EP this month on iTunes worldwide from Uematsu’s new project “NOBIYO Uematsu and the Dog Ears.” Ogawa is currently working together with Aniplex Records on preparing the soundtrack for the animated series Guin Saga, featuring over fifty original themes by Uematsu.

In this interview, Ogawa discusses the company’s new music projects, their current foray into the territory of televised animation and their album of cello-remixed videogame songs:

Among the projects by Dog Ear Records, a DVD of The Black Mages' Darkness and Starlight concert has gone on sale recently in Japan. What were some of the major challenges organizing the rock concert?

Hiroki Ogawa, Director of Dog Ear Records: For the concert, music from the opera scene from Final Fantasy VI was included. There were some twenty actors on stage, which was very unusual. Previously there were just the Mages in front of the audience. We could only rehearse in a small studio with everyone packed together, so the day of the concert was the first time everyone was on stage together.

The opera went successfully, despite these challenges. You can tell by watching the encore "Neo EXDEATH" that the musicians were really pumped to pull it off.

The DVD is all-regions, making it easy to import. Are there any plans on distributing the the product outside of Japan?

I'm not certain about the DVD, but I would like to discuss it. I’m always asked about it when I visit other countries for the Distant Worlds tour.

What are some of the primary differences you would point to between concerts like "The Black Mages: Darkness and Starlight" and the Shinzoku Kaigi events?

The Black Mages concerts keep to tight schedules and the audience's attention is fixed on what is happening on stage. The Shinzoku Kaigi events have a warmer atmosphere. For this reason, we allow for not keeping to the schedule: the event was planned for two hours, but went nearly thirty minutes over.

The feeling of these gatherings changes depending on the audience, and that’s the whole point of organizing them. It allows for the opportunity to communicate with the audience directly, going as far as lining up and shaking hands afterward.

The term Shinzoku Kaigi suggests a kind of family gathering. How would you describe the motivations underlying the event series?

The first Shinzoku Kaigi was held in November of last year in Daikanyama, [a district of the ward of Shibuya, Tokyo]. The concert hall's capacity seated about one hundred people, though this time around we were expecting 250 to show up at DUO in Shibuya.

The meeting serves as both a promotional event for the artists who have created music distributed by our label and as a memorable occasion for those who listen to the records. As far as participants, they included Suika Yonezawa, a vocalist whose music was debuted on iTunes. Also, Manami Kiyota is known for her participation on Final Fantasy Song Book Mahoroba.

Following these performances, CELLYTHM played. There was also a discussion led by Tsutomu Narita, an arranger on Guin Saga. At the end of the event, there was a presentation by Michio Okamiya and Kenichiro Fukui from The Black Mages.

The original soundtrack for Guin Saga is being prepared for a June 24 release. Is this a different kind of project for Dog Ear Records because it is an animated series?

Uematsu's music for Guin Saga has turned out very well. Of course the major difference between games and animation is that in the former the music loops. For example, in a game a song will start when you set foot inside a village, but the game creators have no control over when you leave the village, so the music is constructed to continue playing indefinitely. On the other hand, in anime, the production side has minute control over the timing. For this reason the fundamental process behind making music for games and anime is quite different.

How did it come about that Dog Ear Records partnered with Aniplex on the soundtrack album?

We received a request from [Henry] Goto at Aniplex, a producer of Guin Saga. He was already determined to find the perfect composer for the project and one day heard the battle theme from Lost Odyssey playing at the Aniplex office. He found out it was by "Nobuo Uematsu" of Final Fantasy and decided that this was the perfect sound for the project.

You write blog entries for the Dog Ear Records website under the name Wappa. Is there a general difference in the duties you conduct as Wappa and as Ogawa-san?

This is sort of meaningless information, but you know how in Japanese people like to put “ppa” and “cchi” at the end of nicknames? Well, at a previous job I became known as "Ogawappa." That's all there is to it.

