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June 27, 2009

Gamasutra Expert Blogs: From Engines To Improving AI

[In the latest highlights from big sister site Gamasutra's Expert Blogs, industry veterans write in depth about game engine use, routes to great indie marketing, improving AI, and IGDA memberships.]

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

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

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

This Week's Standout Expert Blogs

The Zero-Budget Indie Marketing Guide
(Rodain Joubert)

There are more ways than ever for indie developers to distribute that games, but that also means there are more games than ever to compete with. Rodain Joubert passes on some helpful, effective -- and, most importantly, affordable -- tips on marketing lower-budget titles.

7 Ways to Make Your AI Smarter
(Robert Hale)

Programmer and designer Robert Hale has several general principles on improving artificial intelligence, or at least the appearance of it. It's a useful set of pointers for an area of game design that is frequently criticized.

E3: The Tools And Technology That Make It Interesting
(Wanda Meloni)

As part of her multi-part E3 coverage, Wanda Meloni of M2 Research took a look at over two dozen anticipated games shown at E3 to get a sense of what tools and engines are most used -- and despite the numerous Unreal Engine 3 licenses, internally-created engines still dominate.

The Fast Thinker
(Gabriel Lievano)

Quick time events are undoubtedly a big game design trend, partially due to their use in the incredibly successful God of War and Resident Evil 4. In this piece, programmer Gabriel Lievano examined the mechanic with a critical eye -- and, just as notably, kicked off a hefty comment thread.

In another worthwhile piece this week, Lievano gave a firsthand account of South American piracy, touching on its causes and some potential remedies.

Class Acts: IGDA, Why Spend the $50?
(Stephen Jacobs)

As RIT associate professor Stephen Jacobs points out, recent snafus involving the IGDA may have some members wondering what exactly their membership fees are getting them. Jacobs delves into the role of professional organizations, and the IGDA in particular, to suss out what the group can provide and how members can get more out of their $50.

Analysis: Was Using Original IP The Best Idea For Sony's PS3 Strategy?

[Using U.S. sales data from the NPD Group, Matt Matthews examines the performance of new Sony properties like Resistance and others -- suggesting a focus on sequels might have been more profitable.]

Sony took a number of substantial risks with the design and launch of its PlayStation 3 console.

Sony bet that its new console would be a key part of winning the war for high-definition media formats. The company also expected that consumers would buy the new system at an extravagant price of $500 or $600. It counted on its momentum coming out of the last generation to overcome the challenges presented by its hardware in the new generation.

While Blu-Ray did win the HD format war, Sony continues to face headwinds with its pricing and developer relations.

On top of all these challenges, Sony added another. Instead of launching the PlayStation 3 with sequels to the franchises it owned – games like Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper and Jak & Daxter – Sony worked with its closest development partners to create a portfolio of original and exclusive franchises.

Given recent third-party discontent with PlayStation 3 sales -- like Activision CEO Bobby Kotick's recent threat to reconsider his company's support of Sony's system, a collection of Sony-controlled properties seems a wise hedge.

What seems less sage in retrospect, given the sales of these titles, is the focus on brand-new properties over established franchises.

New is the Strategy

At the November 2006 launch of the PlayStation 3 practically every other launch title was overshadowed by Resistance: Fall of Man, a dark first-person shooter set in an alternate history where humanity is threatened by a mysterious alien plague. There are two key points here.

First, Sony did not launch the PlayStation 2 with quite the same hands-on software approach. The only Sony-branded game available when the PS2 launched in the United States was FantaVision, a rather abstract puzzle game fused with a fireworks simulator.

Second, instead of building on its recognizable and popular Ratchet & Clank series, developer Insomniac Games and Sony chose to start from scratch with Resistance. At the time, Sony's intent was not clear, but we now see that several of its key developers were also given license to create all-new franchises for the nascent PlayStation 3.

Those key partners included the aforementioned Insomniac Games and Sucker Punch Productions, both independent developers whose titles have been almost exclusively published by Sony. Other developers, like Naughty Dog and Evolution Studios, have been bought by Sony and are considered internal studios.

In the case of Naughty Dog, the developer stepped away from its high profile Jak & Daxter series, popular on the PlayStation 2, and built a realistic adventure game for the PlayStation 3. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune tells the story of Nathan Drake, a wise-cracking explorer, and his quest for the treasure of his ancestor, Sir Francis Drake. That game was released in November 2007 and a sequel, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, is slated for release in late 2009.

Evolution Studios cooperated with Sony to produce and promote Motorstorm, a new offroad racing series whose concept demos impressed many in the industry when footage leaked in March 2006. Previously Evolution had been known for its licensed World Rally Championship series on the PlayStation 2, and while Motorstorm shares an exciting racing motif, it is a far different game from WRC. In September 2007, after the March release of Motorstorm in the U.S., Evolution was acquired by Sony. By October 2008 Evolution had released a sequel, Motorstorm: Pacific Rift.

The Sly Cooper games by Sucker Punch were exclusive and well-known on the PlayStation 2. For its inaugural title on the PlayStation 3, however, Sony and the veteran Sly developer worked together on inFamous, a superhero/supervillain action game set in a city gone amok.

The pattern is clear: instead of relying on established properties these key Sony partners were granted the opportunity to create completely new, top-tier franchises for the PlayStation 3. These were games the competition could never have, ones exclusively owned by Sony. These were the games heavily promoted by Sony across the media, from television to multiple features on its PlayStation blog. These were, one suspects, the games Sony hoped would be system-sellers.

Fruits of the Labor

Unfortunately for Sony and the developers involved, these games have not sold nearly as well as one might have expected given their prominence in Sony's plans.

According to U.S. figures provided by the NPD Group, which partners with retailers and publishers to track videogame sales, only one title out of Sony's new properties has broken a million units: the original Resistance: Fall of Man, at 1.1 million units as of April 2009. (The data provided by the NPD Group does not include units of software bundled with hardware.)

Outside of the titles already mentioned, there are other titles Sony has promoted as top-tier exclusives even though they are arguably more third-party than those by Insomniac, Naughty Dog, et al. These include games like Heavenly Sword by Ninja Theory and LittleBigPlanet by Media Molecule.

There are also true sequels to key franchises from prior PlayStation generations. Among these we count Gran Turismo 5: Prologue (by Polyphony Digital), Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds (by Clap Hanz), Killzone 2 (by Guerilla), and Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction (Insomniac's second PS3 game, launched in late 2007).

For reference we have listed all these titles together in the chart below, grouped by unit sales through April 2009.

Given the effort and money that Sony and its developers have poured into these exclusive games, the sales figures above have to be seen as somewhat disappointing.

The original Resistance sold well in part because it was the most polished and technically impressive game when the system launched. It reached a significant fraction of the userbase in its first few months. However later games have not proven to have the same kind of system-selling power.

For example, one of the key games at Sony's E3 2009 press conference was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, yet the original game itself isn't close to breaking the 750,000 unit mark in the United States. According to Jack Tretton, CEO of SCEA, Uncharted has sold more than 2.6 million copies worldwide, however many of those are copies bundled with PS3 systems (which are not counted here), not software directly off store shelves.

One could also look at Resistance 2 which has sold less than 750,000 units in six months on the market, to a userbase of 6 to 7 million owners. For a game promoted as the latest and best on the platform, opening month sales of 385,000 units seems exceptionally weak.

We could, for example, compare to Gears of War on the Xbox 360. The original Gears of War, exclusive to the Xbox 360, racked up a cool million units in its first month on a userbase of only 2.9 million users. By the end of the second month, December 2006, sales were over 1.8 million units.

The sequel, Gears of War 2, launched with sales of 1.56 million units in its first month to an audience of 12.4 million users. By the end of its second month, December 2008, it hit the 2.3 million mark. For both Gears of War and its sequel, sales were far stronger than Sony managed with Resistance and its sequel, even when taking the relative sizes of the userbases into account.

We could also look at a multiplatform action game sequel on the PS3 like Call of Duty: World at War, which just happens to have launched around the same time as Resistance 2. World at War sold over 1.1 million units during the last two months of 2008 while Sony's shooter moved just over 500,000 units.

Sequels Do Well

The games that have sold well on the PlayStation 3 are almost all sequels.

Consider, for example, that Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots – both sequels to franchises popularized on Sony systems – launched to sales better than any of the Sony-published games listed in the table above. To date, GTA4 has sold at least 1.7 million copies on the PS3 while MGS4 has sold in the neighborhood of 1.1 million.

Then there are annually-released games like Madden NFL (from Electronic Arts) and the aforementioned Call of Duty (from Activision). The latest version of the football franchise, Madden NFL 09, has probably sold over a million copies so far. Combined, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: World at War have sold an estimated 3 million copies on the PlayStation 3 (in the U.S.).

The five games listed above are probably a good estimation of the top five games on the PlayStation 3 (at least in the United States, measured in units not dollars) and each of them is a sequel. For all of the effort Sony has put into creating its own original hits, those new properties are simply not producing the kind of sales that sequels are generating on the same platform.

(There is one interesting counterexample: Assassin's Creed from Ubisoft. With sales over 1 million units on the PlayStation 3 in the United States, it's certainly an example of a new property that has performed well on Sony's system.)

Microsoft has managed to hit gold with its software strategy on the Xbox 360. Halo 3, by far Microsoft's best first-party effort, reached nearly 50% of all Xbox 360 owners in its first week and moved 4.8 million units between its September launch and the last week in December 2007. Even in the first half of 2009, Halo 3 continues to sell well enough to reach into the monthly top 20 software titles, exhibiting the kind of long-term sales that a first-party game should ideally demonstrate.

And Microsoft has unabashedly pursued third-party sequels, cornering exclusive deals with third-parties for games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Fallout 3, both of which enjoyed exclusivity deals for downloadable content. Those sequels have performed well on the Xbox 360.

The Nintendo Wii has also had its share of successful franchise sequels. Super Smash Bros. Brawl, continuing a series that began on the Nintendo 64, sold 4.2 million units in 9 months during 2008. Mario Kart Wii has reached over 6 million units since its April 2008 launch and continues to sell in the top 10 each month even through mid-2009.

One could say that comparing Microsoft's and Nintendo's biggest hits to Sony's games is unfair. However, the issue is quite simple: Of Sony's biggest software ventures of the past three years, which have been as successful as Microsoft's on the Xbox 360 or Nintendo's on the Wii? Even adjusting for the installed bases, Sony's hits on the PlayStation 3 simply aren't of the same magnitude as those of its competition on their respective platforms.

It is notable that Sony's biggest first-party property, Gran Turismo, still is not officially out on the PlayStation 3. The version that is out – Gran Turismo 5: Prologue – is a introductory version that is not considered a full successor to the last game, Gran Turismo 4 on the PlayStation 2. Once GT5 and God of War 3 are released, presumably sometime in 2010, Sony will have migrated its biggest franchises to the PS3 more than three years after it launched the system.

Surely, there are flaws in these comparisons – marketing has been neglected here – but they provide some context for what one might expect a Sony-backed, well-funded game to sell on the PlayStation 3.

What If...?

Sony isn't the only big publisher to bet on new properties recently. In 2008 Electronic Arts also put significant resources into brand new ventures, most notably Dead Space and Mirror's Edge.

Despite EA's significant promotion efforts and strong positive internet buzz, both of these games fell flat in sales. Electronic Arts has said it is committed to continuing to develop these franchises and that it has learned how better to launch new games.

One does wonder what Sony (or EA) would say if they had it to do all over again. Would Sony set aside the franchises it had already paid for on the PlayStation 2 and spend its software treasury on so many new ones – Resistance, Uncharted, Motorstorm, inFAMOUS? It seems possible, even probable, that Sony might have achieved software sales just as strong with its established franchises instead of building new ones from scratch.

Regardless, Sony has promoted and published some fine software, according to critics and fans. All the Sony-published titles in the table above, with the exception of one, have Metacritic ratings between 81 and 95. (Heavenly Sword is the odd one out, with an aggregate score of 79.) These games, even if they aren't system-sellers, are certainly the games that define Sony's platform this generation.

But the question remains: Was it worth it?

[Acknowledgments: Thanks to the NPD Group, and David Riley in particular, for their assistance with this work. Thanks also to two colleagues for their helpful criticism: Simon Carless and donny2112 (of NeoGAF).]

Round Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of June 26

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 Crystal Dynamics, Trion 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

Crystal Dynamics Senior Art Director
"Crystal Dynamics has a rare opening for a Senior Art Director on one of the most prestigious AAA franchises in the industry. We are looking for an exceptional talent to bring onto the team and continue the long tradition of visually stunning and award winning titles from Crystal Dynamics."

Propaganda Games: Sr. Environment Artist/Worldbuilder
"From our state of the art game development studio in Downtown Vancouver, we combine an independent spirit with the resources of one of the world's largest entertainment companies. We know what makes games great - stunning visuals, innovative gameplay and most importantly... people. We are looking for a World Class Environment Artist / world Builder to join the team!"

Treyarch/Activision: Technical Director
"Treyarch is looking for a Technical Director for a high profile title with a substantial and ambitious online component. The Technical Director will be responsible for all technical decisions for their title. As a Technical Director, their opinion will carry substantial weight for any decision that is made on the project. The Technical Director will ultimately be responsible for the successful completion of the project."

Rainbow Studios: Executive Producer
"The Executive Producer is the visionary for the product and the person who builds the team and motivates them to accomplish their goals of shipping a high quality, entertaining experience on time and on budget. The Executive Producer also provides the link between the studio and the THQ marketing and sales departments."

WorldsInMotion - Online Games

Tencent Boston: Senior MMO Engine Programmer
"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, a studio that can produce top tier quality games and bring them to market worldwide."

Trion San Diego: Senior Audio Programmer
"The Senior Audio Programmer is responsible for development of audio tools and technologies for the next generation of server-based gaming. This is a software development position rather than sound design or composition role."

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.

GameSetInterview: 'Moved By Mod: Dear Esther's Dan Pinchbeck'

GSW%20DE%202.jpg[Continuing a series of GameSetWatch-exclusive interviews with alternative game developers, Phill Cameron Interviews Dan Pinchbeck, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth in England, and creator of Half-Life 2 interactive story-based mod Dear Esther, somewhat of a sleeper hit in the modding community.]

I've had Dear Esther on my radar for a while. It sounded incredibly interesting; you are left on an island in the Hebradian range, with a nameless narrator and what is supposedly a ghost story. I never really took the plunge though, waiting until the reports of invisible holes in the maps and ways to break the mod were all ironed out. It wasn't until Lewis Denby's piece on Rock, Paper, Shotgun arrived that I finally downloaded it and played through.

It's hard to describe Dear Esther without ruining it, and even then it's difficult to put it into words. I'm of the firm belief that it's a large step forward in game narration, finally moving beyond feeding us cutscenes and expository dialogue.

Before you read the interview, be aware that there are what could be considered small SPOILERS below, and so, I urge you very, very strongly to go download Dear Esther, play it (it required Half Life 2), then come back. It takes about 30 minutes to play through, and it is absolutely, entirely worth it. (You can get a brief view of what the mod looks and sounds like by checking out a YouTube gameplay video, but try not to spoil it for yourself.)

Can you explain a little about yourself and what you do?

Dan Pinchbeck: I’m a researcher and lecturer based at the University of Portsmouth, UK. I teach games and interactive media, but spend most of my time now on the research side of things. This splits into two major strands. Firstly, I study first-person gaming, particularly the relationship between game content and gameplay. I’ve just completed a doctorate on that, looking specifically at how story functions as a gameplay device.

There’s a lot of historical antagonism between the two and I don’t agree with that. When story and gameplay bang up against each other, to me that’s just bad design, not a fundamental incompatibility. I spent the last four years doing a big analysis of major FPS titles of the last ten years, looking at their worlds, agents, avatars and plots to back that up.

The research mods spin out of this: basically, there are questions about games you just can’t answer by looking at commercial titles, but they are really important questions nonetheless. So what do you do? Forget them, or theorise about them without any real evidence to back up your ideas? Or you can get on with it and build them yourself. That’s the real impetus behind thechineseroom.

In my other major strand, I’m involved in game preservation, mainly through a big European project called KEEP, which is developing this emulation architecture that you’ll be able to plug all kinds of existing emulators into to run obsolete titles. I won’t go into that here, but there’s a lot more info at www.keep-project.eu.

Where did the idea for Dear Esther come from?

The basic idea came from this question about what happens when you ditch traditional gameplay out of an FPS space and what that leaves you. So you have nothing but story to keep a player engaged – is that possible? What kind of experience does that leave? What does the space you free up by losing all those gameplay mechanisms and activities allow you to do?

Secondly, it was the idea of just how abstract and problematic you could make a story and retain it being this engaging experience. Can you have a really quite non-linear, non-literal story, that’s almost more of a mood piece, rather than a traditional narrative, and, basically, get away with that? Bottom line is that FPS spaces are exceptional environments for anchoring very intense experiences, so why not gear the story around that immersiveness rather than trying to tell a very tidy, closed down plot. And that led to the randomization and open-endedness of the plot.

I guess I was really interested in what people made of it, how they joined up these dots that may not actually have any grand scheme behind them. How much they will create a story from all these pieces, where I only have limited control over how they fit together. And as writer, that’s really interesting to me. If I wanted a tidy, linear plot with clear characters, I’d write a novel. Games give us the opportunity to do far more interesting things than that, why limit yourself to formats that work better in other mediums anyway? Dear Esther’s story wouldn’t work half as well in anything other than a game engine, and that’s a really interesting thing for me.

I'm loathe to call Dear Esther a game, not least because it doesn't seem at all trivial, and its interactivity is in question, but also it isn't fun, instead moving onto something far more poignant. How do you think games can move beyond merely being entertainment, and towards something more emotive?

I’d agree with the first bit of that. I have no idea if it is a game, or art, or anything else. Even ‘interactive story’ is a difficult one because, as you say, the interactivity is on one level, very trivial. I’m not sure if I’d ever want to come down on a final decision about any of that, and it’s kind of not my call anyway, that’s something for users to work out for themselves, if they want to.

The idea of fun is a really interesting one, and it’s great to see it being really chewed around by commercial developers right now. The historical gung-ho, guns&ammo schlock is being played around with by recent titles. Not that I’m anti a good bit of schlock, per se, but sometimes you want Chuck Norris and sometimes you want something with a different mood or flavour. And that’s not a quality judgement either, it’s about games offering a wider emotional range.

You’d hardly call the end of Far Cry 2 a celebration of gun culture or victorious forces of good over evil in the mould of, say, Timeshift. Half Life 2 Episode 2 isn’t exactly Happy Days. And that’s terrific really. I love the fact that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is mainly characterised by unease, punctuated by moments of panic. Bioshock is really quite sad and poignant, when you’re not hammering away with the plasmids. I loved that moment near the beginning where you can hear and see the splicer with the pram. That’s a great little moment.

I think we’re in this transitional phase at the moment. You can see this expanded emotional range in commercial, major titles, and you’ve got more indie stuff like The Path and, I guess, Dear Esther. There’s clearly a niche market for that, but what’s interesting is how these multiple layers of emotional range can get into bigger titles: so you can have a quite deep, affective experience or you can just charge about with a railgun. The player can define the extent to which they engage with that.

But when you look at it, a lot of contemporary FPS games have been chipping away at the idea of pure, escapist, fun, or changing how it fits with the genre. We don’t demand that any other form of media has to make us feel great and happy and powerful all the time, it’s quite the opposite often. So it makes sense that games are getting into this, that there’s no contradiction between wanting to continue an experience and the experience itself being quite harrowing or unsettling. That’s drama, and people have been doing that since before they were writing, it’s as old as human culture. Of course games are going to tap into that and I think it will make them better games as a result.

Ambiguity runs rife in the mod, from the moment you start, leaving the player unsure of anything they see or hear. Was it your intention to set the player at unease?

Yes, pretty much. Ambiguity was always central to it. It was always going to need to create unease in order to get away with the abstractness and fractured nature of the narrative. We had to have something where the player was drawn to go deeper into the story, but it wasn’t like an episode of Columbo or something, where it fell too heavily on being a mystery to solve. It was important to get the atmosphere in early on that this place was almost beyond a direct answer, that you’d never really get there, but be left with these pieces that almost make sense, but you’re never fully sure of it.

So then, if you go back to dig out more or re-visit, you then get this different version of events. I really wanted to achieve that, this idea that two people could talk about it afterwards and have quite different ideas of what it all meant (if anything) as a result of hearing two different stories essentially. But like I said, I also see it as being a mood piece, as much as (if not more than) a plot in the traditional sense. I think you can go through Dear Esther and not really understand it, not really have a clear sense of what happened, but still have this engaging experience.

That’s something game spaces do really well – you don’t have to know everything, it’s about how you feel during and after it. In a very weird way, it’s a bit like Tetris in that regard, it’s trying to make people sit back and lose themselves in this world that doesn’t make literal ‘sense’. I always find it a bit disappointing when game writers and developers feel they have to tie up all the threads at the end of a game, it’s often clumsy and unnecessary. I remember playing the original Silent Hill for the first time and just loving the end.

So I’ve played for six hours or whatever and I’ve been on this quest for my daughter and she just turned into an angel and I shot her and now I’m dead behind the wheel of a car and I have no idea what just happened, but I do know that it’s hit me really deeply and I can’t quite quantify that. It’s a stunning piece of narrative design and should be used more often in games. Personally, I have a hunch that gamers would prefer a narrative that is left open and unanswerable than a pat, Hollywood, clumsy resolution.

Gamers are more sophisticated than that. We need less bloody awful pseudo-heroic resolutions with sub-Shyamalan final cutscene twists to open the door for a sequel, and more unfinished business, unanswered questions, unresolved emotions.

GSW%20DE%203.jpgDear Esther explores the negative end of emotions, evoking sadness, horror and confusion. Was this your primary intention, or just the easiest way to explore presenting the player with the ambiguities you sought?

Maybe I’m just miserable. I think I’m more drawn to that as a writer. The types of environment the engine leads you to also play a part in that. That’s one of the things we tried to do with Dear Esther, was to develop the whole thing quite organically, so I was writing all these notes and fragments at the same time that Josh (Short, now at Frontier) was building from my sketches and Jessica was composing the music.

So a lot of the story actually came out as a response to the island as it developed, and the music that was responding to that as well, then both of those would adapt to the writing. You’d have to be mad to try and build a commercial game like that, but it was a fun experimental way of doing things. The idea of being abandoned on this island and this lost history that keeps leaking back into the present was there at the beginning, but even that came from discussions about what kind of environment we could have that was really enclosed but open, isolated.

In a way, the whole of Dear Esther derived from the availability of assets in Source, given our time and budget constraints in putting it together. The emotional feel of the piece was a natural, quite organic development of the process. I have to say though, I hadn’t really clocked how affected people would be by that side of things. I knew it was pretty odd and sober, but I hadn’t really considered it to be particularly frightening or massively traumatic when we released it. So that’s quite a nice outcome for me as a writer, that it has really affected people; not just in this trawl through despair, like car-crash TV, but that people have taken this quite deep experience away from it.

Another of the major themes in the mod is religion, and in specific Paul's journey to Damascus. Was this used just to place another layer of interpretation, or was it there for a definite purpose?

It was quite a late addition actually. Paul was named as a character before, and there was no conscious idea to tie that in to the biblical character. Then, afterwards, we already had the visual image of the white lines on the cliffs, which is actually historically accurate, it’s from a text I found when I was looking for Hebridean islands to base the modelling on. This had led to the electrical diagrams and nerve cells and I thought about writing on the rocks – sure I’ve stolen that from somewhere, but I can’t place where – and it kind of clicked.

Then there was this great synchronicity between the Damascus story and what was developing in the narrator’s journey. I knew I wanted it to end on this idea of transformation – how do you even arbitrarily close off this story – and it just seemed to stack up like dominoes. Then this led to Lot’s wife, and this idea of never being able to look back. That just seemed so appropriate given the crash theme. So I’d be lying if I said it was a carefully planned plot stream that was hardwired into the thing from the outset. It was a product of way we developed it, this more free-form, almost stream of consciousness approach to building it.

