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June 13, 2009

Gamasutra Expert Blogs: From Twitter To Brown Games

[In the latest highlights from Gamasutra's Expert Blogs, industry veterans write about how Facebook and Twitter integration into consoles was the biggest news of E3, and why games are so brown these days.]

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

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

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

This Week's Standout Expert Blogs

The Most Significant Thing At E3 2009
(Kim Pallister)

The biggest news coming out of E3 last week wasn't Microsoft's 3D camera Project Natal, the PSP Go or Super Mario Galaxy 2. The big news, so says Intel's Kim Pallister, was the integration of Facebook and Twitter into game consoles. Hear him out...

Multiplayer Can Hurt You
(Benjamin Quintero)

Benjamin Quintero explains why he isn't particularly drawn to multiplayer game experiences, saying he'd rather have developers spend their time fleshing out a deep and lengthy single-player game. He sparked quite a long string of responses from people on both sides of the fence.

Why 'Next-Gen Games' Went Gray, Brown, And Grey
(Philippe Ringuette-Angrignon)

Many gamers have become tired of the desaturated color palettes of the current console generation -- sometimes it seems that every other game is gray and/or brown. But it's not simply because developers are huge fans of dull tones. There is a technical reason for the visual gloom, explains Philippe Ringuette-Angrignon.

The Great Irony
(Byron Atkinson-Jones)

Playing games is fun, but Introversion's Byron Atkinson-Jones addresses the irony that making games is often incredibly stressful and not fun. Marriage break-ups and fisticuffs in the office aren't unheard of. Atkinson-Jones wonders how long it will take for someone to really hit the breaking point.

What Use Is A Baby? Part 1: Post-Natal
(Noah Falstein)

Noah Falstein offers his initial impressions of Project Natal, shortly after Microsoft's E3 reveal. Such cameras aren't perfect, he admits, and they won't completely replace controllers. But he argues that advanced camera control is no gimmick -- it's the real deal. Is he right?

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of June 12

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

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

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

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

Gamasutra.com - Game Industry Jobs

Rockstar San Diego Network Programmer
"The RAGE engine has powered Rockstar’s Table Tennis, Grand Theft Auto IV and Midnight Club: Los Angeles titles and is at the core of upcoming titles such as Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3. RAGE team members work closely with game teams to integrate new technologies as well as evangelize best practices and process in using those technologies across Rockstar’s studios. Rockstar is looking at future needs and expansion of its RAGE engine and team by leveraging proven technologies created in our games as well as making key feature and optimization enhancements within all of its subsystems."

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

Sony Computer Entertainment America: Developer Support Engineer - Simulation
"Overall, the position of Developer Support Engineer - Simulation is expected to partner with the organization to support licensees in all areas of developer support to include CPU-centric techniques such as physics and collision-detection, with a lesser emphasis on animation and pathfinding techniques. This position will assist licensees in maximizing the computational capabilities of PlayStation platforms within their particular game engines."

Treyarch: Senior Producer
"The Producer's primary mission is to make sure that the game is done on time and on budget. He must be aware of what all employees’ tasks are, and be able to track them accurately. The Producer must be able to work closely with the Project Leads, understand the vision of the game, and assist in making the vision a reality. You should enjoy talking to people and problem solving while thinking on your feet. You will need all these skills because you will have to come in and earn the respect of your team."

WorldsInMotion - Online Games

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

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

Sound Current: 'Scarygirl - The Spooky Tunes of Luke Jurevicius'

[Continuing the GameSetWatch-exclusive 'Sound Current' series, this time, Jeriaska talks to Scarygirl game composer Luke Jurevicius -- brother of Scarygirl creator Nathan -- on his evocative soundtrack to the stylish Flash game. Also of note/relevance - GSW recently chatted to Scarygirl developers Touch My Pixel.]

A collaborative endeavor bringing together Passion Pictures Australia, artist Nathan Jurevicius and game designers Touch My Pixel, Scarygirl caught the eye of casual gamers when it debuted online in April in playable form entirely for free.

In addition to the mesmerizing artwork, the Flash game sports background music by multi-talented illustrator, TV animation director, sound designer and composer Luke Jurevicius.

A self-taught musician based in South Australia, the artist not only recorded the music for the game's moody, offbeat environments but also voiced the various characters Scarygirl encounters through her adorably macabre coming-of-age adventure.

This interview with the composer delves into the collaborative process underlying the game score. In addition to taking a look at the aims of the ambient musical score, the artist describes his background in animation and illustration, informing the intentions underlying the eerily inviting soundscapes of Scarygirl.


Luke Jurevicius, composer and sound designer for Scarygirl

How long have you been working creatively with your brother Nathan Jurevicius? You both appear to have found complementary roles on this project.

Luke Jurevicius: Yeah, my relationship with Nathan has always been good. We rarely argued as kids. Nathan is older than me and left school earlier, so he sort of paved the way: we both grew up illustrating and did the same university course, majoring in illustration. There is no doubt in my mind that I was able to sneakily learn from his lead.

I was able to complement Nathan’s art via my music composition and voice work. By memory, I believe we have been collaborating since 2001.

How did it come about that you and Nathan formed this relationship with Touch My Pixel?

Sophie Byrne from Passion Pictures Australia essentially facilitated an informal meet and greet in Melbourne at the commencement of the project. Apart from this single meeting, we have not physically met up again and whilst that may be perceived as negative, it demonstrates how successful a team can operate via the Internet no matter where we are in the world.

Were you exchanging ideas with Nathan and Touch My Pixel during the process of the game’s development?

I communicated solely with Nathan on all creative aspects, but never directly with the game programmers. If Touch My Pixel raised any issues, it would be a technical concern related to the structure of the sound file, or if there were audio holes in the game. Roles were very important on the construction of Scarygirl, and if there were any issues they would all be communicated to me via Sophie.

In regards to exchanging ideas with Nathan, I welcomed his thoughts and ideas if he felt tracks were not rich enough or needed a bit more atmosphere. Sometimes it's good to explore an idea even if at first it seems like something you may not try instinctually.

All the dialog in Scarygirl takes place in the form of animated visual sequences. It's a technique that I think makes the game accessible to an international audience, and it also forgrounds the communicative properties of the music and sound effects. Did you discuss this aspect of the audio during the making of the game?

Yes, this is one of the unique aspects of the Scarygirl experience. There is no verbal or written dialogue to carry the player through the game. This comes as no surprise to me, because as brothers growing up in the same room together, Nathan was often submerged in his own introverted parallel universe, whilst I was busy making all the noise! Whether or not we have matured is debatable, however, the formula is still the same. Nathan has dreamt up the Scarygirl world, and I have been busy creating the noise.

Consistent with the gaming experience, there is an unspoken understanding between us that allows each other to ‘do our thing’. Nathan's imagery speaks volumes to me: I allow his visuals to inspire my music, and he seems to respond favorably to the results.

The game looks and sounds great and yet costs nothing to play. How was this made possible?

The game was primarily funded by Film Victoria, but also received some investment from Passion Pictures Australia. It should be noted that this investment awarded to Passion Pictures was to produce a form of ‘prototype’. Incidentally, the game is episodic and the intention is to seek further investment to continue to develop the game and develop it across platforms.

I think that the strategy in allowing the game to be freely downloaded means that Scarygirl reaches a vast audience. People are amazed to be able to download such a high quality game for free, which is reflected by the number of people who have hit the Scarygirl website. It has proven to be extremely valuable to invest the time and skills into making this online ‘prototype’ as lush as possible.

What would you say are some of the advantages of Flash?

As a musician/artist I think the advantages of working in or with Flash is the bidirectional streaming of video and audio (I nabbed that expression off Wiki). Any online application which can present an audience instantly with high quality audio and imagery jangles my bells.

In this industry there is nothing worse than working passionately on your art only to be deflated by super compressed, super bad sound and video, especially if the only way to hear or view it is via the net. I think Flash is well on the way to solving a lot of these issues.

At the moment you are currently based in the hills of Adelaide, South Australia. Have you found that your location is influential to your creative process?

I am certain that living in Australia has influenced my musical direction at times, for example I worked with Aboriginal themes on a project called Dust Echoes. I know that if I lived in France, the chances of recording Didgeridoo are grossly reduced.

South Australia is incredibly supportive of the Arts and has been extremely good to me as a developing artist so I am very appreciative of where I live.

Did you set to work on the audio for Scarygirl immediately once the game had first been conceptualized?

As far as the music was concerned, I was able to begin music production based on Nathan's initial color concepts. (Often I made adjustments to the mood of the music if I saw something crop up in the final game play.) Work on sound effects was completely different. It was very important for me to have all the animated sequences so I could get the timing right.

When you were first beginning as an illustrator, was music something that you were also interested in pursuing as a career?

The whole musical thing really was just a hobby. I have always been interested in tinkering with music. The first instrument that I played was my dad’s old banjo… it had two strings on it. I would play along to the radio. That’s how it started.

I did learn a couple of instruments for short periods when I was very young. At eight I learned the clarinet, but as a kid I really wanted to play the oboe. The sound of the oboe is just incredible. For instance, I love the sound of The Mission soundtrack by Enrio Morricone.

What are some of the tracks on Scarygirl where you feel the most pleased with the results?

I would say that the underwater track where Scarygirl is swimming through the water to get to Blister’s submarine is very emotive. It has a good melody line and is easy to listen to. That is very important for gaming music to me. You have to be able to create something that people can listen to over and over again.

In the underwater level, you can hear Scarygirl gasp whenever she emerges from the water for breath. Is that your voice there?

That's me, yeah.

How did you get that sound?

All I did was record me taking in a deep breath. I then played around with a few plugins to make it sound a bit more feminine... I can sound really girly when I want to. I also did the sound of Blister in the sub.

I have done heaps of voice work for Nathan's projects, but equally as significant voice work for the ABC, Nickelodeon, and Educational Publishers - Blake Education. I’m often in the sound booth doing weird and diverse vocals.

Are there other examples of sound effects that took some time to get right?

A good example is when Scarygirl defeats a bubble-blowing swamp creature. The character melts away to a bubbling pool of green goo, revealing a shaking skeleton which collapses into a heap.

Trying to time this complex sequence without video would have been ridiculous. Regardless of how irritating it might be, I like to have video of every animated element if possible so the timing of the sound design is accurate. It makes for a better product in the end.

I think the key with Scarygirl was for it to be original-sounding... although there is a Japanese-style fighting mini-game, and there the music is deliberately generic because I thought it would be fun for that particular track.

There are also toys in the works. Do you know yet which characters will be toy-ified?

Yes, Nathan’s designs have been made into toys. Though I’m not able to divulge yet which characters, I think they are the nicest designs that Nathan has done.

The protagonist of this story is a young girl, and it’s a kind of childhood right-of-passage story. Have you received feedback from kids?

I am not really sure what the official target audience is for the game. I know that it will have a broad appeal to those who have grown up in an online culture, however, I would be very interested to know how many kids are playing the game. I just finished creating my own television series (Figaro Pho) and if you can create a product targeted for kids that appeals to older people, I think you have a winner.

Scarygirl certainly gravitates towards the macabre. Kids, teens and young adults are often obsessed with dark, gothic themes. Although I don’t look gothic, inside I’m a bevy of tombstones. I think there is something intriguing about morbidity: people have a fascination with it. As a kid I wanted to be a vampire and dreamed of being a witch flying on a broomstick.

Will this music be available on its own, outside the game?

I was talking with Sophie and there is the plan to make the music available once you pass each level. You would then have the option to download the mp3 freely... the music’s going to be able to be gotten.

[Images courtesy of Luke Jurevicius and Passion Pictures Australia.]

Best Of Indie Games: The Garden of Sweden

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

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

The goodies in this edition include an IGF Grand Prize winner, a challenging 3D platformer, two point-and-click adventure games, a platformer with creative puzzles, a browser-based defense game set in space, and a typing game created by a group of students from USC's Interactive Media Division.

Game Pick: 'Blueberry Garden' (Erik Svedäng, commercial indie - demo available)
"Erik's Blueberry Garden is a playground of exploration and oddities. It's like every platformer you've ever experienced, yet nothing like anything you've ever played. Most importantly, we think Blueberry Garden is worthy of IGF's Seumas McNally Grand Prize."

Game Pick: 'Little Wheel' (One Click Dog, browser)
"A point-and-click adventure game which tells the story of a community of robots who had their power shut down due to a minor mishap. By chance a guard robot was brought back to life after getting struck by lightning, and it is up to the player to assist our mechanical friend as it tries to restore power back to the city."

Game Pick: 'Takishawa is Dead' (Andrew Brophy, freeware)
"A difficult 3D platformer where players are sent on a quest to find a dangerous individual named Takishawa, who is hiding in a world filled with dangerous pitfalls and traps. Be prepared to face some uphill challenges as save points are sparse and each step you take may very well be your last."

Game Pick: 'The Pretender, Part One' (Launching Pad Games, browser)
"A puzzle platformer where you are in control of a magician named Laurence, who has to embark on a rescue mission after causing his entire audience to disappear in a performance gone awry. Most of the puzzles are centered around stepping on magical tiles that change your form to one of the two elements, stone or air. When shaped out of air, winds can blow you in directions which are unreachable in your normal state. Turning into a stone golem bestows you with the strength to push boulders or smash rocks that are in your path."

Game Pick: 'Curse of the Red Ninja' (Allen Henderson, browser)
"Curse of the Red Ninja is a browser-based adventure game created by the developer of Get Lost and Which Way, where players are tasked with assassinating their mentor in order to fulfill their destiny of becoming a true ninja. This will require completing a variety of fetch quests, arcade challenges, and even solve the occasional puzzle or two with only your bare hands and a piece of gold in your possession."

Game Pick: 'Vector Boom' (Hero Interactive, browser)
"A defense game set in space that involves hordes of enemy spaceships and tons of explosions. Players set a radius for each explosion using the mouse, then watch as their space station obliterates the incoming armada. Made up of ten levels, initially holding off the bad guys is fairly easy going but it rapidly gets more hectic. As an overall experience, its a fun little game and one which you should definitely give a go."

Game Pick: 'TypeFighter' (Kevin Lee and Kyle Fujita, freeware)
"A typing game where scripted action sequences are played out according to how well you do when prompted to type a set of words. The sprite work and animation are competently done, but only two stages are included to play with no indication of whether the project will be worked on any further than the current release."

June 12, 2009

WoWinSchool Seeks to Reach At-Risk Students with Warcraft

EduRealms' Lucas Gillespie has started WoWinSchool, a wiki designed to help teachers who want to use World of Warcraft in classrooms. Gillespie was inspired to create the resource years of playing different MMORPGs -- from Everquest to Dark Age of Camelot to World of Warcraft -- with fellow educators, students, and former students:

"It didn’t take long before I was convinced that these sorts of virtual environments must have some sort of place in education. How many times have I thought, 'If I could just use this feature or that, I could easily teach concept X?' If my students were as motivated about Cell Structure and Function as they were about knowing the intricacies of a fight in Molten Core, they’d all have 'A’s.'"

WoWinSchool's primary focus is to bring together educators who will develop a curriculum for an 6-month to 10-month after school program targeting "at-risk" students in middle and/or high school.

The program seeks to accommodate up to 15 students who are considered "at-risk for dropping out or poor performance in core classes", focusing on themes such as literacy and writing, mathematics, 21st-Century technology skills, leadership, and more.

The site argues that students who are considered "at-risk" usually haven't reached that point because they lack the capacity to learn, but because school no longer holds any relevance to them or it bores them:

"Math isn't interesting because page 56 1-100, odd' isn't interesting. Reading a piece of literature bores them because they cannot relate to them. They don't write in school because they don't have anything they feel is relevant to write about.

Often, these students simply need a catalyst, a muse if you will, that inspires them or serves as a focal point for learning things such reading, writing, and math. Most kids today are engaged in online social networking sites and many have experienced video games. Using an online virtual world-based game such as World of Warcraft can provide an ideal starting point for a variety of lessons."

WoWinSchool wiki not only includes links and references to supporting research and articles behind its rationale, but a glossary to introduce new MMORPG players/educators, budgeting information, and a list of technical issues that should be considered with the program.

I thought the concept of WoW-based schooling sounded a little silly at first, but reading over some of the lesson ideas like this Mathematics lesson helped change my mind:

"Buff Analysis: Example - Which buff (a spell that enhances a character's abilities) is more effective for your character, Blessing of Kings or Blessing of Might? Collect data at five different points during an encounter and graph them over time. Why is one better than another?"

This Study of social interaction in Chat/Trade Channel Chat in WoW's Barrens and Elwyn Forest also sounds entertaining and potentially educational:

"Sit in one of these regions (like the Barrens) for 20 minutes watching the general chat. Keep a log of the topics discussed in the chat. Create categories for the topics and sort them. Create a bubble map diagram to show the relationship and possible overlap of topics. Reflect on the topics (were they helpful, interesting, offensive, etc.). What do you think motivates people to be helpful or annoying?"