I think I am known both as "Wappa" and "Ogawa." Maybe some people think they are two separate individuals. (laughs) Well, there’s a story behind this. Back when I first started work at the company, for organizational purposes we considered dividing the duties of taking customer calls from writing the company blog. I used two names for these two separate duties for the company. These days more people know me as "Wappa," and I'm hoping more people outside of Japan will come to know me as Wappa, too. (laughs)

You previously mentioned CELLYTHM. The cello is not normally associated with hard rock, but many of their pieces are adapted from The Black Mages. How was it determined that this quartet was right for hard rock arrangements of music from the Square Enix game series?

CELLYTHM began when we were considering the opening act for The Black Mages Darkness and Starlight concert. Ante [of Final Fantasy Remix] was already planning an appearance, but one additional group was required.

Uematsu had previously heard Apocalyptica, a Finnish heavy metal band that consists of three cellists and a drummer. He liked this sound and thereby got the idea of finding a cello ensemble. The composer loves the wide range of the cello and its similarities to the sound of the human voice. The idea was to find four women who could play rock material on cello, covering The Black Mages and some other 70's and 80's rock songs.

One of the main criteria was the ability to play aggressively to an extent many classically trained musicians might not be used to. Eventually we settled on one male and three female members of the group. In the opening act of The Black Mages concert they played three arranged songs from Final Fantasy.

Who was responsible for arranging the music from The Black Mages for the cello?

For the concert, all arrangement was done by CELLYTHM. For their album, Cellythm - Those Who Distorted, the arrangement was done by L.Gallardo of Anata wo Yurusanai, Narita of Guin Saga and Okamiya of The Black Mages.

Will the album be available on iTunes like many of Dog Ear Records' previous releases?

We have been discussing that as a possibility recently. It is always a priority of ours to distribute music outside of Japan.

What can you tell us about "NOBIYO" Uematsu and the Dog Ears, the future project currently on the horizon for Dog Ear Records?

This is a lighthearted album, which is currently set to include a composition with original lyrics that Uematsu wrote in junior high school. With work there is not always the opportunity to do exactly what you want to do, so for this project Uematsu is writing the music he wants to write.

The album is meant to be accessible to younger listeners, and the composer is following the style of his early composition for the entirety of the album. We are currently in the preparatory stage, but one track composed recently ["Here comes Conga Boy"] is completed and on iTunes.

This is 100% what Uematsu wants to do now. He has been writing videogame music for over twenty years, and this kind of project becomes especially meaningful after years of hard work, so I think he’s really enjoying this project in particular.

[Images courtesy of Aniplex Records and Dog Ear Records. This article is available in French on Squaremusic and in Italian on Gamesource.it. Translation by Ryojiro Sato. Photos by Jeriaska]

Interview: Titmouse Games -- 'Just F*cking Go For It'

[In the final pre-E3 interview we're rolling out, Metalocalypse animator turned Seven Haunted Seas developer Titmouse Games talks to Brandon Sheffield about creative-led studios, game biz pay, and making what you want without getting screwed.]

Los Angeles-based animation firm Titmouse, known for animating the Metalocalypse Adult Swim series, and which also did the cutscenes for the Guitar Hero games, has added a game studio, Titmouse Games, as announced back in March.

The company has already released one title so far, the iPhone voodoo doll pestering sim Doctor Zomba. Also announced is Seven Haunted Seas, an action RPG staring a maligned pirate - and Fistful of Blood, based on the Heavy Metal-published graphic novel of the same name.

Recently, we talked with Titmouse Games creative director Aaron Habibipour, previously with Sammy, High Moon, and Neversoft, and Keith Fay, VP of Titmouse Inc. about starting the new company, and how to be a creative-led company without letting your egos ruin your finances.

There's no beating around the bush here - they know what they're good at, and what limitations they will likely run up against. But for now, the studio is very much operating under the Nike policy: "Just do it":


How did this whole venture get started? I heard a little bit about it, but...

Keith Fay: Well, you know, Titmouse has been doing animation for years and years. And we all play games, and we did all the in-game cinematics for all the Guitar Hero games. I was a writer on the original God of War games, so it's sort of always been in our matrix.