The whole last section of the script, pretty much all of the north shore and ascent, was written in one burst and I tried to just let it go where it went, rather than having this whole planned thing, aside from knowing the set-up (the infection) and the basic resolution (throwing himself off the aerial). That was one of the really liberating things in using the randomised cues, I could go off at tangents without feeling I had to get all these ideas and images into a comparatively tiny space of time. So the whole religious, kind of transcendental images in the text, they can come out really strongly, or be there in the background, unresolved, depending on which set of cues you trigger.

The music in Dear Esther is one of, if not the most, important aspects of how well it succeeds in telling a story. Who composed the pieces? Did you see them as an important narrative tool?

The music is probably the thing more than any other aspect of the mod which absolutely lifts it. It’s stunning, and I can say that quite happily because I didn’t compose it! It sets the emotional tone, it glues all the elements together, it adds this landscape to the experience that just wouldn’t be there otherwise. I’d worked with Jessica Curry, the composer, a few times, collaborating on these art works, and knew her work really well. As soon as the island started coming together in my head, I knew I wanted to use her, knew her work would fit the emerging tone. There’s quite a bit of her earlier work on her website, and you can hear all the forms and moods in those pieces and really see how she was just the natural choice for the mod.

I think the music fundamental as it sets up a kind of emotional landscape for the voice-overs. Music bypasses so much of our interpretative preconceptions, it just hits directly to the heart, and that’s why it’s so fundamentally important to games, and enormously undervalued and underdeveloped. There’s far too much banal, boring, background ambience and not enough foregrounded, completely self-conscious use of music still.

You look right back and take something like Tomb Raider; I was reading this article by Tom Armitage in InfoVore about Far Cry 2 the other day, and he talks about Africa being almost a character in the game, and the music in Tomb Raider was really like that, it had its own identity and it wasn’t just this bland, subtle wash. Halo promised that too. Why not have massive, epic, emotional themes? After all, games are all about manipulating players, especially emotionally, so why not?

So yes, the music in Dear Esther is absolutely key. My only issue with it is that we never got deep enough into Source (didn’t really have the time or skills) to move it on from straight-out start/stop triggers to something more dynamic, more procedural. That was a bit frustrating, especially the caves section, where you never knew if players would get the whole of “Always”, because you could get through faster than the track. I think it’s such a beautiful piece of music that, perhaps more than any of the other cues, encapsulates the whole of Dear Esther in one track. That’s why we extended the caves in version 1.1, not because I had images I thought were missing, or wanted more voice-overs, I just wanted to increase the chances of players getting the whole of that piece.

The writing in the mod is beyond impressive, garnering emotion without really forming any sort of cohesive story. With Dear Esther being a research project, did you struggle to come up with something so compelling? Did the setting and tone come easily?

Thanks! I’m really pleased with it. I’ve got a couple of unpublished novels rotting under the bed and used to write MUD environments way back when, so I must admit, the project was really fun for me as it let me flex those muscles as well as handling the research side of things. It’s very much my style of writing, I’m not a great plot person. I love Philip K. Dick and what I’ve always really admired about his work is how it just keeps firing off on these completely mental tangents so you never really know where it’s going next, or why, or how it will resolve. You read something like Lies, Inc., and you’re just left reeling, but it works so well on this sub-interpretable level, if that makes sense.

And musically, I’m a big fan of Sigur Ros, Godspeed You Black Emperor and early Throwing Muses, where you have these things that feel like narratives, but they don’t fit traditional models. With Throwing Muses, you always had this incredible sense of ‘feel’ of a song, even when the lyrics didn’t really add up or make any sense when you considered them coldly. And that’s what is amazing about games, you can’t come at them cold, everything is geared towards manipulating you so the system is partially in control of your reflexes, your behaviour, your interpretations. That naturally fits with my style of writing. I’m pretty awful at putting together coherent plots, I’m more natural at mood and throwing out odd ideas. So it came quite easily, but I was absolutely sweating when it was released as I knew I’d take any criticism hard and personally.

GSW%20DE%201%20copy.jpgComparisons between such works as Wuthering Heights and The Turn of the Screw are obvious, and not at all unjustified. How do you think Dear Esther can only work as a game, rather than a short story or novella?

Wow. Thanks again. I didn’t really imagine it would ever get much attention at all, to be honest, so the way it’s been picked up and talked about is still a massive surprise to me.

Could it be another media form? I think it probably could, but I don’t think it would work as well. I mean, you could monkey around with the script and batter it into a proper story, or do the whole thing as film, but what I think is fundamental to it, the reason it works, is because you are in it controlling the movement and perception. The fact that it operates so much on not knowing really who these people are, and what their relationships are, and where you are, and if its real – so much of this is anchored within the relationship between the player and the avatar. And you find this technique, although maybe not pushed to the same extreme, in a lot of commercial games.

Amnesia is really quite a common theme in FPS games, and this idea of being an outsider who is finding their place in a world that is unknown. What I think is a bit different is that you usually go through this process of normalisation, you get to know the world better and better and become more powerful, more in control of it. In fact, that’s probably one of the hardest things to balance in terms of gameplay progression, controlling that process, so the player gets the emotional reward of increased knowledge and power while the game is holding back, not letting them get the full story. In Dear Esther that never really happens.

You are almost as in the dark at the end as at the beginning, or at least, you can’t trust any of the understanding you’ve developed over the course of it. So that, to me, is really central, and that’s a device, or a mechanism which is pure game, it’s not something that works in the same way in any other medium. And you have this real investment in it, because you are implicated, it relies on you acting the world in order for things to progress. You have a real sense in games that what you do, what you see, where you point and move your avatar has an absolute impact on the world and the action. Dear Esther plays around with that, but at the core, that’s what makes it more like a game than any other form of media, even if that’s a problematic relationship or definition.

You're next project, Korsakovia, is looking at how to disconnect the player from the expected cues and place them in an unfamiliar situation. Can you explain a bit more about what you're trying to achieve with it?

It started from a very simple idea. Normally, agents in games are anthropomorphised to an extent. They all look pretty much humanoid or animal. You can see which direction they are facing, you have all these cues to predict behaviour. Plus, you import from real life a whole set of expectations about what they should be able to do, or are likely to do. I wrote this paper recently called Trigens Don’t Swim, and part of that was saying how it’s OK and reasonable to stop Trigens from going into water (or drowning if they do) because they are basically hairless gorillas and gorillas don’t swim. Or, you can have stupid zombies in Doom 3 and it makes sense because we all ‘know’ zombies are stupid.

So you wrap a level of representation around the finite state machine and if you synchronise the two effectively, you justify the actual AI behaviour. Korsakovia is about what happens when you get rid of that, and you have agents that are basically just a standard FSM but you don’t have any of those cues, so your ability to predict is reduced. That’s it, basically.

From there, I also wanted to go back to explore that idea of a reality coming to pieces, which again is a really common device in FPS games, from Doom 3 to F.E.A.R., and so on. So, on top of these agents who are really hard to figure out, you have a world that doesn’t make sense and is starting to distort in unexpected ways. That naturally lends itself to a type of story that has resonances with Dear Esther in some ways, but is more direct in being disturbing. Korsakovia is much more of a survival horror game – I wanted to take some of the ideas we’d explored in Dear Esther and see how they work in something which is a ‘proper’ game, if you like.

I’d first come across Korsakoff’s psychosis years ago in the William Gibson novel Mona Lisa Overdrive, and it’s just such a terrifying illness and fits so well with this idea of a world being broken into these fragments that you just can’t put together again... it was a natural development from there really.

So in terms of what I want to achieve, well, to create a game that really undermines the player’s sense of security. To create this world that is genuinely frightening and aggressively beyond comprehension, and to drop in this story that only comes in as fragments. Most the script takes the form of scattered pieces of dialogue between a psychiatrist and this deeply disturbed patient who has created this entire fantasy apocalypse of the world ending, but can’t remember this in any more than fleeting bursts, so you have these two realities colliding.

Rather than Dear Esther though, where there’s this question of “what is actually real?” in Korsakovia it’s ultimately about how that’s just a redundant question, as everything and nothing is, at the same time, if that makes any sense. It’s a difficult time to describe it really, as I’m still writing the script and will be bringing in voice actors during July, so quite a lot could still shift. But that’s the basic premise anyway.

With these mods as research projects, how much do you see yourself as a developer now? Are there things you'd like to do that are divorced from research?

That’s a good question! I see myself as a researcher who makes experimental mods. I suppose that could extend to mod developer, but I’d be cautious of going any further. Game development is such a difficult and complicated business and really what we do is a very stripped back version of that. I have an ongoing grand scheme to roll out some of these experiments and package them in a much bigger experience, moving from the one hour mark to maybe 4-6 hours and testing whether you can sustain these experimentations in a near full length game, but there are cost implications to that I’m still struggling with.

At the end of the day, I don’t know that anything we’ve done has any direct commercial application, even if ideas we’ve played with get picked up by professional developers, which is obviously something that would justify the whole process in a single go... And I’m not so interested in working commercially. As an academic, I’ve got a freedom to play, to experiment, which is fantastic, but I also feel that given that we’ve almost got a duty to games as a medium to use that freedom to push at ideas that are uncommercial but still really interesting.

We’ve also absolutely got a duty to put our money where our mouths are and experiment, by developing, to look both at the bigger picture of what you can achieve with this medium, and to try and get answers to questions you’d otherwise just be making educated guesses about. When we made Conscientious Objector, the Doom 3 mod, I wanted to know if you have non-lethal force at the centre of an FPS, so you can’t actually kill anything (not necessarily because I have a political problem with that, but because if you do that you mess up the basic premise of the genre, i.e. removing things from an environment), can you retain the full-on, adrenaline rush, visceral gaming that characterises a run & gun shooter? You can’t answer that unless you go ahead and build it.

As far as non-research projects go, we’ll see what happens really. Everything we’ve developed has been part of my day job, basically, which means it’s funded from somewhere. A non-research project would also have to be funded, to be frank, or I wouldn’t have the time to commit to it. If that’s another way of asking whether I’d work in industry, then the short answer is that it would very much depend on the project. The opportunity to play within a commercial development is obviously really attractive, and again, would justify what I’ve been doing for the last two years, but against that are the constraints of that kind of working environment.

In a way, I get to operate at a quite glamorous edge of the reality of writing for games. Finding fifty-eight different ways of writing ‘you shot me!’ doesn’t really appeal. Plus, generating the sheer quantity of dialogue and script required for a commercial game, and keeping the quality level of that high is a real skill. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for game writers, as it’s an enormously difficult job that still has some way to go in terms of the recognition it deserves, that is can really make the difference between a mediocre game and a great one.

Also, I’ve got this really privileged position of being able to just work within game formats that I find interesting, rather than having to take on jobs to pay the bills. But you never say never. I’m open to suggestions, inspiration, bribery, coercion, etc, as much as the next man.

While you're obviously making these mods with very specific purposes in mind, are there any other mods or games out there that you find particularly interesting from a research point of view?

I end up talking about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. every time I do an interview. One of the many people holding their breath and keeping their fingers crossed that GSC do a u-turn and head back to all the things that made the first title so damn good in Call of Pripyat. Oblivion Lost is a truly great mod and anyone with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. should be playing it.

More than anything, I want to see ambition and experimentation, and I’ll sacrifice it being a great, great game for that. I got put onto Pathalogic recently and that’s a must for anyone interested in FPS games. Portal, obviously. Mirror’s Edge is one of the most intriguing fusions of genres that’s come out recently: I keep boring people with shouting about how it’s more like a driving game with combos than an FPS, which is probably a really banal and obvious statement, but it’s really interesting to me...

It’s the end of the [school] year here, so I’m buried in marking and finishing off Korsakovia so my playing time has suffered. I’m in two minds about The Graveyard and have yet to play The Path, but they’re on the list. I’ve failed to play Braid yet, which could probably get me barred from future games conferences. Basically, there’s a stack of games about four feet high on my desk at work just waiting for a chance to get ‘researched’.

If I had to put together a list of FPS games which need looking at by anyone interested in how the genre is changing? It’d probably be pretty much the same anyone with half a clue about the industry would come up with: S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Far Cry 2, Bioshock, Portal, Mirror’s Edge, maybe Fallout 3. Near misses would be Penumbra, Pathologic, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. XIII, Boiling Point, Far Cry, System Shock 2, if you’re going further back into ancient history. And the Half Life franchise for a masterclass in how to ‘do’ story, although I really hope Valve haven’t backed themselves into an impossible corner with that one.

Weirdly, the game I’ve most enjoyed recently as a player is Syphon Filter – downloaded it on the PSP the other week and although my thumbs are now knackered, it’s really quite good...

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Bludgeoning a zombie with a crowbar is fun. Existentially bludgeoning an invisible zombie with an identity crisis – that’s got to be worth a pop.

Best Of Indie Games: Space, The Unexplored Frontier

[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 arcade shooter set in space, two puzzle platformers with cute graphics, an arena shooter where you play a deadly virus, and a challenging old-school style platform game that would give hardcore gamers a run for their money.

Game Pick: 'Polynomial' (Dmytry Lavrov, commercial indie - demo available)
"Polynomial is a 3D arcade shooter that features mathematically generated fractal scenery, where players can choose to either engage enemies in intense dogfights or explore the vast reaches of space at their own leisurely pace. The demo offers ten arenas to play in, and there is no time restrictions that hamper your gameplay experience in any way. Available for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X."

Game Pick: 'Pace Maker' (Amidos, browser)
"Created for Gamejolt's 'Shocking' Game contest, Pace Maker is your standard blast-em-up with a few interesting twists. Controlling the Kathomee virus, the aim is to enter each pace maker and shock it into submission while small 'circuit breakers' whiz around trying to stop you in your tracks. The game can be 'quick played' so no download to hard drive is needed."

Game Pick: 'Use Boxmen' (Greg Sergeant, browser)
"Use Boxmen is a 2D puzzle platformer with cleverly-designed levels, where players are required to collect a cube in each level to progress. The trick is that certain areas can't be completed without the aid of your friends, who will mimic your moves when called upon to help. Half the fun to be had is by experimenting, and getting your master plan to execute perfectly can be extremely satisfying in this game."

Game Pick: 'G-e-n-e-r-i-c' (Arvi Teikari, freeware)
"G-e-n-e-r-i-c is an experimental project with a novel gameplay element, created by the developer of Flickerstrings and Jump on Mushrooms: The Game. The objective here is to collect gems, coins and money bags so that you'd have enough points to proceed to the next level. Enemies can be stomped on to gain extra jump height, keys can be collected to unlock doors, and you can bash special blocks with your head for a special surprise."

Game Pick: 'Raider: Episode 1' (Pseudolone Wolf, freeware)
"Raider: Episode 1 is an old-school style platformer which aims to be fun yet challenging. The first episode of a series of five, the story follows a character who looks a little like some alternate version of Sonic on his quest to explore a mysterious ship."

June 26, 2009

Personal Trainer: Walking Warlord

It seems as if we're seeing an influx of pedometer-based games, what with recent DS releases like Nintendo's Personal Trainer: Walking and Ubisoft's My Weight Loss Coach both bundling pedometer accessories.

Even Pokemon HeartGold And SoulSilver, sure to be two of the highest-selling titles in Japan this year (and in the U.S., where they will likely ship in 2010), comes with a PokeWalker that encourages players to walk with the accessory so they can gain XP for their creatures or earn in-game currency.

Bandai and SSD Company have their own standalone pedometer-based game coming out this July, Yuuhokei: Tenkatouitsu ~ Aruite Sengoku no Hasha to Nare, which loosely translates as Walking Meter: Unification ~ Become the Ruler of the Warring States by Walking.

As the title suggests, you can play as three different warlords from Japan's Warring States period (15th to 17th century) -- Oda Nobunaga, Takeda Shingen, and Uesugi Kenshin. The game will also feature over 70 other warlords, such as Date Masumane and Akechi Mitsuhide. Though you might not recognize some of these names, these characters have experienced a surge of popularity recently in Japan with the Sengoku Basara games/anime.

The way the pedometer works, you keep the accessory in a pocket and amass troops by walking, increasing your army's ranks as you go about their day. According to Bandai, "you can dominate the enemy with your large army if you walk a lot." Your soldiers can attack with spears, guns, bows and arrows, and more.

There will also be a corresponding website where you can record your weight and how much you've walked. As you progress through your warlord's campaign/storyline, you'll also receive codes that you can put into the website to see details of local warlords and a map of Japan showing the areas you've unified.

Bandai's target audience for Walking Meter: Unification is men and women in their 30s who have an appreciation of history. The company has high hopes for this product, too, expecting to sell over 10 million units by the end of 2010.

And if conquering rival warlords and unifying Japan isn't your thing, apparently there are three other similar pedometer-based titles that've been released in Japan -- Space Battleship Yamato (Star Blazers), Haha wo Tazunete Sanzenri (a.k.a. Marco), and Kacho Kosaku Shima -- all of which are based on manga/anime properties.

[Via .tiff]

Opinion/Round-Up: The State Of Social Gaming

[In a piece that's already caused a bit of a comments firestorm, Gamasutra's Christian Nutt returns from this week's Social Gaming Summit in San Francisco with a provocative, but I think reasonably fair, look at social network gaming's hardheaded business attitude, the iPhone, and what 'virality' really means.]

I was more optimistic going into the Social Gaming Summit this year -- which we've written two other in-depth write-ups from -- than I was heading out of it. Last year, it seemed young and hopeful.

This year, the mini-conference focused on Facebook and MySpace social network gaming -- led by firms like Playfish and Zynga and microtransaction-based games like Mafia Wars -- seemed a bit more dry. There was lots of emphasis on marketing, metrics, retention, and was constantly punctuated by what seemed to be an endless repetition of the terrible, made-up word "virality".

Okay: that's the cynical take on the conference. And I missed the last session featuring the quite un-cynical Daniel James from Three Rings who can't help but bring personality into any proceeding.

But for all last year's feeling of hope, after hearing about harnessing the power of social relationships to bring gaming to new heights, about collaboration with the established game industry to create something greater than either... this year's left me wondering what I was hoping for.

Sponsors of the conference included SuperRewards, Offerpal Media, Daopay, GlobalCollect, and Social Gold. If you don't know what these companies do, you can pretty much guess from their names.

No, console and PC developers don't just do it for the love. But their passion for more than the dollar makes sessions at Game Developers Conference, Microsoft Gamefest, IGDA Leadership Forum and other industry summits inspirational, as well as good business.

You can easily and quite often rightly accuse game developers of being naive. On the other hand, during the "expert talk" on metrics, (Lil) Green Patch CEO David King delivered a design lesson that seems to sum up social gaming -- or does if you're feeling uncharitable, anyway.

Pointing to a slide that showed that one quest in one of the company's Mafia Wars clones was particularly popular, King said, "You can use this kind of data to inform game design." I expected the follow-up to be along the line of "you can make more quests like this."

But no: per King, "You can say 'Well, maybe this is too good of a payout, and we could use this as a point to push more monetization.'" Players, in other words, should be forced to pay real-world currency to take on that quest they enjoy so much. It's carrot-and-stick design.

As The Joker says in The Dark Knight, "If you're good at something, never do it for free." Game developers who sell packaged software for $60 a hit certainly don't. In 2009, data mining and focus testing are integral tools in game creation.

But still: the immediacy of both the granularity of the metric (they like this!) and the suggested developer response (charge them!) were a little uncomfortable.

Creativity vs. Analysis

The battle between creative game design and the drive to create a Pavlovian response (and hopefully induce payment) in the game audience was a major theme of the conference.

Hi5, a gaming-focused social network based in the U.S. but much more popular in Latin America, skewed the discussion towards "fun" -- with spokesman and executive producer Andrew Sheppard, one of the few to even use that word all day.

"We're now focusing on fun and defining the social graph around that," he said. "It's an important nuance but it's a very key thing to call out." Facebook and MySpace aren't game platforms; they're social platforms that support games. They don't necessarily understand "fun", nor shape their systems around promoting it.

"There are more things about social gaming that are different than similar," says Mark Pincus, founder and CEO of Facebook's top game developer, Zynga, of comparing the medium to traditional console and PC games. And Zynga takes a very analytical approach to the market.

There's infinite room for competition on social networks, as the web is vast -- Pincus said Zynga "welcomes" newcomers to the market. But that infinite space means that there is infinite duplication. Jeremy Liew, managing director of Lightspeed Venture Partners, has the obvious response: "I think you guys welcomed [massively popular Facebook game] Farm Town with FarmVille, yesterday," referring to Zynga's own casual farming game -- and drawing big laughs from the audience.

How does Zynga decide what games to make? "We look at success metrics around virality and retention before we launch." The company, according to Pincus, spent $2 million developing a game called Guild of Heroes, but never launched it because "it didn't drive the right metrics."

This makes business sense; these kinds of decisions are made everywhere all of the time. The disquieting thing is that the topics of fun or creativity -- or any of the virtues most in the game industry like to inject into their commercial products -- were rarely if ever addressed.

On 'Virality'

If there was one word that was painfully overused at the conference, it was "virality". I mean, first up, it's not even a word. It's a neologism, and a pretty tortured one at that.

But it's still the core of the social gaming biz, at present. The basic idea is that the best form of marketing on a social network is user-to-user. Why? "Virality discounts user acquisition costs, potentially down to zero," says Siqi Chen, founder of Serious Business, makers of the hugely popular app Friends for Sale.

Chen is convinced that gaming virality is crucial: "We spend a lot of time making small incremental changes in our app, because a 10% change could separate a dying app from a growing app." He has the charts and equations to back this up, believe me. He's a man obsessed by data (we'll get to metrics in a minute.)

Virality has actually been run into the ground, to an extent, argues James Currier, CEO of WonderHill. "People tend to be less viral now, because viral [marketing] started in the U.S. in '97, '98."

There are other options, too, says Greg Tseng, of social networking site Tagged. "There are lots and lots of other type of user acquisitions than virality. There's word of mouth, there's cross-promoting, and there's search engine optimization. If the lifetime value of your customer is high enough that you can spend money to acquire users, then you should, by all means, do that. In Silicon Valley, there's almost a religion around 'viral at all costs'... But if you look at the biggest players, they spend a lot of money."

Offerpal Media acquires users through incentives, so it's no surprise that CEO Anu Shukla isn't totally convinced of the efficacy of virality. "We've seen less and less applications really use the viral loop effectively," she says. "I think more commonly what we're seeing is that you need a sustained effort to buy an audience."

But users you acquire might not be valuable, Shukla admits. "We've found that the users that we acquire don't have the ROI, they don't monetize. It's a delicate balance." No other platform can allow developers to attract such a huge audience so quickly, but an easily-gained audience may not be that valuable.

Despite his obsession with statistics, Chen doesn't want virality to steal the show. "We didn't want this to be, 'Social gaming is all about metrics, so you make something crappy and add a virality engine to it.' You have to have a good game. Metrics will not replace design."

Playfish COO Sebastien de Halleux was even more overt. "The core metric -- I hear a lot of people talk about 'virality.' The Playfish approach is to focus on something quite different, which is fun," he argues. "This puts game design as the core metric of game distribution."

Playfish does subtly encourage its players to recommend its games to friends, but only based on whether or not they truly enjoy them: "Quality drives distribution because it's up to the users," he said.

How? "We [want to] ensure that only people who are deeply engaged with the content invite their friends." Common tactics in other Facebook games include forcing players to recruit friends to access advanced content, by contrast.

The iPhone Isn't There Yet

It's hard to tell whether the speakers like the iPhone just because everybody likes the iPhone, or because they do see value in it. The only consensus about the device seemed to be that it hasn't quite arrived as a social gaming platform just yet.

"We think that iPhone and other smart phones represent a really important platform for social gaming, because it's going to make social gaming accessible to a lot of people who would never get it," Zynga's Pincus says. "We've made a big commitment to iPhone and mobile far ahead of the business opportunity."

Of course, with its Facebook Connect API, which allows outside applications to pull Facebook user data and feed information back to user accounts, the company's Gareth Davis was bullish on what he called "multi device gaming" (Connect will also interface with Xbox 360 and Nintendo DSi later this year.) "If I have an iPhone and you're on Facebook, we can game together," he observes. But nobody else who spoke about it seemed that impressed so far.