You can read more about the at-risk youth program and lesson ideas at the WoWinSchool wiki.

[Via Educational Games Research]

Interview: Carmack Waxes Lyrical On iPhone, Talks New Doom Resurrection

[There are some interviews from Gamasutra that we can't _not_ run on GSW - and this is one, with id's legendary John Carmack talking to Chris Remo about imminent iPhone title Doom Resurrection -- and why the noted developer believes Apple's mobile platform is curently "the best platform for a small team."]

Noted developer id Software and partner Escalation Studios are wrapping up work on Doom Resurrection, a new iPhone game, and id's John Carmack told Gamasutra he believes Apple's mobile system is currently "the best platform for a small team."

Due in about a month, Doom Resurrection is a far cry from id's recent iPhone release of Wolfenstein 3D -- it uses assets from 2004's Doom 3, not 1993's original Doom, and it ditches Wolf's clunky on-screen joystick for a new aiming mechanic based around the iPhone's accelerometer.

Gamasutra spoke with both Carmack and Tom Mustaine, co-founder of Escalation Studios as well as Ritual Entertainment (now part of MumboJumbo).

And based on Carmack's enthusiasm, it seems the longstanding independent studio has no plans to slow its pace on the platform. "I'm very positive on the iPhone here," the developer said. "We've got a line of classic games we're lining up, and we've got mobile titles we can move over."

Development Of Doom: Resurrection

"We had started off on this project internally, to be id's best foot forward on the iPhone," Carmack explained. The company had some "early missteps" with Wolfenstein 3D, so it conceived the new Doom game as being natively designed for iPhone. But as internal development was falling short, Mustaine approached the company "with a pitch for almost an identical game, but for the Wii" -- so much of the existing work was scrapped and Escalation took over.

"We had a visuals up in a very short amount of time," said Mustaine. "I think a lot of people underestimate how powerful the iPhone really is."

In id's original design, Resurrection used a tap-based shooting mechanic, but Carmack said it just "wasn't that fun." "You can't actually see the headshot, or his head snapping back, because your finger's in the way," he said. "Tapping on the screen is also very efficient -- there isn't much satisfaction in it when you can just tap three times really quickly.

"But tilting around the reticule has the same feeling as when you first picked up a mouse and keyboard or a controller, when you could tell there was some skill involved in getting it right, in how to line up your shot," he added. "We're really happy with it."

Back To Basics

When id began, it dealt with that all the time -- when any mechanical tweak could change the entire character of a game -- but on the larger-scale platforms id now develops for, such fundamental control systems are already standardized.

"As we go forward in [first-person shooters], there's a high level of confidence that the games will be fun," Carmack said of higher-budget projects. "That's why publishers are willing to fork over the huge advances -- it's relatively low-risk. We're not going to do something that just absolutely stinks.

"It's fun going into the new territory. We've been doing that in the mobile division for the BREW market. But the iPhone is so different; it's a totally new interface. The great part is that you can iterate over it. You don't have to think in theory, that this or that will be the optimal design. You can just do things three or four different ways and see how it turns out."

"The Best Platform For A Small Team"

Asked about how the iPhone and its app store stack up against other potential avenues for entrepreneurship in the video game industry, Carmack didn't hesitate.

"Right now the iPhone is the best platform for a small team to go and make their mark on," he said. "If I were off by myself, I would want to become an iPhone game developer. While you do have the big titles -- Sega or id or the other big companies moving big titles -- there are a lot of successes there who have moved an awful lot of units with smaller titles."

That success isn't about specs, Carmack pointed out; it's about the business model and distribution method. "While I like the iPhone hardware, in terms of having a nice display, a good amount of memory, a good processor, and a good enough graphics processor, the most important side of it is really the app store," he said.

"If the BREW platform had the app store with the same terms and conditions, and the iPhone had fifty different carriers and plans, we'd be on that other [BREW] platform. While I think Apple did a great job on both sides, the app side is more important."

The Many SKUs Of iPhone

Just this week, Apple revealed plans for a third major iPhone model, the iPhone 3G S, featuring yet more hardware improvements and features.

"Already there's a factor-of-two difference between the original iPhone 2G and the most recent iPod Touch -- faster processors, faster memory controllers," Carmack said. "The 3G S should be a significantly larger jump on there, specifically on the graphics side."

But despite being known as a pixel-pusher, Carmack doesn't see those improvements as particularly relevant to iPhone development. "For high graphics geek stuff, I can do things on the PC and 360 and PS3," he said. "I can't see many developers making 3G S-specific stuff as a business. People will make software for it, because it's fun to play around with the new features, but most developers will focus on running well on the base system -- and then maybe on the 3G S you run 60 hertz."

He believes Apple could see similar performance gains simply by improving its software -- but probably won't. "They could make almost a factor-of-two difference just with software changes. There's a heavy CPU tax if you're multi-touching around with all their other services running."

"The interface to the graphics processor is fine, but it's still through a not-totally-optimized OpenGL stack. We could accomplish a lot more there. But the smart money is probably on Apple enhancing the hardware and continuing to bloat the system software."

So what did excite the veteran developer this week? "I'm personally more excited by the $99 iPhone announcement that the 3G S," he said. "I'd be happier seeing them sell 50 million of the base model than pushing the specs up."

WayForward: Shantae Experiments on iPhone, PS3

Fans have clamored for a follow-up to Shantae ever since WayForward released the cult-hit platformer for Game Boy Color in 2002, and though the studio revealed at GDC 2008 that it was experimenting with a 2D WiiWare title featuring the female genie, it has made no formal announcement for the game since. As it turns out, WayForward has dropped Shantae to a variety of platforms:

"... maybe we'll get in trouble for saying this, but we even have Shantae running on an iPhone," says president Voldi Way, according to a report from video game weblog Joystiq. "It will probably never see the light of day, so you don't have to say it's coming out for iPhone, because it probably won't. We've experimented with Shantae tech on everything. She will reemerge one day. I don't know when or even what platform, but she will come back. The reason I can guarantee that now is because of downloads. "

He continues, "We tried so hard to sell Shantae on GBA, and no one, not even Capcom, who published the original, would touch it. And it was great! Well, I'm biased, but I thought it was great. Shantae DS, similar things. I don't know if she'll emerge on the DS, or DSi download, or Wii, or PSN, XBLA -- we have Shantae running on a PS3, for god's sake. If you ever come to our office, I'll be happy to show you Shantae running on a PS3 -- in full 1080p glory."

Voldi adds that WayForward always has some kind of Shantae project in the backburner, and that it has a DS version that has a "good chance" of releasing as a DSi download. This seems even more plausible when considering that the company just self-published Mighty Flip Champs for DSi last week.

Play: Mobile, Motion-based Erotic Game

Created in one month as part of a production for Denmark's National Academy of Digital, Interactive Entertainment (DADIU), Play is "an exploratory erotic game" targeting adult women and using a phone's accelerometer for its controls.

Players have to move and tilt their phone along with the game's music in order to progress. Of course, Play also seems to use the handset's vibration function in some manner. The DADIU team that developed the title, "Group 6" explains the game's concept:

"Enjoy the art of sex by being in control. Feel your way around the man. Choose to perform moves on him and have him perform exotic moves on you. Inspire him. Tease him. Make him want more of you to get the most out of the session. Be in sync with one another by finding the right rhythm to complement each other."

You can watch a NSFW video of someone playing the title below. You can also read more about Play and download a demo (Nokia N95 required) here.

Metal Gear Arcade Trailer Online

After announcing the title a week ago at E3 with hardly any media, Konami has finally posted a trailer and screenshots from Metal Gear Arcade, its "tactical online action" game releasing in Japan late this year and the rest of the world sometime afterwards.

The sit-down arcade game is based on the previously released PS3 series spin-off Metal Gear Online, and will offer 3D goggles and a "special controller that allows for separate movement and viewpoint", according to a report from Famitsu translated by consumer site IGN. The third-persons shooter will support solo and multiplayer matches (up to 16 players, co-op and versus).

You can see screenshots from Metal Gear Arcade at Konami's official page.

[Via JV247]

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Plotting, Emergent Narratives, and 'Story Spaces'

br7.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom looks at calls for video game design reform in the areas of narrative and story.]

Recently, bloggers, gamers, game designers have been discussing the future of video games as they’d like to see it. Some of the more intriguing conversations they’re having concern emergent narratives, authorial control, and story making as opposed to storytelling.

Notable bloggers and game designers, Doug Church, Michael Samyn, and Steve Gaynor, have argued that traditional narrative modes of in-game storytelling need to be replaced with newer methods. Church (albeit back at GDC 2000!) argues that we should "abdicate authorship"++ altogether, while Gaynor and Samyn argue, in their more recent and suggestive articles, that video games are a medium uniquely able to create a new tablet for user-created content, termed “story space,” and that the narratives that come from this will be “emergent.”**+

This article will examine the assumptions and statements already made about these topics. Next week’s article will conclude by exploring their flaws and strengths, and ultimately the potential, both good and bad, of their ideas. A final article will bring my discussion to its conclusion, using an older game to point the way forward for narrative in games.

For Church and Gaynor, plain old “narrative” is outdated. According to Gaynor, it’s not what videogames are best positioned to do anyway, being a rigid, static structure of author-generated, pre-arranged meaning. To them, sticking to old, narrative forms in videogames just hampers designers’ creativity, and worse, the result is stale and uninteresting to gamers. We are, in other words, tired of the same old thing. For gamers today, narratives and stories are almost always jokes. Even the well-made ones painfully telegraph their intentions hours in advance and never do anything really surprising.

Gaynor suggests as an alternative what he calls “the immersion model of meaning,” and contrasts it to linear, “cinematic” techniques:

The immersion model of meaning arises from design focus along two primary axes: providing a believable, populated, internally consistent, freely-navigable gameworld for the player's avatar to inhabit, and robust tools of interactivity that allow the player to build a personal identity within that gameworld through his own actions.*

While this is perhaps an immediately compelling rhetoric, it rests on a dismissal of narrative as “linear” that fails to account for what narrative really is, generating a straw man “cinematic” model only to banish it as quickly as possible. Without a robust definition of “narrative,” the supposedly unwieldy thing at the center of the old method of video game meaning creation, the “immersion model of meaning” signifies next to nothing, because it’s not clear what job it’s taking over from, or what kind of “meaning” it is setting out to produce or replace.

bladerunner.jpgMaking Thing Clearer

According to Gaynor, the problem is that games attempt to recreate filmic narratives. Here, he explains what’s wrong with this:

Video games are already capable of doing these things [associated with emergent narratives]; they are far less capable of providing the authored pacing, composed framing and predictable event flow of film to convey a linear narrative, and yet this is almost always a central focus in character-driven games. Embracing the immersion model of meaning requires the designer never think of the game as a story, but as a place filled with people and things that the player is free to engage with at his own pace and on his own terms.*

The problem with this definition of the “immersion model of meaning” and narrative is that it requires us to assume that “narrative always consists of something as rigid as “authored pacing, composed framing, and predictable event flow” (predictable to whom? On what bases? Etcetera). Narrative does not have to be linear. In fact, in my view, when it is treated properly in video games, narrative is multi-noded, self-reliant and fluctual, the opposite of linear.

In the video game medium, very often a narrative consists of multiple actors, who all follow their own desires and attempt to achieve what they want, dynamically rather than statically. In a game like Westwood’s Blade Runner, this kind of system is modeled procedurally. Actors exist in the simulation, acting independently from the player, and only when the player actively inserts themselves into the path of the actor (or the path of a series of repercussions instigated by that actor) does the player become aware of the actor. It is by no means a complete or fluid simulation. Many characters still wait to be activated by the PC, and cannot continue with their agendas without being triggered. Still, the illusion of NPC autonomy is present in Blade Runner in a way not seen in other games.

wb_gamewall86.jpgAs Long as Androids Pretend to Dream...

This is narrative, and it is not static. Narrative is a system of occurrences, each with their own meaning. The reader, viewer or player witnesses or experiences these events, and concludes that they are connected or related to each other, both in their beginnings and their endings (and the decisions and events that connect the two). Clint Hocking points out on Gaynor’s blog, “I think it was EM Forster who said "The King died and then the Queen died is a story, but the King died and then the Queen died OF GRIEF is a PLOT."

Hocking’s language is usefully suggestive because it reminds us of Peter Brooks’s argument, in Reading for the Plot, that “plot” is not just a static, reified “thing,” separable from the totality of the story that we read or view, but the center of any story. Plot is the “design and intention of narrative, a structure for those meanings that are developed through temporal succession” (Brooks 12). Narrative is thus a whole whose parts imply each other’s existence. Readers, viewers and players of any narrative see it for what it is, and are thus interested in following the narrative to its conclusion. Narrative does not need to be linear. To assume that the multiple narrative threads simultaneously existing in a game (more advanced than Blade Runner) are something other than narrative is both incorrect and unhelpful.

While this article will examine the broader, initial claims (and calls for action) implicit in the desire for new kinds of storytelling, and in particular the narratives that are supposed to emerge from story spaces, it is meant to introduce a wider critique, one that addresses our preconceptions of what “narrative” and “linearity” mean in games today, and in what we hope they will be in future, less heavily scripted (and thus artificially “storied”) games. I think that there is an alternative to Gaynor’s extreme vision of authorial retreat and emergent game narratives.

There’s a future for “emergent narratives” not just in story spaces and their ilk, but in further developments in narrative proper. Thus, I want to claim that “narrative” is and always will be distinct from the kind of storytelling that we will see in story spaces, and that the future that both narratives and story spaces have in gaming will allow exciting, “emergent” narrative forms in both categories, not just the more freeform, less scripted world of story spaces. I also think that there are crucial aspects of storytelling that can only be accomplished with the aid of narrative, and can’t with largely user-generated content from story spaces. But to make this claim, we need more fully explore what’s meant by “emerging narrative” and “story space,” and get a better sense of what narrative really is, and how it differs from the first two.

br.jpgHow Far can the Story Space Take Us?

Story spaces (as defined by Gaynor) are a notion that allows for more flexibility, more player decision and reaction, and thus (one hopes) player-video game connection. Story spaces are new—they have all the flavor of narrative, but none of the obvious, clunky structure, because while they may be organized and scripted by the designer, they allow the user to create stories unaided. In a story space, a designer steps back, creating malleable, highly reaction-capable NPCs and environments, and creates as wide and deep a field of interactions as possible. The player can then create stories far more meaningful than any a set of canned branching narrative might provide.

Story space for Gaynor is the possibility provided by a certain kind of game design. As he says:

Fictional content--setting, characters, backstory-- is useful inasmuch as it creates context for what the player chooses to do. This is ambient content, not linear narrative in any traditional sense. The creators of a gameworld should be lauded for their ability to believably render an intriguing fictional place-- the world itself and the characters in it. However the value in a game is not to be found in its ability at storytelling, but in its potential for storymaking.**

For Gaynor, a world that follows a path of multiple, interconnected, possibly unrelated settings, people and histories is just “fictional content.” It is, when implemented in a non- structured, non-restrictive, non-linear way, the ultimate space within which to have unique, “storymaking” experiences. I think that Gaynor is right to name these elements as key to making interesting gameplay experiences and sessions, but that his definition of narrative and “storymaking” are underexplained and overemphasized.

It’s nice to say that we’ll give users tools to make stories in the future, and that video games are bad at delivering already-written stories (as Gaynor does), but it’s confusing and misleading if we don’t have a clear idea of what narrative is and what story spaces might do to dislodge narrative from the control of the author and give it to the reader. Without some idea of what we’re talking about, that rhetoric is just rhetoric—empowering-sounding and exciting, to be sure, but not helpful in trying to understand what games do now and what they might do in the future.

You can see where the terms “emergent narrative” and “authorial control” become important to this argument. Authorial control is what the designer needs to give up in order for this amazing new set of experiences to occur. Gaynor believes that once this control has been given up and a believable, deep, and rule-bound world has been created in its place sans narrative shackles, “emergent narrative” can occur. While the designer’s craft is as important as ever (especially when creating a world that obviates the need for structured story nodes and narrative tracks), it needs to be lighter, more deft, and less obvious to the player.

The new stories and narratives a player can create in such a game space are the emergent narratives so key to these arguments. An emergent narrative is the sense (and story) that a player would create using the stimuli provided by this hypothetical game. From these actions and reactions the player creates her own story, her own emergent narrative.

Assumptions and Assertions

Supposedly, if content comes from the user, then the designer disappears into the background, letting the user run with the storytelling tools the designer has given her. Ideally, Gaynor writes,

Video games at their best abdicate authorial control to the player, and with it shift the locus of the experience from the raw potential onscreen to the hands and mind of the individual. At the end of the day, the play of the game belongs to you. The greatest aspiration of a game designer is merely to set the stage.***

This is an admirable goal, but Gaynor makes a universal claim about video games and video game design that isn’t always true. Not all video games benefit from abdication of authorial control. I think that multivalent, independently acting narrative nodes could be combined in one complicated game to provide the illusion of a fictional world completely at the power of its own citizens. A designer would create these myriad actors so that each one had a purpose, place, and reason for being there. Thus, the advent of a carefully scripted and directed NPC upon the scene is not the illusion breaking, transparent thing that Gaynor rejects, but the entry of one more narrative node to the mix. This is a goal aspired to by many games, approached by few, and mastered by none. No matter how much credit we give the most forward-looking of games, they fail on fundamental levels to provide the bright future described by these writers.