And it's one of those things... Chris P., the owner of the studio, and myself have been constantly like, "One of these days, we got to start Titmouse Games." And we were really, really, really ready to commit at the end of the year and found out that Aaron had left Neversoft, and it was just like serendipity. It was like, "Holy shit. Let's get that guy."

And we went from sort of like, "Hey, this is cool. Let's start a game company," to, "No, we are a game company. We're making games right now." So, it was really, really cool. And we've got great momentum, and we're really excited about it.

And how much is your animation stuff going to cross over into game stuff?

KF: I think quite a bit actually, just in terms of using the artists and things like that. I mean Aaron has the entire studio at his disposal. So, for instance, like the Seven Haunted Seas trailer, that's Titmouse's best people, the best and brightest working on that, and we're really passionate about that.

And then again, in terms of our IPs, as we create more shows and get more projects made, video games are just going to be part of that world. It's not just an animated movie or just an animated series, it's a property that spans a bunch of platforms, and games are just a huge part of that now.

Are you going to have to grow as a studio for this?

KF: That's an interesting question. Yeah, we'll have to grow in terms of sort of expanding the game division. And the company itself is growing just kind of constantly. We've sort of been on a steady arc thus far. But not in a way there that I think will hurt our creativity at all. And I think that that's the core.

No matter what we do, it's got to be cool, it's got to be weird, it's got to be dark, it's got to be edgy, it's got to be fun, it's got to be silly, it's got to be strange. And that's not something you can blow up too fast. We can't become McDonald's in a year. We sort of have to be careful about our brand. We're kind of precious about the stuff we do right now.

Aaron Habibipour: One of the best things about going from a larger company to sort of guerilla style game making is just the fact that we're all so hands on and we can realistically talk about things, we can talk to each other. It doesn't become communication that's lost through...

KF: Very DIY. It's like quitting Journey and starting a punk band. You know what I mean, it's like, "I went through this weird corporate thing where nothing I wanted to do could get done. And suddenly like every cool idea I have, I can do."

AH: And that's the greatest thing about it. We can all sit there and work and really sit there and go like, "Hey, this is really fucking cool." It's great to be agile enough to be able to turn on a dime and be able to explore ideas, be able to do things, or be able to bring up things that might be edgy or risky and be able to do it anyway -- regardless, or because of.

That's one of the cool things that we like. That's what I love about these guys, that they’re willing to take risks, big time.

You still have to be financially solvent at the end of the day.

AH: Yes, of course. But I think the thing is that you can concentrate on making good games. That's always up for debate, and that's always like... It's always subjective to the individual, the reviewer, or whatever.

I think the best thing that we can do is take the ideas that we really love and try to make those into really good games, and worry less about statistics and demographics and sponsors and all this other kind of stuff, and concentrate on what we really think is fun.

Because honestly, I think, when you see all the groundbreaking games, and when you see all the things that really set the trends out there in the industry, you're looking at people who had passion products and people who really wanted to do things that they wanted to see done, rather than just build thing from a formula.

There have been a lot of entertainment companies from outside of games come into games, but usually they are either so big that you can't necessarily care about it, or they're not very interesting. Whereas you guys are actually coming from a place of having street cred -- so would you say there are higher expectations from you?.

KF: Absolutely. Right. We're super cognizant of that, and we're really paranoid about that. Everything we put out, like I said, we're super precious about her brand, and we want to make sure, "Does this have the right tones? Does it have the right vibe? Are we sending the right message?" We're our own like toughest critics, really.

But if it gets through us, and we say, "Hey, that sounds cool to us," we just gotta trust the people that believe in our brand and have known our stuff and gravitated towards it, are going to gravitate towards the next thing.

Who's the Boss?

AH: So far, it's been everybody that we've had come into the studio that we wanted to talk to about doing something, whether it's an original idea or whether it's something that we wanted the license -- like let's say the Heavy Metal stuff with Kevin Eastman, the people that we've had come in have all clicked with us, and we clicked with them.