In a world of limitless space, the App Store limitations were even more grating to the social network crowd. Lightspeed's Jeremy Liew thinks the current state of the app store works counter to the natural growth of social gaming on platforms like Facebook: "I think this is a really important difference between social and iPhone games... It's a lot more like retail because there can only be top 25 games on the shelf." In web culture, "retail" is a dirty word.

Words like "nascent" were tossed around about the platform, with Shukla adding there's "not a lot of money" in it. The opportunities, for social games companies, seem to still be computer-based.

Convergence is a Tough Road

So, yes: Facebook integration is coming to Xbox 360 and, in a more limited way, to Nintendo DSi, by the end of the year.

But the integration and collaboration between the traditional games industry and the social gaming industry has not seemingly gotten much further in the year since the last Social Games Summit, despite the obvious hopes of last year's speakers.

I think that there are really obvious reasons this isn't currently happening. Tech-oriented, web-trained, fast-paced, hard-nosed Silicon Valley culture is not really that similar to game developer culture. Outside of GDC Austin (operated by Think Services, which also owns Gamasutra) I haven't seen a lot of opportunities for the two industries to mix.

Most crucially, everybody's too damn busy trying to get their jobs done to really spend a lot of time or thought on the issue.

That said, Facebook's Davis is still optimistic that we're just in the run-up period. "I think we're at the beginning and it's going to take a few years. There's a lot to learn as both industries converge, and they're both complementary."

The reason for his optimism? Davis has seen unannounced projects from big companies that work with Facebook Connect. "It's still very early, and I don't think any of these projects are announced, but I'm very impressed." He describes them as "fundamentally social" and "device-based and hooked into a social network," with the "device" in question most likely to be an iPhone or Xbox 360.

Most developers get into games because they're fundamentally interested in the medium. Zynga's Mark Pincus has a different perspective on the function games serve on social networks: "People get fatigued on the news feeds and they want another experience they can share with their friends."

Games have always been used to kill boredom; but with all the statistics the packaged game industry trumpets about being the primary form of entertainment for so many, these days, the mindset that they're just second-string timewasters may be tough to swallow for many developers.

James Liu, COO of Oak Pacific Interactive, one of the biggest social networking companies in China and home to a 400-strong MMO development team made a really interesting observation about the reading material the OPI engineers have by their desks.

"These guys are [engineering] PhDs from top notch schools, but they study economy right now," as well as psychology: the better to understand and motivate user behavior in social networks. That's simply not broadly the case in the game industry as we think of it, right now.

The cultural difference between the extant game industry and the social gaming people does seem to be rooted in pretty deeply in pure terms of organization and process. The Silicon Valley term "engineer" was constantly thrown around; the game industry's "designer" was never really spoken of.

Back to Siqi Chen's obsession with metrics: "Internally I always consider metrics our most important project, probably to our detriment," he says, while Dave King pegs his engineering staff at "60 or 80 percent metrics and analysis, 20-ish percent to other stuff."

His engineers are experts in analysis, too -- they have to understand what the data represents to make the required changes to the games. The granularity that Chen and King showed on stage was extremely impressive.

These include RPG games broken down by level 1-100 showing exactly where users dropped off; multicolored charts showing every quest in the game and how frequently each is completed at a per-level basis; hourly reports on clickthroughs of different variations on promotional copy for the same game.

King's games are simple -- really, really simple -- but the thought that goes into making them sticky and making users pay is conversely rather complicated. In a weird way, it's almost the reverse of the packaged game industry.

As noted above, it's simple to get a lot of users quickly, but they may not be useful -- which is why King wants to figure out why the ones that are playing continue to do so, and make them pay when they reach content they enjoy. His engineers respond instantly with tweaks. He doesn't have a business otherwise.

With packaged software, it's primarily making a holistic experience that's worth $60 after years of hype -- and that's (more or less) the end of the story, till the sequel rolls around. And that cultural difference may be tougher to surmount than getting people to attend the same conferences.

GamersGate To Digitally Distribute Rockin' Android Shmups

Digital distribution platform GamersGate announced a deal to sell PC games from indie publisher Rockin' Android. As I've noted previously, RA specializes in localized shoot'em ups brought over from the doujin scene (titles created by hobbyist developers in Japan like Fate/stay night and Cave Story for example).

The first title released under this deal is Suguri, which looks like a side-scrolling version of Zone of Enders' midair battles in the video above. I'm not sure if the digital download version includes all of the editions and the soundtracks that come with RA's Suguri Perfect Edition's DVD-ROM, but if so, this is a great deal at only half the price!

Other doujin titles from RA's catalog that are likely part of the agreement include Gundemonium Collection, Flying Red Barrel: Diary of a Little Aviator, and Qualia. (RA already signed a deal with separate digital download store Direct2Drive, where titles like Suguri are currently available.)

Nuke Pukem And Other Lost Wacky Hackers

Since the late 1960s, Topps' Wacky Packages stickers and trading cards have provided kids and collectors with the grossest and most immature parodies of consumer products around. The company continued that tradition in 1999, when it commissioned artist Jay Lynch to sketch ides for spoofs of popular video games and computer software.

Though the "Wacky Hackers" set was never actually produced, several of the drafts were scanned and posted online. Lynch says that there are still several more that haven't been posted, like his parody of the So You Want to be a Millionaire video game, titled So You Want To See My Underwear.

You can see a couple of my favorites below, but the full set of "Wacky Hackers" sketches that've been found so far is also archived at Lost Wackys, which also includes titles like Puke-Man and Monkey Dung.

Zombie Desert: Homebrew 2.5D Platformer For PSP

Zombie Desert is still very early in development, but the few images I've seen for the homebrew project so far look promising and worth sharing. Plus, I hope that this attention will convince programmer Calvin and graphic artist Harry to continue developing the title.

The game is designed as a Metal Slug-style 2D run-and-gun platformer, but with 3D level geometry. Calvin also hopes to release a PC level editor for user-created maps. So far, the two-man team has put out a debug build that demonstrates the tilemap engine and allows users to play with the camera.

Calvin says that though he hasn't worked on Zombie Desert lately, he expects to finish the game "no later than by the end of summer" You can download the Alpha release and read about the title's plot on the PSP Hacks forum.

COLUMN: @Play: Fatal Labyrinth, or, "LOOK! A PIT!"

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. This time - an analysis of an intriguing mid-period console Roguelike, Sega's Fatal Labyrinth.]

Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon was released in 1993, and kicked off the popular (in Japan) Mystery Dungeon series of console and portable graphical roguelikes. Provided you don't count the Diablo games, they are by far the most popular commercial roguelikes yet made. And judging just from the quality of gameplay, the second game in that series, Shiren the Wanderer, should probably be numbered among the best roguelikes of all, commercial or not.

How did roguelikes become (to some degree) popular over in Japan while they remain a niche in the U.S., land of their birth? Their roots clutch deep in the soil of old-school Dungeons & Dragons, more so than Dragon Quest, presence of Torneko (a.k.a. Taloon) and a bunch of classic monsters notwithstanding. Now D&D did become popular in Japan, so I hear, but it seems to have been even more a faddish thing there. While a number of classic D&D-derived CRPGs (especially Wizardry) continue to sell in Japan, you don't hear much about the prevalence of D&D itself there any more.

fltitle.pngAnyway, some time after Rogue, the original roguelike, was first distributed, someone ported it to Japanese. I know next to nothing about this version of Rogue. It seems to be the lineage traced by the PS2 roguelike "Rogue Hearts Dungeon," billed as a sequel to the orignal game although it seems unlikely they obtained the permission of Toy, Wichmann and Arnold to make it.

That home computer version of Rogue may be the original exposure of Japanese popular culture to the genre, and Mystery Dungeon sparked the drive of popularity and a wave of imitators, each adhering to the concept with varying degrees of fidelity: Azure Dreams, Dragon Quest Monsters, Monstania, Estopolis II/Lufia II, Climax Landers/Time Stalkers, and many others besides, they all owe some debt to these games. But what happened between those two games, Rogue and Mystery Dungeon? Was there nothing at all between them?

It turns out, no. The Sega Genesis roguelike Fatal Labyrinth was first released in 1990, two or three years before the first Mystery Dungeon game was published, and interestingly, unlike that series, it did see release in the United States.

Hey, it's another (adjective) (dangerous complex)!

Wikipedia tells us that Fatal Labyrinth was first released for the Meganet downloadable game service in Japan. A year after it got a ROM cartridge release, and it is a version of that which came to the United States. Perhaps because of its origins as something that had been made to be transferred through phone lines, the game is rather light on graphics, especially compared to the surprisingly lush Shiren games. Still, it's true that roguelikes don't exactly require the best graphics in the world.

Fatal Labyrinth hews closer to Rogue than many other games in the category. It has randomized dungeons, a variety of equipment to find and wear, and a good number of special objects both long-lasting and one-use. It even scrambles the item definitions before the game begins, leaving the player to figure out their uses, although unlike Rogue or Hack once used identification is automatic; there is no question as to an item's purpose after its first use, which in game terms usually means simply that the first of a given type of object tends to be wasted. Notably, Fatal Labyrinth scrambles more item types than does Shiren up until the bonus dungeons, although F.A. offers far fewer item types to discover.

fl1.pngBad items also exist, of both potions and rings. Scrolls of identify also exist, here called "appraise scrolls" in the game, which will ID any one object of any type. In practice this is the only way other than process-of-elimination to avoid using a bad item, but the bad stuff is mostly pretty limited in the damage it does so it doesn't matter much. Bad rings means curses, but unique to this game, cursed rings only last for a few dozen turns and auto-expire, the ring vanishing when it goes. In Rogue, putting on a ring of blindness is one of the worst things you can do because it can't be removed until a scroll of remove curse is found. The curse timer in Fatal Labyrinth generally means that bad items there are generally slight, and test-IDing is common.

Sticking and moving

Fatal Labryinth's play systems are somewhat unique, and are not quite roguelike standard. I will attempt to describe them. It's a strange system, but not without its depths. As one of the few definite roguelikes that actually meddles with Rogue's essential combat and movement system, it is worthy of detailed study.

First, the player's character and the monsters in this game are generally incapable of moving or attacking diagonally. They simply cannot; it doesn't enter into the game. Not even staff-waving or object-throwing can be done on a diagonal. Monsters that are confused may sometimes be spotted moving diagonally, but they also occasionally move two spaces, so it's probably related to that. (It's not clear why confused monsters can move faster.)

fl2.pngSecond, the actions of movement and attacking are not quite the same in terms of game time. Most monsters move slower than they attack, and the player is faster in movement than most monsters. Monsters and the player are pretty much all the same speed when fighting, so up-close combat becomes the traditional blow-for-blow battle most roguelike players are familiar with. But here's a weird thing: nearly all monsters get a "parting shot," similar to 3E D&D's attacks of opportunity, at your back when you take a step out of melee combat. While this is usually free damage for them, this attack also uses up the monster's movement turn, meaning you can open up a one-gap space between yourself and a pursuing enemy for the price of one hit. This opportunity attack only seems to happen if the monster is facing the player; although the player can change facing at will without cost by holding down the B button and pressing the direction pad, monsters can only turn as part of moving or attacking. Another weird point: enemy magic attacks made as parting shots always seem to fail.

The player being able to move faster than monsters allows a careful player to avoid confrontations. Partly to counter this, most monsters have an ability to attack at a distance. Like the player, they can only do this straight horizontally or vertically. They never seem to use this when the player is moving directly across their vision; they only shoot if he is both lined up and either moving towards, away from, or doing something else. If this seems difficult to understand, well, it's not exactly obvious in play either.

X-ray vision and zig-zag diagonals

fl3.pngThird, monsters have no state of not knowing the player's location. They're either asleep and immobile (which they all are when they start a level) or awake and chasing, and when awake they're always granted knowledge of the player's location.

The game does not check to see if the monster could see the player. They'll all try to move to the player's position even if there's a wall in the way, which causes them to just wait by the wall matching the player's sideways motion. This may seem unfair, but in the game's defense, the player is also capable of seeing monsters that are not in line-of-sight.

Monsters have a strange movement quirk that can be exploited to advantage. When a monster is some distance from the player but not in a straight line, the way the monster will decide to travel to line up with the player seeks to close the greater distance of the two axises it has to choose from. In other words, if a monster is five spaces away east-west, and ten spaces away north-south, it'll always travel down if it's not blocked by a wall or another monster.

Combined with strictly Cartesian movement and ranged attacks, this serves to cause monsters to attempt to not line up with the player until they are in melee range. They'll zig-zag all the way up to him to avoid getting shot. This is strange because it's not really in the monster's best interests. Most monsters have the ability to make their own powerful ranged attacks for only the cost of using its turn, while all the player's distance attacks require expending resources. Rather than line up and shoot at the player, monsters will instead seek to delay lining up as long as possible. I'm not sure why they do this, especially considering monster attacks pass through other enemies harmlessly, so if they all lined up they wouldn't kill each other with friendly fire.

Finding a Delicatessen in the Deadly Monster Tower

fl4.pngA major portion of Rogue's design concerns food, which forces the player to explore to continue to find more, pushing him into deeper areas before he's had time to grind up extra experience levels. Fatal Labyrinth uses Rogue's food setup to a point; unlike the earlier game, food here is consumed the moment it's picked up. A number in the corner of the screen indicates what the player's food level is, which slowly goes down during play.

Food doesn't fill up the player's stomach by a set amount. It adds either 10, 20 or 30 food to the counter randomly. Even if the player gets mostly 10s though he shouldn't want for food too much, it's not extremely rare. More likely, in fact, he'll have trouble with overeating. If the food total gets to over 79 the player will be slowed, only getting one turn in two. This is a considerable problem, enough to make the player pause whenever eating when his current food is above 50, even if the chance of getting put into the slow zone is only one-in-three at that level. Worse, I hear if the player's food level ever goes above 99 he dies from overeating. This is turns out mostly to be an easily-avoidable death so long as the player sees it coming; the only real danger of starving in the game come from drinking a hunger potion, reducing food instantly to 1, but even starving is less deadly than overeating, as running out of food causes not instant death but persistent damage over time.

Most roguelikes feature what we might term "wandering monsters," after the random opponents from classic D&D. In most games, these are handled by randomly adding new monsters into the level out of the player's sight. Fatal Labyrinth does not do this. Mostly during the exploration of a level, only the monsters that existed there upon entry will be there to fight, making it possible to deplete a level of monsters. That, coupled with the monsters' immobility until the player wakes them up by proximity, makes for a more leisurely exploring pace than other roguelikes, at least for a while. After a predetermined number of turns on a level have passed, the game will suddenly revive all the dead monsters back at their start points and wake them all up!

The dungeon bears you no fondness

fl5.pngThere are two kinds of traps in the Labyrinth, both of them impossible to detect until set off, and both operating 100% of the time their space is stepped into. Alarm traps wake up all the monsters, which due to foes' tendency to get stuck behind walls is usually not too bad. Pit traps, however, dump the player back on the previous level, with monsters replenished. The layout of the previous level will be the same as before, but there won't be any items to find. When the player returns to the trap's level the trap will still be there, once again hidden, and the player can very well fall into it again, and again, if he isn't careful.

Importantly, the trap level will have all its items randomly restocked, regardless of the number that had been collected before. Since the monster revival counter resets upon changing levels that's not an effective check against building up items, and food is included in the replenished so generally the player won't starve if he chooses to take advantage of this quirk. It's quite an abusable trick, sometimes without the player even intending to: if he stumbles into a pit trap accidentally, who is going to tell him not to take advantage of the restored items in order to make up for the wasted time?

Oddly, it seems that the dungeon levels, instead of being randomly generated from a blank grid, are instead drawn from a bank of pre-made levels. Monsters and items are scattered around each floor as the player enters, but traps look like they may be set features, which makes the game subtly easier each time its played and trap locations are learned.

Overall, Fatal Labyrinth isn't really a bad game, but it's fairly long for its limited number of dungeon settings. There isn't much sense of the game changing during its 30 lengthy levels. A level of rogue can be over in a couple of minutes, while a level of Fatal Labyrinth often takes ten or more, assuming the player doesn't get sent back to do it again by one of those damn pit traps. It's not really up to the level of Shiren, but it's not really bad. Give it a shot, in any case.


Appendix: On the monsters and items in the game

Some of the more troublesome monsters you may find here:

Bats (depicted as an eyeball with wings) move semi-randomly, and are among the fast-moving opponents.

Worms are pillbug-like creatures that like attacking from a distance. Be careful of level 2 worms, colored green! It doesn't seem to happen often, but their shots can destroy armor! Fortunately there is plenty laying around to replace it with.

Snails are slow and never leave rooms, but are difficult to score damage against.

Magicians are very dangerous monsters who can cast sleep and confusions spells. If you're facing just one it's generally not so bad, but if other monsters are in the fight it becomes vital to either get away from the magician without getting affected or use some of your inventory resources to make the situation more reasonable.

Slimes are generally pretty basic, but the third level slime, the blue ones, are able to multiply once awake. This can be a good source of experience, but it can also make a level into an unplayable mess.

Ice Bars have a pretty strong distance attack, making it desirable to close with them and kill them quickly.

Robots are one of the first really tricky monsters, with long-ranged attacks and the capability to do a g ood amount of damage per turn. Fortunately, they generally don't wake up unless you attack them first.

Medusas appear fairly late in the game. Not only can they blind you with a gaze, they can drain your maximum hit points. Take note particularly of that second thing, for there is no cure for that loss and the game's message isn't very useful in figuring out what has happened to your character. In any case, handle Medusas with care.

fl6.pngSome of the items you may find along the way. Most names are accurate but a few I have yet to see in-game; I've identified those by effect:

Canes, unlike wands in most roguelikes, have only one charge each. Most of them are distance weapons:
Blizzard: does some damage. Seems to do more if the opponent doesn't resist cold.
Lightning: similar, but for electricity.
Fire: similar, but for fire.
Hypnosis: put one foe to sleep. Even monsters you'd think would be immune to this, such as robots, can be send to dreamland fairly easily with one of these.
Kamikaze: blows one monster off the board, apparently in exchange for some damage.
Anti-Magic: Affects every monster currently on the level, sealing their magic powers and (maybe) some special abilities.
Wooden: Worthless.

It's kind of surprising how few types of potions there are:
Power Up: grants a permanent +1 to attack strength
Heal: Refills a lot of hit points. There may be an even more powerful version, although if there is I was unable to determine its name.
Dancing/Confusion: I'm still not sure of the name of this one. A bad item, this causes you to move and attack in random directions. With careful use of the B button to fix your location, you can still determine which direction to shoot canes and arrows, and throw things. This doesn't last too long.
Blinder (bad, causes game not to retain map of level and reduces vision to 1 space around, lasts a short while)
Hunger (beware of this one, it sets your food level to 1 -- good reason not to try out potions unless there's extra food around)
Curse Removal (in a potion?)
Quicken (grants double speed until the end of the floor)

Here's the scrolls:
Chaos: Confuses all monsters, although all this really means is they move randomly only if they're not attacking you. Unlike the way confusion affects the player, monsters can still direct their melee attacks. Note that this scroll affects even monsters that have not yet appeared on the level. It lasts until the player leaves the floor.
Search: Items in unrevealed territory show up in the black. A common scroll, but not really very useful.
Rust Proof: Protects your equipment from rust, I suppose. I've yet to see a rust effect in-game. It's possible it's talking about the item-destruction attack of green worms. No indication of which items are protected is given, and neither does it state when the effect ends. I assume it lasts until the end of the floor.
Strength Up: Oddly, it says "Your armor has been strengthened." What it means is your defense has been permanently improved permanently by a small amount. Your armor is untouched, and although the game does support item plusses, this doesn't change them.
Teleport: Sends you elsewhere, immediately and randomly, on the current level. A very rare scroll.
Appraise: That should say identify. It works on any one item you're carrying although most of them are easy enough to determine. These scrolls tend to be rather feast-or-famine in this game, sometimes you find lots of them and sometimes you don't find any. If you find one, it's probably best used on a potion.
Strengthen weapon: I don't know the real name for this scroll. It's very rare, and it increases the attack value on a weapon by one. While the weapon's name isn't changed to something like "Long Sword +1," the item's description is modified to reflect the change. This is actually not very useful: the game's upgrade cycle, a symptom of the level-based generation of equipment, means you'll probably end up changing your weapons as you go along, as the difference between weapon tiers is far greater than a single point.
Curse Removal: Removes any curse (confusion, blindness, heal prevention) that is upon you, from any source. I believe it even works against monster attack effects, although this is untested.

Rings:
Power Up: Increases your attack strength by a small number. Probably the best ring in the early game, later on the relative increases from level gains and equipment come to dwarf the bonus provided by this ring. Is it my imagination, or do different rings provide different bonuses?
Armor: Increases your defense by a small amount. Tends to be used less in the mid-game for the same reasons as Power Up.
Blizzard: Provides no obvious effect, but it seems likely that it lends some defense from cold-based element attacks.
Flame: As "Blizzard," but for fire attacks.
Lightning: As with electrical attacks.
Heal: Doubles HP regeneration speed, a good advantage. If you're playing competently, then a single monster will almost never have the power to kill your character. It's multiple opponents acting at once, or a monster attacking you when you're low on health, that's the problem. But waiting around to heal, tapping that 'A' button, wastes food (which is not usually a big problem) and increases the chance of the monsters regenerating (which could be troublesome). Both situations are made easier if you're getting your periodic HP restorations twice as often. This items doesn't seem to increase your hunger.
Food: I'm not exactly sure, but I believe this reduces hunger. Given the penalties for overeating, it is possible this ring has a different effect.
Blinder: Limits your sight to one space around you, and also causes your character to forget the map. Cursed, but only lasts for a short while.
Curse: Cursed, obviously. This prevents natural healing, but lasts only a short time.

Other notes

fl7.pngThere are effectively two kinds of secret doors. The first is simply normal passages down or right of rooms. Passages along those walls don't get revealed until you stand right next to them. There are also "explicit" secret passages, which must be faced and the 'A' button pressed to reveal. Only the one spot immediately faced is searched, which makes scanning a wall for passages a bit more of a chore than in Rogue, in which a search covers all eight adjacent spaces.

Level 10 appears to always be a big room. The best way I've found to tackle it is to run in large loop around the room avoiding monsters until they separate into the bats and everything else. Then take out the bats, then take out the other things. If you have a scroll of chaos (confuses all monsters) then this is an excellent time to use it.

Here is a list of ranks bestowed on the player as he gains levels. As a jolly game, see if you can unscramble them into the order the game confers them in: Beginner, Valet, Ranger, Leader, "Battleman," Soldier, Warrior, Fighter, Swordsman, Trooper, Knight, Veteran, Master. (Answer: They're already in order. Yes, Leader < Soldier. Yes, "Battleman" isn't the highest rank possible.)

It appears to me, but I have yet to really prove, that Fatal Labyrinth's levels are not actually randomly generated, but just pulled from a bank of pre-made levels. This actually doesn't affect the game as much as you might think, although it does make it a bit easier once you know where the secret doors and traps are. (And before you judge it on this point, I also have reason to believe Shiren the Wanderer does the same thing with some of its outdoor levels.)

Weapons and armor are kind of boring in Fatal Labyrinth. They're mostly generated according to the dungeon level, and all items of the same class look identical. Rarely a piece of equipment will be generated out-of-dept, but because there's no way to look at an item without picking it up, it means to find the one-in-twenty long sword in among the short swords, the player must pick up the other sword swords, one at a time, to find it, which gets tiring to say the least.

While the weapons are split up into power tiers like 90% of JRPGs, there is some variety between them than just an ascending ladder of power. There are five main classes of items: axes, swords, spears, shuriken abd bows. Axes have much greater power than swords of the same tier, but in exchange for hitting much less often. Spears are the opposite, weaker attack power but much better hit chances. Shuriken and bows are both missile weapons. Shuriken can be thrown at enemies and don't have to be wielded, but are relatively uncommon. Bows are more-frequently found, but must be equipped to fire, which means wearing no other weapon -or- shield.

EDIT: Half a paragraph was somehow missing from the secret door notes. It's been fixed.

High-End Department Store Looks To Fighting Games For Ad Inspiration

Upscale UK department store chain Harvey Nichols (or at least its ad agency, DDB London) drew inspiration from a surprising source to promote its current sale -- fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.