They fail not just because they haven’t attempted to produce Gaynor’s new storytelling, but because the vision Gaynor puts forward, as exciting as it is, isn’t storytelling, and isn’t the future of videogame narrative. To a certain extent, that’s Gaynor’s point—in with the new, out with the old, and good riddance. But like many polemicists entranced with a new idea, Gaynor supposes that “narrative” was an old category that has to change into the vaguely imagined “story space,” failing to see that videogame narrative in the older, proper sense—stories—is a different thing from what he’s envisioning.

The future of narrative, in short, is not story space. Story space will happen, and should, but it would be limited to think that the two can’t coexist, or that narrative can’t go to exciting new places on its own terms. As I’ve suggested, the failure to imagine both possibilities, either/or rather than both/and thinking, is typical of the heated rhetoric of novelty, in video games as in any other art—but, as in other fields, we owe it to ourselves as self-conscious gamers to understand a little better the reality of what we’re being presented with, and sort the value of story spaces out from the totalizing rhetoric that sees story spaces as the only future of game narrative.

In my next column, I’ll examine the possibilities for the future of narrative in games, and how that future relates to Gaynor’s conceptions of narrative, story space, and plot.

Below are the relevant articles, along with related reading (from Michael Samyn of Tale of Tales).

* The Immersion Model of Meaning
** Storymaking
*** Being There
+ The Challenge of Non-Linearity
++ A Peek into Game Design

[Tom Cross writes for Gametopius and Popmatters, and blogs about video games at shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

New Double Dragon Releases for Zeebo

Download-only console Zeebo launched in Brazil late last month along with over a dozen games, most of which are mobile ports (e.g. Crash Nitro Kart, FIFA 09, Prey) but also some new titles. One of the more interesting original releases is Double Dragon, which I believe is the first new console game in the beat'em-up series since Double Dragon Advance in 2003.

I'm not sure if Million Inc. -- the descendant of Double Dragon and River City Ransom developer Technos, and presumably the current Double Dragon license holder -- had any involvement in the game's creation, but the company's name shows up on the title screen, as does mobile developer Brizo Interactive's.

The plot is typical Double Dragon fare: Billy Lee's girlfriend, Marian, is kidnapped by Machine Gun Willy's gang, so he enlists his brother Jimmy to help rescue her. The two can punch, kick, and use items like baseball bats and knives against enemies. You can see screenshots of the game at Zeebo's Portugese site.

[Via Mr G]

GameSetLinks: Mr. Popcap Says... Beep?

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

As we barrel happily towards the weekend, time to check out some more GameSetLinks from the last week or two -- and the E3-related backlog is almost caught up with, thankfully!

We start off this set of links with an interesting piece of reporting from Newsweek on the Six Weeks In Fallujah game. Still trying to work out whether it's a little condescending towards the concept that games could add something to an intense real-life situation, empathetically, or on the button about the title's mixed message.

Also in here - a little more discussion on Dante's Inferno, plus the sounds of PopCap, Ron Gilbert walking through the original Monkey Island in his own words (OK, that's an E3 vintage link I only just caught up with!), and more things besides.

Go stay go:

Controversial Videogame on the Battle of Fallujah | Newsweek Technology | Newsweek.com
Neat to see a major mag like Newsweek do complex reporting on this story.

Dante's Inferno: The Reckoning Part 2: Blood Oath - Generations | Procedural Dialogue
Our own Chris Remo replying to Leigh's article: 'I’m not saying EA should be making a game closer to the source material; I’m saying they should never have claimed the association to begin with.'

Women and game development: Finding a greater humanity through play | Straight.com
Erin Hoffman: 'When it comes to women and video games, psychology, not physiology, is the barrier.'

Crispy Gamer | The Sounds of PopCap, Part 1: Bejeweled Twist
Neat idea: 'There's something in the "special sauce" at PopCap, and I suspect that the audio feedback -- the sounds of PopCap games -- have something to do with it.' Three parts (so far) linked within!

Teaching Game Design: Student Post-Mortems
'The list of things I see [after having his students make a board game] are astonishingly similar to the professional post-mortems that you see on Gamasutra when people make video games, and I feel echoes of previous classes I've taught where students made video games.'

StuartRoch.com: 'Impressions, E3 2009'
Activision's Stuart Roch has some interesting, personal opinions on E3, booths, highlights, etc.

Grumpy Gamer Stuff and Things and Monkey Island
Ron Gilbert walks through his creation, Monkey Island, for the first time in a few years, and documents his thoughts. Awesome.

Interactive fiction needs to grab its big opportunity | Technology | The Guardian
Current famous writer/video game crossover 'a pretty poor showing, especially when you consider how authors such as Iain M Banks, Neal Stephenson and William Gibson have been inspired by game culture. So why the paucity of novelist/game crossovers?'

June 11, 2009

They Came From Outer Space: 8BP Releases Starscream, IAYD Albums

Chiptune collective 8bitpeoples just put out two new chiptune EPs, both downloadable for free and space-themed! The first album, "Future, and It Doesn't Work", comes from New York City-based band Starscream, and is accompanied with some wicked cover art (pictured) and a terrific premise:

"In the not so distant future awaits the election of the first third party candidate to the White House- they will hail from the Space Party, a political coalition founded by astrophysicists, former Democrats and ex-NASA employees. In their 8bitpeoples debut EP, 'Future, and It Doesn't Work', Starscream tell a tale of victory, science, and potentially catastrophic foreign policy."

From across the country, Corpus Christ's IAYD supplies the other micromusic album, "Supergalactic", promising dance tracks and enlightenment:

"IAYD makes his 8bitpeoples debut with 'Supergalactic', an invitation to get punched in the face by light-speed melodies and sound barrier-breaching beats. Embark on a journey through the cosmos with six, powerful masterworks crafted from the dregs of shattered asteroids and the rusted husks of space vessels. Pushing forward and brimming with profound sonic vivacity, 'Supergalactic' leaves you with a greater understanding of the Universe."

You should note that these two are 8bitpeoples' 98th and 99th releases; I wonder what the label will put out for its 100th?

Another Addams Family Oddity: Brain-Controlled Pinball

This pinball setup attaches dozens of electrodes to the players scalp with a helmet, measuring the brain's electric signals, sending them to a computer, then delivering converted commands to the Addams Family machine. It's altogether ooky. (Sorry)

The technology isn't new, nor is this game-related demonstration, as this non-invasive Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) was previously shown working with a similar Pong setup in 2006 (video below).

Dr. Michael Tangermann and several others also published a study on "Playing Pinball with Non-Invasive BCI" earlier this year, which you can read the abstract for here:

"Compared to invasive Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI), non-invasive BCI systems based on Electroencephalogram (EEG) signals have not been applied successfully for complex control tasks. In the present study, however, we demonstrate this is possible and report on the interaction of a human subject with a complex real device: a pinball machine.

First results in this single subject study clearly show that fast and well-timed control well beyond chance level is possible, even though the environment is extremely rich and requires complex predictive behavior. Using machine learning methods for mental state decoding, BCI-based pinball control is possible within the first session without the necessity to employ lengthy subject training.

While the current study is still of anecdotal nature, it clearly shows that very compelling control with excellent timing and dynamics is possible for a non-invasive BCI."

BCI Pong:

You can watch another video (in German, unfortunately) of Dr. Tangermann demonstrating the BCI pinball machine himself on Spiegel Online.

[Via The Pinball Blog]

Interview: Hopelab, Virtual Heroes Talk New Re-Mission Game For Cancer Patients

[An interesting one, this - I had a chance to talk to Hopelab and Virtual Heroes about their just-announced partnership to create an updated version of Re-Mission, a therapeutic game for child cancer sufferers. 'Serious games', indeed.]

Nonprofit Hopelab is teaming with serious games developer Virtual Heroes (America's Army) to create a new version of Re-Mission, a game Hopelab first released in 2006 to inspire and encourage kids suffering from cancer.

In the game, players pilot a microscopic robot named Roxie through the bodies of fictional patients to attack cancer cells and combat the side effects of treatment.

According to Hopelab's own studies, which have been published in medical journals like Pediatrics, kids who play games like Re-Mission show positive therapeutic results, like taking their medications more consistently, and better understanding their illness.

Since the original game's release, it's been used at multiple medical centers globally, and HopeLab has also distributed more than 142,000 free copies of Re-Mission in 81 countries.

This new version in partnership with Virtual Heroes, the developer who is also creating official NASA MMO Astronaut: Moon, Mars & Beyond, is funded by Hopelab partners Vivendi, the Annenberg Foundation, and the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

In this interview, Gamasutra speaks with both Hopelab communications director Richard Tate and Virtual Heroes managing director Jerry Heneghan about what's new with Re-Mission V2 and the team effort to use games for health:

How do you plan to evolve the gameplay and goals in this new version of Re-Mission?>

Richard Tate, HopeLab: The primary goal of the game remains the same - to create a fun, compelling game-play experience that helps young cancer patients stick to their prescribed treatments and gives them a sense of power and control over their disease.

These behaviors and psychological factors are key to fighting cancer, and research on the first Re-Mission proved a specially designed video game can have positive impact in these areas.

But the game has to be fun to be effective - if kids don't play the game, it can't work. We think we can build a new version of Re-Mission that's even more fun and engaging than the original. That's where Virtual Heroes' creative expertise comes in.

Jerry Heneghan, Virtual Heroes: As for the game play experience, we want to make the next Re-Mission even more fun than the original. HopeLab has done hundreds of hours of play testing of the original game with teen cancer patients, and the feedback from those kids has been key to shaping some creative goals for this project.

For example, we want to make the in-the-body environments a richer sensory experience, enhancing both the visuals and the sound based on the biology of the body. We're also putting the player front and center, shifting the perspective from a third-person to a first-person shooter. Kids have told us that they want to shoot cancer, and they want to win.

It's great to have the voices of these patients as guide posts in the creative process - HopeLab is committed to incorporating their input throughout the development process, and so are we.

Are there particular platforms that you're going to try to launch the re-imagined Re-Mission on?

RT: Part of our nonprofit mission is to make the game readily available to the young patients for whom it's designed. To ensure broad accessibility, we're focusing on making a great PC game.

The first Re-Mission game has been distributed to 81 countries, and many of the hospitals and clinics where teens often are introduced to the game have limited or no access to consoles.

Are you able to leverage social networks and multiplayer in any way for this new version?

JH: We're currently focused on a single-player experience.

RT: Because Re-Mission is about you fighting your cancer, the single-player approach makes sense. Teens fighting cancer tell us that they like basting cancer cells in a game, but outside of the game they don't necessarily want to be identified as cancer patients - they just want to be themselves.

So social networking and multiplayer opportunities aren't our development focus. That said, we'll certainly tap into on- and off-line social networks to raise awareness as we look to launch and distribute a new game.

Why do you think an interactive format works so well for this particular message?

JH: Games offer players a chance to experience and play out scenarios in a safe virtual space, which is ideal for communicating a serious message like how to fight cancer.

The evolution of adaptive game-play technology, which we're looking to incorporate in this project, also allows us to create a game that responds to a players skill level, making the experience more accessible to young people with cancer who aren't gamers.

RT: Again, fun is key - the interactive quality of games provides a great channel to deliver a message, but to be effective, the experience has to be engaging enough to hold your interest and attention.

Based on our research on the first Re-Mission [cited in Hopelab's official announcement], we believe the gameplay experience does more than just convey a message or deliver information; it causes a shift in attitudes and emotions that leads to better health behavior.

For example, playing Re-Mission allows a patient to experience chemotherapy as their weapon, not just a medication that makes them feel sick. We want to amplify that experience in the next version. The creative opportunities in game design make it possible to create weapons and environments that communicate real-world experiences, but in a fun, immersive way.

What's the biggest learning point from the first version of the game to the second, in your opinion?

RT: Earlier this year, we published an article in the International Journal Learning and Media that summarizes a great deal of what we learned. I would highlight three things in particular.

First, we learned that the battle against cancer is great drama for game play, and kids engaged in their own cancer battle love the concept.

Second, it may not be necessary to create a 20-level game to achieve the health outcomes we're after. Researching the impact of the first game, we saw that even small amounts of game play led to improved treatment adherence.

So we're focused on creating a streamlined but even more compelling experience with the next Re-Mission. We'll be testing the new game in scientific studies, as we did the original, to be sure we maintain the impact we're after.

But the biggest learning overall is that the game has to be fun to be effective. We think there are great ways we can boost the fun factor in a new Re-Mission, and it's going to be exciting to explore those with the team at Virtual Heroes.

Dead Space's Kendra Textured, Bloodied, and Markered

Taking a cue from 2K Games' recent in-depth discussion on the development of BioShock 2's Big Sister, Electronic Arts concept artist Joey Spiotto published his own tell-all for the visual design of a video game character he helped create -- Dead Space's Kendra Daniels, who Spiotto notes was selected by Maxim last year as one of the "Hottest Video Game Babes of 2008".

Along with hair styles and outfits that were considered, the artist shares modeling packets that were put together before Ms. Daniels was transformed into 3D, with texture details and a gore pass (pictured below) to show what she'd look like after a run-in with the survival horror game's necromorphs. Spiotto also posted a photo of actress Tonantzin Carmelo, who provided the character's voice and likeness, in a mocap suit and with her face covered in markers. See it all here!

[Via Super Punch]

EVE Online Dev CCP To Keynote, Reveal Next Game At GDC Europe

[Passing this news along as my colleagues at GDC Europe continue to announce their line-up, with CCP gearing up to announce something new as part of their keynote -- should be an interesting inaugural show in Cologne.]

Hilmar Petursson, chief exec at EVE Online developer CCP, will be keynoting the upcoming Game Developers Conference Europe this August in Cologne, Germany, where he'll unveil the studio's next project.

The exec, who has been with Reykjavik, Iceland-based CCP since 2000, will deliver the keynote "CCP: Winning the War," a presentation centered on his company's growth.

The studio began in relative obscurity, but now lays claim to the space-faring MMORPG EVE Online, which surpassed 300,000 subscribers in May.

At GDC Europe, Petursson will exclusively reveal CCP's latest project, currently in pre-production.

"GDC Europe is gearing up to be one of the industry's most essential events. I am honored to have this opportunity to share some of the valuable lessons CCP has learned with such a prestigious audience," Petursson said.

According to the firm, CCP plans on an "extensive global expansion" as online gaming continues to proliferate in the market.

GDC Europe will take place August 17-19 this year in Cologne alongside the inaugural GamesCom trade/consumer game event, and more information is available via the official GDC Europe website.

Forever Weird: Katamari Damacy Tribute Trailer

I have no idea why Namco Bandai chose to introduce this Japanese Katamari Damacy Tribute trailer (coming to the U.S. late this year as Katmari Forever) with a monkey and chicken puppets, but that's probably the least strange thing going on in this video. Halfway through, you'll see a group of space robots -- one of them wearing what looks like the Infinity Gauntlet -- spinning while holding onto each others' ankles, swinging on rocket ships, and exchanging flying kicks over a giant flame.

The gameplay clips for this PS3 exclusive is fantastic, however, as is the remixed music from previous games in the Katamari series. The trailer also shows off some of the new modes (looks like a race at the beginning?) and the selectable graphic styles (e.g. new tone, wood tone). Katamari Damacy Tribute will release in Japan this July 23rd. Make sure to watch the video until the end to see the excellent Japanese boxart, too!

[Via Famitsu]

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Wandering In The Willows

WWcutscene1.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at PlayFirst's non-combat casual RPG Wandering Willows.]

My childhood fantasies always began with being orphaned. Nothing against my parents, you understand -- the details of their untimely demise were always airbrushed out of the story as too upsetting to contemplate. But no really good adventures could happen to me while they were around.

I imagined that once free of parental protection I would spend my time foraging, picking nuts and berries, building a primitive shelter, digging firepits and catching fish. It was a scenario that drew heavily from Island of the Blue Dolphins, Little House in the Big Woods, and Julie of the Wolves, but minus the gritty realism. My imaginary wooded island had plenty of every food; its weather was temperate; its stones were automatically the right shape for building walls without mortar.

This universe seems to have escaped my imagination and is now the setting for Wandering Willows, a casual PC RPG from Playfirst. The protagonist lands in a damaged balloon on a mysterious island. It is a land where every kind of metal can be found ready-pressed into ingots just beneath the surface of the soil; where blackberries and raspberries grow at the tops of trees; where animals carry worked precious stones, but are happy to share.