And there has been, like, blinded ideas. We immediately start riffing off each other. And that's always a really good sign of something having a lot of promise, the ability for creators... Honestly, when you're in a big corporate environment, creators don't necessarily get to talk to each other.

It's like, "I licensed it from you, and so I have to go through your manager to sit down... I have to run this through six people. Six people get to change it and do whatever they want to it before it gets to the other guy, and then he's got to approve it to send it back."

And four of those six people don't actually understand what it is.

AH: Exactly.

KF: But they have to add their comments to it regardless.

AH: The coolest thing is that so far, and the best thing that I like about this, is that everyone that we've talked to, we've maintained a direct line of communication with.

We’re actually starting to build a little bit of a circle of creative people that are outside of just games in general as well that are really wanting to work on projects together. You hear about this all the time in the film industry. Judd Apatow (Superbad) works with the same people all the time. Tim Burton works all the same people all the time, and they're all working on creative projects together.

I'm hoping we can do that same thing with games and bridge that gap between games and entertainment in the same way.

KF: There is no line for me. Entertainment, games, cartoons, movies, television -- it's kind of all the same things. Whether or not I'm controlling it and making it run around a field, or whether I'm watching it and laughing about it. It's story. It's characters. It's narrative. That's what we do.

Are you working toward the kind of Hollywood model then in terms of being able to partner with certain people specifically for the right project and then moving on?

AH: Well, yes. For instance, like Kevin has... It wasn't just Fistful of Blood that we talked to Kevin about. We've also talked to Kevin about writing for Seven Haunted Seas, which he's totally interested in. So, we're like, "Kevin, dude. We're going to do Fistful of Blood together. And then Kevin, why don't you come in and write like a cool side-quest storyline for Seven Haunted Seas?"

He was totally up for that and totally down for that. Those are the kinds of relationships that we want to have with the people that we work with. And it's not necessarily about licensing something or working with someone or a specific thing, and then moving on. I hope that we can create a relationship with the people that we work with and do multiple projects.

How many people do you have in the games bit of the studio?

AH: There are about eight people right now that are working in the Titmouse games side, and in the animation side, it's of course about 80 people. It's a fairly large studio.

How large do you think you're going to grow on the pure games side?

AH: That's kind of a tough question to answer because it always depends on the game, right? You know, doing console games, for instance, almost requires a publisher to get done.

And so, if we set up a publisher deal for Seven Haunted Seas, for example, there's an expectancy to get it done in a certain amount of time, and there's also getting it done in a certain amount of time for profitability, and all those sorts of things, and that's going to dictate how many people we hire.

But I ultimately would love to keep it as small as possible, because there's something about growing too big and losing communication with the people you work with and having the entire team lose sight of what the direction and the goal is.

KF: I mean, I hate to turn boutique -- it's such a weird term -- but in essence, that's kind of what it is. We have like a core group of people that are the real creatives. I mean, you staff up for different projects and things, but we like to sort of assemble a creative core that is our ten, twenty people that are the guys, you know what I mean.

It’s like any of the shows we do. Black Panther, we're doing for Marvel right now. It's like we bring in all the great artists that we find for this particular project, but when it really comes down to it, the directors and the writers and things like that are the Titmouse group. We hope to keep that same sort of creative control on the game side as well.

AH: In that sense, it actually is more of a Hollywood model in terms of the studio that you're talking about earlier, where we do keep a core group of people on staff that are sort of like the creative force behind what we're doing, and we staff up sort of as needed for the project.

You're going to staff up or you're going to outsource, do you think?

AH: That's where it depends. I've kind of done both over the last eight or so years, and I sort of... There are two things. One, outsourcing is kind of, "You get what you pay for" sort of deal. Working cheaper doesn't necessarily mean working better.