The ads show virtual characters dressed in designer clothes (Alexander McQueen suits, Rodarte dresses) while exchanging special moves that should be familiar to fighter fans. In the above image, two posh women battle in heels next to the shoe section, trading fireballs and what looks like M. Bison's Double Knee Press.

You can see two more of the Harvey Nicks ads past the break. The Inspiration Room also has higher resolution versions of the same images.

[Via Wonderland]

GameSetLinks: Kudos To Mega64, Eh?

[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 steam happily towards the weekend, time for a final set of GameSetLinks hanging around from our last RSS trawl, and it's headed by another complex piece of thinking from Duncan Fyfe's Hit Self-Destruct, alongside Mega64's inspired reversioning of Microsoft's E3 press conference, chomlettes and all.

Also in this set of links - neat lists of iPhone games, the perennial attempt to define 'indie' gets a new suitor, game design annoyances, German newspapers loving indie titles and Tale Of Tales, and lots more, apparently.

Chosen lords:

Hit Self-Destruct: Prometheus Unlocked
An interesting rumination on why games are played and why they become beloved to us.

Mega64 » Archive » E3 2009 Microsoft Keynote Highlight Reel
Harsh but fair, I think - so much awesomeness here.

Tale of Tales» Blog » New developers save videogames from boredom
A nice big indie games mention in a major German newspaper, with IGF prominently referenced too, neat.

What They Play - Today - John's giant list of iPhone games
A nice intelligent list, fanks!

NinjaBee Dance: Indie Game Developer: The Definition
The Kingdom Of Keflings/Outpost Kaloki folks hit it on the head, perhaps: 'Indie is exactly what you are. Anyone who you think has an advantage over you isn’t Indie.'

Geek Studies » Where’d My Key Go? (And Other Game Design Annoyances)
'I was talking to a friend the other night about how many (ostensibly) narrative games often do things that entirely defy logic and ruin a sense of immersive storytelling.'

GameSpy Video: Mega64: Same old Sh** - The New Game Developers Tool
Ah, bonus linkage - a little bitterness from the Mega64 folks, heh.

June 25, 2009

More Art From Enix's Nanatsu Kaze No Shima Monogatari

Seeing as several of you really appreciated our post on Enix's background art for adventure game Nanatsu Kaze No Shima Monogatari (The Seven Blasts of Wind in Island Story), I'm sure you'll enjoy another batch of art from the Sega Saturn title.

Bruno de Figueiredo posted a collection of sketches, character drawings, screenshots, and soundtrack excerpts from Nanatsu Kaze No Shima Monogatari's bonus CD, doing his part to expose more people to the game's outlandish but beautiful art. I've included a couple samples below, but you can also download the file pack from de Figueiredo site.

Analysis: Can Nintendo Take 'Accessibility' Too Far?

[Nintendo's done great things for the video game industry by pioneering accessibility. But in this analysis, Leigh Alexander explores possible ramifications of its latest move -- a patent for automated walkthroughs -- and wonders whether it goes too far.]

Nintendo is carrying this console generation on its shoulders in more ways than one. At the close of 2008, the company claimed credit for a stunning 99 percent of industry growth for the year; a close look at NPD numbers showed that 49 percent of software units sold last year were for the Wii and DS.

But beyond keeping numbers up in the face of an economic decline, Nintendo's success has been good for the industry in numerous, less-tangible ways.

Thanks to its innovative motion controls, the Wii has become the first video game console to truly proliferate in the mainstream living room. It's welcomed into the arms of the industry an entirely new audience that in many cases had never even played games before.

What's Good For Nintendo Is Good For Us All

It's easy to begrudge Nintendo's software dominance on its own platforms, but it's hard to argue against the rising tide lifting all boats.

As the flashpoint for explosive market expansion, Nintendo's innovations have emboldened the casual gaming biz on all platforms and paved the way for a renegotiation in the high-powered graphical arms race.

The company has provided an "in" for the home entertainment ambitions of other consoles, strengthened a formerly sedentary hobby with quantifiable health benefits, and opened a promising door to more gender equity in game audiences. Nintendo has even neutered the destructive old argument that games are nothing but sticky playthings for violent teen boys. The list goes on.

Developers may have dragged their feet at first to fully leverage the "gimmicky" Wii Remote, while gamers scorned the "shovelware" that resulted -- as they rolled their eyes at friendly peripherals, raged at Nintendo's betrayal of the hardcore and snickered at television anchors trying Wii Boxing on the morning news.

Hate To Say 'I Told You So'

The picture's quite different now. Publishers feeling the recession's pinch are desperate to assure investors they can make true Wii-native hits. Many industry-watchers say even Sony and Microsoft's impressive gesture-based gaming unveils at E3 look quite like a late scramble to follow the leader.

"It's great to see that motion sensing control has now become an industry standard," Nintendo's Denise Kaigler graciously told Gamasutra at E3. "It's great when anything is announced that can continue to build on what Nintendo started years ago."

Yes, years ago. While everyone else was in a bigger-better-more equipment-measuring contest, Nintendo won its unshakable leadership position by focusing on one simple principle: accessibility.

That's why the news that Nintendo virtuoso Shigeru Miyamoto patented an automated walkthrough system for Nintendo games like New Super Mario Bros raised few eyebrows. And in the wake of the complete vindication of Nintendo's market strategy, it also raised few complaints.

Catching Flies With Honey

"In New Super Mario Bros Wii, if a player is experiencing an area of difficulty, this will allow them to clear troubled areas and take over when they're ready," Miyamoto told USA Today, describing the patented help system in question. "And yes, we're looking into this for future games, too."

The original patent had also suggested a pop-up hint system in the works, and also appeared to demonstrate solutions without relying on or affecting save data. The point? To reduce barriers to entry even further, particularly for younger or inexperienced players, and to encourage all audiences to complete more games.

What's wrong with that? Hints, tips, tricks, FAQs and walkthroughs have been an essential part of video game culture since the beginning. Arguably, the vast majority of crude precursors and sadistically-crafted puzzle-adventures of gaming's more formative years couldn't have been completed without them.

'Back in the day', for the benefit of today's 80s babies, all the cool kids owned an NES, but the coolest kid owned a Game Genie. Many of their parents puzzled over phone bills jacked up with a litany of calls to Sierra's hint line. Strategy guides were spinecracked, dog-eared, written in and well-loved. Even today, players have internet forums; they swap and spoil, mod and hack.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but cheating's actually part of being "hardcore." Players have never stopped needing help to finish some games, and their means of attaining it have never been more elaborate or sophisticated. That's remained a constant, but games haven't. They've gotten longer, deeper, richer and more complex at a pace similar to the rate at which game audiences are aging up and running out of free time.

That and the instant-gratification culture of the digital age combine to mean players probably complete fewer games than ever. This is ironically occurring as budgets -- and retail prices -- rise so as to make maximizing play hours and value per dollar a necessity.

That "failure to complete" is not just a disappointment to the end boss designer whose work is seen by few. It's a threat to lofty goals like narrative throughlines, simpler ones like players' sense of accomplishment -- and probably further game purchases.

So What's The Matter?

What's wrong with giving players a little boost through a situation that might otherwise put them off the game entirely? And since Nintendo's championed accessibility by lowering the barrier to entry just a little bit, wouldn't lowering it just a little bit more with Miyamoto's system be a good thing?

Bigger audiences finishing more games is certainly a worthy goal, and Nintendo has shown that accessibility is the servant of engagement. History has rarely -- if ever -- dared to disprove the wisdom of Miyamoto's foresight.

History has also never disproven, however, the principle that any medium and any message degrades the wider an audience it must reach. Art was never served by generalization, nor language by addressing all denominators. Entertainment for the masses ultimately becomes empty.

There must exist an absolute point beyond which greater accessibility means less engagement. Making a game so easy it can play itself for you at the push of a button just might be that point.

No Engagement Without Challenge

There's a reason that spoilers are hidden behind spoiler warnings -- they ruin the game. Just above that handy 900 number in the back of your old manual was a warning that too many hints spoil the game. Having to answer several "are you sure" prompts in the exasperated affirmative was often a necessary gauntlet in squeezing a vague, measly hint from a text parser.

The education world knows that getting children to engage with learning means providing them challenges appropriate to their skill level -- not letting them skip their homework. EA Maxis VP and general manager Lucy Bradshaw recently talked to Gamasutra about how she prized finding a school for her daughters that would give them the freedom to learn by doing -- even if that means encountering frustration.

That's an essential principle in game design, too, she says. Bradshaw, of course, looks over the Sims franchise -- widely credited with making the biggest strides in game accessibility aside from, well, the Wii.

Other designers agree. Midway Newcastle principal designer Rob Hale also blogged in favor of the failure principle after he heard about Valve's experience play-testing Team Fortress 2. Players were less upset about being killed when they were given feedback that helped them improve.

Ubisoft Montreal creative director Clint Hocking spoke at GDC just this year on games as "a medium for the creative expression of their players." He noted how it's more engaging for designers to provide avenues for players to explore rather than to do all of the leading.

Far Cry 2's much-lauded fire didn't just look good, Hocking said -- it was designed specifically to provide more opportunities for the player to think strategically.

With over 11 million users World of Warcraft's global userbase is only about 1/5 of the Wii's, but it's undeniably a mainstream video game in terms of public consciousness. It keeps its players active (addicted, by some interpretations) through the use of incremental rewards.

And even though it frustrates them by keeping the next great reward perpetually out of reach, that's considered part of its charm. Blizzard bans users who sell in-game gains and shortcuts because it wrecks the experience for everyone.

The idea of smaller, achievable challenges has also played a key role in the proliferation of Xbox Live thanks to players hooked on social Achievement-mania. This is a concept that's also further mainstreamed casual gaming both online and on social networks like Facebook -- another rapid-growth sector under watch by major publishers, as popular games can rack up users by the millions.

One thing's clear -- if audiences aren't finishing games, the way to improve the situation isn't to do it for them. And if Nintendo wants to provide an entry point for new young minds, letting them learn by eliminating difficulty and making future audiences expect that they will never be on their own could, by logical extension, ultimately do more harm for games than good.

After all, all gamers -- digital or otherwise -- know that seeing a puzzle solved functionally kills all motivation to do it themselves. If players aren't finishing games, it's not because they're too hard. Gamers have always sought out hints and walkthroughs and always will. A hint's one thing; an at-your-fingertips insta-solution is beyond.

Designers are continually practicing, discussing and innovating on methods to encourage player engagement across a variety of genres and skill levels. Early, experimental biofeedback studies seem to suggest that players need even more give-and-take between themselves and the game than even developers, accustomed to taking certain game elements for granted, yet understand.

It's far from a solved problem. There's more learning to be done on how game design can reach new players, teach inexperienced ones and engage audiences overall. But if market leader Nintendo -- and "father of modern game design" Shigeru Miyamoto -- are ready to make even a small statement that declares game design itself so useless that players are better served to simply skip it, can we really afford to shrug?

Atari Settles Over GPL Violations In ScummVM Games

Eugene "Sev" Sandulenko -- co-lead developer of ScummVM, an interpreter for "classic graphical point-and-click adventure games," says that the project's development team arranged a settlement agreement with Atari over alleged GPL violations in its Wii ports of three classic Humongous Entertainment titles (Freddi Fish: The Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds, Spy Fox in "Dry Cereal", and Pajama Sam: No Need to Hide When It's Dark Outside).

Sandulenko claims that the subcontracted Ukranian developer behind the ports, Mistic Software, "stacked together a ScummVM build". He added that after inspecting one of the game's binary, he found full credits for the ScummVM team as well as comments asking developers to report bugs to the group. He was also able to reproduce a unique bug from an old build of the interpreter.

Atari's lawyers first denied the allegations when approached with the team's discovery, but later discussed resolving the matter by adding ScummVM copyrights on new prints of the games and applying GPL stickers to current copies on store shelves. After finding out that Nintendo prohibits the use of open source software with its Wii SDK, however, Atari realized that it could not add a GPL clause to the games.

As a result, the team and Atari came to another agreement:

"The rough details of the final settlement were: [ScummVM developers Max "Fingolfin" Horn and Gregory "cyx" Montoir] can post an agreed 'press release.' They are not allowed to talk more about it.

There is a period of time in which all current copies have to be sold. Any copies beyond this period or any reprints get fined with quite high fine for each new/remaining copy. The remaining stock has to be destoryed [sic].

There will be no single usage of ScummVM for any of upcoming games without our knowledge. Atari makes a significant donation to Free Software Foundation. Atari covers all expenses on gpl-violations.org lawyers."

Sandulenko says that the team isn't satisfied with the settlement, but felt it was better than involving itself in an expensive and lengthy trial. He adds, "So, when you will see Pajama Sam, Freddi Fish or SPY Fox games for Wii now in stores, know, that ScummVM is in there. And when you hear about ScummVM, remember, it is a commercial grade software which even Atari is not ashamed to put their label on."

[Via PDRoms]

GDC Europe 2009 Reveals Remedy Keynote

[Continuing with the announcements from GSW sister events, here's Remedy's managing director announced as the second keynote for GDC Europe this August - and I'm looking forward to checking out our first-ever German-based pan European event, which is taking place alongside massive 'E3 of Europe' GamesCom.]

Matias Myllyrinne, managing director of Remedy Entertainment, original creators of the acclaimed Max Payne series and the upcoming Alan Wake, has been announced as the second keynote for GDC Europe 2009.

In his keynote address entitled, "From Max Payne to Alan Wake: Creating Intellectual Properties the Remedy Way," Myllyrinne will share the key principles that have guided the company over the years in developing its games.

He will touch on the company's explicit goal to remain small, independent, and passionate about creating new IP, and will try to answer a very important question: how can boutique European studios create large games, compete and succeed in a quickly changing and ever-growing games industry?

As one of the key figures behind the company's success, Myllyrinne is responsible for handling Remedy's business affairs. Since joining the company in 1999, he has helped build Remedy into one of the region's leading independent game developers.

He's also heavily involved with Remedy's upcoming Alan Wake, due to debut exclusively on Xbox 360 in Spring 2010. It follows the writer Alan Wake as he battles dark forces against him and unravels the mystery behind his fiancee's disappearance.

The keynote announcement follows the earlier announcement of a keynote from CCP head Hilmar Petursson, who will be unveiling the studio's next project during his speech on CCP's growth.

In addition, other confirmed speakers for the August event include Flower's Kellee Santiago, who is joining Swords And Soldiers' Joost van Dongen, Zootfly's Bostjan Troha and Black Rock's Eduardo Jimenez at the three-day conference.

"Remedy revolutionized the action genre with Max Payne in 2001," said Frank Sliwka, Vice President European Business Development of Think Services Game Group. "Their keynote exemplifies a success story of high quality games produced in Europe and enjoyed worldwide. We are honored to welcome Myllyrinne to the stage."

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.

What If New Super Mario Bros. Wii Wasn't Based On The DS Game?

Aside from the inclusion of Yoshi and its four-player co-op (or versus, if your group would rather play that way), New Super Mario Bros. Wii seems visually identical to New Super Mario Bros. for DS. Most don't mind the reuse of assets, some prefer something fresh, and others apparently are curious to see what the platformer would look like if Nintendo had copied the art direction from other Mario Bros. titles.

NeoGAF forumer Mama Robotnik, famous for his animated NPD GIFs, took a screen from the upcoming Wii title and used MSPaint to mock up shots of what New Super Mario Bros. Wii would look like if rendered in the style of the original NES games and of Super Mario World.

The results, pasted below, look fantastic -- I'm hoping that with all the ROM hacking tools available for these titles, someone will actually recreate the older Super Mario Bros. games with four-player co-op!

Innex Readying Sega Nomad Successor

The Nomad, Sega's 1995 handheld that enabled gamers to play Genesis/Mega Drive carts on the go, is making a return in the form of Innex's officially licensed Retro Gen. You might recognize Innex as the exclusive U.S. distributor of the recently popularized 3-in-1 Virtual Retro Adaptor for Wii.

Unlike the original Nomad, the Retro Gen includes a build-int rechargable battery via USB and a TV out function [Update: As JP notes in the comments, the original Nomad had TV out as well]. You can also play licensed games that have been downloaded and saved to an SD card using a special development cart, which is also compatible with the company's Sega Genesis clone, Firebox.

One drawback of Innex's portable, though, is that it doesn't allow a second player to plug in a controller, a feature that Sega Nomad owners enjoyed.

Innex showed the Firebox and Retro Gen off at E3, but the only coverage I've seen of them from the event has been online retailer Videogame Central's interview/advertisement with the distributor's vice president Joey Ngoy. Videogame Central is also offering preorders for the products on its site. The Retro Gen is scheduled to ship on July 25th.

COLUMN: Design Diversions : 'Bad Monster, No Biscuit'

FinalFantasyLegend%28Redbull%29.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us.]

When people ask if video games teach us anything, the answer is yes: they teach us how to be better at playing video games. But games also teach us, sometimes subtly, sometimes accidentally, about game design. The choices of design aren’t usually obvious.

Most of the time, it’s enough that a game is fun, or scary, or dramatic, and it’s better to focus the player on the experience rather than how the experience was created. Sometimes, though, an unusual choice of design breaks this rhythm and makes us suddenly conscious of the conventions we take for granted.

One game that unintentionally shares this information (to its determent, unfortunately) is SaGa, a game marketed in the states as The Final Fantasy Legend. The SaGa series is perhaps best known for becoming progressively more obtuse and bizarre with each iteration. Its beginning on the Game Boy, however, was fairly standard for RPGs of its time, asking the player recruits a party of four to do normal RPG things like kill monsters and find treasure.

But this game gives particular insight into enemy design and its incompatibility with player design through an interesting, though flawed, option for players: it lets you play as nearly any enemy in the game.

SaGa is unusual when it comes to the advancement of the game’s three races. Humans grow by buying HP and stats from stores, and mutants grow in random ways after every fight. Monsters, however, advance by turning into different monsters, allowing them to transform into an exact copy of nearly any enemy in the game.

Don’t Eat the Meat

In theory, it sounds very interesting, but because these monsters are designed with the challenges of enemy design in mind, the fundamentally different design requirements that go into creating players and enemies makes the monsters an extremely weak choice to play as. What becomes apparent through play is that their weaknesses as a tool for a player are a result of their strengths as a challenge for the player to overcome.

So what makes monsters so bad? For one thing, monsters tend to do much less damage than anyone else, and they can’t be customized, whereas the humanoid races can be set up with an appropriate breadth of abilities. Monsters can quickly run out of useful skills and then sit around uselessly until you have a chance to rest. They have more HP than anything else, but that doesn’t carry much of an advantage when the other playable races can do so much more damage that there won’t be enough enemies left to damage them.

It doesn’t take a lot of playing to figure out that monsters just don’t feel made for fighting.

The characters the player controls need to be designed to live through dozens and dozens of battles, kill a boss, buy stuff, advance the plot, and still have some wiggle room left over. A monster, on the other hand, is designed to outlast the looping of the battle music. In the seconds of an enemy’s lifespan, it needs to be challenging enough to interest the player but then either die immediately in a satisfying manner or kill players that are doing something wrong.

FinalFantasyLegend%28Redbull%29.jpgThe Life of a Monster: Nasty, Brutish, and Short

Because of this, a monster is designed with only a brief lifespan in mind. Designers don’t have to worry about the monster before it encounters the party (because it doesn’t exist) or after (because either the player or the monster is dead). Trying to keep one of these things in your party is like trying to get a mayfly to live long enough to earn a PHD from a major research institution.

At first this might seem backwards since monsters have high HP and frustrating immunities, which theoretically would let them survive longer than the races designed specifically for players. But because a monster has relatively weak attacks, they will actually take much more damage than any of the other races because their weak attacks ensure that combat will last longer.

Monsters also aren’t typically equipped with the resources necessary for multiple battles. The other races have the ability to stock up on weapons and attacks, and although they run out eventually, monsters are stuck with what they have. For their tiny lifespan, it’s luxurious, but the game full expects the player to be able to survive extensive periods without rest, and what’s plenty for one battle is nowhere near enough for dozens.

The Making of a Hero

Player HP is low not to make the heroes weak, but to create tension and drama. If the players lose health, they have to be cautious or find ways to recover it. Monsters won’t outlast the fight, so their HP has to come up front. When HP is given to player characters in short increments, the player has a lot more moments of OH MY GOD I’M GONNA DIE. This engages players.

HP is the benchmark of challenge. Monsters must have more and more HP in order to present more of a challenge. HP is less a way for monsters to survive and more a tangible goal for the players to accomplish. The core of RPG gameplay (or really, any game that involves fighting) is to hit this allotted goal of damage before you run out of resources. Challenge and tension depend on this sort of distinctive enemy design.

Conclusions

These principles are by no means limited to RPGs. What if I invented a first person shooter in which you ran from inn to inn shooting waves of monsters? Then I would be sued, because I would have invented Doom. While Doom’s monsters aren’t very resilient, they more than make up for this in numbers that easily overwhelm the total health of the player. In both games, there’s a goal of minimum damage required before you can move on.

In the more “realistic” modern fps, the only change to the fundamental mechanic is even lower player health, a design choice that is as much for dramatic reasons as it is for realism. Nearly every game that involves shooting and killing something controlled by the computer follows this school of design.

This is because enemies aren’t supposed to be lethal. They exist to generate the tension of almost dying, and force the player to find ways to overcome them. SaGa teaches its unsuspecting players that enemies are designed to pose challenges, not overcome them.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames and helps mayflies acquire master's degrees, and can be reached at [email protected]]

Prototypes For The Prototype Big Daddy

To create BioShock 2's protagonist, the first Big Daddy ever created in Rapture, 2K Marin went through many prototypes to convey its unfinished feel. "The artists had to imagine what the very first Big Daddy would have on him -- this Big Daddy had to feel like he was a rough draft or a work-in-progress, an amalgam of Big Daddies to come," the developer explained.

2K Marin has posted several shots from its creation process for the character, similar to its overview of Big Sister's evolution. Above, you can see a "near final concept rendering" of the first Big Daddy. I've also included a couple previews of earlier drafts after the break:

GameSetLinks: Broken Promises, Cheaper Games

[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.]

Jumping on the midweek GameSetLinks, we're kicking off with a neat GameCulture pointer (you should be reading GameCulture, by the way, it's refreshingly wideranging) on whether the music is getting squashed by games and movies -- as well as digital download issues.

Also in this set of good linkage - games you should care about for the rest of the year, the iPhone 3GS tech explained, why games getting cheaper may be a bad thing, how you can learn things from users of your game, the alleged Wii gathering dust problem analyzed, and more.

Ahead of curve:

A Sinister Plot: Are Downloads Really Killing the Music Industry? | GameCulture
'Rather than suffering precipitous losses to nefarious P2P users, the plot (produced by The Guardian) suggests that music industry has, instead, been squeezed to near-death by its colleagues — games and movies.'

Game Tycoon»Blog Archive » Mending Broken Promises
A very thoughtful (and not really flame-y) editorial on why many Wiis are collecting dust: 'Long story short, Nintendo has made a bunch of promises, explicitly and implicitly, and has failed to actually keep many of those promises.'

Fullbright: games I'm looking forward to
A useful, video-filled, annotated list from Steve Gaynor about upcoming games he cares about.

Mobile Orchard: A Huge Leap Forward: Graphics on the iPhone 3Gs
V.useful essay by Noel Llopis, who's on our GDC Austin iPhone advisory board and is the Game Developer mag code columnist.

The Bottom Feeder: Indie games: Still Too Cheap. Getting Cheaper.
'I have been arguing that these low prices will result in a desolate and uncreative Indie games space. Look at the offerings at the casual portals, and I think you'll see that I have a point.'

Confessions of an Aca/Fan: Calling Young Gamers. Share your AHa! Moment!
New non-profit, the Learning Games Network, with an interesting competition.

The Players Are Wrong, But Listen Anyway « Double Buffered
'It turns out that most of the direct feedback you get from users DOES have value, if you just know how to mine it. Anyway, here’s my informal guide to Actually Learning From Users, broken down into helpfully pedantic steps.'

June 24, 2009

Rusty Dawe Dispels I, Robot's Pacific Ocean Myth

The I, Robot rumor that collectors have passed around for years is that due to the arcade game's unpopularity (the title is now recognized by many as years ahead of its time), Atari was able to place close to half of its production run in U.S. arcades.