Cotton, wheat, sugar cane, and vanilla can be planted and grown in a matter of minutes. The abundance becomes more and more surreal as the protagonist discovers a need for sulfur, petroleum, hot lava, dinosaur teeth... all of which may be dug out of the yielding earth and transported in her capacious backpack.

This island is of course full of odd travelers from other times and places. These welcome the protagonist, but invite her to perform an assortment of quests (some kind of local hazing ritual, perhaps).

Unlike Westward and its sequels, Wandering Willows involves no fighting and no action sequences; the most morally dubious thing the protagonist ever has to do is help the other characters deceive one another on occasion, and an obvious antecedent and inspiration is Nintendo's popular Animal Crossing series, though it does diverge from that model marginally.

For the most part, life is a giddy round of sewing (the other characters do like their costumes), cooking (a huge range of recipes is available), planting crops, exploring the environs and collecting resources. There isn't even any hunting or fishing: everyone in Wandering Willows appears to be vegetarian, and the animals are pets and companions rather than foodstuffs.

These pets are the chief mechanism of the game. The protagonist does relatively little work. Most of the hard labor of climbing trees for fruit or digging up the ground is done by pets. The protagonist may be accompanied only by one pet at a time, but can build up a stable of different pet species and rotate among them. Pets need to be fed, and they level up with enough experience. Different species are good at different things.

(I found myself fleetingly wondering about the slave-labor hierarchy of this society, since the long-term inhabitants mostly rely on the newcomer to provide them with food and clothing, while the newcomer in turn manipulates the cunning but speechless animals into doing all the really hard work. But I am fairly certain the designers did not intend me to think about any such thing.)

What about story? There is a loose framing arc about assembling enough goods to repair your balloon and get off the island, but it isn't the kind of story one is invited to take seriously. The thing is a pastiche of every sort of childhood fantasy element: aliens, pirates, sea monsters, rocket ships, time machines, ancient ruined temples.

WWcutscene1.jpgAs for the gameplay, if you approach it with a goal-oriented, game-winning agenda in mind, you'll find it is largely busywork. You collect quests, you pick fruits and dig up commodities, you fulfill your quests. If you want to, you can go off-script and bake or sew something you weren't explicitly asked to bake or sew, but there is no need to do so: you can earn friendship points by giving gifts to the other characters, but you're likely to end up with their friendship anyway, simply by going through the assigned tasks.

Thoroughness is the key to victory. There is nothing to figure out, and little to optimize. Even the small amount of strategy involved in selecting one species of pet over another is rendered more or less unnecessary because the pets are so trainable: you can stick with the first one you find and win handily with him.

That this is nonetheless somewhat entertaining is largely down to the game's excellent production values. The island is beautifully rendered; the characters have a certain charm; the animals wriggle and bounce when they are happy, and droop pathetically when they run out of food.

(Given all the elements -- the easy gameplay, the playful jumble of children's storybook tropes, the indulgence in a kiddie fantasy of life on an isolated island -- I started to wonder whether Wandering Willows was meant for younger players. But it doesn't present itself that way, and there are some bits -- the goofy cross-dressing character, the oblique references to impotence and constipation, the man who wants you to make fuzzy animal suits for a party -- that seem to assume a more mature view of the universe. Ultimately, I figure it's fine for kids, but not meant to be for them exclusively -- the same way that Muppet movies have adult-friendly jokes that sail over the heads of the younger listeners.)

But I have the strong sense that I played the game wrong. The press release for Wandering Willows contains one clue to this, and the narrative arc another. First the quote:

“Wandering Willows is a unique title in PlayFirst’s portfolio as it offers a much more open ended experience and heightened interaction”, said Dan Chao, lead game designer. “Player progression and customization are the key elements that were crucial to our overall design process enabling a unique and more engaging experience for every player."

This customization is the ability to dress up the player and all the other characters in wacky suits of clothes, and to feed them from a menu so extensive and indiscriminate as to put the Cheesecake Factory's to the blush. If casual players enjoy dressing up Flo in costumes and refurbishing her diner, they may also enjoy dressing up the protagonist of Wandering Willows. I can't really speak to this point: I rarely buy cosmetic upgrades unless I have to.

But here's the thing: the story is about the protagonist working to get away -- and becoming so fond of the island and its inhabitants that she starts to wonder whether she really wants to escape. That I didn't play it that way is partly a matter of personal taste and disposition. My hard-headed gamer's mindset made me determined to get through and finish as efficiently as possible.

Perhaps if I had played more casually -- spending more time making recipes and costumes just because they looked fun, customizing my character, buttering up my friends -- I would have found the gameplay lining up better with the story. Perhaps I would have settled in to enjoy the ludicrous abundance of this imaginary world while baking blackberry crepes for everyone I knew.

I'm a little too impatient to find this pace of gameplay satisfying now, but I bet six-year-old me would have loved it.

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

Desktopnauts

Shown off at E3 and considered by many as the highlight of the show, 5th Cell's Scribblenauts captivated gamers with its promise of puzzles solvable with almost any non-proper noun players can imagine and conjure (so long as it's not vulgar or alcohol/sex-related). Zombies, time machines, keyboard cats, gods carrying shotguns while riding a skateboard -- nearly anything goes.

Another part of the DS game's charm is its playful art style, affirmed by Nintendo Power's spectacular two-page spread in its latest issue, showing dozens of the animals, objects, and people you can summon (only a fraction of the Scribblenauts's tens of thousands of nouns).

Someone loved the image so much that he cut out its text and rearranged portions of the pages to create a desktop wallpaper, posting several versions online for everyone to enjoy. I love the classic monster figures, especially the adorable green one at the bottom.

GameSetLinks: A Fantastic Journey To Arcadia

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

Continuing, then, with GameSetLinks, there's a really neat Pixelsnatch blog about Final Fantasy IV, with a great deal of useful knowledge about FFXI and how its improvement might related to the next Final Fantasy online game being... not so bad?

Also in here: inevitable discussions on The Sims 3, open-source portable gaming goodness, why media overload needs careful managing, a neat critique of UFC Unleashed, and a multitude of other subjects.

Cha cha cha:

Will FFXIV be awesome? [五月][ミツバチ] - Blog - Pixelsnatch
'As an FFXI fan, I watched SE raise this thing from an awkward and tedious lesson in grinding to something fun and engrossing. All of their fuckups have been noted, fixed, and remembered. For an idea of what FFXIV will be doing right, here are a few of FFXI’s glaring mistakes and SE’s solutions.'

Cruise Elroy » The Sims 3
'The Sims 3 is still great at the sandbox style, of course, but in many ways the balance has swung back towards more traditional gameplay. This is due in large part to the judicious co-opting of established systems from other genres.'

NeoGAF - View Single Post - Official Dingoo A-320 Digital Multimedia Player Thread
Useful comparison of the three main open-source handhelds out there right now - Pandora, Dingoo, GP2X Wiz...

Wonderland: 2 brit WoW players journey the EU to meet their guildies
'Pixelsmith, a Leeds-based journalist, met up with his other UK-based guildie, and set off into Europe to find the rest of their WoW guild.'

Versus City » Blog Archive » Arcadia July - Umehara Six Page Interview
'Arcadia magazine has a six page interview with the one and only Daigo, where they talk about his playing history, starting with his impressions of the Gamestop tournament that happened earlier this year.'

UFC 2009 Undisputed: Actually Very Good « Double Buffered
Not only is this going to be a smash sales hit, seems like they dialed the gameplay, too: 'It’s my favorite non-traditional fighting game (traditional fighting games being everything derived from Street Fighter 2) and although it isn’t perfect, it does some things better than any other game I’ve played.'

Stendhal’s Playlist « Spectre Collie
Telltale's Chuck Jordan, in a post that's about media in general, but has major ramifications for games: 'Once you’ve said that it’s interest, not quality, that’s determining what you watch, it leaves plenty of time for guilty pleasures.'

Steven Poole: Poetry in motion?
'Flower is nothing like a poem, we ought to insist: it is a really interesting videogame, one which does things that many other videogames have already done, but with a more focused finesse, in the service of a clear artistic vision.'

June 10, 2009

Laguna Art Museum to Present 'WoW: Emergent Media Phenomenon'

Starting this weekend and running until October 4th, Blizzard Entertainment and the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, California will host "WoW: Emergent Media Phenomenon", an exhibit focused on World of Warcraft artwork.

Curated by the museum's Grace Kook-Anderson and Blizzard's Tim Campbell, the exhibit will have three main components: the official art and history of World of Warcraft, fan art, and artists who use the MMORPG as inspiration for their work.

For that third component, the curators selected fourteen international artists with the following themes in mind: elements of desire, the collapse of fantasy, medievalism, creative critiques, and public intervention. Those artists were tasked with taking on "the visual marker of World of Warcraft to consider, implications of gaming, and their greater impact on our culture."

The participating artists include several talented employees from Blizzard such as Creative Development SVP Chris Metzen, art director Sam Didier, art director Chris Robinson, senior art director Justin Thavirat, and senior graphic artist Roman Kenney; as well as notables like John Klima, Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn (Tale of Tales), and many more.

The museum has scheduled the artists to present several programs during the exhibit's run:

Sunday, June 14 at 1:00 PM - Zeng Han is a photographer based in Guangzhou, China who has just completed a semester at School of Visual Arts in New York. Zeng will be discussing the concept of "soulstealers" in his work.

Saturday, July 11 at 1:00 PM - Aram Bartholl's WoW workshop will be held the day before his lecture. Bartholl will extend the project shown in the exhibition out onto the streets of Laguna Beach. Everyone is welcome to participate and enjoy an afternoon of art making and have the opportunity to be involved in a collaborative performance. The workshop and performance will be documented on video, and the edited version will be shown in the exhibition.

Sunday, July 12 at 1:00 PM - Aram Bartholl, based in Berlin, is interested in the way network data manifests into the everyday world. Bartholl investigates this in the physical space through performance, installation, and video. With World of Warcraft, Bartholl investigates this manifestation through the one of the most popular online role-playing games.

Sunday, July 26 at 1:00 PM - Jacqueline Goss, based in New York, creates film and video in order to explore the ways we think about ourselves through systemic machines, like politics, culture, and science. Goss will talk about her work in game space, animation, and the documentary form.

Sunday, August 16 at 1:00 PM - Robert Nideffer, "Playing with Bosch". Robert Nideffer, based in Irvine, will compare the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch that illustrate fantasy with religious narratives with the images in World of Warcraft.

Sunday, September 13 at 1:00 PM - Antoinette LaFarge, based in Long Beach, questions the mode of fiction through performance, digital media, games, and writing. In this way, LaFarge looks at World of Warcraft and other role-playing games as one way of constructing a fictional narrative.

Thursday, October 1, UC Irvine, TBA - This forum will include artists Antoinette LaFarge, Robert Nideffer, Eddo Stern, and Jeff Chamberlain, the cinematics project lead at Blizzard Entertainment. The forum will be moderated by the associate director at UCI's Beall Center for Art and Technology, David Familian.

Bartholl's collaborative performance sounds particularly interesting! I presume this is a preview of what to expect from the workshop:

The museum will also give out a 44-page illustrated booklet at the exhibit with essays from the curators and participating artist Eddo Stern. You can find more information on the exhibit and the exhibition passes (which offers game/art bonuses depending on your pass level) at the Laguna Art Museum's official site.

Postmortem: Getting Serious With Budget Hero

[In a postmortem of the serious game Budget Hero, co-creator David Rejeski examines how the game turned a seemingly mundane subject like balancing the U.S. budget into an enjoyable, and at times addictive, interactive experience.]

The experiment was the following: Could you get a 20-year old to put away the Xbox or Wii controller for 30 minutes and play with the national budget?

In May 2008, the experiment commenced. That’s when Budget Hero – the national budget game – went online, just in time for the 2008 presidential election (the game is located here). The front end of the game had to be fun, but the back end was dead serious.

The game was built upon the economic model and data used by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and contained over 160 policy options that players could combine in order to support programs, raise revenues, and, more generally, to earn “badges” that reflected player priorities (for instance, to purse energy independence, strengthen health care and social programs, or increase economic competitiveness).

For each policy, the game provides the pros and cons along with the sources of all supporting data and opinions.

The game turned any player into the budget czar. Players could wade through the budget with the swagger of a machete-wielding trailblazer, hacking away at all that government pork. It also provided anybody with 20 minutes of spare time with something rarely glimpsed in our polarized political environment – an overview of the entire federal budget across all critical policy areas where the only agenda that matters is yours.

Budget Hero launched in collaboration with American Public Media (funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting along with the Sloan and Lounsbery Foundations) and it propagated virally via Internet coverage.

In less than three weeks the game had been covered in at least 100 blogs, including Freakonomics, Boing Boing, Gizmodo, and Wired, with various sources calling it “fascinating,” “very cool,” “instructive and fun,” and even “insanely addictive.” By the first week in August, over 112,000 people had played the game, 80,000 to completion (a fairly high "play through" rate, given the subject).

Tying Together Important Issues

After the game launched, email and blog traffic pointed to an important outcome: people actually started to learn new things about how the government spends money and the often complex relationship between budget and policy:

"I had not heard of the 'cap-and-trade' system for greenhouse gas emission permits… But now that I gained awareness of this idea, I will be watching and reading the debates about this more closely.”

"You can see how your choices on issues like the war in Iraq, health care reform, taxes and the environment play out in government spending. See if you can create a budget based on your values, without busting the federal bank."

"What I like about this realistic game is that one can no longer pretend that there are no consequences to the cost of the wars."

That’s a great outcome, but what could policy makers learn from the public (assuming they wanted to listen)? Though the game is not multiplayer, it contained a feature that allowed players to compare their results with others using demographic variables such as age, education, gender, income, and political party affiliation.

About 10 percent of the players used the "compare" feature and by November, anonymous data from almost 15,000 players was sitting in a large spreadsheet.

So what did we learn?

The data was cleaned up and ported to a program called SAS (Statistical Analysis System). Here’s what came out (the complete statistical analysis is available from the author):

The game was most popular with males, Democrats, and people less than 40 years of age (50 percent of the players were under age 28). This result is not surprising, but getting this younger age group to engage was one of the primary goals of the game, so that worked. According to the self-reported data, the youngest person to try the game was ten years old. One high school teacher wrote a whole lesson plan around the game and posted it online

Over 50 percent of the players earned two or more of the ten possible badges and played multiple times. People were either masochistic or intrigued.

The most popular badges pursued in Budget Hero were: Energy Independence, Green (Environment), and Efficient Government, while the least popular badge was National Security. People still haven’t connected energy independence with national security but environment and energy make the top of the list in terms of policy issues. Who would have guessed that anybody cared about efficient government?

There was strong bipartisan support for the Green (Environment) badge and the badge to improve our social Safety Net. This is one of the most important findings and something you wouldn’t know watching (or hearing) the culture wars over these issues. Keep in mind that support for a better safety net occurred before the economic meltdown put many people into a financial freefall.

One of the most popular policies played in the game was to “bring troops home soon” and there was also strong support for “cutting pork barrel spending,” “cutting military spending by 10 percent,” and “capping and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.” Well, maybe some of the game players ended up in the White House.

Conclusion

By December, it became obvious that the game – though developed to inform the public -- could provide important insights for public policy makers. It could also shift the economics of public engagement. Many approaches to public outreach, such as town meetings or citizens’ juries, are based on a fixed cost model, i.e., the costs go up the more people you engage.

Budget Hero flipped the equation completely around. Costs for the game, like many software applications, were front-end loaded so the cost to distribute and engage people dropped continually to less than $2 per person by December (and continues to drop).

Finally, if one can wrap a game around a complex issue like the national budget and engage that many young people, we should be able to do the same with other important policy issues, from climate change to health care. The budget was about the most boring issue one could take on compared to Lost, Heroes, World of Warcraft, or playing Moto Racer on the iPhone.

Maybe the important message, which became apparent in the November election, was that more young people care about the future of our country than we think.

[David Rejeski directs the Foresight and Governance Project and Serious Games Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. In 2002, he helped launch the Serious Games Initiative and in 2003, Games for Change. His work focuses on the intersection of public policy and emerging technologies. Email: [email protected]]

Super Mario Galaxy Characters, Prinny Bento

Anna the Red has uploaded photos of her latest bento masterpiece -- a meal of rice, broccoli, meatballs, lotus root, and much more carefully shaped and arranged into stars, bunnies, a pipe, a Goomba, and even a Luma, all from Super Mario Galaxy. It is torture, not being able to reach into the picture, plucking out those edamame beans and popping them into my mouth.

Anna has more photos of this lunch in her Flickr set, but make sure you don't miss her latest Prinny bento, too, featuring one of the thousand exploding heroes from PSP's Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?. She also made four adorable Prinnies out of quail eggs that are so cute it hurts my face.