AH: But then you have to understand that it's not in your best interest financially to hire all these people on team and bring them in. But there are other outsourcing solutions for that sort of thing. I mean, there's definitely, especially these days, I think, a lot of talented people and a lot of talented companies out there here on the stateside that are doing great work.

Like Brain Zoo, for example, who I've worked with several times. Those guys always create super quality work, and they outsource as well, and they're a solution for us as well, too. I just think that you could do that and still come up with really quality work. There are all sorts of communication issues going overseas, there are all sorts of management issues. You can't get feedback in time. One comment turns into three days of work.

Yeah, I didn't mean outsourcing overseas necessarily. There are a lot of outsourcing options here as well, especially with the economy sucking.

AH: Absolutely. Sure. That's totally an option. I think that those things all need to be kept on the table. You find a group of people that you really like to work with, and then you always send work back and forth, and start doing it that way. You can have just as much synergy with a group like that as you can have with having a full-time team in-house.

Creators For the Win

American games have become much more competitive with Japanese games than they've been historically, but one thing I feel they've lacked is a sense of a director, of cohesive vision -- and the result is good experiences that sometimes lack a full, emotional narrative.

AH: I know what you're talking about, and I feel the exact same way as you do. It's something that I've talked about in the past as well, and I think that that absolutely needs to happen with games. It absolutely needs to happen. You need to have a guy who is there to maintain the vision every day and to make sure that he's looking at every aspect of the game as is necessary to really sort of judge whether these things are coming together the way they should or not.

Too many times now, you really don't have people in those positions that understand the process of each department and how they need to work as well as they possibly should. They are either too busy to make good calls, or they just don't know enough to do it.

I think that's where it's lacking, and I think that's where the game industry can take a lot of really good direction from the film industry. I think that we're really going to work on that.

I think one factor the existing pay structure we have within games, wherein a game's director, lead designer or specific creative director has nowhere to go career-wise but executive level, and then they stop actually having direct influence on the game.

AH: The answer that I have for that is that the games industry has sort of taken on this corporate structure that Hollywood doesn't really have when they work on films, right? In the corporate structure, you're moved up, and you're constantly moved up. And the thing that I don't think the corporate structure takes into account is that the best artist doesn't make the best manager.

And so, what ends up happening is that you get a bunch of really good artists. You get a guy who's just a phenomenal artist, and you make him a manager of other artists. Is he really qualified to be a manager of other artists? No, probably not, because he's a really good artist, and artists are artists, right? They're not necessarily managers.

And then he doesn't get to actually do art anymore.

AH: Exactly. And so you lose access.

KF: So, they get frustrated.

AH: It really needs to be the way that you're talking about, right? Where the director is the director, who's the director every time. The producer is the producer, who's the producer all the time. And if he does a good job, you just pay the dude more. That's the way it is. I hope that we sort of structure things the same way.

KF: Look at... Imagine Films is actually an example for that because you've got Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. You've got the great producer, the great director, and that's what they do. They find projects they're passionate about, and then they direct and produce it. They're not, "Now, we're the exec, and we're gonna shuttle this project and hire a director."

It's like, "No, we fucking do these things." And that's the mentality we want to have. We find a great idea, we come up with a great idea or a great IP, I want Aaron fucking making the game. I don't want him sitting there hiring somebody to make the game.

In Hollywood model, like the situation you're talking about with Imagine Films, for the logistics in all that, they hire people below them to deal with it. Whereas in games, you have people above you dictating that. And that’s pretty weird.

KF: Exactly. It's very backward. That's the one weird advantage that Titmouse Games has. We're not used to that model. We're used to that other model where it's creative driven. When a guy like Aaron comes in who's very passionate and very creative, we're not telling him, "No, you can't do that," we're saying, "Of course you can do that. Can you push that further?"

We come from the right side of the brain, not the left side of the brain. We don't understand the limitations just yet. Eventually, I'm sure the business will dictate that. Right now, we're just, "fucking go for it."