The remaining machines were allegedly dumped in the Pacific Ocean for some reason or another -- some claim that similar to Atari's E.T. landfill urban legend, the company wanted to rid itself of the machines -- contributing to the rarity of I, Robot cabinets today.

"Not true," says former Atari designer Russel "Rusty" Dawe, according to an interview with Coinopspace transcribed via Rotheblog. "Total myth. I would have LIKED to dump about 500 I, Robot controls into the Pacific -- they were a nightmare, but that didn’t happen..."

As with titles like Road Runner and Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters, I, Robot used a hall-effect joystick using two sensor devices based on Edwin Hall's magnetic-electric principle discovered in 1879.

(The above joystick design is from the Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters setup.)

Dawe went on to share an issue he experienced with the game's Hall Effect controls at a particular location:

"We had an arcade in Seattle we were testing and it was playing itself sometimes! Turned out the arcade was next to a scrap yard with a monster crane magnet -- was playing the game from 100 yards away! Turned out the control needed to be separately grounded (and shielded) to the PC board. All the production controls that used the hall-effect did that after that test.

Not sure which arcade, but we kept exchanging controls with them for months and never found the problem until they explained where they were located. Finally, the mechanical group just grounded the shit out of it and it started to work."

The entire interview includes lots of gems like this on other titles Dawe worked on, such as Cloak & Dagger, Paperboy, and Firefox -- dozens of mysteries finally solved!

Captain Olimar And His Legomin

Norwegian Filip Felberg has been building his favorite video game characters with Lego blocks, as bored gamers are wont to do, and his latest project has him recreating the unique cast of creatures from Nintendo's Pikmin franchise.

Felberg did a remarkable job capturing the strange creatures's bug eyes and idiosyncrasies with his colorful figures, and almost all of the characters are easily recognizable. You can see my favorites below and the entire collection so far in his Flickr set.

Opinion: Girls Fart - Gaming At The Anatomical Level

[In his new opinion piece, following his ruminations on resumes and his advice on 'being a Wiener', Reset Generation/Pocket Kingdom co-creator Scott Foe explains why saying 'games aren't art' is like saying 'girls don't fart.']

Looking back, I was either single-minded or just plain unthinking, but, by the age of twenty-one, I had accomplished the one goal to which I had ever set myself: That first year of legal drinking encapsulated my first day of gainful employment in the games industry. (To be fair, legal drinking doesn't mean very much to someone who has lived in Japan.)

That first day at Sega was even better than the Christmas when Santa forgot that I had handcuffed my baby brother to the towel rack in the bathroom.

I had, count'em, not-one-but-two Dreamcast development kits on my desk - my desk, in my cube, at Sega, where I was going to be making videogames, for profit, and would soon be on a first-name basis with Sonic the Hedgehog. ("Yo! Sonic! What's up hawg?")

And, even better, my co-workers were going to leave me alone for a whole week - leave for some event in Los Angeles called "E3."

Crazy people! Who would want to leave one's very own cube, leave one's very own Dreamcast development kits for sweaty, smoggy Los Angeles? (Little did I know that only there, at E3, could one actually pose for pictures with a real, living, breathing female!)

I was to myself in candy land, the most curious candy being the stack of "Fishing Controllers" sitting right outside of my cubicle wall. It was time to get to work...

A bobble-headed figure spun slowly on the display. When you took the fishing controller in your hand and gave a flick of your wrist, the figure's head bounced dreamily as it squealed - the figure and I had oddly similar voices. It was "Creamcast: The Sadomasochism Simulator," and it was more than the yield from my hurried study of 3D Studio MAX, affine transformations, and audio buffering sample code. It was more than my one-and-only stint as a voice-actor.

Creamcast was the product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses and emotions. It was the use of (frighteningly limited) skills to produce an aesthetic result. Creamcast was the application of (somewhat off-center) imagination in the creation of an experience that could be shared with others.

In a word, it was a work of art.

Status Anxiety

Alain de Botton is, in this writer's opinion, not only the greatest philosopher of the information age, but also the only philosopher of the information age who is deserving of being remembered by posterity as having a gravity the likes of Plato. de Botton puts forth in his to-now masterpiece, Status Anxiety, that human anxiety born of one's societal status is almost wholly a by-product of the Industrial Revolution.

Put simply, when we were serfs and royalty, the serfs might have been envious of the royalty, but most all serfs lived the same meager lives, eating the same meager bread - serfs were together in their misery.

Fast forward to today, and we need not look very far to find next-door neighbors living wildly different (disparate) levels of opulence. How can my next-door neighbor afford to drive a Beamer? Wow: My co-worker has a completely flash watch. (I'll bet she makes more than I do.)

These uncomfortable (and often, distracting) feelings weren't feelings at all in the days when a great night out meant burning a witch on top of a pile of hay and a bad night's sleep meant having used all of the hay from our beds to burn a witch. The Industrial Revolution was a revolution in stress.

The Industrial Revolution might not have created industries, but it sure did revolutionize them, or at least, that's probably when we started anthropomorphizing them. I hear all the time that the games industry is the "red-headed stepchild" of Hollywood. (Which, of course, makes the mobile games industry the dog under the porch.)

A few years back, the games industry became more upset than a tropical penguin when luminary film critic Roger Ebert conceded that, while games are art, we as an industry will never produce a work of, "high art."

Two words for you: Industry Anxiety.

An Equilateral Triangle

Games cannot be "high art," so said Ebert, because the attributes of games have "more in common with sports." Well, Ebert was slightly right (or should I say, slightly "Wright"), only in that games are also "sports."

Will Wright, the creative masthead of the games industry today, years ago identified and communicated the anatomy of games, an observation that has since shown up more often than a main character with a crew cut, but an observation worth repeating, none the less.

(Side note: They say we have so many crew cut heroes because "hair is hard to render," but that's Pikachu pucky: We thinning, aging game designers want to project the idea that we're still hard.)

Games are Story: A chronology of events. That happened, then that happened, then that happened.

Games are Hobby: Experimentation and outcome. If I do this, then this happens; if I do that, then that happens.

Games are Sport: Win, lose, or tie. I did that, and I failed; I did that, and I succeeded.

Hobby

  / 
 /   
/     

Story--Sport

Note: Should be an equilateral triangle, but my ascii-art sucks.)

That's gaming at the anatomical level: Any game falls somewhere on the Hobby/Story/Sport Graph. At the molecular level, games are a tapestry of visual artistry, audio artistry, narrative artistry, thespianism, as well as design and technological ingenuity, the final composition of which (or pieces in part) can rival any other experience known (or unknown) to man. (Even divorce court!)

I, for one, grow so weary of the pretense of question that games are or can someday be "high art." Saying, "Games aren't art," is like saying, "Girls don't fart."

It's pointless to argue with that sentiment. Both movies and games are the product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses and emotions. In a movie, anything can happen; in a game, everything can happen.

[About the Author: Scott Foe was creator/producer of Nokia’s critically acclaimed cross-platform game Reset Generation, and has worked on titles including Sega’s Pocket Kingdom: Own the World, the first global, massively multiplayer mobile game. Foe began his decade-long industry career as a member of the Dreamcast product development team at Sega. A game made him cry, once: He found one of the missions in Jak II so difficult that he threw his controller and burst into tears.]

Play Him Off, 8-Bit Keyboard Cat Shirt-Wearing Guy

If you love Keyboard Cat, specifically the meme's 8-bit rendition by Jude Buffum, I'm sure you are overjoyed to find out that someone has finally developed a way for you to take the feline pianist's image with you wherever you go. Yes, you, too, can wear a shirt of a cat wearing a shirt.

Did you witness your friend trip over a crack in the sidewalk and fall flat on his face? Make sure to smile and stand over him, chest puffed out and hands at your hips, so everyone can admire your foresight in bringing this online phenomenon to the real world.

Did you walk into your girlfriend's bedroom only to find her making out with your best friend? Give them a wink and gesture towards the judging cat on your shirt. Did your parents just admit that they're getting a divorce, and it's all your fault? Imagine their reaction when you unzip your jacket and start humming that famous tune.

Play them off, Keyboard Cat shirt guy. Play them all off until that ache in your heart subsides, and everything that ever hurt is forgotten.

2009 GDC Austin Announces Initial Free-To-Play Centric Sessions

[As my colleagues ramp up for GDC Austin this September - I'm helping out with the Indie and iPhone Summits there - they're also adding a bunch of neat content for the main, online-centric Conference. Here's the first fruits...]

Announcing its initial set of lectures, the online game-focused GDC Austin 2009 event has revealed free-to-play centric lectures from Sony Online (Free Realms), Gaia Online and Rebel Monkey (CampFu) for the September conference.

The first set of lectures announced for GDC Austin span the gamut of 'connected games', from traditional high-profile subscription MMOs through free-to-play online games, social network games, and even online components to console games.

The event, to be held September 15th-18th, 2009 at the Austin Convention Center in Texas, now includes six online-centric 'tracks' for the Main Conference, which takes place Wednesday 16th to Friday 18th.

These tracks, which span design, business & marketing, social networking & community, services, programming and production, have some lectures specially focused on free-to-play, microtransaction-powered games. Initial highlights from these include:

- Craig Sherman, CEO of popular micro-transaction powered site/game Gaia Online, will be discussing this model, in which "consumers play web-based, platform agnostic games for free, while developers attain revenue through microtransactions", with examples from his own company.

- Sony Online's Rosie Rappaport and Sebastian Strzalkowski are discussing the importance of a unified art style for the hit SOE free-to-play title Free Realms, which has already racked up 3 million registered users, noting the importance of a "distinct [art] style that players will associate with the title even when viewed outside the game world."

- Former Disney and current Hangout Industries exec Mike Goslin will take examples from products that he's worked on such as Pixie Hollow, Pirates Of The Caribbean and Toontown Online to detail and describe "10 techniques for engaging teens, drawn from the state of the art of social gaming."

- Rebel Monkey CTO Jeffrey Kesselman will be discussing how the CampFu free-to-play game developer "combined open source technologies to build an industrial strength platform for unified multi-player casual game-play and social web experiences", in a talk called 'The Monkey Wrench: Design and Architecture of an Online Environment'.

Further announcements and details on 'core' subscription MMO-centric lectures for this September's GDC Austin, as well as multiple keynote addresses, will be debuting over the next few weeks.

In addition, GDC Austin will also include its long-running Game Audio and Game Writer Summits, alongside an iteration of the breakout successful Independent Games Summit and the newly introduced iPhone Game Summit, all debuting on September 15-16, 2009 at the same venue.

Full listings of announced lectures, registration information, and other specifics are now available at the official GDC Austin website (part of Think Services, as is this website.)

Shiva And Lisa 3 Brawls Its Way To PSP, PC

MasterDerico has released Shiva and Lisa 3, the final chapter in its beat'em-up trilogy built with the latest version of OpenBOR (Open Beats of Rage), an open source and moddable game engine inspired by Sega's Streets of Rage series.

Available for PC and PSP, Shiva and Lisa 3 features four characters with over 20 moves each (including specials, super specials, cancels, and more), two story modes with different levels and enemies, a practice mode, and more.

You can download the game and its soundtrack at series fansite StreetsOfRage.net. MasterDerico has also posted an explosion- and combo-filled trailer with an epic soundtrack -- you should watch it at least once!

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': The Accretive Player Character

varicell.jpeg['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 the idea of the accretive player character in two works of interactive fiction: Adam Cadre's classic "Varicella" and Jon Ingold's recent "Make It Good".]

"Accretive player character" is a term of art in interactive fiction. It refers to a protagonist who has motives and abilities that the player doesn't understand or share the first time he plays through a game, but that he gradually learns over the course of many replayings.

Perhaps the classic example is Adam Cadre's "Varicella", a scheming palace minister in some alternate-reality Italian principality that combines the technology of the modern day with the ethics of Machiavelli and the methodology of the Borgias.

The title character hopes to outmaneuver everyone else and end up with the regency. Varicella is a fastidious man with a protocol fetish -- not the strongest nor the most charismatic nor the most openly ambitious member of the court. But he does happen to know all the weaknesses of all his opponents and he's poised to take advantage of them all.

The first time the player confronts this scenario, he lacks Varicella's keen political understanding, and inevitably loses. The second time, he's probably still not up to snuff either, but loses in a new way, for a new reason. But by the winning runthrough, he has Varicella's role down. He does know exactly what is happening everywhere in the castle, every minute of the day. He does know exactly whom to assassinate, when, and how. The player/protagonist gap has been erased by careful training.

It takes a special kind of game structure to make the accretive player character work. The game has to play through fast, so that the player doesn't get frustrated with the prospect of retracing his steps. It has to be fun enough and deep enough to keep the player coming back despite the obvious frustration of losing many, many times.

It has to give enough feedback and guidance that the player does learn from every losing step, and has a chance to make a new, better plan for the next runthrough. It has to offer significantly different experiences to the naive player and to the accomplished one who understands what he needs to do.

Perhaps the hardest aspect of all: the game has to somehow communicate to the player, Look, it's all right, you won't get this the first time, but that doesn't mean the game is too hard for you. Stay around. You'll learn.

Done right, though, the accretive PC is a hugely powerful device.

Having the player learn by replay allows for a narrative arc that has no tutorial phase, no gradual ramping up; big things can start happening right away. The first several times the player goes through the game are the tutorial. Early playthroughs of "Varicella" involve a lot of wandering around the palace, meeting and getting to know people, spying out secrets. That's fun and interesting, and it lays the groundwork for later-- when "Varicella" has time for none of those things, and instead executes a ruthless plan. The final runthrough is a lean story with no futzing around, no time lost.

The accretive PC also promotes player identification. The better the player understands the protagonist, the more persuasively he can play the role right from the start.

This cuts both ways, because (I also find) if the player has spent hours upon hours working out the perfect plot for "Varicella" to execute, he's less likely to balk at some of the protagonist's more reprehensible actions.

makegood.jpgJon Ingold's recent mystery "Make It Good" (also playable online) takes the same concept of the accretive PC and plays it in new directions. The protagonist is a down-on-his-luck cop, one drink from being kicked off the force, who is called in to investigate a murder.

As the game progresses, it becomes clear that the player is going to have to do more than find evidence. He's also going to have to manipulate the suspects in order to bring about a satisfactory ending.

Gameplay thus goes beyond interrogating suspects about keywords and looking under beds, into the realm of assessing and meddling in the psychology of the non-players. And these are alert characters, not the dull ciphers found in many games. They see what the player is carrying when. They observe how he acts. They notice evidence if it's left in plain sight, and sometimes find it when it isn't. They draw conclusions. They talk to one another, sometimes behind the player's back.

All this makes for very difficult gameplay, and there are times when the implementation doesn't live up to the design challenges as smoothly as it might -- but the process when it works is compelling.

To complicate matters yet further, the protagonist evidently knows, or half-remembers through the boozy haze, some important things. The full accounting of what he thinks is never fully available. While he doesn't exactly lie in his thoughts to the player, he verges on being an unreliable narrator.

It's frustrating, not having a good clear access to what exactly the protagonist really knows. The player is stuck running around doing his best to look out for this character's interests without having full access to his memories or total control over his thoughts.

And yet that too factors very effectively into the characterization: the player is coping with the constraints imposed by the narrative, while the protagonist is struggling with a long-term devotion to cheap whiskey. The player would like to know more. The protagonist would like control over his life.

Gradually those two desires converge. In the winning playthrough, the player-protagonist finally achieves both agency and understanding.

[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.]

Playing With Free Will

Marcus "Raitendo" Richert -- who you might remember from his You Have To Burn The Rope spoof, You Have To Defecate Upon King Bhumibol -- posted a lovely Game Boy-style Flash title onto Kongregate. The platformer stars a turnip-ish character jumping through a pea-green world filled with palm trees, giant George Washington quarters, and a cat-faced sun.

The one-level game is short once you've mastered the moving platforms, but there's a particular "bug" (which you'll realize isn't actually a bug when you remember the title's concept) that will delay your playthrough. The cute gag at the end of Free Will, though, is worth suffering the bug a few times to see. The soundtrack, provided by Pelle och Ponta, is great, too!

[Via TIGS]

GameSetLinks: Surfing On A Difficulty Wave

[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.]

Yipes, it's time for the GameSetLinks to kick in, on this wunderbar Tuesday, and we start out by another of those beautifully knotty design blogs that we love to link to - Experience Points on 'how to approach a specific game's difficulty'.

Also in this set of carefully scraped links - the ever-mercurial Surfer Girl gets analyzed, NowGamer republishes a nice magazine article on difficulty levels (hey, those things again!), retro pictures, and new games journalism, and social gaming are all touched on.

Nathan Barley:

Experience Points: On the Edge of Success
'When games like Mirror's Edge or Far Cry 2 challenge us, it is only fair to question how much of the challenge is fed by our expectations, and to explore the role our perception plays in the gaming experience.'

Critical Distance | Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars
A really nice retrospective of the mysterious blogger, and I do believe that I got it wrong when I thought (at times!) that this person was an industry insider - although a lot of their info was meticulously researched and 'she' was a v.entertaining writer. Bravo.

The Difficulty Level | NowGamer
'As gaming's audience grows more diverse what will happen to vital role of challenge?'

Exclusive Leisure Time Electronics and Toy & Hobby World raw archive: 1980 - 1981 | Armchair Arcade
'Mr. Citelli was kind enough to bring materials from two of these ventures, Toy & Hobby World, and Leisure Time Electronics, both industry publications from 1980 - 1981, which I was able to take back on the plane with me for archiving.'

The New Games Journalism < Features | PopMatters
Always fun to discuss this.

PlayNow - How To Succeed In The Coming Social Gaming Explosion
Seems honest, smart, not so hype-y (apart from the 'explosion' bit), hurray - via Brinking.

Patent Arcade: New Case: Rubin v. Apple Inc.
'A puzzle inventor has filed suit against Apple [and the game's developer] for allegedly using one of his puzzles as the basis for an iPhone application without authorization.'

June 23, 2009

Pixel Philosophy Animations

RVU, a Dutch National Educational Television broadcaster, is working with the University of Leiden and philosopher Bas Haring on Wisebits, a project bringing together a big collection of artists to produce 365 short animations.

Each of the project's animations will tell a story about a philosophy written and created by Haring. RVU will begin posting one animation each school day this fall on the official Wisebits site (in Dutch).

Several artists have already posted their videos, like this one on Chaos Theory by Coen Rens, or this clip on, um, using hamsters as a durable source of energy by Yuri den Oudsten.

Animator Ronnieism has posted two of his entertaining shorts, both featuring adorable pixel characters, which I've embedded below for your enjoyment:

"Fear Is A Good Advisor":

The animation is based on this text by Haring:

"Big fear, like phobia, is usually unnecessary and not very useful. But fear does have a very practical function when we think of practical behavior in daily live. For example, when we think of crossing the road, a bit of fear is needed. But on the other side, too much of it..."

"Assiemenou?!":

Says Haring:

"Humans are Herd animals that like to copy eachother. Behavior is culture defined. Consciously but mainy subconsciously we are copying each other. Sometimes this behavior isn't logical or easy at all. We simply don't think about it, we just copy it."

You can watch more of Ronnieism's animation projects, including a "Bluetooth animated pixel dancers installation", on his Vimeo page.

Interview: BioShock 2's Finley On Designing For Player Desire

[Originally published on Gamasutra, and v.GSW compatible, Christian Nutt talks in-depth to BioShock 2 executive producer Alyssa Finley on building a California team to follow up a game many cherish, and why "accessibility as a core paradigm has been really good for us" on both BioShock games.]

Hard as it may be to remember now, the original BioShock was anything but a surefire hit. The game had a long, difficult development cycle, and during that cycle, studio Irrational was acquired by publisher 2K, becoming 2K Boston in the process.

Of course, the game went on to be one of the most lauded of the current console generation -- and despite its heavy themes of Objectivism and its unusual setting and art direction, also became quite a commercial hit at the same time.

The sequel is currently under development by 2K Marin, a new team that includes key members of the original game's staff alongside newcomers to the project. One of these original staff members of executive producer Alyssa Finley.

Here, in an interview extracted in part on Gamasutra a few days ago, the full chat with Finley ruminates about what elements of BioShock's game design led to its wide popularity.

Topics also covered: how a deep story can allow for different hooks into the game's setting, and how building a new studio with the right people is an essential piece of the puzzle when creating a game like this:

You came out to California to build up the new studio alongside the project -- how do you feel about it?

Alyssa Finley: Well, first of all, it's an awesome team. I mean, I am happy coming to work every day, because we've hired some great folks, like Zak McClendon, our lead designer, and the team that came out -- Jordan Thomas and JP LeBreton, who had worked on the original game; and Hogarth de la Plante, the lead artist...

I saw JP and Hogarth give an art talk at Gamefest on combining the art of Rapture with the realism of design.

AF: I'm glad you saw that talk, because that was really some of the principles that we tried to build the studio around, and it's been a really interesting thing to start with a small group of people where you can agree on a philosophy, and then hire to fit that philosophy.

But yeah, it was a really small group of us that started off --- I think everyone I mentioned, and Carlos Cuello is the lead programmer --- and then we just hired such a tremendous team. And we've also been working with our Australia team, which has been great as well, because it's been a lot more folks who worked on the original BioShock. A lot of people who had that history, and had that knowledge base.

So, I don't know -- I think I just told you: "Building a studio is awesome!"But that's the short version of that answer; really, it was.

It's essential, right? Because it's not just a job -- at all.

AF: No -- you spend so much time with these folks. You spend so much of your energy every day, solving problems with people, and having a set of really smart, really creative people to solve problems with? It's totally the best.

You have these great days where you, like, go like, "Wow! We totally went through stuff that was so hard, and could have been so frustrating, and could have been so infuriating. But doing it with a great team of people who all want the same thing -- who all want to make a great game -- makes it fun."

One thing about BioShock in particular is that it appeals to traditional players, PC fans, fans of System Shock, and yet it drew in new audiences on the console, too, who may not ordinarily play that kind of game. Now adding multiplayer is again potentially a different audience -- How do you worry about the audience issues when you're working on the game?

AF: Well I think the arc of developing the first game was really the arc of us trying to figure that out as we went. You know, we went through a couple of pretty big reboots over the course of building BioShock 1, and the core of that game is a game where choice is paramount; where you can customize, sort-of tweak around the things and customize things.

And as we got it closer and closer to done, we played it more ourselves; we were able to take a step back from it, and we realized that if you go too nerdy, you're not appealing anymore.

So, the first game was really use trying to figure out the right balance of the nerdy side and the accessible side, and trying to make sure that we were inviting people to try the things that they could do. This was as opposed to assuming that they were going to walk in with a full knowledge of all of our nerdiness and go, like, "Yes, I am so glad you provided crafting, because crafting is the best!"

I think its accessibility as a core paradigm has been really good for us, and that has allowed us to appeal to both the people who have played System Shock 1 and System Shock 2, and really understand that side of the genre, and people who come from consoles, play Gears, and love Gears.

Multiplayer... I think our hope is that we're going to be able to show the multiplayer community a different set of tools. You know, being able to play around with the BioShock. Like, what is it that Jordan says? The marine corps in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other hand.

And, you know, just bringing that -- bringing just a new dimension of play to multiplayer, and see if folks like it; see if they enjoy that. Because I think at the end of the day, BioShock is always about letting people find their own style. And some people just want to play BioShock like a shooter: Play with the guns, use the guns. You can do that.

But if you want to play with it? I am the antithesis of that. I'm like the non-confrontational player of all times. I love bees; I love decoys. Like, if I can just play and make them shoot at something else? I am totally happy. So, being able to support different play styles, and if somebody can find a style that makes them happy, hopefully they can play it in our game.

The fact BioShock had strong art direction really distinguished it, too. There are just so many different ways to hook different people into games.

AF: Yeah, and especially if you don't force it on them. You put it there, and it's there to appreciate, but it's not like, "Hey! We're REALLY ART DECO!" It's just like, "Look: it's a world that you haven't seen before. You might like it; you might not."

As the core audience ages up, BioShock actually had adult themes in a real mature way. More outside of the box than just BioShock, what do you think about that trend, and the necessity of doing that in the games space?