Deadline: Post-it Notes Stop Motion

Created for his senior project at Savannah College of Art and Design, this "Deadline" stop motion short -- with a number of video game references -- took Bang-yao Liu and his team three months of planning, four days of shooting, and over 6,000 Post-it Notes to create. Liu explains his idea behind the project: "Every time when I am busy, I feel that I am not fighting with my works, I am fighting with those post-it notes and deadline."

I love the driving segment! The Röyksopp soundtrack ("Eple"), too, is aces. You can see a motion test and some of the work that went on behind "Deadline"'s production in this "making of" video below:

[Via Minusbaby]

Best of FingerGaming: From The Sims 3 to My Brute

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

This week, FingerGaming highlights notable releases like The Sims 3 and My Brute, and details the upcoming release of Mass Effect Galaxy. Featured reviews for this week cover Trivial Pursuit and G.

- Top-Selling Paid Game Apps for the Week
"The Sims 3's victory this week is significant, considering its relatively high price point of $9.99. Even big-name releases like Peggle often fail to take the top chart spot at any point in their sales lifespan -- 99-cent titles traditionally outperform their higher-priced competition in terms of daily download numbers, if not actual revenue."

- Review: G
"Think of Scorched Earth, but in space. Players specify the angle, force, and after-burner of rockets firing out of a base ship. Once the rocket leaves the ship at its pre-determined trajectory, it falls in the hands of gravity of nearby planets and masses."

- Interview: Monster Pinball Developer Matmi
"Matmi's first title, Monster Pinball, released late last week, sees the the marriage of the firm's trademark character-based contemporary art with something surprisingly substantive: a pinball game with a genuine, mechanical heft."

- Bulkypix Brings Multiplayer Combat Title My Brute to iPhone
"My Brute is a multiplayer combat coaching simulator, with a heavy emphasis on stat-building and experience grinding. Players guide customizable characters up through the ranks of an online leaderboard, defeating opponents and recruiting pupils along the way."

- Student iPhone Developers Get $25,000 DARE Award
"Stony Brook's DARE competition challenges students to create and develop new business enterprises. For the contest, the Orellis prepared a business plan and gave a presentation to a panel of judges detailing their future plans for Sobits, an iPhone-focused development studio."

- BioWare Explains Challenges of Mass Effect Galaxy's Development
"The iPod touch and iPhone are pretty powerful game devices, but even so, we had to pick and choose how strongly we were going to pursue cinematics, voice over, special effects and so on. We figured that an animated 2D graphic novel-style presentation was the best way to tell our story on this device."

- Top Free Game App Downloads for the Week
"Digital Chocolate tops this week's charts with Rollercoaster Rush, a recently released action title adapted from a Facebook application. LOLriffic Stuff's trivia party game What Would You Choose? follows at second place, as the Pipe Dream-like puzzler Toobz-Free comes in at third."

- EA's The Sims 3 Premieres in App Store
"The Sims 3 includes many of the same features enjoyed by PC users -- players can still build and customize a Sim character from scratch, and gameplay involves similar character development goals and milestones."

- Chillingo's Knights Onrush Now on App Store
"Knights Onrush includes 12 castles to defend, 11 enemy types (Wizards, Catapults, Assassins, and more), defensive structures like a squasher and flamethrower, different landscapes, an endless siege mode, and a madness mode."

- Review: Trivial Pursuit
"The unassuming nature of Trivial Pursuit ultimately makes it a fantastic iPhone port, featuring a wealth of modes, a serious challenge, and some fantastic visual flair."

Detailed Shots of Edge's Pixel Poster

Edge has posted online Gary "Army of Trolls" Lucken's fabulous pixel art that we featured last week, sharing a smaller version of the poster it sent out to subscribers with the rest of the world. You can see the full image here, but it's still difficult to pick out many of the video game character cameos.

Thankfully, Edge and others have made available several detailed shots, some of which I've pasted after the break. NeoGAF forumer Dabookerman even took four photos of each of the poster's corners, so you should have no problem now picking out all the tiny characters. I totally missed the Master Sword in the middle of the maze, the first time I saw this!

[Update: Just One More Game even posted a version with a grid overlaid onto the poster to help you better record and share characters you've spotted!]

Column: 'Lingua Franca' – Australian Larrikinism in Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow

dane-bishop.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 discusses Australian larrikin Dane Bishop in Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow.]

The greatest challenge in writing a column on the relationship between video games and culture is being familiar with the cultural norms and practices of communities from around the world, and then being able to draw on this information at free will. Within my own sphere of cultural knowledge, I'm personally well acquainted with Australian and Chinese culture, less so the rest of the world. Given my familiarity on the topic, it's only fitting that I take a squiz at a game which features an Aussie bloke.

The game I want to look at this time is PSP spy-thriller Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow. A title from a franchise rich in ethnic stereotypes (Somalians are pirates, Russians are evil, Americans are the saviours of the world) but oddly enough many cross-ethnic partnerships too (an American-Chinese lead duo, making friends with the Russians). It's bizarre the way the series gravitates back and forth between shallow cultural tropes ripped straight from action cinema to identities and back stories which contain some actual weight – in the cultural sense, of course.

Aussie shoe-in Dane Bishop is of particular interest in this iteration of the franchise. Bishop is the ambassador for the new swimming mechanics in Logan's Shadow which makes him pretty important. He provides a tutorial at the start of the game and then later accompanies Gabe during key diving missions.

The Australian accent put on by esteemed (British) voice actor Robin Atkin Downes comes off suitably brilliantly. Better still, Bishop's character exemplifies Aussie larrikinism in an incredibly resounding manner - I found it difficult to ignore - which is why I want to talk about it.

Larrikinism, quoting Wikipedia, is “the name given to the Australian folk tradition of irreverence, mockery of authority and disregard for rigid norms of propriety. Larrikinism can also be associated with self-deprecating humour”.

I want to focus on this element exclusively because it's an important aspect of what I consider Australian culture. More so than the often shallow image packaged and exported overseas. You know; kangaroos inhabiting our backyards and park lands, wrestling crocs on the weekend and blowing gum leaves around a camp fire while singing songs. While these things are certainly true of Australian culture...to a certain extent, it's a very narrow interpretation of the broader cultural identity this country that has to offer.

This article is concerned with the way Bishop's larrikin-like nature is introduced to the player through the initial swimming tutorial in Logan's Shadow.

Dane first makes his appearance in the last of the game's tutorials. Up to now series regular Teresa Lipan has been covering the tutes which include basic movement, weapons and combat training. Even before Bishop is introduced there's a slight amount of apprehension surrounding the character. Teresa is unaware that (protagonist) Gabe Logan has contracted the Australian to help with agency swim training.

She curiously questions Gabe over the secrecy. Once Dane interrupts, marking his appearance, Teresa vents her irritation, denoting some sort of history between the two characters, as they then verbally joust over the radio speaker. Teresa is clearly agitated by Dane's presence, while Dane intentionally riles her up.

In the same vein as the previous column, we're analyzing the way game developers manage the roles and performances of their characters. Teresa plays her part as the officer of authority and Dane as the larrikin averse to her authority. This much is obvious from the manufactured scenario that Sony Bend present.

Of course, it's more than that. Teresa's function is to contrast and further heighten Dane's personality as the Aussie larrikin. She operates to personify the character, not only that, the history between the two characters and the conflict this creates is used as a means to warm the player in, not just to Dane Bishop's sense of character, but it'd be fair to say Australians in general. The conflict and resulting interplay is later capitalized upon in other missions too.

As the training continues Dane cuts in on Teresa's transmission with snide jokes, disrupting the procedure. Teresa complements Gabe on disabling an underwater valve (the safer solution to the exercise) when Bishop jumps in as the deviant with “Booooring, blow it up mate!”

Once Teresa has run through the basic manoeuvres, Bishop takes over with the underwater weapons training. In his introduction to this component of the exercise (“let me take over from here darling”) Bishop uses “darling” as a marker to joke/flirt with Teresa as he did when he first made his appearance.

This term also breaks down the formalities of the session and is a commonly used Australian word to refer to a female. When referring to Gabe he'll use the word "mate" a lot to remove the informality between them. Again another word symbolic of what Australians relate to our culture - mateship and all that business. The stress placed on the vowels in Bishop's speech, particularly in the two aforementioned words "mate" and "darling" showcase some convincing voice acting talent.

Teresa then departs, Bishop follows this up by "seeya tonight toots" and Teresa responds angrily. With her now out of the way, Bishop can get into some real mischief. He runs through the procedure fairly professionally, his casual language is the only point of reference here. Dry-land weapons being "gimped out" under water, "shotguns just plain don't work and do" and "don't even bother throwing a grenade.." are examples of slang, relaxed grammar and causality in language.

Bishop then sends a recruit down near the water for Gabe to pull him in with a close quarters attack. The recruit is unaware of this and is instead told to go down by the water and look for Gabe. Bishop chuckles at the situation he has constructed, knowing that he's tricked the trainee. The recruit then says to himself "I shouldn't have trusted that weird Scottish guy", Bishop then angrily responds "Aye! It's bloody Aussie you dumb recruit!"

This utterance isn't so much a display of deviance as it is a means to remind the player of Bishop's identity and bind him to it. The recruit is unfamiliar with the Australian accent; a situation that the player may well be in, Bishop's response affirms the Australian identity within the players mindset (attaching it to the obvious larrikinism which is present) while the coarse, aggressive tone and quick, off-the-mark reply works to show that he is also passionate about that identity, and refuses to be confused with other cultural identities. He's also breaking etiquette by insulting another team member.

After taking down the recruit, Bishop let's out a loud cackle through the speaker. Gabe then discusses the course with Bishop. Gabe concludes by saying that Teresa will be disappointed with his role as supervisor. Bishop continues the joke for one last time before the training ends, he states in reply "You don't understand women Logan, she built this course just so that she could see me"

Conclusion

As we can see by the constructed conflict, respective characters and dialogue how the training sequence allows the player to get a feel for this larrikin-like phenomena present in the Australian identity. The sequence is choreographed well by first allowing Bishop to play up during Teresa's performance, lightly introducing his role before he takes centre stage and then concluding with Bishop some mischief.

At the same time, the training uses the two characters to split the procedure in the middle with movement and weapons training handled by either supervisor. The training is therefore successful at both introducing the new swimming mechanics as well as Bishop and the larrikinist aspect of Australian identity.

The training familiarizes you with the culture that the character embodies, and does so to the game's credit. This successful example can be applied to other games as a framework to warm the player into possibly unfamiliar concepts; such as those of different cultures. If we look at my previous post on the implications of dialects in Dragon Quest IV, we see how that lack of context can cause confusion.

The game begins by dumping you into (what is likely to be) a “foreign” context with no assistance. If the game introduced dialects in a more “considerate” manner, drawing from familiar sources (ie. in the LS example, the “normal” participants; Gabe and Teresa) then perhaps there would have been less dissonance between the speech and the player's possible interpretation of that speech. That's not to praise one and dump on the other, the games have different intentions, clearly, but it's worth noting the comparison.

[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]

Way Cute Batman Remake

RetroRemakes forumer Darkevildemon revealed a new project he's working on with programmer Tomaz Kac (Head Over Heels remake) -- a full-color remake of Ocean Software's 3D isometric CPC/ZX/MSX game Batman.

While the group doesn't have a release date or a demo out for the project yet, they report that they've completed 80 percent of the game's rooms, and plan to release something playable "very soon". Also, their Batman sprite is so adorable (somehow even more darling than the chubby-kid-in-pajamas sprite that was in the original game), that I couldn't help but share this early-in-development title.

You can see a short death animation for Batman and another screenshot below. And while you wait for the demo, you can also try out Watman, another PC remake of the original adventure game released in 2000.

GameSetLinks: What His Video Games Say About Him

[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.]

Looks like we'll be stepping up the GameSetLinks through the end of the week, since we have over thirty high-quality links(TM) to hand over to you, starting out with a really nice Quixotic Engineer piece on video games that carefully guide you.

Also in this set of links - a discussion of interface in games and challenge, a look at Hollywood and games, why social games are getting all quest-y, the old, old days of Atari, and plenty more.

We are watching:

Guiding The Player’s Eye - The Quixotic Engineer
'The Half Life series is a testament to subtly managing the player’s navigation while maintaining the illusion of a big open world. I’d like to explore some of the methods they use to do this, using screenshots from my recent playthrough of Half-Life 2: Episode Two.'

The gameplay/interface divide « Words on Play
'To claim that in some games, such as Toribash, the “challenge is in the interface” is to be unneccessarily fuzzy-minded. If it is part of the intended challenge, it is not the interface it is the game.'

ASCII by Jason Scott / Long Gone
'I asked the assembled group of 30 how many had ever, actually touched an Atari 2600/VCS console, and not played it as an emulated game or simply seen a photo. Three had.'

Quests are the new grind in social games, and that is why they are a good idea « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog
'We’re starting to see the introduction of quests into the social network based MMOGs as a way of alleviating the boredom that can set in with a primarily level advancement based game dynamic.'

A Tree Falling in the Forest: Misquoted Again - Hollywood Style: Bullshit Edition
Boesky makes some interesting points on films and games as part of a complaint over a Hollywood Reporter misquote.

Champions Online Forums - View Single Post - Daily News Launches!
Ex-Edge Online EIC's Colin Campbell's work on Champions Online Daily News - an interesting 'paid by company embedded journalism' experiment - explained in his own words.

Insomnia | Commentary | Beyond the Videogame News Racket
Sorta Unabomber Manifesto-y, isn't it?

What his video games say about him » Infinite Lives
'World of Warcraft: Two Words: Total Nerd. This guy’s an easy catch. I doubt he talks to girls that often, but he’s probably pretty smart.'

June 9, 2009

Zizzle Working On First Atari Pinball Machine In Decades

Zizzle, who you might remember was featured here several years ago for its consumer-targeted 3/4-scale pinball tables, is working on a new home pinball machine, this time with a classic Atari theme.

"This game is built by a talented small group of developers, artists and engineers, which I am a team member [of], like the old Williams days!" says former Williams pinball designer John Popadiuk, now at Zizzle. "Hence the cool art package (all completed at Zizzle Chicago office)... We do think it looks amazing on the cusp of the 30th anniversary of Atari Superman from April of 1979."

Unfortunately, as Armchair Arcade's Bill Loguidice notes, the new machine seems to have the same board layout as Zizzle's previous pinball machines. Popadiuk says the playfield will be the same as "previous G2 models", but the toy is a "cool-looking metallic asteroid".

The Zizzle designer also notes that the company is working with Atari on handheld LCD games, with Pong, Super Breakout, Missile Command, Asteroids, Crystal Castle, Centipede and Battlezone planned for 2010.

[Via The Pinball Blog]

David Carradine's Words of Advice for a Game Shop Employee

It's a difficult thing to meet David Carradine and not come away with a story, my wife tells me. She randomly ran into him at an event once where he was a complete gentleman, allowing her the courtesy of walking into a room first, right after he broke open the door for her with a karate kick.

With the Kung Fu actor's recent passing, many others are sharing their memorable experiences with Carradine. VoraciousAardvark had a particularly entertaining encounter from several years ago, when the hobby shop/video game retailer/LAN center he worked for booked Carradine for a celebrity signing of Kill Bill swords at its grand opening.

The entire chronicle of Carradine's visit (written before his death) is hilarious, but this excerpt gives us all some advice to live by, now that actor is no longer around:

"As we're leaving, David is suddenly in the doorway in front of us, with a giant grin on his face.

David: 'Hitting the ol' dusty trail?'
Me: 'Yeah, early morning and all, you know. It was great meeting you, really a treat.'
David: 'You too, you too. Listen, I have something to tell you before you leave, this is really important.'
Me: 'Yeah? Lay it on me.'
David: 'You're a young man, a lot ahead of you, and theres three things that helped me in life that you should know about. First, never leave something at what if.'
Me: 'Ok, keep going.' (nodding)
David: 'Second, this applies as you get older, never waste a hard-on.'
Me: 'Hehe, ok.'
David: "Last, never trust a fart.'
Me: 'o.O'

He shook my hand and walked back into the room after that. Crazy."

Interview: Tose Discusses Starfy, Industry Shifts

[As you may know, our own Brandon Sheffield has a little crush on Tose, as evidenced by his multiple interviews with the secretive Japan-based game outsourcer. And his latest talks about their Starfy platformer, finally debuting in the West courtesy of publisher Nintendo.]

Tose, possibly the game industry's first outsource-only company, started making games -- and not taking credit for them -- in 1979.

While eschewing the spotlight is the company's MO, Tose has one original IP to its name - the Nintendo-published Starfy, a long-running Game Boy Advance and now DS mascot-based platform game series in Japan.

The title is finally coming to the U.S., and Gamasutra was given the opportunity to talk to Tose heads about the game's release and their feelings on the game industry climate, both for outsourcers and developers.

As with our last Tose interview, the Kyoto-office exec spoke under the condition of anonymity, but also featured here are Masa Agarida, VP of Tose U.S., and Koichi Sawada, director of China sales for the U.S. office.