AH: When we worked on the Guitar Hero cinematics together, what was really cool about working with these guys is that I would write some of the cinematics, and I would just totally just go from here to here. And we knew there were budget constraints, budget limits, or whatever, but I wrote it out to here, and then we all sort of looked at it and said, "Okay, well then this is what we can do."

There was a lot of good synergy -- I hate using that word -- between us and being able to work creatively together, which I think was awesome about coming together.

KF: Right. Good collaborations. He would form the story beats, and we'd say, "We need to go from here to here to here to here. This is my vision of it." And then we'd get our directors, out storyboard artists, our writers, and we'd go, "Hey, how about this or this, and we can go from here."

And it was very much like, "Yeah, sure, great! That sounds great!" It wasn't like, "No, I wrote it like this. Do it like that." It was a really creative, collaborative kind of thing, and that's what we're doing now.

AH: Part of being creative and part of the whole process is trusting the people that you hire to get the job done. And I think there is a lot of -- and I've seen it sort of in the game industry -- mistrust in that I have these five artists working underneath me, but I kind of feel like I have to be on top of them all the time or they're not going to get it done. And that's just simply not the truth, you hire talented people because you need to trust them in order to get their job done.

Who Hired You Again?

Well, the issue there is -- not to interrupt you, but I did [laughs] -- sometimes, maybe I as a producer or director didn't hire these guys myself.

KF: But I'm in charge of them now. Or if you've got a studio that's making the cutscenes, and, "Okay, I wrote this, but somebody else hired them, so I don't like their ideas. I wanted to work with someone I wanted to work with."

AH: You're right about that. And one of the coolest things about Titmouse is we never have to outsource any of that stuff. We have a full-on animation studio here. We have top-notch graphic designers. We have top-notch concept artists. Like, we can do everything from the game to the commercial to the animated series that's going to go along with it.

KF: Another thing, too, if Aaron's designing the game and I'm writing the cutscenes, he walks around the corner to my office and says, "Dude, that's not right. I don't like that." There's no like email chain back and forth for weeks going, "Can you get his agent on the phone? I need to tell him. I've got notes." It's like, "No no no, tell me dude. You're off message." "Oh, you want it like that? Cool. We can do that."

Having a creative studio -- I think that is kind of a solution to a lot of that stuff, but obviously you need the biz side very much. To make a death clock analogy, you need the dude in the suit who's actually looking out for everyone.

AH: We understand. [laughs]

KF: Yeah. You know, it's funny, we do have the parents at the studio. You're obviously right.

But as long as they know that they aren't necessarily making creative decisions.

KF: That's the thing. And we have twenty people saying that. "I've got an idea!" And "I've got an idea!" As opposed to, "Well, our budget says you can only do this." No, we don't.

AH: There are a lot of practical things about game development that you sort of have to keep in mind in order to ship a game in time, and that is you don't redesign things halfway through, that you stick with your vision and you do focus testing to improve and iterate on the things you've done, right?

KF: You make that work.

AH: Yeah, you make what you have work. You don't scrap things and start them over. Honestly, I've got to say that one of the coolest things is that part of the process is that in your head, you think something is really cool, and you think this is a really good idea.

Well, you prototype it and give yourself a cut-off date. "This is my first playable. At my first playable, if the features work, they're in it. If they don't work and if they're not going to make it, then we cut them and they go away." It's harsh, but that's the way I think it should be done.

To the Quick

But you're mostly saying you should scrap early, right? I don't want to get you on record saying scrapping things is bad because that's how Blizzard has been so successful.

AH: Sure, sure, sure.

Like when StarCraft Ghost doesn't turn out to be what they thought, it's going away.

KF: An analogy might be that it's just like an episode of Metalocalypse. I mean, it's like we animate the show, we have a certain percentage of retakes we can do, and it's like, "Pick your battles dude. You want to fix this scene, this scene, and this scene? Great, we can redo all that shit.

But at the end of the day, our deadline's here, we drop here, we air here. Let's get it done. Let's make it work." And if everybody at the end of the day is willing to go, "Well, if I had a couple more months, I would have done this and that, but you know what? I don't. So, it's all good, and I believe in the show we delivered." And that's the way with the games, too.