AF: Well, I don't know about "necessity". I think that when a team is passionate about making something, then that's what they should make -- because you're going to get the best stuff out of people who care about it, not people who are sitting there thinking about, like, "How can I be just like another game?"

So, what I'm really interested in is when people do have an idea that they're-- a story that they're burning to tell. And I think that's where you're going to get the best stories; the best games; the best experiences.

The game ended up with a condemnation of Objectivism at the same time it was failing in our actual real-world political space; I don't want to say that was a "happy accident", but it's interesting... You ended up with something that actually had a lot of cultural currency in a package that didn't look like it did.

AF: Fair enough. Fair enough.

I guess I'm saying: you can arrive at a destination you maybe didn't even expect, by going down that route.

AF: Absolutely. I think that at our core, the story we were trying to tell was a story about what happens when you try to take anything too far; whether it's Objectivism or idealism. When you push past the point where you're making sensible decisions about things, and you're just being ideological -- when you're being an ideologue, there can be consequences to that.

But what's interesting is telling stories like that in a narrative form, because they sound -- it sounds really dry, actually. And if you read Atlas Shrugged...

AF: Oh it's not dry. It's hot stuff.

Keeping it working in a game context, those high concepts, is that something that you found is a real challenge? Keeping some of this high concept, intelligent stuff going?

AF: I think the thing is that if you force it on people, that's when it starts feeling dry. Like, nobody wants to be lectured to. At the end of the day, if you put something out there, and let people choose to participate in it or not, the people who are interested will go there.

And I think that's the principle we took with BioShock, and it's definitely the principle we're taking with BioShock 2. Look: there is content there -- it's interesting; it's deep -- but we're not going to make you listen to it. If you want to listen to it, you might find something there that resonates with you.

You don't want to spend time, money, effort, and creative energy creating content that people don't see, but you do want a certain amount of volition on the part of the player, in how much they want to engage with the different elements of the game, and I feel like that's something that's paramount with the way you guys are designing the games.

AF: Well, you have to know the story be able to make a good story. Right? Like, we can't skip that part and say, "OK, we're going to make a story-light game, so we're just not going to write the back story and figure out who lived in Rapture." Again, I think it comes down to passion.

It comes down to saying, "If we're going to build a world, we're going to need to understand that world; and if we're going to understand that world, we need to think about who lived in it, and what they were doing, and what their experience was like."

And that's what leads to things, like there were a couple little log books that are just total snapshots into one person's point of view, who's just like, "You know what? This stuff made out of recycled fish sucks, you know? It's just not very good." You get this little window into what it might have been like to live in Rapture, and it helps fill out the world; helps you engage your imagination.

I think those kinds of details are things that people often remember about games. But knowing how to apply those details has got to be tough, whether it's a little touch that no one will notice, or that everyone will notice and love. Is there a technique for that, or is it just luck?

AF: At the end of the day, we spend a lot of time building the levels, and playing the levels, and taking feedback on the levels. Like, our designers: one of the things they do is they'll get a version running, and then they'll just grab somebody and say, "Hey, come play this," and they'll watch them play it and see, like, "OK, did they even notice this thing over here? Did they do into this room?" Like, "I put all this energy into this room; did they even find it?"

I really think that experience is the best way of tuning it. I'm always super happy when one of those guys grabs me, or I see them grabbing someone else. I think that's the way they're going to have the best anticipation of what you, the player, when we actually ship the game, are going to experience.

That's something that you hear a lot, and I think it makes a lot of sense, that just getting a perspective from somebody, and seeing and observing their reaction to something, it really teaches you a lot about what you're making.

AF: Oh, yeah. Because you can assume a ton of things; you can think you know. You can be like, "Hey, [2K PR person] Charlie, I totally know what you're going to do, but play my level." And you'll be totally wrong.

Like, you think Charlie's going to go in, and he's going to shoot straight in and go to the thing you want him to see, and love it. Or he might just go off and look at the walls for a while, or poke around in the corner, and you're like, "Ah! I didn't even think somebody would do that..." So it just expands your mind past what your preconceived notion of what people are going to do is.

Ultimately, the interactivity is what provides the compelling thing, but it also provides the player the opportunity to do something you never imagined.

AF: Yeah. Exactly. But that is one of the core tenants of BioShock: "say yes to the player", right? One of our jobs is to think of things that the player might want to do, whether that's make a molotov cocktail out of a liquor bottle, or move that little stool over there with telekinesis [indicates stool in interview room] and whack Charlie with it.

Charlie Sinhaseni, 2K PR: I am just getting abused left and right!

Earlier, I said the word "necessity" and you said you don't know if there's a necessity for the maturation or whatever, and I think that that's a valid point. I mean, I enjoy Gears of War, so there's room for that, right?

AF: I really think that the best experiences come out of passion. So, I don't want to say anything is "necessary", because I thinkey that forces you away from your passions. And, frankly, if there's someone who has a story that they want to tell, they should tell that story.

I do wonder that the problem, very often, is that things get watered down because people become worried that it's not appealing to a broad audience, or whatever.

AF: Well, I think "Art Deco Underwater Failed Objectivist Utopia" is pretty unappealing to a wide audience. At the end of the day you can get caught up in labels, or you can try to make a deep experience and hope that if you invite the right people there, they will come.

And I think that's absolutely our approach here, is that we're trying to invite people into the BioShock world. Look, I don't know. In BioShock 2 you play a Big Daddy; is that a core fantasy that people have? I think so? I hope so. I mean, I think our goal is to invite them to say, like, "If you've seen a Big Daddy, do you want to be a Big Daddy? If you do, we're going to offer you a lot!"

But at the same time when the first game started, you were not part of the 2K organization. Do you think that the same opportunity to make a game that was so idiosyncratic could have happened within an organization, without a prior success?

AF: 2K's been pretty terrific. They've been pretty supportive, and I have seen them support other projects, that maybe didn't seem like they were totally on the beaten track. So I'm pretty impressed with what they are willing to do with their organization, and, you know, the crazy ideas that they're willing to support. I think it's possible. Is it easy? No.

It's funny; when you think about some of the best games, the best-loved games. Look at the new Ueda game [The Last Guardian] that got finally, after Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, got unveiled at Sony's press conference, and people are calling it the crown jewel of the conference -- where, when Ico came out, it was like the little event that just touched people deeply.

Or, look at Portal. First of all, I think Portal is bordering on perfect, you know what I mean? But again, it's something that I think is a little left of even what Valve is generally doing. And Valve is already a little left, in being more creatively free, than a lot of other people. So it's like: how do you get those experiences to happen? How do we foster that kind of stuff?

AF: The only answer I have is that you try to find people who have a passion, and support them. And if you can find an organization to do that --- or, you know, if you find if there's a way to do it as a student project. I think Portal is the ultimate success story in that regard, right? You find a way to make something small that demonstrates your idea, and if you can get excitement behind it, the world, apparently, is possible.

Machine Plays Pitfall, Dances

Several Rutgers University researchers devised a new method for "reinforcement learning" (a sub-area of machine learning) using Object-Oriented Markov Decision Processes, which is described as "a representation that looks at a higher level than usual and considers objects and interactions."

If that sounds complicated, their demonstration makes the concept much easier to understand. They showed the OO-MDPs representation by presenting a system that learned to play the original Pitfall in an Atari 2600 emulator (shown in the video above).

At first, you can see the system's learning algorithm discovering how to progress from the first screen, experimenting with different actions. In the system's second run, it uses what it learned, celebrating with a dance of joy!

According to the reasearchres, OO-MDP will also have plenty of "plenty of 'serious' uses in addition to being used in video game testing and in-game AI".

[Via Nick Montfort]

Terminator Returns To Arcades

18 years have passed since Midway's Terminator 2: Judgment Day first hit arcades, pulling in gun-crazed kids with its twin mounted uzis and that big image of Arnold Schwarzenegger carrying his sawed-off shotgun on the cabinet.

Play Mechanix and Raw Thrills are looking to draw in trigger-happy gamers again, this time with automatic rifles and an arcade game based on the Terminator Salvation film. The companies are currently running location tests using a "sneak preview" version of the game.

Though I haven't seen any impressions for the sneak preview (hopefully it will be better received than GRIN's PC/Xbox 360/PS3 efforts), Arcade Heroes has posted several photos of the Terminator Salvation machine. You can also see a couple shots from a location test below:

Best of FingerGaming: From Diabolika to Mecho Wars

[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 Louise Yang and Jonathan Glover.]

This week, FingerGaming highlights notable titles like Mecho Wars and Diabolika, and details the release of iPhone OS 3.0 and the debut of the upgraded iPhone 3GS hardware. Features for this week cover Light Wars and 2XL Supercross developer 2XL Games.

- iPhone OS 3.0 Now Available
"The update adds several features to the gaming capabilities of the iPhone and iPod Touch, particularly in terms of multiplayer options. Gamers and developers can expect improved peer-to-peer connectivity in the upgrade, along with the much-discussed possibility of downloadable content via microtransactions."

- Interview: Rick Baltman of 2XL Games
"Chatting with FingerGaming on the eve of Apple's newest iteration, the ex-Rainbow Studios engineer talked excitedly about 3.0, the 3G S and beamed with enthusiasm as he described porting their Baja: Edge of Control engine to the iPhone for 2XL Supercross."

- iPhone 3G S Debuts in North America and the UK
"The iPhone 3G S offers improved battery life, a faster processor that improves application load times and performance, and a variety of new hardware features, including a digital compass and an upgraded camera with video capture functionality."

- Sega of America CEO Simon Jeffery to Head New ngmoco Publishing Group
"Simon Jeffery, president and CEO of Sega of America, announced that he is leaving his position at the company in order to head up the newly established publishing arm of iPhone developer ngmoco."

- Derek Yu's Puzzler Diabolika Debuts on iPhone
"Indie dev Derek Yu has released his newest work, the iPhone turn-based puzzler Diabolika. Yu is the creator of the wonderful roguelike-inspired platformer Spelunky, along with other notable titles like Eternal Daughter and Aquaria."

- Top Free Game App Downloads for the Week
"Paper Toss takes top honors for the second week in a row, beating out the recently released Lite version of 2XL Supercross and newcomer Chase the Dot."

- Flick Fishing, Tap Tap Revenge 2 Update with New iPhone OS 3.0 Features
"It's been only a few hours since the iPhone OS 3.0 launched in North America, and already a number of popular apps have updated to take advantage of the firmware's new features."

- Review: Light Wars
"Light Wars is a worthy attempt at bringing Geometry Wars to the iPhone. It may take a few tries to get used to the control scheme, but once you become acclimated to it, it's easy to waste ten or twenty minutes at a time aiming for a higher score."

- Turn-Based Strategy Title Mecho Wars Out in App Store
"Mecho Wars will be instantly familiar to fans of Nintendo's Advance Wars series. Unlike many other titles in the RTS genre, however, Mecho Wars avoids the expected military-themed aesthetic in favor of a unique fantasy setting and a cast of animal-like creatures."

- Top-Selling Paid Game Apps for the Week
"PopCap's Peggle finishes at second place in App Store sales numbers this week, thanks to a weekend-long sale that dropped the title's price to 99 cents."

Borange Figurines Look Delicious

If these Mother/Earthbound toys look like some sweet you want to pop into your mouth and feel against the inside of your cheek, blame that on talented artist Camille Young, who set out to imbue a "shiny, candy-like finish" with the figurines, coating them with a clear resin.

If you're unsure why this weak Earthbound enemy is being referred to as a Borange instead of its in-game name, Fobby, it's apparently an inside joke originating from the series's fan community Starmen.net. I'll let the Earthbound Wiki explain:

"The name ... originates from [a Starmen.net member], Strawberry Tofu, telling apart [Foppies] from Fobbies, and that the only difference is their color. The infamous post read: 'Foppies are Pink, Fobbies are Borange'. Borange has no actual meaning, but gained a cult following..."

The handmade and individually numbered figurines are about 1” tall and 1.2” wide, with this first run limited to 100. They follow Fangamer.net's previous handmade and now sold out Earthbound products, which include Shark Punk Figurines and Plushie Gummies.

You can see more photos of the Borange figurines and their great packaging (also handmade) on Fangamer.net's product page. Young has also posted posted details behind their creation on her own site.

Column: 'Might Have Been' - A Tribute To Seta's Battle Bull

[“Might Have Been” is a GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This edition looks at Seta's Battle Bull, released for the Game Boy in January 1991.]

When Seta Corporation breathed its last in January of 2009, many in the gaming press didn’t know how to mourn the company. It deserved to be remembered for something, but what was the standout Seta classic?

Most resorted to pointing out oddities like the non-racist Tom Sawyer NES game (not to be confused with Square’s hysterically racist one), the mediocre yet amusingly localized Kendo Rage, or Seta’s library of semi-pornographic mahjongg titles. Some even brought up the sad tale of Bio Force Ape, canceled just when it was about to deliver the best game ever to feature pro-wrestling cyborg simians. Yet the best Seta game might be a neglected Game Boy puzzler called Battle Bull.

Futurepunk Pengo

We must assume that Battle Bull is set in a future where the public is entertained by mechanical crane-tanks dueling in mazes, since there’s no real plotline to be uncovered. In fact, there are barely any characters aside from the anime-lookin' woman who winks repeatedly on the game’s password screen. Battle Bull is all business: your tiny shovel-tank is dropped into a labyrinth of blocks, which you push around to crush foes and avoid their own attacks.

It’s the exact same idea that Sega and Coreland used in the arcade masterpiece Pengo, though it’s enhanced for Battle Bull. The enemies show a little more variety, ranging from scuttling, block-pushing bugs to missile-firing tanks to viciously quick refrigerator robots. The blocks themselves include standard pieces to be shoved across the screen, plus stationary squares and boxes that disappear unless they’re pushed in the right direction. Battle Bull even adds pits that open and close, making it possible to lead enemies to their demise.

There was no lack of Game Boy puzzle games at the start of 1991, so Battle Bull stood out by making its lead dozer-tank a customizable beast. Before even the first stage emerges, the player is taken to a shop offering an impressive arsenal: engines increase speed, claws shove blocks faster, springs let the tank jump, and top-mounted guns actually let you shoot at foes. And nearly all of them are far too expensive for players just starting out.

Each component has three increasingly expensive upgrades, revealing new features as they’re acquired. For example, the lineup of vulcan guns, grenade launchers, and artillery pods fires the same missile, but the strongest will destroy an entire line of blocks and the enemies behind them. There's no spectacular destruction to watch, as the game’s graphics simply get the job done, sparing little personality for the enemies and only a fleck of super-deformed appeal for the player’s jumping tank. The soundtrack is rhythmic and pleasing, yet it never sticks. Game Boy action-puzzle games didn’t need such frills.

Slow to Start

Battle Bull’s greatest flaw is its stiff first impression. Even if the player spends the initial $500 on an engine upgrade, the main battle tank still putters around mazes at Zamboni-grade speeds. It’s up to the player to earn money by destroying the required number of enemies in each level. Stay alive and the cash piles up. That creaking little golf cart of a tank gradually turns into a sleek combat machine, tearing through mazes, launching missiles down alleys, and hurling blocky destruction at slower, dumber opponents.

It’s this sense of steady accomplishment that puts Battle Bull ahead of countless other Game Boy puzzle titles. While the levels are quick, cleverly arrayed challenges, the careful tank-work is a strategic keystone. You’ll get only enough prize money to buy a new part every few stages, so it’s best to be careful about where that cash goes. Building up a good engine should come first, while jumping lets your tank evade enemies.

The weapons, the most expensive of all the accessories, are the most satisfying. In effect, acquiring them completely changes Battle Bull’s focus. You’ll spend a dozen or so mazes running from buzzing masses of diodes and treads, with shoved blocks and trapdoor stratagems as your only real weapons. Then, with your first weapon purchase, you become a perpetually ravenous Pac-Man in a maze of flashing blue ghosts.

Block Party

There’s a point where Battle Bull loses some of its draw. By the time you near the middle of the game’s 48-level climb, you’ll have all of the upgrades, the weapons, and a stockpile of lives. The game still cranks out taxing little labyrinths and some new enemies, but it no longer has the allure of the shop and its overpriced selection.

There’s no maze-building mode and no reward waiting after stage 48. There’s only the sight of an anonymous pilot and the password screen’s equally nameless woman gazing upon the game’s credits. Like most of the games Seta published, Battle Bull likely wasn’t an in-house creation. The staff roll suggests that it was made by Jorudan, a little-known developer that recently got back into creating games.

Whether it’s an unknown triumph for Jorudan or a fitting memorial for Seta, Battle Bull gets surprisingly little attention. Like a lot of third-party Game Boy games from late 1990 and 1991, it was lost in a web of competition, as publishers scrambled to release just about any games they could find for Nintendo's new portable wonder.

Seta isn’t remembered fondly, and there are reasons for that. Seta canceled Bio Force Ape. Seta made filthy mahjongg games. Seta published Castle of Dragon for the NES. Yet Seta also gave the Game Boy an impressive puzzle-action hybrid called Battle Bull. Seta did at least one thing right.

Piped and Rusted: Steampunk PS3


This modded PlayStation 3, manufactured by the steampunk-obsessed folks at Brass Goggles, was created as a prize for the recent release of Blue Omega Entertainment's Damnation. The steampunk-themed third-person shooter shipped last May for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.

Brass Goggles put together the system without cracking it open or voiding any warranties, fitting wood veneer onto the case before attaching "an old radio valve, a pipe valve, a pressure gauge, assorted brass plumbing parts, and some trim." Liquid iron was also applied, then treated with instant rust.

You can see close-ups of the modifications, as well as a photo of the blog's previous steampunk PC, also created for a Damnation contest, after the break:

GameSetLinks: The Homeless Middleware Gallery

[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.]

Zooming into the week with a new set of GameSetLinks, we start out with the continuing high quality of Racketboy's retro posts -- with this one focusing on the Vectrex, always a quirky favorite amongst particularly retro game geeks.

However, there's plenty of other stuff in here - particularly a new middleware survey that you game developers should fill out, indie gaming round-up fun, Nintendo's Japanese ‘Wii-no-Ma’ service and why it makes sense over there, and plenty more.

To the cradle:

Vectrex 101: A Beginners Guide - racketboy.com
'Released in the United States in November of 1982, the Vectrex would only last for two short years, and even less time in foreign markets. But in that time, the machine would develop a cult following that has helped spawn one of the most creative homebrew communities for any console.'

Crunchgear: 'Interview: Rob Burkinshaw, game designer and creator of homeless Sims'
An interview with the maker of 'Alice and Kev, homeless Sims that exist entirely in the world of Sims 3.'

Indie Gaming Gallery #2 - The Quixotic Engineer
You may have seen these games before, but some nice writing about them and why they matter.

Satori » Middleware Library Survey
If you're a pro developer, fill out Mark DeLoura's survey, results will be printed on Gamasutra (and some other places!) for free in the near future, I believe.

Zen of Design»Blog Archive » Shared Experiences vs. Algorithmic Content
'The designer can create the most wonderful anthill in the world, but if the player can’t see the whole picture, he has no idea how wonderful your Amazing Machine is - he’s only encountering the system from the ground level, and what he’s seeing is a world that feels chaotic and unpredictable - often undesirably so.'

The Daily Click: KlikCast - Episode #14
Includes a brief phone interview with me about the IGF, indie games, yay.

TV 3.0 - Nintendo’s ‘Wii-no-Ma’ and new ways of advertising « CyberMedia Blog
Great explanation of a slightly mysterious Japanese Wii service. (Via CScout.)

June 22, 2009

Edge Poster's Game And System Cameos Cataloged

The amount of video game characters and consoles appearing in Edge's recent subscriber gift poster, drawn by pixel artist Gary "Army of Trolls" Lucken, seemed too overwhelming to document without tremendous effort, but Just One More Game devised a simple way to tally all the cameos.

The gaming blog overlaid the poster with a grid, so that others could keep track of and record each video game appearance. So far, the site's "crowd-solving" experiment has found 71 games/systems in the artwork, finding characters such as Miner Willy (Z14), Grim Fandango's Manny (J03), and a Final Fantasy Moogle (I07). You can see the poster/grid and the full list of appearances on JOMG.

Analysis: May 2009's Xbox Live Arcade Hits, Misses

xblatopmay09.png[Courtesy of sister console downloadable site GamerBytes, Ryan Langley examines May 2009's Xbox Live Arcade debuts, from Space Invaders Extreme to Wallace & Gromit and beyond, to find out what soared and what faltered last month.]

The NPD Group revealed the top retail sales of May 2009 some two weeks ago, and every month, our sister site GamerBytes looks at what NPD numbers don’t cover: the games released via the Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network.

We're analyzing the weekly Top 10 Xbox Live Arcade game purchase list released by Microsoft through the Major Nelson weblog, checking out Leaderboard data for games when available, and seeing which new releases have done well and which have fallen off the map.

Please note that we do not have the Top 10 list for the week of May 25th. Due to the Electronic Entertainment Expo and Larry Hryb's trip to see the troops in Iraq, the numbers were never posted. But thankfully, we do have Leaderboard data for those titles.

The month of May brought 10 new games to the Xbox Live Arcade, meaning 2 to 3 titles were released each week – all costing from 400 to 800 Microsoft Points each.

Can the Xbox Live Arcade handle so many titles at once? Let's try to work it out, starting with the public releases of the weekly Top 10 XBLA charts:

xblamay.png

A Return Of Taito Classics

Taito previously released their EXIT titles on Xbox Live Arcade, and now May brings Space Invaders Extreme and Arkanoid Live. Space Invaders Extreme did very well at first, hitting the top of the charts, but fell to 7th place and then right out of the charts. Arkanoid Live, despite being a well-known classic, only came in at 7th place in its first week, and just held on to 10th place for the second week.

Through Leaderboard data, we can see that Space Invaders Extreme has had over 22,000 people play the game long enough to register a score -- not too bad for just a few weeks of release. Space Invaders Extreme was critically acclaimed on other platforms, and it is a perfect fit for digital download. But the game's quick trip down the new release list may have caused the fanfare to die off more quickly than anticipated.

Arkanoid is a strange one – it's part of a long line of sequels, but we have had so many varieties of Breakout games that they may meld together in consumers' eyes. While Arkanoid stays very close to its roots, it might need a Space Invaders Extreme-style makeover to truly speak to the masses. Perhaps Sidhe’s upcoming Shatter on the PlayStation Network will have a better chance.

The Unloved Zombie

Zombie Wranglers has quite a history – it was originally set for a late October release last year, but got lost in the merger of Vivendi and Activision. When Activision dropped projects from the Sierra label, Zombie Wranglers was apparently thrown to the wayside – even though it was already finished.

Halfway through 2009 the game was finally released via Microsoft, but the game didn’t make it to the Top 10 at all. The online Leaderboard states that a little over 4,000 people have played the game (likely a high percentage, but not 100%, of sales numbers). But looking at the review response to the game, it’s not too surprising. As a PG-13 Zombie game with a childish aesthetic, it sounds like the game didn't hit a chord with XBLA users.

Zombie Wranglers is the latest digital title from developer Frozen Codebase that's never really hit a market – its two previous Xbox Live Arcade games, ScrewJumper and Elements Of Destruction, also did quite poorly. Hopefully this Wisconsin developer can have better luck with its next project.

XBLA, The Final Frontier

To complement the new Star Trek film in theaters, Paramount Interactive sought to test the waters by only releasing one title alongside it – Star Trek D.A.C on Xbox Live Arcade. It follows the same path as Watchmen: The End Is Night, where movie studios with attached game publishers have gone a digital-only route.

The movie did very well at the box office, but Star Trek D.A.C couldn't beat Castle Crashers in its first week, and it then drifted down to 7th place in its second week.

While there are many twin stick shooters on Xbox Live Arcade, only a few of them, including Shred Nebula and Wing Commander Arena, have focused on online multiplayer, and neither did well on the marketplace. Star Trek appears to have done better than either of them.

Texas Cheat’em & Blazing Birds Fall Flat

Wideload Games’ Texas Cheat’em was released alongside Star Trek D.A.C, and it appears to be the worst-selling game we’ve seen in some time. As of the middle of June, Texas Cheat’em has only 1,145 people on its Leaderboards, and a whole 6 people on the Ranked Leaderboards.