Now that Starfy is finally announced for the U.S., what does this mean for Tose, and how did you finally make that happen?

Mr. X: It's a very good thing for us. We have been working with Nintendo to push that product outside of Japan since back in the Game Boy Advance era, but Nintendo said Starfy didn't stand out as well as other characters in the Game Boy Advance era.

But right now with DS, it's going very well, so they decided to have it in the U.S., where the product is still new. So, of course, it's a really good product, but Starfy is a very nice character as well, we felt it should be brought over here.

Do you think there is a chance for the previous titles to come out as well, or will it just be from here on out maybe?

Mr. X: If the new Starfy sells well in the States, maybe Nintendo will have all products in the states, going forward. But those older ones, like on the GBA, we don't think they will be sold in the States.

Do you think that having Starfy out will have to kind of get more people to know the Tose name here?

Mr. X: Yes, it will help our exposure in the states, but it's not a main goal for us. It's just selling Starfy through Nintendo, but it may help us with selling [our name] to publishers. That's good, that will help us.

Yeah, it does seem like it may help for U.S. publishers to realize more clearly that TOSE can do full development products because so many of the other ones are sort of more hidden.

Mr. X: We are always underneath. [laughs]

How has the economy affected Tose right now as far as doing stealth development? A lot of people are having to cut back. Last year, you said it was potentially an opportunity. Have you found that to be true, that more people are coming to you now, or is Tose having tough times too?

Mr. X: Do you mean in Japan or worldwide?

Both.

Mr. X: We think it's a good opportunity for us to get more projects, because we've had the same experience in the Japanese economic crash [in the late 90s]. We expect that kind of thing will happen again for Tose, but...

You mean like Tose having trouble as well?

Mr. X: Oh, no, no, I mean...

Or you mean more people coming to you?

Mr. X: Yes, yes. Because we are a big company so other small developers have difficulty in cash flow, but we don't have those kinds of difficulties.

In this sad economy, it's not good, but not many publishers are going to merge, like D3 and Namco Bandai, so there are fewer publishers... With that in mind, we may have some difficulty getting projects from publishers as well.

Does Tose have a plan in case there are fewer publishers coming to you with ideas?

Mr. X: Even though there are fewer publishers, we, unlike other developers are working with other companies like karaoke boxes, or something like that, so we can pitch ideas not only to game publishers but also other companies. We can work for both of them to get ideas realized for the product, so that's kind of one way we can keep business up.

This year, how have you felt in terms of what companies want more from you, in terms of development work? What consoles are people coming to you for assets or full development the most from Japan and here in the U.S.?

Mr. X: In Japan, it's still alright to get DS and Wii projects, and the PS3 is getting better in Japan, so we have one PS3 project. From the U.S. publishers, I am still trying to get more projects, but in this kind of economy, it's getting tougher than last year, but many developers are also trying to get projects from them. But for outsourcing stuff...

Koichi Sawada: In terms of outsourcing, lots of companies are downsizing internally. We are trying to develop relationships with outsourcing companies, and fortunately, Tose has been working with several publishers already, and they have a trust in our team skills and quality, so they're now trying to send more work to us.

Everybody is cutting down everything now, they're downsizing and cutting their projects, but at the end, they need products. The only way is to outsource, sometimes full game development. At this point on, outsourcing is increasing. We're getting more inquiries. So, it's good.

Masa Agarida: The most difficult thing is that many publishers take a longer time to make final decisions. We make a bid, let's say, today. Last year it would take a company two weeks to make a decision.

This year, after three weeks, nothing. I'm ask them, "What's going on?" They're still thinking and planning, and it turned out they just canceled. It's really tough.

Yeah. I guess it's tough for everybody.

Mr. X: Yes.

Addictive TV's Sims 3 Video Remix

This official tap-dancing, face-slapping remix of in-game footage from Electronic Arts' The Sims 3 comes from UK DJ/VJ artists Addictive TV. The group is famous for producing DJ/VJ music TV series Mixmasters several years ago and for its video remixes of Hollywood films, both unauthorized and commissioned.

This alternative trailer certainly presents EA's life simulation game in a new and much more creative way than the other more traditional Sims 3 commercials!

You can watch Addictive TV's recent movie remixes -- such as its videos for Slumdog Millionaire, Iron Man, and Max Payne -- at its YouTube page.

An Open Letter To Mr. Bob Blauschild, Formerly Of Sirius Software

Critical Mass[We interrupt our regular GameSetWatch programming for a call to action from Gamasutra's news director Leigh Alexander, who mines her childhood to discover a strange video game influencer whom she desires reacquaintance with.]

Dear Mr. Blauschild,

As you may have realized from my blog and body of work widely available on the Internet, I am a video game journalist. I was recently the recipient of a sudden electroshock of nostalgia, during which I suddenly remembered that you, sir, are the source of my fear of elevators.

You see, Mr. Blauschild, I am actually the heir to my father's consumer technology journalism mantle. My father covered a variety of home entertainment products including what were at the time fairly newly-invented items including the home personal computer, the home videocasette player, and the home video game console. As a result, I was raised with plenty of access to press review copies of just about every Apple II and Commodore 64 game ever developed, and that, sir, includes your portfolio of work as a designer of text games accompanied by graphics published under the marquee of Sirius Software.

Mr. Blauschild, you developed quite a few excellent products which stumped me mightily -- I was only five or six years old at the time, and precocious but not especially freakish, please understand. So it was that your titles Critical Mass and Escape From Rungistan came to form one of the earliest gaming palettes that I can to this day recall. So did Kabul Spy, Blade of Blackpoole and Gruds In Space, but I am unsure whether you are the one to whom I can assign responsibility for these titles.

Current internet research informs me that indeed Sirius Software's adventure titles were merely poor clones of what Sierra titled at the time its "Hi-Res Adventures," but my young mind knew no difference, and I'll have you know that Escape From Rungistan challenged me for years. That action sequence with the skis? I even consulted my uncle, a ski aficionado, for advice on how commands like LEAN RIGHT and LEAN LEFT might correspond to actual skiing, but all I ever ended up with was a face full of splinters (via text, naturally). I once had a dream I arrived at the animated cannibals that I saw in the game's manual -- and bragged to my friends that I indeed passed the ski sequence -- but in truth, it was a dream only.

Although my young days were filled with fantasies of triumph, I never did beat any of your games, Mr. Blauschild. I was only six years old.

However, my particular bone to pick with you hinges on the odd title Critical Mass, which as I'm certain you recall begins in an office in which the word LITHIUM is written on the wall to inform the player of a password for later use. Why should a six-year-old know the meaning of the word LITHIUM, Mr. Blauschild? Well, I knew it not, but what really took its place beneath my skin was the "action sequence" that followed the player character's exiting his office via text command.

As I'm sure you cannot not have forgotten, almost immediately upon opening gameplay, the player is placed in a plummeting elevator, and if the player does not type "JUMP" at the precisely-timed correct moment (followed, of course, by the seminal 'Return' key), the player will die -- after being informed that one's elbows and knees have switched places, or perhaps it was the hips and shoulders, or other such gruesome penalty.

Mr. Blauschild, I was six years old, and it took me months -- I jest not, months, sir -- of repeated attempts before I fundamentally understood the idea of action gameplay timing. I did pass that point in your game, indeed I did. I arrived at the airport and bestowed the flower upon the Hare Krishna (I had no idea, of course, what Krishnas were). I took the plane to France where I was delighted by your clever street names such as "Rue La Chat" and "Rue La Pig" -- and was then immediately frustrated by the key in the drain pipe, the flooding streets.

But to this day, Mr. Blauschild, every time I enter an elevator in my normative adult life -- I am now twenty-something, sir -- I recall your game, Critical Mass, and wonder whether, should the elevator plummet, my upper and lower joints will trade places if I do not JUMP at precisely the assigned moment. My body temperature perceptibly lowers, and every time -- every time I enter an elevator, Mr. Blauschild, and I a New York resident! -- I prepare myself to JUMP. I am traumatized, and it is your fault.

This means, Mr. Blauschild, formerly of Sirius Software, developer of the games that formed my childhood sustenance, that I shall never forget you. And this means, in addition to having traumatized me for life, you taught me action gameplay timing, sir. Not only were there the skis in Escape From Rungistan, but there was that hellacious "call Gidget" waterski sequence in Critical Mass. What is with you and skis, dear sir? I know not -- but I concede, here and now, that you helped create me as I am.

Today I am a game journalist, Mr. Blauschild. And you taught me not only my terror of elevators and my comprehension of action gameplay timing, but my love of the intellectual interactive puzzle, my yen for banging my head against the steep wall of frustration, my asbsolute addiction to outwitting the sadistic logic of a game designer.

Certainly, you are not sole among my earliest mentors; I must thank early Origin Systems veteran Dallas Snell for Ring Quest, Phillip and Bob Hess for the insanely ruthless Death in the Caribbean, of course, the Williamses Ken and Roberta (because before King's Quest, there were Mystery House and The Dark Crystal, of course). And slightly later, I owe my gratitude to Al Lowe for teaching me, by way of Leisure Suit Larry, what a "prophylactic" is at the age of eight or so (yes, precocious, intellectual independence, hallelujah)!

But perhaps against all odds, Mr. Blauschild, I loved and loathed alike your titles first and best. Thank you, in both highest esteem and admiration, and in good-natured frustration, bitterness and childhood damage, for my passion and for my livelihood. All that exists to be read with my name beneath the headline was born in part of you.

Sincerely yours,

Leigh Alexander
News Director, Gamasutra
Proprietress, Sexy Videogameland
leighalexander1 at gmail dot com

PS: To all gentlemen and women herein named, I forever adore you, genuinely.

Big Sister's Evolution, Anime-Style Design

This recent edition of Taiwan's Famitsu Weekly has a very surprising cover, featuring anime-style artwork of BioShock 2's Big Sister and Little Sister. It's an interesting interpretation, very different from the characters' Western designs -- the same is true with this previous anime rendition of Bioshock.

Speaking of Big Sister, 2K Games has posted more of senior character designer Colin Fix's concept art for the BioShock 2 antagonist (which I previously featured here), as well as a podcast with an in-depth discussion on her art progression.

"The Big Sister plays a key role in BioShock 2 and is integral to the past, present, and future of Rapture," says the studio. "Creating her look and feel did not merely entail building her suit and animating some movements -- everything the Big Sister was, and everything that had happened to her, needed to be conveyed in her physical form."

According to 2K Games, some of the concepts were created to explore Big Sister's personality, while others were focused on figuring out her final form. The company invites gamers to pick out the prototype character's details to figure out their deeper meanings in BioShock's story.

In the podcast, Fix shares some of the suggestions that were thrown around for Big Sister's suit:

""One of the ideas was that she’s essentially basically pilfered a bunch of Big Daddy suits and used those to make her own costume, so the idea is that a lot of the parts were too big for a teenage girl to wear, so they’d be sawed-off and repurposed and cobbled together, and just personality-wise, she’s kind of a twisted, sad soul, so we wanted a lot of the look to have a…nothing on her was to be symmetrical.

Constantly, we’re wanting things to be off-kilter, so with her helmet, she does have the main portal, which is the first read, but she has some smaller ones, and their size is sort of random, and again, asymmetrical in design."

This sketch shows the final design for Big Sister:

You can listen to the podcast, which brings together senior character designer Colin Fix, community manager Elizabeth Tobey, animation supervisor Jeff Weir, and animation lead P.J. Leffelman, here.

[Via Superpunch]

GameSetLinks: The EverQuest Decade

[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.]

Woh boy, thanks to pre-E3, during E3 and a whole bunch of post-show roundups, we're anything up to 2 weeks behind on some of these GameSetLinks now, so I'll be accelerating by doing >6 posts per bunch, and generally rushing to catch up. (Though most of the links are reasonably timeless, to be honest.)

Anyhow, in this set, a look at a whole ten years of the EverQuest series, plus a discussion on accessibility with regard to The Maw, a neat series on Valkyrie Chronicles, and a bunch of neat design-related posts.

Open sesame:

Ten years of EverQuest Article - Page 1 // MMO /// Eurogamer - Games Reviews, News and More
'To all but the most hardcore World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online or Age of Conan players, the original EverQuest would have seemed a monstrosity of unforgiving difficulty.'

Gamine Expedition: Kids in Virtual Worlds: Run Down of What's New (So Far) in 2009
A good and interesting set of links.

System and method for creating exalted video games and virtual realities wherein ideas have consequences. « Words on Play
'All of us who have been struggling to work out how to make meaningful games and interactive narratives can rest easy. The problem has been solved.'

Game Tycoon»Blog Archive » Triangulating Accessibility
'I’d call The Maw an instructive example of how difficult it can be to make a game accessible to truly inexperienced console gamers, even when sincere effort is applied to the task.'

Experience Points: Let's Talk
'We could always relegate all conversations to cut scenes, but we would be missing unique opportunities for interaction in what can undoubtedly have long lasting effects.'

Elder Game: MMO game development » How to Find an MMO Job That Doesn’t Suck
'The biggest down side of the MMO biz is the success rate, which frankly isn’t that high. Everybody thinks they’ve got the secret to success, but most MMO’s fail to launch, or launch to such low expectations and fanfare that nobody ever hears of them.'

1UP's RPG Blog : The Monthly Grind: Final Thoughts on Valkyria Chronicles
A good analysis of a potentially under-rated game, albeit one I couldn't get on with personally.

2D Boy: I love you, 2D Boy! » Blog Archive » Rapid Prototyping Framework
'There’s nothing revolutionary about this framework, but in the hope that it is useful to others, we decided to throw out the source code.' You rock, 2D Boys!

The Box Art Sketch of Monkey Island

Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell, who contributed artwork to various Monkey Island projects during his tenure at LucasArts, posted this "ancient concept art" recently, the pencil-on-tracing-paper sketch that turned into the cover for the franchise' 1990 debut, The Secret of Monkey Island.

Purcell also revealed that Telltale Games commissioned him for an illustration to be included with a special preorder edition of Tales of Monkey Island, a new five-episode series pitting Guybrush Threepwood against zombie pirates, releasing for PC and WiiWare this summer.

"I'm sketching the concept right now, and I will plan to document the progress in stages," he promises. "I'll have to wait until we are closer to the official unveiling of the cover to let you know what I'm up to."

Opinion: The Personality Problem

[With crowds of newly minted iPhone games jostling for consumer attention, Game Developer magazine EIC Brandon Sheffield looks at the iPhone App Store and sees it as a microcosm of the industry at large.]

A friend of mine recently released a game for iPhone by the name of Trixel. It’s a fine puzzle game, somewhat similar to Lights Out, in which you flip mismatched colored tiles to match an existing tile image. People who play it definitely seem to like it.

But visually, this game has almost no personality. Certainly, the tiles are large and colorful, there are power-ups and collectibles, and the audio was carefully attended to. But if you look at a screenshot and a description, you would likely not be compelled.

Another group of friends, the folks at Capybara Games, put out an iPhone game called Critter Crunch. This is a puzzle game as well, similar to Magical Drop, and starring a cute frog-thing that eats cutely animated characters. Now, I can’t really speak to which of these two games is more successful, but I can say that if I look at a screenshot of each, one compels me with characters and bright colors, whereas the other looks either a bit kiddie or a bit math-oriented, depending on how you feel about it (and in reality, the game can get a bit hardcore).

Taken as a microcosm of the industry, the iTunes App Store emphasizes some larger industry truths. In the case of something so impulse-buy-oriented as iPhone games, when a number of free titles already exist, one really needs a hook to succeed.

But then, hooks are necessarily oriented toward certain audiences. Some folks may really like the cute characters in Critter Crunch, but others may be completely turned off. Both Trixel and Critter Crunch are good, and both lie within the puzzle genre. So how do you get people interested in Trixel, when Critter Crunch is sitting next to it in the virtual shelves?

Looking at the bigger picture, console games are only on the store shelves for a limited time, before they’re shuffled away to make room for something new. They have very limited space in which to get the interest of the consumer who just wanders into a GameStop looking for something new to play, which happens more than most of us realize.

Someone like you or I will go to the store with a head full of previews, trailers, screenshots, story descriptions, and maybe a few behind-the-scenes stories. But the average consumer is just showing up at a store, looking to be entertained. These games need to grab consumers immediately as well, and have something the idle browser can latch on to.

Casual Consumers

I recently overheard a conversation in a GameStop—a late-teens customer walked in, and found the box art for Final Fantasy XII appealing. He brought it to the cashier and asked what kind of game it was. “An RPG,” was the response. “Oh. What’s that?” “Um, you know, a role-playing game. You have a group of guys, and you go on a quest, and you level up and stuff.” “Oh. Is that fun?”

This anecdote just shows that we can’t rely on the store itself to sell our products. Developers complain about releasing games on Apple’s App Store amidst a sea of other titles, with no way to distinguish a title other than getting featured by Apple. Well shouldn't we be used to dealing with that by now?