AH: I will say that on the feature side, just to clarify the whole scrapping thing, it's like you basically take your framework and you go, "Here are all the features that I want." And then you order them in priority up until a certain day.

Let's call it a first playable, right? You take all those things and your order them, and you try to get them done. And you prioritize them from what's most important to the game to the least important to the game. If you can't make it by this first playable date, then it's a pretty good sign that it probably won't make it in the game, or if it does, it will be half-assed.

So, you get what you can up to the first playable date, and then you do a solid review, and you say, "Hey, is this working or is this not working? Is it fun? Is this not fun?" You bring in a couple people to focus test it. If it's fun, you keep moving with it. If it's not fun, you drop it and you go.

KF: And to keep that Blizzard mentality, if something comes along in the creative process, like, "Hey, wouldn't it be really cool if we did this?" "Well, that's not in the GDD, but it'd be cool. We can roll with that, too." We're very into kind of improvising.

With the analogy again to Deathklok, it's like we go into the booth with the scripts, what comes out at the other end is pretty much 40 percent different from the script. We're all about that, but we're reasonable. We're a small company, we want to be smart, all the money shows up on the screen right now.

There's not a bunch of overhead, there's not a bunch of waste. So, yeah, we have to make creative decisions and kind of stick to them. But they'll shift and stretch and things like that. Like, "Wow, we didn't know we could do this. Let's do it like that!"

We're not the Simpsons. We're Metalocalypse. But that's okay for us, dude. We're fucking happy because we're proud of that shit, and we love it, and it's got its own niche. And that's what we do, and that's our brand. Games, the same way. We might not be Guitar Hero, but the shit we put out, Seven Haunted Seas, is going to be fucking badass. And the people that appreciate badass will love it.

AH: And a Deathklok analogy that I keep bringing up is that either people have no idea what Metalocalypse is or Deathklok, or they do and they love it. It's a really interesting dichotic...

KF: And we're comfortable. Like, if my mom doesn't know the game we put out, I'm okay with that. But if my brother knows it, fucking right on, you know? "Oh, I don't quite get it, but if these Titmouse guys are doing it, I'm sure it's going to be pretty interesting," you know what I mean? It's kind of that thing.

Yeah, well you better do it, or else I'm going to be very disappointed.

KF: We're doing it! [laughs] We're doing it just for you, Brandon.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 5/31/08

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


It's sub-renewal time for me! Here's a kind letter I received from my good friend Dave Halverson in the mail earlier this month. I can tell that he wrote it personally, to me, because he makes the same sort of grammar errors that I see in his magazine all the time.

The fortunes of the print-magazine business being what they are these days, publishers in all fields are falling over themselves inventing ways to retain their subscriber base. A lot of the mags I subscribe to (including Wired and all of Future's publications, until recently) begin sending subscriber renewal notices to me starting about six issues into my subscription. This is merely annoying, but some slightly more unscrupulous mags are even worse.

I subscribed to Armchair General a while back and let the subscription expire earlier this year. Two months later, I received a very official-looking "bill" from the publisher, talking about how "payment is due" for another year's subscription and failure to send this payment would damage "my personal credit" with the company, whatever that means. I, of course, didn't owe the publisher anything, something I confirmed when I contacted customer support and told them to stop bothering me. From this, I can only conclude that Armchair General's circulation department is looking to confuse the elderly military nuts who are the mag's main audience by thinking they are past due on a bill when they're actually just getting an invitation to resubscribe.

No publication in the game biz has gone this low, fortunately, and so I am resubscribed once again to everything that I can in the genre. Read on to find out about every game mag that's come out in the past couple weeks (and that I care about). Things are generally pretty slow in this month's stack, given how there wasn't much to talk about before the E3 rush:

Game Informer June 2009


Cover: Modern Warfare 2

I understand that Captain "Soap" MacTavish's return is big news these days. What I don't understand is how GI can print target renders and call 'em screenshots in the table of contents.