While it got some decent scores, the games’ presentation came in for some stick from reviewers, even being deemed an “eyesore” and “amateurish” by IGN’s Daemon Hatfield. Texas Cheat’em appears to be a clever twist on the game of Poker, but it wasn’t enough to drag people away from the ever popular Texas Hold’em Poker that is already on the service.

Another poorly-selling title was Blazing Birds, one of the Dream.Build.Play winners from 2007 alongside The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, Unfortunately the game has an very niche concept -- robot badminton -- and no online play. So there was little chance that people would pick this up, even with a neat idea and costing only 400MSP.

When Microsoft decided to award all finalists of Dream.Build.Play with invites for XBLA publishing, Blazing Birds got the nod. Arguably, Blazing Birds' problem is that it would have fit in well with other Xbox Live Arcade games in 2007, but perhaps doesn’t fit so well with the expectations of Xbox Live Arcade in 2009.

The unfortunate part is that Vector2Games did not win the Dream.Build.Play competition in 2008 for their second title Blow. Blow is currently available on Xbox Live Indie Games, and some consider it a far more robust experience than Blazing Birds. You can't win them all, I guess.

Puzzle Games Get No Love

Gel: Set & Match is a semi-sequel to Fuzzee Fever, a game originally part of the first Xbox’s XBLA Lineup. It's a game that is so overlooked that it’s near impossible to find anything about it online. It looks like it’s the same story for Gel, landing at 9th place on its opening week. As of the middle of June, there's a mere 5,500 players on the game's Leaderboards.

Gastronaut Studios had previously brought Peggle to the Xbox Live Arcade. That game continues to be in the Top 10, and indie firm was subsequently bought by PopCap just before its release. It’s sad that, despite PopCap seeing their potential in the casual game space, that Gel has not done well in its first weeks of release.

On a similar note, Yosumin Live was released in the final week of the month. Much like Gel it also does not appear to have been welcomed by the Xbox community. As of mid-June, there are a little less than 4,500 people on the Leaderboards.

It’s not that surprising given the very Japanese title the game has. Simply getting people to download a game called Yosumin would be a feat in itself, even if it's a clever little puzzle title -- and an even harder task on the Xbox 360. For a small puzzle game it may have also been priced too high at 800 Points, especially since you can play the main portion of the game free through a web browser.

The Episodic Conundrum

Wallace & Gromit: Fright of the Bumblebees, the first part of the episodic series by TellTale Games, was released in the final week of the month. This is Telltale’s first foray onto the Xbox 360 for episodic content, after having decent success with their Strongbad titles on WiiWare.

As of the 13th of June Wallace & Gromit #1 has garnered around 12,000 people on the Leaderboards – far less than the debut episode of the Penny Arcade game, which was twice as expensive. Realistically, the first episode of any series will sell more than each consecutive episode due to waning interest, and with no option to buy all episodes for a slightly discounted price, Wallace & Gromit is unlikely to do huge numbers on the Xbox Live Arcade.

Hopefully, the release of the two Sam & Max Seasons for Xbox Live Arcade will help Telltale sell more Wallace & Gromit in the long run. When all 4 Wallace & Gromit episodes are released, we’ll be able to get a good perspective for the effectiveness of episodic content on the platform.

It Boggles The Mind

The final release of the month was Boggle, the second to last game left for Hasbro Family Game Night. While the Major Nelson Top 10 does not separate Family Game Night titles we do know that Boggle has over 15,000 people on the its internal leaderboards, and Family Game Night itself has garnered almost 150,000 players who have at least one room reward.

We assume Sorry! Sliders will make its debut sometime in June or July. Once it is released we can get a look at Family Game Night in its complete form, allowing us to see how many players bought more than one Hasbro title.

Weekly Deals And The Same Old Same Old

Thanks to the poor performance of new titles, old titles jumped around quite a lot in May. Banjo Tooie and The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai made a surprise return into the Top 10 on the third week of May, while Uno, Peggle, Castle Crashers, Worms and TMNT 1989 have all continued to be in the Top 10, leaving only 5 places to shuffle around each week.

Microsoft had two different titles be a part of their “Deal Of The Week” – Brain Challenge and Bionic Commando: Rearmed. We can see that Brain Challenge did very well for its week, reaching the top of the chart and dropping back in place right after. Due to the missing week, we are unable to see how well Bionic Commando Rearmed did, but if previous deals are anything to go by, we might have seen it in the countdown somewhere.

Unlike previous months, the only 400MSP titles reappearing were TMNT 1989, Worms, UNO and the Deals Of The Week – everything else was either 800MSP or 1200MSP. With all of the recent fuss about the iTunes App store popular lists catering to the cheapest games, it's good to see that even “expensive” games on Xbox Live Arcade continue to do well. (The Xbox 360's Top 10 charts are ranked by number of sales, not revenue, similarly to the App Store Charts.)

June is going to be a very strange month, with at least 13 titles making their way online, including 6 cheap Sega classics all out in the same week. Larry Hryb has unfortunately not been available to post later Top 10 lists, but we will do as much as possible to bring you all the necessary data.

[We would like to thank Larry Hryb at Majornelson.com and the Xbox Live team for releasing the Top 10 lists of each week through the web, and well as Twitter helpers Grecco, Retroremakes and James O'Connor for their help with leaderboard data.]

Messhof Sets Up Temporary Arcade In NYC Tomorrow

Starting tomorrow, non-profit art group X Initiative will host No Soul For Sale, a week-long convention seeking to bring together "not-for-profit centers, alternative institutions, artists' collectives and independent enterprises from around the world that contribute to the international art scene by inventing new strategies for the distribution of information and by supporting a diverse cultural program."

Instant Gratification, a temporary arcade curated by Mark "messhof" Essen (Cowboyana), is one of the 30+ art spaces slated for the New York City show. The free arcade will be up for only one night, June 23rd from 6 to 9 PM, and will feature games filled with "counterintuitive physics, chaotic game mechanics, and bursts of strobing color".

The preliminary schedule for No Soul For Sale also describes Instant Gratification's games as "the essence of old 2D arcade titles with the viewer-challenging puzzle-logic of avant-garde cinema."

One of the titles announced for the arcade is Sexy Hiking, the aesthetically displeasing but very rewarding platformer from Ukranian game designer Jazzuo:

Prolific Swedish game designer Jonatan "Cactus" Söderström (Brain-Damaged Toon Underworld) will also show off "a new 3D game", and Essen himself will bring The Thrill of Combat, his newly released side-scroller combining helicopter rescues with missile dodging and body organ theft.

Radical Software Group will also hand out a new print publication based on Kriegspiel, their "their digital reinterpretation of Guy Debord’s strategy board game" of the same name, at Instant Gratification.

You can find more information on No Soul For Sale and the other artists appearing at the convention on X Initiative's official site.

Kernel Suing Timbaland, Nelly Furtado Over Chiptune Sampling

Nearly three years since allegations first appeared accusing famed producer Timbaland of sampling chiptune track "Acidjazzed Evening" for Nelly Furtado's single "Do It" without giving credit or compensation, record label Kernel filed suit against Timbaland and Furtado for copyright infringement.

"Acidjazzed Evening" was originally composed by Finnish demoscene artist Janne "Tempest" Suni using a 4-channel Amiga module, then remixed with permission by Norwegian Glenn "GRG" Rune Gallefoss for the Commodore. Kernel, which owns the sound recording rights for the song, claims that Timbaland used the "original and central identifying melodic, harmonic and rhythmic components" of the remix for "Do It".

The lawsuit was filed in the Miami-Dade Division of the US District Court Southern District of Florida. According to a report from music news site Music Radar, Kernel is requesting that Mosley Music (Timbaland's record label) and Geffen (Nelly's label) transfer the ownership of the song's copyrights, and is asking for an "an injunction prohibiting the further release, reprinting, performance and sale of the song 'Do It'".

Timbaland responded to the allegations in 2007: "It makes me laugh. The part I don't understand, the dude is trying to act like I went to his house and took it from his computer. I don't know him from a can of paint. I'm 15 years deep. That's how you attack a king? You attack moi? Come on, man. You got to come correct. You the laughing stock. People are like, 'You can't be serious.'"

Gorgeous Settings From A Forgotten Enix Gem

Released exclusively for the Sega Saturn by Enix 1997, Nanatsu Kaze No Shima Monogatari, or The Seven Blasts of Wind in Island Story, is "an interactive storybook whose illustrated chapters reflect the game's very own narrative, with a new chapter being added every time the player successfully completes a group of tasks."

Though never released in the U.S. and unknown to most gamers outside of Japan, the adventure title is regarded with esteem by those who've played it, many of them praising the game's unique and beautifully drawn characters and backgrounds. Enix was proud of its artwork too, as it included an extra disc filled with sketches and artwork.

CoreGamers' Bruno de Figueiredo has posted over a hundred images of Nanatsu Kaze No Shima Monogatari's backgrounds from that bonus CD, even converting the BMP scenes into more convenient JPG images. You can also view several character sketches at de Figueiredo's retrospective on the title at Hardcore Gaming 101.

Here are two of my favorite shots from the collection of Nanatsu Kaze No Shima Monogatari's exotic settings:

GameSetInterview: 'Indie and The Pit of Death: Derek Yu'

GSW%20DY.jpg[Continuing a series of indie-centric interviews for GameSetWatch, Phill Cameron sits down with TIGSource supremo and Aquaria/Spelunky co-creator Derek Yu to discuss his projects, the state of the independent gaming scene, and reasons to be cheerful.]

Derek Yu is the cultivator of TIGSource, one of the primary sources of information about the indie scene on the web and host to one of indie's best forums, bringing creators and fans together to share novel new ideas and the greatest new games.

He also happens to be a pretty talented developer, with the IGF winning underwater adventure game Aquaria, along with the fiendishly addictive and brilliant Roguelike-infused 2D platform game Spelunky as his current champion, as well as the new iPhone title Diabolika. He's collaborated with the likes of Alec Holowka, now of Infinite Ammo, and he's maintained a seat on the IGF Judging panel for the last few years. You could say he knows a bit about independent games.

I talked to him about how one man can do so much, his thoughts on procedural generation, and how he felt about killing hundreds and thousands of people in his death trap/cave. Looking at Spelunky, you could be mistaken thinking he had a mind like H.H.Holmes.

For those who don’t know who you are, could you explain a bit about what sort of games you develop and your involvement in the indie scene?

Derek Yu: The games I’m probably best known for are Spelunky, Aquaria, I’m OK, and Eternal Daughter. Like a lot of game players growing up in the 80’s, I’m undeniably influenced by 16-bit games and the era of “Play It Loud,” Blast Processing, arcades, and id Software.

The hard part is reconciling that nostalgia with a mature approach to game design. Basically, I’m still trying to figure out what kinds of games I like and what kinds of games are important to me. The only thing I’m sure of at this point is that I enjoy good artwork, interesting characters, and a hearty challenge!

I also run The Independent Gaming Source, an indie games news site/community, and started TIGdb, a database for independent games, with my friend Jeff “progrium” Lindsay. I’ve been a judge for the Independent Games Festival (IGF) for a few years now, too.

Your most recent game, Spelunky, has gained some level of fame in the gaming community due to its addictive and entertaining nature. Did you anticipate such a warm reception?

I didn’t expect the game to be as popular as it is, no! While I was working the game I thought I might be onto something, but it was a surprise and a relief that so many people not only enjoyed the game but made part of it their own by creating stories, artwork, and levels, and giving me all kinds of feedback and ideas. That’s been really gratifying.

How does it make you feel when you think that you’re responsible for thousands upon thousands of player deaths worldwide? Are you happy?

Haha, yes, I am. Call me “Deathbringer.” I have no regrets for virtual deaths – dying isn’t something you get to practice much in real life, so I like to believe that I’m doing people a very morbid service.

Spelunky seems to be riffing off Indiana Jones quite heavily. Was this as deliberate as it seems?

Yeah, definitely. I love Indy. Indie! I thought it might be fun for people to get to play out some of those scenes from Indiana Jones, like the rolling boulder. The difference being that in the movie, Indiana Jones never eats it. That’s his loss, quite frankly.

In the past you worked with Alec Holowka on Aquaria, with Spelunky as a solo project. What are some of the differences and benefits of working in a team or solo?

It’s a great experience to be able to make games with someone as passionate and talented as Alec. I really enjoyed sharing the creative process with him while we worked on Aquaria (and also I’m OK). I’ve worked on teams before and have had pleasant experiences overall, but Alec was by far the most driven. Working with him took me to a higher level than I could have attained on my own. You can obviously do a lot more working on a team, and you can be forced to think in different directions than you would normally.

That said, I think Alec would agree with me that teaming up comes with some serious frustrations. Miscommunication can lead to a number of problems. I feel like I’m particularly bad at explaining my ideas sometimes. There have been times where I’ve been on a different page than my creative partners for days or weeks without even knowing it… so yeah, communicating well is really key, and that’s something I’m still learning how to do.

What I enjoy about working alone is how quickly I can manoeuvre around ideas. Sometimes you have to entertain a lot of ideas and then scrap them before you find the common thread that makes them all interesting and is worthwhile following to completion. It’s hard to take someone else with you on that journey, and it’s hard to be led down that journey yourself.

I’m looking forward to collaborating with other developers in the future, because you can do a lot with a strong team and it’s good for growing as a person… but for now, it’s nice to have the ultimate responsibility rest on my own shoulders, for better or for worse.

As a large part of TIGSource, do you find your perspective on the community side of indie games helps those you make yourself?

Oh yeah, for sure. The people on TIGSource are a constant inspiration for me, and they’ve taught me a lot – about art, design, programming, and business – that would have taken me much longer to learn on my own. To be able to share their successes and also their failures is an important experience, as is getting direct feedback from the players. I get a lot out of being involved in TIGSource.

The procedural nature of Spelunky makes it almost infinitely replayable, with the allure of trying to see just how deep you can get always there. How do you see procedural generation effecting gaming development in the near future? Why did you favour it over designing the levels yourself?

I’ve always been a big fan of random-generation in games, starting with Hack and Nethack. As a player, it feels more exciting when you know you’re not playing by a script. It feels more improvisational. As a designer, I enjoy the randomization because I get to play with rules and then see what kind of crazy things come out of them… rather than placing each piece meticulously. It feels more like mad science, in a way.

And I know procedural generation has been used successfully to create really large worlds in games like Dwarf Fortress, Noctis, Spore, and some of the Bethesda RPGs, to name a few. I hope we’ll see it used to make some absolutely massive game worlds in the future that are populated with the kind of detail that has thus far only been managed by human level designers. I love the idea that a creator could design something that is larger than he or she could even imagine, and then get lost in it just like a player experiencing it for the first time.

Some of the enemies and traps in Spelunky are fiendishly hard. Why exactly did you make it so difficult to progress in the game?

Well, for one thing I personally enjoy tough games. I like the gratification of being good at something. I’d argue that rewards in games are only as satisfying as the challenges are hard, i.e. the harder a game is to master, the better it feels when you do! I didn’t want to make a game that people were going to run through in a few sittings and then never look back at it. I didn’t want people to get to the end and feel like they hadn’t accomplished anything.

Also, the mid-to-high level of difficulty in Spelunky works well with some of the other basic concepts behind the game, like the humor and the randomization of the levels. Death is always such a source of frustration for players – the antithesis of fun. I tried to make it laugh-out-loud funny and an inherent part of getting better and making progress.

There is a surprisingly widespread notion amongst designers that if you make a game hard you will lose a lot of people who don’t have skill, but I don’t feel like Spelunky would be nearly as popular as it is if it wasn’t so challenging. I’d rather assume a player enjoys the game enough to get good at it. People have a surprising way of rising to insurmountable challenges if they feel like it’s worth it.

You created the entertaining and frustrating mechanic of having saved damsels healing you with kisses. Was this just another tongue-in-cheek cliché or is the character in Spelunky lonely?

In most games, it’s either food, drinks, sleep, or love/sex that give the player more health – one of the essential life requirements, basically. It fit Spelunky well, I think, both in terms of the game’s sense of humor and also the game’s design, to have the hero get health from kisses. I could have hid turkey dinners or medkits around the cave, but it’s not as much fun as having to carry a girl around without losing her.

While Spelunky isn’t commercial, do you think that its success is almost entirely down to the passion of the community? Without sites like TIGSource, do you think it would have garnered such interest?

Of course, but these kinds of small-budget games have always relied on the passion of game players, starting with the old text-based adventure games, on through the heyday of shareware, and on until the present.

However, only in the past couple of years have sites like TIGSource and Indiegames.com come about, which are solely dedicated to this new independent movement. Forums like Penny Arcade and Something Awful are also instrumental in getting the word out, and drove a lot of traffic to Spelunky. I did literally no outside marketing of the game other than what I posted in that first thread on TIGSource. So that’s something.

You've recently released Diabolika for the iPhone. How did you find the platform to work with? Would you consider bringing more of your PC games onto the iPhone?

I used the Unity game engine to create the game, and I found both Unity and the iPhone great to work with. There were definitely some technical challenges involved, but hey, that's all part of the experience, right? Overall, I think the iPhone is a great platform for small games. I'm definitely considering putting some of my other games onto it (and inventing new ones for it). As time permits!

Diabolika is a remake of one of your old PC games. Did you enjoy working with the game again? Did you find that coming back to it after a time away presented new ideas and ways to improve it?

Yes and yes! It's great coming back to an old idea. I think we've all experienced that feeling where we saw a game we liked and immediately started thinking about the ways we'd improve it. Revisiting some of my old games is like that.

For Diabolika iPhone, the first thing we (co-creator Jon Perry and I) had to change was the board size - we reduced it from 12x12 to 8x8 because of the iPhone screen size. This started out as a limitation, but ended up making the game a tighter experience, in my opinion. The other two major things we changed were the scoring and the graphics. The original game was made 10 years ago and finished in a weekend without much testing, so yeah, we had to monkey around with the iPhone version quite a bit before releasing it. This feels like the definitive version now.

Did altering the interface from keyboard and mouse to the touch screen of the iPhone present any problems?

Not at all! In fact, it felt much more natural with the touch screen.

Do you think the success of your PC games, Spelunky in particular, will help sales of something like Diabolika?

Yes, I believe wholeheartedly that every game helps... especially the popular ones! In the end, though, a bad game won't make it on the reputation of the developer alone. Which is as it should be!

You won the IGF Seumas McNally prize with Aquaria. Do you think the IGF’s role is growing each year? Do you think its growth is tied to the rise of indie gaming?

I think IGF and indie gaming as a whole are tied together and are growing together, attracting more and more attention each year. In my opinion the IGF is still a great way for indies that want to to really push out into mainstream visibility without compromising too much of their own interests. The awards will probably continue to be an important launching pad for successful indies in the near future.

Being so involved in the indie community, are there any particular developers you have ties with? Is the community very tight-knit?

Yeah, it’s incredibly tight-knit. I’m partial to the Flashbang Studios guys (Blurst), Dan Tabar (Cortex Command), Brandon McCartin (Balding’s Quest), Kyle Pulver (Snapshot, Verge), Mark Johns (Shit Game, Space Barnacle), and Edmund McMillen (Gish, Super Meat Boy), all of whom I’ve known personally for a long time now. And my Aquaria partner-in-crime Alec, natch! But I feel close to all the guys and gals on TIGSource who I spend time with on the forums every day, and especially the ones I also meet at GDC/IGF. All the good times and requisite drama – it’s great. This is a really fun and interesting crowd.

Are there any indie games you’re specifically looking forward to?

Geez, there’s a lot, so I’ll pick a few of them: Cryptic Sea’s Super Meat Boy and Gish 2, Polytron’s Fez, Jonatan “cactus” Söderström’s Brain-Damaged Toon Underworld, the next updates to Dwarf Fortress and Cortex Command, Cave Story Wii, and our two TIGSource forum projects (Balding’s Quest and Indie Brawl). It’s hard to keep track of it all these days, even for me! I guess that’s, as Martha Stewart would say, “a good thing.”

Goro: Much Tinier Than I Remembered

Above you'll see Midway's stop-motion setup for Goro, the four-armed, penultimate boss from the first Mortal Kombat game. Ed Boon, the series' co-creator and the co-namesake of MKII character Noob Saibot posted this photo, which was "buried in the archives" until just recently, on his Twitter account over the weekend.

Curt Chiarelli, who crafted the original stop-motion miniature, has also posted a couple shots of Goro's 1991 clay sculpture before the half-human, half-dragon was painted and dressed, which you can see below (Warning: There's a bit of Goro butt, too):

[Via Giant Bomb]

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

Finishing up the last seven days, it's time to recap the top full-length features of the past week on Gamasutra, plus extra features from sister edu site GameCareerGuide - and there's some rather smart stuff in here.

It's headed by a look at innovative casual/indie game design and a pretty neat piece on mixing audio for games, as well as a Shane Kim interview and Matt Matthews' customary NPD analysis goodness, as well as a couple of GCG pieces topped by a postmortem of good-looking Xbox Live Community Games title Trino.

Cha cha cha:

Gamasutra Features

Innovative Casual Game Design: A Year in Review
"Originally presented to acclaim at GDC 2009's Casual Games Summit, Nick Fortugno and Juan Gril's review of casual game design looks at the biggest innovations and trends in accessible casual and indie games over the last 12 months."

The Game Audio Mixing Revolution
"Where's game audio heading? Veteran audio designer Bridgett (Scarface) gathers mixing case studies on titles from LittleBigPlanet to Fable II<, and concludes by looking at the next 5-10 years in the field."

The Necessity Of Interactive Animation For Games
"In this in-depth article, Arkane and Streamline Studios animator Moleman discusses why he believes that body language and facial expression are the keys to making our games feel more vibrant."

Sponsored Feature: Multi-Threaded Fluid Simulation for Games
"In this Intel-sponsored feature, part of Gamasutra's Visual Computing section, Intel engineer Froemke describes a multi-threaded fluid simulation system created to make virtual smoke or water for application into games."

Microsoft's Future Begins Now: Shane Kim Speaks
"Gamasutra talks to veteran Microsoft VP Shane Kim about its Xbox plans for the rest of 2009, how he sees Project Natal as a relaunch for the Xbox 360, new socially oriented titles Joy Ride and 1 Vs. 100, and much more."

NPD: Behind the Numbers, May 2009
"Gamasutra's industry-leading analysis of May 2009's U.S. console hardware and game sales gives some perspective on the startling industry slump, also discussing Wii hardware slowdown and PSP Go pricing."

GameCareerGuide Features

Postmortem: CMU ETC's Trino
"In this special student postmortem, Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center students discuss the making of the arcade-influenced XNA Community Games action title Trino."

Thesis: Game Design and Architecture
"Can game design improve the process of designing real-world architecture? For his Masters thesis, Chris Totten explores the question with a little help from Valve."

June 21, 2009

COLUMN: The Littlemaths RetroPerspective 01: Monkey Island

[We're delighted to welcome back veteran GameSetWatch writer Alistair Wallis, who's going to be writing about game culture for GSW again over the next few weeks/months. First up, via his LittleMathletics blog, a personal look at the classic LucasArts title The Secret Of Monkey Island, with sequel spoilers included - skip if you don't want to know.]

When I was younger (so much younger, as they say, than today), The Secret of Monkey Island was far and away my favourite game. I was always one of those kids who’d talk at length to my parents – and occasionally even to their friends – about what I was playing, and Monkey Island was definitely one game that I spent a lot of time nattering on about. I’m pretty sure both of my parents could still tell you the basic plot of the first game, as well as the names of all the major characters. And probably also quote the sign from the rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle shoppe.

Probably just as well for them I didn’t get into Final Fantasy until a lot later. “So then Tidus and Yuna and Lulu and Rikku and…”

Still, not like I would have even had a chance to get into those games. I was a PC gamer exclusively around the time Monkey Island was released, and the only experience I had with consoles was an Atari 2600 we had that worked one time out of ten, and the odd NES and Master System session at friends’ houses.

Our plucky little Amstrad 1512 – that’s a punishingly fast 8Mhz 286, for those of you not up with mid to late ’80s PCs – only had EGA graphics, which limited the amount of games available to me pretty severely even at that time since it was more or less out of date even by the time my parents bought it, but it sure as hell ran Monkey Island okay.

micomparison.jpg(Interestingly, a little research shows that the 1512 came with CGA graphics. Not sure how we ended up with an EGA one, because I can’t seem to find any reference to such a model existing. There was the 1640, which came with EGA graphics, but I’m positive that we had a 1512 – I can’t really imagine just pulling that model number from nowhere. Weird.)