The same thing happens in retail. And indeed, isn’t it better than a situation in which your game drops out of the store entirely after a couple months, as with retail? And there are no used games there to cannibalize your actual sales (though one could argue that free games might take a chunk away).

So at this point it becomes a marketing issue. I wouldn’t say that independent iPhone developers need a marketer, but they do need to do some marketing themselves. I’m not just talking about sending out free review codes to folks you might know in the media, though that helps a lot. The reason a personality-free game like Sudoku is so popular now is likely because of this kind of marketing—the mom-oriented media got ahold of it, and it took off.

What I’m talking about is “marketing” in the actual planning phase. If you want the game to sell, realize you’re not just making it for people who innately get it, like you—you’re making the game for people like that GameStop customer. People who don’t understand your game, because they haven’t played it, and have maybe never played anything in the genre. For these people, you need appealing screenshots that make your game look like something. You need a compelling description, and possibly a demo.

That’s the kind of marketing I mean—marketing at the base level. Questions like “Who will this appeal to visually? How can I describe my game in three sentences?” should be at the front of your mind. The kinds of questions publishers would ask, if you had one. Show the game to your mom, or your kid, or your neighbor, and see what they think.

Market in Focus

A lot of companies and developers want to reach larger mainstream audiences, and the iPhone takes all the elements of the wider game industry and puts a greater focus on it. The game has to look pretty, but simple. The concept has to be easy to understand, but difficult to master. It’s everything we’re doing for AAA titles, but under a microscope. I think there are a lot of lessons to learn here, and the iPhone could potentially be used as a test market for larger concepts.

June 8, 2009

So Bad: Running Over Raptors with the Power Glove

Did you know that 2009 marks the 20th year anniversary of the Power Glove, Mattel's appalling controller for the NES? Only two games specifically designed for the accessory were ever released -- Super Glove Ball and Bad Street Brawler -- but Flashbang Studios' Matt Mechtley has modified the Power Glove to work with another title, Unity-powered game Off-Road Velociraptor Safari.

Mechtley admits the Power Glove was "absolutely terrible" and "horribly precise", but says he loves the peripheral for what it represented:

"It's a precursor to virtual reality, a way for humans to directly manipulate computers, like an artifact from some sort of alternate future Earth. I realized one day that we’re actually living in that future. It doesn’t look the same as we imagined it, but the necessary elements are all there. It’s been 20 years now since Mattel released the Power Glove, in 1989.

Especially in the last few years, the availability of sophisticated sensing equipment to hardware hackers has grown by leaps and bounds. Technology like programmable microcontrollers, accelerometers, and Bluetooth are readily available — and cheap. In short, the time is ripe to re-make the Power Glove — and make it right."

His remake of the device, the Power Glove 20th Anniversary Edition, replaces the old hardware's ultrasonic sensors with an accelerometer, the proprietary microcontroller with an open-source Arduino, and the wired connection with Bluetooth. He also added a rechargeable Lithium-Polymer battery. Mechtley then wrote an input manager to get the data into Unity and hook it up into games.

You can watch his build process in the video below:

To help you make your own Power Glove 20th Anniversary Edition, Mechtley posted a guide with detailed instructions and photos on Instructables. You can also see more photos of the hacked accessory (and MacGyver's Richard Dean Anderson) on his Flickr set.

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

Even though we were blasting away at E3 last week, we still posted daily features (and even bonus features!) on Gamasutra, so here's a brief post rounding up the top full-length articles we posted there in the last 7 days.

Among them - interviews with Bing Gordon and Feargus Urquhart on their notable careers in the video game business, a postmortem of WiiWare title BIT.TRIP BEAT, and an explanation of the ambient audio created for the upcoming Prototype, plus a 'Games Demystified' entry on iPhone game Rolando and much more.

Here's the key features:

RPGs, Moving Forward: An Interview With Feargus Urquhart
"Gamasutra sits down with Obsidian Entertainment's Feargus Urquhart to discuss the RPG genre, the pros and cons of running an independent developer in these uncertain times, and the industry in 2009."

Dynamic Game Audio Ambience: Bringing Prototype's New York City to Life
In a fascinating, in-depth audio article, Radical's Morgan explains the detail that went into creating the complex ambient sound for the troubled cityscape in action game Prototype."

Every Picture Tells A Story
"In this bonus art feature, published onto Intel's Visual Computing section, veteran Steve Theodore looks at how, visually, 'although game technology seems to be at the height of information age modernity, the basic challenges of the working artist never really change.'"

Games Demystified: Rolando
"Continuing his popular series, Jeremy Alessi presents a unique guide to the iPhone hit's Rolando's unique gameplay mechanics, with example code showcasing touch and physics-related game concepts."

Postmortem: Gaijin Games' BIT.TRIP BEAT
"In a postmortem of the acclaimed WiiWare title, Gaijin Games' Alex Neuse looks at the creation of abstract action game BIT.TRIP BEAT, detailing what went right and wrong in the making of the original WiiWare title."

Bing Gordon: On Being A Contrarian
"'I guess I like being a contrarian,' says Bing Gordon, who was the chief creative officer at Electronic Arts -- having started with the company in 1982 -- but left over a year ago for leading venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers (KPCB.) Gamasutra talks to him about his career and the state of the game business."

Falcom's Free Music Use Declaration

Japanese developer and publisher Falcom (Ys, Legend of Heroes series) posted a "Falcom Music Free Declaration" on its corporate site, inviting both commercial and non-commercial groups to use songs from its remarkable catalog without any charge or prior permission for television shows, radio programs, commercials, web sites, concert performances, and more, so long as a copyright notice is included.

The company lists specific examples for allowed usage of its music (translated by Japanese gaming news site Andriasang.com):

  • Personal videos
  • Graduation videos for schools
  • BGM for news, documentaries and variety shows -- professional or amateur
  • BGM for commercials
  • BGM for radio programs
  • BGM and jingles for free or paid television
  • BGM for websites or blogs
  • Live concert performances -- professional or amateur
  • Music at public facilities -- schools, parks, ect.
  • Music at theaters, arcades, and amusement parks
  • Store background music for restaurants, convenience stores, etc.

Unsurprisingly, the company will not allow its songs to be used in other commercial or non-commercial games, nor will it allow them to be posted for sale or free download onto other sites. According to Falcom, it is currently selling over 3,450 pieces of music through various outlets.

Vertical in (Less Than) 60 Seconds: New Delta 32 Arcade Cabinet

Japanese arcade hardware manufacturer RS Co. revealed the newest version of its Delta 32 cabinet recently, which features a screen that can be swiveled from a traditional horizontal setup to a vertical arrangement more suited for vertical-scrolling games (shoot'em ups) with "no complicated steps" (my LCD monitor does this, but it isn't attached to an arcade cabinet!). One operator can turn the screen in less than one minute, according to RS.

This Delta 32 machine has a two monitor system, with a smaller LCD positioned on top of the main screen displaying advertisements or the opponent's screen. Operators can remove the smaller LCD when flipping the monitor into its vertical setup. The cabinet also comes with a cashless card system, a two-way coin slot, and a motion sensor system. The motion sensor is used for the video content on the smaller monitor, with audio starting up whenever a passerby approaches.

[Via Versus City]

Decepticon Audition: Chad the Controller

In this promotional clip for Paramount Pictures and Michael Bay's upcoming action flick Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, an adorable but immature video game controller named Chad auditions for the part of one of the film's villainous robots. Considering that the Decepticons that actually made it into the movie include a toaster and a microscope, I'm surprised Chad didn't make the cut!

Video game journalist and Littleloud producer (and not to mention GameSetWatch contributor) Simon Parkin wrote the script for the short, while Littleloud's Jim Howells, who was the graphic designer behind iPhone game Carpl and the Watchmen arcade title, animated it. According to Parkin, there are two more promotional videos on the way.

Column: 'The Magic Resolution': Magic Moments

gta4column.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a new, bi-weekly GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing videogames. In his first outing, Lewis looks at the little stories that are unique to our own subjective experiences of the same title.]

I picked up my girlfriend around five, maybe five-thirty. It had been a stunning summer's day, the sort where everyone seems thrilled just to be there, just to exist. We drove through rush hour traffic towards the bowling alley. "Just like our first date," she remarked.

I smiled. I'd forgotten, for a minute. I mean, it's not like I don't remember every second I've spent with her, but still. Caught in the moment, you know?

We arrived, booked in, and played two games. We were only going to stay for one, but 1979 by The Smashing Pumpkins came on the playlist as the first game ended, so we didn't want to leave. It's "our" song. It might have been playing the night we met, actually. Shortly afterwards, at least.

When we finished up, dusk was on its way. I drove her home, warm, as the sun wavered above the horizon before succumbing to sleep, rendering the sky a haunting terracotta.

And in the game...

No, seriously.

Stunningly constructed as Grand Theft Auto IV was, it's not the reason I love it. I've heralded it, and continue to herald it, as one of gaming's great modern achievements, but not for the surprisingly mature story or the vastness of its freedom. To me, GTA IV is beautiful in its microcosmic capturing of life's idiosyncratic moments, and its understanding that the experience of a game is often defined just as much by the player as by the creator.

Seeing Red

The more video games I play, the more I become convinced I can lose myself in pretty much anything. Rockstar's joyous sandboxes sit at one end of the quality scale, but this is a phenomenon that doesn't seem to be restricted by production values, design ambition, or anything else in the realms of hands-on development. It's about how much you're willing to invest in a foreign world, how readily you're prepared to give yourself away to the game.

Red Faction wasn't exactly received to rapturous applause in the press, and there's a reason for that. It was a clumsy title, full of contradiction and stifled creativity. Yet it produced one of my all-time favourite gaming moments, one I'm sure will stick with me forever.

Emerging on the surface of the Red Planet for the first time, I stumbled upon a small alcove off the designated path, a place where I was safe from enemy fire. Two pals stood by a truck, waiting for me to hop on the back so we could plod onwards towards the endgame. I didn't. Instead, I found my hiding place, and spent a few minutes staring up at the orange sky, totally invested in character.

I became lead character Parker, thought of my potential loved ones back home on Earth, wondered if I'd see them again. I gave myself a reason to fight and eventually, misty-eyed, I climbed onto the back of that truck, ready to pour lead into anyone who stood in the way of humanity's freedom.

Nothing about the level design led me to that alcove. No character pointed out the void above, the millions of miles of emptiness. Nothing in the plot discussed, in any depth, Parker's family back home. This was my story, the one that happened in my game, and as such the experience became intensely personal.

A Man Chooses...

Perhaps this explains the rabid protectiveness displayed on forums around the world: people cherishing their favourite games, and seeming genuinely offended at the suggestion that someone might not love them quite as much as they do.

There's certainly something about interacting with a world as the protagonist that, at the right moments, creates something akin to a spiritual experience. It seems that being so absorbed in a game is almost hallucinogenic, as you become enthralled by the beauty of something so markedly removed from your own reality.

But it also highlights a problem with the assumption that games can be objectively assessed, analysed in terms of the individual building blocks and developmental processes that go into such a creation. Red Faction didn't capture my imagination because of its graphics engine or script, and it wasn't really because of GTA IV's exquisitely crafted sandbox that I became so entranced in that bowling alley.

What separates video games from film or literature is the participant's ability to act or make choices, no matter how small or apparently insignificant, that shape the experience on the fly. Sometimes, just standing still and thinking, turning around to admire a digital sky or stopping to observe the expression on an NPC's face, can make all the difference.

Give and Take

That's not to say it's beyond the artists' control, and the minute developers become complacent about this will be the minute it all turns sour. Designers and writers must grasp the responsibility for creating worlds, societies and nuanced stories that evoke such a response from the player. When you're blasting through the latest shooter, your imagination might be running wild - but only if there's something to spark it off in the first place.

Ultimately, this potential can only keep growing as developers continue to inject more vivid culture into their virtual worlds. It'll thrive as the technology improves, allowing for more intricate and creative design. But it'll never be about this technology, and never solely down to the creators' intentions.

It's about the experience of existing and investing in these dreamlike alternate realities. It's about giving yourself away to these places and people, and becoming intoxicated by the possibilities, whether they're confined to a linear path, or free of restriction in an open world.

Smashing my way through Red Faction Guerrilla this week, I found myself thinking back to those few minutes in the original game. I stopped again, and gazed out over the barren Martian landscape. I hopped in a nearby buggy, drove to the nearest enemy camp, and silently rigged explosives to the corners of the building that towered above me. I was doing this for humanity. I was doing it for Parker.

The camp exploded, flames and shrapnel piercing the air. Then I switched off the console, put 1979 by The Smashing Pumpkins on the stereo, and got ready to pick up my girlfriend from work. We headed home as the sun set. Good times.

[Lewis Denby is general editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. Wander over to his website for more information and contact details.]

Microsia: A Different Kind Of Micromusic

Developed over the course of two years by Andreas Illiger, Microsia is an Electroplankton-esque sound game/tool in which you "dive into a plant cell to explore the sound of the microcosm". There you'll find an assortment of phosphorescent cell particles against blurred earth-tone backgrounds that can be manipulated various ways for different music and visual effects.

You can download a PC demo for Microsia, or purchase full commercial and non-commercial versions of the game at its official site. Illiger also advertises that he's available to act as a DJ/VJ for live events with the daydream-like molecular tunes application: "Microsia is especially suited to create audio-visual experiences at quieter spaces on [parties], e.g chill-out areas. In addition to the live-generated music, there are live-generated visuals which can be projected greatly."

E3 Round-Up: The Hardware Platform-Holders Talk

[One final E3 round-up, then, and this one is a look at what we spoke to the hardware guys about. Thanks again to Brandon Sheffield, Chris Remo, Christian Nutt, Kris Graft, and Leigh Alexander (plus Eric Caoili for awesome backup!) for making the Gamasutra E3 coverage awesome.]

Following our round-ups of the three major E3 press conferences and our interviews with major attendees, we look at what Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft told us at E3 about their plans for 2009 and beyond.

Our team of reporters covering the Los Angeles-based event had a chance to talk to all of the major video game hardware manufacturers about their plans. Major topics of discussion spanned motion control, platform exclusives, satisfying both core and casual gamers, and lots more.

Here's summaries of what each of the three big companies talked to us about:

Sony

E3: Sony's Koller Talks Motion Control Rivalry, Core Versus Casual
"Sony's and Microsoft's gesture-based controls can't easily be distilled into core vs. casual, says Sony's John Koller, who also talks to Gamasutra about why Sony "didn't want to wave the defensive flag" on multi-platform games during its E3 briefing."

E3: Sony's Rohde - LBP And Mod Nation Are Just The Beginning
"Sony's Scott Rohde tells Gamasutra that Mod Nation Racers joins LittleBigPlanet are part of a pre-planned line of user-created games, and talks why "titles that you can't play anywhere else" are his top priority."

E3: Sony's Koller Talks Going Digital With 'Premium'-Targeted PSP Go
"Sony's John Koller talks the details of going digital with the PSP Go and how the dual-format media will work -- plus the $249 price point and what demographic the new "premium" hardware targets."

Nintendo

E3 Interview: Nintendo's Kaigler: 'We Need Core Gamers'
"Nintendo VP of corporate affairs speaks to Gamasutra on its competitors' motion control solutions, the esoteric Wii Vitality Sensor, and why the house of Mario "needs core gamers"."

E3: An Audience With Shigeru Miyamoto
"After E3 ended on Tuesday, Nintendo hosted a Gamasutra-attended roundtable in which Shigeru Miyamoto discussed the next Zelda game, rival companies' motion control systems, and lots more -- comprehensive write-up within."

Microsoft

E3: Microsoft's Kim: Games Can Update to Use Natal
"Talking to Gamasutra at E3, Microsoft's Shane Kim says that older Xbox 360 games can be updated to work with its newly-unveiled Natal motion-tracking technology - as showcased by a Burnout Paradise tech demo."

E3: Forza Dev Turn 10 Downplays GT5 Threat
"Microsft-owned Turn 10 studio manager Alan Hartman told Gamasutra from the E3 floor that his team is "very bullish" about the upcoming Forza 3, and is planning on experimenting with Microsoft's 3D camera Project Natal."

[Picture by Vincent Diamante, whose full E3 photo gallery is on Flickr.]

June 7, 2009

Game Announcement: Mister Raroo's Hauntastic Voyage to Ghosty Ghost's Island

Mister Raroo Game Cartridge[GameSetWatch is proud to unveil Mister Raroo’s Hauntastic Voyage to Ghosty Ghost’s Island, the first release on our new video game publishing label, GameSetWatchGames. Designed by Mister Raroo, Hauntastic Voyage to Ghosty Ghost’s Island will soon be released for the Raroo Fun System game console. Note: Mister Raroo’s Hauntastic Voyage to Ghosty Ghost’s Island, GameSetWatchGames, and the Raroo Fun System exist solely in the mind of Mister Raroo!]