I don't envy GI's position here, being a long-lead mag covering a blockbuster game that isn't gonna be done for months from a publisher that wants to keep a tight lid on for advertising reasons. But this feature really tells you nothing that the trailers haven't -- that, and the newest trailer actually had some in-game play, at least. Is it asking too much to look at a game preview feature and ask for it to be about a game, as opposed to some renders and Infinity Ward's president talking about how awesome it's gonna be? Or am I just being a crusty bastard?

(Also, there's a house ad for GameStop's Modern Warfare 2 presale campaign later on in the mag. Am I a crusty bastard for mentioning that, too?)

The DJ Hero subfeature is a great deal more interesting to read and filled with actual information on the product and what's going on behind the scenes. It's the highlight for what's otherwise a bit of a slow pre-E3 issue. Classic GI is really unique, too, for the first time I can remember -- it's a look at the game Oddworld Inhabitants was doing pre-production work on before closing in 2005.

Play June 2009


Cover: Bayonetta

Shockingly, Play covers a video game starring a fetching young woman and Dave Halverson isn't the writer. Hideki Kamiya's a fun guy to listen to, and there's a ton of him in here. And, er, that's about it, actually.

GamePro June 2009


Cover: The most dangerous games of 2009

I let my GamePro subscription lapse by accident, so I'm a bit late gettin' this one in -- doubly shameful, because this is the issue that includes the 20th-birthday retrospective I wrote. I was always a little sad that the 20th-anniversary piece I contributed to EGM never saw the light of day, so I'm happy to be more fortunate this time around.

Other than my part of the mag (which is absolutely brilliant, you can trust me on that), this is mainly a review/preview edition. You may be a tad surprised to open the issue up and discover that GP's opening game in the "dangerous" feature is Madden NFL 10, but then again, football is pretty dangerous, I suppose. There's a much neater roundup of "little" games afterward, most of which are PSN titles.

PC Zone June 2009


Cover: Mafia 2

The May '09 issue of PC Zone never made it to my source bookstore (sob), but I'll swallow my bitter tears for two reasons: this awesome cover, and an equally awesome feature inside where they test the durability of three PC mice by taping them to the soles of their sneakers and walking around all day. One of them actually survives, even.

Retro Gamer Issue 64


Cover: The Last Ninja

The front end of Retro Gamer has been redesigned a bit, with a bit less boring old news and some more columns and flashier-looking visual thingies. (One of them is a new regular piece by Iain Lee, a British celebrity of some variety that I've never heard of, but his writing's quite funny.)

The highlight of the issue is the interview with John Twiddy, the programmer of the first two Last Ninja games -- a series that one could argue marked the pinnacle of the Commodore 64 as a gaming platform. It's hopelessly twiddly (har! get it?!) to play by today's standards, but back in '88, nothing was more atmospheric, I don't think. There's also a making-of for the one and only Frankie Goes to Hollywood game which is a joy to read, especially if you've actually tried playing the thing.

Tips & Tricks July/August 2009


Cover: Halo Wars

T&T keeps on truckin'. The strategies seem sound, the codes code-y, the previews preview-y, the Jamster ad spread on the back eye-catching. I noticed that T&T doesn't seem to offer subscriptions any longer.

Summer Movie Game Guide


It's OXM's special for the summer! And judging by the coverlines, the editors seem to have a pretty pessimistic attitude about the Summer Movie Games! Not that I can blame 'em! If I had to write an entire special on this topic, I'd be the same way!

This is a remarkably well put together special, believe it or not. There are the usual plain-Jane previews, yes, but a number of original features, too -- a complete timeline of Batman games, reviews of every movie-game on modern consoles, a great big guide to movies based on games (did you know Tony Jaa was in MK: Annihilation?), and a rundown of the worst scenes from Uwe Boll films. Congratulations, Mikel Reparaz, for watching every Uwe Boll film for our entertainment. You deserved whatever you were paid to write this.

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

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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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