For those not familiar with the game, it’s still regarded as one of the high points of LucasFilm Games’ (now LucasArts) point and click adventure games from the ’80s and ’90s. It was – and I’m just going on release dates here, so I might be off a little – the fifth title to use the SCUMM engine, the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion created by Ron Gilbert and Aric Wilmunder which evolved pretty constantly over an almost ten year period. I could probably go on about SCUMM for a while, but I’ll save that for a post later on.

Ron was the project lead, lead designer, lead writer and probably a bunch more, but some really important contributions were made by co-writers and designers Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. If those three names aren’t ringing any bells – and for some people, I can’t imagine they would – it’s worth examining for a second what they’ve gone on to do after Monkey Island, and its sequel, which they all worked on.

Ron Gilbert left LucasArts in 1992, supposedly under circumstances that could be described as being not entirely friendly. He went on to found Humongous Entertainment along with fellow ex-LucasArts employee Shelley Day, where he produced a vast number of SCUMM-utilising children’s games. Humongous’ non-kids game offshoot Cavedog came next, around which time Ron took on the role of producer for Gas Powered Games’ Total Annihilation.

Cavedog, sadly, shut its doors in ‘99. Recently, Ron announced that he’s working as a creative director for Hothead Games, did a bit of work on the Penny Arcade games, and is now working on DeathSpank, which he describes as being like Monkey Island crossed with Diablo. Which is a pretty exciting concept, no?

Tim Schafer stuck with the company a fair bit longer, co-creating, -directing, -writing and -producing Day of the Tentacle, then heading up development on Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. After that, he founded Double Fine Productions, and developed the exquisite Psychonauts. The company’s still going, and is set to release Jack Black-starring apocalyptic metal game Brütal Legend in October. Probably goes without saying that I’m going to be picking that one up the second it’s released, if not earlier.

Dave Grossman is possibly the least recognised out of the three, though it’s not as if he hasn’t been involved with some pretty amazing games in his time. After Day of the Tentacle, he left LucasArts to join Ron at Humongous, where he worked on a number of different titles. After a brief stint with Disney’s game arm, he joined Telltale Games, where’s he’s been a guiding force on the Bone, Sam and Max and Strong Bad titles.

Also definitely worth noting: Michael Land’s awesome music, and the fact that Steve Purcell, creator of Sam and Max, worked on art for the game along with Mark Ferrari. I believe Monkey Island features the first appearance of Sam and Max in a video game, when they appear as one of many tribal idols on the titular island later in the game. Purcell also did the box art for the first and second games – both are still amongst the best covers for any game I’ve ever seen. The second one especially. Masterpiece. Check out massive versions of them here, then download them and produce huge and arguably illegal posters of them. Not that I’d do anything like that.

The game was, seemingly, developed pretty quickly. Originally, it was going to be the first thing Ron Gilbert worked on after Maniac Mansion in 1988, but he began work on the first of the Indiana Jones adventure games instead. That seems to only leave a period of about 18 months during which the game could have been developed – it might have even been less, since a prototype version was put together in roughly three months.

For a story driven game, it’s actually a relatively simple task to sum it up quickly: Somewhere in the Caribbean, Guybrush Threepwood wants to be a pirate. He works his way through a series of trials, falls in love with Governor Elaine Marley, only to have her kidnapped by the ghost pirate LeChuck, and then rescues her. It’s not so much the plot that really drives the game forward – it’s the scenarios, the characters, the little details, and most of all, the humour. Oh, the humour.

It’s hard to think of any game that’s had a more profound influence on me than Monkey Island. I really can’t imagine anything would come close. As I said, the first game came out in 1990, which I think is the year I was given it for my birthday, meaning I was eight when I first played it – it might have been the year after, though. Either way, media experienced around that age can tend to have a pretty huge effect on kids in terms of their ongoing development, I think.

Well, probably. I mean, I did study sociology for a little while – and could probably go far too deep into this and make myself look like a complete fool – but I’m no expert, by any means, and I’m certainly not going to go around making declarative statements about things I only have a very, very basic knowledge of. But, I do have the ability to pass on a little anecdotal evidence. Sure, most actual academics will tell you that anecdotal evidence is worth less than nothing, but oh man we really are getting off track now aren’t we?

Here’s the point I’m trying to make: I think I can honestly say that Monkey Island has been a bigger influence on my sense of humour than anything before or after it. I found that game hilarious at the time, and I remember trying to explain the jokes to people on a very regular basis – you know, mostly people who hadn’t played the game and had no interest in ever playing the game, like my parents their friends and relatives and friends parents. “So there’s this rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle shop and, get this, the sign says…”

Yeah, it didn’t come across quite as well as I’d hoped, but it didn’t really deter me. The jokes were amazing. And they still are. They still make me laugh, and I’m positive that’s because Monkey Island is where most of my sense of humour is derived from. I’m sure some part of it came from my dad – which is unfortunate, because that means I’m really going to tell some awful jokes to my kids, should I have any – and some part of it probably comes from the fact that I saw “Weird” Al’s UHF roughly two million times.

But there’s something very subversive and clever about a lot of Monkey Island’s jokes, and that sets it apart from most of what I found funny before I played it. For example, the guy at the start who launches into a rather lengthy spiel about LOOM™, another LucasArts point and click from around that time which I’ve never actually gotten around to playing. I don’t know if I totally understood the whole joke as an eight or nine year old, but enough of the intent definitely filtered through in the character’s overuse of the trademark symbol. I knew from that – and the use of the symbol in other places in the game – that it was a kind of thumbing of the nose at authority.

I mean, nowadays I can recognise it as not only being subversive in regards to that, but also in the way that it’s a – check this business out – meta-textual, anachronistic, fourth wall breaking reference just five minutes into a game. That’s pretty bold, and still brilliantly funny. And sadly, it’s not the kind of thing you see in games very much any more.

Another great example of this is the famous tree stump joke, where Guybrush announces that he can see “a series of catacombs” under a stump in the forest, after which users were asked to insert disc #23, disc #47 and disc #114. I seem to remember hearing that Tim Schafer came up with that one. It surprises me that people didn’t get the gag – I believe it was left out of more recent versions, from memory, because people would actually ring the LucasArts help line and complain that they were unable to access that part of the game. Personally, I remember understanding the point behind it even at eight or nine. Quite honestly, I feel lucky to have been able to experience things like that at a formative age because, while it’s not exactly the most edgy humour you might be able to name, it’s a good deal more intelligent and amusing than a lot of things kids under ten are force-fed.

Hell, I could go on for hours just talking about my favourite jokes from the game. The rubber tree joke is an unbelievable classic, as is the aforementioned rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle and its associated shoppe. And it goes without saying that the insult swordfighting still makes me and everyone else laugh, and judging from the minigame on the Special Edition website, it’s imprinted into my brain so thoroughly that I still recall all of the responses off the top of my head. Which is mildly scary.

Incidentally, the insults were written by sci-fi author Orson Scott Card. Can’t say I think much of his politics, nor his views on homosexuality and gay marriage, but anyone who came up with “How appropriate, you fight like a cow” can’t be all bad.

Oh, and the fight with the Sherrif in the Governor’s mansion is hilarious too, and so is pretty much anything the cannibals say, and absolutely anything to do with the head of the navigator. Oh man. That guy. Absolutely kills me every time I play. Any time I even read his dialogue, even.

Also: “Look at tremendous yak”. Probably the best use of a parser ever. There’s a reason adventure game control changed and went parser-less a few years later – there’s no way anyone could ever come up with something funnier than that.

I think there’s something, if not exactly relatable, then definitely recognisable in the character of Guybrush. He’s really a bit of a jerk, he’s terrible at talking to women, he’s not even close to what you’d call competent, he’s naive, and he knows absolutely nothing. That last one’s especially key, because as a player, you learn with him – about the locations, the other characters, how to become a pirate. Things like that.

Obviously, he’s rather overblown and exaggerated, because otherwise it wouldn’t actually be funny. There is a certain humanity there, though – a real sense of character that’s rare in games even now.

It’s hard to explain exactly how much the game means to me. I don’t think I’d call it my favourite game of all time or anything hyperbolic like that. It’s up there, but I’d be hard pressed to name just one (actually, talking about the games that would be amongst my favourites is part of the point of the RetroPerspective series of posts that you’ll see coming up on GSW and littlemathletics). Anyway: it’s not my favoutite game. It is easily the most important game I’ve ever played, though.

I was looking at the screenshots posted by Ron Gilbert in his very awesome recent post on the game (I can only hope we see more of that sort of thing from him, because I’ve read it about twenty times already). It just makes me feel so nostalgic – not just for the game, but it reminds me of smells and pets and sounds and the room I played the game in. Which is a really cool feeling.

Ron sent me an email once, incidentally. He complimented a column I was writing at the time for Gamasutra called Desert Island Games and asked if he could take part. I almost fainted and died and genuflected all at the same time, then sent him questions, then sent about ten or so reminders. I’ve never heard back from him, hah. Can’t say it’s negatively coloured my opinions of him in the slightest. Reputedly, even Tim Schafer has trouble getting a reply out of Ron half the time, so I’m in pretty awesome company. Or something.

However, eagle eyed readers would note that since my computer had only EGA graphics, it put me in a position where I was unable to play the second, VGA only game for a long time after its 1991 release. I’d actually found out about its upcoming release and was more than prepared to be there day one for the chance to get a copy – the first time I can ever recall doing that for a game. It wasn’t until a holiday at, of all places, my grandparents’ house about five years later that I had the chance to borrow a copy from a friend and work through it. I’d moved on from the 286, but only onto something very slightly more powerful – a 16Mhz Macintosh LCII. Yes, in 1996. My grandparents, for some reason, had access to more up to date technology, and were packing a 486 (though I’m fairly sure I got more use out of it in those couple of weeks I spent there than they ever did).

Anyway, I’m far from familiar with The Secret of Monkey Island 2. I’ve probably only played through it maybe two and a half times at most. In fact, it’s been quite a few years since I’ve played through more than the first island, so I can’t say I’m all that familiar with the jokes even. I’ll probably give it another shot over the next few weeks, because what I do remember of the rest of the game is all good. The locations were fleshed out beautifully, the writing was probably even sharper than the first game, and while some of the puzzles were a little more obtuse than in its predecessor, they never felt unfair. Certainly not, say, Gabriel Knight cat hair and treacle mustache kind of unfair.

It’s a gorgeous looking game, though. Not just for something that’s almost 18 years old – it is genuinely stunning. I’m glad they never released it in EGA form, and really, it’s quite possible that they weren’t able to technically – the level of detail probably relies on things like, you know, more than 16 colours.

Probably the most notable thing about the game is its ending, which is one of the most bizarre pieces of writing ever to make it into a video game. Okay, actually, let me qualify that: it’s one of the most competently written, surrealistic moments ever in a game. There’s a lot of really bizarre writing in games, but you kind of get the feeling that most of it isn’t intentional. That’s a whole other article, though, and probably one more suited to a top ten list, so I can’t really see myself writing it any time soon. Feel free to steal the idea.

Monkey Island 2’s ending, basically, sees Guybrush falling into a series of what appear to be maintenance tunnels under Dinky Island – amongst other things, there’s a service elevator that leads to the first island Guybrush visits in the first game. There’s a voodoo battle between Guybrush and LeChuck, following which it’s revealed that LeChuck is actually Guybrush’s brother Chuckie, and then the two are shown walking out of an amusement park with their parents. But then, Chuckie’s eyes seem to sparkle, and Elaine is shown above the hole Guybrush fell into, commenting that she hopes LeChuck hasn’t put “some sort of SPELL” over Guybrush.

I recall one magazine at the time – the name of which escapes me, because it was a dull name like Computer and Video Gaming but probably not that – listed it as the most surprising ending of the year, or something along those lines. Having not played the game at the time, I wasn’t quite sure what they meant (to their credit, they didn’t spoil it), but it’s hard not to be a little thrown by it even now. It’s incredibly weird and very sudden.

It was also intended to be resolved in the third game. Ron Gilbert had always envisioned the series as a trilogy, and had the “secret” of Monkey Island planned and ready to reveal. And then he left the company.

The third game that eventually reached store shelves, 1997’s Curse of Monkey Island, is not a bad game. In fact, it’s rather a good game. A great one, even. It looks stunning, for one thing – the 2D animation might be a little lacking in the resolution department, but it’s a timeless kind of look, and utterly charming. Plus, the writing is really sharp, the puzzles are good, and the voice acting has come to define Guybrush as much as anything from the first game. Dominic Armato’s voice fits Guybrush so well that it’s not possible to replay the first two games without hearing it in your head. Also: unforgettable singing.

But, as most fans of the first two games will tell you, it’s not really the third game. Not as it was meant to be, anyway. Larry Ahern and Jonathan Ackley, the project leads who had just come from working on Full Throttle, did a pretty exceptional job of making it feel like a proper Monkey Island game – probably the most brilliant gag is the one where Guybrush can stick his head through a crack in a wall in an underground area, only to peek out of the infamous stump from the first game.

As much as they nailed the humour, and the characterisation – with the possible exception of Elaine, who’s more of a damsel in distress – following on from the ending of the second game without Ron Gilbert’s involvement was always going to prove problematic. Essentially, the solution was to emphasise the spell side of things and push the more troublesome elements under that banner. Guybrush only thought LeChuck was his brother, and so forth. There wasn’t really an elevator to a previously explored island. It works, in the context of the game, and it could definitely have been handled a lot worse.

Still, it’s not Ron Gilbert’s secret. The secret. For some fans, that’s just something that’s a little too much to look past – though of course, there are plenty of fans who started with Curse for whom it’s not an issue in the least. Some of us are just picky, I suppose. It feels like a dumb thing to hold on to, 12 years after the game was released.

Maybe it is a dumb thing to hold on to.

Or maybe it’s just an understandable need to grasp the original intention of the plot-line. I’m trying to think of a similar example in movies, but nothing comes to mind – I guess I’m a little more familiar with games minutia than I am with movies. I do know it’s definitely something you see a lot of in comics, though. The example that stands out for me most immediately would be when Chris Claremont left Fantastic Four in late 2000. There’s always going to be a few dangling plot points when a writer leaves a series – especially if that writer is Chris Claremont, he of the million dangling subplots at once. Claremont left an important one unresolved when he went back to X-Men after Fantastic Four volume 3 issue #32, though – about a year previous, a mysterious girl had shown up, claiming to be the daughter of Dr. Doom and Sue Storm (and bear with me here, because this is actually going somewhere other than an inane comics digression – eventually, anyway).

The next writers, Carlos Pacheco and Jeph Loeb, explained the girl as being the miscarried daughter Sue lost back in volume 1 issue #267-ish, who had been transported to some pocket dimension or something something and eurgh really, what a mess but let’s not get too sidetracked talking about the debatable writing skills of Mr. Loeb and Mr. Pacheco’s non-existent ones. Claremont even commented that he wasn’t particularly happy with the way they’d taken the story – it ignored a number of things, like the memories she’d talked about, and the people she knew, and the fact that she could bypass Doom’s security systems, and so on. If I could let Claremont jump back in and finish the story the way he’d intended it, would I? You bet. Absolutely. As a fan of the comic and the characters, the curiosity to know the original intentions of the writer is really strong.

In fact, he’s about to do more or less exactly that with Marvel’s just-released X-Men Forever, picking up on his X-Men series of the early ’90s and taking the plot the places he had intended it to go before he left the title. Pretty neat idea, and also arguably pretty well suited to Claremont, who’s still very much an ’80s and ’90s style writer and hey digression again oops.

Actually, maybe that’s not the very best example I could have used. Loeb and Pacheco’s run was abysmal – barely even comprehensible by the last few issues – whereas Curse is a truly great game.

Maybe the fate of the late Steve Gerber’s 1976 limited series Omega the Unknown is more appropriate. The book was groundbreaking: a superhero comic that didn’t really focus so much on the titular hero as a seemingly unconnected boy, then drew everything together, piece by piece. Unfortunately, it was cancelled after issue #10, before Gerber could finish his story-arc – planned, I believe, for 12 issues. The fate of the characters was eventually wrapped up a few years later in Defenders by killing pretty much the whole lot of them. For all intents and purposes, though, while Marvel has always considered that resolution canonical, fans of the original series choose to ignore it. For them, it’s Gerber’s great unfinished masterpiece.

In 2007, a revived 10 issue limited series was written by author Jonathan Lethem. He completed the story, and while he tied it up well, obviously it wasn’t done in the way that Gerber had originally intended. It helps, in a way, that the series was written out of Marvel’s regular continuity, because it’s a hard thing for fans to accept. One the one hand, both were great interpretations of the story. But Lethem’s version is brilliant. It’s easily one of my favourite comic books of the past decade, and I can’t recommend it enough. But it isn’t what Gerber intended.

Curse, like I’ve said, is great. But it’s not what Ron Gilbert intended.

Unfortunately, there’s not really a lot of room in game development for something like X-Men Forever. The hypothetical Monkey Island Forever would appeal to a particularly small niche. I mean, X-Men Forever probably only appeals to people who read Claremont’s X-Men back in the early ’90s, but given that the first issue was a record setting multi-million seller, it’s guaranteed a pretty reasonable number of sales at least. ‘Til the nostalgia wears off, anyway.

I suppose I’ll have to just take comfort in the fact that there is a new series of episodic Tales from Monkey Island games coming from Telltale Games in less than a month. Dave Grossman’s involved, Ron Gilbert is a consultant and Dominic Armato is doing the voice of Guybrush. It’s not quite my Monkey Island Forever dream come true, but it’s pretty damned close. About as close as you can get while still remaining commercially smart, anyway.

In fact, there’s really no way I can complain about it at all (well, maybe a little – Telltale’s lighting is just terrible, and it’s the same in all their games. Not good). Dave Grossman has admitted that this won’t be the game where Ron’s intended secret is finally revealed, but an acknowledgment is pretty welcome after 18 years of waiting. Well, 13 years of waiting, in my case, but that’s still a long time. But, you know what? Maybe it never even needs to be revealed. Maybe it’s one of those things that’s better and more interesting in the heads of Monkey Island fans. Really, it’s better just to be happy with the fact that there’s even a new game coming out, developed by a bunch of people who know what they’re doing.

Not to forget the soon to be released Special Edition of the first game. I know far too many people who have no experience with the franchise, and every single one of them is going to be sat down in front of the TV and made to watch all the funny bits, i.e. the whole game. To some degree, I still find it a bit hard to believe that the episodes and the Special Edition are even coming out. After all, up until a week ago, it was pretty much assumed that Escape From Monkey Island had killed the franchise.

Let’s not say too much about the game, other than to mention that it’s very much of its time, has dated badly and retains far too little of the original charisma and mood of the series to be worth playing these days. Unless, of course, the new series follows on from Escape. Not sure about that.

It’s a great time to be a Monkey Island fan right now, though. I think anyone who has experience with the series can agree on that. I’m not entirely sure why the sudden resurrection has come about, but it’s a damned good thing that it has. Hopefully the response from consumers will be strong enough to show LucasArts that they should have done it a long time ago.

Time to wrap this bad boy up, I think. Any suggestions for other games to take on in RetroPerspective? Comment below! Otherwise, come back in a week or so (no promises, I'm pretty lazy) for a chat about another secretive type game: a certain SNES action RPG that consumed a good deal of my life in 1995.

GameSetLinks: The Stuff Of Legend

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

A quick GameSetLinks update for the starry-eyed weekend, and this one starts out with Crispy Gamer catching up with 'the unlikeliest E3 journalists', which I find vaguely amusing title-wise because everyone writes about E3 nowadays, professional journo or not. (But the piece stands as well-researched & interesting.)

Also in here - a v.fun Tim Schafer interview (Brutal Legend pictured!), making money via Flash games, Paul Schrader on the future of storytelling, IFC's 360-degree deals for indie movies (just for some game comparison thoughts!), and plenty more.

Rocking out:

Press Pass: The Unlikeliest E3 Journalists > Kyle Orland > 6/19/2009 10:56 AM | Crispy Gamer
Talking to the winners of 'cover things for us at E3' competitions - neat idea.

GamesIndustry.biz: Legendary Status // Interview
Supernice, informal interview by former Gama editor and GameTap stalwart Frank Cifaldi.

Game Jacket RIP - Indiegamer Developer Discussion Boards
Some very useful discussion on the viability of making money via free Flash games in this thread.

Have videogames and reality TV given us 'narrative exhaustion', asks legendary screenwriter Paul Schrader | Film | The Guardian
Taxi Driver writer specifically calls out video games as a future path, noting: 'I don't know what the future of audio-visual entertainment will be, but I don't think it will be what we used to call movies.'

Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily » New Alphabet For Indie Fans: IFC-HD-VOD
Interesting discussion about how IFC is picking up complete indie film rights for upfront costs, share of back end - and whether those indies will ever make their money back/whether there's a better way. V. relevant to games.

TIGSource: 'Looking Back on Muslim Massacre'
Sigvatr examines what happened with his deliberately inflammatory indie game and tries to justify why he made it. Up to you whether you think he succeeds or not.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Famitsu for Grown-Ups

['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.]

otonafami.jpg

I finally got around to obtaining a copy of Japanese entertainment (including video games) magazine Otona-Fami when I was in Chicago, so I thought I'd look into it in depth a bit -- especially because it's the sort of mag that we were aiming for with PiQ, although I wasn't aware of it at the time.

The name "Otona-Fami" is a blending of otona (Japanese for "adult") and "Famitsu," and that about sums it up, really. In contrast to Weekly Famitsu -- whose pages are still mainly devoted to previews and strategy features, although the amount of hard-nosed industry news has slowly expanded over the years -- Otona-Fami is almost entirely features, and even what straight-on previews/reviews they deal with are mixed up with the regular columns in the back sections.

Here is a very basic rundown of Otona-Fami's content for the issue I have:

- A large roundup of entertainment-industry rumors and the truth behind them, in fields ranging from movies to American TV dramas to anime and games
- A multi-page nostalgic look back at the history of Shogakukan's grade-divided educational kids' magazines -- the equivalent of a US mag doing a history of Boys' Life
- A long preview of Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth with a long sidebar that traces the history of the rest of the series
- A history of Kappa Ebisen and the Home Run Bar, two long-running Japanese snack foods that are celebrating their Nth birthday this year
- A generic sort of summer movie preview feature, covering stuff like Angels & Demons and Star Trek. Otona-Fami got interview access to all kinds of big-name folks for this feature, from Jackie Chan and Ewan MacGregor to Danny Boyle and Clint Eastwood
- A multi-page history of portable game systems

I haven't seen the latest August issue yet, but looking at the website, they have a feature which strikes me as a really neat idea: a list of top manga that's complete and under 10 volumes, suitable for buying up and plowing through over a spare weekend.

Running columns include:

- "Magic Factory Tour," basically a "How It's Made" for some food product
- A look at some uniquely Japanese shop that you can visit. This month they cover a store that sells nothing but book lights, metal bookmarks and other book accessories (and not books themselves)
- A good 20-page-long list of upcoming movies, games, DVDs and manga

Throughout the magazine are small one-page interviews with idols, movie directors, whatever, covering a product they're either shilling or otherwise really interested in.

What's all this content targeted toward? Well, looking at the list above, it doesn't take a sociologist to see: It's aimed mainly at men and women in their late 20s or 30s, people who grew up surrounded by '80s/'90s culture and still enjoy games and action flicks but have run out of time to follow any of their old hobbies in depth.

Otona-Fami does a great job at what it sets out to do, and it really is just like PiQ, assuming that PiQ had a dozen editors and that many contributors on top. But does this product really have an audience? That's the question. Enterbrain, the publisher, has run the magazine since 2004 and claims a printed circulation of 100,000, but like all Japanese circ figures, the relationship this numeral shares with reality is anyone's guess. (Weekly Famitsu has a claimed circ of half a million.)

While I'm not sure anybody is going to use Otona-Fami as a primary source of information, it does succeed in being interesting to read in many spots -- which is over half the battle these days, if you're going to ask people to pay for your content.

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



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