Junior Game Designer

I fancied myself something of a game designer when I was in elementary school. However, I knew nothing about the technical side of developing video games. Instead, I thought that once imagined in the minds of their creators, video games were somehow just made by companies, as if it simply happened on its own. The idea that actual people were involved in the creation process didn’t even dawn upon me.

My lack of understanding led me to believe that if I had a “genius” idea for a video game, I could send my concept to one of my favorite game companies and within a few months that game would hit store shelves. And, of course, I’d be given a free copy of the game as a reward for my efforts. Naturally, I kept myself very busy by putting pencil to paper and drawing up the levels for my games.

Unfortunately, the companies I sent my video game ideas to didn’t seem to share my vision. To their credit, just about every time I eagerly mailed off my ideas, I received a response. Sadly, all the game companies had the same thing to say: “Sorry, we don’t solicit ideas for games from outside parties.”

I didn’t understand it. I believed my game concepts to be absolutely brilliant. Who wouldn’t love a game starring a guinea pig that had to make it through a series of perilous platforming levels so he could eat the evil carrot king waiting at the end? Or who wouldn’t want to play a game starring a boy with a broken arm named “Cat” who needed to rescue lost cats? It just didn’t make sense to me.

I wish I’d made copies of the game ideas I sent to companies because I never got them back. Most likely, my game designs found their way into the waste paper baskets at the desks of the individuals in charge of opening mail at the various companies. It would be neat to be able revisit the output of my childhood imagination, but all I have left are faint memories of my game ideas.

Reawakening the Imagination

Being the father of a toddler has reminded me that the world is filled with magic. As an adult, we lose sight of this fact and take for granted the innumerable astounding things that we encounter each moment of the day. Watching my son Kaz find amazement in something as simple as a bird flying overhead or a car driving past is inspiring.

Kazuo's LaughterThis wonderment that Kaz possesses has also helped me to reexamine how even the tiniest details in video games can be captivating. For instance, recently he was sitting on my lap as I was playing Klonoa and would giggle like crazy at the sound Klonoa makes when he is blown upward by wind currents. I was prompted to make Klonoa ride those wind blasts over and over just so I could hear the heartwarming sound of Kaz’s laughter.

Playing Klonoa with Kaz was a wake-up call that I often overlook so many of the small details that fill the games I play. Because I have such a limited amount of time to play video games these days, I sometimes hurry a bit too much, simply trying to make a dent in the stacks of neglected games sitting around my house. Kaz has reminded me to slow down and take notice of the little things, just being content to enjoy the experience at hand.

When I take time to appreciate the minute aspects that had been previously ignored, it paints a better picture of how much work often goes into making video games. Once again using the example of Klonoa, it’s possible to rush through its stages in a fairly short amount of time, but that would be counterproductive to enjoying the game as it was meant to be played. Namely, Klonoa’s world is one of dreamlike imagination, and immersing yourself in that experience is what makes the game so special.

In large part, learning once again to take notice of the inventive work of game developers has rekindled my own imagination, bringing back memories of how in my youth I would pour every ounce of my creative power into concepts for video games. When Kaz looks at video games through his eyes, he sees magic—and recognizing this has helped me to do the same, too.

My imagination may still not be nearly as powerful as it was before I transitioned into adulthood, but Kaz’s enthusiasm for the world is contagious, and it’s helped to dust off many of the cobwebs in the creative parts of my brain. It’s also made me wonder if perhaps my childhood game design ideas were truly magnificent after all, and the game companies missed out by not making my concepts a reality!

To the Rescue!

Raroo Game Title ScreenTo put my reinvigorated imagination to the test, I thought it would be fun to see if I could take my childhood game design experience and make use of it as an adult. Most of the games I designed as a kid were platformers, and therefore I’ve decided to follow suit here. And being that my favorite childhood (and adulthood!) holiday was Halloween, it made perfect sense to place the game world into a haunted setting.

Thus, I present to you: Mister Raroo’s Hauntastic Voyage to Ghosty Ghost’s Island, the first release from GameSetWatchGames, created specifically for the new Raroo Fun System game console. Mister Raroo’s Hauntastic Voyage to Ghosty Ghost Island puts you in control of none other than Mister Raroo himself as he tries to rescue Missus Raroo and Little Raroo from the clutches of Ghosty Ghost, a grumpy spirit and aspiring game writer.

Ghosty Ghost became jealous and spiteful after his potential GameSetWatch column, “Ghosty Games,” was rejected in favor of “Game Time With Mister Raroo.” Help Mister Raroo navigate through a series of haunted levels on his way to Ghosty Ghost’s castle so he can reunite with his family!

The game’s title screen features a very worried-looking Mister Raroo. You’d be worried, too, if your wife and son had been kidnapped by a ghost! Let’s not dillydally! Press Start so we can hop into the game world and save Mister Raroo’s family, already!

Haunted Shipyard

Mister Raroo arrives by boat to the haunted island that Ghosty Ghost calls home. The shipyard is more of a boat graveyard, with the carcasses of all manner of sea vessels littered throughout the stage, making navigation a challenge.

Watch out for foes such as undead pirates and skeleton sharks! Mister Raroo is no pushover, though. Not only can he fire peanuts from his trunk, but he can jump on top of his foes to take them out.

Also, did you know elephants can swim? Players who search below the ocean’s surface might find something interesting…

Haunted City

Something seems different about this city. Maybe that’s because it’s literally a ghost town! Watch out for the ghost folks as they go about their daily business.

Haunted bus drivers seem more concerned about getting ghost businessmen to the Spook Exchange than running over Mister Raroo, so be careful.

ProTip: It might be worth taking the time to see what happens if Mister Raroo falls down the manhole on Graves Avenue.

Haunted Toy Store

Mister Raroo finally manages to escape the hustle and bustle of the city by ducking into a massive toy store. In retrospect, this might not have been such a smart move.

The store has not yet opened for business and the toys were still asleep. Haunted toys don’t take kindly to being woken up, especially when it’s by a big elephant with loud footfalls.

Mister Raroo had better make haste to the store’s exit. But what’s this blocking the door? A giant toy pachyderm! This doesn’t look promising.

Haunted Countryside

Finally escaping the haunted city and its enormous toy store, Mister Raroo heads across the countryside on his way toward Ghosty Ghost’s castle. With rows of crops, wheat fields, and the occasional barn or silo as far as the eye can see, one would assume Mister Raroo has little to worry about.

Unfortunately, the zombie scarecrows, cawing crows, and skeleton farmers that inhabit this area don’t share this sentiment. They mistake Mister Raroo for a crop thief and do all they can to block his progress.

As if that weren’t enough, the many grazing ghost cows in the fields make for an unexpected bovine obstacle course. And, don’t look now, but lying in wait is a massive combine harvester driven by a haunted horticulturalist.

Haunted Forest

Forests can be creepy enough on their own, let alone when they’re haunted. The whole forest seems to be alive and upset at Mister Raroo’s presence. From chipmunks ghouls throwing acorns to angry trees swinging their branches like swords, it looks like Mister Raroo will be in for a tough journey.

Things go from bad to worse when Mister Raroo accidentally disturbs a colony of hibernating bears. And you thought sleeping toys got angry when they were woken up! Bears can be dangerous foes to handle when they’re alive, but as spooks it’s a whole new ballgame.

Players might want to make their way up to the treetops, as something special may await them. But tread carefully, for a greater danger may lurk up there as well…

Haunted Cemetary

Sure, a haunted cemetery might seem a little redundant, but that doesn’t make navigating through the maze of tombstones in the cemetery surrounding Ghosty Ghost’s castle any less of a challenge.

The cemetery’s inhabitants enjoy their peace and quiet, so it’s safe to say they don’t necessarily appreciate the sound of a massive elephant running overhead—and they’re not afraid to rise from their graves to shoo him away!

Meanwhile, the cemetery’s mysterious mortician and his army of gravediggers do everything in their power to put a halt to Mister Raroo’s progress.

Showdown With Ghosty Ghost

Finally, Mister Raroo reaches Ghosty Ghost’s massive castle! The end appears to be in sight and soon Mister Raroo will hopefully rescue his family.

Each area of the castle is drastically different from the next, so Mister Raroo will have to keep on his toes as he travels through locations such as the Recreation Room, the Reading Room, the Trophy Room, the Master Bedroom, the Kitchen, the Courtyard, the Indoor Swimming Pool, the Movie Theater, and much more. Also, it might be worth taking the time to do some extra snooping in the Video Game Room.

Getting through the castle takes almost as much time as all of the game’s other levels combined, and the finale showdown with Ghosty Ghost and his spirit army is no walk in the park by any means. Ghosty Ghost pulls out all the stops and makes for a difficult and tricky nemesis, but Mister Raroo is no slouch, either, and his determination to rescue his family might just give him the edge. Needless to say, the final battle will surely be an epic and memorable one.

Thank You For Playing

Congratulations! Mister Raroo is reunited with his family! Ghosty Ghost’s plans to write his column for GameSetWatch are foiled! Thank you for playing!

But, what’s this? Is there a ghostly figure lurking in the background? Uh-oh…

[Mister Raroo is a happy husband, proud father, full-time public library employee, and active gamer. He currently lives in El Cajon, CA with his family and many pets. In addition to writing for GameSetWatch, Mister Raroo irregularly writes content for his blog, Moments. You may reach Mister Raroo at [email protected].]

E3 Round-Up: Major Publishers, Developers Speak

[Some more E3 highlights, then, as we relax after a week of zooming around the Los Angeles Convention Center -- and here's what the various editors on big sister site Gamasutra got from talking to some of the biggest companies exhibiting there.]

Continuing our E3 highlights, we look at what major companies told us in Los Angeles, with exclusive comments from Valve, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Crytek, Disney, and more.

This set of comments gathered by our reporters, many of which extracted from a larger Gamasutra interviews to debut in the near future, span many of the top companies exhibiting at E3 last week.

Also covered in addition to the interview highlights -- summaries and commentary on the third-party company press conferences going on in Southern California earlier last week.

The full set of stories is as follows:

Interview Highlights

E3: Brink Marks Major Console Focus For Splash Damage
"Splash Damage already made a console-converted game with Quake Wars, but the studio with hardcore PC shooter roots tells Gamasutra how the upcoming Brink will place even more emphasis on console game creation."

E3: Peter Moore: Do We Need a Controller?
"Peter Moore's EA Sports imprint has had access to Natal for months now, and feels that the best software experiences will be those that make more sense without any physical controller."

E3: Can Shadow Complex Modernize The Old School?
"Gamasutra speaks with Chair Entertainment's Donald Mustard, who hopes that the Super Metroid-inspired Shadow Complex can bring old school 2D gameplay into the next generation."

E3: Disney Boss Says Warren Spector's Game On Track
"Gamasutra had the chance to catch up with Graham Hopper, general manager of Disney Interactive Studios, and get an update on Warren Spector's Junction Point studio, its project, and how Disney's creative process is allowing Spector's creativity to flourish."

E3: Ubisoft's Detoc Looks To Game, Film Convergence
"Ubisoft is looking decidedly to the future -- new announcements at E3 have shed light on CEO Yves Guillemot's cryptic predictions, and now NA boss Laurent Detoc talks about why film and game tech is getting "more and more close every year."

E3: Valve's Lombardi On What Happened To Turtle Rock
"Left 4 Dead creator Valve South, the redubbed Turtle Rock Studios, no longer exists as a Valve subsidiary studio -- marketing VP Doug Lombardi explains what went down, and hints at a new Turtle Rock/Valve collaboration."

E3: 'We Launched Too Many New IPs At Once' - EA's Gibeau
"EA Games label president Frank Gibeau has told Gamasutra how the company's influx of new IP in 2008 should have been spread out, and talks about an aggressive initiative to build in two to three months of polish time for new games."

E3: Crysis 2 'Maxing Out' the PS3
"In an interview with Gamasutra, Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli denied the Sony assertion that it would take developers years to maximize the potential of the PS3."

E3: The APB Interview
"In a rare interview, Gamasutra 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."

E3: EA's DeMartini - EAP is a 'Backseat Driver'
"Speaking to Gamasutra during EA's E3 press event, EA Partners senior vice president and general manager David DeMartini likens the company's third-party approach to "backseat driving - better than front seat driving.""

E3: Bringing Story To The Forefront In Star Wars: The Old Republic
"BioWare Austin senior producer Dallas Dickinson wants the upcoming MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic to have the same strong storylines associated with single-player RPGs. Can BioWare pull it off?"

E3: Valve Talks Left 4 Dead 2's Quick Sequel Strategy
"Following Valve's announcement of Left 4 Dead 2 coming just a year after its predecessor, Gamasutra spoke with project lead Tom Leonard about why the sequel is coming so soon -- and what it means for the original game."

Press Conferences

E3: Konami's Briefing Reveals New Castlevania, MGS Arcade
"Hideo Kojima surprised audiences at Konami's E3 briefing with news that he had four titles to announce -- three Metal Gears, and one... European-developed Castlevania? Press conference quotes, analysis within..."

E3: Ubisoft Commits To Strong Cross-Media Convergence
"Ubisoft pledged to take its investment into cross-media development further than ever, partnering with such figures as James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson."

E3: Inside Electronic Arts' 2009 Press Conference
"In Los Angeles on Monday, Electronic Arts' presentation showed the breadth of their content, spanning everything from The Old Republic MMO through the new Charm Girls Club tween franchise - details within."

We have already published an initial round-up post, covering the first-party press conferences taking place during E3. A third round-up, with discussion on what the first parties told us after their conferences, will debut in the near future.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Post-E3 Zen

['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.]

EGMllcLOGO-3.jpg

A few notes and topics to mull over as everyone sleeps off E3 and I prepare for a two-brewery-tour weekend (i.e. by exercising a lot):

- The announcement of Electronic Gaming Monthly's "resurrection" was overshadowed by the rest of E3, which was sad but unavoidable. No particulars have been announced by Steve Harris, who's intimated on his Twitter that he's been bouncing around doing Hollywood work in the past couple of years, but details are promised in the next week or so.

If Mr. Harris is that serious about it, and if he has the money to launch a successful video-game media presence and keep it running until it has a chance at becoming profitable, then I see no reason why he can't be a success. However, not many people can show such dedication against the economic realities facing media these days.

What's more, unless Harris has some secrets up his sleeve, none of the things that made EGM the most respectable name in modern game media -- ie. the editors and artists who worked for it -- are returning to the new presence. (My impression of Harris was that he was always more the behind-the-scenes business guy at Sendai, letting Ed Semrad and crew drive his mag library's editorial direction, so it's whoever he hires for his projects that'll make the real difference here.)

So, guarded optimism. Which is a lot more than I ever had for Wii60 Player.

- I did not attend E3, sadly, but I received a press release from GamePro talking about their awesome 20th-anniversary party a couple days back at the Figueroa, a hotel I think GP (or was it 1UP?) put me up in for one E3 many years ago. 200 people in that hotel musta been pretty crowded; I wish I was there. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Actually, I was the other side of the GamePro 'velvet rope' at another party and it looked pretty fun over there!]

GamePro is going to be publishing freebie giveaway buyer's guides starting this August for distribution at 7-Eleven. I'm not expecting any breathtaking work here (plus 7-Eleven doesn't exist within 200 miles or so of Houston, so I'm gonna have to beg the editors I know at GP for copies), but I'd expect nothing less of GP -- they've always been extremely adept at pushing their name around the world of retail, surprisingly so in fact.

- The redesign of PC Gamer UK is now two issues old. I have yet to see a redesigned issue, but I did receive this mail earlier from a reader:

"PC Gamer UK have just done one of their bi-yearly re-designs. It's not a bad redesign, but it's left me feeling less attached to it. And in these times of internet publications, that could be fatal. My simple question is: why do magazines do re-designs? A slightly more complicated question: do you have any data on what the general outcome of a magazine redesign is?"

There are all sorts of reasons why a mag would redesign:

- Circulation and/or ad rates are dropping (eg. GamePro)
- The mag wants to reach a new reader audience (eg. EGM dropping tips/tricks pages)
- The mag wants to try and overtake the market leader and/or stay in the lead (eg. Xbox Nation when it went monthly, or Game Informer's breathtaking 2001 redesign)
- The readership is changing to the point where the current design is no longer appropriate (eg. Nintendo Power during the GameCube generation)
- A new EIC or art director has arrived and wants to shake things up (eg. PC Gamer US right this minute)

It's hard to gauge the direct effect of redesigns on readership. It's a great deal like opening a new restaurant -- you can mess it up in hundreds of different ways, and even if you get everything right, it can still be a failure. I can't comment on the PC Gamer redesign, but there is always a case to be made for leaving well enough alone. Famitsu in Japan, for one, has not changed its design appreciably since the early 1990s, except for cosmetic stuff here and there.

At the very least, a redesign is a way to attract attention to your magazine -- which is important these days, because print mags need every attention-grabbing device they can get. (Of course, maybe it's already too late. I know newspapers redesign all the time, for one, but I doubt I'm ever going to use a daily print newspaper for anything besides ferret litter from now on...)

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



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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